The Tumid Courtship
- Story Summary:
- Someone is clowning around at Snape's expense, or so Snape thinks.
The owl that breezed in the open window looked strangely misshapen from Severus Snape's vantage point, and when he turned in irritation, he understood why: the winged shape was not a real bird at all, but an artificial construction made of some kind of inflatable bladder. Nevertheless, a note had been affixed to its foot, which popped with a loud bang when Snape tugged it free. The war is over, it read. I wish you'd enjoy yourself.
Angrily, Snape slapped his hands together around the offending air-filled owl, which burst and came apart in his hands, leaving him holding small strips of some kind of rubbery substance and the note. He tossed both into the fireplace, wrinkling his nose at the terrible smell. Clearly this was a Muggle prank -- no wizard would have used that sort of artificial material, or if one had, it would have been self-repairing. But what Muggle would have sent him such a note? No, it must have been a wizard, and one who did not wish to be identified, else he would have sent his own owl.
Shrugging in annoyance, Snape went back to his research into improvements for Wolfsbane Potion and did not think about the strange incident again until two days later, when McGonagall summoned him to a meeting with the other Hogwarts staff. Infuriatingly, she expected him to teach Potions once more now that Slughorn was gone, and even worse, she had hired Harry Potter to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts despite his extreme youth and lack of qualifications. Almost as gallingly, she had that incompetent child Neville Longbottom filling in at Herbology until Professor Sprout recovered and had brought back Remus Lupin to teach Transfiguration. Thus surrounded by Gryffindors, Snape stormed past Potter in the corridor on the way to the staffroom, only to be accosted by a large, misshapen bat made out of the same material as the owl had been.
"Is this one of your pranks, Potter? I would think that, now that you've been given adult responsibilities, the very least you could do would..."
"Me! I had nothing to do with this, Severus." Snape grated his teeth at hearing the boy address him as a colleague, biting back the urge to call him a liar. "I haven't seen balloons like this since my cousin Dudley's eighth birthday party."
"Balloons?" demanded Snape. To him a balloon was a gigantic contraption in which one could travel by magically heated air across great distances; he had never seen one of this sort before.
"Yes -- my Aunt Petunia hired a clown. Dudley hated him and made fun of him, but he sat outside and made balloon animals for the children. I've never seen one this large before, though." Potter touched the bat, which magically untwisted and retwisted itself. SS, it spelled in the air, then coiled and contorted itself into the shape of a giant heart. As Snape stared in horror, the Boy Who Lived To Be Insufferable In Victory burst out laughing. "Looks like you have a secret admirer, Professor Snape," he grinned as he continued down the corridor, snickering behind his hand.
Snape stormed into the staffroom and sat silently fuming throughout the meeting. Who would have wasted time and resources taunting him in such a manner? Potter was an obvious candidate -- he knew what balloon animals were, and much as Snape hated to admit it, he probably had the skill to manipulate them -- but Potter had also made it clear that he was no happier to be at Hogwarts with Snape than Snape was to be teaching alongside everyone's hero and savior.
It couldn't have been Longbottom, who had neither the Muggle connections nor the talent to make a balloon owl fly in his window. Was it Potter's friend Granger, filled with some misguided, condescending desire to make Snape more sociable? Was it Malfoy, trying to taunt Snape from a distance about his half-blood origins? But Snape could no more imagine Malfoy obtaining these balloons than writing that absurd note about enjoying himself. Obviously the intention had been to distract him, and the ploy had succeeded...but which of his old enemies would use such a ridiculous tactic?
At dinner that night, a yellow balloon cat mysteriously appeared beside Snape's plate at the staff table. He glared at McGonagall, but the headmistress only cocked a bemused eyebrow and said that, as an Animagus, she could produce a better likeness of a cat than whoever had constructed Snape's. Lupin, who was sitting to Snape's left, picked up the cat to examine it, but he must have squeezed too hard because the creature exploded with a pop. As it reduced itself to a thin white strip, the air where it had been shimmered, and the words just look around appeared.
Quickly Snape looked around at Lupin to see whether he had noticed, but the werewolf was only staring at the broken balloon with a melancholy expression. "I'm sorry," he said to Snape, handing him the limp remains. "Funny sort of a toy, isn't it? So transient. Like life, I suppose."
The last thing Snape needed was yet another reminder that, more than two years later, Lupin was still moping over the death of Sirius Black. He had felt a certain kind of vicious satisfaction when it appeared that Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks were in love -- at least, he had thought, the rumors about Black and Lupin hadn't been true -- but since Tonks had run off to Istanbul with a flashy half-blood sorcerer and rumors had spread anew that a woman really hadn't been Lupin's first choice as a partner, the werewolf had seemed wistful and lonely, sometimes seeking Snape out for no reason whatsoever other than desperation for someone to talk to.
