"I think perhaps you may be right," said Dumbledore, looking down at the note in his hands.
Severus glanced at Charity who was kneeling before him, a look of dire concern and worry creasing her brow, and he sipped at his whisky. The dreadful images that the potion had forced him to witness kept flashing before his eyes. Mentally he cursed himself for his weakness: he should not have come back here. He should have returned to Hogwarts as per Dumbledore's original intentions where they could talk freely. But after the dreadful ordeal he had wanted to be somewhere he felt safe, both emotionally and physically.
He was well aware that Charity could be trusted to be a member of the Order, more so than many of its current members, but exposing her to even more danger? The idea left a distinctly unpleasant taste in his mouth.
Dumbledore, astute as ever, peered over the top of his spectacles at Charity. "Can I presume from her lack of shock at your current predicament, Severus, that you have shared certain aspects of your day-to-day life with Miss Burbage?"
Severus responded with nothing more than a glare.
"I see," said Dumbledore. "May I ask how much you have shared?"
"He told me that you have him running around after You Know Who," said Charity, standing up and folding her arms across her chest. "I don't know what you're playing at, Professor, but that's the job of the Aurors. It's not down to people barely out of school."
"Your concern is admirable, Miss Burbage. However, I firmly believe that Severus is more than capable—"
"I don't care if you think he's 'more than capable!' It's not his job!"
An intense shudder involuntarily shook Severus' body, causing him to spill some of the whisky, and he swore under his breath, quietly thanking Merlin that neither of them had seen his moment of weakness. While Charity continued to protest what she saw as Dumbledore's ill-treatment, Severus sat and tried to form his thoughts into a logical and coherent order.
Regulus Black had vanished almost a year earlier, shortly after joining the Death Eaters. He had managed to replace the genuine Horcrux with a fake one. Assuming that the potion in the basin was somehow self-replicating, and would refill itself if left alone, then Regulus would have had to endure a very similar ordeal to the one that Severus just had. He shuddered once more as the memories came back to him. But there was no way at all that Regulus could have managed it alone. Someone had to have been with him.
And what? Did that mean that Regulus was still alive and hiding somewhere? That he had forced someone to drink that potion until he could steal the Horcrux and replace it with a fake locket? Had he then left them to die? Or had someone else done exactly that to him, and then left him on that terrible, lonely little island to go mad with thirst until he was killed by the inferi?
What was it Dumbledore had said about that rowing boat? That it measured magical power, rather than size… Dumbledore had taken Potter with him before. Potter… an underage and unqualified wizard… Had that boat been able to carry them both, then? So Regulus's companion would have been a child? Surely not… Regulus was a brainwashed fool who had entirely bought into the idea of blood purity, but a callous child-killer… surely not. No, there was something else here…
He shook his head briefly in order to clear it. In the other world, Dumbledore and Potter retrieved this ordinary locket. Had Dumbledore had the chance to read the note before… before his death? Unlikely. But Potter must have read it.
Potter, who had spent the summer hiding out at Grimmauld Place. Even in Regulus' old home, would Potter have had the intelligence to work out who R.A.B was? Probably not, but Granger may have…
So, assuming that between them Potter, Weasley, and Granger were able to work out who had taken the Horcrux, how were they able to work out precisely where it was? Or had they just assumed that Regulus had been successful in his mission? No… not even Potter would be so dunderheaded as to assume such an important point without proof. So they must have found it at some point… But surely Regulus would not have been so foolish as to have left it lying around at Grimmauld Place?
Severus rubbed his temples in tight circles, ignoring the sound of Charity reeling off in anger every moment that she suspected that he, Severus, had been harmed by the Dark Lord thanks to Dumbledore's orders.
An image from his previous life came back to him. He had hidden the Sword of Gryffindor, and Potter had spotted it at the bottom of the pond. Severus had wanted to wait, to ensure that Potter retrieved it properly, and as Potter removed some of his clothes before sliding into the ice-cold water, he had spotted a flash of silver about the boy's neck.
