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Villain of the Piece

Part 3  Waiting Games

- Chapter  37 -

 Chapter 37:   The Dark Lord’s Helping Hand

5th to 29th September 1981

On Saturday morning there was a post-breakfast staff meeting which Minerva insisted would be brief.  All the staff crowded into Dumbledore’s office for it.  Aurora Sinistra and Rolanda Hooch arrived together, discussing Quidditch.

“Well if I need a deputy ref, I’ll bear you in mind” Rolanda was saying.  “I need someone young and fit after last year’s disaster.”

“Refereeing?” Aurora gasped.  “I didn’t mean I know the rules that well–”

“You got here then” Slinkhard said to Aurora, cutting across her words.

“Evidently!” she replied.  “Remarkable powers of observation, Willy.”

“Well, you got lost on your way to dinner most nights so far” he said by way of explanation.

Aurora scowled.  “Have I indeed?” she retorted.  “Have you been stalking me, Wilbert?”

“It’s just that I know the castle is tricky for those who are new to it.”

Pretending to smile sweetly she said “I thought you were new to it, too.  But of course – you remember it from schooldays.”

“Naturally.”

“Hmm!  What an extremely long memory you must have!”

Taking this as his cue, Dumbledore tapped his wand against a water jug.  “Now, now” he said, ignoring the jug which had misinterpreted his intention and was magically refilling, “If I may have your attention – we do not have much business to get through.  I just want to know how you are all doing, and then you can go back to enjoying the weekend, or, in the case of Willy and Aurora, you can go back to abusing one another.  Now … student discipline … is there anything to report…?”

Aside from Argus Filch complaining about magic in the corridors, there was nothing of great consequence so Dumbledore moved on to other matters.

“You may remember” he said, picking up a copy of Thursday’s Daily Prophet, “That there was a fire at a paper mill in Snodland.  That fire started early on Wednesday morning and was mercifully quenched by heavy rain on the following day.  I say mercifully, because the Muggle fire crews couldn’t cope – the fire kept braking out afresh and they couldn’t understand why.  The Ministry noticed this and stepped in to help.  Covertly of course.”

“Are you implying it was a magical fire, Headmaster?” Filius asked.

“That’s what the Ministry are wondering” Dumbledore replied.  “And they are wondering why.  What is so special about Snodland?”

“Heaven knows!” Wilbert chortled, looking round and laughing.  “Where on earth is Snodland?”

Kent!” Minerva said crisply.

“Dedalus Diggle then” Wilbert replied, enjoying the chuckles it drew.

“Quirky as he is, I don’t think Dedalus goes round, setting fires” Dumbledore pointed out.

“You forget what he’s like on Guy Fawkes nights” Pomona chipped in.  “Lethal!  Nothing he likes better than to gee-up a Muggle bonfire party.”

This caused general merriment, but Dumbledore called the staff to order.  “I don’t want to alarm you” he said gently, “But I do want you to think about this, and what it might mean, because it is a mystery.  Well, that is all – off you go.”

As they filed out of the Headmaster’s office Severus sat back wondering.  Did they really treat the world outside Hogwarts with such contempt?  Did they really not care about the civil war that was taking place within the magical community?  No, they care, he decided.  They care most deeply.  They’re frightened, and they value the sanctuary that Dumbledore has created; but they like to put a brave face on it.  Especially Slinkhard – and especially in front of Aurora.  So be it, just so long as they never lose touch with reality.

“Coming, Severus, or are you going to sit there all day?”

He looked up.  Professor Sprout was giving him a quizzical look.

“Just thinking” he replied.  “Wondering … Were you serious about what you said about Diggle?”

“Well, no, not really” she said.  “Dedalus does enjoy a bit of a laugh, but I don’t think he’d start a fire.  And not maliciously.”

“What about by accident?”

