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Author Notes:

As always, if it belongs to J.K. Rowling, it does not belong to me. Please enjoy this little five-chapter what-if, based on certain questions my readers have asked!

25 October, 1991
Wiltshire, England

Severus Snape walked up a path he had once known very well, fighting to keep himself from staring around like a Muggleborn first year. In truth, he thought, he had the harder job, for the hypothetical Muggleborn had no idea what might be around the next bend, whereas Severus had thought he knew what he was approaching.

It seemed he'd been mistaken.

The manor house glowed in the brilliant light of an autumn afternoon. The ivy which had once darkened its pale stone frontage had been mostly stripped away, leaving only a few artistic tendrils to wander across blocks and carvings. Trees and bushes anchored colorful, exuberant flower beds which drew the eye towards the house, presenting it to visitors in its best light, rather than hunkering sullenly at the heads of unbroken sweeps of grass and attempting to conceal the very fact that a house existed here, as Severus remembered from his last few visits.

"But then, Lucius was alive when last I visited," he murmured, stepping up onto the broad front doorstep. "This, I suppose, would be Narcissa's hand in things."

If, Severus reminded himself, his fears about the woman once again calling herself Narcissa Black were unfounded. If Albus Dumbledore's calm, smug complacence about the strange situation obtaining at the Manor formerly known as Malfoy, as illustrated by the trio of children calling it home who had arrived at Hogwarts seven weeks prior and were rapidly turning the castle upside down, should prove to be the proper outlook after all. If—

Impatiently, he shook off his dithering mood and plied the door knocker (wrought, he noticed with some amusement, in the shape of a serpent, but resting on the head of a lion) three times, then stepped back to wait.

Only a handful of seconds later, the door opened with the smallest of creaks, revealing a woman in plain black house robes streaked with flour, a woman who was certainly not Narcissa. A cascade of bushy brown hair framed an oval face centered on a pair of searching brown eyes—or were they hazel? Surely there were flecks of some other hue visible within their irises—

"May I help you?" the woman inquired in a polite alto, her eyes, whatever color they might be, sweeping Severus once from head to toe, then returning to his face.

Apparently, Severus thought, Narcissa preferred human servants to the house-elf Severus could vaguely remember from Lucius's days as master—or was this woman a servant? She strongly resembled first year Gryffindor witch Jean Gray, from whom Severus had already learned to expect every correct answer in the book. Moreover, the son of this house treated Miss Gray (along with the third of their little triumvirate, the boy about whom Severus had truly come to ask) quite as an equal. Politeness seemed the order of the day, at least until he had more information.

"I would like to speak with Narcissa. Miss Black. Providing she is available, of course."

"Of course, sir." The woman smiled briefly and moved back, opening the door more widely. "Welcome to Hesperus Manor. I'll see if the lady is receiving this afternoon."

"Thank you." Severus stepped across the threshold and glanced around under cover of making sure his black boots would bring no dirt into the house.

Here, as outdoors, things were utterly changed from the Malfoy Manor he recalled. The portraits of former generations of Malfoys had been removed, to snore or mumble their long-dead thoughts elsewhere. Two suits of armor still stood silent sentinel at the foot of the stairs, but one of them (he had to repress a laugh) had been crowned with a blue and gold fancy dress tiara, and the other's outstretched hand held not a caltrop or a throwing knife but a sleeping model of a bright red Chinese Fireball dragon, its tail draped across a gauntleted forearm. The broad windows above the door, once shrouded in dark green velvet curtains, now stood open to the sunlight, which gleamed softly off the polished wood of wall panels and stair treads, striking fiery glints in burnished bronze newel posts and railings.

For the first time Severus could remember—perhaps for the first time ever—the grand entrance hall of a pureblood home struck him as both truly grand, and truly a home.

"Wait here, please, Professor," said the woman, ushering Severus into a smaller room, decorated in crisp blues and tans. "If you need anything, just ring, and Dobby will be with you in a moment." She nodded towards the thick bell rope hanging in a corner, smiled more fully, and was gone.

