The latest Pyxilator PX was a decided improvement over the previous model, with more responsive action, minimal kickback, a twofold increase in spell power, and a mahogany stock with brass fittings in the shape of pixie wings. Its power source was typical of second generation pixie guns, trading the unpredictable but common Cornish pixie for its globetrotting cousin the Pyxie, which migrated from Britain to the Vatican City every spring to spawn. But the real breakthrough on the Pyxilator PX was the way its cylinder rotated the pixies revolver-like, so that no pixie would have to release its magic twice in a row. The manufacturer claimed this would double the number of times each pixie could be used in a day. The Pyxilator PX generated more advance buzz than any other pixie gun, and the first run sold out in a day. Luna Lovegood, who oversaw the Devon Beast Sanctuary, was profoundly dismayed.
The day the Pyxilator PX was released, there were a record forty-seven perimeter breaches at the sanctuary. Fortunately, Luna had foreseen this and requested a security detail of Aurors from the Ministry. They were a great help in repelling the poachers, but a number of breeding pairs still failed to return to their nests that evening. Given that Aurors who opted to use powerful new pixie-guns over Ministry-issued standard-core wands had to obtain their own power sources, Luna wasn't terribly surprised. She filed the necessary reports with Magical Law Enforcement, though she really didn't expect any action to be taken. A Ravenclaw through and through, Luna understood the importance of leaving a paper trail. Her respect for the simple act of putting quill to parchment is what led her to write to Severus Snape.
Her letter found him in the canteen near the Ministry Atrium. The letter itself, enclosed in a sky-blue envelope, would hardly have been of note had it not been delivered by four Norwegian Picksies, which were native to Scandinavian glaciers and also the preferred power source for the Pyxilator PX's primary competitor, the Glockenspiel PI. However, Severus's response to the letter soon distracted the onlookers from the delivery method.
The normally taciturn Honorary Master of Arithmancy and Magiphysics, having just taken a sip of tea, gave a spectacular demonstration of Navier-Stokes hydrodynamics as he spewed 9/10 of his mouthful all over the letter and inhaled the remaining 1/10, resulting in a spectacular coughing fit.
A murmur ran through the room, and Severus delivered a poisonous glare that would have sent running any person unfortunate enough to be his subordinate. Fortunately, his subordinates had the good sense to avoid him during nonworking hours and were enjoying bacon sarnies at a nearby chip van, so they missed the singular sight of Severus Snape upsetting his lunch and the table on which it sat. Before the clatter of broken bits of ceramic on cement floor ceased, Severus had stalked off toward the lifts and disappeared behind the closing door. The letter lay crumpled in a glob of mustard.
A cub Daily Prophet reporter who had been failing to look uninterested in the proceedings leapt from his seat and made a dive for the letter before anyone else did. However, when his fingers closed around the letter, he emitted a bellow and turned into a moose. Those who had paused to watch the scene unfold returned to their lunches. The moose did the same, starting with the crumpled parchment with a side of blue envelope. Both were excellent with mustard.
Severus was so annoyed that in his distraction he took the wrong door from the circular door room, whose ever-burning blue candles had long since been replaced by smokeless, tallow-free versions. Instead of his comfortable office, he was standing at the rim of the Death Chamber amphitheatre. To his surprise, the cause of his irritation was seated cross-legged in front of the crumbling stone arch, gazing vacantly through a pair of oversized goggles at the veil fluttering in the nonexistent breeze. A Weird, variable whine emanated from somewhere in the room.
The door clicked shut behind him, and she turned to look at him.
"Oh! Thanks ever so much for coming so quickly," she said, sliding the goggles down around her neck. "There isn't a moment to lose."
Three Norwegian Picksies fluttered around her head, which made her look like nothing so much as a cartoon character who had taken a mallet to the head. Severus nearly smiled at the thought, but recovered quickly.
"Lovegood, what in blazes are you doing in here?"
"Visiting my mum," she said, gesturing back towards the arch. "She sends her salutations, by the way. At least I think she does. The dead are all terribly fond of sibilants, and it can sometimes make them hard to understand, and I'm not very good at reading lips yet."
The girl was still as dotty as a pointillist's self-portrait. He crossed his arms. "I meant, how did you get into the Department of Mysteries?"
"Through the Atrium lift, of course."
"The corridor is guarded by an Auror under strict instructions to allow admittance only to Department of Mysteries staff," he snapped.
"Who, Aloysius? He's a darling, and the Picksies adored him."
Severus narrowed his eyes. Now that she had drawn attention to them, he realised that only three of the four delivery Picksies were present. "Lovegood, are you saying you bribed a Ministry official with an endangered beast?"
"I would never say such a thing," she said. "Besides, I needed to talk to you about my letter."
His scowl could have curdled milk. "Oh yes, your letter," he said in tones of great distaste. "Have delusions of grandeur always been part of your madness, Lovegood, or is that something recent?"
"Mmh?" Her eyes had returned to the veil. Severus was not a fanciful man, but it seemed to him that the fluttering piece of nothingness was reaching out to the girl.
"Lovegood!" he said sharply.
To his relief, she blinked her bulbous eyes and her gaze returned to normal, or as normal as it ever was. "Come on then," he said abruptly. "Clearly, we can't talk here."
"Where are we going?" she asked, practically bounding to his side.
"Somewhere we won't be disturbed," said Severus, curtly jerking his head in the direction of the door.
Severus was grateful he'd had the foresight to request tea in his office. The madwoman with an aura of Picksies caused enough of a stir. His department would have been in an uproar if they'd witnessed Lovegood open her satchel, which must have had an Expanding charm on it, to release a small regiment of tartan-clad wingless Pictsies, who proceeded to wage war against Severus's desk set once they'd improvised a catapult from rubber bands and a broken quill.
Once Severus had conceded his blotter to the Pictsies, things quieted down enough for him to recall the request that had started it all.
"The answer is no."
"Because, that's not how science works," he said. "You can't claim something to be true just because you want it to be true."
"On the contrary, that's how science has always worked," she countered. "What is a hypothesis if not something somebody wants to be true? Would the Entrail-Expelling Curse have been invented if Urquart Rackharrow hadn't tried to invent one? Would Bartholomew Bicuspid have found evidence of the Rotfang Conspiracy if he hadn't been looking for it?"
