"... Dragonwatch got off to a flying start this year with some unexpected early footage from the crew up North. This was taken from the ferry."
The screen is blue. Bright blue, shading into white; the clouds are little more than gossamer thin wisps. Only shakily in focus, a thin, black arrowhead cuts through the heart of the image. The camera steadies and focuses, still too far away to distinguish detail, but close enough to see the sharp, slender outlines of wings and body, the silver glint along the edge of back and wings. The dragon's neck is stretched out, its tail longer than the skinny length of its body, and it soars rather than flies, wings stretched out and motionless in the blue of the sky. Five seconds of footage are long enough to hear the heavy thud of a ferry's engines and the slap of water against steel, the muffled shouts of people unseen - "Hey!" "Look - over there -"
"Well," the Look North presenter says, "A good start there for the Dragonwatch crew. Tune in on Monday for the first of five programmes from Hoy, as the Dragonwatch team of Harry Potter and Amir Singh hope to catch groundbreaking footage of the eggs hatching. Beautiful, isn't it, Jane?"
"Certainly is, Tony. Now, from St James Park -"
"I won't forget," he'd promised, and made the automatic check at the calendar on the wall where Albus' match schedule was underlined in red and James' lecture tour dates waved cheery little flags. The clock on the wall told him Albus was in Manchester, James in Boston, and Lily in the library at Hogwarts, although the clock was less forthcoming on whether she actually was revising or just chatting.
"Don't assume an owl will get through," Ginny said. "Magic up there can be really chancy."
"I'll use Muggle post," Harry promised. "And in any case, it's only a week."
"Floo me when you get back," said Ginny, "Bring me some oatcakes. And some cheese!"- and her head winked out of the empty fireplace.
Harry had found himself whistling as he packed, not just his oldest robes and his walking boots, but an elderly sowester Mrs. Weasley had dragged out of a trunk for him, two snappish umbrellas with duck-billed handles, and enough spare pairs of socks to make a small raft, should the ferry sink. His work robes, hexed to impeccable neatness, went on top of the copies of The Dragon-Spotter's Handbook and the brown-specked, battered copy of Sea-Dragons: Habitat, Habits and Homilies he'd managed to borrow from the British Wizarding Library. Squeezed down the sides of his battered kit bag went his dress shoes, his mobile phone and laptop chargers, his binoculars and the stereoscopic telescope with the interchangeable lenses Ginny had bought him for Christmas, his wash kit and his Hogwarts Old Wizard's Association tie rolled around his press pass, several pens and a couple of unsplittable quills, three bags of single lake salted caramel frogs and a small packet of Mulligan's Raspberry Liquorice tea, just in case - the bag was heaving at the seams. Sighing, Harry remembered the days when he had set out without anything but his robe and his wand, and set off for St Pancras Station.
At Bathelmy St Mary's, Amir had struggled onto the train sweating and flushed with his black hair pushed up into exasperated spikes and the camera cases bobbing along behind him in an unsteady caravan. "Anthea was on the phone," he said, and Harry gave a sympathetic smile. Amir's wife was a foreign newswitch who somehow managed to travel through every hot spot in the wizarding world unscathed. She had the reaction times of an auror on red alert, but Amir still worried.
"Where is she this time?" asked Harry.
"Tashkent," Amir said. "Blasted Chimeras. If they only mate once every fifty years, why do they have to do it now? Mum was hoping Anthea'd be here for Holi this year."
"Chimeras?" Harry said. "Wouldn't you rather be there? I mean, Sea Dragons, they're great, but they're not exactly fire breathing shape changers."
"Are you kidding?" Amir asked, managing to sit down among a precariously balanced pile of boxes labeled, "Fragile" "This Way Up" and "Beware, live lens-grinder inside". "Anyone can shoot Chimeras, dude, all you need is flame-proof armour. This is the first time anyone's ever shot Sea Dragons on the nest, you know? When Tony offered me the job I couldn't say yes fast enough."
"Thanks," Harry said. "I wasn't sure you'd want to come."
"Yeah, well," said Amir. "We had a great time last year. I mean, everyone's seen Crups, right? But getting those night time shots was something else - and the babies were so freaking cute, those little button noses and their tiny paws... You didn't do too bad, either," he said, and flashed Harry a grin. "For an old guy. I thought you were just on board for the laughs, I mean, Harry Potter, you're having me on, right? But you did OK."
"Cheers," Harry said.
"For your first time," said Amir, and grinned again. "Could have used some work on your timing. How many times did we do that first intro again? Sixteen?"
"Seventeen," Harry said. "Almost as funny as when you fell into that cow pat."
"Dunno why I want to risk filming with you again," Amir said, and reached for the Tupperware box on top of the camera case. "Samosa? Mum sent supplies."
"Get in," said Harry, grinning, and took two.
"Crups love vegetables," Harry said firmly, which was not entirely a lie and made the girl's mother smile gratefully.
Amir elbowed him in the ribs.
"They eat strawberry leaves!" Harry said defensively. Being a parent had... occasionally rearranged his priorities.
"Only if there're slugs on them," Amir said, and they went for coffee.
The restaurant was on one of the upper decks, a wide room with windows that looked out onto the wood-planked surround of the sundeck. Waiting for Amir, Harry, looking out at the surprising blue of the sky and the glint of sunlight on the white-painted rails, found that some habits did die hard. By the time the second person had started pointing and shouting, he was halfway through the fire exit, wand in hand, every sense on alert.
"No, over there -"
"Up! Ben, get the bino -"
"Never seen one -"
Harry spun round, wand at the ready, looking up. The sun was so bright he blinked for an instant, blinded.
Beside him a low voice, with the lilting accent of the Islands, murmured: "Haven't seen one of those for sixty years."
"Hold this," Amir said abruptly, and shoved the light meter in Harry's hands as Amir himself struggled with the camera tripod. "And keep your eye on that dragon!"
"My grandfather used to talk about seeing them dance," the old woman next to Harry said, very quietly. "It's lovely to see them come back."
Amir, squinting, screwed the camera down with frantic haste, one hand already tapping away at the keyboard.
Looking up, Harry found himself holding his breath.
Above his head, far away in the deep blue of the sky, a single Sea Dragon flew. It was slender, its thin, pointed wings cutting through the sky in a deep glide, utterly dissimilar to the way bigger dragons had to flap their way through the air currents. Its scales looked black, but the bright spring sun highlighted the lines of its back and tail in silver, and as it turned its head, the horns glinted red. As Harry watched, it banked steeply sideways, slipping effortlessly on a thermal, and then headed, arrow-straight, south and out of sight into the hazy white of the clouds over the mainland.
"Got it!" Amir said.
"Oh, well done," Harry said automatically.
"You weren't even watching," Amir said. "Come on. Give me that back."
"Hey," Harry protested.
"The meter. Oi, watch -"
Amir grabbed at the precious waterproofed camera as two men barged through the sundeck doors. They were both in a hurry, camera bags open and binoculars in hand. "Where is it?" one of them mutters, "If we missed it because you had to have the last sandwich -"
"Watch out," Amir said, as one of the men swung round and his camera bag nearly tangled the tripod legs.
He got a seriously dirty look. "Bloody -"
"Warren, get over here!"
They stumbled away, staring at the sky.
"Nice," Harry said. "Twitchers?" He had one hand steadying the tripod as Amir packed the camera away.
Shrugging, Amir said, "Dunno. Rude, though. Hope we don't see them again."
But when they had lunch, the two men were sitting behind them, maps spread out over the table, a battered laptop open on the side. They had their heads bent over a dog-eared notebook, and Harry, his old auror's instincts prickling at the dark mutter of their voices, murmured a quick Aucupius with his wand held under the table.
