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Villain of the Piece

Part 2  Youthful Indiscretions

- Chapter  24 -

Chapter 24:   Riding both Horses

9th January to 15th March 1980

Christmas was Severus’s only winter break from work and from his room in Camden.  He returned to Snarebeck for the holiday and his mother’s new gentleman friend came to dinner on Christmas Day.  Severus was pleasantly surprised; the man was a wizard who worked for Obscurus Books, and they got on quite well together.

After that things returned to normal – the shabby lodgings, the monotony of work, and the damp dullness of London in January.  Even his birthday looked as if it would pass unremarked, but as he slipped out of Nobody’s Perfect a little after five o’clock he bumped into a leather cap hurrying by in the rain, and hunched behind it was a skinny girl.

“Honor!”

“Severus!  Where did you spring from?”

Her eyes darted in the direction of the shop window but Severus heard the squelch that told him that Nobody’s Perfect had sealed itself from view.

“Nowhere in particular” he replied smoothly.  “What about you?”

“Gladrags” Honor replied, “But I couldn’t get what I wanted.  Let’s not stand in the rain … It’s about time you bough me a drink, you old skinflint.  Do I have to ask you, to ask me out?”

He grinned.  “Let’s make it the Cauldron, then” he said.

It was good to be in out of the rain and to see the flickering firelight.  Honor held out her hands to the heat.

“What’s it to be, then?” Severus asked, but as she turned a look of embarrassment crossed her face and Severus realised that she had remembered his job situation.

“I’ll get these” she said breezily.

“No you won’t” he replied hotly.  “You have to ask me to ask you out, and then you have to buy your own drink?  No chance, madam.  Now, what’s it to be?  Gillywater?  Corrigan’s?”

She smiled.  “Gillywater please.  Shall we sit over there?”

He brought the drinks over to the secluded table she had chosen.

“Your good health” Honor said, raising her glass.

“You can wish me happy birthday if you like” Severus told her.

“Oh, is it today?”

“It is” he drawled.  “I was launched into this world twenty-one years ago, today.  The swinging sixties had not begun.  No one had heard of mini skirts, or maxi coats, or The Beatles.  But of course you know that because you, poor girl, are even older. Lucky, it doesn’t show.”

Honor laughed.  “Interesting chat-up line, Severus” she teased.  “So, no birthday party for you?  Not going drinking with the boys, tonight?”

“No, that’s not really me” he admitted.  “I happened to see them at The Lone Dragon, but it wasn’t any kind of planned reunion.  I’m not a great one for keeping in touch.  By the way, my head healed very nicely.”

He showed her the old wound over which dark hair was already growing.

“Good” she observed.  “Perhaps I should have been a Healer.  Oh, sorry – keep putting my foot in–”

“Not at all” Severus assured her.  “You are presuming I am unemployed.  That is not the case.”

“Great!  Whadderyer doing?”

“Can’t say.  Sorry.  It’s hush-hush.”

Honor looked disappointed.

“Oh!  Oh, well, okay” she replied.  “Well – anyway – you needn’t do totally without a party because I’m thinking of having a party soon.  Well, as soon as I can afford it.  I’ve moved house; bought my own flat.  Mortgaged till doomsday, but at least it’s mine!  So in due course I will have a flat-warming party.  It won’t be anything grand – just a beer ’n’ sausage do, probably.  Very informal.  Just friends, and my uncle and his daughter.  All the family I’ve got in this country.  Uncle Willy helped me buy the flat; he’s been very good to me.”

It seemed that her uncle, Wilhelm Wigworthy, whom Honor had lived with before she got her own home, had lent her the deposit.  Her uncle was also her legal guardian – her parents having died years before.  Severus soaked up the details like blotting paper soaking up ink.  Honor, meanwhile, had a question about the invitation.

“When I do the invitations, I’ll owl you, okay?” she asked.  “If I just put your name on the envelope my owl’ll find you.  You do live in London, don’t you.”

Severus agreed to be owled but decided not to divulge his address, even though he knew that Honor knew about his humble digs.

“So will your old school friends be coming?” he enquired.  “Regulus?  And you did mention a girl – an older girl–  Olive Green?”

