"I'm sorry, Dra -" Neville flinched, remembering at the last moment, "Luther. Mr. Arkwright. I'm sorry, but I can't help you. I really don't know how to find him."
Draco grabbed his hand, scanning the tea shop from behind smoked glasses. "Come on, Longbottom," he hissed once he was sure none of the other customers were watching, "I'm not playing! You have no idea what I've risked to come here and warn him."
"No, I do," the herbalist protested, "I do understand-"
"No, you don't!" Draco took a shaky breath, ran both his hands through his hair and forced himself to calm down. "I'm not talking about Azkaban, Longbottom, I'm talking about what my lot will do if they catch up with me here! cruciatus's come a long way since your folks, you know! Real innovators in the field of pain, my old crowd -- even more so now they've lost the Dark Lord to Potter twice!"
Neville went still, his earnest shopkeeper façade slipping to reveal the duelist he kept hidden from the world. Draco remembered losing badly to Longbottom more than once in his seventh year. "Look," he tried again, "I know you've no reason to trust me, but you have to try. I need you to try, because I don't know what else to do! I'll submit to whatever precautions you want -- question me with veritaserum, take my wand, put me under imperio -- whatever insurance your Order of the Phoenix needs, I'll give them. But you must take me to him, Neville -- I need you to take me to Potter before it's too late!"
"Dra - oh bother. Luther," the hazel eyes slipped back to the beguiling softness that had always been the shy boy's best weapon, "I didn't say I wouldn't help you, I said I couldn't. I don't know how to reach Harry, nobody does. They say he's under-"
"Some new kind of fidelis charm," Draco finished, picking currants from the ruins of his scone, "They know that, and they have a few ideas who the Keeper is as well. Which is why I must get to Potter first." He took a sip of the tea, trying to find comfort in the purely English ritual of cream and sugar cubes and fragrant, amber brew, "What about the Order? I don't think Potter'd be stupid enough to make an Order member his Secret Keeper, but they must know how to find him, or at least get messages to him at need."
Longbottom blinked, considering. "Well, I suppose that does stand to reason, doesn't it? With rumours of You-Know-Who trying to get himself reborn yet again-"
"They're true," Draco said, cold and tired, "He is. And believe me, he's worse than before."
"Oh. Er. Oh dear. Well, then Harry's sure to be keeping touch with the Order. You'll want to talk to one of the Weasleys, or perhaps-"
"No, Neville," Draco grabbed for his companion's arm as he started to rise, "Weasley would sooner curse me on sight than hear a word I have to say. Merlin's Beard, Potter caught my father trying to kill that girl in our second term! You tell any one of them I'm back in Britain, and the whole ginger lot of them will grind me flat without a second thought!"
"I suppose...but here, what about Hermione? Harry always listened to-"
"Granger's under fidelis too. Father's been looking for her longer than Potter." Draco slouched in his chair, hating his cheap, ill-fitting clothes, hating the brown dye that made his hair heavy and itchy, hating the road-dust, sweat, and floo-soot that grimed his skin. But most of all, hating the fact that a large part of him was calculating whether it might not still be possible to go back to Spain, make his apologies to his father and the parasitic Dark Lord inside him, and just let history come crashing down over them all.
"Look," he shook himself and locked eyes with Neville over his dark glasses, "I've enough money to last a week, and I think I can make it stretch for two if I have to, so you get the message to him, all right? Just go off to your secret Order headquarters, make your special handshake, or whatever it is you do, and get someone to pass the message that ... what is it?"
"I'm not in the Order, Draco."
He blinked, sure he felt the earth cracking underneath his feet. "You're not? But your parents-"
"Yes, they were in the first Order, but not me. My Grandmother wouldn't allow it." Neville put a hand over Draco's where it rested nerveless on the table between the scone-crumbs and the clotted cream, "I'm sorry..."
After several moments, Draco managed to look at him again. "I'm sorry too."
Silence gripped them, so heavy and thick that it spread to the nearby tables like a contagion. Draco knew he should leave. He knew people were beginning to look at him, and that sooner or later, someone would remember his face, dyed hair or no. But he just couldn't make himself move. Out of all the speculation and rumor about the Boy Hero's whereabouts -- hiding in the muggle world, high-security spell-testing for the Ministry, studying chiromancy with the centaurs of the Forbidden Forest, raising giant saddlebred kneasles on the Isle of Skye -- out of all the things Draco hadn't believed, to have been wrong about this. He'd gambled it all on Longbottom! It hadn't occurred to him that he could be wrong about such a critical detail.
Draco barely noticed the shop girl coming to ask if they needed anything else, and completely missed it when Longbottom sneakily paid the bill. All for nothing, he thought, watching the Hogsmeade locals gathering around a makeshift stage across the square, just as if their world weren't about to come apart around them, just as if their petty local election could possibly matter when the Ninos della Serpiente were rearing to strike. I threw it all away -- everything I had is gone, and now I still can't stop any of it...
"-long as you need to, and I don't...I say, Dra-Luther?" Draco jumped as Neville shook his shoulder, "You all right there?"
Draco laughed. "Sure, Longbottom. Never better, thanks." He finished his tea as the sandy haired man looked down with a flush. "Look; not your fault, it's just..." his gesture took in the state of his clothes and he grimaced, "Bit knackered, you know?"
"Well, that's what I was telling you; I've already arranged for your rooms here for a fortnight. On Longbottom Leaf's account." He raised a hand as Draco started to protest, "No. I do this for all of my important vendors, Mr. Arkwright, and it would seem very odd for me not to take the same care of you. If the quality of your Diablo Garra weed is as you say, then we shall be doing quite a bit of business soon."