"... make sure to buy ropes in Scrabster..." He heard, muffled: the spell was clearly patchy. "... and don't forget the box this time, we can't afford another wipe out."
Then one of them says, distinctly, "Innes says it's a 5a very severe, but the guidebook says the last stretch is a probable 6. Joe Brown did it in the sixties, of course, but -"
"What is it?"
"Climbers," Harry said, and concentrated on his soggy cheese and pickle sandwich.
By the time they'd eaten lunch, the sea mist was coming down, clouding the horizon and hiding the entrance to Scapa Flow, and the sun deck was damp with drizzle. But Harry dug both umbrellas out of his kit bag, and he and Amir hung over the railings, watching the long, low shape of the mainland come out of the mist. Stromness, where the ferry would dock, was a long, low stretch of grey stone houses huddled into the slope of the hill behind, the beach in front of it stony and seaweed strewn. Cormorants sat, blackly hunched, on the tumbled concrete blocks of the Second World War sea defenses, and overhead, unseen, gulls yelped and shrieked. The air was cold and damp, smelling strongly of fish and the sea.
"Fleet must be in," Amir said, as they swung into the bay and saw the moored fishing boats bobbing up and down in the tide. Against the misted greys of the sea and the hills and the houses, the vivid green of the nets and the striking reds and oranges of the floats used to buoy them were almost startling. Most of the boats were empty, but the occasional waterproof-clad fisherman raised a hand as the ferry went past. "Fresh crab for supper."
"Pizza," Harry said firmly: he still had very bad memories of the abalone Amir had made him try, one night in Torquay, on last year's Crupwatch.
"Italian," Amir bargained. "Hey, look, it's those guys again. Are they in a hurry or what?"
Luggage stacked at the gangplank already, Warren and Steve were standing awkwardly at the rail. Warren, at least, looked almost too hefty to be a climber, his muscular, black-haired arms bulging out of his camouflage jacket and his thick neck rolling over the collar, but Steve was whip-thin beside him. Both men were intent on the approaching dockside, where a row of taxis waited for passengers who had come by foot. Despite the conversation he'd overheard, Harry still prickled with unease: he didn't like the tense, closed-in way both men stood, or the way Warren's hand was fisted in his pocket....
"What is it?"
"Nothing," Harry said, and shivered in the sudden gust of wind from the sea.
They stayed in a little white-washed hotel that overlooked the harbour, and compromised on fish and chips eaten warm from their wrappings, the rich, warm smell of vinegar and tomato ketchup wrapping around the cold salt of the sea. Unwilling to waste the evening, they ate sitting on a bench facing the black waters of Scapa Flow, and in front of them riding lights of the moored fishing boats shone white and red, and all around the bay the tiny gold lights of the coast road and the islands of Graemesey and Hoy swung and glittered in the darkness. It was mid-March, and in London the yellow and purple crocuses had flowered long ago and daffodils crowded the parks, but here in the North the tiny gardens were bare stone and the flowerpots outside the houses empty: the wind from the sea was damp and cold and the night-dark sky clouded and heavy with rain. Nevertheless, it occurred to Harry, bunching his hands in his pockets against the wind and waiting for Amir to finish the last of his chips, that here, far away from his failed marriage and his too-quiet flat and his grown up children, he was happy.
"Pint?" he said.
"Sure," said Amir.
"There is magic in the air, here," Amir said softly, Amir who had only the barest trace of magic himself but whose mother was a full-blood Manushya-Rakshasi with a skull-strewn altar under her spice rack.
"It's different," Harry said. He'd already tried a simple Leviosa and seen half the fishing boats in the harbour tug at their moorings: his duck-billed umbrellas had become unexpectedly snappish and he'd had to wrap them in his robes to keep them quiet. "Hermione warned me not to try magic. There are witches and wizards up here, of course, but most of the spells are Norwegian. She offered me a book, but it'd take years to learn what works. Better not to try, I don't want to mess anything up." His new mobile hadn't worked, either, blinking uncooperatively at him when he'd tried to text Ron, but he'd dropped the four postcards he'd written in the pub into the postbox and hoped for better reception on Hoy.
"Oh no," Amir sighed. "Aren't those..."
"Yeah," Harry said, and watched as Warren and Steve marched up the quay, loaded with bags. "Wonder what they're doing." There were coils of rope, brightly coloured, on top of the rucksacks.
"The Old Man?" Amir suggested. "It's famous. There was a televised climb of it, years ago."
"That's the stack, right?" Harry said. "I was hoping we'd get to see it."
"Tony will have our guts for garters if we're staring at rocks on the other side of the island and the eggs hatch," Amir said.
"Maybe after," Harry said, watching as the climbers dragged all their luggage into the lounge. Neither of them bothered to look outside, and Warren pulled out the same notebook from his pack and started to study it, frowning. He had an old scar on his neck, three parallel lines curling up from his coat collar to the lobe of his ear. Harry, staring, wondered what kind of accident caused that kind of scar. It looked like a thestral's claws, but most magical injuries could be healed without trace....
When Warren looked up and caught Harry's eye, his face flushed. He stood up, bent over in the low-ceilinged lounge, and drew his finger across his throat in an unmistakable Muggle threat.
Harry looked away, shaken. He had no fear the man would actually hurt him - the wand that had somehow become grasped in his right hand would take care of that, no matter how awry his magic - but it was an unexpected reaction. It was only a scar. What on earth had upset the man so much?
When he looked back, the thin one, Steve, was ducking out of the doorway.
"Hey!" he said, and he was looking at Harry. "Hey, look," he said. "My friend wants to apologise. He's a bit jumpy on boats. Childhood trauma and all that. He didn't mean it, OK?"
But Steve's smile was thin and a muscle jumped at the corner of his mouth, and when Harry glanced into the lounge Warren was staring blackly back at him.
"Thanks," Harry said stiffly. "Don't worry about it."
"Right," Steve said, and stared back at Harry for a moment before he ducked back into the lounge.
"What was all that about?" Amir asked, shocked. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Harry said, puzzled and a little worried. "I'll tell you later, OK?"
The ferry pulled away from the quay into the small sparkling waves of Scapa Flow, but for Harry some of the pleasure had gone out of the day. He pulled his sowester close against the sea wind, and stared at the dark, low shoreline of Hoy and its two rounded hills, wondering why the two climbers had come to the Islands.
It was a short trip. The ferry pulled in first to the little stave on Graemesey, dropping off a small group of tourists, and then pulled into the short stretch across to North Hoy, chugging across the water to the old wooden pier. It was almost deserted, the quayside boathouse boarded up for the winter and the concrete slabs dirty with the spring storm's thrown up wrack, but a car was waiting on the slip and above, where the road ran, a tall man with wind-blown black hair leaned against a Land-Rover.
"That'll be the guy from the Trust, Richards," Amir said. He had the binoculars out. "Do you want to get our stuff?"
"Let them go first," Harry said, waving to the boat's pilot, and they watched as Warren and Steve loaded themselves and their baggage into the waiting car. Reluctant to risk another Leviosa, Harry and Amir dragged their own boxes and kitbags up the ramp towards the waiting Land-Rover.
"What d'you reckon," Amir said, panting. "Bet they're the ones that booked that cottage..."
"At least we got somewhere," Harry said, and looked up, and stopped.
The man leaning against the Land Rover was Snape.
He couldn't be.
He was. The hooked nose, the sallow skin, the shape of his shoulders, the hair, the fear and hatred and despair that crashed over Harry in one appalling, obliterating wave, the clench of his hand around the wand in his pocket and the sudden, sickening lurch of his stomach. Snape. Snape - and for all Harry had spent twenty six years of his life trying to make up for the fact that Snape had all along been on his side, in that moment he was fifteen again and vicious with despair.
