Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction based on the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. No undue claim nor any material profit is expected or intended.

by Andrea13 and PersephoneKore
Chapter 5: Caduceus

As Arthur had owled Dumbledore about the situation the previous night, and a further update had been provided as soon as Herpo had agreed (with some wariness) to allow a modern healer to have a look at the "old injury" that had nearly debilitated him when Ron bumped it, early in the afternoon the Weasleys gently broke the news that Albus Dumbledore and Poppy Pomfrey would be coming over for a visit, and Madam Pomfrey would like to check his health.

Herpo had accepted the news with apparently reasonable calm, but in reality he had been so tense for the intervening few hours that the scar on his back was beginning to pull and hurt even when he wasn't moving at all. He'd also started sneezing again, intermittently; he still felt better overall than he had for some days in his cave, and was fairly certain he was getting well (and much more quickly than before, at that), but he began to suspect his body of conspiring to help convince this coming healer that perhaps he really shouldn't be allowed among people.

The Weasleys didn't seem to consider any of this cause for concern, at least not for their own sakes, though Molly had wrapped him in a blanket that seemed determined to apply extra heat to anywhere he felt sore (which did help) and was feeding him chicken soup and some sort of potion that felt like an explosion inside his head though it did ease the cold somewhat. When the fire finally flared up to emit a tall, colorful wizard and a shorter, very businesslike-looking witch, he jumped.

Ginny smiled reassuringly at him as everyone in the room rose to give some form of greetings to the new arrivals. There was a quick repeat of the translation spell that was now starting to become routine. Finally Arthur brought them over in front of Herpo who tried to stand, but didn't have much luck between the painful scar, the chicken soup, and the very determined blanket and introduced, "Herpo, this is Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, and Poppy Pomfrey, the head mediwitch there. Albus, Poppy, this is Herpo."

Herpo ducked his head in greeting. "It is a great pleasure to meet you both, and I thank you for coming here on my behalf."

"We are quite pleased and intrigued, I might add to meet you as well," Dumbledore said. He was not in the formidable mode everyone present except Herpo had eventually seen in the course of the war; he was instead giving off as reassuring an air as humanly possible.

"I am not so very interesting," Herpo replied, giving up wrestling with the soup and blanket and sitting back down instead. He wasn't careful enough of his back in the process, but hid the reaction.

"Of course you are. At the very least you are a point of exceptional historical curiosity, although naturally we will try to avoid pestering you excessively on the topic."

"I will answer any questions I can, of course." He looked over at Madam Pomfrey. "You are a healer? I... have some small skill in healing myself. I would like to know of the advances since my time."

"I'm sure we could manage that." Poppy studied him briefly. "I suppose this is a bit sudden for a mostly social visit, but I'm also told I should have a look at you?"

"...Yes, apparently. It is just an old injury, but they feel you may be able to do more than I could at the time. It is nothing urgent." This said relatively calmly despite an instant tensing as soon as she mentioned the healing that caused his back to protest again.

"On your back, I'm told? That's always difficult to manage on one's own, even in the best of circumstances."

Herpo briefly considered denying the whole thing, but didn't want to face the Wrath of the Weasleys if he did, so he simply nodded and replied, "Yes, on my back."

"Well, if you're willing then I'll see what I can do." At least she seemed very... practical about it.

"Thank you. What do you need me to do?"

She looked a bit surprised. "Well, for the examination when it's convenient for you, of course, though unless that's today we'll have to arrange to meet again nothing at all except cooperate. It would help if you could tell me what you did do about it, of course."

He was going to have to meet with her again, Herpo thought in despair. Wasn't the point of her coming out today to take care of it, whatever it was? He thought for a moment and replied, "I...bandaged it. With healing salves."

She nodded thoughtfully. "I'll ask you about the composition a bit later, if you don't mind would this be a good time for me to look at it?"

"If you are able. I have little planned for today," he admitted with a slightly wry smile.

"Very good." She looked around the room. "Would you excuse us? And where would be a good place?" She was told the correct floor, then helpfully removed the chicken soup from Herpo's lap with a grin for Mrs. Weasley. "Better than some potions, isn't it? I don't suppose you gave him Pepper-Up?"

"I did, but it probably would have worked better at the start of the cold."

"But the soup was excellent," Herpo assured her with a smile, then gathered the longer folds of the blanket around him more securely and followed Madam Pomfrey up the stairs to the room the Weasleys had kindly lent him. "I appreciate your willingness to help, especially when it is merely an old injury."

