A/N: Hello everybody! Thank you so much for all of your favorites, reviews, and interest thus far! I just wanted to let you know that following this chapter this story, as well as most of my other work, will go on temporary hiatus as life gets a little hectic in the coming months. I may return as early as January or as late as June, but I will most definitely be back to finish this up and hope you will all stick around and be ready to read again when chapter reposting continues. Again, thank you so much for everything up till now! You guys are great! :)
A Difficult Decision
Severus waited, keeping Thomas secure in his arms as Dinah rapped on the Blacks' door. After the incident with the boy earlier, Severus did not want to let him go quite yet, and Tommy seemed inclined to stay where he was, so it worked out well for the time being.
He glanced down to make sure that Maylene was still safe as well, his little girl clutching the hand of her older aunt as they waited to be invited inside. Shortly after the incident with Tommy, Mae had rushed out to them with Minerva in tow, relieved that the boy was safe as she had been terrified and searching all over the school with the headmistress before they came out to the designated spot. Both Severus and Dinah had been grateful for her concern, and after assuring Mae that they were not upset for her not having known about Thomas's attempt to 'follow' her, although he had gone somewhere completely different, they had all shifted to discussing the situation at hand.
Not much had been decided as of yet, but it was clear that inviting Mae out to the picnic spot had been nothing more than toying with her, and they still had no idea where Ramkin was in the school or what he was doing. Minerva had ordered Mae to stay with Dinah and Severus for the time being while she discussed the situation with the rest of the faculty. Everyone was to convene for a meeting in the headmistress's office once they had sorted out the scenario of the children with the Blacks, which was what they were going to do now.
"Oh!" Lucy gasped with a grin when she opened the door, holding Dara, "Hello. Well, we weren't expecting everyone to come over but that's okay we can make a party of it."
Before they could respond, little Altair toddled out with a book and tugged on Mae and Severus's robes in turn.
A twinge of regret filled Severus's chest as he put a hand on the small boy's ginger head. It would not be the same if they had to do this, he thought as he shook his head, "I'm sorry, my boy. Not today."
"No..." Mae sighed, exchanging a sad glance with Dinah.
The little boy's face crumpled, unused to people not wanting to read to him.
"It's all right, baby," Lucy said, pushing some hair off his forehead, "Maybe later," turning her face back to the Snapes, she asked, "Is something wrong?"
Dinah closed her eyes, took a deep breath and nodded. Severus reached over to take her hand, keeping her warm fingers enclosed in his as she gave him a grateful smile and a little squeeze in return. "We need to talk inside," Dinah told her friend, "Right now. It's very important."
"Oh… all right," Lucy frowned, backing up to let the other family in.
Severus seated himself and Thomas next to his wife on the sofa as Dinah pulled Maylene into her lap and wrapped her arms around the little girl, resting her chin on top of the child's silky black hair. Mae sat on the last cushion and offered Altair a small smile, patting her knee in invitation.
Altair instantly clambered up into her lap, still holding his book but not asking for it to be read this time.
Lucy sat down next to Sirius, still cuddling Adara, and Owen came over to Maylene. "Why does everybody look sad?"
"It's 'cuz of the monster," Maylene told her small friend with solemn authority, and Severus had to reach over and stroke her hair briefly, thoughts of bereavement filling his head. Before having children, he had never imagined he could care for any young one as much as he did his own and these others. But he did, and parting from them was going to be more painful than he could have imagined for most of his life. The tears he saw shining in Dinah's eyes as she placed her hand over his and entwined their fingers together told him she felt similarly. "Only they said it's not really a monster. It's a bad man," his daughter continued her explanation.
Dinah sighed, looking at Lucy, "It's true. We've made a terrible, erroneous assumption, and because of it the little ones could be in grave danger. It turns out, Ambrose Ramkin is in Hogwarts. He has been this entire time."
Lucy gasped and quickly glanced at her husband, a little bit of panic evident in her eyes.
"What do you mean?" he asked, "Everything's apparently changed since we saw you last."
"It's my fault," Mae decided, so surprisingly that Severus gave her a look.
"What do you mean, 'your fault'?" Dinah demanded, fiercely protective of her friend as she had been lately during Mae's difficult times, "It's not your fault; how can it be anyone's fault?"