Severus wasn't touching that one with a twenty-inch wand. "Be that as it may, what you're asking me is absurd, and it will also ultimately fail to do what you want."
"Oh?" she asked, leaning back in the tiny wooden seat with unnerving poise. "What is it that I want?"
"Obviously, you are trying to protect the little blighters from the nasty pixie gun industry."
"That would seem to be the case, wouldn't it?" she agreed good-naturedly, petting one of the Picksies fondly with her index finger. "It's true, I'd be far happier if the Ministry would pass the ban on living ammunition that's been circulating ever since the first pixie gun arrived on the market. I'd be even happier if the Ministry bothered enforcing the laws that are supposed to protect them. And I'd be thrilled if the Blibbering Humdinger would be added to the protected creatures list."
"I'm not blind. I know that's not the way things are," she said, pulling a heaping handful of Shrunk objects out of her satchel. "That's why I have to make do with what I have."
Severus's eyebrows were in danger of meeting his hairline. Lovegood had produced a hundred thousand Galleons' worth of pixie guns, including one that appeared to be an early model and easily worth twenty thousand to the right collector. The Pictsies immediately fell upon the stash and integrated them into their war games, despite the fact that without pixies in them, the guns were useless. They provided their own sound effects. Severus couldn't tell if Lovegood was showing her strength or offering him an extremely powerful bribe. Fortunately, Lovegood saved him the crisis of conscience.
"These are guns I've confiscated from poachers who've broken into the sanctuary since the weapons first arrived on the market. If you can imagine, each of these was accompanied by at least four illegally-procured pixies. Multiply this by a thousand, and you'll have a general idea of what the Ministry is dealing with in smuggled pixies and pixie guns."
Severus was bewildered for a moment until one of the Pictsies took a flying leap and landed on Lovegood's head. "Your problem isn't that people are stealing your pixies," he said at last. "Your problem is that the authorities don't have the resources to care for the pixies they confiscate, and they're foisting them off on you."
She smiled sunnily. "They don't have to foist them off on me, I love taking care of them. But the Ministry has expressed a great deal of interest in husbandry and breeding, supposedly so they can afford to upgrade the Auror's wands to pixie guns, but I already have enough pixies to equip a small army, so I know that's not their real aim. Besides, the Aurors they've stationed outside the perimeters aren't exactly stealthy, at least to someone who did her Master's research on Demiguise tracking."
Severus let out a bark of laughter. "Never again will I expect the predictable from you, Lovegood. So, your sanctuary is essentially the largest weapons cache in southern Britain."
"Not just in southern Britain," she said seriously, "in the entire world. It's a rather itchy feeling, you see."
His lip twitched. "Quite. But that doesn't explain your request for a magiphysics formula."
She gave him a stern look. "I didn't spend my childhood helping my father uncover Ministry coups only to become the means for one."
Severus couldn't resist a smirk. The irony was rather delicious. "Well, Lovegood, you had the bad luck to specialize in the creature at the centre of the biggest technological revolution since the discovery of the standard-core wand. There's no putting that djinn back in the bottle."
"I'm not trying to," she said, rifling through her bag once more. "I'm trying to open a bigger bottle." Luna gently moved the Pictsies' war machines aside, unknotted the pale blue scarf that had been tied around her neck, and spread it over Severus's desk. What had appeared to be artistic mumbo jumbo while she wore it became a series of equations written in neat brush strokes.
Severus sat back in his chair, taking in the seemingly random sets. It was all nonsense, of course, filled with random symbols and glyphs, and was no more understandable than a child's drawing, but clearly it meant something to Lovegood.
"I hope you don't mind that I expanded somewhat on your Law of Magical Conservation," she said seriously.
Severus had seen nothing remotely resembling his now-famous equation, but he nodded, assuming the woman would be amusing at the very least. For Merlin's sake, there were smiley faces where variables should be. "What do you call this?"
"Lovegood's Law of Something," she said with a shrug. "It balances all the variables I need, but since I don't know how to complete it, I don't know exactly how it works. I can always fill in the functional part of the title later."
"And you expect me to take this and make it into something that will revolutionise the defence industry?"
"Of course," she said seriously. "You're the only one who can."
Damn it all, her earnestness was appealing. So much so that he found his usual steel resolve not to suffer fools bending.
"Very well," he said. "If you would be so good as to leave this with me, I will consider it."
Her face lit up, and Severus was suddenly aware that the girl had grown into a woman who, if one were not distracted by her mental shortcomings, could be described as quite pretty. "Thank you, Severus," she said, saying his name with none of the hesitation that he usually encountered from former students. "Here's the key," she said, handing him a piece of crumpled parchment. "It'll tell you which pre-existing equation, theorem, or law is represented by each of the symbols. I had to shorten it. The whole thing couldn't fit on any of my scarves otherwise."
Severus was already regretting his leniency. "Why put it on a scarf at all?"
"Because there was too much of it to put on my knickers." She pursed her lips and hummed a snatch of a familiar melody. The Pictsies leapt into her satchel and the Picksies burrowed comfortably into her hair. She pulled a charm off one of her many necklaces and enlarged it into a pith helmet that had several spindly mechanical arms sticking out of it. This she placed atop her pixie-infested coiffure, and she settled her satchel gently against her hip. "I'll look forward to your owl," she said, "for all that they search my post. Of course, you're welcome to visit in person at any time." She laid a glittering object on his desk. "You'll need this to get in. And if you spot the Aurors in charge of watching the perimeter, please pretend you don't see them. I'm not supposed to know they're there."
She turned to leave, and once again the otherworldly whine that he had heard in the Death Chamber began.
"Lovegood, are your pets making that unholy noise?"
"Of course," she said. "They're singing. All pixies sing when they're happy."
"Rubbish," he said, crossing his arms. "I've never heard a pixie sing in my life."
She cast an owlish look over her shoulder as she left, and Severus felt slightly uneasy as he realised the only times he'd ever encountered live pixies was when they were in cages or guns. Severus risked a glance at the token she'd left behind. It was a piece of crystal carved into the shape of a Flobberworm in repose. He shook his head and set to deciphering Lovegood's bizarre code.