"It's what I do, Herpo," she told him with a trace of amusement. She watched him sharply as he finished climbing the stairs, still a few steps down when she finished her own climb, and added more seriously, "It hurts when you walk, though, doesn't it?"

"Not...always. Only when I strain or tense or have hit it wrong."

Her eyebrows rose a little as he entered the room and sat down a little uncertainly on the bed. "And which is it this time?"

His mouth twisted a bit. "Some of all three."

"Ah." She studied him sympathetically. "Lie down, please, and let me have a look. If you'd care to elaborate, go right ahead." She cast a light Warming Charm on the bed.

"Elaborate on what?" he asked as he warily stretched out on the bed, loosening the robes so she could examine him.

"How you received it, how you treated it, how it hurts."

"...I was struck by a rock."

"That's enlightening." She was gentle about moving the robes out of the way and gentle when she touched his back not on the scar, or... not on that scar. A warm finger traced a line before she said quietly, "Well, this one seems to have healed well enough," and moved on. "Though you're more than a little tense, as I imagine you know." She laid one hand flat against his back for a moment, almost as warm as the blanket.

Herpo caught his breath and fought for a moment to remain calm. Hadn't he already established that when these people touched him, they didn't necessarily mean harm? Still, it took a moment for him to reply, "It has been a long time since another healer has examined me. And yes, most of them healed quite well. My salves are very good."

"Most of them. This happened often?" Poppy shook her head at her own words, though he couldn't see; she rarely questioned how injuries had been received more than was necessary to cure them, and there was reason for it. "I'm sorry. You needn't answer if you don't like." But she kept her hand in place for a little while; the muscles beneath it didn't unknot, but she waited until a very faint quivering did cease.

"Not often, no. I was not foolish enough to go out in public often." Herpo let out a slow breath and tried to force himself to relax. She didn't seem to be doing anything alarming...

The light pressure of her hand shifted a little at the implication of those words; Poppy refused to allow herself a shudder and proceeded with her examination. The one scar that had healed badly was clear enough to pick out. It didn't appear the rock had struck so as to damage the kidney Herpo had been lucky there but it had landed just at the bottom of the ribcage. It looked to have torn some of the muscles, and must have hurt very badly. "This." He winced slightly as her fingers hovered over it, as if he could feel them at the distance.

"Yes..." Herpo's voice trailed off into a hiss that might or might not have been Parseltongue. If it was, Poppy decided she didn't want to know the translation. "It... was struck yesterday, accidentally. It has been more troublesome since then."

"And there's no stretch of the imagination by which you could currently be called relaxed." Her voice was wry, but went very soft the next moment. "Could you try to?"

"I am sorry. I am trying," Herpo apologized. He buried his face in the bed, closed his eyes, and tried desperately to pretend that he was back in his cave, alone, with his beauties standing guard so none could come in. He was safe there, he could relax...

...And it was really very difficult to keep up that illusion between the soft bed and the definitely warm-blooded presence behind him. Especially when she talked. "There's nothing to apologize for, I assure you. But that's better." He must have managed a bit, at least... "I'm going to cast a charm to help, if you don't mind."

"Whatever you can do," he muttered, trying to imagine a stone floor and the comforting sounds of soft hissing.

His entire body tried to freeze when a small bit of wood the tip of her wand touched the back of his neck just beneath the skull, but then murmured words sent him utterly limp; the next, after he gasped despite the first charm, eerily soothed. "I will not harm you," Poppy said quietly to his back. "I took an oath. You may know it." She narrowed her eyes, thinking, and decided to cast one more charm, one of a few illusions that was considered for symbolic reasons more than practical an essential part of the mediwitch's education.

"Caduceus." She didn't cast it in the air, but directly into his mind, and Herpo drew a long breath as the image of a staff materialized for him one with a serpent spiraled around it, that shifted liquidly on the rod and turned to look at him with a breath of a hiss.

Be calm, be at ease, you will be helped/healed/rested, the hiss whispered comfortingly in his ear. Herpo melted into it, feeling as if he must be coming home for the first time in... he didn't even know.

"This is the caduceus," Poppy explained softly as her patient started to (finally!) relax. "It's the symbol of healers now. We take an oath to never cause harm, and to heal anyone who needs it. I promise you, you are safe in my hands."

Apparently, a little to his own surprise, he believed her. Maybe it was because the hissing was repeating her words. He didn't know how she was doing that; surely she wasn't also a Parselmouth... if so he should really not have said what he'd hissed before in front of her... Why would a serpent be a healer's symbol? Had the skill needed to survive turned outward as Parseltongue became more accepted? But he felt as if he might drift back to sleep...

