Chapter 4 : Time and Chance
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London, October 31st, 1991:
Peeves carefully raked in his winnings for the third time that afternoon, then turned and gave the girl on his lap a smacking kiss. "Ha! Didn't I tell you I had a good hand, sweetheart? See, you're my lucky charm, Myra."
The red-haired woman snuggled against him, her full lips inches from his ear, and purred, "A lucky charm? Darling, I'll be whatever you want me to be."
The two men playing with him looked at each other and swore. "Jack, if I didn't know better, I'd say that deck was fixed," one growled. He was brawny and had hair the color of a steel wool pad. "Three times 'e's cleaned our clocks, mate! It's bleeding unnatural!"
The other man, small and skinny with a large nose, shook his head in disgust. "Dan, I done tol' ya, we shoulda played dice instead. I said to meself, Jack, that stranger yonder looks like a real card shark. Now look at us. I don't even have money left for a pint!"
"Gentlemen, no hard feelings now," Peeves began, sensing he was about to lose his partners. "Tell you what. Play one more game with me. Double or nothing, winner take all. And the pints are on me." The former ghost's eyes were sparkling with the thrill of the game. Peeves loved to win, but he loved even more the element of risk. It was what made games of chance so addictive. A fortune could be won or lost on a single card.
The two considered. They had their reputations to maintain, and didn't want to be shown up by a newcomer, especially one so young, who looked as if he were fresh from university.
"Awright, lad, you're on." Jack agreed. He watched as Peeves pushed the stack of chips back into the center of the table, his nose twitching greedily. "C'mon, Dan, let's up the ante and thrash this young pup!"
Peeves concealed a grin. He could tell the siren call of cold hard cash had enthralled the two men, and they were going to be reckless and take chances they normally wouldn't. He rubbed his hands gleefully. These were the kind of stakes he loved. Easy marks, easy money. He shuffled the deck, then handed it to Jack to cut. Then he began to deal the cards.
Poker was a simple game, especially if you happened to have a phenomenal memory like Peeves. He had trained himself long ago, when he was a street waif, to count cards, and perform sleight of hand. The other advantage he had was that over the centuries he had become a master at poker, from playing endless hands night after night with the Bloody Baron, the Fat Friar, and Nearly Headless Nick.
He turned to Myra. "Myra, luv, would you mind going and fetching us three pints?" He reached into a pocket and handed her a fiver. "Get one for yourself too."
"Sure, handsome!" she slipped off his lap and headed to the bar. Peeves and the two men watched her swaying hips and bottom, grinning.
"You sure are lucky, boy," drawled Dan enviously. "Myra, she don't come cheap an' she don't go with just anybody."
Peeves said nothing, merely shrugged. He'd sampled what Myra could do before sitting down at the table, and found the experience to be quite invigorating, to say the least. Then again, it had been a long time since he'd been with a tavern wench.
Once Myra and the pints had arrived, they began to play in earnest.
Peeves allowed the two to win the first few hands, then he ruthlessly crushed them with his Full House, winning back what he had lost and then some.
He was just about to deal the final round when he felt Myra stiffen against his shoulder and murmur, "Jerome, you've got company. Something tells me it's not the welcome wagon either."
Peeves looked up to see a tall man in a long black duster with black jeans and a green jumper stalking over to his table. The man's hair was black as ink and in his eyes was a dark menacing look. Peeves gulped, for he knew who it was, even dressed in Muggle attire, you could not disguise the Head of the Unspeakables, Severus Snape.
Following the public custody trial of Harry Potter, Snape's face had been splashed all over the media of wizarding Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. Even the European and American branches knew who he was. Peeves recalled Snape from school. Back then he had been a skinny adolescent, all big eyes, long hair, and slender fingers, but frightfully intelligent. Now the gawky boy had become a wizard to be reckoned with and then some. Peeves felt the sharp spike of fear stab into his backbone.
Myra slipped unobtrusively from his lap, clearly not wanting to be in the line of fire. Peeves thought about running, but he knew he wouldn't get far, and he still had pride and daring enough to try and brazen it out. If Snape tried anything, he could call the police.
"Hello, Peeves. Long time no see, old friend," Severus hissed, his voice like an arctic wind.