He was still at it four hours later when Hermione Weasley knocked on the door of his office, covered in ink stains and armed with a ream of parchment.
"Mind if I pick your brain a moment?" she asked. "I'm having a bit of trouble disproving something I know is wrong."
Severus blinked at her, his eyes stinging at being forced to focus on something farther away than the papers spread across his desk. "You're not still on Borschtovich's conjecture, are you?"
She set her jaw mutinously. "It's not at all consistent with what Muggles have proven to be true of algebraic number sets," she said. "And if we've learned anything about Arithmancy, it's that-"
"Muggle mathematicians probably got it right first," he finished waspishly. "Granger, must I constantly remind you that I am your colleague, not your student?"
"I have to remind you constantly that my name isn't Granger anymore," she retorted. "It seems fair to me."
Severus grumbled, but he cleared a spot on his desk for Hermione's paper.
"I think part of the problem is that he depends on Mersenne primes being infinite, but I can't be certain unless I can prove or disprove the Lenstra-Pomerance-Wagstaff conjecture, which could take years. But the bigger problem is that Borschtovich is an insufferable idiot whose sole Arithmancy Today first author credit was blatantly stolen from Svetlana Nevsky."
"You do know that I find Arithmantic theory and rivalries to be the height of tedium, don't you?" he complained.
"Yes," she said, smiling.
"Then don't just sit there," he snapped, handing her a sheaf of papers. "Make yourself useful and tell me what you think of that."
"I think that if anything, your handwriting's become even worse over the years."
He scowled at her. "You ought to be thanking me for not foisting the encoded version on you."
"If it's put you in this horrid a mood, it must have been coded in daisies, puppies, and smiley faces."
This startled a snort out of him, and they bent over their respective papers in companionable silence for many minutes.
"Granger," said Severus at last, "if I were you, I'd stop picking at Borschtovich's building blocks and focus on his overarching structure. If he's as lazy as you say he is, he'll have been sloppy in other places."
"But this one is good!" she exclaimed. "He must have a bright new apprentice."
"You were once a bright new apprentice," countered Severus. Think about mistakes that you made that someone like Borschtovich would miss."
Hermione circled around Severus and looked over his shoulder for a moment, then put her finger in the middle of an equation halfway down her page of notes. "This is why I keep bothering you with this tediousness," she said, gathering her papers. "You always make remarkably helpful suggestions."
Hermione paused. "And what?"
"Do you have anything to say about that?" he asked, gesturing at his translation of Lovegood's shawl.
"Well, incomplete as it is, it looks like someone's trying to expand on your Law of Magical Conservation," she said. "Thus far, everything adds up, though it's rather depressing, don't you think?"
"I think 'morbid' is the word you mean."
"Well, attempting to mathematically quantify death qualifies as morbid by definition," agreed Hermione, "but I was thinking historically and what it could mean for the future. Consider: in standard-core wands, dragon heartstrings were the only core that necessitated killing the source, which is why dragons are all but extinct in the wild now. It was only your Law of Magical Conservation that made people realize that using a living magical creature to cast spells was a far more efficient use of the creature's power than using a dead one or a cast-off part like a feather."
Severus made an exasperated sound. "Yes, Granger, I am somewhat acquainted with my own bloody theorem and the magical world's response to it. Now instead of using elegant wand movements, people are prodding pixies and releasing more powerful Bat-Bogey Hexes than anyone dreamed possible. Such progress for wizardkind," he sneered.
She ignored him. "Well, if this theorem is brought to its logical conclusion, it's going to completely change how people interpret your work. Yes, this theorist argues, it may be more magically efficient to use a live pixie in a weapon rather than pixie wings or eggs, since a dead component can never be as potent as the live creature, but a shed phoenix feather has more overall power than a living pixie. Once people combine your conclusions with this person's conclusions, how long do you think it'll be before someone invents a phoenix bazooka or a unicorn howitzer?"
"But do you see any flaws in the reasoning?" asked Severus hopefully. "Any mysterious leaps that require further elucidation? Anything setting off that famed Granger intuition?"
"I've only had twenty minutes to examine it," said Hermione, "but I'm afraid not. Whose is this, by the way? It's ambitious, but also meticulous. It reminds me of you. There's a marked similarity between the logic in this and some of your early work."
Severus began to massage his eyeballs through closed lids. "I can't tell you how sorry I am to hear that."
The crystal Flobberworm poked uncomfortably into Severus's hip as the Knight Bus bounced its way through the English countryside, but he was too focused on the landscape flying by to move it to another pocket. The conductor wrung his hands as he informed Severus that due to a sudden policy change, the bus no longer stopped at the Devon Beast Sanctuary, but a mile away. Severus accepted the partial refund the conductor handed him without comment.
When the bus had cracked off to its next stop, he realized the extent of the slog that lay ahead of him through fields muddied by late spring rains, and the afternoon shadows were already long. However, he needn't have worried, because the moment he set foot on the path to the sanctuary, he felt a familiar tug behind his navel and the damp countryside faded into a dimly lit tent. He found himself behind a dressing screen and was about to call for Lovegood when he heard a loud thump and a man swearing, followed quickly by shushing.
"That was my sodding foot!" exclaimed one voice in a whisper.
"Well, you shouldn't kick it up against whatever-the-hell that thing is. It might have blown us both to kingdom come," said another voice, which Severus immediately identified as Senior Auror Ron Weasley's. "Let's get this over with and get out before she comes back."
"We already searched the bleeding desk," complained the first voice. "That's where it'd be if it were there, wouldn't it?"
"Look, you tosser, we're dealing with Loony Lovegood. She could have been working things out on a bog roll in invisible ink. But I've been married to an Arithmancer for years," said Weasley, with a smugness that set Severus's teeth on edge. "If she's been doing Arithmancy in express defiance of a Ministry order, then I'll catch her bang to rights."
"I never heard of nobody being banned from doing Arithmancy before," sniffed the other.
"Yeah, well it's not our place to question orders, now is it?" said Weasley. "Who knows? Maybe she was plotting to bring down the Ministry."