"I can ease the scar," Poppy murmured, still quiet and soothing, "without causing pain. Or I can heal the wound altogether, but that would require destroying the scar itself, reopening it and then healing it again, and that would hurt a little not as the stone, of course and you would need to be careful of the new flesh for a few days."

To heal it...to get rid of the horrible scar the reminder completely, and start again with new flesh..? Such a thing sounded like a dream, but in this drowsy, warm, comfortable state, he was willing to believe in dreams. "If you can heal it completely, I... would like that above all things."

"Very well then. I'll cause you as little pain as I can, but there is no pleasant way to remove scar tissue." Her voice was a little sad as she added, "And frequently no way at all if it's from a Dark enough curse, but at least that's neither here nor there for now. Are you ready?"

The illusion whispered comfort and safety to him again. "Yes..."

"Analgesia." And the pain, vastly less since she'd sent his body limp, disappeared completely.

"Exciscicatrix." And it was back but different, sharp and torn and damp, and he realized she'd just destroyed nearly all the healing already done, reopened the wound but it didn't hurt as it should, dulled by the first spell. It was milder, and no worse than he'd often felt when cold and tired and uneasy.

The hand free of her wand was laid gently against his back now, higher than the wound. After a few seconds, she spoke again. "Purgo. Recto. Sano." From the first he felt nothing; the second felt... strange and made him vaguely queasy as he sensed tiny bits of flesh moving on their own in ways they shouldn't be able do. With the third... he felt her magic ooze through his flesh like water or honey, and there was a faint itching but incredible relief as he realized the wound was being knit together.

Strangely content, he lay still until the feeling of magic stopped and with her other hand still in place she said, "That's done," and removed the charm that had, once he yielded to it, kept his muscles relaxed. "Very good. But do not strain it more than necessary for a few days." There was a hint of a smile in her voice as she went on, "Relaxing as much as possible would also be advisable. But it should do very well unless you have any violent exercise planned."

"II cannot begin to thank you enough, dear lady. Your skill far exceeds my own. I..." Herpo felt his throat tightening even as warm relaxation still flowed through his body.

Poppy patted his shoulder. "It's my job, dear. And you don't seem to have done too bad of a job with most of these. This was just a particularly nasty one, in a very difficult spot. I'd have trouble myself if I was trying to heal it on me."

"Still..." Herpo closed his eyes again, treasuring the memory of the snake-staff as much as the freshly-healed wound. "For all you have given me, I thank you."

"You're very welcome. As I said, it's my job, and I was glad to be able to help." Her voice was warm, and Herpo found that whether it was the healing or the lingering effects of her spells, he no longer tensed under her hand.

But he did want to sit up, he thought. "May I move?"

"Yes. Go gently to begin with."

He rolled cautiously onto his side; Poppy helped him to sit up and sat beside him on the bed. "Well?"

Herpo sat quietly, testing the feelings out before replying cautious, "It... pulls a little, and is sore, but in a way that I think will heal as well as the others, not as it did last time." He closed his eyes briefly, his lips pulling up in a small but genuine smile.

"Good. Now... while some of her livelier children might be otherwise inclined, Molly would be perfectly happy to look after you flat on your back in bed until it's completely healed. For once though I'm going to recommend a slightly more vigorous course of action. That would work, but it's closed enough now that you shouldn't tear it walking about, and it won't be as stiff that way."

Herpo looked moderately appalled. "I could not imagine anything else. To lie in bed for so long..." He shook his head. "I will be cautious, though, of certainty."

"It should only be a few days," Poppy repeated with a smile, hugging him gently with the arm she'd used to support him up to a sitting position. The smile wavered a bit as he sneezed suddenly; the look of relief afterwards suggested he'd expected it to hurt. "As for the cold, I'd guess you're nearly over it."

"I thought I was over it," he muttered.

"Nearly, as I said."

"Well, if it hurts so little, I suppose I can tolerate a few days more of it... You said the injury should be healed in only a few days as well? I..." He shook his head. "It has been so long already. That scarcely seems possible."

"You did a good job the first time but circumstances seem to have been decidedly against you. There'd have been little way for you to reach that spot on your own back without bending the flesh out of place, for one thing. And of course there was no bruising this time even before the spell."

"That would help, yes. But you are still very skilled. I thank you." Herpo inclined his head again in a small bow. "I will be cautious, and not undo your fine work." He paused again for a brief sneeze, and fished out the handkerchief Ginny had pushed into his pocket.

