Chapter Fourteen: Preparing for a New Game
During the next couple of days, Ron moaned to all his friends about his make-up schedule. He had just gotten caught up from the Hogwarts Tournament before going to this one, and now he was way behind. The only light on the horizon was the curtly-worded note from Snape saying that due to the complexity of the assignments and the difficulty of scheduling extra time in the lab, you will have one week extra to make up work in Potions.
I ought to save his life more often, Ron thought, though he nearly changed his mind during the first Potions class after the tournament. The only good thing about Snape breathing down his neck was the grateful look that Longbottom threw him afterwards.
And his first DADA class felt strange, too. When he saw Professor Lupin he suddenly remembered that one set of scars on Snape's back had looked like claw marks. Surely something that had happened so long enough would have healed by now. But for a brief moment Ron thought he'd caught a glimpse of the wolf that Lupin really was. Then the professor spoke in his usual kindly way, and things were back to normal. After all, rumor had it that the Headmaster gave Lupin his potion each month. That made sense.
That night in the Shrieking Shack, Lupin hadn't taken it. Now that he was older, Ron realized what it must have been like for Snape to come looking for students knowing that Lupin might be out there-and after bouncing his head on the floor of the Shrieking Shack when the three of them had accidentally knocked him out, too. Ron tried talking to the other two about it, but they weren't grateful for him bringing back their own memories of that night. But Hermione, especially, looked thoughtful.
A couple of weeks later and it was the afternoon before everyone went home for Christmas. At least this year Harry was coming to the Burrows, too. Ron looked at the bulletin board outside the Great Hall and noticed a new section called Jobs. There was only one notice, and that was from Madam Pomfrey. Part time assistant needed during weekends to assist with preparations and restocking. Must have passing grade in Potions. Additional training in healing offered as time permits. A modest pay rate was mentioned, about what Fred and George were having to pay their assistants that weren't family.
Ron looked at it for a few minutes. Part of him wanted to jump at the offer. Madam Pomfrey had already cornered him once and asked about that charm he'd used on Professor Snape. "We need as many things that work as possible," she'd said, though she hadn't explained for who or why.
It would be nice to have a bit coming in. He could save up and start his own account at Gringotts where (according to Bill) the money itself would earn without him having to do anything if he chose a statement account, and not a vault like most had. He didn't understand how that worked, but he was willing to take his brother's word for it.
Hermione looked at the notice, but shook her head. "I get caught up with my studying on weekends. Nobody bothers me at the library as much then," she said. "Besides, if you make a lot of simple potions for the infirmary, you're bound to get better at it just from the practice."
That made sense. And then Harry came up and looked at it, too. "No, that one's for you, Ron. The captain would strangle me if I took that much time off Quidditch."
Ron hadn't thought about that. He was Keeper this year, but he knew it was mainly because he was Harry's friend. Balfour in fourth year was already twice as good as he was at the position. He thought he held his own in strategy planning sessions, but as far as actual playing went, he had to admit that making the Chudley Cannons was probably not in the picture.
Besides, as much as he enjoyed playing, it still hadn't felt the same as all that chess had-especially the second game with Smerdlov. He hadn't made any sense at all describing it to his friends, but it was a feeling he wanted to have again.
"Do it, Ron," Hermione said in his ear. "Learn enough to save our lives. You're getting better in Potions, even with Snape breathing down your neck. Of course, after what happened at the tournament, maybe he's got a good reason for wanting everyone to be as good in Potions as he is."
Ron nodded, but was still a little doubtful. He liked his weekends the way they were now.
Then Malfoy walked by and sneered. "You really should take that job, Weasley. But you probably won't. People like you would rather complain about being poor than do anything about it."
Ron grinned. "Wait till you fall off your broom and see me waiting for you at the infirmary, Malfoy." He nearly laughed when he saw the dismay on the Ferret's face. "You talked me into it."
Draco scribbled a quick note and dropped it into Professor Snape's box. He didn't know why the Potions Master wanted the Gryffindork to take the job, but sneering at the Weasel was such fun he probably would have done it anyway. But he owed Snape for helping get rid of Quirrell. He owed Snape for a lot of things.
Not long after, Ron and the others opened up some of the presents that had been owled in early while sitting in the Gryffindor Common Room. For one thing, Hermione was going home and wouldn't get to see their reactions to what she'd gotten them. Harry would get most of his presents on Christmas Day, but seemed happy enough with the quill set he got from Hermione and the broom-maintenance kit from "Snuffles". Hermione's face lit up at the yearly sweater from Mum, the book on Magical Beasts that Ron had found for her, and the box from Honeydukes that Harry had gotten. "I'll have to hide it and eat most of it here," she said, looking wistful. "My parents never have sweets, not even on the holidays."