“No.  He’d be able to control it” she insisted.  “He’s too good a wizard to let it get out of hand, and as I say, he’s mischievous but not malicious.  He and Albus are good friends.  If there was any chance it was him Albus would deal with it in private, not drag it all out in front of us.  Well, I’ve got some Russian sage to plant.  Hey – that’s a point – Severus, has anyone told you, yet, about the roof garden?”

“What roof garden?”

“Ah!  I thought not” she beamed.  “We have the use of the flat roof above the Trophy Room.  Septima and I take care of the plants, and staff can sit in the garden any time.  It makes a nice change from the staff room.  Do try it.  The password is mallowsweet and the stair to it is behind that tapestry of Bridget Wenlock … See you later.”

Severus took a look at the roof garden.  It was full of rosemary and lavender growing in troughs and tubs.  There was marjoram and sage too, and he found a new tub of Russian sage – its stems still in bloom.  The air was full of volatiles.

He found a steamer chair and sat for a while, reading David Copperfield because he was in a mood for a book, and one that was totally Muggle.  Then shortly after eleven he decided on a walk through the grounds.  Aurora and Rolanda were flying around the Quidditch pitch, throwing a Quaffle through a goal hoop to each other.  She’s ambidextrous, he noticed – she can throw as strongly with either arm and fly without using her hands.  He watched the witches for a while, before crossing the parkland to skirt the wood.  Two Gryffindors had strayed into the edge of the forest so he was able to take two points apiece.  It gave him a good appetite for lunch.  And in the afternoon he took a walk into Hogsmeade and bought a birthday card and gift to owl to Honor that evening.

 

All too soon the weekend was over and Monday arrived.  Seventh-years, then second-years, then fourths, then fifths…  As the days slipped by, the company of children grated on Severus’s nerves.

But he had little genuine cause for complaint.  There was mayhem outside but the castle was a safe haven, and Quidditch trials were about to take place.  Ironically, for the first time in his life Severus was becoming seriously interested in the noble sport of Warlocks.  He found it a useful diversion from the irritations of the classroom and he had decided to help his Captain build the best Slytherin Quidditch team ever, so that his House could thrash Gryffindor.  That will be one in the eye for McGonagall, he said to himself, and her fond reminiscences of James Potter and Sirius Black.  Their day is over – they are out in the wide world, far from Hogwarts.

As for the wide world – well, what of it, really?  The Dark Lord had failed to find the Potters; the Daily Prophet might report inexplicable disappearances and motiveless murders, but never concerning James, Lily, nor their baby son.  An occasional Death Eater or two might get captured, but Severus was never in a position to be at risk of capture.  His mother, safe too, was beginning to warm to the attentions of Argus Filch.  And as for himself – he was Dumbledore’s pet spy, and the Dark Lord’s pet placement, and not at the moment bothered by either ‘master’.  It was the perfect set up.  If one discounted the war casualties, and the furore about them caused by the press, the only disquieting factor in his life was the lack of romantic female company.

At the start of the second week he received a letter from Honor, thanking him for the birthday parcel and asking how his first week had gone.

I will not deny (he wrote back) that being cloistered with a predominance of childish minds is irksome, tiresome, wearying.  But I’ll cope of course.  Actually some of the older students are quite conscientious.  The OWL and NEWT years are below par, but I’ll lick them into shape.  The younger ones are more easily dealt with – it is a simple matter to overawe them.

But if I am ever tempted towards fatherhood, Honor, have me put down like a sick dog because I will have lost all reason.

And how are you?  I’m sorry that my gift couldn’t be anything more special.  Hogsmeade is a bit limited for shopping.  I’ll make it up to you at Christmas time.  Perhaps we can spend some time together in London once the term ends.  I’ll encourage all my students to go home…

 

It looked as though being a House Master would make it difficult for Severus to have a private life away from school during term-time, and he wondered if Honor had suspected as much.  She had intimated that teaching might not suit him, but was it more a case of would it suit her?