"My goodness, I don't get this many compliments from a year's worth of students. Bless you." She patted his shoulder again and stood up. "Will you want to go back downstairs or stay here and rest a bit?"

"You should. You deserve them," Herpo said sincerely, standing up as well. "I would like to return downstairs, if I may."

"Of course. Just don't do anything too vigorous. I'm sure you know what you can and can't manage."

Herpo nodded sincerely and followed her out of the room. He marvelled at being able to walk without the familiar nagging pain in his back. There was soreness, for certain, but it wasn't the same as the pain he'd lived with for too long. He took a deep breath and relished not feeling it pull at him, happier now than in so long.

"You look like you feel better," Harry remarked as they returned to the living room. "Madam Pomfrey's something, isn't she?" He paused and looked faintly embarrassed on realizing she'd actually heard him, for some reason.

"Why thank you, Potter," she said with smile, going to take a seat beside Dumbledore. "I should make house calls more often."

"I feel... amazing," Herpo said with feeling. "She is very talented!"

"I know. She put all the bones back in my arm once."

Herpo blinked. "...Why were they out of it?" he asked cautiously.

"Because I broke it playing Quidditch er, it's a sport, on broomsticks and couldn't fend off Gilderoy Lockhart, who is a complete idiot."

"So he took your bones?" Herpo asked in horror.

Harry laughed a little. "Well, he was trying to fix the break, but as I said, he's a complete and utter idiot, so he took all the bones out instead." He sighed dramatically. "I swear, I spent more time in hospital than in my own dorm room, when I was at Hogwarts."

"Not quite, thankfully," Poppy said drily. "Despite all your attempts to break your neck. That Lockhart was truly absurd though; what he was thinking "

Herpo still looked rather dubious. "That seems a very unlikely mistake."

"Yes, well, Lockhart made an awful lot of unlikely mistakes. His classes were a joke."

"...Perhaps it is not such a bad thing to be self-taught."

"Most of our professors were excellent," Hermione said firmly, giving Harry and Ron quelling looks. "We just think there was a jinx of some kind against the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. They never lasted very long. But we learned a great deal."

"And Professor Lupin really was excellent," Harry added with considerable (and unquelled) enthusiasm. "You should meet him too."

"Whomever you wish me to meet, I will meet," Herpo said dutifully, though his enthusiasm for doing so was slightly increased by the brilliant success of meeting their healer.

"Well, in that case maybe we should start introducing you to some girls your own age," Fred suggested teasingly, "as so far the closest has been Ginny..."

"...That is not necessary."

"Oh, you mean you're happy with just Ginny?" George spoke up, his grin matching his twin's. "Come on, mate, I thought you said you weren't interested."

"Do I have to hex you two?" Ginny demanded.

Fred managed to assume a (mostly) innocent expression. "Why, Ginny, we're just trying to be good, caring, compassionate brothers"

"Who look after your interests and protect your honor," George took up.

"In other words," she asked sweetly, "yes?"

"Hey, I haven't heard Herpo denying it."

Ginny gritted her teeth. "Mum, you have plenty of sons. You won't miss two, will you?"

"Please leave them mostly intact, dear, I want them to degnome the garden tomorrow."

Ginny smiled. "Luckily, Madam Pomfrey is here. Now shut it, you two!"

"Aww, come on. You know, neither of you has exactly denied it and we know you've got something of a thing for dark hair "

"I have TOLD you, I have NO designs on your sister!" Herpo burst out suddenly and frantically, jumping to his feet. "Please believe I would never...II will cease speaking to her, I swear it."

Everyone else regarded him for a moment in shocked silence at the outburst. "That seems rather excessive," Dumbledore said mildly after a moment.

"And very awkward," Ginny added drily. "Please don't go making rash promises based on Fred and George talking nonsense."

"It is not excessive," Herpo replied, wrapping his arms around himself and hunching his shoulders slightly. He said nothing to Ginny. He didn't even look at her.

"Here, now," Poppy said briskly and yet still gently. "Mind your posture, and sit back down. You look like you're expecting..." She trailed off thoughtfully, then came over and set her hands on his shoulders. "Sit down. It'll be all right."

He flinched away from her slightly, but sat down obediently enough, still watching Fred and George cautiously. "Please believe me. I would never jeopardize your kindness by..."

"There's no need to get that worked up over it," Fred said in what still sounded like mild surprise.

"Unless of course you do like her that way and don't care to see it made a joke of..." George added thoughtfully.

