Disclaimer: The works of JKR are in no way mine, nor do I have any illusions that they are. I am exceedingly grateful that she allows us to play in her universe.
A/N: A big thanks goes to my beta, Trinka, who is wonderfully supportive of this work in addition to correcting it's occasionally creative grammar. A million thank yous to everyone who has read and reviewed this story – the support means the world to me!
Research and Inquiries
"Severus and I drafted up a list," Klytemnestra said quietly as they grabbed chairs towards the back of the library, hidden both from Madam Pince's vulture-like stare and the entrance by the large bookshelves. Lily's gaze kept drifting to the window and across the lake, to their practice spot. Hermione kicked her softly.
"We're inside today, and the Slytherin half has done us the honor of a little research, so we have to pay attention," she teased. "You're as bad as James with his broomstick."
Severus' face darkened perceptibly at the mention of his rival, but Lily just rolled her eyes and politely returned her attention to the half-Italian witch seated across the table.
"He said 'the world you were born in', so we made a list of ancient magical sites, castles and manors in Britain. I was also thinking about your...talents...so I have a compendium of halls where it's played, the locales of some of the societies that used to exist-"
Hermione and Lily swapped startled, guilty looks. Klytemnestra, ever attuned to the undercurrents of a situation, stopped talking at once. "What is it?"
"I...I'm a Muggle-born," Hermione admitted quietly, and was surprised by her wash of shame. Not for her heritage, but for keeping it a secret that had led them to the wrong conclusion and hours of wasted effort. "We think he meant that world."
Severus blinked, and his eyes flashed to Lily, who tilted her chin in defiant acknowledgement. But his cousin shook her head, raven hair catching the evening light in a ripple of iridescence.
"That's not possible."
Hermione's brow creased. "I assure you, it is. My parents have no magical abilities whatsoever, and neither do my grandparents or anyone else in my family."
Klytemnestra was continuing to swing her head back and forth. "Your parents might not, and their parents might not, but you are not a true Muggle-born. You cannot be."
"The Node is bound by blood," the Slytherin girl answered seriously. "The station has passed, wandering throughout Europe in the past fifteen hundred years, by virtue of Merlin's bloodline." She caught the Gryffindor's shocked brown eyes as all the dots connected.
"To be who you are, you must be related to Merlin."
James Potter growled a curse under his breath. One of the four had anchored a Silencing Charm to the table in front of them, making all sounds within a five-foot radius impossible to make out, washing through their ears like the murmur of far-away voices. It was an extremely deceptive spell – most people would never bother to notice that with their proximity, they should be able to hear actual words if they were listening hard enough.
All four Marauders were stacked on the other side of the bookcase, straining frantically and getting nothing.
"Why is she here with him to begin with?" Sirius muttered angrily. Hermione's relationship with the two Slytherins had noticeably thawed over the past two months, and it wasn't only her good friends who had seen it. In the Hogwarts gossip mill, it didn't rate top billing, but remained a steady third-and-fourth place topic of curiosity. The graceful, beautiful and pure-blooded Zabini twins and their sallow-faced, knowledgeable cousin had always been an odd trio, albeit one easily explained by the ties of family. But the disappearance of one sister, followed by the immediate closeness of this incredibly unlikely quad was hardly inconspicuous, and speculation ran from the absurd to the disturbingly believable. One of the girls in Hermione's dormitory had found herself at the business end of Sirius' wand just the night before for voicing what increasing numbers of students were wondering: had the fourteen-year-old, widely-hated Slytherin found himself a girlfriend?
Trina had almost swallowed the slick piece of wood, it had snapped into her face so fast, but even threats couldn't solve Sirius' real problem – for Hermione's best friends could not claim to know the answer for certain.
"They, Siri. Evans never struck me as the type to be overly fond of Snivelly before, either."
"Could it be for class?" Remus offered hopefully. There was no denying that the four looked set to learn, books haphazardly stacked on the table, quills, half-filled parchment and partially-empty ink bottles next to each elbow. "Lily, Snape and Hermione are all really good at Potions."
"But the other girl is an upper-year Slytherin. Fifth, I think. Very rich family," Sirius said dismissively.
"The one whose twin hasn't been seen in weeks," Peter supplied quietly.
"So, no, I would say studying is pretty much out of the question," James snapped. "A fifth year with a bunch of third years? And that doesn't account for all the times we've seen them whispering together, either."
"But they are-"
Four pairs of eyes peered between strategically placed books as they watched Hermione go rigid with surprise, recently-tanned features whitening as Lily stared at her like she'd sprouted horns and Snape's dark eyes widened as he looked to his fellow House member. The next word coming from the transfer-in witch's lips needed no sound to translate:
Unfortunately, Klytemnestra Zabini's back was to them, and their entire view consisted of her slender back and the waterfall of pitch-black hair tumbling over it.
"Damnable Slytherins!" James and Sirius hissed in unison and both drew their wands as they moved towards the end of bookcase, clearly planning to reveal themselves, when Remus' surprisingly strong fingers clamped around both sets of wrists.
"James. Sirius," he hissed. "Stop." He jerked his head at their thin-faced enemy, who was now only listening to his cousin's animated explanation with half an ear, black eyes scanning sharply. Remus muttered a spell to silence their space as well, tying it to Cheering Charms: an Experiment in Laughter on the shelf above them.
"We still owe the bastard for a couple months back," James snarled.
"In the library?" Remus allowed his voice to rise, protected now by their cover. "In full view of Hermione? Siri, please...if you attack him here, not only will you both have detentions for fighting, but we'll have to deal with the girls' wrath."
"He's always with her," Sirius countered angrily, wrenching himself away from his friend. But Remus was relieved to see the wand get thrust furiously back into the other Gryffindor's deep pocket. "When she's not doing homework or Arithmantic equations for our...project-" even with charms, none of them spoke freely of their efforts outside of their dormitory or the Room of Requirement, "-they've always got their heads together. What is she doing with him?"