He pushed the question to the back of his mind, turned his attention to the Quidditch trials and a fortnight later called Jeremy Wagtail to his office.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”  Jeremy said, unable to keep the anxiousness out of his voice.  He was a hefty fourth-year boy for whom Slughorn had recommended the captaincy.  Severus had had no say in the matter.

“Sit down, Jeremy.”  Severus gazed across his empty desk to where the Slytherin boy sat stolid in his robes, his tie slightly askew.  “I want to hear your opinion of how the tryouts are going” he said softly.

“Oh.  About Quidditch!” Jeremy sighed, relieved that he was not in trouble over anything.  “Err, I’ve pretty well got my line up, sir.  And I’ve put Phoebe in the bank for next year.”

“Just King?”

“Well … yeah” Jeremy shrugged.

“What about Halliday?”

“Halliday?”  A puzzled frown creased the boy’s forehead.  Sam Halliday?”

The black eyes glittered.  “I wasn’t aware that we had a profusion of Hallidays” Severus said in the same soft voice.  “Although, more’s the pity, because he flies well for a first-year.  But … not well enough for you.”

“He’s a … His parents are Muggles, sir” Jeremy said carefully.

“I’m well aware of that” Severus replied.  “What of it?”

“Well, some of the others mightn’t like a Mudblood in the team.”

“Who – for example – might not like it?”

Jeremy halted, caught out.  He knew of only one person who might openly object.  “Well, Gwen” he ended lamely.

“Miss Jones?”

“Exactly.  Can’t afford to lose her.”

“You think Miss Jones would forsake her House team – give up the chance of playing her most favourite sport – just because she disapproved of one of your appointments?”

“Well, put like that–”

Severus gave his team Captain a withering look.  They both knew that hell was more likely to freeze over than Gwenog Jones give up Quidditch at her renowned boarding school.  Jeremy sat in silence as Severus got up and turned to stroke the Quidditch Cup that stood on the shelf behind him.

“You think, Jeremy” he continued, “That you can win with just one star player – the inestimable Miss Jones?  That she and she alone can deliver us a victory?”

“Are you telling me to bring in Halliday, sir?” Jeremy asked quietly.  He wanted to stop the fencing and get to the point.

No, thought Severus.  It isn’t as simple as that.  Nor am I boxing you in as much as you think.  “I am asking you” he continued “To consider how we are going to win.  This year, and in the future.  We are not guaranteed to come out on top with just one or two outstanding players, and in the case of Miss Jones may I remind you that Beaters do not win points!  Nor will we stay on top without a pool of talent, constantly replenished.  King looks promising.  Halliday looks promising.  He is Muggle-born – as you point out, and he has had – what? – three flying lessons at most!  That means unless a wizard-friend has been coaching him before he came here, Halliday is a natural!  As for Halliday’s bloodline – thankfully he does not have ‘Muggle-born’ tattooed across his forehead.  So who is going to give it much thought?  Quite possibly no one.”

Jeremy felt foolish now.  “But we’ve won these past three years” he said defensively.  “Slytherin’s got a winning team.”

“Yes” Severus conceded.  “You could call it that.  We scraped a win on the last occasion; doing a little better than that the year before!  I might be an old boy, Jeremy, but I have kept in touch.  May I also remind you that the House has lost Barty Crouch, and before him Agatha Bulstrode?  No, I suppose you don’t remember Miss Bulstrode – before your time.  But not before mine.  I can remember the times when we were truly great – the Black sisters, Lucius Malfoy, … and in their wake Evan Rosier, the Carrows – year after year the succession secured by Captains with foresight.  I’ve watched this year’s Quidditch trials and I warn you, there is too little star quality coming up in the ranks.  Think carefully before you fritter what there is.”

“I didn’t see you at the tryouts” Jeremy replied.  Although true, he said it hoping to deflect the line of argument.

“No, Jeremy.  Of course you didn’t” Severus said pointedly.  “I did not intend that you should.”

