A/N: This story was written for the 2009 Snapely Holidays fest. My recipient asked for a mystery/puzzle fic featuring humor, romance, massage oil, and a stuffed rhinoceros. It was a fun challenge, although I'm afraid the plot's not up to much. But I did get the rhino in.
My grateful thanks to The Real Snape and her patented "beta-reading-and-hand-holding" service.
Disclaimer: You really think JKR is going to be writing Snape/Moody slash?
Of Rhinos and Men
By Kelly Chambliss
Everything about the boy was thin: his wispy blondish hair, his lanky body, his worn anorak, the soles of his cracked and dirty trainers. The package in his arms, though, was anything but thin. It was oddly-shaped -- bulky, with bits sticking out -- and oddly-wrapped, in what looked like an old tartan blanket tied closed with a strip of torn cloth. The boy clutched it tightly, as though he feared that if he relaxed his grip, the thing it might try to escape of its own accord.
He wasn't much to look at, the boy, and neither was the dingy shop he stood in front of. Though made of the same yellow Cotswold stone as the shops lining the nearby High Street, this building had escaped the make-over that had turned the rest of the formerly-dying village into a tourist's fantasy of the quaint and the twee. This stone was still covered with the soot of centuries, and the grimy windows would probably have sneered had anyone dared front them with the profusion of aren't-we-cheerful geraniums that spilled out of the High Street window-boxes.
Behind the windows was less a display of saleable goods than seemingly-haphazard piles of junk: Victorian tools for tasks no longer done, moth-eaten clothing faded to colourlessness, carved bits of wood with no discernable aesthetic or practical function.
"Curiosities," read a small sign over the door. Had the boy been of an imaginative turn of mind, he might have realised that the word applied equally well to the building, the merchandise, and himself. But he seemed too preoccupied for such flights of fancy and scarcely glanced at the sign as he shifted his bundle to his hip and took a deep breath. Opening the door slowly, he stepped into the gloomy interior.
--- /// --- /// ---
At first the room appeared empty, but then a figure straightened up from behind an old-fashioned counter, the movement sending dust motes swirling in the dim light.
It was a man, pale, hawk-nosed, and severe. Dressed in a black frock coat and high collar, his dark hair brushing his shoulders, he looked as if he might have been standing in the same place for a century, for all that he didn't seem to be old.
"Yes?" he asked sharply, and the boy flushed. Without speaking, he shoved his parcel onto the crowded counter, knocking aside a tarnished candelabrum and a hair wreath.
"How much?" he asked finally, after the proprietor made no move to touch the tartan-wrapped object.
The man curled his lip. "I suppose I am to conclude from that articulate and effective sales pitch that you wish me to purchase this. . .ancient horse blanket and a rag."
The boy's flushed deepened. He was young, perhaps only fourteen or fifteen, and he seemed momentarily too scared to move. Then his hand darted forward to tug on the wrappings, and the old blanket fell open.
Atop it lay what appeared to be a miniaturized stuffed rhinoceros -- not a children's toy, but an actual animal, preserved as a poor example of the taxidermist's art. The stretched grey skin had begun to crack, and sawdust had trailed out onto the blanket. One of the glass eyeballs appeared to be missing. A leg had been broken off, a stick of wood dangling from the torn end. Although about half the size of a real baby rhino, this one looked like an elderly adult, complete with horn. Its vaguely sour odor appeared to reach the prominent nose of the proprietor, who wrinkled that appendage fastidiously and narrowed his eyes.
"Where did you get this?"
The boy began to back towards the door. "Don't remember," he mumbled.
Before he could take another step, the man had rounded the counter and grabbed hold of his jacket. "I asked you," he said smoothly, "where you got this?"
The pulled fabric must have been uncomfortably tight against the boy's neck, but he didn't appear to notice. All his attention was on the slim black wand being pointed at his throat.
"I.. .I. . ..they said you would buy the dark things!" he burst out, flicking terrified eyes toward the man's face.
"Who said so?" demanded the man. "Where. . .?"
