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Severus narrows his eyes when the silvery, flickering bird soars through the window and towards him. He knows, even as he stretches his hand out, that he will not be able to touch it. This is a message charm of the kind that Filius has his seventh-years practice frequently.
That knowledge does not answer the question of why one of them would be coming to him.
The bird alights on Severus's hand and leans close to his ear. It speaks, jolting him, in Draco's voice. "Sir, Harry Potter has been kidnapped from the Hogwarts Express by a red mist that had eyes and tentacles. He apparently answered some questions before he left. His friends said he might have gone with it willingly."
The bird dissolves into speckles of light. Severus has to close his eyes and sit still for a long moment before he can trust himself to move.
And his first move is not to go to Albus's office. He assumes that one of Harry's friends will use an owl when the train stops moving to alert Albus, but going to him would be productive of nothing except delays. Or possibly a quick search, but one that would have all the might of Albus Dumbledore behind it, and be too obvious.
Severus can at least make a guess where Harry is going. And he doesn't have to listen to moralizing about Death Eaters while he does it.
He stands up and crosses to his Floo. Then he taps his wand against the mantel and casts the first of the elaborate countercharms that he has to use to unwind the knot of protective spells which will prevent him from using Floo powder to access the Notts' home. Some pure-blood families want to keep their Floo open to select visitors, but not have those visitors barging in at all times. Or keep them on the edge of magical exhaustion when they come through.
Severus does not intend to cross through unless it's a requirement. Such as if he sees Harry in the background.
The knot takes nearly ten minutes to unwind, and other than when he has to pause for breath and to let the ripples running through his core subside, Severus does it with constant spellcasting. Then he sags back and lets himself breathe a little before he casts in the Floo powder and calls, "Hemlock House!"
The fire seems to waver and open sullenly, although Severus is almost sure that is only his imagination. He still watches narrowly as the flames hiccough apart.
"Severus. To what do I owe the interference?"
"Tarquinius," says Severus, and inclines his head. "I want to know whether it was your beast that attacked the Hogwarts Express and took Harry Potter."
Tarquinius gives him a lazy smile. "If you intend to lay kidnapping charges against me, then you'll need better evidence than that."
"I am the boy's Head of House. His welfare is my responsibility."
"Not during the summer, dear Severus."
"Until he steps off the Express—steps—then, legally, it is."
Tarquinius pauses. Severus knows it is an unexpected victory, but it will not remain a victory unless he can press forwards and make it so. He leans in, smiling a little as he focuses his eyes on Tarquinius.
"Come, my friend. You know that you could not take the Boy-Who-Lived and simply expect it to go unreported."
"I hoped it might go unreported for longer," says Tarquinius. He shakes himself a moment later, and some of the indolent air comes back. Severus thinks it is his greatest weapon, perhaps, this way of making it seem to many that he is simply lazy, too lazy to bother doing anything they need contest. "But, Severus, you are not approaching me from a position of strength. In a few hours, your interest in the boy's welfare will cease until August."
"Then call it an interest of a different kind, too." Staring intently, Severus moves his hand towards his left arm.
Tarquinius lifts his head like a hound scenting a fresh trail. "I did not take him to torture or otherwise cause him pain, whatever you may think."
"I doubt your son would approve of that, when he wants to use Potter to gain social prominence in Slytherin."
"Theo could have social prominence whenever he wanted it. Malfoy's offspring isn't that hard to circumvent." Tarquinius frowns lightly. "I enjoy the thought of having someone so important indebted to me, of course. But you will get him back in August."
"And will he be the same boy who left my custody?"
"Afraid that I'll add a few limbs or eyes?" Tarquinius chuckles. "Don't be, Severus. I promise that he will come back as human in shape as ever. What I might tell him, teach him, impress upon his mind…that is a different matter, of course."
"I will lead the search for him. And since I know that you have him, I will be able to cause much more trouble than if I had no idea."
Tarquinius's eyelids droop for a moment. Severus has often thought he looked like a great lizard, and this is one of the clearest resemblances he can remember. "That is true, Severus. I had not anticipated you taking such an interest in the boy."
Severus remains silent. Tarquinius peers around as if trying to see into the room beyond him. "And should I expect a cavalry charge with Albus Dumbledore at the head?"
Part of Severus, the part that has been coiled most tightly since the message came, relaxes slightly. "Not Dumbledore. He has mishandled the boy and made him willing to seek shelter and indebtedness with you in the first place. No. I will not necessarily remove the boy from your care. What I want is regular access to him."
"Do you think I'm foolish enough to let you come to my hidden places?"