“What a memory!” Honor exclaimed.  “Regulus, yes, of course.  But poor Olive?  No, she won’t be coming.  I haven’t seen her for years.  Funny you should ask me about her.”

“Funny?  In what way?”

“Lily Evans – Lily Potter, I should say – she asked me about Olive.  Had I seen her.  Did I know if she was alright.”

“And did you?  Do you?”

“Nah!”  Honor looked dejected.  “That’s when I tried to get in touch again, but I still drew a blank.  Olive’s gone.  Disappeared.”

As the conversation unfolded it became clear that Olive was not the only person who had disappeared; Cheryl Stevens had, too.  Honor went to the bar and came back with two more drinks, anxious to pursue the topic, and yet somehow hesitant.

“Look, I didn’t intend to discuss this” she hissed, sounding almost on the verge of anger.  “All I intended was to invite you to my party, and here I am spilling all my worries to you.”

“Well, that’s what friends are for” Severus said soothingly.

“Yes, but … Okay, I’m glad you consider yourself a friend” Honor sighed, “But I’m not sure I would have chosen to tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Are you still buddy-buddy with Lucius Malfoy?”

“What of it?”

Are you?”

“We’re not ‘as thick as thieves’ as it were, but yes, we do occasionally socialise.  I’m not ‘as thick as thieves with anyone’ ” Severus added carefully.  “It’s not my style, Honor.  I thought you might know that.”

“Yes, I suppose I do know that, really” she admitted.  “Okay, Severus, look at it this way.  Olive and I were never great friends but I knew her way, way back.  I knew her in the days when she was a pretty blonde child, not a grey-haired old lady.  Her father got himself into trouble with someone.  He upset someone – someone important or influential.  Pressure was put on him to do something he didn’t want to do.  When he refused, Olive was framed for crimes against a family of Muggles.  She spent a year in Azkaban.  She came out a wreck – she’d gone grey, she was a bundle of nerves.  And meanwhile her dad had capitulated, or had been forced to.  Anyway, Dumbledore let Olive finish her schooling.  He even let her re-take a whole year because she was in such a state.  That’s why she was at Hogwarts past the normal leaving age.  And that’s why she looks so old.  Do you know what it’s like in Azkaban?”

Whether he knew or not, Honor told him.

“But where does Lucius come into this?” Severus demanded gently when she had finished a graphic account of the effect of the Dementors.

“Olive always blamed the Malfoys for putting pressure on her family, and for getting her arrested” Honor replied.  “She hated Lucius Malfoy.  Hated him!  Wouldn’t trust him an inch.  And you know what Malfoy was like about Cheryl Stevens when we were all at school.  And now Cheryl’s gone!  Both of them, gone.  Fled or dead.”

“But Olive’s pure-blood, isn’t she?  Lucius merely had no time for Cheryl because–”

“I’m not saying she isn’t” Honor interrupted, looking pained.  “I’m not saying that the reason was the same in both cases.  “I’m just saying this – beware the Malfoys, because anyone they take against is done for, sooner or later.  So I think they are best avoided.”

“What evidence do you have about this?” Severus asked.  Honor hesitated.  “Is it only what Olive has told you?” he persisted  “Yes, I can see that it is–”

“She was in Azkaban.”

“Yes, of course.  I’m not disputing that.  I mean what evidence do you have that Lucius was behind any of the trouble?”

“Oh, trust you to defend him!”

“I’m not defending him, Honor.  I’m just trying to disentangle verifiable facts from unconfirmed information that people decide to give us.  I’ve seen Lucius and his friends at various do’s over the years.  I even went to his wedding.  He likes to chum up with people from the Ministry and the legislature, and so forth.  He’s similar to Slughorn – likes celebrities or those in positions of power.  I can tell you, with my hand on my heart, that he has never mentioned Olive Green or any of her family.  Nor has he ever mentioned Cheryl.  I don’t believe he has any interest in them whatsoever.  In fact I think if you asked him about Cheryl Stevens he’d reply ‘Who?’ and be genuinely struggling to remember the girl.”