Draco closed his eyes, pinned between pathetic gratitude for the charity, and helpless indignation at having no choice but to take it. "Of course. Th-" he swallowed, "Thank you. You're... I don't know what to-"
Neville grinned and thrust out his hand to shake, "Oh, you needn't thank me. It's the least I could... what are you staring at?" He turned to follow Draco's horrified gaze out the window, to where the crowds were gathered on the Green. "Debate scheduled for today," he tried to sound comforting, still mystified by the blond's reaction, "Village council elections in a month, don't you..." he squinted as a dumpy pink figure mounted the steps. Then the figure turned to wave, revealing a toadish face under a mop of white ringlets and a single black bow. "I say! Isn't that-"
"Umbridge," Draco whispered with a shudder, "running for Mayor of Hogsmeade, by the look of things." He shuddered, momentarily distracted from his own predicament. "How loathsome. Please tell me she's running against someone halfway competent."
Longbottom grinned. "Well, no more than usual, I'm sad to say; one's a bastard cousin of the Diggorys, another is some witch from up the Faeroes nobody's ever heard of, and the third's actually an actor from Glasgow." Draco grimaced, but Longbottom only refilled both teacups from the ever-full, ever steaming teapot. "Oh, don't worry about us, Mr Arkwright; Dolores Umbridge doesn't stand a chance at public office here in Hogsmeade."
Draco regarded the crowded square, almost glad that the café's sound-dampening spells rendered the scene mute -- he'd heard more than his fair share of political codswhallop in his young life. But the crowd didn't seem to share his disinterest. "I don't know about that, Longbottom," he mused, watching as people hurried out of shops and down side streets to join the audience, "this seems like an awful lot of attention for a piddling little debate on local politics. She might be more popular than you think."
"Oh, they're not here to see her," Longbottom smiled, "It's only a matter of time before…Ah! There he is. Let's go out front and listen."
Mystified, Draco followed, hoping the thin clouds overhead would legitimize his putting up his hood.
"…fellow citizens, I am delighted at last to be allowed to stand before you today!" Umbridge was beaming across the crowd, "What an honour it is to stand here before you and share my vision for the future of this-"
"Vision, you myopic toad?" a voice like fire-blackened steel sliced through hers, startling a squeak from the woman and a gasp from Draco. Snape?! "One need only look at you to realize you haven't the vision to choose your own clothing, let alone determine this town's future!"
Like smoke around a cutting black wind, the crowd split, forming a wide, straight avenue between the Potions Master and his quivering, red-faced prey, "Your own history within the Wizengamot is one of sycophancy and deliberate obduracy, utterly devoid of definable principles, recognizable ethics, and even one single original idea," Snape sneered, robes billowing as he strode toward the stage, "I find it difficult to believe that the governance of this village should fall to the likes of you. Not, at least, while there remain streets to be swept!"
"Hem!" She squeaked, backing away as he climbed to the stage with a pointed glower, "I, that is -- Original ideas! I'd plenty of original ideas when I was Minister Fudge's-"
"Toad!" Snape's bellow shut her up with gulp. "Devising creative ways to subvert the truth and deny facts vital for public safety -- these are hardly original ideas! Tyrants have been doing that for centuries. At best I will allow that you were almost clever in sending dementors to attack a schoolboy in a Muggle neighborhood, and then using his self-defense to try and discredit him!"
Draco blinked. "He's talking about Potter!" He murmured, "I was there, in the office when she said all that-"
"I know," Longbottom hissed back, equally startled, "I was there too but I didn't think Snape knew about it!"
From the look on Umbridge's pasty face, she hadn't known either. "So tell us, Miss Umbridge," Snape continued silkily, his voice filling the square without recourse to magic, "since you came here to share your visions with us, just what reward did you envision Minister Fudge awarding you for your complicity in his smear campaign against Harry Potter?"
The magic name. It caught through the crowd like tinder and at once the street was no longer full of spectators, but of patriots. Draco felt a chill go down his neck as the muttering arose around him. Longbottom nodded understandingly and offered him a cigarette. "I know -- he does this every time she shows up to speak. Never the same attack twice. It's amazing, isn't it?"
"I don't remember you being such a fan, Longbottom," Draco muttered, winning a laugh in reply.
"Well, not when he's yelling at me, no," Neville took out a cigarette for himself and then lit both, "but I have to admit, he is something to watch. From a safe distance."
Umbridge fingered her wand. "Hem. Hem. Mr… er, Professor Snape," she said, boosting up her sonorous charm to make her little-girl voice carry over the crowd, "As I'm certain you know, none of the accusations against myself or the Minister were ever proven -"
Again, Snape cut her off. "Were you somehow under the misapprehension that this was a Court of Law, Miss Umbridge?" He laughed, harsh as a crow's shout, "Hardly an encouraging oversight in one who seeks public office, is it? Allow me to correct you: this," he stamped a foot and the boards echoed like a drum, "is a public stage, on a public street, where any citizen may speak the truth without Ministerial approval or censorship!"
And oh, the crowd liked that one! Snape glowered, waiting out the applause before continuing his attack. "Here, Madame Inquisitor, you will find that the burden of proof does not lie with the accuser, but with the accused." Again the applause, but this time he shouted it down, "And if you do not care to address these legitimate allegations, you fraud, you turnip, you duplicitous toad, I strongly recommend that you provide the voting populace of Hogsmeade with proof that you possess at least one of the prerequisites for candidacy in their government; In short, prove yourself a witch by vanishing from our sight!"
