AU. When Sirius and Remus go looking for Peter Pettigrew, they make a wrong turn and someone else finds him first. Eight years later, Sirius owns a book store and Remus manages it for him. When Harry stumbles into the store and they find out the truth, they decide it's time to be Stealing Harry. (SB/RL slash relationship in later chapters.)
When they arrived back at the castle, Snape unlocked the small, warm room labeled "No Students Allowed", and Harry stepped inside, enjoying the heat on his face after the chilly outdoors. He knew the dungeons quite well by now; there was the Potions classroom, with a storage closet on one side and the artificially-warmed animal room on the other, and the large rack of student-access ingredients in the back. Beyond that, the Slytherin common room, and Professor Snape's quarters, neither of which he'd seen for more than a minute or two.
He'd been in the animal room once before, but only briefly; now, Snape led him inside, and gave him a small jar of white pellets.
"The far wall, the mice," he said, and Harry crossed the dim space, curiously eyeing a glass case full of mice. Snape appeared behind him, his hand dipping into the terrarium to retrieve a small blue bowl. Harry filled it, stopping when Snape told him to, and watched the mice rush to the bowl as Snape set it down again.
"Does it tickle?" he asked, seeing the mice brush past the Potions Master's pale fingers.
"I don't notice it," Snape replied.
"What're they for?"
"Snake food. And some spells," the man added thoughtfully. Harry watched them, thinking of the snake in the field when he'd gone stargazing with Sirius and Remus. "The larger ones have already been fed, or I would demonstrate," Snape said, with a toothy, not-very-pleasant grin. Harry followed him to a stand against one wall, climbing on top of a chair to press his nose to the glass of another terrarium. A small garter snake lay lazily in this one, forked tongue flicking out every once in a while.
"You like snakes, huh?" Harry asked.
"Whether I like them is immaterial," Snape answered.
"Then why've you got so many?"
"They're necessary. Snake-skin is a common potions ingredient, and some breeds are useful for augury."
"A method of telling the future. Far more accurate than pasteboard cards and tea dregs," Snape said, and Harry formed a mental picture of Professor Trelawney. "This specimen is useful mainly for its unique skin. It's called -- "
"Hello, snake!" Harry said, as the snake began to move. Professor Snape scowled.
"Don't you want to know its name?"
"Snakes haven't got names," Harry replied scornfully.
"How do you know?"
"I asked one once. She told me," Harry answered absently. How are you today, snake? he asked. The snake bobbed its head. Are you hungry? he continued. What d'you eat?
Littler things, came the reply.
Harry grinned up at Professor Snape, who was staring at him in shock. "What do you feed this one?" Harry continued, blithely.
"Can you understand what it's saying?" Professor Snape asked.
"Oh, yes. Sometimes, they don't like to talk. They're shy."
The professor didn't seem to be doing anything, so Harry jumped off the stool and went to the opposite counter, where a large jar of crickets stood. Crickets were little, after all.
"How do I just get a few?" he asked plaintively. As if pulled out of a trance, the man picked up the jar swiftly, releasing a catch on the lid, and let two or three insects slide out through a narrow gap, into the snake's cage. The snake made short work of them, hissing with delight, while Harry watched in fascination.
"Mm, Crickets!" Harry exclaimed. "I bet those are like chocolate for them, huh?"
"I...had not considered the matter," Professor Snape replied, fingers tapping on the glass of the cricket jar. "How did you know it wanted crickets?"
Harry sighed. "He told me."
Harry paused, and met Professor Snape's eyes directly, something he very rarely did. They were dark, but gleaming with curiosity.
"My aunt and uncle didn't believe me either," he said.
"Didn't believe you?"
"I told them I could hear what snakes were thinking," Harry explained. "And I can," he added angrily. "I'm not telling tales."
Professor Snape was very quiet. After a moment, he turned, and picked up a strange-looking contraption from the table.
"Come with me," he said, leading Harry deeper into the gloom. They ended in a dark corner, where the only light was cast by a heat lamp above a small case. Inside was a thin, black, angry-looking reptile.
"This is a Black Tiger. Its venom is prized for its magical properties. It is the basis for a number of extremely complicated potions, the compositions of which are..." he paused. "...of no interest to eight year olds. The venom is collected through a process known as milking."