“Well, I just hope you’re right” Honor said gravely.  “If you’re right then I’m barking up the wrong tree.  And so what if I am – it won’t kill me.  But if I’m right, then I’m doing the sensible thing.  And where does that leave you?  Either you’re doing a stupid thing, as I keep warning you; or you’re as bad as the Malfoys.”

“Or, for all you know, even worse.”

“That, too … Merlin’s beard!” she added, as the implication of his logic sunk in.  “Don’t say that.  (She sighed and looked wistful.) What is it about stubborn men?  Regulus won’t listen to me, either.  As I said before, you’re both as bad as each other.”

“Perhaps you like bad boys” Severus purred.  “Perhaps you have a soft spot for them.”

Honor looked sceptical.  “I wouldn’t bet on it” she murmured.

“Oh dear” Severus said, pretending to be worried.  “Is that why you’re giving me such a hard time?”

“Am I?  Oops – yes, perhaps I am” Honor decided.  “It’s just occurred to me that I’ve slighted your best friends, and I’ve burdened you with all my worries.  What else can I do to you?”

“Hmm, let’s see” Severus replied in a teasing tone.  “Very well; at the risk of re-opening a can of worms, I’m intrigued to hear why Lily wanted to get in touch with Olive.  You could enlighten me.”

“Ah, yes!” Honor said, seizing upon it.  “I knew there was something.  This adds weight to my ‘trust Olive, not Malfoy’ argument.  Lily works at the Ministry, doing something very secret.  She wouldn’t go into details as to why she wanted to check on Olive.  But it was just that – to check on her, and to be sure she’s safe.  And she is far from safe!  Lily’s not a fool, Severus.  Something bad has happened or is happening.”

“But if Lily wouldn’t tell you the details, it’s all still hear-say and could mean anything” Severus pointed out.

“Lily can’t go into specifics” Honor replied irritably.  “Her job is too secret.  You’re not the only one to have a hush-hush job.  Hey, Severus; do you work at the Ministry too?  Are you both in the same line?”

“If you are going to chip away at this to try to make me reveal what I do, I’m sorry, I must disappoint you” Severus said firmly.  “All I am prepared to say is that the work is delicate and highly confidential.”

Honor had to be content with that.

They decided to stay and eat at the Cauldron, and go Dutch with the bill.  Honor chose scampi, chips and salad, and Severus the steak-and-ale pie with winter vegetables.  After that neither wanted a pudding – nothing on the menu tempted Severus sufficiently, and Honor was too full.

 

Back at last in the seclusion of Flora’s lodging house, Severus thought over their conversation.  He had lied by omission.  He had given the impression that he was not a close friend of the Malfoys.  But these days that was just not true – he did consider himself to be a family friend and he hoped that situation would strengthen.  Nor could he say for certain that Lucius had never mentioned Olive Green – she had just never been named in his presence, as far as he could remember, but she might have been the subject of conversations.  And he was not with Lucius every waking moment – there were probably dozens of people that Lucius spoke about outside of Severus’s earshot.

But in his heart of hearts he was convinced that Lucius knew nothing about Cheryl, and really had no interest in her.  It was just a gut feeling – much like the hunch that Honor had about the Malfoys being dangerous.  It was not based on clear evidence.

Lack of evidence – he had deflected her with that smart move!  That had stalled her, but it probably wouldn’t stop her.  But her dislike of the Malfoys was quite possibly just an irrational prejudice.

And yet … the Malfoys hated Muggles, and they were capable of persecuting their enemies.  In that respect, it all rang true.

And ‘fled or dead’ Honor had said.  That had a horrible ring of truth too; more and more the Daily Prophet reported unexplained deaths and disappearances.  One or two at first, and then one or two more, and so it continued.  Olive and Cheryl’s situations had yet to make it to the media, but it was inevitable that eventually a friend of his would be numbered among them.  Or a friend of Honor’s.

And whose friend are you, Severus asked himself.  Are you Lucius’s friend or Honor’s friend?  Or do you want to ride both horses?  I am my own friend, he decided.  I shall go to Honor’s party if she invites me.  I shall keep in with the Malfoys.  I shall do whatever suits me best.