Remus took a deep breath, and let it out again, shaking his head. To have Hermione turn him away on Valentine's Day and then almost instantly be seen all over the castle with the surly boy had struck a deep blow. And though he had not witnessed anything in her demeanor that indicated anything closer than friendship between them, he had seen the same thing that Sirius, and indeed, half the school, had noticed. Whatever the witch's feelings, Severus Snape had fallen hard and fast for their bright friend and the thought of him touching her made the werewolf's skin crawl.
"We follow him. In a couple of days. It's spring, so he's bound to come creeping out of his dungeon lair for a walk on the grounds every once and a while," James was muttering, and their heads inclined together as their voices dropped again. "An ambush near the lake is much less remarkable than one inside. We'll get some answers then – and tell him to stop acting like a bitch puppy and quit stalking her."
Remus knew that he should put in a word against it; knew that he should prevent them from attacking the Slytherin simply because Snape had made a friend they didn't approve of; knew that they didn't own Hermione and had no right to dictate how she spent her time.
But a last glance through the bookcase revealed an unheard comment from the Slytherin, mischief dancing in his eyes, to be greeted with muted, but obviously uproarious, laughter from both Gryffindor girls, and Hermione's sun-darkened fingers closed over Snape's pale ones in appreciation.
And Remus couldn't bring himself to speak.
Sunlight fell in stripes through the tree trunks, alternating shadow and brilliant green in rigidly-held structures until they fractured into a pattern cut by the leaves overhead. Hermione gazed blindly at the fragile beauty of growth – of the purple night flowers that would only live until dawn, of their white day-time cousins that were wilting even now.
She could feel the movement of the earth beneath her feet, the sluggish tides of underground water, the seeping drops that had been this morning's dew now trickling from particle to particle under her shoes to feed the roots of grass, trees and herbs. A faint movement in the trees twenty yards west – neither seen, nor heard, but felt – halted her, and she stood silently, barely breathing, as a brand-new fawn tottered uncertainly over a deer trail and into view, its mother guiding it, proud and alert, soft brown eyes ever-watchful. The young witch waited for them to pass before resuming her journey, wondering briefly how she had ever stumbled through her existence without this knowledge, lacking the constant reassurance of life in the ground, and the connection of such life.
She stopped before her oak and hesitated. It was strange, somehow, to stand here alone, completely unaided. The faint wish that she had brought Severus rose in her like a question mark. He belonged here, with her, hearing whatever answers their teacher could offer to her questions…
She shook away the peculiar feeling, and instead focused her thoughts, streamlining her questions. Hermione hoped the Dryad would give her the answers she needed, at the same time dreading the reasons that had prevented him from releasing this critical piece of information to begin with. But before she could build up her nerve to call forth their guide with her voice, the trunk opened, and out he glided, giving her a long stare.
"I felt your coming the instant you set foot on the lawns. But you come without the others. Without even your Major. You are troubled, Daughter."
Hermione nodded tightly. "I am."
"What has bothered you so?"
"Merlin." She saw his expression cloud very briefly – but it was all the confirmation she needed. "It's true then? I am related to him?"
"Yes. I wish…I would have had you wait to learn. It is…irrelevant for now."
Hermione's mouth twisted into a cynical smile. "I'll assume that's why you didn't tell me?" A tilt of the tree-branched head. "He was the most powerful wizard ever to grace Britain. The man who originally bound the Echo. How is this 'irrelevant'?"
"You are not he," the Dryad responded gently. "You – who worship learning and intelligence above all else…I knew what it would mean to you to know that your blood bears the same magic as the best of your species. Such knowledge is a powerful veil over your vision, possibly making you too proud or, conversely, trapping you in his shadow and therefore never becoming proud enough. But your accomplishments must be your own. You spoke already of his supreme achievement – but your aims are not what his were, your desires precisely the opposite. He sought only to restrain the Echo and its power – you are here to use it, to tame it. What use, right now, is knowing or not knowing? Blood is blood – you must choose what to do with the amount that runs in your veins without depending on the legacy of a wizard who has been dead for fifteen hundred years."
"But when you spoke of the world that I come from…" Hermione started hesitantly.
"It is true that you, like all of your kind, like all living creatures on earth, stand at the end of a long tradition, the result of the rise and fall of empires, magic, and customs. What do you know of the world of Merlin? Where would your journey begin if you start with him? You said it at our first meeting – the realm of your ancestor belongs to legend and to myth. The world you grew up in hold the answers to these questions. Like the bloodline that brought you the Echo, the men who no longer practice magic have unwittingly kept some of its most powerful traditions. And the many aspects of the world you know now are all at your disposal – neither static nor lost, but growing and evolving. They are your gateway to the others – those who have hidden from or separated from men. After you have opened the gate, after and not before, then there is space for Merlin and Merlin's blood."
"Then we are to look to the Muggle world." It was not a question, but the wild-bark eyebrow simply rose quietly.
"That, Daughter, is for you to determine. As is the method of your search." The craggy face softened – an impression created by the eyes alone – and he added, "I am sorry for not informing you directly, but my reasoning was sound and I hope you see that."
It was Hermione's turn to dip her head. "I do. Part of me wishes you had – but perhaps, it does not matter now. You are correct – he can have little bearing on our current problems until I can learn more of the man and less of the myth." She smiled, this time with real pleasure, and finished, "And I think he would probably be quite proud of a descendent who can figure this out for herself."
"At least it's not raining," Walden MacNair muttered as wind whipped through the Quidditch stands, alternating with the harsh rays of the sun to coat them all in a layer of icy perspiration. "Tell me again, Lucius, why exactly do we care about the match between Ravenclaw and Gryffindor?"