At that moment, the rhinoceros began to glow an eerie green, and a pungent black mist streamed from its eye socket and broken leg. The smell of dark magic lay thick in the air as the man turned sharply to look at the smoking beast.
Instantly the boy broke free of his grip and pelted for the door, flinging it wide with a crash and hurtling to the pavement outside. The man raised his wand toward the fleeing figure, and his lips had even begun to form a hex when, behind him, the rhinoceros exploded in a shower of green flame.
His frock coat billowing, the shop owner spun toward the sound as flakes of fire soared and then burned themselves out one by one. The fog of dark magic was cloying, choking, and for a moment the man could do nothing but cover his streaming eyes and try to still his coughs.
Then a voice cut through the murk.
"Severus Snape," it rasped. "As I barely live and breathe. Well, don't just stand there, boy. Come and save me."
--- /// --- /// ---
Three hours later, Snape stood in the spare room above his shop and looked at the figure lying on the bed.
Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody.
Auror extraordinaire, scourge of Death Eaters, pillar of the Order of the Phoenix. Held by popular legend to be as dangerous as the villains he tracked. Morally ambiguous, physically frightening, devastatingly effective. . .
Or at least, so the wizarding world had believed. It was one of the indelible stories of the war -- how Moody and a host of others had gone to smuggle Harry Potter from the home of his Muggle relatives to the safety of the Weasleys' Burrow. How the rescuers had taken polyjuice potion so they could all look like Harry and could confuse Voldemort and his followers. How Moody had been hit by a curse from Voldemort himself and had fallen from his broom, plummeting to certain death.
Yet evidently the history books were wrong. Somehow Moody had managed to go from being a dying Auror high in the air above Surrey to being a stuffed rhinoceros in an out-of-the-way shop in the Cotswolds. The details of this little transformation remained a mystery to Snape; he'd been too busy bringing Moody back from the edge of the Veil to enquire into particulars.
The ex-Auror had not been exaggerating when he'd said that he barely lived and breathed: it had taken all of Snape's skill with potion and healing spell to stabilize him, and even now, there was no guarantee that the old warrior would make it through the night. With broken bones and internal injuries and the sort of neurological disruption that only a strong curse could cause, he'd need careful dosing and monitoring if he were to have even half a chance.
Gathering vials, instruments, books, blankets, and a small decanter of good firewhisky, Snape settled down for a long vigil.
--- /// --- /// ---
Three days passed before Moody regained consciousness, and then he did so suddenly and fully and with his customary charm.
"I need the fucking loo," he barked, sitting up abruptly. "Now."
Snape didn't appear startled; he simply stood, pulled a chamber pot from beneath the bed, and offered it silently.
Moody pushed it aside. "I said the loo, boy," he snarled. "I'm not about to do my pissing in a damned pot."
"You'll get up when I say you're able to get up, old man, and not before," Snape replied, meeting snarl with snarl as he held out the chamber pot once more. "Here. I'll help you."
Scowling, Moody struggled to the edge of the bed. "No, you bloody well won't. I haven't needed anyone to hold my dick since I was two. Well, not for pissing, anyway. Now, where's the loo? I can levitate myself."
"Be my guest," said Snape and put down the pot. "Oh, wait. . .you already are. Please -- allow me to continue to extend my hospitality." Stepping to the table of supplies that he'd set up next to the bed, he extracted Moody's wand from amid the clutter of bottles and jars and handed it to him, then watched impassively as the other man tried, and failed, to cast a levitation charm.
"What's the matter?" Snape asked after a moment, raising a sardonic eyebrow. "Finally realised that you don't have a leg to stand on?"
"Dammit!" Moody roared. "What's happened to my magic?"
Snape shrugged. "Temporary loss of magic is a common side effect of trauma," he said. "Yours should return in time, as you heal."
"Should? There better not be any 'should' about it." Moody leaned back and glared. "Now are you going to give me the bleeding piss-pot or not?"
Snape left Moody to his own devices, and when he returned to the bedroom, it was with tea and a newly-transfigured eye-patch. Moody, his face ashen, lay back on his pillow, but he'd stowed the chamber pot under the bed and smoothed the quilt. He opened his good eye as Snape entered.
