Chapter 3: Unofficial Inquiry
Light filtered through high windows into a large, spacious domed room and refracted off the hundreds of thousands of moving crystalline structures in the centre of the room. Arcing support structures and countless cables wound around each other, spreading up through a large circular depression in the floor like the gnarled branches of a great tree. The room itself was comprised of several concentric circular tiers, each containing small half-moon shaped terminals, and at each terminal, there were three women, each seemingly weaving on oddly-shaped golden looms.
A young woman sat in an isolated floating chair the overlooked the whole room, absently flipping through a Japanese language girl's magazine. She had black hair in an unusual layered cut, the topmost layer stopping at her chin with the rest gathering into a long streamer of hair at the back, and her face bore three dark-blue diamond-shaped markings, one in the centre of her forehead and one on each cheekbone. She wore a two-pieced black bikini-like affair and a pretty leather harness that circled around her shoulders before trailing down the back in two long tails.
A small screen appeared in the air in front of the black-haired woman, revealing the face of a woman with curly black hair and blue droplet-shaped cheek markings. "Ma'am, we're getting a request for system force on a class four contract," the woman on the screen reported.
"Class four?" the woman replied, looking up from her magazine curiously. "That's odd. A class four oath contract shouldn't need system force to execute. Let me have a look at it, Ere."
The curly-haired woman, Ere, nodded and looked down as she expertly guided a pair of golden shuttles across her loom. "Transferring to your station now."
A second screen appeared next to the first, displaying the request. She tapped a key on the arm of the chair and another screen appeared, displaying information in runes and a picture of a young boy with a crescent marking on his forehead and red thunderbolt-shaped markings on his cheeks. "White Wings, huh? Well, well, what could be hindering you from keeping a simple oath?" the woman commented, narrowing her brown eyes at the picture. "Access contract specifications."
The screen flashed red and displayed new message in red runes.
"Access denied?" the woman repeated, confused. She tapped a few more keys on the arm of the chair. "Contract details: classified Special Access... Wait, that can't be right..."
"I got the same message, ma'am," Ere supplied from her screen. "What are we supposed to do?"
Her superior started to respond when a dusky-skinned man, clad in simple white clothes, reached in front of her face and entered a sequence on the keypad. The message vanished and the first screen turned green, indicating that the use of system force had been approved.
"Sir?" she asked, looking up at the white-clad man.
The man smiled easily, little laugh lines tugging at the corners of his dark eyes and gave her a gentle pat on the head. He then turned away, his attention drawn to other things – namely the crystalline structures moving around the centre of the room.
"You need not be concerned, Goddess First Class Peorth," drawled a familiar masculine voice. It belonged to a well-dressed angel who possessed the appearance of a man in his mid-thirties, short spiky black hair and a persistently sarcastic attitude. "It's all been taken care of."
"Well then, I suppose its time for us to get back to work, Metatron," she replied, picking up her magazine and smiling slyly. "Better get going before the Boss skives off for another round of Skee-Ball."
"It never ends!" muttered the angel as he hurried off after the retreating form of the white-clad chief deity.
Severus Snape, current Potions Master of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, had very little in the way of visitors and visited others outside of the school even less. During the summer holidays, he was nigh unreachable to all save a handful of individuals, most of whom would not dare tread down the weary-looking cobblestones of Spinner's End if their very lives depended on it. And he preferred it this way, enjoying the all-to-brief respite from all things school-related in blessed, Weasley twin-free silence.
Consequently, when his fireplace sputtered to life and Lucius Malfoy's head appeared in the flames, Severus knew his summer holidays were about to come to a swift and abrupt end. His mood instantly soured and he shot the offending image his most poisonous glare. Most people meeting this glare retreated and found excuses to call back at a later time.
Lucius, unfortunately, was completely unfazed by the glare. Life with Narcissa had inured the older man to most forms of nonverbal threat, much to the displeasure of almost everyone who had dealings with the current Malfoy patriarch. "Ah, there you are, Severus," he began, hardly seeming to notice that he hadn't even bothered with the usual polite social pretences. "I was wondering if I might have a word with you. It is a matter of utmost urgency."