"Now see here, I-"
"On count of three, Madame Inquisitor -- your proof, or your absence! One!"
"ONE!" The crowd echoed his count.
"This is a public street!" Umbridge kicked her sonorous up another level, "I -- I've as much right to be here as you-"
Draco flinched as someone pressed a rather slimy head of cabbage into his hand. He tried to pass it on to Longbottom, but he already had two shriveled, sprouting potatoes. "This is new," the herbalist shrugged, "she's never hung around this long before."
"That's because this time she's got backup," Draco hissed, nodding at a still knot in the crowd, just off the left side of the stage, "I know that man -- the one in the blue cloak. He's a Death Eater, one we lost track of after Potter killed. Er. You know. So's the one beside him; look how they're watching Snape." Longbottom dumped the tubers and drew his wand, but Draco grabbed for his arm. "Don't! He knows they're there, just let him-"
"THREE!" The crowd roared and all at once, the air was full of flying produce. Snape shielded himself with an annoyed flourish. Umbridge wasn't so quick and took much of the barrage square on before she finally managed to shriek "Apparate!"
The crowd roared in delight, and so most of them missed the blazing slash of curselight that smashed into Snape's shield spell and sent the dark man staggering. But the second spell, the acid green, sparkling grin of the Dark Mark erupting into the air above the Potions Master's head -- well, nobody missed that. Snape had his shield back up at once, battlefield ready as the crowd began to howl.
"No!" Longbottom swore and jerked loose from Draco's grip, "No, he didn't do it!" Draco grabbed for him again, but caught only the stuttering crack of close-to disapparation.
"Damn it!" Draco hissed, craning his neck to see where the Gryffindor had gone. He thought he could hear Longbottom shouting, but in the sheeplike press of people, he couldn't make out anything near the stage. Draco couldn't even see Snape, due to a massive witch in an equally massive hat putting herself persistently into his line of sight. He bit his lip, torn between self-interest and concern for his old professor as the shouting began to subside up front.
Bloody hell! He snarled to himself, shaking his wand down out of his sleeve, Aurors'll be coming any moment to break this up and I can't be found here. Damn Longbottom anyway! What a bloody stupid time for him to finally start acting like a Gryffindor! He turned and began edging his way through the crowd, working against the flow and ignoring the muttered speculations around him.
Draco didn't begin to breathe properly again until he'd regained the café's terrace, where he paused to peer back at the stage. The man in the blue cloak was being goaded up onto the platform where Snape was waiting for him with a smirk visible even at this distance. Longbottom and the man's companion faced each other across the foot of the stage, both with wands drawn and held across their chests in the classic pose of dueling seconds.
Draco allowed himself a grin. This would be worth watching -- from upstairs in his room, if he could manage it.
"Excuse, Signore," said a voice behind him. "May I trouble you? We are trying to find someone..."
Draco stiffened, the accent prodding his already-overactive paranoia into full flame. It was Italian rather than Spanish, but that was still threat enough to an expatriate Death Eater on British soil. Marshalling his face into a scowl, he started to turn just as another voice answered the first.
"Well, I don't see how I can-"
"Please, Signore," a woman put in, "he is a cousin of our family and there is inheritance involved. We must find him or else the palazzo --" she sniffed, gulped a little, "it will be lost!"
So they were bounty hunters. Draco shivered and drew his cloak tighter about himself, not daring to turn and glance behind. The Italian guilds specialized in Dark Creatures and Dark Wizards, but thanks to British bureaucracy they couldn't hunt openly in England. He'd expected his father to try something vicious to get him back, but not to turn to such extreme measures -- at least he hadn't expected it so soon!
"Why, of course, of course," the local man responded at once, as any Englishman will when a pretty foreigner weeps. "Let's have a look, shall we?" The crinkle of parchment followed, and then the searing hiss of a pipe-smoker's thoughtful draw. "Why yes, I have seen him about. Just a little earlier today, in fact, down the herbalist's shoppe -- Longbottom's Leaf, I think it's called." Draco closed his eyes, took a deep breath and began trying to imagine a safe place within disapparation range.
"And do you know where we could find him now, Signore?" The woman simpered as across the square, magic sizzled and the crowd roared its approval.
"Why down the school, I shouldn't wonder," came the reply, "May not be there just now, but he'll turn up there by day's end, on account of him living there." Draco let out a surprised breath. Coins clattered on the table and a chair scraped the stones. "I've an errand there myself today, why don't I show you the way?"
"Grazi, Signore," said the woman in a voice full of empty promise, "my brother and I are most grateful for your assistance."
The shop girl appeared in the doorway, smiling as she recognized Draco from his earlier tea with Neville. "Ah, Mr. Arkwright, I'm glad you've come back. You forgot to pick up your room key," she called to him.
Cursing under his smile, Draco hurried over. The hunters had gone by the time he finished with the girl. On the table a sheet of parchment fluttered, stuck between the marmalade pot and the sugar bowl. He plucked it up and unrolled it, curious as to who it could be (besides himself) with a bounty on his head big enough to tempt foreign hunters onto British soil.
The face on the parchment was entirely too familiar, and under that level, temperate stare, Draco felt his heart squeeze. "Oh," he whispered, hardly blinking as a spell exploded with a scream like a banshee up on the stage, "Oh no! Oh bloody HELL no!" Then he turned on his heel and strode out of the café.
"It wasn't him!" Neville shouted, pointing his wand at the two cloaked men, "I saw who cast that spell!"