"Because I am running out of time," the blond muttered, shaking back the shining locks falling over his shoulders. "I need a way in. I couldn't care less about the game – watch Evans and Granger. I need an ally."
Walden debated mentioning that there were two possibilities much closer to home – sitting just two rows ahead of them, in fact, but held his tongue. The last time he had voiced the thought that surely a mere fourteen-year-old had to be open to a particularly persuasive argument, Lucius had spun on him furiously, pointing at Snape and hissing, "That boy cannot be bought. You know how hard I have tried."
So he trained his Omnioculars on the two girls ensconced on the Gryffindor benches, surrounded by three of the four boys who tagged Granger, in particular, everywhere. He frowned. They were remarkably unremarkable – sitting and giggling like a pair of normal girls on an early spring morning. He would never believe his best friend's stories of extraordinary power had he not witnessed it first hand.
His gut frosted, and he shoved that line of thought out of his head. That winter night remained in his nightmares, only recently beginning to recede from his waking mind. The presence of a deep magic that he could neither understand nor control haunted him. The expectation that he would shortly join the Death Eaters was all that kept him from abandoning Lucius' schemes. Given his way, he would never again risk touching the eerie power that had surged in the forest.
"There. Walden, look at Evans."
"What do you think I'm doing?" he groused.
"What's her center of focus?" Lucius asked in a clipped tone, completely ignoring his friend's caustic displeasure.
Walden tore his gaze from Granger – now deep in conversation with Lupin and utterly ignoring the field over her head – and instead trained his eyes on Evans. Unlike her dorm mate, the red-head's eyes were fixed unblinkingly upward, her body taut and half-risen from her seat, lips drawn back in excitement. Walden swung his head to follow her line of sight, her intensity compelling his movement.
His eyes settled on a Beater just as the Gryffindor player struck a spectacular blow, thick club blurring as it cracked on a Bludger, sending their opposite number spinning when the ball connected with his broom, the Quaffle flying into James Potter's outstretched hands.
"What's his name?" came Lucius' breathless whisper. Walden shrugged and leaned over a row to address Calvin Nott, Captain of Slytherin's team.
"Who's the Gryffindor aiming to break bones?" he muttered casually. Nott's face twisted.
"Same bloke that landed Don Parkinson in the hospital after our match. Walt Winters."
"Walt Winters," Walden reported sharply as he sat up.
Lucius smirked, his grey eyes reflecting the sneer on his face, anxiety vanished as the nimble mind hastily constructed a plan. "If the rumors are correct, Evans is dating him. I can't believe I never thought of him before." Omnioculars once more followed the swooping broomsticks as the Slytherin tracked his prey and the aristocrat added, almost as a side note:
"Find out his class schedule."
"I think the next step is practicing mass transfiguration and displacement," Hermione told them, kneeling on Sirius' bed with three books and a complex pattern of parchment laid out in front of her. Remus was peering over her shoulder.
"This looks awfully complicated," he said nervously.
"James – don't!" Hair still dripping wet from his shower after Gryffindor's final, hard-fought victory, James hastily sat back, the water threatening Hermione's notes dripping instead on his best friend's pillow.
"Remus is right – I can't make heads nor tails of this," Sirius admitted, poring over a page of equations. "I can see that the mass here is equal, and the mass at the end is equal – but where does it go in this stage?" he asked, tapping the center of the sheet.
"That's why we have to practice," Hermione answered. "There's an emerging theory in Arithmancy-" her hand flipped towards a thick, but glossy, professional journal that looked very much out of place amongst the heavy, dust-laden books "-about nil-space – that is to say, space that doesn't exist in any way we can measure it, but must be present because it contains certain physical objects. It's rather like memory: memory access is a function of the human brain, but memories may not actually be stored there – they might be kept somewhere else. The Room of Requirement's magic may work using nil-space – certainly all Expansion Charms and mass displacement must have some underlying principle that allows them to function. Where does the space come from? Or, perhaps more accurately, where do the things that we put into such space – mass – go?"
The four boys were staring at her blankly. "Riiiight," Pettigrew was the first to say, glancing at the rest for help. "And this matters because…?"
"If James is to become a stag, that animal easily weighs two-and-a-half times his human body weight. Where does that mass come from to become a stag? It is not simply created and shed whenever one switches forms. The amount of energy that would require is enormous. It must come from and then go to somewhere else. If I transfigure into a phoenix, that's a creature with no more than one-eighth my normal mass. Again, where does it go while I am the phoenix? Obviously not too far, because an Animagi does not have to perform a complex ritual to return to human form."
"Sorry, 'Mione, I know you love science, but – as long as the magic works, isn't that all that counts? I mean, does the actual method really matter?"
Hermione resisted the urge to roll her eyes and sigh aloud, reminding herself that three of the four boys were not academicians at heart, but willing to work hard as a means to their ultimate end. "For us, James, the method does matter. Wizards and witches who attempt this kind of magic are all well beyond us in terms of age and skill. They have learned magics that we are not introduced to here, and they can acquire items and tools that are not available to us. We cannot simply mimic their steps and get the right answer like the recipe for a cake."
"So what do we do?" Sirius asked, frowning.
"We understand theory," she grinned back at him. "We learn the old-fashioned way: practice makes perfect."
"By using our wands to displace the mass of other objects and return them to their original state. We'll do objects before we do ourselves." She flipped open the journal and pointed to a picture. A muddy tangle of roots ended in a brilliant white lotus flower on the page. "And this is our next problem to solve before we start practicing on people. When transfiguring ourselves, we will not want to run the risk of sending the whole body and mind into nil-space by accident. The Bottom-Feeding Lotus is used to treat mental illness because it anchors some part of the psyche to the physical world. If we want to practice safely, we need one. I can't imagine having your mind utterly erased and replaced by a dog's – or a lion's."