At that, the Potions Master merely quirked an eyebrow and closed the alchemy text he'd been reading. "I see. What is it, then?"
Lucius's eye twitched. "It is sensitive issue and I'd rather not discuss it through the grate. May I step through?"
Curiosity piqued, Severus nodded and took a moment to mark his place in the book with an emerald-coloured velvet ribbon as the fire turned green and the older man entered. Sensitive issues regarding his associates – well, those that had managed to avoid Azkaban at any rate – had become something of a rarity in the past several years. Most of them had disposed of or concealed all incriminating and dodgy items in their possession several years ago and he doubted Malfoy was stupid enough to want to reminisce about their shared stint in the dark lord's service.
"You really should get that filthy grate cleaned," Lucius commented with a sniff and brushed some soot off his normally immaculate cloak.
"I'm a busy man, not a house elf," Severus responded, shooting him another poisonous glare as he put the book down. "Now, what could be so troubling that you couldn't just tell me through the grate?"
The older man visibly winced, gripping his walking cane more tightly. "What do you know about the children entering Hogwarts this year, Severus?"
"I'm sorry, I don't follow you," the Potions Master replied, mildly confused.
Lucius pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Humour me for a moment and tell me what you know about the students that will be entering this year."
The professor leaned back in his chair and frowned slightly before replying, "There are a number of children entering that belong to families of our former acquaintances, but I'm sure you are already aware of that. There are a few muggleborns, of course, and then there are the 'survivors,' like Longbottom and Bones."
"You forgot one: the Potter child," Lucius said quietly, with an unreadable expression on his face.
"Oh, yes... How could I have forgotten? Our celebrity," Severus sneered in disdain. Hatred bubbled up from old memories at the mere mention of that name and it took considerable effort to quash that rage back down, where it would not interfere with business. He could not afford to let his judgement be clouded, not now.
The Malfoy patriarch hadn't seemed to notice – or, if he did, he was doing a fine job of feigning ignorance – and was merely nodding absently. Come to think of it, the man was acting a little strangely and strange behaviour in a man like Lucius Malfoy only meant something potentially troublesome was afoot.
"This sensitive issue of yours – it has something to do with a student, doesn't it?" the Potions Master concluded, leaning forward in his chair. His eyes narrowed imperceptibly as he tried to skim the surface of the older man's thoughts, but the effort yielded nothing.
Lucius raised his eyes and nodded in the affirmative. "You must understand, Severus, that normally I would directly speak to Dumbledore and the board about this. However, the circumstances are..." He paused then, searching for the most appropriate word, and then continued, "...most irregular and I believe I would encounter considerable difficulty in attempting to convince them."
Warning bells were going off somewhere in the back of Severus's head as he prepared himself for the proverbial other shoe to drop.
"My son encountered a boy today, one of his prospective classmates," the older man said, staring fixedly at a point on the floor and gripping his walking cane as if it were a lifeline. "And, apparently, in their discussion the subject of this boy's relatives came up and it was mentioned that the boy had been sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs. Draco immediately brought this to Narcissa's attention and she has demanded that I act."
"What is this mystery boy's name?" the professor asked. Oh, there was no doubt about it now: something about this whole business wasn't going to be to his liking.
Lucius' shoulders dropped a fraction and, with a particularly heavy sigh, he mumbled a name, just loud enough for the tetchy Potions Master to hear.
There was a moment of silence as the name - that hated name - sunk into his brain and combined with the rest of their conversation. Then, Severus drew back into his chair and sneered, derision saturating his wits. "And you believed the brat? I thought you were more intelligent than that, Lucius. He's probably just looking for more attention, the abhorrent little troglodyte."
"I wish that were the case, Severus, but I've seen the boy and I'd have to agree with my wife – he looks like he's been living little better than a house elf," the Malfoy patriarch said, looking more than a little troubled. "In all honesty, I'd rather not have anything to do with the boy or his situation. However, my wife insists that I do something about it."