"Like a cow?" Harry asked.
"Rather not. The snake bites the rubber pad, here..." Snape indicated the lid of the contraption, "...and the venom drips down into the jar. Unfortunately, they are...tempermental beasts."
"Oh," Harry said thoughtfully. He regarded the snake. "He looks mean."
"As such, I have been unable to successfully collect any venom. So," Snape said, lifting the lid. "Let us try an experiment, shall we?"
"Okay," Harry agreed.
"You believe snakes can understand you?"
"Can you tell this one to do as I've shown?"
"To bite the rubber bit?" Harry asked.
Harry leaned over until he was on eye level with the snake, took a deep breath, and said, Hello, snake.
Sod off, said the snake. He sounded remarkably like Professor Snape, and Harry grinned.
Don't you like your cage? Harry asked.
Do you like the heat?
Harry nodded. Bet you wouldn't like it much if the heat went away.
Sod off, the snake repeated.
My uncle wants you to bite the little thing he's sticking into your cage, Harry continued. And if you don't we'll make the heat go away.
The snake stared at him. He reared, suddenly, and hissed. Harry felt Professor Snape grip his shoulder, ready to pull him back.
Bad snake, Harry scolded. Do as you're told.
Why should I bite a silly thing like that? the snake said sullenly. Harry thought about it.
If you do, we'll give you a mouse, he said.
A whole mouse?
"Can we give him a mouse?" Harry whispered. Snape glanced down at him.
A whole mouse, Harry promised. Still alive, even.
The creature darted forward, faster than Professor Snape could draw back; before either human knew it, the snake had thrust its fangs into the rubber covering of the jar, and was thrashing back and forth.
Snape held it until the snake was exhausted, thumb behind the head, deftly keeping it in place. When he released it, it snapped half-heartedly at his hand before slinking into a hollow in one of the rocks.
Harry ran back to the terrarium with the mice in it, and reached in, unsqueamishly grabbing a small one and carrying it back to Snape, who was fascinated -- glancing from the jar to the snake and then back to the jar again.
"We promised," Harry said. Snape took the mouse and dropped it, by the tail, into the cage.
"Come away now, boy," he said, though Harry wanted to stay and see if the snake could really eat an entire live mouse at one go. He covered the jar with a glass stopper, placed it in a chilled cupboard, and led Harry out into the Potions classroom. Harry sat on one of the workbenches, and Snape leaned on his desk.
"Did the experiment work?" Harry asked, suddenly afraid he'd done something wrong.
"Yes, Harry," said Snape, using his real name for once. "I do believe it did."
Harry's visits with Snape always made Sirius cranky, and Remus tried to distract him; in this case (though it wasn't what Sirius would have picked) he had slyly arranged an invitation to an early dinner out of Molly. Sirius, who knew when he was being manipulated, refused to change back from Padfoot. Remus, undaunted, brought the dog along, giving the excuse that Sirius wasn't feeling himself, much to both of their amusement. At least this way he didn't have to make dinner conversation and answer questions about Moira.
He'd spent a lot of time as Padfoot lately, Remus reflected. It was slightly worrying.
Still, being a gigantic black dog did nothing for Sirius' desire to be left alone; all through dinner the children slipped him scraps of Molly's excellent meal, and afterwards his presence was demanded on the lawn. Fetch might not be as entertaining to an animagus as to an actual dog, but it did give him a chance to stretch his legs a bit. Remus, meanwhile, sat with Molly and Arthur near the back door, watching the children play and sharing the wine he'd brought as his contribution.
Ginny and Padfoot ran up as Fred and George got into a wrestling match, and threw themselves down on the lawn near Remus, who, it was suspected, was the object of Ginny's seven-year-old adulation.
"There now, Pads, don't smash her," Remus chided, as Padfoot nearly sat on Ginny, who squeaked and moved out of the way.
"That your only worry, with a dog his size?" Arthur asked.
"Pretty much. The worst he ever does is accidentally knock over furniture," Remus answered, while Padfoot allowed Ginny to rest her head on his neck.