Severus caught a look at the second man through the hinge of the screen. He was an ugly, rat-faced fellow who couldn't have been more than twenty-five. He was sloppily digging through Lovegood's bookshelves. Severus felt a sudden burst of sympathy for the woman. The situation brought to mind an old t-shirt that read, "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me."
"Well, that's the lot in here," said the ratty fellow. "There's nowt left to check but the cupboard."
"I already looked," said Weasley. "It's only clothes and bumf in there. Bunch of Weird hats, though. One bit me."
The rat-faced Auror guffawed. "Bitten by a hat!" he crowed. "Better stay away from her knickers, then!"
Both men laughed at that, and since their work was finished, they Disapparated loudly. Severus stayed behind the screen, clutching Lovegood's shawl and wishing that the world would stop making her seem sane.
Lovegood entered her tent about ten minutes later, humming tunelessly and surrounded by a huge flock of pixies who were singing in an impressive cacophony. Once she had fastened the flap, she cast an impressive array of protective and anti-eavesdropping spells. "Hello, Severus!" she called gaily. "You can come out now, it's safe!"
Severus skulked out from behind the screen, feeling less sure than ever of what he wanted to say. "I've come to return your shawl," he said, thrusting it awkwardly towards her.
"Thanks ever so much," she said, beaming. "Were you able to do anything with it?"
Severus paused, warily eyeing a pair of curious Cornish pixies. "In a manner of speaking," he said.
"I knew you could!" she said, smiling broadly. "Well, let's see it, then."
"Not so fast, Lovegood," he said. "I have it on good authority that you've been banned from this sort of thing. Care to tell me why?"
"You mean why the Ministry is trying to keep me from doing Arithmancy?" she asked, releasing a horde of Pictsies from her satchel. "It was a simple misunderstanding. There was a Floo malfunction back when the first pixie gun went on the market. Anybody Flooing out of the shop ended up in Antarctica. It's true, I was the one who designed the spell that made it happen, but it's not as if I actually did the casting."
Severus failed in his resolve not to be thrown off balance by anything Lovegood said. She had been the one who hacked into the Floo network? "And they misunderstood your intent?"
"No, I misunderstood the laws on incitement and conspiracy," she said with a sigh. "The Wizengamot ruled that I would be of more use here than twiddling my thumbs in Azkaban, but the terms of my release stipulated that I wasn't to do any more Arithmancy. All they really needed to do was ban me from spell design. Theoretical work like this wouldn't hurt a Plimpy."
Severus stared at her in disbelief for a moment before collecting himself. "Let us hypothetically say that I have been able to finish and then simplify your work to an extremely concise and elegant theorem," he said.
"What does it do?" asked Lovegood, who had closed her eyes, an expectant expression on her face.
"It quantifies the rate of magical degradation after the death of a magical creature," he pronounced solemnly.
She clapped her hands in excitement. "How marvellous!" she cried, seizing his forearms and dragging him along as she spun around the room. "It's absolutely perfect!"
Mortified at being manhandled, Severus shook himself free of her. "Lovegood, you know this can never see the light of day."
Her smile faded into a quizzical expression. "How so? Is it only true for nocturnal or crepuscular creatures?"
"No," he snapped. "I refuse to sacrifice other magical creatures so your blasted pixies can flourish."
Lovegood cocked her head to one side. "I don't understand."
"Really?" sneered Severus. "You hadn't stopped to consider that this little equation will spell extinction for numerous magical creatures, thanks to mankind's quest for the most powerful spell gun?"
Lovegood flopped down in a battered leather arm-chair and tossed one boot-clad foot over the arm. "I don't think it'll come to that," she said, untying her scarf, this one patterned in neon coloured polka dots over houndstooth.
Severus made an impatient sound. "Mindless optimism does not become you, Lovegood."
"That's entirely true," agreed Lovegood. "I think you've forgotten something, though."
"What is the third most magical creature in existence?"
"After dragons and phoenixes," began Severus, and then thought before concluding, "unicorns."
"Wrong," said Luna, "though they're a close fourth."
"Winged horses?" guessed Severus.
She shook her head. "Here's a hint. Dragons are all but extinct. Phoenixes are born miles above the earth, which makes them impossible to breed in captivity and not a good choice for use in mass-produced weapons."
Severus crossed his arms and glared at her. "Is there a point to all of this?"
"Oh yes," said Lovegood, a strange light in her grey-blue eyes. "Number three is one of the most common magical creatures in the world."
"Garden Gnomes," said Severus, exasperated.
Lovegood giggled. "No. But step into the cupboard. You'll see there."
If Lovegood really was keeping the third most powerful magical creature in her cupboard, Weasley had been lucky to escape with only a bite. She held open the door to a dimly lit room that smelled of musk and old leather. The cupboard was stuffed with clothes and costumes for every era and occasion, and hundreds of scarves hung from the ceiling. He made his way to the back, giving a wide berth to the hatboxes, past Muggle military uniforms, a shelf filled with high-buttoned shoes, and piles of handkerchiefs, until he reached the very back, where he came face to face with an enormous gilt-framed mirror that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. In it, he could see Lovegood hovering behind him expectantly, eyes aglow.
"Well?" she asked softly.
And finally, it struck him.
"Merlin," he said softly.
"Merlin," she agreed. "And Circe. And Agrippa. And Miranda Hopkirk, Minerva McGonagall, Harry Potter, and even little Clodagh Finnegan."
She was absolutely stark raving mad. "You're not seriously suggesting that we make wizards into weapons," he said conversationally, ensuring that the wand in his pocket was aimed directly at her.
She was picking through a rack of silk dressing gowns. "Don't be silly," she admonished, batting him with a marabou-trimmed sleeve. "But once the Magical population realises that they're literally cannon fodder, don't you think that there will be more public support for a ban on living ammunition?"
Interesting, but not sound. "You're too optimistic by half," he said. "Generally, the public gets behind reform when it involves something spectacular, either in terms of new technology or an egregious scandal."
There was a soft ping from outside in the main room. "Bother," she said, pulling a rose-coloured peignoir and matching negligee from the rack. "Severus, would you unbutton me?" she said, slipping out of her jacket and lifting her hair from her back to reveal a row of tiny buttons down the back of her blouse.