Translation: Narcissa used his fear of the infamous temper of the female members of the Most Ancient and Noble House of Black to con her husband into doing something that might potentially be hazardous to a continued existence – especially if their mutual former Master decided to reappear at some point in the future. Oh yes, Severus was very familiar with what the word 'insists' meant in the language of women from the House of Black. It loosely translated to "do as I say or I'll make the Cruciatus look pleasant in comparison" and rendered whatever matter it was invoked upon entirely non-negotiable.
"If that is the case, then why come to me at all?" Severus asked, narrowing his eyes at the elder man.
Lucius tightened his grip on the cane again and answered, "I fear that if I go to investigate and discover proof supporting his claim, I might do something... regrettable." He paused, lowering his eyes again, and then added, "You know all too well how far my wrath can go."
The professor knew exactly what incident he was referring to, as a part of his mind refused to let the memory of that day die. In the back of his mind, he heard his father's screams of pain, saw the man's filthy blood spatter across the walls and mar the falsely-happy photo from his childhood. Malfoy's voice barked the most violent curses in the western hemisphere with relentless, feral abandon, and Severus had merely stood by, watching in silent satisfaction as the blonde man unleashed his rage. He distinctly recalled how clever he'd felt by setting the vicious Malfoy loose on his father and how he smiled at the look on his father's face when he begged for his son's help and realized there would be none. Oh yes, he had avenged himself and the memory of his mother, without ever having to dirty his own hands – that, he left to Malfoy, who had practically resembled a blood-soaked demon by the time he'd finally satisfied his anger.
And it had been the look, the half-crazed gleam in the blonde man's eyes as he wiped the blood of Tobias Snape off his face and asked calmly for a handkerchief that made him realize that Malfoy hadn't really minded torturing and killing the muggle at all. To the pureblooded man, it was no more than a simple matter of serving long-overdue justice, each torture repaid in kind, and he would not hesitate to repeat the offence if a similar situation were to present itself once more. It was justice, yes, but in a barbaric extreme that even now still left a bitter taste in Severus's mouth. Far worse, in his opinion, was the certain knowledge that the blonde man would have no qualms about killing the Potter brat's muggle relatives in front of the boy if they had done what was claimed.
"You still owe me, you know, for helping you with your father," Lucius said quite plainly. "And it would be for the best, all around, if my involvement in this matter was kept to a minimum."
The Potions Master scowled: his hands were tied, it seemed, for the claim had to be looked into as a matter of protocol and it would be an act of madness to let Malfoy investigate this in any capacity. After all, there was still the lingering possibility that their mutual former acquaintance might not be as dead as rumoured and the security of the brat had to be assured at all costs just in case aforementioned former acquaintance hadn't really snuffed it.
Severus took a moment to mentally curse Trelawney and that stupid bloody prophecy that was at the heart of this whole mess and his own misfortune for overhearing it, before finally raising his head and heaving an annoyed sigh. "Very well... I'll see what I can do."
Harry was now once again back at 4 Privet Drive, where things had more or less returned to business as usual. By the time Hagrid had dropped him off at the door with his ticket for the Hogwarts Express and very brief instructions regarding the departure date, the Dursleys had been home long enough to settle right back into a state of feigned ignorance. They left him alone for the most part and Harry took the opportunity to clean up the smallest bedroom a bit and get to know the two animals he'd been given, while his relatives attempted to sort out the matter of Dudley's tail. The snake, Carlos, had a distinct wry sense of humour and was somewhat lazy, while the snowy owl – which Harry named Hedwig – was an affectionate and rather prim-seeming creature; she would ruffle her feathers and give a short hoot every time Carlos made snarky statements. All in all, Harry thought both animals to be fascinating and constantly wondered if all creatures in the wizarding world were anything quite like them.