"Snape's dead," Harry whispered to himself. "He's dead."
But the way the man turned his head to look down at them, the arrogant rise of his eyebrows and the sharp angle of his chin - that was Snape.
Before he knew what he was doing, Harry had his wand in his shaking hands and was pointing it up the slipway.
"Harry!" Amir said. "What -"
"Really?" the man leaning against the Land Rover sneered. "What did they teach you at school?" He stood upright, leaning into the wind, and pulled his hands out of his pockets. They were empty, and he wore, not a wizard's robes, but a pair of ragged-edged jeans and an ancient fisherman's sweater. "A singularly useless threat. Do not attempt a single spell," he said softly, although his voice carried, sharply assured, to Harry's ears. "Or you will find it rebounding in ways you do not expect and assuredly have not anticipated. Put that wand away!"
It was an order as sharp as any Harry had heard at Hogwarts, and he found himself dropping his hand and his wand with it, staring, utterly confounded, at the man in front of him.
Snape was dead. Snape had died at Hogwarts, twenty six years ago. Snape had died, horribly, and in his last moments had given Harry the key to defeating Voldemort...
"Mr. Potter, I presume?" the man at the top of the slipway said, a sardonic smile playing at the corners of his thin lips. "And Mr. Singh. What a pleasure it is to make your acquaintance. Do feel free to take your time: I have little else to do but await your convenience, after all."
"Oh, this is going to be fun," Amir muttered under his breath, and then. "Harry. Give me a hand here, will you?"
Shaking, Harry bent down and picked up his kitbag and the camera box. There had been no recognition in that fine-boned, arrogant face. Nothing in those black eyes to suggest that Snape recognised Harry. Nothing.
'But of course', Harry thought, with a sudden thrill that stopped him ten feet from the Land Rover. 'He doesn't know who I am. He gave me all his memories.'
Harry looked up. Snape - it was Snape, had to be Snape, there was no mistaking the bony brace of his shoulders under the jumper or the way his hair fell from that widow's peak, although it was streaked with silver now and blew freely in the wind. He must have made himself a decent shampoo at last, Harry thought on a ridiculous spurt of laughter.
"Was there something amusing?" Snape asked, stone faced. "Something I missed? Do tell," he sneered, and his black eyes bored into Harry's just as they had done years ago, when he was still -
Harry swallowed. "No," he said. "Nothing."
"Well then. Are you proposing to wait there all day, or shall we proceed?" Snape asked. "We do not have all day."
But Harry couldn't move. Harry was thinking, 'He doesn't know. He doesn't know any of it, the last battle, the choices he made, the way we think about him - he doesn't know he got that Order of Merlin, he doesn't know about Albus - he didn't come to my wedding,' Harry thought, and then blinked, astonished, because his wedding had been and gone years ago: his divorce was four years old.
"Harry," Amir said, exasperated.
"Sorry," Harry said. "Sorry, I was -" He hurried to give Amir a hand loading all their gear into the back of the Land Rover, reluctant to turn his back on Snape as he went. The hair was different, surprisingly sleek. The skin looked better, older, of course, but the lines of it were relaxed and there was a softness about the eyes that was entirely new.
"Shall we go?" Snape said. "Or would you prefer to finish your inspection?"
He was really glaring now, paler, although colour pinked the edge of his cheekbones. He hadn't lost his sharp tongue.
"No, it's fine, sorry," Harry said again, scrambling to follow Amir into the front bench seat. "You just.. you look like someone I know," Harry said weakly.
"Who?" Snape snapped, turning so quickly he must have risked whiplash. "Who?"
"Just... not someone I knew well?" Harry said, shocked. "I mean, I really didn't know you at all, just..."
"Know you?" Snape shouted.
"Harry!" Amir said. "Mr. Richards? Look, I don't know what's going on here, but I'm starting to feel seriously uncomfortable. Do you think you guys can give it a rest for a bit, at least until we get to the cottage and can sort it out?"
For a moment, Harry and Snape stared at each other. Then Snape turned his head away, started the engine, and backed the Land Rover up onto the road. He said stiffly, "My apologies, Mr. Singh. Although it is not common knowledge on the island, I suffer from selective amnesia. An old accident, but severe, and it is the associated injuries from that accident which prevented me assisting you with your luggage. Given Mr. Potter's response... I was inclined to think we might once have been acquainted."
"We were," Harry said shortly.
"I gather this was not an acquaintance welcomed by either of us," Snape said. He had himself in hand, now, the flush had faded from his cheekbones and his voice was level. The edge of a scar showed above the rolled neck of his jumper.
Harry's hands were still shaking. "No," he said.
"Then let us not discuss it," Snape said imperturbably, and sent the Land Rover onwards with a screech of gears and a rattle from the back that Harry thought sounded horribly like the camera case, falling.
"Well, as you know, Jane, there are only nineteen breeding pairs of Sea Dragons in the world, and one of them is found right here in Britain. The exact site of the nest is a closely-guarded secret, but initial reports suggest that there is at least one egg in the nest and quite possibly more. We'll find out more at eight o'clock on Monday, when the Dragonwatch team sends their first report. Talking of eggs, politician -"
Snape's voice was steady and calm, a deep, lulling rhythm that nevertheless grated on Harry's nerves. He squirmed in his seat, knocked his knees off the dashboard and accidentally elbowed Amir in the ribs: he felt fifteen again, uncertain and threatened and on edge.
"Stop it," Amir hissed.
"The beach on your left is one of the few sandy beaches on Hoy, and the second of the two crofts was once owned by writer Henry Williamson." Snape sighed. "Tarka the Otter," he added, "A novel now less well known outside the Islands than it once was."
The road was rough with frost-cracked tarmac, pitted and gravel edged, and it wound around the island in sweeping curves and abrupt corners, clearly built to respect field boundaries. On the wheel, Snape's long white fingers petted and stroked the Land Rover through the bends, coaxed it over the dips and bridges. He touched the wheel as he must have done a broomstick, once, and Harry wondered if Snape's magic still held true here on the Islands, if Snape had learned to adapt to this new world, if Nagini's bite had changed him in any way other than the scar whose tail-end crept up above the turtleneck of Snape's jumper and curled to an end under his ear. Snape's fingers were white now, not just pale but a clear bone-white, unstained....
"Cantick Head," Snape said dryly. "Do forgive me if I leave you to reconnoiter the cottages on your own. I shall return in an hour, at which point we shall proceed to the nest. You should find the key under the doormat."
He'd pulled the Land Rover to a halt on a small patch of tarmac, and on the right a line of low, whitewashed cottages turned their windows to the sea. Abruptly, six feet beyond the Land Rover's wheels, the land dropped to the sea: they'd climbed steeply up from the bay, and Harry suspected that the cliffs were as rocky and ragged as the outcrops behind the cottages. The sea roared, out of sight, the crash of waves against rock startling after the gentle lapping waves of the bay.
But the view that had both Amir and Harry arrested in their seats was the great red and white thrust of the lighthouse. Towering above their heads, battered and stained, it still stood proudly facing out to the North Sea, and forty feet above their heads the great glass reflectors spun and winked as they must have done for years.
"Whoa," Amir said.
And before he could stop himself, Harry said, "Can we go up it?"
Snape turned his head, arched an eyebrow. "Reckless, Mr. Potter," he said.
But Harry, who had expected contempt, suddenly realised that the glint in Snape's eyes was not derision but amusement. It shocked him, made him essay the smallest of grins in reply, and Snape looked at him for one long moment before he looked away and slid out of the Land Rover, all lithe, limber lines, nothing like the hunched crow of Harry's school days. Without looking back, he set off down the hill to the beach, disdaining the road and instead striding over the heather. The wind blew his hair into a dark pennant, and his hands were thrust in his pockets.