"But…" James led her out.
"But, it is only available at the very bottom of deep fresh-water bodies. And it must be used within a two-mile radius of where it grew."
"So we have to find this thing," Remus said. "At Hogwarts."
"Here or near someone's house this summer," Hermione confirmed.
"Why can't anything about this process be easy?" Sirius grumbled.
"It's magic so advanced that most wizards and witches are not capable of performing it at all – and those who can have years of study behind them. Did you expect to do it overnight?"
The momentary flash of irritation through the black eyes made her laugh aloud with the realization that he had proposed this fantastic feat with such an expectation. "Sorry – this isn't your standard curriculum, Siri."
"I think I've figured that out," he muttered. "What do we want to practice on first?"
"You have noticed that Professor McGonagall gives us objects to transform into things of almost exactly the same mass? Matchsticks into needles, medium-sized turtles into teapots – those kinds of thing?"
"That's to save us the complications of dealing with nil-space. A few grams of weight can be created or shed without difficulty. So what I think we should do first is try transforming gravel-" she was pulling shiny pebbles out of her bag, "-into birds. It's a big enough difference to draw on mass from somewhere else, but it's not a huge one."
"Okay." James seized a smooth black stone, settling it on the duvet in front of him. "What's the incantation?"
"This one is useless." Klytemnestra sighed as she tossed Muggles' Magical Superstitions onto the growing pile of books that had been skimmed and discarded. "You're sure the Dryad agrees with you?"
"He was quite clear on the fact that Merlin is not our starting point," Hermione repeated.
After the young Gryffindor recounted her brief meeting with the Dryad, the dark-haired cousins had conceded that the Muggle world now seemed the more likely place to begin – but since formulating their hypothesis, they had found nothing that seemed to strike the cord they were looking for. Combing history books charting the persecution of magic back to the time of Hogwarts, and the resurgence of magic in popular fiction during the twentieth century had left them with a single discouraging conclusion that Lily and Hermione had discovered long ago: Muggles were very inventive when it came to their kind. But not one of them had recorded anything that might assist them in their search.
"I maintain that this would be more productive if we knew exactly what we're looking for," Lily muttered in plain exasperation, shoving Modern Witchcraft for Muggles to dangle perilously off the edge of the table. "The Muggle world is enormous. I don't like cryptic."
"I think it's something we'll understand better if we find it ourselves," Hermione replied abstractly, her quill moving slowly as she jotted down a title found in a stained, yellow index. "The kind of knowledge that can't be told."
Severus suddenly straightened in his seat. The sharp movement, so different than their several days of lazy page-turning, brought all three pairs of eyes flashing to him hopefully. But the slim book lying in front of him had been forgotten. His head was half-turned, eyes unfocussed, his concentration directed outward.
Before she could ask, Hermione's ears caught the murmurs that had become words on the other side of the bookcase.
"-but going out at night? To Hogsmeade?" came the nervous question.
"When else? It's hardly a day-time event," was the bright reply. "The real stuff happens after sundown."
"But we're not allowed-"
"In a school of a thousand, who is going to know? It's not like Flitwick tucks us into bed and gives us a goodnight kiss every evening."
"But leaving Hogwarts after dark…"
"The Beltaine Festival is held every year. And none of us are ever allowed to go. Hogsmeade, practically our back yard, is thrown open just this one night to Muggle tourists – for this occasion only, while we, who can wield magic, are denied. Claudia and I are definitely going. Are you coming?"
Hermione ceased to listen, her sparkling eyes colliding with Severus', their thoughts reaching the same conclusions. "Beltaine-" he started in an excited whisper.
"A ritual some say is as old as Britain herself…still being practiced by Muggles," Hermione finished quietly.
"Nonsense and superstition." Klytemnestra cut them off imperiously, turning back to her text impatiently. "Beltaine and May Day are for Muggles who wish to be mages – everyone knows there's nothing really special about the solstices, equinoxes and all the other stuff Muggles like to dabble in."
"'Look to the world you were born in,'" Lily quoted gently. "He spoke of needing something endorsed by our Muggle counterparts that we have discarded, for whatever reason." She laughed quietly as she connected the rest of the dots. "And in Merlin's time, this was one of their widely acknowledged holy festivals – maybe for wizards and witches as well as Muggles."
A gateway, Hermione thought. The one that opens the ancient world to the contemporary.
The older girl's head snapped up again, a frown creasing her eyebrows. "We outgrew this mumbo-jumbo for a good reason. There are shelves of books written by those who have tried to discover if there are calendar days when magical prowess waxes and wanes – with the seasons, the elements, the tides, the phases of the moon. Some of the modern titles were inspired by Muggle philosophy and practices. But the fact remains that there is nothing concrete to prove that any day is better or worse than others. Magic is magic, regardless of when it occurs."
"Perhaps conventional magic is that way," Hermione countered, a smile curving her lips. "But we are dealing with music, and with other beings. What if the power is not real, but perceived?"
"If we need the help of other races, and they honor such days, we should as well," Severus completed the thought. "The import of such observance is all the power such days require in their eyes."
His cousin's furrowed brow had deepened, but the objection in her eyes had turned into thoughtfulness, and a smirk of respect as she glanced at Severus. "Very astute."
"There is probably more than that," Lily mused. "The dryad said that Muggles have wrapped them in meaningless ritual, but I think that under that, he hinted that there was something truly important. What if wizards and witches refused to participate because it was getting too cluttered?"
"I think Severus' point was well-made. Perhaps for us the importance is in the act of simply acknowledging such days – a reminder, however twisted by modern fashions, of the world that once existed," Hermione said. "An unbroken tradition – which is exactly what the Dryad said."