Oh, Harry still had lots of questions about magic and the world of magic in general, but he supposed he'd just have to wait until he got to Hogwarts to get the answers he wanted. So, the black-haired boy busied himself with his chores and wondered about everything he'd already learned about this other world, particularly Quidditch. Draco seemed to really be keen on it and even Hagrid had lit up when Harry said he'd like to give it a try.
The doorbell rang, jarring Harry out of his thoughts. Putting down the pot he'd been scrubbing out, Harry quickly pulled his hands out of the rubber gloves and grabbed a towel. The Dursleys had left for the doctor's office again, this time to go over the details of potential surgery to remove the pig's tail; however, they hadn't mentioned anything about any potential visitors, so naturally Harry was a little apprehensive about answering the door. Still, it might be something important, like a package, and he wasn't too keen on being yelled at for not answering the door when he should have.
With a sigh, Harry walked up the door and, after making sure the chain was firmly in place, he opened it a crack. "Can I help you?"
A tall, sallow-skinned man in a plain dark-coloured suit stood on the stoop, his hand paused a hair's breadth from the doorbell. The man's cold, dark eyes narrowed at him and Harry had the fleeting sensation of being picked apart and thoroughly analyzed. "You are Harry Potter, correct?"
"How-?" the boy started, confused.
"Good. I am Professor Snape, Potions Master of Hogwarts," the man said sharply, cutting him off. "May I come in?"
Harry glared at the man, instantly wary. "Prove it."
The professor stared at him, a single eyebrow shooting up in surprise. It seemed he hadn't expected that.
"If you're from Hogwarts, you can do magic," the boy reasoned.
The man scowled, but drew a wand from a pocket inside his suit coat and aimed it at the chain holding the door shut. "Evanesco."
Instantly, the chain glowed white and disappeared, causing the door to slip open a faction. Harry leapt backwards as if he'd been scalded, mentally berating himself for being so stupid and not realizing that potential deranged criminals might also be able to use magic. However, the door remained as it was and the man made no move to enter, merely replacing the wand in his jacket with a look of mild amusement.
"Foolish boy," the man scoffed. "I am not some 'deranged criminal' that goes around preying on children when their guardians are away. I assure you that would not go over well with Headmaster Dumbledore. He's not in the habit of hiring lunatics and murderers, as far as I'm aware. Now, may I come in?"
Harry blinked in surprise at the dismissal. This Professor Snape person must have had this sort of reaction from other kids like him before. "Um, yeah... sure..." he managed finally, opening the door. "If you wanted to talk to my aunt and uncle, it might be a while before they get back. They had to take my cousin to the doctor."
"I see," the professor said, smirking slightly as he entered and Harry couldn't help but get the definite impression that the strange wizard knew about the pig tail Dudley had gained, courtesy of a very annoyed groundskeeper. The man then added, "I actually came to speak to you, Potter, about your guardians."
The boy stiffened momentarily and closed the door. He hadn't really expected that anything would come of telling Draco and his mother about his situation and he didn't really want to get his aunt and uncle in trouble. It wasn't like they hit him or anything bad like that. In fact, they mostly tried to pretend he didn't exist, except for when there were chores to be done or at those rare occasions when something odd happened and then he was usually just locked up in the cupboard for a few days, only leaving for meals, chores and to use the toilet. "They're okay," he answered quietly, lowering his eyes as he turned around.
"I know you're lying, Potter. The Malfoys told me everything you told them about your situation," Professor Snape said slowly, as he examined some of the photographs on the wall, "Including your previous sleeping arrangements. Am I correct in assuming that the cupboard in question is behind that door?"
Harry nodded, knowing what door the professor was indicating without even having to look. Oddly enough, he was a bit grateful that Uncle Vernon had locked the majority of his Hogwarts supplies in the cupboard, because that meant that the professor couldn't open the door and see how small that space really was.
"I see," the man murmured, peering briefly through the grate on the cupboard door, and then looked back at him. "And you're sleeping in a bedroom upstairs now, correct?"
"Yes, sir," Harry said, shifting on his feet. These questions were making him a bit uncomfortable. He may not have liked his relatives overly much, but he was getting a growing sensation that they might get in a lot of trouble and he didn't like that feeling very much at all. Without meaning to, he managed to quietly ask, "Professor?"