"Uh... well, I don't really mean 'fault' exactly," Mae explained, her cheeks flushing a bit, "I just didn't want them to blame you for any of this. You see," she said, turning back to the Blacks, "What happened was that I received a letter from Ramkin. Professor McGonagall has it now so I can't show you, but... I had been looking into my great-grandfather's notes – you know, Raymond Scrump? – on the ghost phenomenon, and he had discovered something about an ability for humans to usurp ghost power for themselves. He didn't take it seriously which is why it was buried so deep in his notes and I hadn't found it by now, but that's what Ramkin has done. He can turn himself into a ghost. It's how he's been here without detection for so long. We would have known sooner had I just looked earlier into great-granddad's notes..."
"Oh, well, you couldn't have known," Lucy offered, holding Adara a little tighter, causing the baby to fuss. "It's no one's fault."
"Daddy," Tommy said, standing up in Severus's lap and turning to look at him, "Dara not happy."
Looking at his son, Severus again recalled the scene from earlier and the boy's unwavering trust in him no matter what happened. It had been a very... affirming moment and one which he was still grateful for. He hugged the boy close and looked over his shoulder at Lucy, "It is imperative that the children not be alone from this point forward. Adara must not even be allowed to nap alone in her nursery. The rattling windows – including the one you had here the other day - they were from Ramkin's ghost form spying on us. It is how he has been able to know things he should not, like of your 'interference' and our visit to the Malfoys and Mae's research activities."
"Of course, of course," Lucy nodded, "but… we have to work… Grubbly-Plank… five children…"
Dinah shook her head, her fingers moving to stroke Maylene's hair, "Severus and I have thought about it. We just can't do that. We can't ask that of Wilhelmina and it's still not safe here regardless. Especially if Ramkin tries to challenge us in some way like his letters indicate he may. But his main target should be Hogwarts, given that he waited until the students were almost half gone to make his move, so if..." she trailed, her eyes filling again as she looked down at Maylene and sighed, finishing in a soft tone, "We were thinking their grandparents' would be a safe place. At least until this all blows over."
"Oh," Lucy murmured, hugging the still-fussing Dara a little more, "Yes, that's probably best, but…"
"They'll be safe with Molly and Arthur," Sirius assured, his arms going around her shoulders, "You know that."
Dinah nodded, "I thought so. It has to come to this, but I'm determined to resolve this as soon as possible so they can all come home. To think..." she shook her head, "All this time we've been saying 'Hogwarts is the safest place for them', and this whole time we've been so terribly, terribly wrong..." she finished on a whisper, hugging Maylene and reaching to strangle Severus's hand.
"We have to go away?" Owen asked, looking from his parents to Maylene.
"I think for a little visit... maybe...?" Maylene shrugged, looking so confused it almost tore Severus's heart out as he strangled Dinah's hand right back. It had not taken long for Owen to figure out that something was amiss, and he did not know how they were going to explain things to the children, to explain why they had to do this.
"Are we going together?" the little boy asked his friend.
"I don't know... Mummy? Daddy?" she turned to them.
"You may... I don't..." Severus managed, glancing at Dinah who shrugged in confusion, until her gaze grew determined and she turned back to Lucy.
"I bet if we wrote our owls to our families together we could arrange – somehow – for my parents and your aunt and uncle to coordinate visits between the children from time to time. It can't be frequent, I'm sure, but I bet it could be done. They'd just miss each other so if we didn't..."
"I'm sure Uncle Arthur would love to spend time with Muggles," Lucy said, managing a little smile, "and I think it'd be good for the children to see each other at least a couple times… keep everything as normal as we can."
"Mm," Dinah nodded, "Then let's do that."
"It would be best," Severus agreed, thinking that he didn't mind his children dealing with Weasleys if it meant they could be with the friends that made them happy. Parting with them, though... it was going to be more difficult than he could even imagine, he was sure.
"I'm sure they'd like that," Mae Yates decided, rejoining the conversation, "And maybe it won't be for long. After all, I'm going to be helping out too. He's after me anyway, or he's included me in his 'threats' list, so there's no reason for me not to throw myself into this wholeheartedly."
"Oh..." Dinah sighed, nodding and placing a hand on their friend's shoulder, "Thank you. But I wish your involvement wasn't forced like this. I truly do."
Severus came to a decision then, about something that had been hovering in the back of his mind ever since Mae had received the letter and brought it to them in her distress. And now seemed like the best time to take care of said decision. After this afternoon's scare with Thomas he did not know that he wished to stay and listen to talk about sending the children away any more just now. He stood up, "Dinah, you, Mae, and the Blacks sort out notes to the Weasleys and your parents and finish discussing the details of this situation. There is something that I must attend to in the dungeons," he said, not lying but purposefully keeping his statement misleading. It needed to be misleading, for now.