So… they had definitely found it by then. Someone out there must have information on where Regulus had hidden it, or who had gone into the cave with them. But who could it possibly have been? As far as Severus was aware, once Potter and his friends had gone on the run, they had no contact with the outside world at all. So it made more sense that they must have either found it, or found Regulus' accomplice while still hiding out at Grimmauld Place…
An ugly face, with a long, pointed nose, and a disposition as sour as Severus' own swum in his vision. Severus' sharp intake of breath drew both Charity's and Dumbledore's attention.
"What is it?" said Dumbledore sharply.
"I may have…remembered… something important," he said tactfully.
Dumbledore nodded. "Are you well enough to move? I should prefer to talk back at the castle."
"Severus isn't going anywhere," said Charity firmly. "Whatever it is you want to do with him, it can wait."
A muscle spasmed painfully in his leg, which caused Charity to return back to his side.
"I am fine," he said, brushing away her concerns with an annoyed wave of his hand.
"Yeah," she muttered, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "I can see that. You look the very definition of 'fine.'"
"I could summon Sirius to come here, if we could have some privacy?"
"No!" snapped Severus with as much force as he could manage in his weakened state. The idea of Black being here, in the one place in the world he finally felt safe, at ease… "I am not having him here."
"And I'm not going to be told to go and sit quietly in my bedroom in my own home while the big boys have a conversation," said Charity.
Dumbledore looked from Charity, who was stood with her arms folded and a furious expression on her face, and back to Severus, who was struggling to keep his face as angry as possible with the after shocks of pain and despair that kept wracking him.
"Of course," said Dumbledore eventually. "Forgive me. It is sometimes easy for this old man to get swept up in the moment. I do, however, wish you would reconsider seeing a healer before I leave you alone."
Severus managed his most potent glare, one which he used to reserve solely for incompetent first years. Dumbledore's eyes twinkled and he seemed to be struggling to prevent a smile. "As you wish, Severus," he said. "We will continue this conversation tomorrow."
Dumbledore inclined his head in a respectful bow towards Charity then swept from the room and out into Muggle London.
"I don't remember him being quite so exasperating," said Charity once they were alone.
"He tends to reserve that side of himself especially for me," he said, shifting his weight into a more comfortable position and wincing slightly at the effort.
"Look, I know you'll say 'no,' but is there anything I can do to help you?"
"No," he answered automatically, then after he experienced a sudden, stabbing pain in his side, said, "Yes, actually. In my room, on my work desk… I have a series of potions filed in a wooden casket. They are alphabetized and labelled… find me a Calming Draught, and a Draught of Peace."
Charity nodded and left him alone. There was an uncontrollable tremor in his left hand but not his right; perhaps one of the after-effects of the dreadful potion he had taken was to render the user's wand arm weaker? What if the effects were permanent? After all, Dumbledore did not live long enough after his own ordeal to find out, and as his current theories pointed to Regulus being dead as well, and the possible only survivor being a non-wand user, there was not really anyone he could ask. The thought of being permanently magically incapacitated was certainly a disconcerting one.
"Here," said Charity, interrupting Severus' thoughts, and handing over two small glass bottles.
Severus checked the labels, and pulled the stopper from the first bottle, labelled 'Calming Draught.' A pale blue mist rose from the bottle neck, filling the room with a fresh scent, as of a summer meadow. He drank the contents of the bottle in a single gulp, and could immediately feel the effects as it worked to counteract the terrible shock and trauma his body had received. An audible sigh of relief came from him as he raised his hand before his eyes, and it was perfectly still and steady. He did the same with the second bottle, and drank the thick, pearlescent contents, finally feeling his anxiety begin to wane as he did so.
"You ok?" asked Charity.
Severus nodded and rested his head back against the sofa.
"What happened tonight?"
Severus closed his eyes and immediately was back in the cave. The Draught of Peace certainly helped to take the painful edge off the memories, but the sound of screams still echoed in his ears, and his soul was filled with wretched sadness as he watched his only two friends mercilessly killed by the Dark Lord.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said.
Charity nodded sadly. "Well," she said. "I should just leave you to it."