Severus began to sit down, then stopped, struck by an interesting omission. The woman had never asked his name, nor had he given it, and he would have wagered a year's supply of his five rarest ingredients that he had never met or seen her before.

"And yet, she knew my title," he murmured. "I suppose she could have guessed it, if she has heard me described or even seen my photograph, but who might have—"

A colorful object on the floor behind one of the wooden rocking chairs caught his eye, and he crossed the room for a closer look, then chuckled under his breath. "Curiouser and curiouser," he said, scooping up the abandoned copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, left open to Alice's first speaking encounter with the Cheshire Cat. "There must be at least one younger child in the household, then. Children of an age to begin their Hogwarts education would scarcely be reading such things any longer."

Which, he had to admit, neatly solved the problem of how the mysterious woman, whoever she was, might know his name and style. Students did tend to write letters home, and his appearance was sufficiently unusual that the woman might well have guessed his identity from a description.

"Although," he added aloud, catching sight of a paragraph in the book, "I certainly have no very long claws, nor do I have a great many teeth…"

And then, without meaning to, he was reading, glancing every so often at the illustration on the facing page, watching the Cheshire Cat pop in and out of existence in the trees Alice passed. At last, after her objection to such a practice continuing, it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

"Well! I've often seen a cat without a grin," said a clear, feminine voice, "but a grin without a cat! It's the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!"

About to follow Alice into the garden of the March Hare for a mad tea party, Severus paused. The voice had been remarkably distinct for a figment of his imagination.

He looked up.

"Good afternoon, Severus," said Narcissa, smiling at him from the doorway. "Did I answer my cue correctly?"

"You did." Closing the book hastily, Severus set it aside on the most convenient piece of furniture and got to his feet, ordering himself not to gawk. A widow this woman might now be rather than the formerly unapproachable wife of Lucius Malfoy, and even more beautiful than he recalled her, but staring at her with his jaw dangling would be neither polite nor politic."My apologies for arriving unannounced—"

"Nonsense." Narcissa waved this away with one hand. "If I were unable to see you, I would have asked Danger to tell you so."

"Danger? Ah, your housekeeper?"

Narcissa laughed, a sound both full and strong as compared to the artificial titter Severus had formerly associated with her. "Hardly! But that, I have no doubt, is what you came here to inquire into—yes?" She tipped her head to one side as she found a seat on a cushioned sofa, freeing Severus to sit down himself, a circumstance for which he was decidedly grateful. "What has become of me these last seven years, since Lucius's death, and how Hesperus Manor and our household came to be?"

"That among other things." Severus told his bewilderment sharply that no answers could possibly be obtained if it continued to yammer inside his head. "The children. Your son, and his two companions. Three, if we count the youngest Weasley boy, but he seems a recent addition to the group. They…pique my curiosity, one might say."

"Of course." Narcissa's eyes softened. "My Mal and his cousins would attract your attention, all in their different ways. But the explanation is simple enough—if you would care to hear it from the beginning? Or would you rather ask questions, and have them answered in an order which makes sense to you?"

"Two questions, if you will be so kind, and then the events in order as they happened." Severus gathered his courage and looked directly into Narcissa's face. "Who is Henry Black—and who stands as his father?"

The slightest of smiles twitched at a corner of Narcissa's mouth and was gone. "Ever to the point, Severus," she said, gathering in one hand the skirts of the blue robes which matched her eyes and standing up. "Will you walk with me?"

1 September, 1991
Hogwarts Express
En route from King's Cross Station

Ron Weasley slammed the compartment door shut on his twin brothers' laughter and growled under his breath. "Bloody gits," he grumbled, starting down the corridor that ran the length of the carriage. "They know I hate spiders. I'll ride on the platform at the back before I'll go in there again…"

Judging by the fullness of the Hogwarts Express as he peered into each compartment he passed, Ron thought that might well be his only option. Moodily, he shoved open the sliding door leading from one carriage to the next and jumped the gap, catching the grab bar in time to save himself from a fall.