Ron already had his present from Hermione. Just last week he'd finished his commentary on Snape's game against Lord Malfoy, and she'd found a place in Diagon Alley where they could copy it several times over with a Dicta-quill. She wouldn't let him pay for it, either, saying it was in self-defense-"I want to be able to read it, too, you know!"
Just as they were cleaning up the wrapping-paper, a fiery bird that looked a bit like Fawkes flew in the window and dropped off a package. "That wasn't a phoenix, was it?" Harry asked.
"No," said Hermione, "that was a firebird. It's addressed to you, Ron."
It was a small, hard package with foreign-looking writing on it. Ron unwrapped it. "It must be from the emir. He should have gotten the stuff that Mum and I put together." Molly Weasley had contributed a sweater, he'd sent her a copy of the game analysis, and had gotten Ginny to agree to the other thing.
"That's why you wanted a good copy of the chess game," Hermione said.
"Yes," said Ron. "And I got something for Rafi, too."
"What can you get a genie?" Harry asked, amazement in his eyes.
"Ginny said she never played with her dollhouse any more, so Mum put in some of the furniture with everything else." Ron tore off the last bit of the paper carefully.
"Where is she, anyway?" Harry asked.
"Oh, she wanted to get in one last game with Abercrombie before he left," Ron said. "See, I had to promise to coach her in chess and let her borrow my set whenever she wanted for the doll furniture. I've been telling her how many more boys than girls there were at the tournament, and she wants to go to one sometime. Professor McGonagall thought it was a good idea, too." And if you can't take that hint, Harry, then she ought to have the chance to go looking somewhere else! Ron thought.
Harry chewed his lip. "A good thing she's the youngest," he said. "Am I going to get murdered at chess by everybody in the Weasley family?"
"Yes," Ron said heartlessly. "Mum hasn't had a chance at you yet, but maybe this Christmas she will." He looked at his present from the emir, which was a book.
"That looks really old," Hermione said.
Ron flipped through the pages. It was obviously a chess book from the diagrams. "There's only one problem," he sighed. "It's in Arabic!"
"A translation spell ought to work on it," said Hermione. "It'd be easier if it were cast by someone who knows the language already, though."
"And I know someone who does," Ron said with a grimace. "Of course it has to be Snape." He wasn't quite as frightened of the Potions Master as he used to be. "I think I'll wait till after Christmas to ask him." He knew he was going to get the book translated, though. He could just imagine what McGonagall would say if he didn't take advantage of what the emir wanted to teach him just because it meant dealing with Snape.
It doesn't matter that much what he thinks of me. I'm braver than Longbottom anyway. What's important is doing what's right.
Severus Snape looked at his invitation to Malfoy Manor with distaste. He had to accept, of course. Just as he'd told Dumbledore, he couldn't take the chance that Lucius had moved up his timetable. And if another guest were there, he would have the opportunity to claim that Karkaroff had attacked him out of private spite, and not on orders. That would allow Voldemort, if he wished, to pretend he'd known nothing about it. A few remarks about the tournament would also be in order, if only to establish that Lucius was acting from wounded vanity, and not from concern for the movement.
He tossed it down on his desk for now. Happy Christmas indeed with that in his future! Then he looked with more enthusiasm at the other packages in his office. Dumbledore had sent something, of course, He'd open that at Christmas morning at the staff get-together. But there were two somewhat larger packages wrapped in thick brown paper, along with a large envelope. There was also a scroll wrapped in red and gold ribbon that had been left in his box, along with a cryptic note from Draco assuring him that Weasley had taken the bait about the infirmary job.
Snape looked at the scroll first. He recognized Weasley's handwriting, even though Gorgio's Dicta-Quill Service had neatened it considerably. He would bet several Galleons that Miss Granger had thought of taking Mr. Weasley there. Well, he thought, at least I'll be able to read it. Ron Weasley's papers were often an exercise in cryptography.