The taller, a man with sharp blue eyes and a scar down one side of his face, loomed close. "Mind your own business, you little-"
Neville warned him back with a shower of crimson sparks, breathing fast as his old dueling instincts took over and his magic spiraled up, ready and heady and fierce. "This is my business!" He shouted, as much to hide his stammer as to be sure the touchy crowd would hear his words, "I live in this town, and so does Professor Snape, and if strangers come around c-casting the dark mark at people, then I want to know why!"
The crowd backed him up, just like Neville had hoped they would, shouting a chorus of 'aye's and 'hear hear's that caught and carried much farther than his words had done.
"Mr. Longbottom," Neville flinched as Snape's voice cut down his spine. "Exactly what do you imagine you're doing?"
"Ww. I'm-" Neville glanced up, licking his dry lips, "He was- er- Sorry Professor?"
"I believe, as you suggested Mr." Snape squinted at the man Neville was holding at wand-point, "Rookwood, isn't it? I believe Mr. Rookwood has something to explain to us all. He can hardly be heard down there. Now get out of the man's way and let him express his idiocy where the people in back can properly see!"
"Crowscroft is my name," the man countered hotly, shoving at the hands that were herding him up onto the stage, "If it's any business of a murdering Death Eater like yourself! Let me go, you bloody great cow!" The man shook off the propelling hands and straightened his robes angrily. His partner edged backward, clearly intending to escape in the confusion, but Neville blocked him with a wand jabbed into his chest. The man twitched, Neville jabbed harder. Then they understood each other.
"Crowscroft indeed?" Snape was saying up on the stage, circling the other man like a shark, "The last time you were on your knees before the Dark Lord, you were calling yourself Rookwood."
"Why you! I never! That's pre-"
"I wonder, did your parents even give you a proper name when you were born, or just a collection of disposable soubriquets? And which will you move on to when that toad Umbridge can no longer pay you to attack her detractors? Ravenroost perhaps, or Blackbirdborough?" Snape tutted, "You'll want to start choosing better masters before you run out of aliases."
"You're the only Death Eater here!" Rookwood shouted, "You should be in Azkaban with the rest of your murdering kind!"
"Cleverly said for one so adept at casting the Morsmordre himself, wouldn't you say?" Snape's voice rang out over the crowd, goading, mocking. "My work against the Dark Lord is well known, both to the Ministry, and to the populace now the war is over. Have you such a reasonable excuse for your familiarity?" Snape leaned in close and poked at Rookwood's sleeve with his wand. "Care to compare scars then?
"How dare you-"
"Come now, Rookwood, if you will not confess it, I'm sure your wand can tell us how well it remembers its way around an Unforgivable curse."
"Bastard!" The crowd gasped as Rookwood flung a hex at the Potions Master.
Snape deflected almost casually and before the sparks had even settled, his own wand was sketching the traditional salute and invocation. "I accept your challenge, Rookwood, and Longbottom there shall stand as my second."
Startled, Neville turned, but before he could protest, his captive flinched and tried to run. "No you don't," he grabbed a trailing sleeve and hauled him to the stage, "If I have to stand second, then you do too!" he jabbed the man into place with what he hoped was an intimidating glower.
"What? I didn't! That is, I never ins-" Rookwood was backing up as Neville and his captive blocked the stairs, "Why should I give you the satisfaction?"
"Because if you do not meet me in the circle, then everyone will know you for a braggart and a coward," Snape replied with an offhand shrug as he tossed his over-robe across the podium, "In itself nothing much, except that everyone now connects you with Umbridge, and such public humiliation as this crowd will deal to you should you attempt to leave the stage without dueling -- well that is a contagious thing. Her political career would never recover, I shouldn't think. And she would, of course, rightly blame you."
Rookwood paled. "You utter bastard!"
But Snape was unimpressed. "The spell please, seconds, before we die of old age?"
"You've no idea what you're meddling with, you fool," Neville's captive growled, pulling out his wand and raising its point to meet Neville's own, "Dolores Umbridge is a powerful woman, and she has a long arm-"
"Mr. Longbottom knows quite well that mine is longer by eleven inches of willow." Snape interrupted with a sneer, displaying his wand to the crowd. A twist of silver and crystal rambled like glittering fire from wrist to elbow over his black sleeve. "And let this stand as a warning: any man who means to level judgment at this arm which bore my wand in battle against the Dark Lord had best know his business!" he sketched a sharp blaze of sparks through the air, smirking as Rookwood flinched backward.
"Walk away, herbalist," the other second hissed under the crowd's raucous laughter, "while you still can!"
"Shut up and cast the spell," Neville replied, flicking his wand against the other's. "Isolatum Morituri!" A lick of icy flame leapt from Neville's wand as the other second repeated the incantation. With a last glare, they both pointed the flame at the dirt and turned their backs on each other to inscribe the dueling barrier into the village green. The grass scorched as they passed.
The crowd backed respectfully as the glassy curtain of power rose up and domed over, raptly horrified and delighted at once. By ancient law, anything at all could go on inside the circle -- even Unforgivables were fair game under the mantle of the Wizard's Duel. Things almost never went that far, since the shield would only hold until one of the two yielded, lost consciousness, or died, but with two former Death Eaters in the ring no onlooker doubted that the end of the day would see blood on the stone.
"Well Severus," Minerva MacGonagall said as she bustled into the private parlous in the back of the Three Broomsticks, "you're in luck -- he'll live." The Potions Master looked up from his tumbler of firewhiskey, one eyebrow arched. "Oh, not Rookwood, of course," she corrected, "He was dead before the circle fell. No, I mean the other one -- name's Lodoss, if the aurors are to be believed. He'll survive once they take the rest of his leg off, and then it'll be Azkaban for him." She pulled a chair close and sat to examine her colleague with eyes grey and sharp. "Right then: where did he tag you?"