"Glad we straightened that out," Harry said wryly.
"What the hell was that?" asked Amir. "Harry, mate, I didn't sign up for some kind of pissing contest, and we're stuck with this guy for the next five days. What gives?"
"I knew him once," Harry said. "Sorry. It was... unexpected. Look, I'll talk to him, OK?"
Right. Talk to Snape. Yeah, that was bound to go well. "Let's get this stuff sorted," Harry sighed.
The cottage they'd rented was small and smelled of old wellingtons and the sea, but the thick stone walls and small windows promised that, once they'd got the fire lit, it would be warm enough. Downstairs, there was a tiny kitchen, with the three boxes of groceries they'd ordered already stacked on the peeling linoleum floor, and a dark little living room with three crooked bookshelves and a stack of jigsaws - the Queen's Coronation, a remarkably pink Disney Princess and a shuffling parliament of owls who winked and fluttered across the battered cover. Up the narrow stairs, there was a tiny bathroom with a shower, and two bedrooms tucked under the eaves, dormer windows looking out to the lighthouse. The bed linen was crisply clean and smelled of lavender, the bathroom was stocked with bright crystal bottles of soap and shampoo, and down in the living room the fire in the stove was already laid.
"It'll do, right?" Amir said, dropping his bag on the bed with the patchwork quilt, which meant Harry got chenille. "Still, I wish we'd got that cottage in North Hoy. It's gonna be a hell of a trek with the cameras."
"Maybe Snape can help," Harry said absently, squinting sideways through the window to catch Snape's tall figure walking along the shoreline.
"Who?" said Amir.
"Snape," Harry said, and then blinked. "Richards. I mean Richards." His hands had fastened around the windowsill, clung there. Snape had stopped; he was looking out to sea, one hand holding back his hair as he stared at the horizon. 'He's a different man,' Harry thought to himself. 'He doesn't even remember... '
It should have felt like a relief. But, unaccountably, Harry thought of Snape's memories, of the fierce love he'd carried all his life for Harry's Mum, of the equally fierce resentment and hatred he'd felt about Harry and the almost inconceivable courage with which Snape had fought Voldemort for so many years, and he wondered. Did Snape feel diminished? Did he know something was missing? What was he, without that over-riding purpose? Harry at least had had Ginny, after the war: Ginny and his children - and the clench of tenderness in his heart when he thought of James and Albus and Lily was familiar and precious - and Ron and Hermione and the Weasleys, and his job. Snape had had nothing.
"Well, let's hope your Mr. Richards knows some form of Leviosa that actually works," Amir said, "Because I really don't fancy carrying this lot over those hills."
By the time Snape returned, they'd got the camera and the harnesses and all the rest of the equipment ready to go. They were completely dependent on Snape: he was the sole warden on site, and The Sea Dragon Trust had purposely not sent any information about where the nest was sited. Kicking his feet against the sofa, Harry hoped that he hadn't messed things up, regretted that knee-jerk pointed wand, wondered if Snape would burst in through the door and send them home. He really should have thought first: Amir would never forgive him if they had to go home empty-handed.
But when Snape arrived, he knocked sharply on the door and waited on the doorstep. The door was open: Amir yelled, "We're ready," and Snape ducked through and stood looking at the pile of equipment, frowning.
"I suppose neither of you thought to secure a levitation spell in Stromness?" he asked. "No. Fine."
Harry didn't even see him touch a wand: his hands were motionless, one curled around the edge of the door and one at his side, but suddenly the boxes were bobbing in the air.
"Come on then," Snape said, and gave Harry's walking boots a brief glare. They were new, and Harry cringed a little. "The days are still short."
It was not surprising that Snape set a storming pace up the cliffside path. His long legs strode easily over the rocks and tufts of heather, the nodding sea poppies and the tiny creeping feverfew clumps with their miniature red flowers. Behind him, in a wind-buffeted, jostling line, the boxes of equipment followed, and behind them Amir and Harry struggled breathlessly to keep up. There was no breath left for talking, even after the first half-mile when Snape had turned around and waited for them, one hand tapping impatiently at his side, and then walked a little slower. It still took an hour to walk to the nest site, and when Snape finally drew to a halt and let the boxes settle on the heather, all Harry and Amir could do was fling themselves down, panting.
"I did not sign up for a marathon," Amir said, "Couldn't we have picked something, you know, urban? Foxes, maybe?"
"My dear Mr. Singh," Snape said, "Do you imagine foxes the equal of Thelessa Draconis? Look up."
Harry looked up, and beside him Amir drew in a breath through his teeth.
Two feet in front of their boots, the cliff edge flung itself dizzyingly down to the jagged black rocks of the shoreline, waves crashing over the battered stumps of pillars and arches and cracked outcrops. Spume darkened the base of the great stack in front of them, but from half way up the black rock was speckled with the bright yellows and pinks of wildflowers, and grass clung tenaciously to every crack and shelf, blowing wildly in the wind. But the sight that arrested both of them was the two black sea dragons that spun around the stack, wingtip to wingtip, twisting sinuously in the wind. They were whip-cord thin, elegant as greyhounds and fiercely winged as a peregrine falcon, but no falcon could have played in the undercurrents and updrafts as they did, sweeping down to spin over the waves and twining around the stack in a wild and beautiful choreography. The mere tilt of a wing edge sent them soaring: the flicker of a tail could turn them into spinning tops, whipping through the spray, until they both spiraled slowly up into the sky, only to dive again with heart-stopping speed.
"The smaller one is the male," Snape said quietly. "The nest is ten feet from the top, tucked into the crack on the right."
But neither Harry nor Amir could answer. They were transfixed by the pair of sea dragons. The only photographs either of them had seen were blurred and indistinct, and the drawings in Harry's book did not manage to convey the sudden, intense sensation of presence. And Harry, watching, noting absently the red horns, and the silver glint to the black scales that suggested the same metallic scales as most larger dragons, could not help but feel that these dragons were aware in a way no other dragon he had seen had been. It was almost as if they were laughing at the waves, taking such joy in wind and wave and their own mastery of both, that he watched with a lump in his throat at their joyous freedom.
Eventually Snape said, "If we are to return before dark, I would suggest you commence." But his voice was still quiet, and he too watched the dragons, all the lines of his face relaxed but for the laughter-lines at his eyes, where he squinted into the wind.
Reluctantly, Harry and Amir began unpacking the boxes, still stealing glances at the pair. There was a pre-fabricated hide for the camera, which they set up first, and then the camera itself had to be assembled and focused on the nest, the long-life Muggle battery and the remote control wired in. It was exacting work, and the sun was already sinking in the sky by the time they had the whole of it in place. Only then did Amir relinquish the viewfinder and say to Harry, "You wanna see what we're here for, then?"
Harry had almost forgotten the egg. But now he peered eagerly at the screen, careful not to hit the wrong key and wipe Amir's settings - he'd done it once, in Cornwall, and never again - and in front of his eyes the nest came into focus. It was surprisingly large, a mess of driftwood twigs and seaweed and fur, and over the top of it he could just see the rounded, dark speckled edge of the egg -
"Whoa!" he said, stumbling back.
A dragon's mouth, all yellowed teeth and red tongue and gaping throat, was not what he had expected to see. And when he looked up, the female had curled around the nest and was looking straight at them.
From this distance, it seemed to be laughing.
"They do that," Snape observed. "Now. Shall we depart?"
"Don't you want to see?" Amir offered.
"I sincerely doubt any Muggle invention -" Snape said, and then Harry thrust the viewfinder under his nose and he shut up.