Jeremy Wagtail went away to reconsider his tactics and Severus summoned a stack of sixth-year homework onto his desk.  Marking!  How he hated it.  This had better be good, he said to himself.  I’ll be very choosy whom I let onto the NEWT course in future.

 

Because it was Saturday he lay in bed late and when he went up to breakfast Honor’s owl was waiting for him again, vying with the newspaper owl for standing room in the place-setting next to the Deputy Head.

“It seems you have an ability to attract the birds” Minerva muttered, as she skimmed the pages of her own newspaper.

Severus made a non-committal remark, dealt with the owls and read the letter hastily.  But it was not about Christmas; Honor was asking to come and see him immediately.  She said she would be at the school gates at noon.  Could he be there too?  Well, I suppose I can, he thought, as he unfolded the newspaper and poured himself some orange juice.  I can slip out for a while.  How will she get here?  She surely won’t Apparate all that way.  Nor fly.  Perhaps she’ll use the Knight Bus.  The little minx hasn’t given me time to reply so I suppose I had better fall in with her plans.

When he strode down the path at twelve o’clock he could see her through the gates, a distant figure pacing about.  And she could see him, and see how the students kept out of his way.  There was a gusty wind blowing and he looked like a giant crow, his cloak billowing, students scurrying from him like starlings.

“Can we walk in the woods?” Honor asked when Severus opened the creaking gate.

“It’s not Hampstead Heath, Honor” he replied sternly.  “The Forbidden Forest is dangerous.”

“That’s why it’s forbidden” she retorted.  “Okay.  Where then?”

“Hogsmeade?  It’s not a Hogsmeade weekend – it’ll be student-free.”

Honor thought it over.  “Nah.  I’d still rather the woods” she decided.

So they walked around to the forest and plunged in, scrunching thorough the undergrowth.

“Did you have a good birthday in spite of my absence?” he asked.  He knew there was something on her mind but he thought he ought to give her time to work round to it.

“Yes, okay” she said.  “Just dinner with Gloria, and Uncle Willy, and Regulus, but it was nice.  Gloria cooked.  She’s okay when she bothers.”

“How’s work?”

“A bit – hectic.  How’s yours – are you happy at Hogwarts?”

Yes, Severus decided, thinking the question over; he was quite content.  “Yes, I suppose so” he said.  “Do I not look happy?”

“You look … less bored than you used to” Honor said frankly.  “You look impatient, but buoyant.  Does that make sense?”

“You decided all that from seeing me walk down a path?”

“Yeah, something like that” she agreed.  “I’m glad you’ve found your niche.  When I got your letter I wondered if–  But it had some very positive points, too.  I’ve never known you talk about work with such gusto.”

“Can we stop dissecting me and talk about you?” he suggested.  “If we’re going to analyse correspondence, yours was the latest and yours was the one that sounded urgent.  I always know when something’s upsetting you, so you might as well spill the beans.”

“Okay” she conceded.  “It’s about Regulus.  Have you seen him?”

“No” Severus replied, puzzled at the question.

“Nor have I.  Nor have his family” Honor said, sounding worried.  “I’ve not seen him since my birthday and he hasn’t shown his face at home since early this week.  The night before last his mother came knocking on my door, asking if he was with me.  Walburga Black of all people!  If you hear from Regulus will you let them know?”

“Of course.”

“And me too, of course.”

“Naturally … Is that it?”

“Yes.  Isn’t that enough?  You don’t seem very concerned, Sev.”

“Of course I’m concerned” Severus admitted, sounding cross.  “When exactly did the Little King go missing?”

Honor cast her mind back, counting off days soundlessly on her fingers.  “Since Monday or Tuesday” she concluded.

They had come to a halt by a fir tree.  All around them the forest was quiet.  In her dark purple cloak Honor looked thin and vulnerable.  Severus stood in front of her and held her by the shoulders.

“I do care about him, Honor” he insisted.  “I’m just not good at making a song and dance about it.”