"Uh . . . err . . . fancy meeting you here!" Peeves gave him a weak smile.
"Who's this, mate?" asked Jack.
"I thought you said your name was Jerome," Dan asked suspiciously.
"Peeves is a nickname," answered the other swiftly, his eyes still upon the glowering Unspeakable.
"Were you in a gang then? Is that wot this is about?" asked Jack, looking uneasy.
"He was in prison," Severus replied before the former poltergeist could respond.
"You did time?" Dan scowled. "What for?"
"Embezzlement," Severus supplied smoothly. "He was caught redhanded appropriating funds from the company account. Now it seems as if you're back to your old ways, right, Peeves?"
"I didn't do anything wrong!" objected the poltergeist. "You're lying!"
"Who are you, sir?" asked Dan warily. The other's attitude reminded him of an undercover cop, silent and deadly.
"His parole officer." Severus withdrew a wallet from his duster pocket and opened it, muttering something under his breath as he did so. He then showed the fake ID to the two Muggles.
"Oh. Nice meeting you, constable Snape. We'll . . . ah . . . be going now, right, Dan? Excuse us." Jack practically jumped out of his chair.
Dan too hastened to leave Peeves to his fate.
The poltergeist quickly raked up all the chips he'd won and glowered at Severus. "What do you want, Snape?"
Severus casually took a seat across from Peeves and said quietly, "For you to honor the bargain you made with my godson. Or is that beyond you, Peeves?"
"What bargain? I made no such bargain."
Severus was on his feet in a flash, his hands at Peeves' throat, lifting him half out of the chair. "Don't lie to me, Peeves! I know everything about last night. Now, did you or did you not promise my godson Harry Potter to exchange places with him for twelve hours?"
Peeves squirmed and gasped for breath. "I . . . ack! I . . . can't breathe, Snape . . ."
"Of course you can. It just hurts a lot," sneered the other, his obsidian eyes hard as stone. But he relaxed his grip, letting Peeves slide down into the chair again.
Peeves glanced around at the other patrons, but found no help there. Everyone else had either left or was pretending the two in the corner table didn't exist. Clearly word had spread about the former inmate and his parole officer. "All right. Yes, I did ask Potter if he would switch places with me, but I never promised to return after twelve hours. I said I might, not that I would."
Severus ground his teeth silently. He had suspected as much. A true oath was binding, and Peeves would have been compelled to return within the time allotted. Without a true oath, however, Peeves was free to interpret the bargain as he chose. "Why would you make such a bargain anyway? The afterlife wasn't lively enough for you?"
"Ha! If you'd been trapped for centuries inside a single castle, wouldn't you long for freedom? For the chance to go where you would, when you would? For another chance to taste the pleasures you mortals take for granted? Potter was a gullible fool, but I'm glad he agreed."
Severus' eyes narrowed. "Peeves, you don't know how close you are to becoming a rotting corpse upon the floor," he hissed, leaning in close to the other. He made a few motions with his wand beneath the table, ensuring no curious ears could overhear their conversation. "I will tell you now, with a snap of my fingers I could curse you so badly your own mother, even if you knew who she was, would not recognize you. There is a spell I know that will rot you from the inside out, and you will die like a leper, your flesh liquefying and rotting, you bones crumbling and organs withering. It starts slowly, a spot here, a spot there, until it devours you, and you die in lingering agony. In the Department, it's known as the Withering Death, and there is no cure."
Then Severus moved, in a lightning quick gesture, his ebony wand at Peeve's throat. "All I need to do . . . is speak a single word."
Peeves swallowed hard. "You wouldn't. That's dark magic. It's forbidden."
"And what you did was not? Swapping your incorporeal self for a living breathing body? Planning to steal it and run as far away as possible, leaving a child stranded, dead before his time?"
"He agreed! Can I help it if he was too stupid to know how to make a contract?" mocked the poltergeist.
"It's not Harry's naivete you should be concerned about. I repeat, why would you wish to remain mortal? You have no family in this time, no friends, no background to fit into modern society. How could you expect to survive?"
"I'd manage. I did it before, when I lived on the streets."
"And is that the sort of life you aspire to? Thievery and graft?"