Snape scowled, but Minerva returned the forbidding look, and he thought better of dissembling. "Nausea hex. It will pass before midnight, I think. Rookwood was trying for a stomach rupture, but flubbed his pronunciation." Severus snorted and set aside the un-touched liquor. "The idiot never could manage Aramaic. I don't know why he even tried that curse."
Minerva shook her head and took up the abandoned drink. "Well I think I can speak for all of us at Hogwarts when I say that I am profoundly glad that your Aramaic was dead on." She toasted him solemnly and let a sip burn over her tongue. "Though at the last, the poor fool didn't really stand a chance, Aramaic or not. Not once he cast that spell at you."
Severus nodded, leaning back into his chair with a sigh. "Yes. You'd think the idiot hadn't been right there when Potter used that exact same defense to kill Voldemort. Had I stood in Rookwood's shoes, I should have died of embarrassment before my own curse even struck me." He snorted, and then hiccupped uncomfortably. "How is Longbottom?"
"Oh fine, fine," Minerva replied, "One burn across his cheek, and a bit of ringing in his left ear, but otherwise he's just a bit dazed. And since Rosemerta won't let the adoring masses back here with you--"
"May her offspring be blessed."
"Hush, you. Your would-be fans are currently recounting the gorier details of the duel to each other and lionizing young Neville up in the tap room."
Snape actually laughed at that. "That's the way with Gryffindors, isn't it? By end of night, no doubt, he'll be the hero triumphant, and I the plucky assistant who took a convenient pratfall to draw the villain's fire." Minerva scowled at his flippant bitterness, but didn't bother to correct. She knew better than to give credence to the man's over-played prejudice -- he didn't mean the half of it, but if challenged, would defend his words like the cobra its nest; spitting venom at all present. Sheer stubborn vanity, and no two ways about it.
So she changed the subject. "It seems to me, Severus, that you go quite a bit out of your way to carry out this vendetta of yours. I mean I have as much reason to loathe Dolores Umbridge as anyone, but you don't see me haranguing her in-"
"Perhaps, if we did see you, or in fact, anyone speaking out against that sadistic, repulsive sack of spite," Severus hissed through his teeth, "I would not have had to kill a man today!"
Minerva just stared at him, waiting.
Soon enough, his volcanic temper evaporated, and he blew out his breath in a long, pained hiss. "No, of course you are right. If not today, Rookwood would have become a threat soon enough. But that woman -- that WOMAN!" The glasses jumped and chimed as he pounded the table. "I cannot look at her, cannot hear her voice without my blood boiling in my veins. That she should imagine she can trundle about and simper and smile and, by Merlin's withered bollocks, flirt with these townspeople! As if they could somehow fail to note the vile creature she truly is! To see her step her foot upon this village's streets makes me sooner wish them cracked apart and swallowed by the earth!"
Snape burst to his feet, pacing across the room, which seemed far too small to contain his ire. Minerva listened in wide-eyed silence. "It is enough that she lives to draw breath, and too much that she does so outside of Azkaban, but to see that bloodthirsty bitch whoring so shamelessly for votes…" he pounded one fist on the heavy oaken windowsill, then made himself stop, swallowing hard several times as the lingering hex reasserted itself.
"She used a blood quill, did you know?" Snape asked after a moment, his voice almost recovered. "When she was tormenting… the students that year. She used a damned blood quill!"
Minerva nodded grimly. "Yes. I'd heard rumors to that effect, but even so, Severus --"
"I saw Potter's hand in bloody bandages no less than twice a week throughout that term, and I know you saw it as well. Did you ever get a glance at what she made him write there? Did he ever show you the wound or the scar?"
"No, Severus," she answered, "I didn'a see it."
His hard, angry gaze crumpled, showed a bare flicker of something behind, and then he looked at the floor. "Nor did I. But by Merlin, I wish I did know, so I might carve it across that fat toad's cheek!"
Minerva sipped her drink, schooling her expression and her thoughts. She waited until he deflated enough to drop into the soft chair beside him, then delicately cleared her throat. "Have you told Potter how you feel about him, Severus?"
He closed his eyes, sucked a deep breath. But he did not deny it. "Look at me, Minerva. No, spare your flattery, I know what face greets me in my shaving mirror, and it is nothing shy of grotesque." He slouched behind his steepled fingers as though the white hands could shelter his despair. "Even had I not spent seven years as the secondary torment of Potter's life, even had I not insulted him, his family, his friends, and everything he cared about, even were his tastes to run to men, which I've no reason to suppose they do, how on earth could such a declaration from me be anything less than disgusting to him?"
Minerva managed not to smirk. "You'll never know if you don't at least ask, Severus. You've plenty to recommend you, after all; you're a hero several times over, and Potter knows it better than most. He's not a shallow boy anymore. Do give him the chance."
He laughed. "Do you think you're tempting me with this, Minerva? You know me better than that. I fought to maintain my dignity at all costs, through the worst humiliations that Voldemort, Sirius Black, Lucius Malfoy, and Albus Dumbledore could level at me. What makes you think I'll juggle with it now? And with him, of all people?"
She smiled, poured herself another two fingers, then transfigured the tumbler into a cup, and the liquor into steaming peppermint tea. "You were not in love with any of them," she said, smiling as she set the teacup on his knee. "He was there today, did you know?" His startled glance answered that question. "Just at the end of Violet's lane where the tinker's used to be. He was on the roof with his firebolt in one hand, and his wand in the other, looking positively white with worry."