So when Snape finally set his teacup down with a decisive click and said, "So. Mr. Potter. Perhaps you would now care to elucidate upon our previous acquaintanceship," Harry was completely unprepared. He had two wires in one hand, the other was holding up the base unit while Amir crawled underneath it, and he was trying to keep one eye on the flickering, blurred images on the screen while mentally scripting the series introduction he would have to record in the morning. At least they had internet access, cable, but still good enough to send the film -
"I am many things, Mr. Potter, but I am not a coward," Snape said. "Nevertheless, do forgive me if I find your readiness to reach for your wand at the sight of my face more than a little disconcerting. I am prepared to wager we do not share the same memories of our past acquaintanceship. Tell me, what could cause you to resort to threats on the mere sight of my face, and yet invite me into your home?"
"Cottage," muttered Harry, his heart sinking.
"Semantics," snapped Snape.
"Fine," Harry said. He sighed, looking down at the wires in his hand. "It's not quite the moment," he offered.
"On the contrary," Snape said. "I at least feel more comfortable when both of your hands are occupied. I find your wand hand remarkably undisciplined, given the unpredictability of any spell you manage to cast."
"Fair enough," Harry said. But he hesitated, still not prepared to look at those astute black eyes. How much could he tell Snape? How much would he actually want to know? How much did Harry want to actually relive?
"Mr. Potter," Snape said. "Twenty five years ago, I came to myself in a hospital bed on Stromness, completely unaware of who I was or what I had done. By the nature of my injuries, I surmised that whatever had occurred in order to bring me to that place, it was something to do with the war. I have not cared to know more. But I find..."
Snape looked away then, and his hands, clean, the long bones so close under the skin that when they tightened shadows barred his flesh, clenched once and relaxed.
"Tell me," Snape said.
"I can do better than that," Harry said. "I can show you."
"I don't know," Harry hissed.
They were standing in the doorway of the lounge. In front of them, lying on the sofa, Snape resembled nothing so much as a carving of a knight on a tombstone. He was frozen stiff, his beaked nose and his toes pointing to the ceiling, his back rigid and his hands crossed over his chest. His hair had fallen back from his face and lay over the thin cushion, and his eyelashes lay motionless on his thin cheeks. He was barely breathing.
"Harry," Amir sighed.
"I know," Harry said. "How was I to guess...?" Laid out on the sofa, Snape looked curiously vulnerable, younger, stripped of all his defenses, his viturperative tongue and his scornful mind and all his potions and spells. Harry remembered Snape in his grey nightshirt, and flinched: that man, mocked, seemed so far from the image he had constructed for Albus, the man he had thought he had come to terms with and yet, had brought him to draw his wand like some untried recruit....
"Bother it," Amir said. "I'm going to bed." He turned and went up the stairs, the steps creaking under his boots.
Downstairs, Harry, hesitating, drew down the blanket from the back of the sofa and covered Snape up, looking down at that blank, ascetic face. "Sorry," he whispered.
Then he too went upstairs.
"Harry! Harry! Get down here!"
"What?" Harry yelled, dragging on his jeans and his shirt and where the hell were his clean socks and ow the floorboards were cold - "What?"
"Come and look at this!"
'Oh my God, Snape,' Harry thought, on a rush of memory, and thudded down the stairs two at a time. But the sofa was bare, the blanket folded neatly and left on the cushion, and the kitchen empty: Amir was on his own.
"Where's Snape?" Harry said.
"What do you think this is?" Amir asked. "Dunno. Look." He was staring at the screen; the infra-red of the camera's night vision setting giving the rock curious, shaded edges, as if it was heated. "There!" he said, as the screen went black for a couple of seconds, and then cleared.
"Battery cut out," Harry said. "Was Snape here when you got up?"
"No, look," Amir said. "I think it's a boot. I think someone was walking - Harry!"
But Harry had gone. Down the beach, on the tideline, Snape's tall figure stood looking out to sea.
He stumbled, twice, over the heather and fell once, over the rocks at the edge of the beach, and about halfway along the sand he remembered that he wasn't twenty anymore and slowed to a dignified walk, and then looked again at Snape's tall, lonely figure and thought of the children when they were small, how he and Ginny had been so careful to protect them from the horrors of the war and how it had felt when first James, and then Albus, had left home, when neither he nor Ginny would be there to bandage their knees and spell their bruises, and how Snape had been smashed into his own past without a single person left who could offer any comfort - 'How could you?' Harry thought to himself, ten hours too late. 'How could you?'
He had been so stupid, so careless -
"Potter," Snape said, turning around from the sea and fixing Harry with a steady, amused glare. "Your coat."
It was inside out, which explained why he was still struggling to get one arm in his sleeve. "Bollocks," Harry said crossly, and tore it off and shook it out and jammed it back on, and Snape was laughing at him silently the whole time. "I thought," Harry said, on a rush. "I was worried, I -"
"I believe Mr. Singh has something to tell us," Snape said, and nodded back to the cottage, where Amir stood outside the front door waving and yelling. "Shall we?" He was already walking.
"But -" Harry said, stumbling over his untied bootlace and having to drag up the sock bunched around his ankle. "But -"
"Oh come now, Mr. Potter -" Snape said.
"Harry," Harry said.
"Harry," Snape said, on a glinting sideways glance. "Am I so weak? Do you underestimate me so much? Am I not the man you feared so deeply -" his eyes narrowed, threatening, and his hand came up, and Harry stopped bolt-still " - I have had twenty years to come to terms with any and every permutation of my past you could imagine," Snape said quietly, and smiled. Thin, a sparse, small lift of the corners of his mouth, but a smile. "I am content."
He spun round, as fast as he had ever been at Hogwarts, and set off up the slope without looking back. His back was straight, his head high, and his hair whipped backwards just as dramatically as his robe had done, ten years and more ago.
"You bugger," Harry said, and followed.
"Oh, come on," Amir said. "Maybe it's someone out for a midnight stroll."
"By the nest?" Snape said. "No one on the Island would go near. It can only be outsiders, and I assume this is neither you nor... Harry."
"You're right," Harry said shortly. "What do we do?"
Beside him on the sofa Snape huffed. "Do you think we are so unprepared?" he said. "There is such a maze of spells on that rock that a wizard would have to be Houdini himself to negotiate their release. I do not fear any spell yet made on the islands."
"They're not wizards," Harry said. "They're climbers."
"What?" Snape said.
But beside him Amir whistled. "Of course," he said. "The lovely Warren and Steve. That's why they had all that luggage. Bastards."
"They were on the ferry," Harry said, hurried. "Talking about climbing. The two men the taxi was waiting for, on the slipway. They're staying on North Hoy."
"Muggles?" Snape said. "Climbers?"
Amir was nodding. "I'm sorry," he said. "We didn't realise."
"How could you," Snape said, "When I myself did not anticipate - I must go," he said, and stood up, fast, and snatched his cloak out of thin air, striding to the door.
"What -" Harry said, leaping to his feet. "Where -"
"The nest!" Snape hissed, and was gone.
Left alone, Harry and Amir looked at each other.
"Well," Amir said.
"Well," said Harry, and looked down at the mess of cables and the mobile camera and his own muddy boots. "Best get walking."
It took them an hour to struggle up to the nest site, and the mobile camera seemed to get heavier with every yard. The day had dawned bright and was now cheerily sunny, the sky a clear, clarion blue and the clouds in it tiny white wisps scudding along in the breeze, and both of them were sweating five minutes into the climb. By the time they came up to the spot where Snape stood, looking at the nest, they were flushed and panting.
"Any change?" Harry huffed. "What's happened?" He peered at the nest. The two adult dragons were nowhere to be seen, and his eyesight was not good enough to pick out the curve of the egg.
"The egg is still there," Snape said quietly.