"What do you have to do? Fetch something?" Dinah asked, her brow furrowing as she looked up at him.
He reluctantly released his son, placing him into his mother's lap, and shook his head, "You shall see when I return," he told her, leaning over to kiss her forehead, followed by the foreheads of the two young ones. Stepping back, he placed a hand on Owen's shoulder for good measure before turning to leave.
"All right," Dinah decided behind him, "Be careful!"
He stopped, turning to regard his dearest wife and offering her a smile and a nod, struck again by this difference between how people reacted when he was surrounded by danger now versus how they had during the previous wars. The school was, perhaps, filled with threats again as it had been in the past, but now his position was quite different. Now there were those who cared what happened to him, and those that he cared for more than he had anyone else before in his life. Such a change it was.
"Yes, be careful," Lucy seconded, "Should Sirius go with you? I know you're capable of defending yourself, but…"
He considered the kind offer, but shook his head, "This is something I must do alone. Again, you will all understand when I return."
"All right," Lucy nodded, "Good luck."
He gave the room another brief nod before spinning to leave, keeping his eyes peeled for danger and his senses open as he walked through the halls, but everything appeared calm for the time being. As stated, he did indeed head down to the dungeons, but he did not go into his office or his home. No, he continued on past them, down a stretch of long hallway which dimmed as he approached the lake and took on a slight green ambience.
He stopped in front of a familiar wall, and uttered the password that he was privileged to know as the head of his House, "Basilisk Venom." Quite sinister still, it was true, but at least it was an improvement over 'Pureblood'.
The wall opened and he took his next steps with authority, over the threshold and into the Slytherin common room, its black and green furniture reminiscent of his school days and the windows in the distance revealing the depths of the lake where the giant squid was floating by. The view was impressive, and he had at least twice taken Dinah down to show her during the summer months, so they could enjoy it together as she liked that sort of thing. But today he was not here for enjoyment as he stared down the shocked gazes of the small first-years studying at a table and trailed his gaze back over to a sofa where a familiar boy sat gaping at him, "Fitzgerald!"
"Professor Snape!" Arnold gasped, slapping his book shut and looking around, surprised at both Severus's sudden intrusion and at being called out like this.
"I am looking for Andrew Speasy. Get him," Severus ordered, not in the mood to waste time.
"Uh... y-yessir!" Andrew's friend exclaimed, hopping up from his seat and hurrying over towards the location of the dormitories. Severus had to admit it was as satisfying as it always had been to strike fear into the hearts of the students, even the ones in his own house. His relationship with them was quite different than his with his children, niece, and nephews. He enjoyed the dichotomy.
Of course, his relationship with Andrew Speasy was yet another different thing still, and he was glad when he caught sight of Arnold returning, pulling the other boy along with him.
"Professor Snape?" Andrew questioned, looking confused as he approached him, "What is going on?"
"I thought it necessary to inform you that your girlfriend, or at least I assume you still consider her as such, has gotten involved in something quite serious and may be in danger."
"What?" That got through to the boy, whose eyes, so often red and irritated with his allergies, went wide in surprise and fear, "Mae is in danger? Why? How? What's going on? I just got a letter yesterday from the Black children, but..."
"Yes, yes, that is not important at this time," Severus waved the notion off. There would be no time for reading to Altair at any rate if they were shipping the poor things off to their temporary abodes tonight. No, that request would have to be put on hold for the time being, "The circumstances yesterday were not what they are today. This afternoon we came upon some new information that changes everything. And if you are a man you will step up and ensure that Mae is not forced to face down this threat on her own."
"Of course I'm a man! I won't let anything happen to Mae!" he said fiercely, "But what threat? Why haven't I heard of this before? What has she been doing that could make her anyone's target?"
Severus sighed, recalling that Andrew had been unaware of the research Mae had been doing for them as of late, "It seems there is much I have to explain. Shall we do so in a more private location? Although I imagine these others will be finding out the details soon enough," he said, gesturing to Arnold Fitzgerald and the other students in the common room who had been staring at them during their conversation. Actually, Severus expected an announcement to be made at dinner as well as a boatload of letters to be sent out to parents this evening, based upon decisions which had been made at yesterday's staff meeting.
"Anywhere you want," Andrew decided, and Severus was pleased at his attitude. He hadn't really expected much less of his young friend, but it was good to see. The fight between the two had gone on long enough, especially now that there was something more important to contend with.