"It wouldn't always be so. It would certainly be better than the one I had previously."
"How so? You ended your life in a pub, and here it seems we have come full circle. Either way, you are coming with me and reversing whatever spell or incantation you cast. No one makes a pawn of my godson and gets off!"
Peeves shrank backwards and whimpered. "You can't make me come back! Potter and I had an agreement."
"Ah, so when it suits you, now it's an agreement?" demanded the Unspeakable sharply. "And you care not that you've taken advantage of a child's good heart and compassion, do you?"
Peeves' face twisted. "Why should I? No one ever gave a damn for me when I was his age! Nobody cared if Jerome starved and begged for a bread crust in the street or offered a blanket to keep out the cold! Salazar only saved me because I had magic, otherwise he would have left me to the elements. Even then I never belonged, I was mocked for my accent and my poor clothing, or pitied as the poor waif Slytherin took in out of charity!"
"If you hated your life so much the first time, why consent to becoming a mortal again?"
"Because this time it would be different."
"Would it? From where I'm sitting, you're still the beggar brat, playing with stolen coin and a stolen body. A pathetic excuse for a person, a groveling cowardly child who pretends he's a man so he won't have to face the truth. That you cheated an innocent child out of his life because you didn't have the guts or the honor to keep your word." Severus said calculatedly, knowing how to twist the knife into the other's psyche, knowing intuitively where Peeves was most vulnerable. It was part of his talent as a Seer, this inner knowing of another, and normally he would have never used the knowledge to hurt. But this time he had no mercy, for Harry's very life was at stake and he would use whatever he had to in order to force Peeves' hand.
Peeves trembled as the barbed words struck home. His face reddened. "How dare you?" he spat, his eyes wild. "I'm no coward, Snape!"
"Prove it then. Return and honor your word."
"And give up my freedom? Not a chance."
"What if I told you that I could free you as a ghost?"
"You're lying, Snape. The only freedom for me would be to pass the Veil. And I know what awaits me in the afterlife." His face twisted in bitter mockery. "Eternal damnation. Are you that eager to see me burn? Like the black friars were to burn all the witches and heretics? No thanks!"
"You may not be the nicest person, Peeves, but I doubt you are going to hell. There are many others more deserving who would be chosen first," Severus said dryly. "Purgatory, maybe."
"I'm in there right now, as a ghost in the castle."
"Because the wards bind you. But what if there was a way to relax the wards, and allow you to travel past the castle proper? To the Shrieking Shack and Hogsmeade?"
"The wards have been in place for a thousand years. There's no unbinding them, even if you were Headmaster, Snape."
"You're wrong. What magic has made, magic can unmake. That is a truth all Unspeakables know."
"Never happen. It's a trick."
Severus met his gaze. "On my wand, it is not."
Peeves set his jaw. "I like London. The rubes here are easy pickings. I could live comfortably here for quite some time."
"Eventually, your money would run out and then what?"
The other shrugged lazily. "I'd move on. What's it to you?"
Abruptly, Severus changed tactics. Intimidation and persuasion had not got him anywhere. Perhaps appealing to the ghost's love of chance would. His temper was still simmering, but under control. In life, Peeves had been a sly conniving scamp, but Severus was Slytherin, and had dealt with that sort of Housemate for years. "How about a small wager, Peeves? Five card draw poker. Ten hands. Ten pound limit. If I win, you return with me and become a poltergeist again, and I remove the wards that constrain you to the castle. You keep your promise to Harry and all debts are cancelled. If you win, you are free to remain a mortal, but if our paths ever cross again, I will duel you without mercy in payment of your broken promise."
"What's in it for me?"
"Your life—mortal or immortal. Are you willing to risk it all? Or do you only play when the odds are in your favor?"
"What are you saying? That I'm a cheat? I won all those games fair and square today! Without even batting an eye. I can beat you blindfolded, Snape. The cards love me."
"And you love the sound of your own voice," said Severus sarcastically. "Swear upon your magic that you will not attempt to cheat, either with or without magic."
Peeves swore. His blood was up and all he wanted was to wipe the smug challenging look off of Snape's face. "All right. I agree to your terms. Not that it matters, because I'm going to win. I haven't been beaten in a hand of poker since I died."