"I think it's useless to continue speculating," Severus announced, pushing back from the table. "And equally futile to continue sitting here reading about a subject that cannot be told, so why would it be written about? We should go to the Beltaine festival in Hogsmeade."
"Another excursion based on breaking the rules," Hermione sighed, almost under her breath. "Why am I not surprised?"
"What is the point of solving a puzzle that works within the rules?" Severus asked, almost uncharacteristically cheerful with this potential breakthrough. "We have two days to decide. Are we going?"
The three girls swapped glances, each daring the others to be the voice of reasonable caution that no one wanted to pronounce. Even Klytemnestra seemed to have surrendered her doubts to curiosity and the best lead they'd had in days.
None were surprised when the decision, by default, was to go.
"Maybe I should have joined the Slug Club," Sirius joked nervously as the two boys made their way to Slughorn's office. "He'd probably give us pastries and pumpkin juice."
"And a bedtime story about the best people he'd taught now occupying the highest seats of the Ministry," James finished scornfully. His glance towards his best friend grew solemn. "You've always known why you don't want to join in on that elitist claptrap."
"Hermione did. Evans did."
"They're Muggle-born," James answered with a shrug. "He wanted them for their brains – he'd never have even noticed yours. The line of your ancestors is too long for you to matter to him at all."
"Hopefully he'll answer an unusual question anyway," the taller boy replied. They turned a corner and, swapping looks of mutual trepidation, strode up to the dark mahogany door, Sirius' fist falling to thud against it politely.
"Come in!" The cheerful voice of their Potions professor beckoned them onward. The boys shuffled inside to see him wrapped comfortably in a velvet smoking jacket, his over-stuffed armchair matching the luxuriant roundness of his stomach.
"Sirius!" He hastily set aside the book he had been reading and rose, smiling, his entire focus on the elder son of Aries Black, James fading into the wall like a well-trained dog – unworthy of notice. "What an unexpected pleasure. Are you reconsidering my recent invitation? I can assure you that not all of our guests are Ministry speakers. Why, Matthew Wainwright of the Chudley Cannons is going to be coming for my last little dinner in May-"
"Sorry, Professor," Sirius cut Slughorn off firmly in the polite voice reserved for the drawing rooms of the upper crust, a rare reminder of who the renegade boy had been raised to be. "But I'm actually here about a bit of research."
James almost burst into laughter at the look of concrete disappointment rearranging the portly face. He could almost hear Professor McGonagall's jaw drop as he imagined Sirius saying the same thing to her. Their Head of House had never been able to hide her pride and fondness for their ability in her subject – nor her displeasure that they never undertook to stretch themselves academically. Only this man would be sorry that Sirius had come to talk business instead of pleasure.
Slughorn hastily erased his expression as Sirius smiled faintly and pulled his facial muscles into an appropriate look of delight for a teacher counseling a precocious student. "You have? That's…that's wonderful, my boy! Potions for you, is it? I've never thought you all that interested, though you're certainly a dab hand at them-"
"It's an ingredient, sir," Sirius deftly interrupted, directing the Slytherin's attention to the book he had just pulled open. "This flower, Professor. Its healing properties seem to have vast potential, but of course, they're quite difficult to find. I was wondering if you would know, perhaps, where I might go looking…so that I can run some tests?"
The sharp interest in Slughorn's eyes was genuine as he studied the ink-and-paint illustration Sirius had extended. "The Bottom-Feeding Lotus." All traces of jovial paternalism disappeared, leaving a scientist studying an unusual phenomenon with a good eye. "Fascinating plant, as your reading has doubtless told you." His shrewd eyes travelled to Sirius' perfectly straight face. "A rare one, as you have noted. What drew your attention to it?"
"It's unique capacity to bind some or all of the mind to this plane of existence while the body quests elsewhere," Sirius reeled off, though James had to give him credit – it didn't sound like the rote, memorized phrase they had painstakingly learned word-for-word from Hermione.
"Very interesting." Slughorn was nodding appreciatively. "We can ask Albus for permission – I can hardly imagine that he'll say no – and see what we can find. Of course, you'll need an advisor for such a project…might I hope to do the honors?"
James hurriedly turned his snort into a cough. There was no one else to do them, as the Slytherin knew quite well. "Of course, sir," Sirius lied graciously. "Professor Dumbledore?" he pressed.
"Oh yes." Their rotund teacher smiled indulgently. "These loti grow well in all kinds of water, from freezing to tropical. We'll need to ask him to speak to the Mer-people. There's a colony located on the bottom of our lake."
Remus did not share his friends' enthusiasm for this discovery. Neither did Pettigrew. The narrow eyes had flown instantly to the iron-grey water sluggishly lapping the grass not ten feet from them.
"C'mon, Remus," James laughed, sprawled out lazily in the sun, his body molding to the ground as if boneless. "It's spring, the water is getting warmer every day – it could be covered with ice, you know."
"James, I hate to be the one crowding you with reality, but water is not breathable. It doesn't matter how hot or cold it is, there's no way even the strongest swimmer can make it to the bottom and back in the three or four minutes of air you have in your lungs, much less grub around for a plant. How do you propose to solve that problem?"
"There are charms – the Bubble-head Charm the sixth-years are learning, for one," Sirius said easily.
"Maybe. I still think it's foolish," their worn friend said sharply. "And so do you – otherwise Hermione would be here. But you don't want her talking you out of it. And how are you going to explain to Professor Slughorn that you have no real desire to embark on this kind of 'research' at all?"
James and Sirius traded scowls that then, by unspoken agreement, turned on Remus. But before they could voice their objections, Pettigrew's slouched form straightened, a scavenger sighting potential prey.