His fingers moved instantly to obey, to his irritation. The antique ivory silk whispered under his fingertips and opened to reveal skin the colour of milk. She tossed the blouse on a nearby rack.
"Lovegood?" he asked, grateful that his voice betrayed none of his confusion.
"The Aurors are coming back and making no attempt to hide their presence," she explained, letting her trousers slide to her ankles. "That means that they think I've done something I oughtn't." She wriggled out of her bra, affording Severus a glimpse of pink-tipped breast before she slipped on the negligee. Lovegood was still chattering as if nothing unusual had occurred. "If I can't talk my way out of this, we'll have to run for it." She pulled the robe loosely around her shoulder. "There's a secret passage behind the mirror."
Severus's throat had gone dry at the vision in mauve silk, but it was the knee-high cognac-leather boots that took his breath away. The sight was arresting, but he suspected she had simply forgotten to take them off. "Lovegood!" he managed to whisper. "Your boots."
She glanced down at her feet, where the leather had drooped into folds around her ankles. "Thanks, Severus!" she said brightly, tugging the leather smooth, and disappeared out the door just as Ronald Weasley's voice bellowed, "Luna Lovegood, come out with your hands where we can see them!"
Trying not to inadvertently erase the image of Lovegood's lithe, semi-nude form from his retinas, Severus quickly located the catch on the mirror frame. The smell of damp earth welled up from the pitch-black passage beyond, and he propped the door open with a wellington boot. That accomplished, it was time for some highly entertaining eavesdropping.
He needn't have hurried. Weasley was still spluttering inarticulately.
"Are you all right, Ron?" Lovegood inquired mildly. "I have some toadflax soda that might help if you've picked up a Terpsichorean Tongue-Tier."
"That's Auror Weasley to you, Lovegood," said Weasley, regaining his powers of bluster. "You have the right to remain silent."
"Of course I do," she said. "I can even remain silent while juggling scarves and dancing on the table." The heels of her boots clunked rhythmically on the wooden surface, and Severus was more tempted than ever to peek.
"Lovegood!" shouted Weasley. "Will you bloody well stand still so I can arrest you?"
"Arrest me?" she asked reproachfully. "Whatever for?"
"For being in violation of the terms of your probation. Now, you can either come in with me-"
"Well, that's nonsense, isn't it? I haven't done anything wrong, except for dropping one of the scarves, and I have the right to do that, too."
"That's for the Wizengamot to decide," he growled. "We have evidence that you have been in contact with Magiphysicist and Arithmancer Severus Snape."
Lovegood's musical laugh woke a nest of Cornish pixies, who began jabbering noisily. "Of course you have," she said, smiling. "It's very difficult to date someone you aren't in contact with," she said.
Severus's stomach clenched for a moment before realising how skilful Lovegood's misdirection was, and she hadn't said anything that was untrue. He had to remind himself that she was no foolhardy Gryffindor.
"Though I suppose it's not impossible," Lovegood continued blithely. "I dated the subject of a portrait once, and while he was quite capable when it came to physical intimacy, it turns out that-"
"LOVEGOOD!" shouted Weasley, sounding more flustered than ever. "You're NOT dating Severus Snape."
"Oh?" she asked in that mild voice for which Severus was developing a healthy respect. "Why not?"
"Because it's disgusting, that's why," said Weasley quickly. "And I know for a fact that Severus Snape hasn't dated anybody in a very long time."
"Your wife doesn't know everything, Ron," said Luna with more sauce than Severus knew she possessed. He rather liked it.
"For the last time, Lovegood, you're coming to London with me to make a statement. Unless, of course, you can provide evidence that your interest in old Snape is more than academic," he added nastily.
Severus hastily unfastened the top buttons of his robe and stepped into the open cupboard doorway. "Pray, what would you accept as evidence, Weasley?" asked Severus in his most dangerous voice.
The colour in Weasley's face drained away as he gaped at them both in turn. "You-" he croaked, gesturing at Lovegood's frippery, which looked even lovelier on her in full light. "She's still got boots on!" he finished.
"Yes, Weasley, she has," said Severus in his most professorial tones. "In the encyclopaedia of human interaction there exists a subset of activities that precede the act of physical intimacy known as 'foreplay.' Such activities include, but are not limited to, slow and sensual undressing of one's partner. When a particular item of clothing appeals, it is often one of the last to be removed, if at all."
Weasley's chalky pallor rendered his flush oddly blotchy.
"Now, Severus," chided Lovegood, sliding an arm around his waist and insinuating her body next to his in a most ingenious way, "There's no need to get angry. Auror Weasley was just leaving."
"Yes!" exclaimed Weasley gratefully. "Sorry to have bothered you Loon- I mean, Lovegood. Sorry!"
Even the pop of his Disapparation sounded chagrined.
Lovegood was still pressed up against him. "Oh," she sighed, leaning into him. "That was very well done, Severus."
The blissful feeling of silk-covered female flesh pressed against him wasn't quite enough to stall Severus's thought process. "Bugger," he said. "Weasley will go home with his tail between his legs and moan about the whole thing to his wife. If I know Granger's brain like I think I know it, it'll take her less than a minute to connect you to the theorem I showed her."
"You showed her my theorem?" asked Luna delightedly.
"Lovegood, did you hear what I said? Weasley's will be back, probably within the hour, with more than just circumstantial evidence that you've been dabbling in Arithmancy. If I were you, at this moment I would be beating a hasty retreat and coming up with a better alibi."
Reluctantly, Lovegood disentangled herself from his arms. "Well, there's no sense putting it off."
Now Severus was lost. "Putting off what?"
"You said that in order to ban living ammunition we'd need new technology or an egregious scandal," she said, pulling on a pair of jodhpurs and a khaki army jacket from whose pockets protruded a number of odd-looking instruments. "I think I know just the place to find both."
Severus would have pointed out that she had forgotten to take off the silk robe if he thought it would have accomplished anything.
Severus followed Luna down the earthen tunnel by the light of dozens of pixies of all sorts. He eyed the Cornish pixies warily, but they were jabbering to one another in unison.
"Are they singing?" he asked Lovegood.