"He's such a gentle dog," Molly said. "And good with the children -- Harry's always talking about him. Really, it's rare to find that in big dogs."
"He's a child himself," Remus murmured. There was a twitch of the ears from Padfoot.
"Ought to breed him, Remus," Arthur said. Padfoot snorted suddenly, and Remus hid a smile.
"Oh, I don't know, perhaps he wouldn't take to it," Remus replied.
"Well, then you ought to get him neutere -- my!" Molly exclaimed, as Padfoot yelped. "Ginny, don't pull his ears."
"I wasn't!" Ginny said petulantly. Padfoot slunk most of his enormous bulk under Remus' chair.
"Especially since you don't keep him on a lead. I mean who knows what he might get up to while you're not watching him," Molly continued.
"I'm not sure I want to know," Remus answered easily. Padfoot, head poking out from under the chair, was glaring balefully at him. He reached out to skritch him behind the ears. "He's a good dog."
"Well, if you do stud him out, we wouldn't mind a puppy, would we, Moll?" Arthur said. Molly looked dubious, even at the prospect of gentle Padfoot's pups. Arthur reached over and pulled Padfoot's muzzle up slightly, checking his teeth.
"Ought to have some of these looked at," he said, with the air of a professional. "There are chew toys that clean the teeth, I've heard..."
Remus coughed to hide his laughter as Padfoot tugged away, resting his head across Remus' shoes.
"Is he a mutt, now, or purebred?" Arthur asked.
"Oh, very pure," Remus replied. Padfoot bit his ankle. "His mother was quite a fine bitch."
Padfoot lapped at the bite, apologetically.
"How does Sirius like him? I thought he and Sirius didn't get on so well."
"Not at all. Sometimes Pads even sleeps on Sirius' bed," Remus said, amused. "Though of course he likes Harry better."
"Really? I'd think an eight-year-old wouldn't hold much interest for a dog like him."
"Well, Harry feeds him," Remus grinned.
He was going to get thoroughly yelled at later by Sirius, but it was entirely worth it.
"It is not so unexpected, Severus. We know Voldemort was a Parseltongue, and that the boy is closely linked to him, in ways we are only beginning to understand."
"But in a child so young, Headmaster, certainly something ought to be done."
"What precisely would you do?"
"...I don't know. Educate him somehow."
"He is receiving an excellent education at the hands of Molly Weasley, and will be attending Hogwarts. Do you propose to tell his guardians?"
"I hardly see how we can keep it from them. Surely we have an obligation to use this knowledge."
"Do we? Of what use is his ability, at the moment?"
"Use? He's a boy, he shouldn't be talking to snakes. And let us not forget many dark wizards began as parseltongues."
"Many dark wizards were parseltongues, Severus, there is a difference."
"Black and Lupin ought to know."
"Surely they'll notice, in their own time."
"I don't like them, you know, but they are responsible for Harry's welfare."
"And you like Harry."
Severus paused in his pacing of Dumbledore's rooms, stopping so sharply that his robe hems swirled around the tops of his boots. He stared at the Headmaster, dumbstruck.
"He is a charming little boy, there's no sin in being fond of the lad," Dumbledore continued imperturbably.
"I'm responsible for his education in what it means to be a wizard, that is all," Severus said tightly.
Dumbledore smiled. "And you have no personal feelings towards the boy."
"Purchasing treats for him at the Quidditch match, I suppose that's merely -- "
" -- making sure he's well-nourished. I don't trust Black to keep milk cold, let alone fix edible meals for him."
"And your boasts to Minerva of his intelligence?"
"Observations shared with a fellow teacher."
Dumbledore's fingers tapped on his desk, thoughtfully.
"It's..." Severus began, stopped, tried again. "When he is...Parvus...it is very easy not to see his father in him. It is easy to think of him as...a nephew. Family."
Dumbledore's gaze was unnerving. Severus shifted his weight and changed the subject quickly. "He doesn't think it's anything unusual, you know. All children think they can talk to animals, it's -- young ones have vivid imaginations. He simply never grew out of that delusion, because that delusion happened to be true. To him it's as natural as speaking to you, or to myself. Perhaps more so. He perceives them as his equals. He's not squeamish, either, he wanted to feed that mouse to the viper himself."