"Never say never, Peeves." Severus answered, then he shuffled the cards expertly. "Cut them."
Peeves cut the deck, then handed it back. Severus dealt, his fingers working smoothly over the plastic cards, like the seasoned expert he was. Little did Peeves know that Tobias and Severus had been playing poker since Severus was ten, and Tobias had once been a gambler par excellance.
The first hand lasted about seven minutes, with Peeves upping the ante until Severus called, and then it was revealed that the former poltergeist had a Full House, a pair of tens and three eights, which beat Severus' hand.
Peeves grinned triumphantly and took the pot. Then they began to play again.
This time Severus' straight beat Peeves' three of a kind, and Peeves scowled mightily. Severus was stoic, his face still, not giving anything away. Three more hands passed, with Peeves winning two and Severus one.
"Better quit while you're ahead, Snape." He gloated.
"It's not over until the last hand," reminded the Unspeakable. Unknown to Peeves, Severus had been testing his opponent those first few hands. But now having got the measure of the ghost—he was very very good—he began to play in earnest.
Back and forth the ante went, and Severus bluffed Peeves into folding, much to the ghost's chagrin.
"Damn your hide, Snape!"
The next hand, Peeves casually said, "I see your five and raise you ten." He tossed a ten pound note into the pot.
Severus calmly met the bet, then drew a card.
Peeves squinted, trying to recall what cards the other could have held. He hated to admit it, but Severus had a poker face second to none, and he was at the top of his game. There had only been one wizard who had been a better player, and that was Salazar Slytherin. Ironic, that Snape was a member of that House.
He nibbled at a fingernail. He had a pretty good spread, nearly a straight, but Snape seemed confident. Too confident. He raised and then called Snape's bluff.
"Let's see what you've got, Snape."
Severus flipped over his hole card and it was revealed as a seven of spades.
"Bloody hell!" Peeves cried for Severus' four of a kind beat his Full House.
Severus calmly took the pot, raised an eyebrow, and said, "Last hand, Peeves."
"You're going down, Snape," threatened the other. He shuffled the deck, cut it, and dealt, his brain working overtime trying to count the cards as he dealt. He was determined not to lose. Lady Luck, don't fail me now.
Severus remained maddeningly calm, like a stone effigy, only his eyes flicking back and forth across the table. But within his thoughts were busy calculating if Peeves had a hand to beat. His own hand was very good. The tension was so thick between the two that the air went frigid.
Severus turned a hole card over. It was a ten of spades. Arrayed before it was a queen of spades, a jack of spades, a two of hearts and king of spades.
Peeves grinned. "Just wait till you see what I've got, Snapey dear." He cooed. He put down a king, queen, jack, ten, and nine of hearts. Straight flush. "Read 'em and weep. I'm free!"
"Just a moment. I have one more card to draw." Severus murmured. He drew a card. The only way he could lose was if the card were not of the same suit, since his straight was of a higher value than Peeves. He discarded the two of hearts.
He flipped over the card.
It was an ace of spades.
Royal flush, the unbeatable hand.
Peeves' eyes bugged out. "No. This isn't happening. I never lose. Never."
"The cards don't lie." Severus said simply. He calmly took his winnings and dumped them into a pouch, then eyed Peeves sternly. "Well? Shall you come quietly, or must I gag you, bind you, and carry you over my shoulder?"
The defeated ghost thought about making a break for it. He might be able to outrun the other wizard and escape into the maze of streets in London. He considered it for about ten seconds. He found his pride would not let him. He had lost, and he had agreed to the wager. He lifted his gaze and met the other's eyes. "You win, Snape. I'll come back."
Severus took him firmly by the shoulder, letting out a relieved breath as he did so. He had never played a game of poker for such high stakes before and he knew he never would again. He was very glad, however, that Fortuna had smiled on him this afternoon.
Once out of the pub and down a dank alley, Severus Apparated away with Peeves.
Harry was about to go through the wall, literally. It was now after twelve noon and his friends had departed to go trick-or-treating. He was alone in the library, frustrated and upset. What if Severus could not find Peeves? What if the former ghost had vanished into the mass of humanity that dwelled in Muggle London? Even if Severus did find Peeves, how would he make the sly poltergeist agree to return with him? Harry respected Severus and knew he was an intelligent and powerful wizard, but could he manage to corral one thousand year old ghost determined to avoid pursuit?