"Oh yes," she said. "All pixie songs are different. Some have their own that they pass on to their offspring, and others pick them up from their environments. Like the Pictsies, for example."
She began to march rhythmically and sing, and the small blue pixies, who had been following in a clump, fell into parade formation and raised their tiny voices with hers.
"Land of the prickly heather
So keep your knees together
When walking through the heather
Scotland the brave!"
"How very patriotic," commented Severus, in tones of distaste.
"I think it's interesting that they can mimic English so well," she said, "especially after the way they refused to sing 'The Grand Old Duke of York,' but that may be for political reasons. Even I was surprised by their intelligence and sophistication."
One of the Pictsies chose this moment to belch loudly, and the passageway was filled with tiny giggles.
"Relative sophistication," she amended at his sceptical look.
They marched silently for a few moments, listening to the Pyxies perform a sort of gibberish Gregorian chant.
"Lovegood," he asked at last, "what do you think you're doing?"
"Well, if my calculations are correct, we'll be coming up in a men's toilet in a top-secret Ministry compound that was built adjacent to the sanctuary."
"I meant, why have you chosen to squander a first-rate mind on vanity projects, conspiracy theories, and civil disobedience?"
"Oh, Severus," she said with a winsome smile, "That's rather begging the question, don't you think? I might just as easily ask why you squandered your first-rate mind propping up an evil entity headed by a megalomaniac."
Severus just managed to keep the lid on the anger that boiled up. "The Dark Lord has been gone for many years," he snapped.
"I wasn't talking about him," she said. "I was talking about the Minister of Magic."
Severus halted and glared at her. "Lovegood, I tire of your paranoid ravings," he said coldly. "There is nothing inherently evil about the functions of government or government-funded research."
"I agree," she said, "but you must know that they'd never have given you a job if your work hadn't had such profound impact on the military-industrial complex."
Severus was becoming mightily annoyed. "What military-industrial complex? We don't have a military!"
"Not one that the public knows about," she said darkly.
"You're not still going on about Fudge's Heliopaths!" he exclaimed, flinging his hands in the air.
"I admit, that was a youthful mistake," she said.
"I'm relieved to hear it."
"They weren't Heliopaths at all. Fudge was summoning Fyre Fiends."
Severus was about to explode when Lovegood placed a restraining hand on his arm. The tunnel abruptly ended in a sloping pile of loam.
She pulled two garden spades from one of her jacket's myriad pockets, and handed Severus one. "We'll have to dig the last bit by hand. Their wards will detect our wands if we cast anything. Besides, the soil looks like it's crawling with Tie-diatoms, and they release hallucinogenic gas when hit with magic."
She poked her spade into the ceiling, and soft earth began falling down around them. The winged pixies did their best to intercept pebbles and bits of earth in the air, and the Pictsies gathered those that they had missed, staging an impromptu contest to see who could hurl their rocks the furthest.
Severus gamely did his share, and soon the thin crust of earth gave way, revealing a patch of cloudy sky.
"Oh!" exclaimed Luna, gazing at the sky. "That's odd. I wonder where we are." Lovegood hummed a bit of a ditty, and the Pictsies abandoned their games to jump into her satchel. While this was happening, a flock of Cornish pixies grabbed hold of Luna's clothing and lifted her up to the edge of the hole. When her arms were over the side of the hole, she wriggled upward and disappeared from view.
A moment later, her face reappeared. "You can come up, Severus," she said. "I think we're in luck!"
She sang once more, and another group of pixies pulled Severus upward. As his head cleared the hole, he wondered if there was something wrong with his vision, since his surroundings were pitch black except for the small circle of fading sky overhead. Then he realised that they were in a narrow cylindrical chamber at least a hundred feet high, much like the industrial chimneys he could see from his tiny back garden in Spinner's End. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see the openings to numerous tunnels leading in all directions.
"What in blazes?" he whispered.
"You'll see," she said. She hummed once more, and the pixies flocked around, slowly lifting them up to the lip of the cylinder.
In the last glimmers of daylight, Severus gaped at what lay below. It was a sprawling military camp with dozens of Aurors patrolling in formation and standing at guard stations around the perimeter. The whole complex was encased in an pearlescent magical dome, except for a small, rectangular dark patch to the west, which Severus belatedly realised was a gated opening into the Devon Beast Sanctuary. He turned to look at Luna, who was examining the camp thoughtfully.
"We came up in the wrong place because my map wasn't to scale," she said at last. "I was aiming for that." She gestured at an enormous hangar-sized building. "And it looks like you were right about there being no military-industrial complex."
Severus was about to reply, "I was?" when he thought better of it. "Of course," he said. "There's no industry in sight, only military."
She squeezed his hand before raising her wand. He placed his other hand on her wand arm.
"I thought wand use would alert them to our presence."
"It will," she said, "but they're about to have much more to worry about than an unexplained spell."
A jet of purple light shot out of her wand directly at the gate, and it sprang open. There was a buzz of activity below as an alarm began wailing, but the searchlight beams that appeared moments after the alarm were soon focused on the open gate, where three Erumpents wandered sleepily into the Auror's complex, followed by an enormous dappled shadow in the shape of a great cat.
Severus was as awestruck as he was terrified. "Lovegood, is that a Nundu?"
"That's Horatio," she said sadly. "The poor thing was abandoned by his mother when he was a cub. He's been raised here rather than in Africa, so the worst pestilence he'll bring is the measles or a bad case of flu, and that's only if he doesn't like you. Right now, fleas and boils seem to be his favourite thing to spread."
As the Aurors swarming below identified the creatures in their midst, their careful defensive lines fell apart as individuals panicked and fled.
"I suppose the Erumpents have had their explosive fluid glands removed."
"Not at all," replied Lovegood. "It would interfere with their ability to find a mate once released into the wild."
As if to punctuate her statement, there was a large explosion from the barracks nearest the gate, and twenty more Aurors, many wearing pyjamas, fled the burning building and joined the confused mob.
Severus surprised himself by placing an arm around her shoulders. "I'll say this for you, Lovegood: when you plan a distraction, you don't do things by halves."