He scanned through it quickly. It was interesting to see the game that he had won against Malfoy through the boy's eyes. Weasley had pointed out several flaws in both sides of the game, and alternate lines of play to go with them. Come to think of it, Lucius often does let his queen sit till it's almost too late. And I nearly let myself get boxed it at the first. What he found truly interesting was a comparison of his own queen maneuvering to that of Quirrell in some games played about ten years ago. The Squirrel-oh, what a nickname! He wished he'd thought of it himself!-had been an excellent player. For Weasley to see the similarities in the game he'd played with Lucius and then research them to find out if they were correct showed some good work. Some of the observations were quite naﶥ, but then the boy was young. It would be interesting to see a similar study on the second game between Mr. Weasley and Smerdlov.
Well, it wasn't as if he had that much to do between now and New Year's Eve. Hogwarts would be almost deserted except for a few students like Potter who were better off here, though the Boy-Who-Made-Life-Severely-Annoying would be the Weasleys' problem this Christmas. Snape doubted either the youngest Weasley boy or Smerdlov had actually understood what they had done in their game, and it couldn't hurt for either one to learn.
Then he opened the thick envelope. Snape actually smiled to see the emir's handwriting, only to remind himself that it wasn't likely to be the kind of letter he had subconsciously hoped for all these years. It had been a while since he'd read much Arabic, but it quickly came back.
My dear Severus, it began. I shall skip the usual inquiries into your health, though I am glad you returned to Hogwarts safely. Strange men came to the third floor late the last afternoon of the tournament, or so Rafi said, and were apparently disappointed to find no one there. Perhaps it was just as well you left earlier, if only for the boy's sake.
It pains me that I failed you so badly. I must apologize for my sorry lack of hospitality. I have heard rumors since the tournament that evil men gathered to destroy one they felt was a traitor to them, and that he was nearly killed. Rafi finally confessed all to me, and so I know who that man is.
Yet it should not have mattered. Were you Voldemort himself, you were still my pupil at one time. I forgot that. I grudgingly accepted your student as my own, and thought myself virtuous to do that little. Now I must face my own lack of honor. I hope these gifts make up in some small way for that.
I must admit, I was quite surprised to find out that the boy is a close friend of the famous Harry Potter and the young lady who is said to accompany them. Naturally, I would not expect Weasley to say much about the girl in regard to her modesty; but he also did not boast of his friendship or even mention the Potter boy. But then, I suspect you teach discretion as well as Potions.
Snape sat upright when he read that paragraph. This was the last ting he'd expected to hear about Mr. Weasley. He'd always thought the boy had no brake between his brain and his mouth, especially after that astounding little question he'd been asked in the carriage on the way back from Malfoy Manor. Once more I've underestimated him, he thought wryly. He continued reading the letter.
I know discretion, too. When the committee argued over your placement in the tournament, I sat back and glared disapprovingly at anyone who wished to discount the forfeited games. After all, everyone knows what I think of Death-Eaters. However, Lord Malfoy is not as popular as he might like, and there was a great deal of sentiment in favor of anyone who beat him. Thus a compromise was reached, or why you placed fifth instead of any higher. But you will be invited in your own right to the next tournament. And there are lesser tournaments before then that may ask for your presence. I look forward to seeing you at them.
The gifts require some explanation. We were not able to play at the tournament. That is my fault; I could have arranged for a private game, but did not. You behaved properly at all times and did not push yourself forward after I had shown you my disapproval. And given Malfoy's unpleasant behavior once you were gone, it was as well you left when you did.
You will recognize the second gift. It means more than you think. One of my palaces is set in a region out of time. One can spend an entire year there, and only a month will have passed in the real world. The life of a teacher is ruled by the clock and the calendar, so I thought perhaps the gift of additional time might be welcome. I do not go there myself now, of course; I am so old that I cling to each moment. I have visited there in the past, though, and still long for its beauty. But you are so young that it could do little harm. The djinn in charge of the place would be most happy to serve you as my guest. Use the bottle to summon Rafi, and he will gladly take you there. He will also let you know when you must return to the outer world. There are all sorts of books there, as well as a laboratory that has not been used in decades. I would be delighted to have you there, even if I could visit you for only a little while.
Snape unwrapped the other two packages. The first was a box containing a beautiful chess set, a twin to the one that al-Hadoud always used. He pulled them out and set the pieces up. When the last one was in place, the white queen's pawn moved forward two places on its own.
Severus almost laughed. Well, this certainly beat the slowness of playing by owl! The other gift was a bottle, as the letter had said. He took the stopper out, looked down into it, and said, "Rafi?"
The djinn materialized and said, "Young sir! The master will be happy to know you have gotten his gifts safely. I shall return and tell him."
"And offer him my most sincere thanks," Snape said in Arabic. "I will be forever grateful." Oh, what would it be like to be out of time for a little while!