Professor Snape narrowed his eyes ever so slightly. "Yes, Potter?"
"They won't get in trouble, will they?" the boy asked, looking away. "I mean, I may not like them and they might not like me overmuch, but they're the only family I've ever known."
The professor raised an eyebrow and blithely stated, "Yes, it is very likely that they will be held accountable. There are strict laws governing..."
Harry paled, the rest of the words the professor was saying going completely unheard. Fear welled up with him as the chill knowledge that he knew that the Dursleys would be punished and terrible choking certainty that it would be bad, extremely bad. And in that instant, the world went white.
"...There are strict laws governing the ethical treatment of minors in this country and the wizarding world has its own variants," Severus said, his eyes once again fixing on the cupboard door and the general size of the stairs. Definitely not a very large space, he concluded and squelched the miniscule trace of sympathy that was trying to form by reminding himself that he was dealing with the progeny of his hated nemesis. Honestly, he should have felt exultant at the fact that universe coldly conjured up this environment of neglect by omission for the Potter brat in repayment for every taunt and humiliation that the brat's father had visited upon him all those years ago. Instead, every second he spent in Four Privet was making his skin crawl as long-suppressed memories threatened to surface, tainting everything he saw with the ghosts of his own youth.
Severus clenched one hand, digging his fingernails into his palm, the sharp pain grounding him back in the present. Though he had enough evidence and wanted nothing more than to leave this house, he needed to press the boy some more and see what else he could skim off the surface of the boy's mind. "So, yes, I can imagine there might be severe legal repercussions for their actions towards you," he added, returning his gaze to the boy and trailing off as he noticed that the Potter brat had gone extremely pale.
...And, curiously, the boy's scar appeared to be glowing.
"That can't be good," the Potions Master muttered, hesitantly taking a step forward. Maybe he could startle the boy out of it.
The jagged thunderbolt suddenly spun and stretched, transforming into something else as it glowed blindingly brilliant, bathing the world in light.
Severus blinked, slightly confused. He was sitting in the kitchen of Four Privet Drive, a cup of Darjeeling tea halfway to his mouth. The Potter brat had his back to him and was scouring out a pot at the sink with practiced ease, chattering away about Quidditch. Something was off about this, very off, but the Potions Master could not place what exactly was wrong, only that it felt artificial somehow. He raised the teacup to his lips and almost immediately admonished himself when he realized that he had been about to discreetly sniff it for the scent of a potion. What was the matter with him? Potter was a child, for heaven's sake! He had absolutely no reason to suspect him of drugging the tea! ...Well, aside from the fact that the brat was the spawn of James Potter, but from everything he'd seen so far, the boy seemed to take after his mother in personality.
After a few minutes of simple conversation, mainly about how the boy was adjusting to the wizarding world concept and in which the professor couldn't skim anything off the boy's mind, Severus finally concluded that his presence was no longer required there and made ready to leave. Potter then escorted him to the door, politely said goodbye and shut the door, locking it and sliding the chain into place.
The professor winced as a headache suddenly came on. Hadn't he vanished the chain? The headache intensified sharply and he scowled. He was certain he'd vanished it, but couldn't remember restoring it. Something was clearly out of sorts.
Severus walked precisely two streets over, turning on to Wisteria Walk and discreetly walked up to a house with several leonine cats sunning themselves in the windows. Before he could even knock, the door opened and Mrs Figg, an aging member of Dumbledore's maddening slew of contacts, was pulling him inside. Regrettably, she only did so after loudly greeting him as her nephew. He only refrained from hexing the kneazle-loving squib on the basis that it would have broken their cover and he needed her floo to get to Dumbledore's office. Later, he would floo back, politely refuse to see anymore cat pictures, head off to a nearby safe disapparition point and head directly back home to his alchemy texts. Yes, he decided, that was a good plan.