Under the perhaps superfluous cover of two Demiguise-wool blankets, the pixies deposited Severus and Luna near the front of the hangar. Demiguise wool wasn't nearly as good as an Invisibility Cloak, but it was at least as effective as a Disillusionment charm and provided some protection from offensive spells, which were flying from all directions. Once on the ground, Lovegood ushered the pixies into her satchel for safety. Severus could just make her out in the rapidly falling night amidst the erratic searchlight beams. Horatio the Nundu let out a blood-curdling yowl, and Severus idly wondered how much potion would be required to de-flea a hundred Aurors. Lovegood tugged gently on his hand, and they crept forward, sticking to the shadows.
They slipped through the open hangar door and found themselves in a cavernous research space that was filled with mysterious configurations of metal and glass, various magical organic components, gears, cogs, and levers. At the very centre of the room sat two halves of a metal shell on either side of a cylinder that housed a single, human-sized seat and a hydraulic prod below it. Flanking the halves were two rocket-shaped chambers with a dozen pixie-sized prod assemblies.
Gooseflesh appeared on Severus's arms as he put all of the parts together: the concrete cylinder, the small rockets, and the prod-chair. It was a missile. A silo-launched, pixie-booster, wizard-powered bomb that functioned on the same principle as the pixie gun, only on a much larger and more destructive scale.
"Gaia, Merlin, and Circe," swore Severus.
"I'd hoped they wouldn't be so far along, but there's little to be done now, apart from destroying the lot, blackmailing the Minister into supporting a ban on living ammunition, and publishing the story anyway as insurance that he'll keep his end of the bargain."
"And us, Lovegood? What's to stop them from silencing us? They're rocketing humans into the air and forcing them to blow themselves up. I'd say their lack of respect for human life is rather well documented, wouldn't you?"
"I was wondering the same thing myself," said a mild voice from behind them.
There was a loud click, a tiny squeak, and their wands, which had been held at the ready, flew out of their grips into the outstretched hand of a small young man with mousy brown hair. He wore a white laboratory coat and looked vaguely familiar. He was also pointing a Pyxilator PX at them.
"Hello, Dennis," said Luna brightly. "You're nearly finished with the rocket, I see."
Severus fought to keep the astonishment off his face. Could this calm, deadly-looking man be Dennis Creevy, the plucky little Gryffindor? He belatedly noticed that Lovegood was clutching her satchel tightly behind her back. What on earth was she doing?
"Luna Lovegood," he said. "I wondered when we would meet. I knew you wouldn't stop until you figured out who was stealing your pixies and why."
"Oh, I've known you were behind this ever since the Minister created the Ministry of Defence post for you," said Luna matter-of-factly. "I'm afraid we're going to have to put a stop to all of this, though."
Dennis's laughter wasn't nearly as unhinged-sounding as Severus had come to expect from an evil overlord. "You really are too much, Lovegood," he said, giggling. "And how on earth did you manage to get such a co-conspirator?" asked, turning to Severus. "Your presence is something of a surprise. I thought you were on our side."
Severus, out of force of habit, gave the young man an imperious glare. "'Our' side?" he asked.
"The side of greatness, of course," replied Dennis, undaunted.
"You call human sacrifice via mass destruction greatness? I call it madness."
"There's no need to be melodramatic," said Dennis, with a gentle smile. "It's not as if we're plucking men off the street to blow up. I see it as imminently practical. In the days that we punished the worst criminals with the Dementor's kiss, we still had to feed and nourish the shell of the wizard or witch for the remainder of his or her natural life. Now, we have a way to protect ourselves from enemies that also rids us of the dregs of our society!"
"Whether we have the technology or not, the magical community of Britain has never had a war with another country," said Severus. "We have no use for such a weapon."
"We had no use for pixie guns, either," pointed out Lovegood, unhelpfully.
"Exactly," said Dennis. "Yet here they are, a testament to wizardkind's ingenuity," here he saluted Severus with the barrel, "and unquenchable thirst for progress."
Severus could see Lovegood's fingers stretch almost imperceptibly towards the clasp of her wriggling satchel and decided that whatever her plan was, it was likely to be better than anything he could come up with. The least he could do was to draw the madman's attention from her.
"Creevy," he said, taking a step towards him, "you are every bit as mad as Lovegood. Give me that gun before you hurt someone."
"Stay there, Professor," said Dennis, raising the gun to Severus's face. "I should hate for a brain as impressive as yours to be splattered over my laboratory."
Lovegood had managed to open her satchel, but to Severus's surprise, the pixies made no move to emerge. "It's not too late, Dennis," said Luna in a serious voice. "When word gets out about what you're doing, your career will be finished. You're smart enough to know that living ammunition isn't needed."
"Of course living ammunition isn't needed," scoffed Dennis. "But it will make us the envy of all magical nations. I'm tired of you, Lovegood. But before I Obliviate you both and turn you over to the Aurors, I must ask. Professor, how did you survive that snakebite?"
Severus gave thanks to the gods of aspirant overlords that Creevy was handing him the monologue baton. "By the time the Dark Lord saw fit to be rid of me, I had made myself fully immune to the beast's venom and had taken so much Blood Replenishing potion that even the tiny punctures left by the snakebite bled profusely. Of course, Potter and company thought I had bled to death."
Luna nodded. "As if any venomous snake could cause that much bleeding. Even the deadly Vindow Viper doesn't, and an escaped Vindow Viper was the origin of the Lampton Worm story. You know, the one the song was based on?"
Severus sighed inwardly. Creevy was going to shoot them both before Lovegood got around to pulling off her plan. Then he realized that Lovegood was looking at him hard.
"Do you know that old song, Severus?" she asked.
Severus scowled, finally understanding what she was after. Lovegood would have to choose something ridiculous for her plan.
"Right, this is neither telling me what I want to know nor verbal sparring on philosophical issues, and therefore boring," said Dennis, who span the cylinder of his Pyxilator PX ominously.
Severus caught Luna's eye and began to sing.
One Sunday morning Lambton went
A-fishing in the Wear
And catched a fish upon his hook
He thought looked very queer.
But what'n kind of fish it was
Young Lambton couldn't tell
He wouldn't fash to carry't home
So he hoyed it down a well.