"I will convey your greetings," Rafi said, and disappeared.
Snape finished the letter.
No doubt it will be safer for both of us for any future messages to be sent by Rafi. Yet I wanted to tell you how I sorrow that I was so blind. Let us hope that the eyes of your enemies remain so, but I fear that may no longer be the case. If there is no place else safe for you, take the refuge that I have offered. No afrit can enter my domain, not even one as foul as Voldemort.
I know you have responsibilities to those in your case. Dumbledore has told me little, but it was enough. Have care for yourself as well. Do not risk more than you must. I hope there are those at your school that you can trust. If what I believe is true, your path is darker than any I dare to walk. Take what light you are offered, and do not refuse it.
Know that you have friends, even though you may think you put them in danger by acknowledging them. Give them a chance to acquire virtue as well. If you feel you must destroy this letter for safety's sake, yet commit the words and my love to your memory. Fare you well. May we see each other again when the darkness is gone at last.
The emir had signed the letter with all his names and titles. Snape knew he ought to dispose of the letter as al-Hadoud had mentioned, but he couldn't. Instead, he opened a drawer in his desk with a spell in it. He laid the letter in it, and the paper was absorbed by the wood till the drawer looked empty. Only he could call it back by pressing his hand on the bottom of the drawer. Then he placed Weasley's scroll inside, and muttered a charm so it wouldn't follow the letter. That way no one would wonder what might be inside an empty drawer, and would think they had found everything.
Snape sat and looked at the chessboard for a few moments, overwhelmed by the gifts he'd been given. Time. To have weeks of time that need not be accounted for to anyone...weeks of time when he need not fear being summoned, or to follow the daily grind of the school day no matter what...oh, that was a gift beyond measure. He rubbed his left shoulder. Madam Pomfrey had had to re-open the knife wound in order to clean it properly, and then had charmed it closed again, but it still ached for now, and probably would for a while. Without Weasley's presence, he might have died of it.
He'd almost forgotten what it was like to be fully rested. He had a double life, but only the same number of hours as before. Maybe, just maybe, with the emir's gift he'd get to find out what it felt like to have some time for himself.
Then he heard a strange thumping against the door to his office. Snape got up and opened it after quickly hiding the bottle, only to find a very confused owl. What is the Weasley family owl doing here? he wondered. Errol was a familiar sight in the Hogwarts dining room.
Errol dropped a note and a package, then flew into the wall. Snape led the idiot ball of fluff out into the hallway, up one floor, and out a window. The stupid owl would have gotten lost in the place for a day or two otherwise.
Snape opened the note. Dear Professor Snape-our Ron told us what happened at the tournament. We've warned him against gambling before. Ah. That would explain the Howler Mr. Weasley had gotten about a week or so ago. Both of us thank you for caring not only for his safety, but for his honor. Arthur is particularly delighted that you gave Malfoy what he deserved at the chess table, and wouldn't mind playing you himself sometime.
Ron is forever telling us how cold it is in those dungeons of yours. We hope this will help.
Sincerely, Molly Weasley
Snape had a horrible feeling about what was inside the soft package. His fears were confirmed when he pulled out a large black sweater. Astoundingly enough, it looked like it would fit. Normally he had to get his sleeves tailored, since his arms were so long. He felt the texture. The yarn was unusually silky, and his hand sank down into it. As he looked at it closely, he noticed it wasn't completely black. The strands had flecks of green and silver in them. Fortunately Mrs. Weasley had had the good taste not to put a huge "S" on it.
He put a quick spell on it, and was surprised to find that it had been completely hand-knitted, instead of on self-moving needles. A woman like Molly Weasley had very little time to herself, but apparently had spent a great deal of it on him. The only magic in the sweater was a minor warming spell.
Well, the Weasley boy was right. It was always cool down here. Many potions ingredients reacted badly to heat, and it was a tricky balancing act some days to put just enough warmth in the air to keep him from getting chilled.
He supposed it couldn't hurt to try to the sweater on. Just to make sure it fit right. And it would be far too rude to return it.
It was comfortable.
Severus Snape allowed himself to sit back for a few moments and enjoy the warmth, both of the sweater and of knowing he was not completely alone. It couldn't last, of course; he rubbed his left forearm absent-mindedly when thinking of Malfoy's invitation, sitting like the Bad Fairy on his desk. But moments like these were all the more precious for their rarity. The least he could do was to appreciate them.
The End -- For Now
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