"Snivellus," he announced in a low voice, half-eager, half-frightened. The two lean, dark-haired boys reacted like dogs to their master's whistle. Both bounded upright, as if the grass itself had thrown them to their feet, and all the afternoon's promised relaxation vanished, tension filling the vacuum instantly.
Their rival strode into full view not three yards away. "Snivelly!" Sirius called by way of greeting. Severus halted, an invisible leash pulled tight, his jaw tightening noticeably even at a distance.
"Yes, Black?" he answered scornfully, not bothering to turn and face them.
"At the beginning of the year, you proposed thestral blood." James' hated voice filled his ears. "I have a different challenge."
"Oh, Potter?" Now the Slytherin did look to them, swinging his body casually, his posture telling them that they were merely an annoyance, not a threat-
-and meaning it. Sirius felt a shaft of unease as he realized that Severus' blustering attempt to shield his fear of them behind viciousness, a large part of the fun in their continuing enmity, had vanished. The long hands were tucked inside his pocket robes, but the muscles were loose, not taut as if gripping a wand, and the black eyes gazed at them contemptuously – exasperation their only acknowledgement of the long-standing feud.
Sirius ground his teeth. If the greasy-haired boy thought that his friendship with Hermione would save him, it was time he learned that she only bought him breathing room.
"The lake," James was saying coldly, and Sirius knew that his best friend had spotted the unnerving signs he had seen as well, and that his desire to return their sallow classmate to familiar ground was driving his words. "There's a kind of flower at the bottom. A lotus. The first person to retrieve one is the winner."
"A lotus from a lake?" Severus sneered. "Turning over a new ear in Herbology, Potter, or am I supposed to help you woo your lost lady love?" He flicked his hand dismissively. "Forget it. I'm not a matchmaker. When you can come up with something a little less girlish, I'll gladly accommodate your desire for humiliation."
"Coward," Sirius' lip was curled disdainfully with a snarl, and he was rewarded by watching his enemy's face lock into rigid lines. New-found confidence or not, the insult still landed a bulls eye on the target.
"Fine thing to say, Black, when I will be facing all four of you underwater on my own."
"Surely those bully boys you sit with in class will join you," James tossed back carelessly.
"I would have better chances with my cousin…and Hermione Granger." Recovery made, this time it was Severus' mouth that curved into a cold smile as he watched everyone but Pettigrew snap to attention, Remus' normally gentle eyes hardening to granite.
"Words, Snivelly," James spat. "She would never stand against us."
Would she? Severus wondered. He would not ask her, of course, as he would not ask Klytemnestra. There were some battles that one did not summon armies for – and his private war with Potter and Black had to be kept out of Hermione's sight. But I am her Major…he nearly smiled at the rapidly growing store of memories of music spun from their fingertips, the weaving of a magic entirely their own. The hours in the forest had crafted a world outside of Hogwarts, a country in which nothing mattered but the notes they sent piping into the air. It bound them more thoroughly than any House affiliation could tie her to these four.
"She wouldn't rise to your defense, either," he finally answered, his voice steady.
"And it won't be four of us," James quickly added, ignoring the other boy's last words as if he could forget they were true. "Just me. Fancy that, Snape? A little one-on-one combat? The winner gets fifty Galleons."
"Only a spoiled child would bet so much of his father's money. I, at least, have the honor not to wager what I don't have. I will take pleasure in beating you, but the loser will do the winner's homework for a week – to the standard expected by our professors."
James squinted at him. The price was not cheap. Their talents lay in diametrically opposing fields – to complete Severus' Potions and Defense work properly would take hours in the library. Then don't lose, his mind supplied. He nodded shortly. "Agreed. Tonight. Midnight."
The Slytherin boy hesitated. Tonight. That would mean missing the Beltaine outing…and it had been his idea to go…
But Potter's voice was enough to make his jaw tight, and Black's ever-condescending commentary desperately needed correction. If this task took him forty-five minutes…they had planned on sneaking off to the festival at ten-o'clock…surely he could catch up to them?
"Nine-thirty," he countered.
"In a hurry to be nowhere?" Sirius asked.
"I don't see what business it is of yours what I do with my time. Or who." He was rewarded with another wince from the boys in front of him, but even as the tallest Gryffindor reached for his wand, a slender eyebrow rose. "Draw on me now and you forfeit the challenge. I'll gladly drop my books on your table at dinner."
James reached over and seized his best friend's wrist, shooting the furious black eyes a quelling glance. "Fine. Nine-thirty."
A short, sardonic bow of acceptance and Severus started to move away, as if they had completed a business transaction. "It's a good thing Quidditch is over, isn't it? You'll have plenty of time to do my work this week."
"I'm sure your lack of social life won't interfere with you doing mine," James returned with the ease of expertise.
"Just make sure you're not failing my classes by pining away over Lily Evans while she enjoys herself with her real boyfriend," came Snape's final remark. At this, Remus fastened both arms about James' middle as the Chaser leaped forward, hands outstretched in claws, ready to rake the other boy's face as he strode away.
"We have other problems than Snape right now," he panted, struggling against the lean player's greater agility and strength as Severus dwindled from sight along the shore of the lake. "The first of which is: how are we going to get you to breathe underwater for at least the half-hour you'll need to get to the bottom, find this flower, and bring it back up?"
"Snape, I heard you're going for a swim." Rodolphus Lestrange was seated too-casually on his bed when the sallow boy entered, his posture making it clear that he had been waiting for this moment.
"Exercise is generally thought to be beneficial, yes," Severus returned, blandly cautious. There was no telling what rumors had been spit into the other boy's ears, and Severus wasn't keen to clarify them unconditionally.
"True – but one might recommend it during daylight hours and not while struggling with a sworn enemy to get to the bottom of a very deep mountain lake."