With a sheepish grin she said “I thought I was in for one of your ‘seeing conspiracies round every corner’ lectures.”

Severus smiled.  “Not on this occasion” he said gently.  “If his family don’t know of his whereabouts then clearly there is something to worry about.  I have no special means of finding him, but if I hear anything or if he gets in touch, naturally I’ll let Walburga know.  And you.  But, aside from confiding in Dumbledore, I’ll say nothing to anyone else.”

She nodded gravely and added “What should I do, Sev?”

“Are you not safe at home?”

“Yes, I think so but … The papers – always on about bad happenings.  And to ordinary people.  People getting hurt and people getting blackmailed.  Kidnaps.  Who is safe in these times?”

“Dumbledore” he replied.  “If in doubt, always come to Dumbledore.”  He kissed her and added “Are you sure you wouldn’t like lunch or something in Hogsmeade?  It’s Saturday.  I can take an hour off.”

“No, not lunch” Honor decided.  “I’d better get back.  I’ll Apparate there and then flag down the bus.  I’ll see you at Christmas, like you said.”

“You will take care–”

“Of course.  If things get worse you’ll see me sooner than Christmas.”

She kissed him goodbye and Disapparated, and Severus began the trudge back, relieved they had not gone to Hogsmeade because he would surely have been seen by someone from the school, or maybe by one of his other contacts.  And that would have caused gossip, and would have linked Honor to him.  No, he couldn’t afford connections – it was risky for all concerned.

He went to find the Headmaster and the two wizards strolled by the lake again.  A few students watched them but none would approach because it was clear that the two men were deep in conversation about some weighty matter.

Dumbledore was pondering the latest news.  “Could Regulus simply have gone on a secret mission of Voldemort’s?” he asked.

“Yes, he could” Severus agreed, “So secret that he could not warn his family, and it may be a task not even known to other servants of the Dark Lord.  The Black must surely have made enquiries with the Malfoys, but they might not know, or might choose not to tell.”

“Or might be forbidden to tell.”

“Exactly.  Any of those things.  The Dark Lord makes his own rules.  He shares nothing but what he chooses.”

“He is still looking for the families.”

“Of course.  I believe that is his greatest preoccupation at the moment” Severus replied.  “Regulus, unfortunately, probably knows where Lily used to live.”

“But she doesn’t live there now” Dumbledore said firmly, responding to the edge of fear in Severus’s voice.  “She has a new life and a well-chosen refuge.  She has severed all links with her Muggle relatives and steps have been taken to watch over them.  There is no route to her from her former life.  Voldemort would walk that path in vain.  So the question remains, what is Regulus up to?  Might he have run away?  Run away from trouble – forsaken the Dark Side?”

“He might” Severus agreed, sounding more hopeful.  “If so, he may contact you eventually.  Err, is there anything you want me to do now?  Anything specific?”

“No” the Headmaster replied.  “Only, as agreed, to be ready in case any of the Dark Side summon you.  If they do, respond at once in a manner that seems most natural.  Even if it is only an invitation to dine with Lucius, accept it.”

“How can I?  I’m Head of a House.”

“You can absent yourself for a few hours, because I can ask Wilbert to deputise” Dumbledore insisted.  “You can explain to the Death Eaters that you find teaching a strain and I have allowed you an evening off, being the kind old soul that I am.”  The blue eyes twinkled as Dumbledore observed him sharply.  “You are finding it a strain, aren’t you” he added.

A ghost of a smile crossed Severus’s face.  “I haven’t resorted to student beatings” he murmured.  “And I’ve restrained myself from force-feeding them dragon bile.”

“Self-control duly noted” the Headmaster replied.  “Keep up the good work” he added bracingly.  “Well, unless we should go over any more details, I must get back.  You know what to do.”

“Yes, Headmaster” Severus assured him.  “Thank you.”  He turned for the Quidditch pitch, assuming Dumbledore would make for the castle, but after two or three steps Dumbledore turned on his heel, calling back to him.