"In which case you're out of luck, I'm afraid, as we'll make a joke of practically anything," Fred explained cheerfully.

"She's too young for you now, of course." This was nearly solicitous. "Not to mention the ridiculous cultural gaps and so on."

"But, you know, she has been after Harry for six or seven years now with no luck..."

"I," said Ginny in a strangled tone, "have not. And I am going to..." Apparently she couldn't think of a threat she was willing to state in front of her Headmaster.

"I can be conveniently deaf if you like, Miss Weasley," Dumbledore said easily, interpretting her look. "After all, we aren't at school, nor during term."

"Fred, George," Harry advised, glaring at them, "just shut it, all right?"

"Ooooooooh! Does that mean perhaps our heroic Boy Who Lived is finally ready to become a man?" Fred gasped, clasping his hand to his chest.

"I'm so proud," George added, wiping away a mock tear.

"Both of you," Molly said in a deadly tone that even the twins knew better than to talk over, "stop. Now." A great deal more kindly, she turned to Herpo. "Are you all right, dear?"

"I have no designs on your daughter," he repeated earnestly but shakily, looking at her with wide eyes. "I swear it."

"That's fine, and the twins summarized those aspects of the situation well enough, I suppose, but I wasn't asking you that," she said firmly. "I asked if you're all right."

"...Fine." But there was a hunted look in Herpo's eyes as he continued casting slightly nervous looks back at the twins.

"Oh, dear, don't look like that. They don't really mean any harm."

"I have told them... I would never..." Herpo didn't seem able to manage complete sentences right now. He sighed and rested his head on his hand. "Forgive me."

"There's nothing to forgive that I know of except that Ginny's probably a bit affronted at your deciding not to speak to her."

Herpo muttered something that sounded like, "It's safer."

Ron snorted. "You haven't known Ginny long enough. Trust me, she's worse than the twins when she has a mind to it."

Ginny preened a bit and looked rather proud.

Molly's mouth twitched slightly, and she brushed a flop of hair out of Herpo's face. "No one is going to be offended if you do talk to her, dear. I'm very sorry if the teasing's getting too much for you."

He flinched back slightly and pulled the borrowed blanket more firmly around himself. "I am fine."

Molly drew back at the flinch, looking slightly hurt. "Are you sure?"

"Honestly, don't worry about Fred and George," Ginny added, abandoning the menace of her brothers and coming over. "They'll make a joke of anything."

"I am sure," Herpo repeated in a flat voice. He didn't look at Ginny.

Ginny sighed and glared back at the twins. "You two see what trouble you cause?" she snapped, then knelt down beside Herpo's chair and put her hand cautiously on his arm. "Please don't be upset with me because my brothers are idiots. I thought we were becoming friends, at least."

Herpo flinched away as if her touch had burned him. "I " He broke off.

"For Merlin's sake," George said impatiently. "Answer her! It wasn't our idea for him to stop talking to you, Ginny."

Ginny whirled around to glower at him. "No, you just gave him the impression you'd " She bit her tongue and turned back to Herpo. "They're not going to do anything to you, you know..."

"I would prefer not to antagonize them," Herpo said in a very low voice.

"You haven't. They're just being annoying on purpose. It's their mission in life."

"They also seek to protect their sister. ...Believe me, I understand."

"Given their sense of humor I'm more likely to need protection from them than you, and I've survived them for seventeen years already."

Herpo shrugged sharply. "It is not for me to say."

"Maybe not, but I have a pretty good idea!"

"Enough!" Herpo snapped, jerking his arm away from her touch. "I say what I say, and I will say no more!"

"What?" Ginny muttered.

"Herpo, there's no need to snap at her." Molly frowned. "Please calm down."

"I am calm!"

"No, you aren't," Poppy said firmly. "Will everyone please stop upsetting him?"

"I'm not upset," Herpo protested weakly and entirely unconvincingly.

Ginny backed away from him and sat down in a chair, looking unhappy. Herpo looked fairly unhappy himself. He seemed to be trying to sink deeper into either his robes, the blanket, or the chair, but didn't seem to be succeeding on any count. "I do not mean to cause problems..." he muttered quietly, not looking at anyone.

"I blame Fred and George," Ginny growled.

"Yes, that seems fair enough," Molly agreed.

"Aww. We were kidding him!"

"And Ginny, of course."

"It's not as if we threatened him."

Herpo disappeared a little more into his blanket. "I told you I"

"Will you stop trying to explain things to them?" Ginny asked, half in exasperation and half in amazement. "Nobody thinks you were going to do anything the least bit improper. Just ignore them."