By the time he reached the word "Wear," all hell had broken loose. The Cornish pixies made a break for Creevy's gun. They wrestled it from his hands before he thought to aim it at them and released the six captive pixies from the gun's chambers. Two of them gently carried the spent pixie who had powered the spell Creevy had used to disarm them, as it would need some hours to recover.
Creevy himself was beset with Norwegian Picksies, who had lifted him into the air by his coat and were flying him upside-down around the lab with dizzying speed. The wands he had taken from Luna and Severus fell from his pocket, and they were quickly seized by the swarming Pictsies. Dennis's initial squawk of surprise was drowned out by the dozens of tiny voices joining in the chorus.
Whist lads, haad your gobs!
And I'll tell ye all an awful story.
Whist lads, haad your gobs!
And I'll tell ye 'bout the worm.
Luna motioned at him, and he let her take the second verse about Lambton going off to war as she busied herself dismantling the booster rockets, whose power chambers looked as though they could accommodate a dozen pixies each. The Pictsies were getting into the spirit of things and throwing tools into sensitive magical detectors, upsetting experiments, and generally wreaking havoc, all to the bouncing beat of the song.
By the time the song had charted the Lambton Worm's growth and swathe of livestock destruction, Creevy's furious swearing had faded into nauseated moans, since the Picksies showed no sign of slowing their dizzyingly fast circuits of the hangar. Severus joined Luna and the pixies in destroying Creevy's lab, but she put a hand on his arm when he headed for the seat where the human bomb was to sit. She shook her head and gestured for him to take the penultimate verse.
The news of this most awful worm
And his queer goings-on
Soon crossed the seas to get t'the ears
Of brave and bold Sir John.
So home he came and catched the best
And cut him in two halves,
And that soon stopped his eating bairns
And sheep and lambs and calves!
As the pixies joined in the chorus, Severus was surprised to see the Cornish pixies and Pictsies cease their wholesale destruction and make a beeline for Lovegood's bag, which lay on the floor. The circling Picksies, whose burden was emitting disconsolate groans, descended to Luna, who circled her hand gracefully at them. In response to this signal, the pixies carried Creevy over to the seat, where they wasted no time in strapping him in. When the worst of Creevy's dizziness had passed, he realised where he was and began to struggle against the heavy leather straps that bound him to the chair.
"Lovegood, you can't do this!" he howled.
"I wouldn't dream of it," she said, with a sad smile. "But we really do have to finish the song."
With that, she lifted her voice in the final verse.
So now you know how all the folks
On both sides of the Wear
Lost lots o' sheep and lots o' sleep
And lived in mortal fear.
So let's have one to brave Sir John
That kept the bairns from harm,
Saved cows and calves by makin' halves
O' the famous Lambton Worm!
The remaining pixies surrounded Luna and Severus, returning their wands and lifting them into the air, as they all raised their voices in the final chorus.
Whist lads, haad your gobs!
Now ye know the awful story.
Whist lads, haad your gobs!
Have one to brave Sir John!
As they neared the hangar entrance, Lovegood shot a spell back through the opening, presumably to activate what was left of the missile assembly. Sure enough, a mechanical buzz began softly at first, then grew loud enough to cover Dennis's shouts.
Now that stealth was no longer required, the pixies carried them up through the clouds of smoke to their vantage point on top of the missile silo. Most of the buildings in the compound were now ablaze, and two of the Erumpents had been restrained by the Aurors.
Luna released them with a precise severing charm and gave an ear-splitting whistle. The beasts stopped mid-rampage and made a break for the sanctuary gate.
Severus looked at her with grudging admiration. "If the blast doesn't kill us both, Lovegood, be so good as to remind me that I have something important to ask you."
She laughed and drew him close. "I'm afraid you'll have to remind yourself, Severus. I'm not exactly known for remembering things."
She raised her chin and drew his lips to hers. In retrospect, Severus was very glad that his eyes were closed when the massive discharge of magical energy flattened all of the buildings in the compound, dispelled the magical shield, and shook the silo to its foundations. When the dust had cleared and the waxing moon was visible in the sky overhead, the concrete tower and its inhabitants were all that remained standing.
The Minister of Magic's office was a great deal posher than Severus remembered it, though he suspected it had more to do with the pompous arse who was Minister than his memory. Justin Finch-Fletchley, who had been called in from home, glowered at them over his ostentatiously carved desk. Severus allowed himself the luxury of silently smirking as Lovegood informed the Minister what his Defence Minister had been up to. Half of it was lies, including her assertion that Dennis himself had inadvertently flattened the camp by testing his invention on himself. Severus had to admire the way Lovegood's quick mind grasped threads of truth and wove them into whatever she wished to make.
By the end of her narrative, Finch-Fletchley's face was pressed into his hands.
"All right, Lovegood," he said at last. "You win."
"You should spend the rest of your life in Azkaban. You caused almost a million Galleons' worth of damage to a Ministry facility, infested a hundred Aurors with vermin, virtually sodomised one of my staunchest supporters with his own machine, and broke Merlin-knows how many laws to do it. But," he admitted with a sigh, "you understand the stakes."
"Yes, it's really a shame that your staunchest supporter is a raving loony who was bent on world domination," said Lovegood sympathetically. "I can see how that could be an inconvenient disclosure."
A muscle in the Minister's jaw was twitching. "Name your price, Lovegood. I know you have one. More money for your menagerie of the weird? That ban on living ammunition that you've been pressing for?"
Lovegood, who was still wrapped in the Demiguise blanket, gave an impressive wriggle and produced the pink silk robe she'd neglected to take off and spread it across the Minister's desk. Severus couldn't stop himself from grinning like a fool when he saw the neatly-printed list of demands on the inside. Unless he was very much mistaken, Severus Snape was in love.
The Devon Sanctuary, as it is now called, is a popular getaway for researchers of all stripes. Its appeal is partially its beautiful location in the countryside. Another part is the unparalleled number of magical species that call the Sanctuary home. The biggest draw, of course, are the two eccentrics in residence, whose Quibbler-chronicled exploits contributed to the worldwide ban on living ammunition—not that anybody believes the stories are true, of course. But Luna and Severus understand better than most that as long as human imagination remains a force to be reckoned with, a good story is at least as powerful as a law of nature.