“Oh, Severus?”

“Headmaster?”

“You didn’t ask me about the ‘other’ family.”

The dark eyes flashed around, noting a couple of second-years idling by, chatting but within earshot.  “I presume – that – any arrangement put in place for one, will also apply to the other” he said cautiously.

“Quite so, Severus” Dumbledore remarked.  He added nothing more; they both understood.

Dumbledore continued on his way to the castle and Severus towards the Quidditch pitch, cursing the name of Longbottom, and the fact that the Headmaster probably knew he had issued no warning to them, and that since the moment of the prophesy he had spared them not a minute’s pity.

*

On Tuesday an owl arrived in front of Severus’s mother, bearing a letter from Borgin and Burke’s, and addressed to Mrs E Snape.  As it landed by her cereal bowl, Irma Pince had the presence of mind to scoop both owl and letter into the folds of her robe and hurry to the dungeons.

“It’s book work” she said to Severus, when he followed her down minutes later.  “They need me to do a repair.”

“Well, you can’t, can you” he hissed, talking quietly even though they were behind closed doors.

He resealed the envelope, wrote on it ‘Not Known at this Address’ and said he would send the owl back.

“Not known at what address?” Irma asked angrily.  “There is no address on that envelope; only my former name.  You know how this works – I never gave our Snarebeck address to anyone; never needed to.  I just let the owls find me.  This one knew where to look, and even followed me here.”

“No matter” Severus said coolly.  “It may have escaped your attention, Mother, but owls do not speak, and their owners know they go to the usual destination, so when this bird returns they’ll have to assume you’ve moved.  Or died.”

“Severus!”

“Now, now” he chided, wagging a cautionary finger at her, “Professor Snape; remember?  No ‘names’.”

“Severus is your name” she hissed.  “But Mother is not mine!”

 

The days ticked by.  No invitation came from Lucius.  Irma Pince took to having breakfasts in her dungeon parlour with Argus Filch.  Severus puzzled over her attachment to Argus, but then he realised he had rarely understood her taste in men – he had never been able to fathom why she had chosen his father.

He brushed aside such trivia and focussed on Lucius and the lack of contact.  Eventually he wrote, asking to be kept in touch if there was any ‘news’ but the reply was non-committal, so he waited a week and then Apparated to Wiltshire one Sunday evening after dining at the school.  At the mansion’s main entrance he pulled the bell-pull, a house elf answered and conducted him to the study.

“Severus!  How nice, and how unexpected” Lucius gushed as he swirled into the room.  “We are just finishing dinner.  Would you like some?”

“No thank you.  I dined at Hogwarts” Severus explained.  “Didn’t want to intrude upon your hospitality; just wanted to see how you are – see a friendly face or two.  I feel at bit out of things stuck in Scotland.”

“Ah!  You’re missing us” Lucius said playfully.  “Well, do sit down.  We’ll join you shortly.  Dobby?  We’ll finish off in here.  Coffee for five, in five minutes.”

It turned out that Voldemort was not at Lucius’s house – it was only the Lestrange brothers and Balantyne Avery who returned with Lucius and sprawled around in the Chesterfield chairs as Dobby supplied them with small cups of coffee and even tinier crystal thimbles of liqueur firewhisky – Ogden’s Special Reserve.

“Poor Severus feels cut off” Lucius said to the others.  “He’s missing us.”

“Actually we’re all feeling a bit like that” Balantyne sympathised.

“You speak for yourself” Rabastan snorted.  “I don’t feel any such thing.  Never have.”

“Not now the Dark Lord has his extra help?”

Rabastan gave Balantyne a scornful look for asking this.  “Not coming up trumps, is he” he sneered.

“Who or what is this extra help?” Severus asked, his eyes watching carefully over the top of his coffee cup.

“Some oik who’s sprung from nowhere” Rhodolphus scoffed.  “Some nobody.  As Rab said, he’s nothing wonderful.”