Long fingers flexed in irritation. Clearly, the news had travelled intact. Severus did not bother to wonder how. A castle with a thousand adolescents had more ears than any spy story. He would have to pray that it did not reach Hermione. He doubted she would approve of or understand his mission tonight; especially since this escapade meant that he would be late for Beltaine…he had to think of a good excuse to delay himself without telling the truth. He knew that while his cousin might understand his need to deal with Potter, the two Gryffindor girls never would.
"What do you want, Les?" he snapped, dropping the game he hated playing. He had much to do before tonight, including finding a way to breathe in the lake.
The bigger boy stood, matching Severus' honesty. "You've been distant lately, Sev, and I have to say I don't approve. You've got those Gryffindor bitches and that high-and-mighty cousin of yours all tangled up around you. Now, I know you're going to say that Avery's an idiot and – between us – you're right. He's caused a lot of problems with you – him and Tim Wilkes, too. I know it. But here's question you should be thinking about: When we leave Hogwarts, you're going to belong to a world where that Granger girl and the Evans Mudblood don't fit. Do you really want to be alienating a whole future of potential allies for a pretty face or two?"
Silence fell in the wake of his bald statement, and the training of a lifetime under his father's brutal management was all preventing Severus from raising a clenched fist and smashing it against the other wizard's nose. Lestrange seemed to see through his robes to the battle raging within, and when Severus mastered his impulse to lay his roommate out flat, amusement flashed in the dark eyes and a cocky smile spread on the broad features.
"On a more immediate note," Lestrange's tone was casual, returning their interaction to that of fourteen-year-olds, "I can tell you how to survive underwater tonight if you'll write my essay on the Properties of Rose Quartz for Professor Slughorn."
"Where is Severus?" Hermione asked quietly as Klytemnestra slipped into the Out-of-Order girl's bathroom. Moaning Myrtle's constantly-gushing lavatory was proving as useful now as it had twenty years in the future.
Klytemnestra grimaced inwardly at the lie her cousin had begged her to tell, but heard the words coming easily from her tongue. "He started his potion today later than he should have and has to add things carefully for the next fifteen minutes. He said he'll catch up."
Lily frowned, forest-shaded eyes darkening as she twisted a curl around her finger. "Maybe we should wait. The road to Hogsmeade is dark. Something could happen to him."
"If we wait, we might miss something of importance," her friend countered, sighing. "We're already starting later than we should to avoid the teachers, and we're not exactly going to have fun."
"I can stay behind and wait for him," Klytemnestra offered, cursing Severus as she said it, realizing that this was one outing to the village that she truly wanted to go on.
Hermione was shaking her head thoughtfully. "No…we don't know how many pairs of eyes and ears we'll need. The road is dark, but there's nothing on it, and the creatures of the Forbidden Forest keep to themselves. Severus is capable. He'll be all right traveling alone."
They fell quiet, the wild-haired witch tapping her foot in thought, wondering what had induced Severus – always so eager to put everything aside for a hint of music – to make himself unavailable right now. Carelessness was utterly unlike the professor she trusted, and the boy had proven very like the man in this regard.
Still, he was only fourteen. Pushing aside her irritation for this inconvenience, she gestured to the tapestry concealing a corridor that would lead to a door that would spit them out on the road-side of the castle. "If we're not going to wait for him, shall we?"
Stars blurred against the sky, the warm air of a spring night dulling the edges made by winter's crispness. Severus slid out of the castle, at ease in the darkness as he never was in broad daylight, luxuriating in the cover of midnight-blue. This far north, the sky had only truly darkened just a half-hour before, and by the time solstice arrived in June, the dim rim of twilight would illumine the mountains until ten o'clock.
Their practice schedule had long accustomed the young wizard to sneaking in and out of the school in all kinds of weather, and he ambled along easily, hugging the tree-line until he reached the shores of the lake, the glass-smooth water reflecting a swollen moon from its black surface.
True to his word, only James Potter stood there, tucked against a large boulder that shielded him from Hogwarts, his eyes locked on the cold water. Severus melted forward from the forest and glided up beside him.
James jumped as he felt the presence materialize at his left shoulder. He glowered at his rival of three years. "Didn't anyone ever teach you any manners?"
"Terrified I was a creature come to grind your bones for my bread, Potter?" Severus whispered, dark eyes glittering.
"You're such a git," the other boy snapped, nerves taut from the short wait and the still evening. "Are we going to do this, or do I have to stand around listening to you try to be clever for the rest of the night?"
"I am ready. It's you who seems to be shivering. There's no need to go if you don't feel up to it."
James glanced down at the goose bumps that had erupted all over his bare arms and legs, and brought his eyes back to Severus'. "It's a bit chilly if you're not covered in robes," he said acidly.
Shaking coal-black hair out of his eyes, the Slytherin shed his light cloak and pulled his robes off over his head, revealing tar-colored swimming trunks. Without waiting for any kind of signal, the instant he released the wool of his day-clothes, his hands came together over his head, left on top of right and, bending his knees, he jumped, cutting into the water in a shallow dive.
Cursing for the moment lost, James hastily followed him, wand flickering up to cast the Bubble-Head Charm he had practiced with Ludo Bagman that afternoon.
Severus kicked hard, shooting downwards and delighting in the cool, easy sensation of water flowing around him. Lestrange's method had been peculiar – but it worked. The spell he had found was a little-known piece of Blood Magic discovered in a book nicked from Evan Rosier's father's library. Most of the essays and illustrations would have earned the owner an expulsion – or a year's worth of detentions at the very least – but this charm was neither dark nor difficult, just strange. It had been easy enough to garner a live fish from the ever-eager House-elves, slit it open, and, after pricking his own finger, bathe his hands in the blood, a short ritual incantation allowing the attributes of the water-dweller into his blood stream. He could feel oxygen in his lungs without needing to breathe it, and the water, which he knew to be freezing for his human body, felt no more than faintly chilly.