"I wonder if it's too late to go get a dishwashing job at the Leaky Cauldron or something," he muttered, shutting the door with a bang and glaring down this new corridor. "'It's your turn to start at Hogwarts, Ronald, and isn't it exciting—you'd be in the same class as Harry Potter, if he hadn't disappeared before he was even two years old!' Who cares about Harry bloody Potter? So he survived a Killing Curse from You-Know-Who and ended the war. Fantastic. He'd probably be as stuck-up as the kids from the perfect pureblood families by now, expecting everybody to bow down to him—"

"Beg your pardon."

"Huh?" said Ron intelligently, startled out of his under-the-breath ramblings. Another boy had poked his head out of a compartment at the far end of the carriage.

"I beg your pardon," repeated the other, stepping into the corridor. He was dark-haired, dark-complexioned, and bespectacled, a bit shorter than Ron, and the gray Hogwarts crest on the robes he was already wearing meant he hadn't yet been Sorted and was therefore also a first year. "Are you looking for a place to sit?"

"I—yes. Please." Ron shook his head, trying to regain his composure. "Everywhere else is full, except back with my brothers, and I've had eleven years' worth of them, thank you very much."

"That would be Fred and George, and possibly Percy?" The other boy grinned, a quick bright flash of teeth which lit his green eyes with humor, at Ron's goggle of astonishment. "I'm not reading your mind, I swear, it's just that red hair and brothers mean you're a Weasley, and—"

"And you're making a hash of this, Henry," said a girl's voice from within the compartment. "Go sit down and let him come in already. It's Ron, isn't it? Ron Weasley?"

"That's me, but how—" Ron began as he followed Henry through the compartment door.

"My fault," said the last occupant of the compartment, another boy, slender and very fair, getting to his feet to offer his hand. "Malcolm Black, Mal to just about everybody. My cousin used to date your brother Charlie, or possibly she's still dating him. I don't know if they're even sure about it themselves."

"Oh, right!" Ron shook the offered hand, recalling to his mind a laughing, heart-shaped face topped by a tangle of bubblegum-pink hair. "Tonks, isn't she, the Auror apprentice? I think they're off again just now, but it could change any time."

"Couldn't it always." The girl, her brown curls imperfectly confined by a length of red ribbon, held out her hand in turn. "Jean Gray, pleased to meet you. And my cousin, Henry Black, and now you know everybody."

"They're cousins of mine, too, or at the very least connections," Mal explained as Henry finished shaking Ron's hand and took a seat next to Mal, leaving Ron to sit down beside Jean. "My mum or Jeanie's could probably trace it for you, I know I can't—"

"Don't call me Jeanie."

"Fine, fine, whatever." Mal rolled his eyes. "My mum or Jean's could trace it for you, if they were here, and if anybody cared, but we don't and they aren't, so they can't and they won't."

Henry sighed. "They do this a lot, you'll get used to it," he said to Ron. "In any case, we've all grown up together since we were about four, after Mal's father got killed in an accident."

"Tripped on a folded-over rug and bashed his brains out on the corner of the drawing room mantelpiece." Mal shrugged his shoulders. "I don't exactly miss him, he was a world-class prat by all accounts. Mum seems to have thought so too, judging by how fast she took her old name back, and changed mine to match. In any case, she didn't want to live in that big house all alone, and she thought I ought to have some company too, if she could manage it."

"So she went looking for any relations who had kids close to Mal's age, and turned up my family and Henry's." Jean smiled across at her cousin. "She invited us all to move into the Manor, and we said yes."

"And so…" Henry spread his hands. "Here we are today."

"Here we are," Ron repeated, feeling a little bubble of warmth start to spread through his chest. He had a strong suspicion that the grin currently occupying his face looked rather idiotic, but he couldn't bring himself to care. "What House d'you want to be in, then?"