She walked back towards her bedroom, pausing only to wave her wand towards the mug and spilled tea that she had dropped earlier. The tea stain vanished, and the smashed mug remade itself, settling back on the sideboard.
"Charity, wait," Severus called to her retreating back. "I may not want to talk, but… that is not to say that I would not greatly appreciate the company."
She turned and a gentle half-smile lifted up the corners of her mouth. "Sure thing, Sev," she said, and she sat next to him on the sofa.
The warmth of her presence almost seemed to enhance the effects of the calming draught, especially as she made no demands of him to make any conversation. After a few minutes of comfortable silence, she reached for a book on the coffee table, then tucked her feet up on the sofa and settled in to read.
The sounds of London life passed by outside; the distant rumble of traffic, punctuated now and again with the siren from an ambulance or a police car; the animated chatter of groups of care-free revellers on their way home from the pubs; the occasional screech from a pair of fighting cats. The sheer mundanity was a far cry from the hell of his magical existence, and this coupled with the effects of the draught made him feel almost at ease.
He glanced at the lurid front cover of the book Charity was reading. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not something he was personally familiar with at all. Charity looked up and caught him reading the cover, and smiled warmly at his interest. "You should give this a go sometime, Sev. I think you'd find it an interesting read."
"I cannot say I have any interest at all in motorcycles."
"It's not about that," she said, her smile growing warmer by the moment. "It's more…an exploration of self… an exploration of what we define as 'quality'…an exploration of truth… I just think you should read it sometime."
"I shall bear it in mind," he said noncommittally, as a slight shudder, much less pronounced than his earlier ones, racked his body.
Charity made no comment for which Severus was grateful, and returned her attention to her book. She held it open with one hand, propped up against her knees, and her other hand sat relaxed by her side. He found the elegant shape of her hand and fingers fascinating and was overcome by the urge to touch them. Very cautiously, and knowing that his curiosity and increased confidence were only due to the combined effects of the two potions, he reached towards her and gently traced the outline of hand with the edge of his fingertips.
She looked up questioningly from the pages of her book, and the spell woven by the potions was broken.
"I am sorry," he mumbled, snatching his hand away.
"It's ok," she replied gently, and she held her hand out towards him.
With a great amount of trepidation, he interlocked his fingers with hers, letting out the breath he had not even realised he'd been holding in. She kept hold of his hand and returned her attention to her book. Every now and then he would experience a slight tremor, a greatly weakened after-effect from the cave's despair potion, and each time she would wordlessly squeeze his hand. It was such a reassuring gesture, and one that he had no memory of ever experiencing before.
Indeed, he could not remember ever feeling so relaxed, and with each passing minute, the hell of the cave seemed to fade further and further. He closed his eyes, listening to nothing more than the sounds of Muggle London, and of Charity occasionally turning a page in her book.
He became aware of movement in the room and was immediately shaken from sleep. This was not his bedroom; he fought through the haze of confusion to see that he was lying on the sofa in the living room, a patchwork blanket draped over him.
Very slowly, he sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, when Charity appeared in the room.
"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to disturb you. I'm just heading out to work, if you wanted to go back to sleep."
After suppressing a yawn and rubbing his eyes once more, he said, "No. I daresay Dumbledore is expecting me sooner rather than later." He stretched his limbs, wincing a little at the aches, and unsure whether they were primarily after-effects from the potion, or rather due to sleeping curled up on the sofa.
"Sorry I didn't make you go to bed last night," said Charity. "I tried to wake you. Admittedly, I didn't try hard… you looked so peaceful that I didn't really want to disturb you."
He thought of how he had fallen asleep holding her hand, and felt a flush of embarrassment at how he could have been so bold, even with so many potions operating on him. And yet she hadn't rejected him. In fact, she had encouraged him. The memory filled his chest with a warm glow.
She vanished into the kitchen for a few moments then returned with a steaming mug in her hands, which she placed on the table in front of him. Grateful for the physical distraction to the confusing thoughts and sensations, Severus reached for the coffee and took a few tentative sips, careful not to burn himself on the hot liquid.
