The reception area at Saint Mungo's hospital wasn't particularly busy for a Saturday morning, which was to say that it wasn't more than three quarters full. Approaching the desk, Tonks heard the sound of scuttling behind her; she turned to see robes disappearing out towards the street and several newly vacant seats.
Huffing slightly, she turned towards the toilets. Out of sight she changed her appearance and re-emerged, catching the door before it could close and glancing back over her shoulder to complete the illusion. Sure enough, a fair number of those waiting continued watching the door. To many readers of the 'Prophet' her pink hair spoke 'dragon' and it scared them. While Tonks was aware that levels of stupidity that would tend, rather quickly, to eliminate an individual from the Muggle gene pool could persist for generations amongst Magicals, it was still annoying. She approached the desk.
'I'd like to speak to Professor Snape.'
The receptionists smirked at one another.
'It might be possible for you to make an appointment. If you have a good enough reason.' A supercilious smile accompanied the opening of a large blue book.
Tonks waved her ID. 'I'm from the Ministry.'
The glances the receptionists exchanged suddenly hardened. 'Wait over there.'
Tonks had already been to Hogwarts where she'd discovered that while Snape was still employed there, (Newts and Head of House duties only); he would be spending the next few days at the hospital. Had the last owls to the Aurory from Saint Mungo's not been so very definite concerning the issue, she'd just have apparated into one of the hospital's areas without apparition wards and gone hunting for him. Reluctantly, she decided that it wouldn't be clever to annoy them more than they already were annoyed. Instead she smiled pleasantly and wandered off into the cafe where she bought herself a cup of tea, a slice of fruitcake and a copy of the 'Quibbler.'
She was just beginning the crossword when she noticed one of the receptionists approaching with an orange queremy in her hand. 'There you go,' she said, allowing it to float away.'
'Thanks,' muttered Tonks, bolting the last of her snack as the orange ball drifted out of the cafe. She could see it bobbing gently against the door to the stairs. Like many things, as they got older, queremies became unreliable. They were supposed to wait for you. This one, clearly, didn't. The door opened and the orange ball escaped through the gap.
Tonks sped after it. 'Sorry. It went down,' said old wizard who had opened the door.
She gave him a grin. 'It won't escape me.'
There was no sign of it on the floor below so she continued down.
Built over centuries on an ad hoc basis, below ground Saint Mungo's consisted mainly of meandering corridors, corners and steps connecting rooms and spaces originating at this level with those encroaching from above. Nothing was ever done away with that might yet be used; instead it was sent down into what had originally started out as a cellar and grown. Two levels below ground she found the orange ball and, leaning on one of the doors, followed it through into the labyrinth.
The queremy disappeared round a corner and Tonks got after it; a minute later it was tapping was against a door. A sign served to differentiate the door from almost every other one she had passed but a large amount of something corrosive had been spilt on it. With difficulty she could make out lettering that looked a bit like M something Blech. Tonks knocked and then went in. 'Hello I'm here to see Professor Snape.'
This being a hospital full of medical students, for a moment she was inclined to believe that some joker had dressed a skeleton and propped it at the desk over a pile of paperwork but, as the pale cranium tipped back, there was a face; not an especially nice face but definitely features, including a ears and nose supporting enormous, green, circular lenses on thin steel frames. The face stared at her.
Tonks stared back. Medical students weren't allowed to create inferi. Nor were they allowed to charm evil spectacles to give a semblance of life to corpses to which they were attached. On the other hand, as an Auror cadet she'd done various first aid courses and had subsequently gone drinking with these people so she wasn't letting go of the wand just yet. 'Hello.'
'I'm given to understand that you're from the Ministry?' A voice like the shuffling of ancient parchment bypassed her intellect and went straight for her hind brain. It took her a moment to reprise what had actually been said.
'Yes?' 'Dammit,' thought Tonks. 'Control!'
'And this would be concerning what precisely?'
Tonks stood at ease and put her hands behind her back. 'If I could speak with the professor?'
'Professor Snape has been counselled to put his affairs in the hands of our legal department and he has, very wisely, chosen to accept that advice. You may speak to me Ms. . . .?
She smiled. 'It would be much simpler if I spoke . . .'
'Whilst it would undoubtedly be simpler if Mr. Snape were to waive all rights to recompense, especially "given the parlous state of the Ministry's finance at the present", you may advise the Minister that that is not going to be happening. Not now and not ever.' Light reflected steadily from green glass. 'And now, if you would care to apprise me of your name for the accounts?
'The Minister has already been informed that he should not expect further to utilize my valuable time without certain charges accruing.'
'No!' Tonks shook her head. 'I have reason to think that he might be in danger. I'm a friend of Snape's. I helped get him back from Azkaban.' She turned her hair back to pink. 'You might remember: it was in the papers.'
'I do not care to sully this office with trivia. What exactly did you do?'
'In my animagus form I'm a dragon . . .'
'You're wasting my time.'