"He -- he broke his cover?" Snape growled, snatching the cup off his knee and sitting bolt upright in the chair, "That careless, reckless, stupid young FOOL! How could he parade himself in a crowd like that?"
"Perhaps," Minerva hummed, pouring herself a dram of proper single malt from the sideboard, "he was too worried about you to stay away." He made a rude noise, and she returned it with interest. "Young Potter has always made a point of liking whomever he chooses, without reference to, or concern for what anyone else might think. Now something drew him out to that street today, Severus, and the only thing he stayed to watch was you." Merlin, but the hope in those black eyes was a terrified thing! "He did not budge from that roof until the circle came down and he saw that you were the one still standing. Surely that must give you a bit of confidence?"
"Bah. He was just watching out for his classmate--"
"Minerva!" He mimicked her tone, "Stop meddling! You aren't a patch on Albus in that capacity and I didn't appreciate it when he was alive. I have bourn up under the scorn of the world, but the one thing I will not -- cannot face is that Harry Potter should laugh at me. So please allow my pathetic obsession a dignified death, won't you?"
She huffed. "Aye, death by starvation, no doubt! Well there's no fool like an old fool, I suppose--"
A sudden clatter at the window interrupted, and both jumped at the sound. Wings battered at the mullioned glass for a moment, claws scrabbled. Snape flipped open the catch, then ducked aside as five foot of snowy owl shouldered its way in from the night.
"Hedwig!" Minerva yelped, throwing out her arm as the bird swooped about the room. But she banked sharp, back-winged twice, and dropped neatly onto Snape's black-clad shoulder. Gobsmacked, he could only flinch away as she mussed his hair while folding her wings. She stuck out her leg with an imperious hoot and Minerva hid a smile as Severus fumbled to untie the note. He read, and she watched him read, fascinated at the range of colours he went through -- nerve-green, terror-white, and a fleeting blush that could have been flattered pleasure or even hope. Being patient was hell, but she managed.
"He wants to see me," Snape breathed at last, settling weakly back into his chair, "Tomorrow. He wants. To see…."
"Oh, for pity's sake!" Minerva snatched the note from his slack fingers, losing only a corner to his panicked clench. "Just let me see it, will you?"
Dear Professor Snape,
I know this note probably comes as a surprise to you, but I was hoping you might be able to meet me at the Three Broomsticks on Sunday morning. We haven't ever been what you could call 'friendly', but to be honest I rather hope we've reached peace enough between us that we can talk for awhile. You see, there's been something on my mind lately; something I think only you would understand, and I really need to talk about it. I'm being awfully presumptuous, I know, but at least it's staying true to type for me, right Sir? Anyway, I'm hoping you can dredge up the patience to meet me. I'll even buy you breakfast so you'll get some compensation for your time.
If you will meet me, please write what time you'll be there on the back of this note and give it back to Hedwig. If you're not interested (which I hope you are interested, but I'll understand if not I suppose) just throw the note away, send Hedwig home and I won't trouble you further.
She read in silence and thought she'd been fighting off the urge to smirk quite well until Snape growled and stalked over to snatch the paper back. "Say one word about having told me so, you old cat, and I will hex you with fleas!" He slapped the paper down, and scrawled across the back. "The brat probably just needs to consult on… a potion." He rolled the note and retied it. Even the owl didn't seem to believe him. "Or some defense spell…Oh, do stop leering at me, woman!"
"Would you rather I laughed outright?" She asked as he shoved the bird back out into the night.
His lips thinned, but whatever blistering retort he had planned was cut off when Madame Rosemerta threw open the door and bustled a scorched and limping Remus Lupin into the room.
"Good heavens!" Minerva cried, rushing to help the man into a seat, "Whatever's happened, Lupin?"
His eyes flashed, golden and desperate for a moment, and he weakly shoved at her hands. "Mno, pleashe..."
"A moment, Severus. Whatever happened to him, Rosemerta?"
"Minerva, step back -- both of you, stop it!"
"I've no idea, Minnie, he just stumbled in and --"
"GET BACK NOW!" Severus bellowed, blasting the chair and its occupant backward into the corner. Both witches shrieked, half startled, half outraged. Lupin whimpered as the chair hit the wall, but his pained grimace explained all, for crowded into his human jaw was a ragged mass of wolfish teeth.
"Pleashe don' toush me," he managed to growl before he fainted.
The old Chinese man at the noodle shop shook his head and pushed the scrap of parchment away. "He not here."
"I know he's not here!" Draco ground through his teeth as he tried for the fifth time to slide the warning note across the battered counter, "I can bloody well SEE that he's not here! All I bloody well WANT is for YOU to take this stinking NOTE, and GIVE IT TO HIM IF HE COMES HERE!"
Shouting put a dent in that smile at least, but before he could imagine he was getting somewhere with the old man, (who probably was not actually considered a simpleton amongst his own people,) Draco found himself facing a wand over the bubbling trays. "He. Not. Here," explained the old man as if Draco were the dangerous idiot, "You go now!"
Sweet Merlin, how does Potter do it? Draco wondered, running a hand through his hair in frustration. He wanted a cigarette desperately, but had smoked his last one hours ago. He tapped the note again, pretending to ignore the old man's threat while he shook his own wand down into his palm. "Look, Mr..." he leaned back to read the signboard, "Fook, or whatever your name really is, try and get this much through your head; Professor... Lupin... Will... Be... MURDERED TONIGHT!" He pounded the counter, overturning the cup of chopsticks. "Now nobody wants that, do they? No they don't! Now you can stop that happening if you'll just GIVE HIM THIS BLOODY NOTE!"