"Then you'll have to let him meet me elsewhere. And endure the risk that I may remove him."
Tarquinius sits like a basking lizard while he thinks about that. Severus remains still. Albus would never approve of him handling things like this, but then, the chances that Albus will learn about it before Tarquinius makes a decision are infinitesimal.
Finally, Tarquinius murmurs, "I will require an oath that you will not betray the location of my hidden places."
"What interest do I have in helping the Ministry enforce its bans on your beasts? I will be happy to swear the oath."
"Perhaps not the Ministry, but until today, I thought you had some interest in hoping Albus Dumbledore enforce his policies."
Severus meets the man's eyes, and it is as if they are back in a Death Eater meeting, measuring each other while the Dark Lord murmurs over to the side. Severus always tried to speak the truth in those meetings when he could. It makes a potent weapon and leaves less ground for others to try and attack him by twisting his own lies.
"If he wanted to ensure that," Severus says, with deliberate slowness and malice that is there and real, "then he should have taken better care of the boy while he was still a Gryffindor."
Perhaps that is some of the assurance Tarquinius was looking for, because he nods, and his eyes blink a little faster. "I will let you know when you can see the boy. No later than tomorrow. I will assume that he may be dazed by his fast travel today and require some time to recover."
Severus bows his head without looking away. "You should know that I will—bring consequences down if I must wait for longer than that to interview Potter."
"You need not tell me, Severus." Tarquinius waves a thin, impatient hand. "This is one of the hazards of doing business in a school, with schoolboys who are still under the protection of authorities."
"You intend to do business with Potter?"
"As I said, Theo could take leadership in Slytherin House whenever he desires to do so. Personally, I think he overestimates the danger posed by the Malfoys. If he wants to use Potter as an excuse, he can. But I want something else."
"As long as you remember all the consequences."
"I shall," says Tarquinius, and he is not stupid. Severus knows that he is thinking of some of the spells and potions Severus used during their first war to ensure his domination over the other Death Eaters. Tarquinius might manage to kill Harry, but he will have to decide whether the victory would be worth having his own death immediately follow that.
The Floo shuts, and Severus sits back and traces a finger over his left arm, sighing. Albus will make his own searches and have some good luck or good contacts in the Ministry who might be able to point him in some of the right directions.
But without Severus, he will have no luck in locating Tarquinius's many hidden homes.
And Severus finds himself…disinclined to give Albus that help.
Harry feels the red mist blow abruptly away from him, and then he's standing on a stone floor in a large, well-lit room. But the room is bare. There's a fireplace, blazing away, but no furniture.
Harry blinks and touches his forehead. It was strange, being part of the Mirror of Mouths like that. He was blowing along with it, and he knew he wasn't alone. The Mirror kept asking him questions, mostly about his name and the Dursleys. After a while Harry ran out of new things to say, but it didn't matter. The questioning was special, somehow. Important. And it made him feel special and important.
"Everyone acts like I already am special and important," Harry whispers to himself as he stands in front of the fireplace. "But I don't feel that way."
"That's very interesting to know, Harry Potter."
Harry spins around. There's a door opening in the side of the room that he didn't see before, and a man steps through it. He looks a lot like Theo, thin and with dark hair, but he has a smile and a sharp gaze that Harry's never seen on Theo.
"What's your name?" Harry asks. He supposes he should be afraid, but part of the Mirror of Mouths is still with him, maybe. It's hard to think about being afraid when you were part of something that could blow through the countryside like wind and attack the Hogwarts Express.
"My name is Tarquinius Nott. Theo's father. I want to welcome you to my home."
"This is your home?" Harry asks, and glances around at the stone walls and floor and ceiling. And the fireplace, but he thinks it wouldn't be comfortable to sleep on the hard floor in front of it, no matter how warm.
"One of them. And I did want to make sure that you weren't so shaken by your journey you would start indiscriminately destroying things." Mr. Nott snaps his fingers.
Abruptly, the floor shakes, and then beds and chairs surge out of the stone. Harry stares with his mouth dropping open. The beds are rich and high and have canopies, mostly in green and purple and blue. The chairs are overstuffed. But that's not what impresses him.
"You can do wandless magic?"
"Oh, no. Not usually. But there's such a thing as a chain of contingency spells that can be cast and renewed at intervals. A contingency spell guarantees a result if a certain thing happens. In this case, I snap my fingers and the furniture arises."
Harry looks longingly at a chair, but isn't sure he should sit down. Aunt Petunia would scold him—
"Do sit, Harry." Mr. Nott takes one that puts his back to the fireplace.