"Yes, I could have poisoned this," Snape said, handing him a steaming mug. "So feel free not to drink it; it's up to you whether you want to die fairly quickly of poison or slowly of dehydration."
Moody took a hefty gulp and sighed with pleasure. "There'll be no poison in this, boy. You're not a dark one, no matter what mark you wear. You're one of us. Didn't believe it before, but I do now."
"Why?" Snape gave Moody the eye patch and watched as he adjusted it over his empty socket.
"Do you think I would have de-rhino'd for just any one?" Moody demanded, lifting his mug again and tossing back the rest of the tea in a single swallow.
"Transfigured back into myself. Shuffled off the rhino coil, to borrow a phrase. Yeah, that's right, Hamlet. Don't look so shocked, boy. You're not the only one round here's heard of Muggle plays."
"You transfigured yourself into a stuffed rhino." Snape didn't need to sneer with incredulity; his sardonically-raised eyebrow indicated his scepticism with elegant efficiency.
"That's right. A stuffed rhino with only one leg and one eye, which should have been a clue if you'd been paying attention. But clearly that bit was too subtle for the likes of you. Here," he said, thrusting his mug toward Snape. "I could do with another cuppa."
Snape didn't move. "First, I require some answers. How did you come to be transfigured into that moth-eaten bag of sawdust? There was dark magic in it, old man. I could smell it. And how did said dark, moth-eaten bag of sawdust come into the possession of the unappealing yob who brought it to my shop? And finally," he said, Summoning a high-backed chair and sinking into it, "you will tell my just why is it that you now believe I am to be trusted."
Moody frowned. "No one is ever completely to be trusted. Thought you'd have learnt that by now. But to the extent that I do trust you. . .that moth-eaten bag of sawdust was charmed to respond only to Order members in good standing and safe circumstances. When that kid brought me in here, I could feel from across the room that you were suitable. And it was about fucking time; I was beginning to think I was going to spend eternity as a fat grey blob with a horn sticking out of my head. "
"That's it? You could 'feel that I was suitable'?"
"You want to hear more? Tea, then. Or I don't say another sodding word."
Snape didn't even bother with his wand; he simply waved a careless hand, and the cup replenished itself.
Moody gave a tight nod that might have been an indication of thanks. "The night we moved Potter. I saw you curse that Weasley boy, whichever one it was. Clear shot, you had. Could have killed him dead. Would have, if you'd been a real DE. So I started to have my doubts then. Not that I had long to think about it, not with You-Know-Who on my tail."
"You can say his name now. He's dead."
"Ah. Thought he must be." Moody paused, looking thoughtful. "Dead. Good. By Potter's hand?"
"By Potter's hand. More or less."
Moody waited, but Snape didn't expand on this terse response. "Details to come, eh? Fine. You can have my story first, if that's what you want. Right. Well, back to the night we moved Potter. I'd have been a fool not to know that my chances of coming back alive from that mission were piss-poor to none. And I don't think I have to tell you," he went on, managing a glare that would have done his old mad-eye proud, "I'm no fool.
"That's why I had several different contingency plans. When You- . . .when Voldemort's curse hit me, I activated my soft-landing charm and hit the ground with only a couple of broken bones. But he'd done me some other damage, too, the bastard. I knew I wasn't going to last long enough to be found, assuming anyone even came looking for me. So I had to put myself in stasis. Sustinere charm. Had just enough strength left to cast it."
"A sustinere charm?" Snape said. He sat forward, his eyes narrowing. "But those are finite because they involve transfiguration. You'd have come out of it long before this. And your magic is damaged; you wouldn't have been able to recast -- "
"There are ways, boy. If you know how, you can use the sustinere to keep someone under control for years. There's ways. Dark ways, maybe, but so what? Never denied they had their uses."
"What sort of dark ways?"
"What the hell difference does it make?"
"Are you serious? Moody the Auror? Moody the moral judge of the rest of us is asking me what difference the dark ways make? You know there's always a cost --"
"Aye, and I paid it. That's all you need to know. I fucking paid it, Death-Eater boy."