"Try not to come back broken today, ok?" said Charity, as she picked up her handbag and walked towards the front door. "Because I swear, if I see you like you were last night again, I'll march up to Hogwarts and hex Dumbledore myself."
There it was again. That warm glow deep within his chest, a strangely alien and yet not unpleasant sensation. He said nothing as Charity left him alone, and the faintest of smiles crossed his face. It was so strange to know that someone appeared to have his best interest at heart.
A quiet voice reminded him that it would only make the inevitable loss of her friendship that much more painful. He tried to ignore his internal monologue, well aware that sometimes it was far more self-destructive than at others. But it would not leave him alone, preying on his insecurities until he could take no more, and was forced into action to try and silence the hateful little voice. After finishing the bitter dregs of his coffee, he mentally scolded himself for his emotional weakness, then grabbed his travelling cloak and left for Hogwarts.
Dumbledore greeted him at the gates, and together they walked back to the school. Hogwarts during the summer months was one of Severus' favourite places; the castle's quiet and solitude was in no way marred by the presence of loud and ignorant students. In his previous life, he had always made as many excuses as he could to stay at the castle for as long as possible once term ended. Indeed, the times when he could carry out his own researches for hours on end using the school's extensive library without being disturbed were among the happiest—or rather the least fraught—moments of his prior existence.
As they walked across the grounds, Dumbledore began to speak. "I have already taken the liberty of messaging Sirius Black. I trust that you will be able to keep your end of the conversation civil?"
The feelings of comfort, warmth, and calm that he had been experiencing vanished in an instant. His fists clenched involuntarily, and he fought against grinding his teeth.
"I shall take your silence on the matter as complicity. Thank you, Severus. But before he joins us, tell me, what memory came back to you last night?"
"It was not so much a memory. More of a realisation as to who would have been with Regulus Black when he made the switch. Potter would have found this Horcrux, and believe me, he did not have the cognitive capacity to find something unless it was directly in front of him. In the summer after… after he left school, he was living in Black's old house. There were no other surviving members of the family, and the only vestige of the Blacks that remained was their old house elf."
Dumbledore smiled in understanding. "Yes. I very much doubt that Voldemort would consider a house elf's magic to be important enough to register with that boat. It certainly would fit that Regulus took his house elf with him. And so the big question is… did Regulus force his elf to drink the potion, then go into hiding with the Horcrux, or did Regulus instruct the elf to make him drink it, and to leave him to die?"
"I do not know for certain, but if he went into hiding, and still had the Horcrux with him, Potter found it. That I know for certain. And given Pottter's lax observational and deduction skills, I rather think it must have been under his nose the entire time, and was therefore the latter scenario."
"If that is indeed the case, then our task should be easy. I should prefer to keep the actual knowledge of Horcruxes to ourselves, and as such, all Sirius will have to do is instruct the elf to bring him the locket that Regulus left him in charge of. He will be bound to obey."
Severus remained quiet. He highly doubted that any interaction with Sirius would be counted as "easy."
After Dumbledore took him up to the office and summoned a pot of coffee, a selection of cream cakes, and a bowl of Fizzing Whizzbees, Fawkes came flying in through the open window and warbled a low tune. "Excuse me," said Dumbledore. "Sirius is here. I shall return."
Severus nodded shortly, and pushed the rising feeling of discomfort back into the pit of his stomach. The mission could have been passed on to Black without them both being present. There really was not any need for Dumbledore to force them both together.
Severus poured a coffee and stared into the black depths, once again forcing himself into calm before Black arrived. He downed the hot, sweet liquid, and poured another, gritting his teeth as he heard the sound of footsteps walking up the spiral staircase towards the Headmaster's office.
Even with the warning, the surge of anger and hatred at seeing Black was palpable, and the feeling was clearly mutual.
"Black," he said, putting as much contempt into the single syllable as it was possible to do.
"Snivellus," responded Black.
"You know, Black," said Severus, carefully placing the coffee cup on the desk, "it really is comforting to know that nearly ten years of maturing weren't wasted on you."
"And what's that supposed to mean?"