He was mentally kicking his own arse when he heard footsteps approaching the library. He floated up towards the ceiling and waited with bated breath.
The door opened and Severus appeared, one hand fastened securely upon a slender wrist of a young man with floppy brown hair.
"Oww! You needn't grip so hard!" yelped Peeves. "Kid, where are you? I'm ba-a-ck!" he cackled, elongating the word and making it sound creepy.
"Here I am, Peeves." Harry said, and floated over to him. He gave the former ghost a sharp glare. "Nice try." He flashed Severus a smile. "I knew you'd find him, if anyone could, Uncle Sev."
"Ugh! Don't make me vomit," Peeves coughed. "All right. Give me your hand, Potter."
Harry extended his hand, willing himself to grasp Peeves'.
He felt an odd tingle running through him, sort of like electricity, then he was yanked forward and he found himself melting into Peeves' body.
There was a brilliant flash and Harry found himself sitting down on the floor, a boy once more, while Peeves hovered above him.
"Are you all right?" Severus asked, concerned.
"Uh . . .yeah. I'm just a little . . . dizzy." Harry said, trying to get to his feet.
A lean arm helped him stand, and Harry leaned gratefully against his godfather's shoulder.
Peeves made an insulting face. "Kid's fine, Snape, quit mollycoddling him. Do what you said."
"In a moment." Severus said, then lowered his head, and made a few passes with his wand over the poltergeist. He spoke one long phrase in Latin three times and then green sparks exploded out of his wand and drifted over Peeves.
Peeves let out a shriek that could have stripped paint.
"I'm free at last! Thank Merlin, I'm free!"
Both Severus and Harry flinched and covered their ears.
Peeves through the library wall, cackling. Several books tumbled off the shelves as he passed.
Harry bent to pick them up. "What did you do, Uncle Sev?"
"I kept a bargain I made with him and allowed him to go outside of the castle, as far as Hogsmeade."
"Oh. That was clever of you." Harry smiled at his godfather then came over to hug him.
But before he could embrace the tall wizard, Severus' hands fastened upon Harry's shoulders and shook him twice. "Harry James Potter, if you ever do something so foolish again, I will take away your broom and ground you until you're twenty. Am I understood?"
"Yes sir," Harry whispered, looking at Severus' boots. Had he lost his godfather's trust forever with his dumb decision? He bit his lip hard, struggling against tears.
An instant later he found himself drawn up against Severus' robes, inhaling the spicy and exotic scent that clung to the other's clothing from brewing potions. The hand that had shook him in displeasure was now carding his hair. Harry knew then he was forgiven. He threw his arms about Severus and clung.
They remained that way for several moments.
Then Severus handed Harry a handkerchief and said, "Dry your eyes and blow your nose. Now then, are you ready to go pay your respects?"
"Yes, Uncle Sev." Harry said, his words muffle slightly by the handkerchief.
They arrived at Godric's Hollow close to one o'clock in the afternoon, and Harry hurried down the path to where the twin headstones bearing the names of Lily and James Potter rested. He knelt in front of them and whispered, "Hey, Mum and Dad. It's me, Harry. I just came to say hello. It's Halloween again and I just wanted to stop and tell you how much I miss you and well . . . you know . . ."
He reached out and placed his hands upon the headstones, wishing then that he were still a ghost, then perhaps he might be able to talk to them.
A wind came up suddenly, blowing the leaves about the headstones and making the trees wave. Harry shivered and shut his eyes. It was then that he felt it, the sensation of warm hands hugging him, and heard their voices whisper in his ear.
"We love you, Harry. Always remember that. Happy Halloween, son."
Harry gasped and his eyes flew open. But when he glanced around, he could see nothing, not even a shadow. Had they really been there at all? Or had it been his imagination?
He turned, hearing Severus' soft tread upon the ground. The Unspeakable carried a bouquet of lilies, snapdragons, and mums in his hand. Harry rose, about to call out to his godfather, but the words died on his tongue.