"I can hardly do that," he replied stiffly. "They are within their rights "

"On second thought, stop trying to explain things to me, too. At least, stop trying to explain my own family to me. If you want to explain why you're so convinced you have to convince them you aren't interested in me irritating as Fred is, he has a point, it's not as if they're going to oh, Merlin." She stopped and put a hand over her eyes. "I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry about. You did nothing wrong."

"And neither did you," she retorted softly. "Herpo...there is nothing wrong with you, and there would be nothing wrong if you DID like me...or anyone else, for that matter! Look at Harry! He's a Parselmouth and those idiots didn't have a problem with HIM when I liked him." More quietly yet, "No one's going to hurt you here, I promise."

"I should hope they didn't," Harry said wryly. "They were the only reason I didn't have worse than a broken arm, that one time."

Fred and George themselves looked rather dumbfounded. "You thought we were threatening you?"

"Didn't mean it like that, mate. I mean, you would have to wait for her to grow up, but..."

"II do not I just..." Herpo sighed and covered his face. "I am making a fool out of myself, apparently."

"No you aren't." Ginny was at his side again, but hovering a little away. "But they won't hurt you. Honestly."

"You are a very strange family," Herpo mumbled.

"We know," George assured him. "But what on earth did you think we were going to do to you?"

A sharp shrug. "The usual, I suppose..."

"What's usual?"

"What do you think? Thrown stones and curses! It seems I'm to lose the mark of the time I did dare to look at a girl fool that I was but I had not expected to."

Everyone appeared to be shocked into silence by this burst-out admission. Finally Ron said slowly, "...You mean that 'old injury' that hurt so much was because someone threw a ROCK at you just because you looked at a GIRL!" He spluttered incoherently. "That's insane!"

"Her brother did not consider my attentions...suitable. Under the circumstances he was probably right; I rather doubt she'd have cared to be consigned to a cave." But...as strange as the reaction might be, it was a little comforting.

"Then that was her choice to make, and even if it was his, there are a lot better ways to express it than attacking you!" Ginny said firmly. She very cautiously placed her hand back on his arm. "Just try to remember that you're not there anymore, and we DO have different ways of going about things now."

"Right," said George. "And we promise not to break out the Bludgers."

"Unless you want to learn to play Quidditch, of course," Fred corrected. "In which case we'd have to, you see; they're part of the game."

"We don't make any guarantees about Percy talking your ears off, though," George noted thoughtfully, "but he'll do that anyway. You mustn't take it personally."

"You all seem to talk a great deal," Herpo countered, a bit of spirit worming its way up again from where he'd shoved it firmly to the base of his spine. "My ears seem intact, unless I am a worse healer than I thought and did not notice."

"They still look attached," Madam Pomfrey said solemnly.

It was a very perverse reaction, but now that Herpo found himself clean, warm, and healed, he was having more trouble sleeping than when he'd lain shivering on a cold stone floor with rocks pushing into half-healed wounds. He sighed and tossed once more on the very soft and comfortable bed, wondering why he couldn't just accept that comfort and sleep. But his mind simply refused to stop turning every detail of the past few days over and over. The thoughts should be worn to a nub by now, but they seemed as sharp as ever.

He'd gone from his cave to twenty-five centuries in the future, in this Britain, where the Weasley family took him in almost as one of their own, despite knowing of his ability in Parseltongue and his reputation in this time as a Dark wizard. That... was far more than he'd ever hoped anyone would do, much less an entire family.

And yet he still did not know what he was to do in this strange new land, and his beauties were long gone, then only ones who had truly been his. Perhaps that was the cause of his sleeplessness...

After lying there for he knew not how long, Herpo finally pushed the blankets aside and stood, pushing his feet back into the slippers he had been lent. Perhaps some air would clear his head.

He padded down the stairs as silently as he could and went to the door... and realized that even if he was beginning to get used to the climate here, he still found their nights ridiculously chilly. Perhaps he'd be more accustomed to it by the time it grew colder, as they insisted it would he'd spend the entire season indoors otherwise. Not that this would be that unusual for him he had for some time avoided spending much time where he had to move too much or be around people...

...Neither of which, apparently, was now necessary. The old scar on his back, now erased and mostly healed, didn't bite the way it used to. Even on the stairs.

He slipped very quietly outside. The chill didn't work quite as he'd hoped; the first breath of night air did drive out other thoughts, but it also woke him up and they all came flooding back in.