And so, the Potions Master politely declined to have tea and reminisce with Mrs Figg, insisting that he had to speak with Dumbledore directly. She was disappointed, of course, but managed to be assuaged when he agreed to have tea with her before the start of term and immediately showed him to her fireplace. He would regret it later, he was certain, but that was the furthest thing from his mind at the moment he stepped through the green flames to the headmaster's office.
Dumbledore gave him a very curious look when he stepped through.
"I," Severus started, his headache raging like a troll with every word, "I think my memory has been tampered with."
Again, he received a very odd look. "What makes you so certain of that, Severus?"
"I vanished the chain," the Potions Master said matter-of-factly and then the headache exploded against him with the brute force of a cruciatus, propelling him into the merciful bliss of unconsciousness.
It would be several hours before the Potions Master returned to consciousness and Dumbledore waited them out with a disturbing calm. He knew the younger wizard had come to him from Mrs Figg's house and the headmaster had a fair suspicion that he'd come in contact with either Harry Potter or the wards on Four Privet, though which remained to be seen. The question that bothered him was why: why would Severus Snape deliberately go to Little Whinging? And what on earth could have prompted him to say what he did when he entered the office? There was some mischief afoot and Dumbledore would get to the bottom of it.
Snape's return to wakefulness was preceded by a drawn out groan and, finally, the younger wizard sat up.
"How do you feel?" the headmaster asked.
"Like a troll tap-danced across my skull," Snape replied, wincing.
"Care to tell me what happened?" Dumbledore pushed gently.
The Potions Master stared at him blankly a moment. "Something happened? It shouldn't have. It all looked fine."
"What looked fine?" he pressed. Clearly, someone had been mucking about in the boy's head, though to what end and, more importantly, how that was achieved were open to intense speculation.
"Number Four," Snape replied. "I... had gotten a tip that the brat was in trouble, but it turned out to be wrong."
"Severus, why didn't you come to me first?" the headmaster asked.
"I have my reasons," the Potions Master said sullenly and seemed not to want to go any further into it, so he did not push the issue.
"You told me that you thought your memory had been tampered with when you came in. Do you remember that?"
Snape took on a look of extreme confusion. "...I said what?"
"Would you let me have a look?" Dumbledore asked, very carefully. This was tentative ground and he knew that it was asking much of the younger wizard.
The Potions Master shrugged absently and sighed. "I don't know if you'd be able to get anything... my head still aches."
Dumbledore picked up a fleeting image of Darjeeling tea and a complex symbol when Snape raised his head. "Maybe when you're feeling more up to it, then? Go home, Severus and get some rest."
Snape stood slowly, straightening his clothes almost absently. "I had a strange dream," he said, then, looking up.
The image of the strange symbol returned, clearer now: a massive spellcasting circle, alien runes burning in the darkness, shrinking and rewriting something. Weaver's shuttles flickered in the image for a moment and Snape broke eye contact.
Dumbledore sighed and smiled sadly. "I know, Severus, I know."
Snape nodded mutely and, within moments, was gone.
The headmaster gave a weary sigh: he had a feeling this year was going to be anything but boring and absently wondered if he was getting to old for this.
AN: woooooooo, finished at last! Featuring cameos from Oh My Goddess and Dogma. Ere can be seen in the Oh My Goddess movie and in the new TV Series. Severus and Lucius are understandably awkward about broaching the Potter subject, but I had oodles of fun with Snape's "abhorrent little troglodyte" line and having Snape flashback to letting Lucius kill his father for him. Snape and Harry's first meeting is plagued by Snape trying to skim info off Harry's brain with legilimency, but since Harry's practically advertising his thoughts anyway... yeah, it's not that hard to pick up on... at least until Nuitari decides to come out and play editor. Darjeeling tea ironically, is the favourite tea of Belldandy, goddess of the present and Norn. Snape's "That can't be good..." is the 'Paging Captain Obvious' line of this chapter. Anyway, reviews are much appreciated, especially since I'm a bit on the sick side again, and reviewers: check out my background character request page on my website!