For there, shimmering in the wispy fog and weak October sunlight, stood Lily and James Potter. Harry recognized them from the pictures Severus had shown him.
Severus had halted, his eyes bright with disbelief. He spoke one word. "Lily."
She stepped forward, whispered something that Harry almost could not make out. It sounded like "I forgive you." or maybe "I love you." Her ghostly arms went round the still form of the Unspeakable for a brief instant. Then she withdrew and waved goodbye, fading away.
James drew near then, and spoke quietly for a few moments.
Harry could only catch a few words. " . . .sorry for what I did . . . thank you for looking after Harry . . . Lily was right . . ."
"He is my godson and I did what was right," Severus replied shortly.
James nodded once, then he too vanished into the mist.
Severus shut his eyes, his face a myriad of emotions—astonishment, longing, sorrow, and love. Silent tears trickled down his cheeks.
Harry stared, he had never seen Severus Snape weep. It made tears come to his own eyes. He ran to Severus. "Uncle Sev!" he cried, his voice catching. "They came to me too."
Severus opened his eyes then, his hands coming up to swipe across his face. "I thought they might." He pressed the small eleven-year-old against him. "It is, after all, Halloween, and doors between the living and the dead are open for this day and night only." He drew in a breath, let it out. "I thought they might come to you, but never to me."
"But they did. I saw."
"What did they say?"
Severus looked down at the green-eyed boy, amusement flickering in his eyes. "That, Harry, is private. I will tell you someday . . .when I have recovered from the shock. Come, it's growing late. If you hurry, you might still be able to find your friends and go trick-or-treating with them."
"Really?" Harry said eagerly. Then his face fell. "But Uncle Sev, I . . . don't have a costume."
"What would you like to be?"
"Uh . . . I could always be . . . a ghost." Harry said, smirking.
Severus scowled fiercely. "That is not funny, young man."
"Only kidding. Make me a sea serpent."
Severus tapped him with his wand, and Transfigured Harry's school robes into a glittering serpent costume. Harry had a flexible tail that curled up over his back and a head with glittering emerald eyes that he pulled over his face like a hood. His arms were the front flippers, his legs the back ones.
He twirled about, almost falling over. "Awesome! You're the best, Uncle Sev!"
"Stand still, for Merlin's sake! I can't take you along if you're spinning about like a top." Severus scolded mildly, reaching out and pulling the sea serpent to him.
There was flash of green light and they were gone, leaving the cemetery to the spirits of the dead.
Severus stood at the entrance to Hogsmeade, watching as a silvery blue sea serpent ran down the main street, calling for Hannah and Justin, a black leather satchel clutched in his hand. The Unspeakable permitted himself a quiet smile and observed the serpent meeting up with a knight and a fairy. This had been one Halloween he would never forget, though unlike that other one, this one had not ended in tragedy.
The sea serpent turned and waved.
Severus lifted his hand, whispering, "Happy Halloween, Harry," as the serpent and his friends scurried off. Then he went down the street into The Three Broomsticks. After the day he had had, he badly needed a drink of mulled wine.
He had just settled down in a booth in the corner when he heard a familiar voice say, "Hey, Snapey! How about another hand of cards?"
Severus took a gulp of wine and groaned. "Go away, Peeves."
"Aww, but Sna-a-a-pe!" whined the poltergeist. "Just one more? Please? My reputation's in tatters here, old boy."
"Go and haunt someone else," the other snarled warningly.
"You're no fun." Peeves pouted.
"Out. Now. Before I revoke the binding."
"Meanie!" Peeves stuck out his tongue behind Severus' back.
"I saw that," Severus said.
"All right, I'm going! Sheesh!"
There was a pop and Peeves vanished.
Severus gave silent thanks and went to pick up his goblet of wine.
Peeves's face suddenly appeared out of the goblet and gave the startled wizard a smacking kiss on the lips.
"Gotcha!" he howled, before disappearing.
Several of the patrons started laughing.
Severus scowled and glared at them. "I never should have let him out of the castle, the bloody nuisance!" Then he took a long drink of wine to wash away the slightly slimy feeling.
A/N: Happy belated Halloween all! I did mean to have this finished before but better late than never!