Snape was on his feet and at the bedside in one movement. "Don't," he gritted, his face mere inches from Moody's, "call me 'boy.'"
Not to be outdone, Moody levered himself up on his elbows and shoved his own face forward. "Don't act like a prat, then. We both know dark. We've both done dark. Leave it there."
They glared at each other, hook nose to battered nose, neither apparently willing to be the first to back off. Their eyes held, and the heat built, until gradually a flush stained Snape's pale skin, and Moody's breathing deepened.
If they felt a change in the air between them, they didn't indicate it. And if either felt a jolt to his groin, he no doubt wrote it off as merely a physiological reaction based on the other's proximity. It had, after all, been a long time for both of them.
Yet they both seemed stiff as they finally, slowly pulled away from each other, one settling into his pillows, the other returning to his chair. When Snape spoke again, a long moment later, his tone was neutral.
"So. You put yourself in long-term stasis. Do I want to know why you chose to be a rhinoceros?"
Moody's craggy face split in a wolfish grin. "Probably not. It was just a little joke for Minerva."
"Yeah, I expected her to be the one to restore me. . .Wait a minute." Moody's voice was harsh. "What's wrong? Did we lose Minerva? Tell me this goddamned minute."
"No, we didn't lose Minerva. She's fine. She's Headmistress now."
"Thank Merlin." The older man closed his eye and sagged further against the pillow.
Snape eyed him curiously. "I wasn't aware you knew her well."
"Oh, aye, we go back a few years. Quite a few. In fact, I got pretty shirty with Min over that business of Barty Crouch and the polyjuice; I thought she should have known it wasn't me. But she explained what he. . .well, never mind." The wolfish expression crept back. "Let's just say we patched things up."
"And you thought she'd be able to find you?"
"I told you I had contingency plans. I left papers, instructions. One parchment was for Min's wand only -- telling her to how to look for a rhino if ever I went missing. Evidently she didn't receive it."
"What was the joke?"
"The joke. You said you transfigured into a rhino as a joke for Minerva."
"Doesn't matter, boy. She'd have understood it; that's what counts."
"I said don't call me 'boy.' And you still haven't explained how your rhinoceros ended up in my shop."
"Well, as long as we're talking about explaining, you haven't explained why the hell you even have a shop. You mean you played Dumbledore's dangerous spy game, you took your life in your hands, you did your bit to save the world from the forces of darkness -- all so that you could run a damned shop?"
Snape rose and walked to the window; Moody followed him with his good eye and rubbed the skin under his eye patch. And he waited.
"It's been just about two years since the night you went into stasis," Snape said finally. "And the war has been over for a little more than a year. There was a battle. At Hogwarts. It ended with Potter confronting Voldemort and Voldemort dying from his own rebounding Avada Kedavra. In the course of the fighting, I was wounded in the Shrieking Shack and left for dead. When Minerva and Filius came to collect my corpse, they discovered that I wasn't quite one yet. They arranged a quiet place for me to recover, and once I did, I found that I wanted to absent myself from wizarding felicity for a while."
He glanced back towards Moody with a half-smile. "You see, I've read my Muggle plays, too. In any case, Minerva arranged with Shacklebolt -- he's the Minister now -- for me to get a special veteran's pension, and I set myself up here. Minerva is the only one who knows where I am."
This time, he looked Moody straight in the eye. "And now you."
Moody stared back. "Obviously there's a lot you aren't saying. Fair enough. Well, almost enough. You still haven't said why a shop."
Snape circled back to his chair and sat. "Constant vigilance," he said.
"That's my line, boy."
"So I've heard. The war may be over, Moody, but the darkness isn't."
"You think that's news to me?"
"Yes, yes," Snape said, waving away this belligerence with an impatient hand. "You've established your darkness-hating bona fides. Thus it should also not be news to you that there are any number of dark artifacts still in circulation. The temptation they represent can be irresistible, Moody. You know that. No one is immune. No one. Not you, not me, not Dumbledore. The lure of power is too strong. So I've made up my mind to remove the temptations when I can. That's why I've become a collector of curiosities. I let it be known that I seek out the dark objects. And sometimes, as with a certain broken rhinoceros, they come seeking me."