Swift, sure strokes carried him to the mud-and-silt covered earth long before he expected to reach it. Maybe the lake wasn't so deep as imagined. He gazed around, treading water lightly, trying not to disturb the dirt and cause it to swirl up around him. Where would one find a Bottom-Feeding Lotus? In the grey-green-black water, it should be easy to find the white plant, the purity of its color a beacon in the dark.
He could not see the object of his search, so he chose a direction and began to swim again, eyes scanning sharply over the lake floor.
He had been straining for five minutes when movement next to him caught his eye and brought him up short, legs pedaling once more as he stared.
It was not Potter, as he had half-expected. Nor was it one of the Mer-people who lived in the lake. The young woman in front of him seemed to flow, as if fashioned by the water itself, the currents swirling to make the deep silver-jade of her eyes, the graceful extensions of slender arms and legs ending in thin-spun webs between fingers and toes. He felt heat rising to his face and dropped his eyes as his gaze traveled over her body to find her unabashedly naked, small blue-grey breasts bobbing with the faint movement of the water. He studied the ground intensely, guiltily wondering what Hermione would think if she could see him and simultaneously feeling that the water-woman's lack of dress did not matter.
"What brings you, Son of Earth, to these waters when those who need you are walking another road?" Her voice was gentle and lilting; carrying with it the quiet rush of the sea in a shell, and offering no rebuke in its tone, but shame scalded him abruptly. Son of Earth. The same title that the Dryad had given him.
What was he doing here, playing at being a schoolboy, as if Potter and Black truly mattered anymore? Their rivalry was a game for children and he, who had been granted the privilege of knowing another world, was wasting his valuable time quibbling now, breaking a promise he had made to the only people he had ever cared about to scrape the lake floor for an item he couldn't care less about just to prove…what?
"You are her Major." The faun's words echoed loudly, filling his ears underwater.
"Your place is with her, young Severus," the woman whispered in her silvery voice, his thoughts coming back to him from her mouth. "Now and always. You are her Major."
"Yes." This time, he lifted his eyes to stare into her ancient gaze, and it was no mystery that she knew who and what he was. "You are the Spirit of the Lake."
"I am. Naiad is the name given to my kind by men." A smile fluidly slid across her mouth. "Hurry, Son of Earth. You do not belong here. Open yourself to what you seek. A child of water has given you blood, and Earth has claimed you as one of her own. Find the lotus not with your eyes, but with your gift."
So saying, she vanished. He blinked. There had been no flashes of light or cracks of Apparition. She had simply…disappeared. Back into the liquid that had created her, a seamless re-integration of elements that made him wonder very briefly if she had ever been there at all.
A child of water…the fish. It was easy to recall the way he could sometimes feel the Earth under his feet now, the sense of growth, of life, of millions of lives going on in, around and under it…
He closed his eyes and stretched out his legs, letting his feet squelch into the slick bottom, seeking the connection that he had forgotten…
Not twenty yards to his left, he felt the spreading root system of the lotus waving gently in the sluggish undertow. He struck out, eyes still closed, eager to take the flower and be done with it. The idea of beating the Gryffindor boy he hated had drifted to the back of his mind. All that mattered was to finish as quickly as possible and catch up to his Node, to take his station at her side.
The bright-white flower gleamed, utterly out of place amongst the dark-green ferns and tangle of brown roots seeking their purchase in the mud. He pointed his wand at it and severed the stem neatly from the mother plant, delicately pinching it in one hand as he kicked back towards the surface.
As his head popped back into air and starlight, and saw James Potter's head emerging as well, two bursts of white exploding onto the dark surface as they brought up their flowers and swam wearily to the shoreline.
"You have one?" the disappointment in James' voice was plain, but Severus ignored him as he spelled himself dry and hastily re-dressed, his classmate long dismissed as irrelevant as his mind walked the path to Hogsmeade…he checked his watch and noted that it had taken them a bare thirty minutes. If he hurried, he should be able to overtake the girls on the road now.
"I guess this means no homework for either of us," the Gryffindor said.
"The lotus?" James' hands were clearly itching to pick up the flower where Severus had so carelessly discarded it on the boulder. Flicking his hand impatiently, the pale boy nearly told him simply to take it, but stopped himself. In spite of the fact that it rose from the mud, the plant grew clean, unsullied and shining. He caressed a soft, white petal and smiled to himself. A fitting gift for someone, perhaps for the summer holiday. Loti had quite a lifespan as long as they were kept in water.
"Fruits of my labor and mine to keep," Severus answered, scooping it up. Part of him was dimly pleased at the look of irritation on James' face, but mostly he simply wanted to escape without making excuses.
"What are you going-" James started to ask, and then stopped himself even as a long finger lifted in a gesture for silence.
Voices were floating to them on the low breeze now ruffling the edges of the water. The polished honey tones of the first were ones the Slytherin instantly recognized, with a chill far colder than the water had been. Lucius Malfoy.
The second speaker was not so familiar, but he saw the dawning horror on his adversary's face that, for once, had nothing to do with him.
"I require…certain information regarding the girl. I'm sure you can see what's in it for you." Malfoy's voice had the cool superiority of a man making a deal far beneath him. "I told you what I am prepared to pay."
The other was also male, and sounded distinctly less sure. "And you…you promise that Lily won't get hurt? And she won't find out?"
"My word," the aristocrat purred.
"Okay…yeah. I'll do it. I'll keep track of Hermione for you. It won't be too hard – she and Lily are pretty much inseparable."
James' brown gaze filled with murderous rage and betrayal as he turned to Severus, the first and only time the boys would find themselves in complete accord in their lives.
"That's Walt Winters," the Chaser spat furiously.
The click of comprehension was an unwelcome one. "Lily's boyfriend?"
Please let me know what you think!