"It looks the same as it did yesterday," Amir said, stabbing at the keyboard. "Doesn't seem to have moved."
"Maybe... we were wrong?" Harry said.
"I don't think so," Snape said quietly, and pointed at the track in front of their feet. There, crossing and re-crossing, were the footprints of two men, the tracks clean-edged and fresh, and beside Snape's foot lay a tufted piece of cord, scarlet threaded with yellow. "I believe they may have reconnoitered the nest last night."
Harry's hand went for his wand.
"No!" Snape said explosively, and then, quieter, "Do not risk it. There would be consequences neither you nor I could predict. The egg is safe for now."
"But we have to do something," Harry said.
"You will wait here," Snape said, and then he turned round and nodded, short and sharp. "On guard. I must make some calls. I will be back." On an instant, he had whirled past Harry and was gone, almost running down the track.
"Oh shit," Amir said, and then, "Well. Might as well shoot the intro, then."
"Second," Snape said.
"Cut," said Amir wearily.
"Good evening," Harry's voice said, and on screen waves heaved and thudded against the edge of the cliff. "And welcome to the first report from Dragonwatch. We're coming to you tonight from the Island of Hoy, on Orkney, where a pair of breeding Sea Dragons are attempting for the second time to hatch their young -"
"Only one egg -"
"Cut," said Amir.
"I would not ask any other Islander to stay overnight," Snape said sharply. "Cows require milking. Hens require feeding. The requirements of crofting may be beyond -"
"When we already know they're likely to come at night," Harry said. "I'm staying with you."
"You will not," Snape said. "I am not a child, Harry Potter, to be protected from the consequences -"
"I owe you," Harry said.
Humping the musty sleeping bag lent to him by one of the farmers Snape had called on for help over the heather, he nearly changed his mind. The blue sky had clouded over, and the low, grey clouds had started to drizzle. Rain dripped steadily down the collar of his sowester and soaked his boots, less waterproof than advertised - the charms were clearly as unreliable as ordinary spells - greying out the horizon of both sea and shore. He'd left Amir on the sofa with the telly and a vintage copy of Instructions for Wizards and Witches Serving in the US Armed Forces, Orkney, 1942, which at least had a basic summary of applicable spells but could not be risked in the rain.
It was the third trip he'd made today, and his feet were sore, but as Harry came up to the canvas tent Snape and the man from the croft at Lyness - John - had pitched, he realised that the dragons were asleep on their nest. They curled around each other in a glistening basket weave, tails intertwined, hanging down, and their heads were close together, their eyes closed, and for a moment Harry thought 'they're so cute', and 'how could anyone' and alongside both of those thoughts was a deep pang of envy and resentment, because there were two of them, a couple, mated, together, and he and Ginny had tried so hard at the end and failed.
"Tea?" asked Snape, deep-voiced and quiet.
"Please," said Harry.
They shared the watch, but nothing happened.
"Exciting news there from Dragonwatch, Tony."
"You're absolutely right, Jane. Don't forget to tune in tomorrow."
"Nothing," Snape said. "Margaret Rutter reports that your friends have not stirred all day," he said. "And while the Trust has reported both to the police, there is no news as yet of who they might be."
"Right," Harry said. "What about the egg?"
"I have observed nothing since sundown," Snape said, and set the binoculars down.
He looked, Harry thought guiltily, tireder and older than he had done yesterday, the lines by the side of his nose a deeper groove and his eyes faintly shadowed, but the set of his mouth was firm and his back still straight. For a man of... Snape must be nearly sixty, Harry thought with a sense of shock, and then remembered that he himself was nearer fifty than forty. Wizards were longer-lived than Muggles, but Snape had never seemed other than old to a teenage Harry. Now, though, they were both firmly middle-aged and worn with it, one of them with children: the war was long past....
"Did you ever imagine what would happen," Harry asked Snape, "After the war?"
Snape snorted, and looked out of the tent door, towards the nest. "There was no after the war," he said.
"What?" said Harry, astonished. He could not imagine the Snape he had come to know without a plan or a failsafe for every occasion. Two. And probably a rack of potions up his sleeve.
"I did not expect to survive," Snape said bluntly. "Tea?"
"But you -"
"Tea." Snape growled.
Harry shut up.
He didn't fall asleep for the first part of the watch, the one Snape took, but lay in the darkness watching the faint angles of Snape's profile at the tent door, outlined by starlight. He couldn't have imagined, twenty five years ago, the man that sat cross-legged three feet away from him, the man who had taken every blow his past had to offer and accepted it, the man who had effectively given up magic to look after this barren spot of land for the last twenty years. But the Snape Harry knew now was not the Snape he knew then, battered and weary and malicious and so brave Harry's breath still caught in his throat thinking about what Snape sacrificed. He was quieter, softer, his tongue still sharp but its barbs muted. He'd laughed, in the afternoon, when both adult dragons had started back at the first rock of the egg, and Harry had found himself glancing over to share that laughter. And Snape, laughing, had been a revelation; the way his eyes crinkled and glinted, the strong curve of his neck, and his hands - Snape's hands had always been beautiful, whatever the rest of him -
'Shit,' Harry thought, and rolled over, staring determinedly at the canvas and trying not to think about the flush of warmth on his skin.
The grey light before dawn was just creeping into the tent, and the grass outside the door glistening darkly with dew. Outside, the persistent, early-rising seagulls screamed and hooted, plundering the bay before either dragon stirred from their nest.
"What do you mean?" Harry asked. He stretched out a hand and flicked the samovar on: they were both awake, although he hadn't known that until Snape spoke.
"Should we not," Snape said. "Offer them the benefit of the doubt? Nothing has happened. Neither man has returned, and the egg must hatch soon. Yet the police -" he says the word so doubtfully, but Amir had liked the policeman who had come over from the mainland. "The police have their names on record, and the Trust has alerted other organisation: there is a watch out for both of them of which they must become aware. What if we are wrong?"
"I think..." Harry said slowly, and then, "When I was young, I wanted everything to be black and white, you know? I didn't have time for doubt. I couldn't afford it. But now I'm older -" Harry said, and thought of the mess he'd made of his marriage, of the day he'd turned his resignation in, tired and weary, of sitting in the pub one afternoon and listening to Tony talk about the new series he was planning and wondering if he could do something completely different and alien, of his children, growing up, no longer entirely his but their own people with their own lives - "Now I'm older, nothing's so easy. Hang on, I don't mean that. I mean, it's more complicated, not just black and white, there's so many different angles to everything -"
Snape was smiling.
"I think what I'm trying to say is that we can only do the best we can," Harry said firmly, and then, more anxiously, "Does that help?"
"You are asking the wrong man for reassurance," Snape said, but his mouth was still up-tilted.
"I don't know, Jane. Don't forget that this is the first time Sea Dragons have nested in Britain for a very long time - we really don't know how close the egg is to hatching, although the film that's come out of today's events looks more than promising. Let's hope Harry and Amir have some good news for us on today's Dragonwatch at eight o'clock this evening. I know I'm looking forward to seeing that egg hatch."
"Me too, Tony, Me too. Now, in other news, protesters at the gates of car giant -"
"I don't - umph," Amir said.
Given that Snape currently had his hand slammed over Harry's mouth, Harry could not reply. He blinked up at the sharp angle of the tent canvas instead, thinking 'shit' and 'what was that' and that Snape's hand was surprisingly soft and smooth....
Then something clinked, outside, and Snape's hand tensed before he drew it back. The tent was charmed, some spiky, guttural indistinct invisibility spell the Lyness crofter had muttered, giving Harry a suspicious glare as he did, but all three of them lay silent and unbreathing, listening.
"Have you got the -"
The voice was so close Harry started, and Snape's hand gripped his shoulder again, tight.