"Gentlemen!" said Dumbledore. "I would ask you both to sit, so that we might talk as reasonable adults."
Severus caught Black's dark look, and secretly thought that him talking as a reasonable adult was little short of a miracle, but he sat nonetheless.
Dumbledore waited for a few moments, steepling his fingers and glancing over the top of them between the two men. "Sirius, I have a task for you. One that is utterly vital in putting a stop to Voldemort."
Black nodded and leaned back in his chair. A self-satisfied smirk crossed his face, and Severus felt his dislike spike. He tensed his jaw to prevent himself from saying anything he would regret.
"I need you to summon your house elf," continued Dumbledore. "There is something we need to ask him about."
Sirius frowned slightly and leaned forward. "What do you need from Kreacher? He's a nasty piece of work. Whatever you need doing, Albus, you'll be better off asking me directly."
"Do you believe, Black, that if this was not something we specifically required of your elf, that it would have even been mentioned?" retorted Severus, struggling to keep the sarcasm in his voice to a bare minimum. Black opened his mouth as if to reply, but Severus cut across him. "Tell me, when was the last time you heard from or spoke to your brother?"
"What?" replied Black, confusion clouding his face. "What's he got to do with anything?"
"If you are unwilling to summon your elf, perhaps your brother might aid us instead, so allow me to repeat myself. When was the last time you heard from or spoke to your brother?"
Black shook his head in disbelief. "When I left school. He joined your little gang though, didn't he, Snivelly? You're in a better position to find him than me."
"I do not believe any of us will find him. I strongly suspect that your brother is dead."
Black glared at Severus, a muscle tensing in his jaw. "You suspect? Something you're not telling me, Snivellus?"
"Several things, Black, none of which are of any concern to you."
The look on Black's face darkened and he made a gesture as if he were about to reach for his wand, when Dumbledore waved his wand. Both Severus's and Black's wands flew from their robes and into Dumbledore's outstretched hand.
"Gentlemen, please. I did not call you both here to air your petty grievances—"
"Petty?" interrupted Severus, but Dumbledore continued to talk over him.
"There is a far greater issue at stake than either of your egos. Severus, I have already told you that what is done is done, and any past mistakes made should be put on me. Sirius, I need you to put aside whatever personal dislike you have and aid us."
"This isn't about personal dislike, Albus. Once a Death Eater, always a Death Eater."
The hatred inside Severus surged once more, and for once in his life he actually wanted to prove Sirius right. The urge to snatch his wand back from Dumbledore and hex the smug bastard to oblivion was almost overwhelming.
But instead Dumbledore spoke, forcing Severus back into submission. "You are wrong, Sirius. You are very, very wrong. Severus has more than proven to me that he is entirely on our side."
"How?" demanded Sirius.
"That is a matter between Severus and I," replied Dumbledore.
"He's playing you for a fool, Albus…"
"The fact is," said Severus, struggling to keep calm, "I believe that before he disappeared, your brother may have left an item of great power, something that could help us put an end to the Dark Lord, in the possession of your family's house elf. We need you to order him to bring it to us."
"And you need me to bring it to you?"
"That is correct."
"What, so you can hand it straight back to Voldemort?" said Black.
Severus glared at him silently, waiting for Albus to intervene. When the old man said nothing, Severus muttered, "Fine," under his breath. He reached across the desk and snatched his wand from out of Dumbledore's grasp, ignoring the old man's protestations, and stormed from the office. He didn't stop walking until he reached the Great Lake, and sat down in the shade of a beech tree overlooking the water. As the Giant Squid broke the surface of the water, rolled over, and dived back beneath the surface, Severus rolled a cigarette and exhaled the cloud of smoke slowly.
This needed to be over. He was done with it all. Done with the lies, the double life, the constant feeling of being used, of not being good enough…
The thought came to him that perhaps he should just walk away…just leave the country to sort out its own damn mess, but he knew he would not. He was far too involved now to leave the few people he cared about behind.
He became aware of the soft sound of footsteps on grass behind him, and he tensed himself for the inevitable passive aggressive remark that Dumbledore was bound to give.