"Not Slytherin," said Mal promptly. "And probably not Ravenclaw, though Jeanie—Jean," he corrected himself at a baleful glare from that young lady, "might fit in there, with all the reading she does. Memorized our textbooks yet? You've been through them often enough…"

"Better than not even cracking them open, like you've done!" Jean fired back. "All you care about is practicing your flying and scheming to get onto the Quidditch team, when you know you won't even be allowed a broomstick of your own at school for another year—"

"Tonks has told us loads about Hufflepuff," Henry broke in, sliding his voice deftly around Jean's. "How they take care of each other and such." He rested his fingers against his forehead, massaging idly under his fringe. "But my parents were Gryffindors, and I think my dad, especially, is hoping I end up one too. What about you, Ron?"

"Weasleys are always Gryffindors. Even Percy." Ron scowled at the thought of his perfect prefect brother. "If anybody ought to've been a Slytherin—but you'd know all about that, Tonks doesn't care for him one bit."

"No, she doesn't." Mal grinned suddenly. "Did she really tell him, if he was that hard up for pocket money—"

"He ought to pull the wand out of his arse and go sell it at Ollivanders?" Ron finished, enjoying Henry's snicker and Jean's shocked squeak. "At the top of her lungs, no less. Never saw Ginny blush that hard in my life."

"That's your sister, right? Younger sister?" Henry pulled a photograph from his pocket. "I've got one of those. Meghan, but we usually call her Pearl. She was eight in June."

"She's kind of cute," said Ron, watching the little girl in the picture spin on one foot, pausing every so often to throw a gap-toothed grin towards the photographer. Her skin was the same light brown as Henry's, but her eyes were a shimmering, silvery gray instead of her brother's green, and she wore her hair in tight braids, while his lay every which way on his head. "Does she like dancing?"

"Only as much as she likes breathing. Or throwing tantrums." Henry leaned back in his seat with a blissful sigh. "Three whole months we don't have to deal with the brat. Or with Dobby, or with any of our parents. It's almost too good to be true."

Jean sniffed. "I give it two weeks until he's homesick," she informed Mal and Ron. "Possibly less."

1 September
Hesperus Manor

Far away from the train carrying his children off to their first year of school, the dark-haired man who seldom thought of himself by any other name than Ryan Black these days sat in front of a battered typewriter in a room filled with sunlight, a clean white sheet of paper caught between the rollers, awaiting his first word, his first sentence.

It had been so waiting for over an hour.

"They'll be fine," he muttered to himself, in the tones of a man desperately trying to convince an anxious corner of his own mind that what he said was true. "We've trained them well, we've taught them as much as we can, and the spells on Henry are rock-solid, they won't budge for anything less than the exact counterspell, which no one knows except the five of us…"

From outside the window, a woman's laughing voice rose up in song.

"The time has come, the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things,
"Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,
"Of cabbages and kings…"

A little girl's piping tones joined in the next lines, making Ryan smile to himself.

"And why the sea is boiling hot,
"And whether pigs have wings!"

"That's at least two decent things I've done in my life, even if everything else eventually comes back to bite me on the arse," he said aloud, pounding out the sentence on the keyboard before him as he spoke. "Bringing up the kids, especially my Pearl, and helping Cousin Cissy figure out she was more than just her husband's wife or her son's mother. Though John and the ladies had something to do with all of that as well, and the kids themselves have chipped in more than a little."

His smile widened into a grin as he imagined, as he had so many times, Lucius Malfoy's reaction should the Death Eater somehow have the chance to see what had become of his former home. Where rigidly regimented formal gardens had once been laid out in perfect lines and rows, white peacocks stalking back and forth with their rusty-gate cries, a miniature wilderness now held sway, tiny pocket plantings of herbs and vegetables interspersed with streamside trails and benches, berry brambles trained up obliging trees and wild birds of every imaginable color flitting hither and yon.