Tonks closed her eyes, shrugged and then morphed to discover that the desk and its occupant had disappeared; after a moment's reflection she looked down to discover evil green glasses gazing directly up at her. Smoke trickling from her nostrils, she bared one long tooth. 'Point carried, I believe Ms. . . .
'Tonks.' The face tipped back to the horizontal.
'Then Andromeda Black is your mother and your father's the Unspeakable to whom she fed love potion.' Pale hands rubbed one another. 'The Ministry wanted to throw away the key'. The odd susurration might have been laughter. 'A fascinating case but ultimately simple.' The green glasses had stilled. 'And, I suppose, given your father's condition at the time of your conception, that would make you a "dragon born of bad faith".'
'Thank you. You may go.'
'That sounded suspiciously like a prophecy.'
'I'm sorry I can't help you.'
Tonks gritted her teeth. 'Why can't you help me?'
'Wouldn't be ethical.' The evil green glasses sounded cheerful. 'Not that I wouldn't like to help you, of course. It's always nice to see a member of the family doing well.'
'And a member of my old House too. Not many Blacks in Hufflepuff. And probably quite smart if you're an Auror. There was upward curving grimace. 'Well it's been a pleasure meeting you Ms. Tonks. A gesture and the queremy was heading for the door. 'Oh, and do be careful please. There are a lot of quite valuable antiquities down at this level.' Tonks gave a wary little smile and followed the orange ball out. Not five minutes later, she tripped over a stack of carved wooden bedpans; when she got up, the queremy had gone.
It was when she didn't immediately incendio the bedpans that Tonks became aware that she was still using occlumency to keep calm. Looking around at the low, narrow corridor with its unmarked doors off, she became again aware of how much she disliked enclosed spaces. Apparition failed, not unexpectedly and she could feel panic and something else trying to surface. Almost immediately she recognised that 'something else' was the dragon and, while her animagus form was far too big for the narrow corridor, the creature's almost eidetic memory was available to her. She turned and began to retrace her way back to the stairwell.
Congratulating herself on her navigational skills she was dismayed to discover, when she reached the staircase, that the doors were locked and padlocked and there was a small note on which was printed 'Closed for Building Work'. Tonks cursed. There were other stairs that she knew of but they were on the other side of the building. 'Right then, she decided. 'Treat it as a maze.'
By her estimation, Tonks had been walking for an hour. In that time she had been up one level and, she thought, a few steps at a time, down a further two. Little, luminous arrows marked her path. A simple spell would erase all of them once she knew where she was. She turned a corner to discover that the corridor terminated in a set of double doors. Smiling, she pushed through to discover, instead of the expected staircase, an old fashioned lecture theatre of the kind that Muggles had used before they had anaesthetic.
A single light hung down over a crude and heavy, wooden table. Beyond, she could see more doors. All else lay in shadow. Intuition screaming, Tonks ventured in keeping her back to the wall. As the door shut behind her a curtain stirred. A moment later there were bits of flaming wax strewn over the table and benches and the curtains were on fire. As she cleared up the mess, Tonks decided that it had been a bloody stupid place to keep a wax anatomy model. She wondered if they'd miss it. There was something seriously unpleasant about this space and she was relieved to put it behind her. Then the corridor turned a corner and there were more stairs. Unfortunately they led down.
Tonks sat down on the top step and wrapped her arms around herself. She felt cold and the situation was fast becoming ridiculous. This wasn't a guarded manor or mausoleum, although she suspected the lecture theatre had seen a few fatalities; it was no more than a glorified basement. She was just tired. Thinking about her recent conversation, the mention of family, given that Draco Malfoy was also a "dragon born of bad faith", had been a clue. She would ask her mother and, if Andromeda didn't know, she'd be having a chat with her cousin. There was something else, Tonks realised, with a growing feeling of depression: if the evil green glasses had known about her sorting, that argued that her mother's case had still been open eleven years after the event and was perhaps unclosed even now.
Tonks got up; the trick was to keep moving. She looked around and noticed that there was something familiar about the tiling. Strangely, there were no tiles on the wall at the top of the stairs where the stairwell might have continued up. Without thinking, she reached out and tapped the wall and analysed the sound. No stairwell. As far as she could detect, and Tonks was guessing several metres; behind the wall was solid.
The bottom of the stairs gave way to an open space and a larger, arched tunnel crossing at right angles. All along the nearer wall were stacks of boxes. Tonks moved closer to read: 'Lost and Found 1911'. In front of her was a vertical drop with, propped against the edge, a small set of wooden steps. Again, she looked around but it was the change of air pressure and the familiar noise of a train that told her that she was in a disused Underground station.
It was an answer of a sort. She could open a hole in and then repair any wall she was likely to encounter; the anti-apparition wards wouldn't extend beyond the boundary. She didn't like the look of the wooden steps so she bent down and put her hand onto the edge of the platform preparatory to hopping down into the rail bed.
The auror stood and turned round.
'queremy' from 'sequere me' or 'follow me' in Latin.