"Don't drop it! Here - this'll do. Pass me the spike."
"Fucking seagulls - there's shit all over these rocks."
"Shut up and find the clamps - no, not that one, the red one -"
Beside Harry, Amir rolled over, very carefully, and leaned up on his elbow, reaching for the torch. Snape was shuffling by the entrance, pulling his boots on: Harry checked that his wand was still in his pocket and then sat up. The tent door was open, but he could see nothing but stars and grass.
"They don't breathe fire, do they?"
"No. Get the box. Let's go."
More muffled clanking noises from outside, fading: Snape ducked out of the tent entrance, and Harry followed, dragging on his sowester.
"Right," Amir whispered. "Give me an hour - I've got the list. Don't do anything stupid before we get back, OK?"
"Good luck," Harry said.
They'd already worked out where it was safe to switch the torch on: Harry watched it bob down the track, and hoped that Amir wouldn't sprain an ankle on the way down. Then he turned back to Snape, who was standing far too close to the cliff edge where the ropes ran down, peering over.
"Should we let the ropes go?" he whispered.
"They haven't reached the bottom yet," Snape murmured back.
"Are you sure?" Harry asked.
"Of course -"
Up on the stack, one of the dragons screamed, shrill and thin, and then the other, a high-pitched alarm that woke every seagull and sent them swirling into the night sky, wheeling confused around the cliffs. One of the dragons lurched into flight, diving down to the sea, and the other sat on the ledge and howled, forsaken and miserable.
"What happened?" Harry shouted.
"The spells!" Snape hissed. "They must have had -" He was teetering on the edge of the cliff now, scanning the sea.
"Don't get too close -"
"I have no intention of -" Snape said, turning around, exasperated, and then, horribly, behind him, Warren's head and shoulders loomed over the cliff edge.
"Look out!" Harry yelped.
But it was too late. Warren had grabbed Snape's ankle, jerking him off balance: there was a moment when Snape flailed, suddenly ungainly. His arms windmilled, his foot kicked in the air and his head went back - and then, awfully, he began to tip and fall over the cliff edge.
"Snape!" Harry screamed, racing forwards. "Snape!"
But he was too far away. But the time he'd even started to move, Snape had gone.
Sickened, Harry stared at the spot where Snape had stood - Snape had survived Voldemort, he shouldn't die now, here, it was ridiculous - while his stomach tied itself in knots and his fingernails bit into his hands. It seemed unreal, impossible -
Then Warren heaved himself up over the cliff edge, dusted his hands and said, "Good riddance."
It was at that moment that Harry realised just how handicapped he felt with a useless wand. And Warren, looking at him, smiled, all teeth and broad lips and wide shoulders and big hands, hands that had tossed Snape over the cliff edge as if he was nothing -
"Oh, what have we here?" Warren asked, walking forwards, and behind him a second head, smaller, came over the cliff edge and another pair of grasping hands. "Two of you?" Warren was still smiling, a horrible, flat gash in his face.
Harry reached for his wand, backing away. He threw a quick glance behind him, just in case Amir and the crofters were in sight, and pulled it out, pointing it at Warren and Steve.
"Oh, look," Warren crooned. "We've got a wizard on our hands. Do you know, wizard, what happened to the last man to cast a mainland spell on Hoy? He's still singing from the rafters," Warren said, and lunged forward.
He was eight inches taller than Harry and fifty pounds heavier. Harry dodged, ducked and managed a quick Protectum that did nothing more than turn the heather pink in a five foot radius and grow a pair of horns on Steve's head. In the dawn light, Steve seemed strangely hunched: he must have the box on his back.
"The police are coming for you," Harry shouted, trying shuffle backwards through heather that clung to his jeans and tripped his feet. "You won't get away!"
"Really," Warren said, his arms sweeping closer and closer. "But we'll get you first. Then we'll get the egg."
Circling around the cliff edge, Steve was creeping behind Harry. He'd be caught between the pair of them.
"Flipendo!" he said desperately, and Steve glanced up in disbelief, snatched the glittering dolphin's head hat off his head and flung it over the cliff.
"It's not worth it just for the egg!" he shouted, sickened at the thought of Snape's broken, smashed body at the foot of the cliffs.
Warren roared with laughter. "Really?" he said. "Really? Have you any idea how much this is worth on the black market -" Then his voice changed. "Grab him, Steve!" he shouted.
Harry spun round, but Steve was there, his hands thrust out to push Harry back over the cliff -
"I wouldn't," Snape said, clearly, steadily, and Harry heard something slide into place with an ominous thunk.
Slowly, carefully, Harry looked back.
Snape stood behind him. He was wearing, not his jumper and jeans, but his wizard's robe, and in his hands was a shotgun, loaded, cocked and pointed at the egg collectors.
And behind him were five crofters, two of them with pitchforks and one with a blunderbuss, and Amir, looking tired but determined, and, standing very straight and official in a dress uniform with medals, the nice young policeman who had come over from the mainland.
Things went very much smoother from that point on.
"Good evening. Tony, it seems that the Sea Dragon Trust have been aware for some time that the dragons were under threat. The Dragonwatch team and the Trust warden, helped by the Island crofters, were keeping a twenty-four hour watch on the site, and last night an attempt was made by these men - notorious collector Warren Stravinger and his associate Steven Pell - to steal the egg. The attempt was thwarted by your reporters, Harry Potter and Amir Singh, assisting Trust warden Sebastian Richards. We have these pictures from the site."
Slowly, the camera panned over the brightly coloured ropes, still hanging from the spike, and then, dizzyingly, showed the long fall down to the cliff base.
"Is there any news from the nest, Carol? How close did they get to stealing the egg?"
"Although Orkney police have not yet made a statement, rumours from the Island suggest very close indeed. However, these images from the nest itself show the egg still in - whoa! Did you see it move?"
"I guess our little dragonet's still in there! Carol, glad to have to you with us. And stay tuned for tonight's Dragonwatch - clearly some amazing events on Hoy at the moment. That's at eight o'clock, on -"
She sniffed. Sniffed again. Her tail curled up, her wings down, and she shot a glare over to where they stood on the cliff edge that was vicious even at seventy feet. Then, finally, she curled around the egg, tucked her head under her wing, and slept.
By the time they'd finished making statements and explaining, watched Warren and Steve march off across the heather escorted by crofters and the policemen, and tidied up, it was time to make the next broadcast. It was more rushed than either Harry or Amir would have wished, but they sent it off and then Harry phoned Tony and had to spend the next two hours explaining and spelling out names and promising that, no, the egg was fine, the next broadcast would be fine, they were fine, no-one was throwing them off the islands....
Amir had crawled into bed, setting his alarm for eight. "I might as well rest now," he said. "One of us is going to have to watch the monitor overnight, and I'd rather it was me. No disrespect, Harry," he'd said, "But I still remember the badger."
Harry had blushed, and caught Snape's eyes, suddenly intent, and Amir, the traitor, had explained the whole situation with the barman and the Babycham and the unfortunate timing and the camera, and Snape had laughed. Which wasn't the most comfortable thing to have at the back of Harry's mind, sitting on the sofa with the man he was very sure he had a middle-aged crush on (it was the hands. And the eyes. And maybe something to do with the war) with four hours of egg watching by monitor to endure.
But it was Snape who said, "Barman?"
And Harry, as he had never done before, found himself telling Snape the whole thing, the horrible, slow erosion of his marriage, the tennis, the Beater, the newspapers and the inevitable divorce, the children - "You know, we called Albus after you," he said, surprised, remembering that he hadn't mentioned. And Snape had sat back, his eyes wide, and so Harry had had to talk about Albus and Quidditch, with which Snape had seemed to keep up rather well, and then Teddy and James and Lily. There had been photographs.