"I say," called an amused voice from behind his shoulder, "that isn't Draco Malfoy is it?" He managed not to whip around, but couldn't quite still the flinch in his stomach to hear his real name tossed out at such volume. The man behind him laughed, clapping a hand on Draco's shoulder and turning him to the light. Draco swallowed a groan and gave up all hope of maintaining his anonymity. "By Morgana's tits, it is," Blaise Zabini crowed and dragged him into a hug, "I knew I recognized that particular tone of petulant bitchiness! When did you get back to England?"
"Well strictly speaking, Zabini, I'm not-"
"And why the devil didn't you come straight to me? Didn't I tell you last time we met up -- Prague, wasn't it? -- that I had our next round? How am I meant to settle it if you don't even knock me up when you're about?"
Draco concentrated on taking deep breaths and not shouting while his classmate pumped his hand. "Well I didn't know you were about, Z," he replied at a pointedly subdued volume, "I'm not exactly on the top of the reunion committee's owling list, am I? What are you doing here, anyway?"
"What, besides keeping Lee from cursing you with One Thousand Days of the Fiery Shits?" Zabini flashed a grin which would have done Lockheart proud and shrugged "I'm teaching Charms down the school, of course. What, hadn't you heard?" Draco shook his head, and Zabini pulled out one of the stools to sit. "Well, old Flitwick's gone and retired to the Colonies with a red-headed swimsuit model. Turned the whole business over to me. Thanks Lee," he added as the old man -- smiling once more -- slid a steaming bowl across the counter, "Now it's your turn, Dragon of Ill Intent; What are you doing back in England, what are you doing back in Hogsmeade, why are you antagonizing poor Lee Ho, and what in Merlin's name have you done to your hair?"
Vanity stung, Draco couldn't help touching one limp strand beside his ear. "Just a little dye is all."
"Ugh!" Zabini snapped his chopsticks apart with a grimace. "And what do you call that colour anyway; Muddy Gutter?"
"I call it not getting arrested on sight by the first auror I pass in the street," Draco hissed, trying not to watch Zabini eat. His own stomach, twistingly empty, gurgled as he nudged the scrap of parchment with one finger. "And as for your happy little friend here, he seems to have a problem with my wanting to leave this message for Professor Lupin."
Zabini took up the parchment with an amused look. "Why would you be leaving notes for him here of all places?"
"I don't know," Draco snapped, "Thought maybe he'd fancy a big dish of beef chow mein! Just read the note, Z, you'll understand."
Zabini's amusement faded as he read and understood. When he looked up again, his brown eyes were sharp and sober. "This is serious, Dray? This isn't just someone arsing about to cause trouble for-"
"Oh, someone's arsing about all right; someone who wants to draw Potter out of hiding and thinks that capturing Lupin's just the way to do it. The international pelt bounty isn't high enough to bring the Italian guilds in by itself, so someone must be offering a personal contract." Draco didn't bother to cite that the 'someone' in question was almost certainly his own father, or that in all likelihood, the man's strategy was absolutely on target. Let anyone threaten Potter's little surrogate family and they'd find the hero after them faster than a snitch, no matter the danger. The big Gryffindor twit. "I overheard that Lupin had been in town today. Since then I've been leaving warnings everywhere I could think of that he might go. But there's been no sign of him."
Draco looked up in surprise as Mr. Fook slid a second bowl across the counter, this one in front of him. "Professor Lupin best customer. Too many strangers ask question today. Too many question." He swiped the counter with a rag, and gave the bowl another nudge. "Beef chow mein. Very good."
Zabini snickered and handed the note across the counter to Fook. "Eat, Dray, he's right."
Draco goggled. "Have you not heard a single word I've-"
"Heard," he slurped delicately, "And I get it. But you're forgetting something -- Professor Lupin teaches dueling and defense. He handled himself just find through both wars, even when Order members were dropping like flies around him. He can handle a couple of foreigners tonight, even if they do get the drop on him."
"Not these foreigners," Draco said, "the Italian Bounty Guild is the oldest in Europe. They carry silver-cored ash wood wands -- all of them linked one to the other, so if the hunter needs to, he can bring the united power of his guild to bear in a fight." Draco took a bite of the food, chewing quickly and hoping it would look more as if he was nervous than starving.
"What, like the Dark Mark?"
Draco nodded. "That was what Vol... er, HE had in mind, I'm sure, but he couldn't get the actual spells out of the Guild, thank Merlin," he added nervously as Fook scowled. "Anyway, my point is that fighting one Guild hunter is more like fighting a hundred wizards." He took another bite, then gave up any pretence at delicacy and stuffed his mouth.
"And you said there were --?" Zabini slowly put down his chopsticks and bowl.
"Two, that I saw," Draco managed, "but they don't usually send more than that." Because they never need to, he did not add.
"And you said you left word everywhere?"
"Everywhere but the auror's station and the Town Hall," Draco said, hoping Zabini wouldn't press the point until they were alone. He didn't want to explain the interesting tattoo on his left wrist to his new best friend, Mr. Fook.
The young wizard cocked his head. "Hogwarts as well?" He smirked as Draco grimaced at his own stupidity. "Hmph. You always did overlook the obvious, didn't you? Well, finish that and come on then. I'll apparate you in past the wards, and we can have the house elves wake the Headmistress."
"Apparate?" Draco mumbled, "Thought you couldn't-"
"Teacher." Zabini shrugged and paid Fook for both their dinners. "Everything changes, Dray, especially when Dark Lords fall. Board of Governors decided to change old Dumbledore's wards so Teachers could get on the spot when they were wanted. You all set?"