“But who is he?”

“No idea, and couldn’t care less” Rhodolphus added, sounding as though he was putting a brave face on it.  “This happens at times, Sev.  People try and latch on, and the Dark Lord keeps them under wraps while he takes a look.  But most of them amount to nothing.  And then he’s back with us, his dependable inner core – the only ones who really do things for him.  Don’t worry; it’ll blow over.  I think I’ve got a lead to the Longbottoms – I just need a bit more time to work on it.  When I’ve cracked it, he’ll be back here again–”

“–Telling us all how indispensable we are” Rabastan added bitterly.  “You’re too slow, Rolph; you should have let me quiz that Dearborn.”

“You killed the last one you quizzed” Rhodolphus pointed out.  “And what did we get?  F*** all!”

Rabastan glared at him.

“And poor old Sevvy didn’t even get a picture!” Rhodolphus added with a chuckle.  “Sorry Sev, we should have taken one for you.  How’s the photo collection going?”

“A little thin these days” Severus replied.  “St Mungo’s was always my best source.”

“I’ll try and send you one next time” Rabastan said, “If you’re not around to take it for yourself.  I suppose that won’t be as good, seeing it second-hand.”

“So who set the fire in Kent?” Severus asked, anxious for a change of subject.  “It was a very neat job.  Had the Ministry chasing its tail nicely.”

“We thought you’d done that” Rhodolphus joked.  “No, seriously, we didn’t even know it had a magical source.”

“Nor do the Ministry, really” Severus replied.  “They just wonder whether it might have – so Dumbledore says.”

“So, what’s the gossip up at the school?”

“That Dedalus Diggle might have done it.”

“Dedalus Diggle?” Rabastan spat derisively.  “Yes, he’s the Dark Lord’s new confidante.  The new blue-eyed boy who’s–”

“You joke about this, but it could be true” Lucius warned him.  “The new blue-eyed boy could well be someone like Diggle.  Someone we wouldn’t think of in a million years.  Some buffoon–”

“Oh, come on Lu!  You don’t seriously think…”

It was descending into pantomime.

Once the coffee was consumed and there was no longer a pretext to stay Severus hinted that he had to leave.  It had been a disappointing visit – either his friends were almost as much in the dark as he was, or they were all acting parts and deliberately keeping him out.  He dare not try blatantly invasive techniques on them, but all the clues he could gather pointed to them being genuinely in the dark.  Someone new had turned up, they had been sidelined, and they didn’t know the identity of this new person.  It had made them anxious and quarrelsome; even super-cool Lucius was uneasy.

And who was Dearborn?  Severus thought he had heard that name somewhere before.  Perhaps Dumbledore would enlighten him when he reported back.

 

Dumbledore was not at the school when Severus returned and he was away all the following day so Severus missed endless opportunities to speak to him.  Minerva’s only comment was that Dumbledore was visiting a friend in hospital, and yet that hardly seemed likely – the friend would have to be at death’s door to keep him away so long.  But Minerva would not be drawn into giving more details and appeared put-out that Severus was so insistent.

“If it’s that urgent, I can deal with it!” she snapped.

“No, I’m sorry, Minerva” he replied, trying to keep his voice even, “I must see the Headmaster.”

“I am the Deputy Head!”

“This is – more – personal.”

“A personal matter?  A personal matter that concerns your job!  Then it must be of concern to me!”

“It is more – appropriate – that I speak to Dumbledore.”

“More appropriate?  Whenever the Headmaster is away, the management of the school is entrusted to me.  Let me be the judge of what is, and what is not, appropriate.”

It was a stalemate.  Finally Severus insisted on leaving a note for Dumbledore, asking to see him at the earliest opportunity.