"He understands the orders of nature," Dumbledore said with a smile. "Severus, let the boy be. You will not speak of this to Sirius. If he discovers it on his own, well and good; if not, I see no harm in allowing it to continue."
"Yes, Headmaster," Snape said, sullenly. "Shall I fetch Harry?"
The dark-haired man passed into the outer chamber, and held out his hand. Harry glanced at it for a moment, surprised -- Professor Snape had never offered his hand before, merely taken Harry's when it was held up -- and took it, allowing himself to be led into the office. Dumbledore was just leaning out of the fireplace.
"You're ready, Harry," he said, as Severus removed the glamour from his scar and hair. "Do travel safely."
"Thank you," Harry said politely, well-used by now to the trip. He tossed a handful of floo powder into the flame, stepped inside, and said, "Sandust Books!" clearly.
Dumbledore looked up at his Potions master, who was watching Harry vanish from sight.
"There is no harm, sometimes, in letting a child be a child," he said gently.
"Harry is more than a child," Snape replied. "But I hardly imagine that will change anything. Good day, Headmaster."
Harry returned to Sandust to find Remus gone again; Sirius was quiet and Harry thoughtful as they ate, and Harry spent the evening reading about Wales, where Remus had apparently gone exploring. Harry slipped a glance at the calendar, where the full-moons were pre-printed, and realised that Moony was timing his travels now. He'd get sick while traveling, and come back in...well, Tuesday was the full moon, so, four days from now...
He curled closer against Sirius' hip. His godfather was reading a novel of some kind, and he glanced down as Harry shifted.
"You look worried, pup," he said quietly.
"M'not," Harry answered. "Just thinkin'."
"Snakes," Harry lied. "Professor Snape's got tons of 'em."
Sirius grinned. "You like reptiles?"
"Yeah, I guess. Snakes are neat. They never lie," Harry added. Sirius rubbed his hair, and closed his book.
"I know we've been asking you to keep a lot of secrets, Harry," he said. "But they're for your own good. When you start school, everything'll change. Not so many secrets," he continued.
Harry privately reflected that Sirius didn't know the half of it.
"And we're better than the Dursleys," Sirius said. "Er...we are better, aren't we? You don't want to go back there, do you?"
Harry shook his head vigorously. Give up Sirius and Remus, his new friends, his books and toys, Professor Snape and the snakes, all because of a couple of secrets?
Sirius was smiling at him. "Good lad," he said. "No fear, eh?"
"No fear," Harry replied. "Am I really gonna go to Hogwarts?"
"Course you are, why wouldn't you? You've got magical ability and you're a Potter. Very old respected wizarding family, the Potters," Sirius said, almost to himself. "And you've got me and Moony too. There's nobody better at Dark Arts than Moony, you know."
"What about you?"
Sirius paused. "I'm more sort of an all-over wizard," he said. "I do a little of everything."
"Are you from a Very Old Respected Wizarding Family?" Harry asked.
"Well, I don't know about Respected, but Old certainly applies. The Blacks are a very ancient house."
Harry got the mental image of a house made entirely of mummies. Sirius saw the look on his face, and grinned.
"What I mean is, they've been around forever," Sirius said. "It's not a literal house."
"Do you have a dad and mum?" Harry asked.
"No, Harry, they died. All I've got is -- " he paused. "Well, you. And Moony. It's us three, you know. All we've got is each other."
"And the Weasleys," Harry added.
"All right, and the -- "
"And Professor Snape and Oliver."
"Well, that might be stretching things a bit," Sirius temporised. "Not that Oliver's not a nice enough lad, I'm sure, but he doesn't feed and clothe you, you know."
Harry grinned and jumped down off the couch. "Let's go play chess," he said. "Nina's been teaching me."
"Oh?" Sirius raised an eyebrow. "Who's this Nina now?"
"A girl in Gryffindor."
"A girlfriend?" Sirius drawled. Harry laughed and hooked a hand in his pocket, pulling him along. "All right, short stuff, calm down..." He reached up into the cupboard and took down the gameboard.
All in all, he thought, there were far worse ways to spend an evening than playing chess with his godson.