Harry does, and then says the first thing that comes into his head. "Why did you agree with Theo to get me away from the Muggles?"
"Because I want something from you. I think you could probably guess that. More than what Theo wants, which is power in Slytherin. I haven't been a Slytherin student for a long, long time."
Harry nods. He expected this. He has to be prepared for it, and ignore the way that his heart is knocking like it did when he did accidental magic back at the Dursleys'. "What do you want?"
Mr. Nott only studies him for a few moments, his frown so pensive that Harry doesn't know what he's thinking. Then he says, "A choice."
"Of what?" Harry knows his voice shakes this time, but he tries to make up for it with a glare that he knows is impressive.
"A choice when the Dark Lord returns. I know the rumors that have swept Hogwarts. I know that he is not dead."
Mr. Nott's face is flushed, his eyes burning. He reminds Harry of Snape. But he's ignored or beaten Snape a time or two. Harry makes himself sit still, and say, "I'm not going to let you give me up to him."
Mr. Nott chuckles. He sounds kind of like the Mirror of Mouths, which is more reassuring than maybe it should be. "At the moment, you couldn't do much to stop me. And that is the problem."
"I want a choice," Mr. Nott repeats. "Either to serve the Dark Lord, or—to go free. He is no longer as impressive in my memory as once he was. Even when he returns fully, I may not want to serve him. But Dumbledore would only offer me platitudes and no protection that could stand against his powers. That means I need a figurehead to lead another side. Someone who can gain the allegiance of people who follow Dumbledore, but does not follow Dumbledore himself." He props his chin on his fist. He's unnerving. Harry doesn't think he's blinked once yet. "You're the only candidate."
"I don't want to be a figurehead."
Mr. Nott gives him an amused glance. "I suspect you don't know what the word means."
Harry folds his arms. "I don't know everything it means, but I know it means now that you would take away my choices, and make me someone you only pretended to listen to. I don't want that any more than you want to serve Voldemort."
Mr. Nott flinches. It's brilliant, and it makes Harry calm down a little. A second ago he was thinking that he didn't have any choice but to do what Mr. Nott wanted. Now he knows he has some power.
"You could be useful," Mr. Nott says. "But perhaps more useful than a figurehead." He has his head cocked to the side and he's squinting at Harry like he has blurry glasses on. "It would depend on how much personal power you have, of course. I'll be testing that."
Harry swallows back some bitterness. This place might be better than Privet Drive if Mr. Nott is going to teach him magic. But. "Are you going to starve me?"
"What would be the good of that?"
"Are you going to lock me in a cupboard?"
"I have no idea what that means."
"Are you going to tell me that I can't use magic and call me a freak and deny me my heritage?"
"Where are you coming up with this? Of course not."
Harry heaves in a breath. "Then you're already better than my Muggle relatives."
Mr. Nott is silent for so long that Harry begins to think he's changed his mind and might lock Harry in a cupboard after all. But instead, he says, "I will bring you to another of my houses. You may eat there and greet Theo when he returns. But I have something to do first." He stands and places his hand on the wall next to the fireplace.
One of the stone blocks sinks into the wall, and Harry blinks at the place it was. There is something else there, something dark and slick and shifting. Mr. Nott pulls it out and stares at it for a few seconds. Then he says, "You are to go to the place I tell you and do what I tell you."
The creature answers him, and Harry starts, because it's speaking in Parseltongue. "I hear and obey. Only tell me." It twists in Mr. Nott's hand, and something dark green falls from its mouth. It's a drop of liquid. Harry watches it hit the floor, and burn a hole there.
Mr. Nott glances at Harry with a faint smile. "This will only take a moment. And then we'll go through the Floo."
Harry waits as Mr. Nott goes into the next room. He's almost sick with his heartbeat, shaking.
But things are looking better now. And he doesn't think he's going to regret this.
Tarquinius watches the snake in his hand. No one else has ever named it, and the only name Tarquinius has thought of for it sounds too grandiose to speak aloud.
But in the privacy of his head, he can call it the Vengeance-Seeker and not fear that someone will take it the wrong way.
"The Dursleys, Number Four Privet Drive," he says. "Kill them."
The Vengeance-Seeker goes sliding through his hands, and flows into the shadows. It passes through the walls, but not even Tarquinius's eyes can see it when it does that.
Tarquinius stands, and thinks of his son in a cupboard. Starving. Not knowing he's a wizard. Called a freak.
His only regret is that the Vengeance-Seeker will make their deaths swift. Painful, but swift.
He smiles a little as he returns to his guest. He does look forward to telling Severus.