"And what do you do with them?"
"Hide them. Ward them. Destroy them when I can."
"Minerva helps sometimes. But mostly alone, yes. I prefer it."
"You always were a secretive cuss, Snape." Moody gave a single bark of laughter. "And now you're stuck with me."
"Indeed. It will be a few more days until you're up and around. And in the meantime, you're going to tell me about your life as a dark object."
Moody grunted. "Not much to tell. It's not like I was fully aware or conscious while I was in the rhino state, thank Merlin. Not even Crouch's bloody trunk was that kind of hell. I could sense certain things, that's all. Whether there was magic present. Whether it was dark or light magic. If people were there and whether they were male or female, adult or child. Whether anyone from the Order was around. And that's about it."
He held out his tea mug again. "Got a little nip to go in here?" he asked, after it had been refilled.
"If you tried mixing Ogden's Old with the number of potions in your system, you wouldn't need magic to move; you could probably levitate yourself through sheer chemical combustion. So, no."
"Dammit, boy! It's been two bloody years since I've even pissed like a man. The least you can do is offer me a little comfort."
"The least you can do, old man, is offer me a little gratitude for saving your sorry arse," Snape spat. "And if you call me 'boy' again, you'll be back to rhino-hood so fast that any kind of pissing at all will be just a happy memory."
Moody's face turned an alarming shade of puce, and he opened his mouth in what looked like the start of a roar.
"Fine, then," he said mildly. "Thank you for saving my sorry arse, you miserable fuck."
The sound that reached his ears was one he had never heard before: Severus Snape laughing.
--- /// --- /// ---
It wasn't until after dinner and another round of potions and chamber pots that they returned to the subject of Moody's career as a stuffed rhinoceros.
"It was Muggles got to me first -- a kid," Moody said, grimacing as he tried to find a comfortable position on the bed. "I'd lost my magic eye when I fell. My broom, too. Once I changed into the rhino, I was bloody helpless, but at least I wasn't dead. This Muggle kid happened along and spotted me. Took me home and kept me on a goddamn shelf in his room for what must have been months. Thought I was going to bleeding rot there. But finally his mum cleaned house, and I ended up on some kind of display table. Jumble sale or something. Mostly Muggles around, but every now and then I could sense a prickle of magic when someone passed by."
His face grew grim. "Then I felt the dark ones. Unmistakable. They could sense me, too. Picked me up. Two of them, man and a woman. Apparated home with me. In the end, I just exchanged one shelf for another. But I wasn't the only dark item they owned, not by a long chalk. Could feel others all around me."
"And the boy?" Snape prompted.
"The couple's son, I'd guess. They fought, the man and the woman did. I could feel the anger, the spite. Could feel the boy, too. He was afraid, sometimes. But cunning, crafty. He'd come in and mess with the dark things. They came and went, the dark items; I could sense the different magics. Then one day it was my turn to go. I could tell that it was the boy who brought me here; he was anxious and excited both."
Snape nodded. "He must have learned about me from his parents. He knew that I was in the market for dark artifacts. I wonder if I've met the parents on any of my buying trips? I'll have to track them down, go after their other dark objects. I don't suppose you have any sense of their location?"
Moody shook his head but didn't speak; he was clearly exhausted. His face was pale enough to be almost indistinguishable from the pillow, and Snape rose, dimming the candles with his wand. "I'll leave you to your rest. The pot is within easy reach, and I will return to administer your potions in another few hours."
"I can take my own damned potions," Moody growled.
"You are under my care, and you will do as I say," Snape replied, heading towards the door.
Moody's eye glinted suddenly. "I'll take my medicine and like it, is that what you're saying? Like to be on top, do you, boy?"
Snape turned. His face was shadowed as he stood framed in the light from the passageway, and his shoulders were tight. But he said only, "Go to sleep, old man."