Molly Weasley turned over in bed as she heard footsteps going down the stairs. She knew how each of her children walked both ordinarily and when they were trying to be quiet and it wasn't any of them. "Arthur," she said softly.

"I heard." They listened for a moment until hearing the near-silent click of the door.

"Do you suppose he's all right? It's been a hard day or two for him. ...And life, I suppose, but this would have been terribly confusing."

"I think I'd be surprised if he's sneaking off. Not sleeping is understandable..." Arthur glanced toward the window. "Still, he'll get chilled out there quickly. We should probably..."

"I'll go get him," she said decisively. "If he needs to think, he can do it in the kitchen over warm milk."

Arthur chuckled and put his head back down as she patted his shoulder and pressed him back into the mattress. Molly threw on her robes swiftly and went quietly down the stairs and outside. She didn't see Herpo at first, but a few more steps out and she spotted him next to Ginny's tree. "Herpo?" she called softly.

Herpo actually jumped several inches off the ground, whirling around to press his back against the tree. "W-who Molly." His heartbeat calmed considerably when he made that identification. "I did not mean to disturb you. I did not think there would be anything amiss in going outside..."

"And I didn't mean to startle you." As his voice had calmed considerably, she ventured closer. "There's nothing wrong with it, exactly, but I thought you might get chilled."

"It is cooler than I am accustomed to," he admitted, his arms wrapped tightly around himself. He eased away from the tree, as that placed uncomfortable pressure on the newly-healed wound. "I simply... could not sleep, and wished for air."

"Well, if you've had enough of it, perhaps you'd like to come back in for some warm milk? Or, I suppose, I could bring you a cloak."

"You need go to no trouble for me." Even as he protested, Herpo's knowledge of Molly to this point told him firmly that there was no way he'd get away with an excuse like that.

"It isn't any trouble."

Well, it would be warmer in there... Herpo shivered a bit and found himself agreeing. He followed Molly inside, where she summoned a pan and the milk, then began heating up both on the stove... along with pulling out an assortment of other food for the poor dear to snack on.

Herpo watched her in bemusement. "This is not necessary..."

"Of course it is. Or at any rate, it's going to be done." She smiled warmly at him and summoned the blanket that had been cuddling him half the day to wrap around him again. "Don't worry yourself."

"I am not worried," Herpo admitted, wrapping the comforting blanket around him with a smile. "I enjoy your company, even if I am not yet accustomed to it."

"Well, that's good to know." She stirred the milk a bit and then poured some into mugs. "There. See if that doesn't help."

He took a cautious sip. The flavors of even the most commonplace foods tasted different to him here, but this was different in a pleasant way. "It is good!" he said with a smile, taking another sip. "Very good. But unusual. Where do you keep your goats? I saw only chickens earlier."

She chuckled. "It's from cows, actually, and we don't keep them here; the milk's bought from people who do keep them."

"Milk from cows?" Herpo made a dubious face, but it was good. "I am learning something new with each moment, it seems."

"Would I be right in guessing that's half why you couldn't get to sleep?" Molly slid into another chair with her own mug. "With all the sudden changes, I'm sure you've a great deal to think about."

"It is much of the cause," Herpo admitted, shifting his mug from hand to hand. "I never truly thought of leaving my homeland, for all that I had... no one close there. But to leave it so suddenly, and for such an alien place... " He shook his head. "That, I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams."

"No, I'd imagine not. It can't be easy."

"Not easy to suddenly have all one desires? Shelter, warmth, safety, healing... kind people such as yourself."

She reached over and patted his hand. "Not easy to be away from everything familiar, so suddenly, even so. But I'm very glad if we've been able to make it more comfortable for you."

"I suspect you, madam, would be able to make any feel comfortable."

"You flatter me, but I try."

"You do very well. You remind me of" Herpo stopped short and shook his head. "You are very hospitable."

"Thank you." She looked at him thoughtfully. "Though now I'm curious as to whom you decided not to compare me to."

"...No one. You remind me of no one."

"...If you like." She sipped at her milk.

Herpo chased a droplet of water around the tabletop for a long moment while Molly waited in non-threatening silence. In a barely audible voice, he admitted, "You remind me of a woman named Ismene. She... was graciousness and hospitality personified."

"Well, then. I appreciate the comparison." But clearly there was something more to the situation; he hadn't stayed or hadn't been able to stay with this Ismene, obviously, and she seemed to be a difficult topic...