So when Amir had come stumbling downstairs, and Harry got up and stretched his aching muscles and said, "I'd love a bath. A really big one," it had seemed almost natural for Snape to say, hesitating, "I have one."
Harry had followed Snape down to the little croft on the bay that turned out to be his without a moment's hesitation. It had seemed almost natural for Snape to be heaping towels in his arms and pointing out the bottle he could use and the ones he was not to touch on pain of death, and Snape's bath was commodious and steamingly hot. When he got out, dry, dressed, there were crumpets and honey waiting for him in front of the fire, and a steaming teapot with his own raspberry liquorice tea.
Replete, content, Harry had sunk back into Snape's surprisingly comfortable armchair and looked at the fireplace, where Snape sat with a book in one hand and the other on the tiny, fluffy cat that seemed to live with him.
"That was perfect," Harry said. "Thank you." He yawned.
"I could lend you a bed, too," Snape said, not even looking up.
Harry said - Harry opened his mouth and closed it and thought twice and second-guessed himself, and then said - "Does that offer include you?"
"What?" Snape said. He hadn't looked up, but his hands had closed on the book.
"It's not important," Harry said. "But I'm here, and I'm offering. Just in case. It strikes me that -" He was babbling.
Snape looked up. "Potter," he said, and his eyes were dark, but his cheeks flushed in firelight. "Potter, are you... suggesting..." He swallowed. "What I think you're suggesting?"
"Yes," Harry said, and stood up. "Come on," he said.
And Snape did. Stood up, and walked, very slowly, over to Harry: stood over him and looked down, that intent, curious stare that Harry had seen so often over the last week, and then he took Harry's face in his hands and bent his head.
"I always did like green eyes," he said. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," Harry said, reached up, and pulled Snape's mouth down to his.
He had not expected the sheer force of it, the hunger, the way Snape opened him up and turned him inside, left him panting and breathless and clinging to Snape's shoulders.
"Never thought..." Snape said, the tone of his voice wondering, and broke that thought on a kiss that snatched at Harry's mouth and then turned astonishing tender. His hands were gentle, at first, and then not.
"Can we," Harry asked, panting, his shirt half-on and half-off and Snape's hands busy at his waist. "Please. Bed." He wanted more than a quick tussle on the floor. This was Snape.
But Snape sighed and his hands fell away. He looked down for one fragile second, and the touch of his hand against Harry's face was fleetingly warm, and then he turned and walked up the stairs. He didn't look back. Harry, following, was almost tiptoeing, as if he was not meant to be there. He slowed, tried talking through every reason this was a bad idea and every reason it was a good one, stopped with his hand on the doorknob of Snape's bedroom and took a deep breath. Then he ducked inside.
The room was small, and crowded. Still uncertain he was welcome, Harry stood in the doorway, staring at the low ceiling, the little dormer window where the evening night is still softly pink, the white walls and the stacks of books and the bed with its heaped-up blankets and crushed pillows and Snape, curled up and watching him back out of black, black eyes. The sheets were drawn up to his chin, and his hands clenched in them, as if he was as unsure of Harry as Harry of Snape. But one eyebrow quirked, and Snape's eyes looked Harry up and down, ruffled hair (scar) to bare feet and back up.
"Well, get in then," Snape said. "If you're coming."
On the other side of the pillow, Snape's black eyes, astonishingly soft in the morning light, stared back at him. Harry smiled, uncertain.
"Best answer," Snape said, and rolled away onto his back.
"Harry!" Amir yelled. "I'm coming in! Are you decent?"
"No!" Harry shouted.
Snape winced. "There's a dressing gown on the door," he muttered.
"This isn't the way I wanted it to be," Harry said.
"I'm coming!" Harry shouted, and grabbed Snape's robe, belting it on. "What?" he yelled, standing at the top of the stairs and staring down at Amir, who was standing in Snape's living room festooned with every camera they owned.
"It's hatching!" Amir shouted, and then, realising that Harry was actually within earshot. "And Hermione says, text her - we're all over the news."
"What, really?" Harry said, and turned round to tell Snape, but he was already ducking out of the bedroom, dressed, with every hair smoothed into place and his boots already on. He looked as if nothing had happened, as if Harry had never laid a finger on him, never ran his hand up Snape's thin back or curled it into the hair at the base of his neck. Never felt Snape's hips press, sharp and heavy, into his belly or felt Snape's cock roll, heated and pressing, against his own thigh -
"Stop it," Snape growled at him, and went straight backed down the stairs.
"I assume you have replied to Miss Granger -" he started.
Harry raced back into the bedroom and fumbled and dragged his way into his own clothes.
"Go you," Amir whispered to him, as they followed Snape up onto the hill once again. "Didn't think you had it in you."
"Neither did I," Harry said, honestly, watching the way the wind caught Snape's hair and blew it around the bones of his face. He hadn't known Snape would be like that, all bones and urgency and power, until he wasn't, and then his hands had been so very gentle.
"Dude," Amir said, and jabbed him in the ribs.
"It's not like that," Harry said awkwardly, and speeded up.
Amir was right. There was a small group of people crowded into the tent, peering out of the flaps and staring at the viewfinder - Amir had moved the fixed camera out of the hide, yesterday - and on the ledge the egg was rocking precipitously within the nest, hairline cracks spreading out over the speckles. By the time they'd got the mobile cameras set up, the cracks had spread, and Harry could almost see the judder as the dragonet inside beat at the shell.
"What d'you reckon?" said the nice young policeman, whose name was actually Mervyn and whose mother came from Hackness. "Fifteen minutes?"
"Ten," said John.
"Fifteen," Amir said absently, and "Hand me that meter, Harry - what the fuck is that?"
Over the top of the rocking egg, something flickered. It was thin, and shone gold in the light of the sun, stretching and expanding, spiked. It looked like - and then, curling curiously over the curve of the egg they'd been watching for the past four days, came, tiny, exquisite, the head of a baby dragonet.
"There's two of them!" Amir shouted. "Two! Harry, get that meter, now!"
And that, of course, was the moment when the first egg cracked. Straight down the middle, the two halves falling open, and from between them, black as its parents, wet, howling, the second baby dragon. Its wings spread, talons stretched wide, its tail flailed, and it flung up its head and yowled as loudly as a steam engine. In seconds, the gold dragonet had curled its own neck into the air and was howling too.
"Oh my God," Mervyn said.
John said, openmouthed, "Well, that's a turn up for the books."
Bending over his cameras, Amir clicked frantically, and over the nest the two adult dragons wheeled and swung, chirping, until one dived down to the sea and came back with a fish the size of a saucer.
And Harry flung his arms around Snape and hugged him.
Snape hugged back.
After a moment of absolutely astonished, petrified shock, his hands closed around Harry's back, his back curved into Harry's arms, and although his eyebrow was somewhere near his hairline, he was definitely smiling.
"They're real!" Harry yelled into Snape's ear.
"Of course they are," Snape said.
"Amir," he said, stumbling over the boxes they'd stacked so carefully, the film and the external drives and the notes, and grabbing his sowester -"I'm really sorry. I'm staying."
"What?" said Amir, "Harry, you can't, we're -"
The ferry was already four feet from the pier. Harry took a running jump and landed on his hands and knees, and then face-planted violently as his kitbag hit him on the backside.
"E-mail me!" Amir yelled.
Rolling over and levering himself up, Harry waved back. "I will!" he yelled. "Thanks! Don't work too hard!"
felt, suddenly, as if he was exactly where he was meant to be: he bent
down and picked up his kitbag, slung it over his shoulder, and walked
unhurriedly up the slip to the Land Rover and the man leaning against
it, waiting. The sun was warm on his back, and he was smiling.