He wasn't. He was tired, nerve-wracked, foot sore, dying for a smoke, and he really really wanted to sit down and eat his dinner properly instead of bolting half and walking away from the rest. But Draco took a deep breath and reminded himself of what he stood to lose if his mission failed. Then he set the bowl down and brushed a grain of rice from his knee. "All right," he sighed, "let's go."
"Bounty hunters?" Minerva gasped, her wand faltering over Lupin's restored, almost-human mouth, "Here? Surely not!"
"Two of them," Lupin said, wincing as his jaw gave one final crack, "First I knew they were there was when the curse hit me." He shivered, huddled closer to the fire. "I managed to get away before the curse transformed me all the way, but Merlin, it was close."
"Hmph," Snape shouldered the Headmistress aside and peered closely into Lupin's eyes. "I believe I may take some credit for that. The wolfsbane built up in your system probably held off the silvercore's effects somewhat." Lupin glared but didn't bother to argue, because just then Rosemerta appeared with a gigantic mug of hot chocolate.
"Here you are, Remus love; and I put a bit of brandy in just for your nerves."
"Bless you!" He reached past Snape, ignoring the man's amused smirk until after he had taken a long swallow. "They cornered me twice after that. If they hadn't been trying to take me alive, I'd never have made it back here."
"But there have been no postings," Minerva dithered, pacing the tiny room, "the Ministry knows where to find you, there's no need whatsoever for them to send bounty hunters after you here, even if there were a scrap of excuse!"
"Stop being naïve, woman," Snape growled, "Weasley would have stopped any British bounty guild from accepting a contract on our war hero werewolf."
"They're from Italy," Rosemerta put in, kneeling to poke up the fire.
"How did you-"
"Someone left a message for you earlier this afternoon," she shrugged, abashed, "It seemed a bit of a wild story -- Italian bounty hunters in the pay of Death Eaters, of all things! So I didn't give it much credence. Now, however," she dug out the note and pressed it into Lupin's hand.
Snape and MacGonagall crowded close over his shoulder to read the missive, tickling the barely-restrained wolf under his skin with their warmth and the smell of their vulnerable humanity. He swallowed loudly and surrendered the note. The letters were blurring together anyway.
"I didn't recognize the man who left it, but he sounded a bit foreign," Rosemerta said, "Tanned, somewhat travelworn, but rather dishy in a strangely grubby sort of way. I could pick him out again if I saw him though -- he'd pretty grey eyes."
"Well, that's a help then," the Headmistress said with a steely glare, "Severus, please apparate back to the school with Remus. I'm going to take this note down to the auror's station and-"
She blinked, taken aback by the two wizards' vehemence until Lupin explained. "Every time I try to use magic, I start to shift again. It's barely held in check as it is, if I apparate, Severus will have to fight me off the students."
"And much as I should love the excuse to curse you insensible, Professor Lupin," the Potions Master smirked, "your Gryffindors will likely kick up a fuss if I do it where they can see."
"Severus, behave," Minerva snapped, "The floo then --"
"Another poor idea," Snape interrupted, striding to retrieve his cloak from the hooks by the door, "The floo is almost definitely being monitored. And besides, the jostling would shake off any semblance of focus remaining in that scarred head of his."
"I am still right here, you know Severus."
"So you are," he agreed with a fierce grin, "Get your cloak, man. I'm walking you home."
"Absolutely not! Severus, I absolutely forbid it!" Minerva planted herself in front of the door, arms braced over her chest. "You have already fought two duels today!"
"Then consider me warmed up. Lupin, your cloak."
"He was dueling?" Lupin gulped the rest of his chocolate and struggled out of the chair. "It was Umbridge, wasn't it? Why didn't you tell me you were going to challenge her? I'd have stood your second!"
"No, it was a couple of Death Eaters," Minerva answered without budging. "Which is quite enough for one day, I think! We are no longer at war, Severus, you cannot simply brawl in the street!"
"Then I shall be sure to keep to the verge," he replied, taking the werewolf's elbow.
"How do you expect to beat them without recourse to Unforgivables?" Minerva fired her last volley, knowing it was futile, "You'll have no duelist's covenant to keep you out of Azkaban this time. Let the aurors do their job, and stop this foolishness!"
He raised his chin and gave her a dangerous look -- not laden with fury, venom, or spite, but with a fierce joy that went farther toward intimidating her than any expression she had ever seen on that homely face. "Foolishness, Minerva? Foolishness would be to allow the aurors -- one of whom, I remind you, happens to be Harry Potter's best friend -- to get wind of this threat to Professor Lupin's safety. Foolishness would be to allow that reckless, impulsive prima don to spring this trap and expose himself to murder or capture because someone he loves is in danger."
"So you will put the both of you into danger then?" She snapped.
"No, Minerva, Snape's right," Lupin put in, "Whatever happens, we can't risk Harry coming after me. And he would -- you know it."
"Then I shall come along with you," she growled, reaching for her cloak.
"You'll do no such thing," Snape replied, "Someone must contact the rest of the Order -- put them on alert for more trouble, get the planning started. As Secret Keeper, that's you, old cat."
And the fact that he was right made the Headmistress even more furious with him. She moved out of the doorway with an air of pinned ears and tail-lashing about her. "Severus," Minerva snagged his sleeve as he passed, tried one final crumb of sense. "You're a Slytherin, man, stop being reckless! Think of tomorrow!"
He showed his teeth; not in a snarl or grimace, but in a predatory smile. "Oh, I shall, Minerva," he patted her arm, "I shall think of tomorrow every step of the way!"