Herpo shrugged and chased the dewdrop around some more. In truth, there was little overtly alike between the two women. But there was a... presence they exuded, that made one feel... at home. "You should be pleased at raising such a fine family and having such a fine home."

"I am." She watched him thoughtfully.

"What would you do," Herpo asked slowly, "if one of your sons became... something else? Not... what you raised."

Molly felt her heart clench at that. Ismene... must have been his mother? "It depends," she said slowly, "on what you mean. I'd still love him. If I possibly could, I'd still look after him if he needed it. Unless he'd... set himself against us, and wouldn't allow it..." The way Percy had, for a time.

"What if you needed to cast him out?" Herpo asked, more quietly yet. "What... Would you want to ever see him again? Would you treasure your memories, or try to erase them?"

"I could never try to erase them, even if it hurt. And I would always want him back, whether I could have him or not."

"Then... your sons are very fortunate to have you." Herpo swallowed the remainder of his milk quickly and stood. "I should return to bed."

"Will you be able to sleep now?" Molly stood as well, though her mug was only half-empty; the faint choke in his voice was heartbreaking.

"II hope so."

"...Come here." He hadn't objected when she'd hugged him before... She spoke very gently, and while he didn't exactly move toward her, he didn't resist when she put her arms around him and drew his head down onto her shoulder.

"I..." Herpo shuddered and closed his eyes. For one moment, he allowed himself to remember another house full of love, with a boisterous little brother running down the hall, a tall and strong father who could take on any task... and a mother, warm and soft when he laid his head on her knee and listened to her sing.

That place was gone now, after twenty-three centuries of time's ceaseless motion. But for him, it had been gone long before that, from the first time the neighbor boy heard Herpo hiss to a passing snake and run screaming to his mother... when he'd seen his father's eyes fill with anger and his mother's with sadness.

Molly rubbed the too-thin, bent back and held on while Herpo's shudders grew once he had leaned against her, just barely, she had no intention of letting go as long as he didn't pull away, not now. "You have a home here as long as you wish it," she whispered, almost too softly to hear. "I know it can't truly make up for losing one, but you do."

Herpo felt something prickling at the backs of his eyelids. "You are... so kind," he whispered in a choked voice. "You do not even know me andand" He choked again as a hot tear forced its way through his tightly-shut eyelids.

"You're friendly enough and you need a place to stay. That will do." She freed one arm for her wand and Transfigured one of the kitchen chairs into a small sofa so that they could both sit down.

Herpo readjusted himself slightly as the chair changed beneath them, but did not move from Molly's warm embrace. "I dreamed of a place like this," he admitted quietly.

"Did you?" She let him lean against her; he trembled again and then relaxed as more tears flowed.

"Not exactly this... I could not imagine such a place existed. Nor such people. But... " He let out a shaky sigh. "The feelings here."

"Oh, my dear..."

"I... should not make such presumptions. But... the woman, Ismene, I said you reminded me of... she was my mother. You... are not so similar in most respects, except... this feeling."

"I thought she might have been," Molly murmured. "You're not being presumptuous, Herpo, I'm glad if we can... make you feel at home."

"More than I thought possible..."

She murmured soothingly without real words and kissed his forehead lightly. The tears stopped eventually, but he still leaned against her shoulder, finally drowsy though he didn't really want to move...

Molly, however, was a world-class professional mother, and she could read the signs easily enough even when the person in question wasn't one of her own children. She patted his arm gently and suggested, "Perhaps it's time for you to get back to bed. You still have a lot of resting to catch up on if you're going to heal completely."

Herpo really meant to answer her, but yawned helplessly as soon as he opened his mouth. "I... suppose you're right," he admitted when he could speak. She was smiling at him again.

She leaned down and kissed his forehead. "Arthur and I are right down the hall if you need anything. Actually, I think speaking above a whisper in this house automatically guarantees someone will hear and come to your aid." She chuckled and brushed a piece of hair out of his eyes. "Do you think you can walk up there, or should I help?"

"I can walk. I..." He yawned again. "Thank you..."

"Any time, dear. And I do mean that."

He had the strangest feeling that she did.

He did manage to climb the stairs on his own, though he kept hold of the banister to remind himself where he was and not to curl up on the steps and doze off. Molly paused outside her own door to watch him climb for a moment, then changed her mind and followed him quietly up the stairs to tuck him in before going back to bed herself.

When Herpo slept again, it was with a smile on his face. He couldn't go home again, but... perhaps here he could make a new home.

Yes, that really is the end of this story, though for Herpo it's the decision to make a new start now that he knows he can.