It never came. Instead, Dumbledore sat down next to him and gazed out over the water. "I love Hogwarts at this time of year," he said. "It is a strange dichotomy, I know. After all, nothing can really beat it when the castle is brought alive by the children that inhabit it, but, I confess, I do love how peaceful it is when they return home."
Severus said nothing, and continued to smoke in silence with Dumbledore beside him.
"I have impressed upon Sirius the importance of his mission."
"Mission?" snorted Severus. "If he weren't so arrogant, his "mission" would be completed in moments."
"Perhaps not," said Dumbledore. "When Sirius left home, his family disowned him. It appears that his elf has taken this a little to heart. Sirius tried to summon the elf when we were alone. He was entirely unable to."
"Bullshit," snapped Severus, to which Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. "It is, Albus. After Black's escape from Azkaban, we used Grimmauld Place as Headquarters for the Order. I saw him give orders to that elf, and I saw the elf obey."
"In that time, when Sirius became the last surviving member of the family, then of course the elf had to obey him. He would have been all the elf had left. But at the moment, he appears to be following the orders of the people he loves and cares about. Sirius is, at present, no longer a family member."
"So what do we do? Break into their home?"
"As I said, Severus, I have impressed upon Sirius the importance of his mission. He will have to become a member of the Black family once again."
Severus laughed a cold, humourless laugh. "Good luck with that."
"Sirius has my full trust that he will not let us down, Severus. It may take time, but he will complete his task, of that I am certain."
"So, in the meantime, what do we do?"
"Right now, you go home. I confess, that I have not the least idea how we will get into the Lestranges' vault. And so I think we should focus on the one here at Hogwarts next. I feel that breaking into Gringotts will somehow alert Voldemort to our current mission, and I should personally prefer it if he only becomes aware of what we are doing when he is finally mortal once again. Of course, defeating him even as a mortal man will be no mean feat…"
"So we shall need to ensure we have our own side strengthened and ready when that happens."
"Quite. But please, Severus, for now, go home. I can research objects Rowena Ravenclaw may have left behind. I have an idea or two already, and while the school is empty, I can focus my mind perfectly. You deserve a rest."
A rustling of leaves behind them caught their attention, and Severus turned around to see Hagrid emerge from the Forest with the body of a doe about his shoulders. A crossbow was slung over Hagrid's back, and there was evidence of arrow wounds in the doe's bloody flank. Severus shuddered at the sight of the dead animal.
"Professor Dumbledore, sir!" exclaimed Hagrid. "I wasn't expectin' to see you here!" Hagrid shifted the doe on his shoulders, exposing the gory wound even further. Severus swallowed the sense of rising nausea, and wished that the doe's eyes were at least closed; they seemed to be fixing him with an accusing stare. Along with the nausea, Severus felt overcome by a dreadful sadness at the loss of such innocence. He turned away from the dead animal and tried not to think of Lily at all.
"Hagrid!" replied Dumbledore. "Yes, it was such a beautiful day, and I am not the only person who feels that such an outstanding view as this," —he gestured out towards the lake with a sweeping gesture— "is wonderfully conducive to helping one get a full handle on one's thoughts."
Hagrid stood awkwardly for a few moments looking between Dumbledore and Severus before he said, "Can I invite you over for dinner tonigh', professor? There's plen'y to go round!"
"That would be delightful, Hagrid. There is nothing quite like fresh venison. Severus? Will you be joining us?"
Severus took one last glance at the doe's empty stare and turned away, shaking his head tightly.
"Very well," said Dumbledore. "Then once again, take some rest. You have earned it. I will be in contact again shortly."
Taking very great care not to look at the dead body around Hagrid's shoulders, Severus climbed heavily to his feet and walked away from the water's edge, back towards the castle. The next time he stepped foot in the ancient building, or spoke to its current custodian, would be far too soon.
A/N - Thank you for reading! Now go and leave a review to make the next chapter appear quicker ;)
Sorry that this chapter is a little quieter than the others - I really needed a slow of pace before the end. I honestly thought this story would be longer, but there's probably only two or three - possibly four, we'll see - chapters left!