Snape gritted his teeth and tried to be polite, but he had no desire to strike up a casual friendship with Lupin. He never had. There had been a time in the distant past when he would have welcomed a very different sort of relationship with Lupin, but it had been apparent for decades that not even a werewolf would pursue Severus Snape.
Lying fretfully awake in his bed at night, trying to guess at the identity of a tormentor who clearly had a sense of humor as twisted as his balloon creations, Snape was disturbed by a knock. When he rose, threw on a robe and opened the door, he found that the hallway was empty save for a small package that had been placed on the floor against the doorframe. When he brought it into his room and opened it, he found a package of long thin balloons, some sort of hand-operated pump and a book -- a paperbound Muggle volume -- on the art of making balloon animals.
Scoffing, Snape picked up one of the narrow strips of rubber and spat an inflation charm. In a matter of moments it had filled with air and burst into small pieces. Willing calm, he tried again, speaking the inflation charm in a quieter voice, but none of his fastening spells succeeded in making the open end stay closed and the bloody things flew noisily across the room. Crossly, he flipped through the book, discovering that there was a finger-twisting technique for tying off the ends of the balloons, but four tries later Snape had still not mastered it. When at last he succeeded, he discovered that a Contortio spell was entirely ineffectual in making the balloon bend itself to his will, while Incarcerous caused the balloon to fly at him and try to bind his wrists together.
In exasperation Snape shoved the box to the floor and threw himself into bed, only to bounce off an enormous, hideous green snake. To his great shame he leapt to his feet, cursing, only to discover that it was in fact a balloon animal inflated to massive size with an engorgement charm. "Sssseverussss," the fake snake hissed. "Let him sssssssshow you..."
Whipping out his wand, Snape shouted, "Evanesco!" The creature made a hissing noise as if the air were rushing from it as it vanished, and too late Snape realized that he might have waited at least to hear who he was. At least now he knew his tormentor was male.
After a fitful night's sleep, Snape brought the box of balloons with him to his laboratory in the morning, determined to find some clue to this mystery. Scarpin's Revelaspell told him only that the balloons were indeed made from manufactured Muggle ingredients, and he had no luck finding evidence of hair, blood or other material from anyone who might be trying to use the balloons to put a spell or curse on him. While he was working there was a knock at the door. Snape stiffened, but no new balloon animal made an appearance, and a few seconds later he heard Lupin's voice calling, "Severus? May I come in?"
Without waiting for a reply, Lupin entered the room, raising one eyebrow and smiling when he saw what Snape was doing. "Has this become a new interest of yours?"
"Hardly," said Snape contemptuously. "I am being tortured using these balloons, and I intend to discover how they work so I can put a stop to it."
"Tortured?" Lupin inquired, bringing one of the pink balloons to his lips and blowing into it. Snape watched, astonished, as it rose and extended like...Snape blushed, momentarily disconcerted at what it had reminded him of, but Lupin was fortunately winded and slightly pink-cheeked himself from having used his breath to inflate the balloon. His fingers expertly caught and twisted the end, sealing it shut.
"Where did you learn to do that?" Snape demanded suspiciously.
With a sad shrug, Lupin began to twist the balloon in his fingers. "The summer after Sirius went to prison, when I lost my job at a bookseller's after missing two days for the third consecutive month after the full moon, I ran away from the wizarding world for awhile." He was twisting the balloon into a rabbit's head with large floppy ears. "I knew I liked children, so I took a job working as a clown at children's birthday parties. The schedule was flexible, the children were easy to entertain, and I learned..." He paused, picked up another pink balloon and blew it full of air. "...valuable skills like this." The balloon had soon become a body for the rabbit, which Lupin gave feet and placed on the table in front of Snape.
"Valuable?" scoffed Snape. "They seem to have use only as juvenile pranks. Of what possible use are these things?" He picked up the rabbit, watching its ears flop back and forth.
Lupin watched him with a sad smile. "Probably none whatsoever," he agreed. "When teaching students who are learning to perform real magic, party tricks don't seem to have the same effect. These certainly haven't accomplished anything for me lately."
Taking the rabbit from Snape, who watched him with a sense of confusion, Lupin unbent and reworked the ears, reshaped the face to include a large proboscis and turned it into an elephant. Handing it to Snape, brushing his face with the curving protrusion, Lupin grinned a bit wickedly. "Let me know if you think of anything useful I can do with them," he added, then turned and departed.