"And that's only the outside." Grinning still more widely as his fingers began to fly, crafting the tale of a dismayed ghost who'd been wandering for seven years only to discover the home he'd been seeking was changed out of all recognition, Ryan gave himself over to the joy of the story. "Once he got in, he might well think he took a wrong turn at Godric's Hollow, because the rooms are still shaped the same but that's the only thing we've left alone…"

On the wall, three framed photographs smiled down at him. Narcissa and Mal, fair and laughing, held pride of place in the center, with sandy-haired John Gray and his brunette wife and daughter talking together earnestly on one side of the mother and son. On the other, Ryan's own photographic image, pale as milk in a shot taken near his February birthday, held hands with that of his wife Carrie, whose skin tone owed more to her ancestors' sun than to her own, holding much the same warm tint of brown as strong coffee. The boy and girl standing between them blended the two shades to café au lait perfection.

Photographs featuring these nine people, updated periodically to account for the growth of the children, had watched Ryan at his writing in this room since he had claimed it for his own, those same seven years ago.

25 October
Hesperus Manor

"In many ways, my life, the life I have now, began the night my husband died." Narcissa opened a side door and waved Severus through it, into one of the gardens he had noticed as he was approaching the house. "Does that surprise you?"

Severus considered his options for answering and went with truthful, yet guarded. "Not terribly so."

"Which is to say, you never cared much for Lucius, neither his outlook on life in general nor his attitude towards me in particular." Narcissa shut the door behind herself and raised an eyebrow at him over her shoulder. "I always had eyes, Severus, yes, and ears, too, even when I seldom used my voice. For the rest…" She sighed, the sound trailing into a chuckle at the end. "Your choice of reading material may be more apt than you yet understand. Thinking over this story from one end to the other sometimes leaves me feeling as though I have fallen down the rabbit hole myself, and I lived a great deal of it. But you had questions. About my son's companion Henry, and about my cousin Ryan, his father."

"Ryan." Severus frowned over the name, finding it half-familiar though not instantly able to identify the reason. "Ryan Black…"

It came to him in a flash. Minerva McGonagall had been reading a book, a novel, in the staffroom the week before, and he had happened to glance at the spine when she set it down to find her handkerchief. "The author Ryan Black? Cry of the Plover?"

"The same." Narcissa set out across the leaf-scattered lawn, moving obliquely towards a small grove of trees on its other side. Severus kept pace with her, though not without some effort. "An unexpected talent in him, to be sure, and one to which he came later than some, but a true passion to him now." Again she turned just enough to meet his eyes with her own, her feet never slowing or faltering for a second. "The only one stronger is protecting his children. His children, Severus, whoever or wherever they began."

"Does he kill for them, then?" Severus increased the length of his strides and moved in a few swift steps around Narcissa to block her path, bringing both of them to a halt almost in the shade of the trees. "Anyone he thinks might be a threat, or stand in the way of their ascent to power?"

"He does not." The denial held a hint of ice within its depths. "He never did. And as for power…into what House, pray tell, have our children been Sorted? Do they fall into your purview as Head of Slytherin, or is another responsible for them?"

"They are not Slytherins," Severus admitted. "But that hardly means they are blameless, as you know very well—"

"Better than you can dream." The ice in Narcissa's voice rose up to chill the blue of her eyes as well. "Did you come here hoping to protect a certain child, Severus, or were you seeking something else? Something more personal, perhaps? More satisfying?"

"Could you blame me for pursuing both goals," Severus parried, "when they dovetail so well?"

"When you work from mistaken information, and your own determination to see only the worst in those who once wronged you? I can and I do." Narcissa stormed past him, pausing at the edge of the grove to look back.

"Follow me," she said in tones of warning, "only if you are truly willing to listen."

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Author Notes:

If you've explored my website, you may recognize this chapter as one of the Easter eggs hidden there. I'll probably replace it soon, so do recall where it was if you want to find whatever new stuff will go there.

This story, as mentioned above, is five chapters long, finished, and will be posted steadily through the month of December... happy holidays, all!