He did not receive a reply until his third-years were underway with their Shrinking Solution on Tuesday afternoon.  ‘I’ll meet you in the fountain courtyard’ it said.  ‘Try to arrive by three o’clock.’  Severus hoped to dismiss his class early but Stan Frobisher had used armadillo bile instead of leech juice in his potion, and it now resembled liquidised treacle tart.  Severus deducted five points from Hufflepuff and began vanishing the ruined potion himself, anxious to be rid of it before it set like concrete.

“Wow!” Stan said.  “You can banish that stuff.  Actually make it disappear.”

Two of his friends hung back to watch, amazed.

“Think yourself lucky you’re not clearing this up” Severus grumbled.  “It takes considerable effort to vanish a mass of this size.  ‘Vanish’, not ‘banish’, you idiot.  Now I want all of you to banish yourselves.  Off you go … Be gone!”

“But, sir; it’s a bit early for our next lesson.”

“You’re unbelievable, Frobisher” Severus sneered.  “Most pupils are only too keen to leave this classroom.  Clear off before I take another point from you.”

“Yes, sir.”

When he finally arrived Dumbledore was sitting quietly, watching the fountain play.  He pricked up his ears at the name ‘Dearborn’ but chose not to disclose who the person was.  Instead he said “Thank you, Severus.  That has been most informative.  Now I have something to tell you.  If you hurry to the South Cloister you might find a lady waiting to see you.  You just have time before the next lesson begins.”

The lady was Honor.  She was wearing royal blue robes, similar to the ones his mother favoured.  She looked nice.  As the bell went for the change of lesson and the corridors filled with students Severus strode towards her, scattering children in his path.  A group of first-years shrieked and ran; Honor watched.

“What’s wrong?” he breathed as he hurried up.  “What’s happened?”

“They’re all gone” Honor whispered back.

“Who’s all gone?”

“The Jiggers, the Tonks…  All the London wizards.  All my neighbours.  Even Axel Blumwald’s gone.  Only the Blacks are staying put, but they’re in a paddy.  And of course I still have my uncle and cousin – I’m not alone.  But it feels odd.  It doesn’t feel right.”

“So you came to Dumbledore” he sighed hopefully.  “What did he say?”

“What you said he’d say – that if I want sanctuary he’ll help.”

“Well?”

“I’m thinking it over.”

“Don’t think too long.”

“Ah!  This from the man who always claimed there was nothing to worry about.”

Touché. he thought inwardly.  “You look good in wizard robes” he observed, changing the subject.  “You should wear them more often.”

“And black suits you” she conceded.  “It makes you look … (she glanced at the scurrying first-years and added) … awesome.”

At that moment a second-year boy knocked into Severus; he had been rummaging in his bag and not looking where he was going.  He dropped a library book and there was an unfortunate ripping sound.  Severus turned, his hand flying automatically to his wand-sleeve.

“Idiot, boy!” he roared, as the student bent to retrieve the book.  “Pick it up.  Mind what you’re doing.  And you’ll pay for that book!”

“Sorry, sir” the student muttered, and hurried to catch up with his friends.

“No news of Regulus, then?” Severus whispered again, turning back to Honor.

“No, none” she said, staring bleakly into the distance.  “I’d better go.  You have a class, and I mustn’t make you late.”

“They can wait.”

“They might wreck your dungeon.”

“I assure you, they wouldn’t dare!”

He wanted to kiss her goodbye but it was impossible to do so in the busy cloister.  Could he find an empty room?  Was there time?  He sensed her impatience.

“Remember what I said” he commanded, “Don’t leave it too long, making up your mind.”

“No” Honor assured him, “I won’t.”

She gave his hand an affectionate squeeze and set off for the main entrance; Severus conscious of an odd feeling in his stomach as he watched her go.

Author’s Notes

Only hours before sending this for publication I found the new family tree of the Black family.  That means that my version cannot be right.  Ah, well!  I cannot hope to change my story now, because it would mean changing some of my characters as well as some of the events.  But I have corrected Regulus’s parents’ names – they are Orion and Walburga.