Snape sat with the elephant on his lap and tried to figure out what had just happened. Had Lupin admitted that he was the one who had been leaving the animals for Snape to find? But then why hadn't he come out and said so, and why would he have told Snape to enjoy himself and just look around when he was in such a sad, self-pitying mood himself? Lupin was the one who needed to look around and get over the past; if he would have put aside his pathetic attachment to Black, he might even have met someone else by now.
To Snape's surprise, the balloon animals did not stop appearing. There was a gray mouse with large ears in his classroom and an elegant silver swan in his bathtub. There was even a turtle in a toilet in one of the staff bathrooms. Snape hoped that Potter hadn't seen it, or, worse, peed on it before he plucked it out.
Late in the evening of the next day, there was a knock on his door. Opening it, Snape found an inflated animal in the corridor that he took at first to be a dog. If it had been black, he would have jabbed his wand into it to pop it right away, but because it was silver and had long, almost elegant legs, he took the creature inside and placed it on the table beside his bed. To his exasperation, it disappeared the moment he sat on the mattress...which was the same moment he recognized that the balloon had been shaped not as a dog, but a wolf.
A few minutes later, another knock disturbed the quiet and Snape rose irritably to open the door. This time Lupin was waiting in the hallway, wearing a sheepish but happy expression. "You brought it inside," he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"The wolf. I didn't really think you would. It was charmed so that my own wolf balloon would pop if you did."
"Then you have been leaving these for me to find!" Snape announced triumphantly. "Really, Lupin, haven't we got past the sort of pranks your friends would have played on me when we were twelve years old?"
"Pranks?" His onetime classmate looked confused. "This isn't a prank, Severus. I thought...well, you almost sounded interested, this morning."
Snape's breath caught as he stared at Lupin, astonished. "You thought...what? You can't possibly have thought I was interested in balloons. What do you mean it isn't a prank? You put a turtle in my toilet!"
Lupin looked astonished, too, though there was also a hint of something else in his wide bright eyes. "I didn't mean interested in balloons," he replied, shaking his head slightly. "I've thought, before, too..."
Slow horror began to seize Snape's throat. "Wait. You thought I was interested in you? Even though I did my best to make certain that you would never teach here again?" Their gazes locked, yet while Lupin was not a gifted Legilimens like Snape, the latter was compelled to glance away first. Even without Legilimency, he could read things in Lupin's expression that were extremely confusing. "I thought you were still wandering around moping about Black being dead," he muttered.
"Is that really the only thing you're capable of imagining I might be sorry about?" Again Lupin shook his head. "Obviously I was wrong about you. I guess I'm the butt of the joke this time."
It took Snape a moment to realize that he was shaking his head as well. "Lupin, if you are at all serious about any of this, what in Merlin's name made you decide to use balloon animals to get my attention? A Muggle clowning device? Are you under the impression that I enjoy being ridiculed?"
Aghast, Lupin reached out and put a hand on his arm. "Severus, that was the last thing I intended you to feel! I thought that they might make you smile. You do it so seldom. It would make me happy to see you happier."
"Make me smile," repeated Snape, frowning to hide an involuntary shiver of pleasure at Lupin touching him.
"Yes. It's such a silly, harmless thing. I hoped that you might be amused." Oh -- Lupin was definitely blushing a little. "I can twist them into more suggestive shapes, you know. Should I have tried that?"
Snape pictured Lupin blowing into a narrow red balloon, making the flaccid band engorge and poke upward. "You have a dirty mind," he said somewhat breathlessly, feeling his face heat when the werewolf grinned at him.
"I suppose I do, but I thought it might be a bit vulgar to leave things like that lying around for you," he conceded. "Or that you might think I was only suggesting something quick and lewd."
"You aren't suggesting something quick and lewd?" asked Snape, who was beginning to think that he would pop like a balloon if the other man kept talking so calmly.
Lupin gave him a small wry grin. "Not quick, at least," he insisted. "But Severus, we're going to be working together for the foreseeable future, and I know how you feel about werewolves..."
"I let one into my room, didn't I?" Even if it had been under a mistaken assumption, Snape found that he was not in the least sorry with how things were shaping up. "I suppose that as a hobby, balloon animals are harmless enough, but I find that these imitations make poor comparisons with the real thing, don't you?"
Smiling openly now, Lupin nodded. "You may be right. Perhaps I should consider giving up balloon animals for another hobby." And as Lupin tugged on Snape's arm to bring him closer, waiting for Snape to return the embrace before kissing him, Snape couldn't help but feel that Lupin's mouth and hands could be put to much better uses, indeed.