Chapter Six: Appreciated Returns
This time, the Dark Mark takes Severus to a gloomy, old mansion. The Death Eater on guard duty at the entrance nods at him coolly.
"The Master is in the drawing room. I wouldn't make him wait any longer if I were you," he sneers and lets him pass.
As he follows the dark corridors to the drawing room, the Potions Master curses soundlessly. Usually, the Dark Lord talks to his followers in the hall; the smaller rooms are reserved for one on one meetings, and that his master is waiting for him in the drawing room in particular is either a quite good sign or a rather bad one. His anxiousness won't help him with this, though, on the contrary it could only make things worse, so he uses his Occlumency skills and empties his mind of all emotions. When he arrives in front of the room, the novice at the door gives him an unreadable glance, but before he can say anything, the high, cold voice of the Dark Lord sounds.
"Come in, Severus."
He nods at the novice, and the young man opens the door for him.
Gliding effortlessly through the familiar steps of Death Eater protocol, Severus strides through the length of the room with averted eyes, sinks down next to Voldemort and kisses the hem of his robes. Then he backs up again and waits on his knees for his master to speak first, eyes still cast down.
"I missed you at our last meeting, Severus," the tall, black-clad wizard says softly.
Voldemort soft-spoken is never a good sign.
"I was late, My Lord. As usual."
Waiting for the seemingly inevitable Crucio, the Potions Master tries to relax as he knows it helps with the pain.
Then a low chuckle.
'Do not look up, let not show anything on your face,' he thinks.
"You know, Severus, it is always refreshing to deal with you. You never snivel or grovel in a futile attempt to ease your punishment. I appreciate that."
Footsteps sound, and he can hear the rustling of heavy robes as the Dark Lord draws nearer until he is standing directly in front of him. "Look up, Severus. Look at your Master."
Obediently, he lifts his gaze.
The Dark Lord is standing a few feet away, tall and thin as ever, the snake-like face gaunt and white, the scarlet eyes glittering. "Tell me, Severus, what did you find when you arrived at the Department of Mysteries?"
Grimacing inwardly, Severus concentrates on showing his master the informations he is intended to see. Voldemort calling him by his name so often is an even worse sign than Voldemort soft-spoken.
"The Chamber of Death was a burned mess, absolutely devastated. I found four corpses, three burned beyond recognition, but since there was an axe next to one of them I guess Macnair was among them. Rookwood had managed to hide behind the Archway, but he was so gravely injured that I could not help him. He is dead as well. And then there was one more thing." He pauses briefly.
"In an unmarred circle lay a dragon, severely wounded. It died before I could do anything. Then I heard the Aurors arrive and left for Hogwarts. That was all, Master."
While he is talking, he can feel the other wizard probing his mind, scanning his thoughts for clues if he tells the full truth.
Scarlet eyes burn into onyx.
"Does Dumbledore know about what happened?" the Dark Lord whispers.
Severus swallows. "Yes, My Lord. He has various spies in the Ministry."
"The dragon... did they find out anything about the dragon?"
Thinking quickly, his thoughts rushing faster than a Snitch, he nods. "Not the Ministry, My Lord, but Dumbledore. Although he knows nothing for sure, the old coot suspects that it was the result of a very ancient conjuring spell. He is still researching the matter, and even went so far as to visit one of the Romanian dragon colonies to gather further knowledge."
Another uncomfortable pause.
"And how exactly does he think his 'glorious' Gryffindors had learned this 'very ancient conjuring spell'?" the Dark Lord hisses.
"Dumbledore suspects that the Potter brat's mutt of a godfather had access to the Black library and provided him with books on ancient magic."
Again, nothing is said for a while.
"So the Boy-Who-Refuses-To-Die has eventually found out that there is more to magic than Tarantallegra and Impedimenta... and it helped him to escape yet another attack that should have killed him," Voldemort ponders softly, turning away from his minion to the silver flames that are dancing in the fireplace.
"He may be gone now, but until I see his dead body with my own eyes, I have no proof of his death... and I do not intend to repeat the mistake of underestimating him another time. Oh no, when Potter and I meet again, it will be for the last battle between us... but till then it must be ascertained that the way back for him and his little friends remains hidden and closed until the time is right," he mutters.
Severus allows a slight frown to grace his features. "My Lord?" Respectful. Mildly interested.
The Dark Lord gazes back at him sharply. "I expect you to keep me informed on Dumbledore's findings concerning the dragon. In addition, I want you to do your own research about the spell, discreetly as always. Send me your reports in the usual way."
His scarlet eyes return to the flickering silver flames. "You may go now, Severus."
"Yes, Master. I will do as you wish." Rising to his feet, the Potions Master bows low, and backs out of the room. One do not turn one's back on Lord Voldemort.
As he leaves the mansion, a dizzying feeling of relief floods him. He has just made it out unscathed for the first time in three months! 'It seems that the incident in the Department of Mysteries had a greater impact on him than I thought.'
Shaking his head in wonder, he leaves the anti-apparition wards and apparates back to Hogwarts. 'That certainly went better than I dared to hope.'
The sun has not set yet when he arrives at the gates, and it is a beautiful, warm summer evening. Dinner time is about an hour past and in a fleeting thought, he wonders if the little dragon would have accepted food from Poppy or Minerva, before mentally smacking himself upside the head.
'Why should I bother? He will eat when he is hungry enough,' he thinks. But a distant doubt stirs in the depths of his mind. 'And what if not?'
Growling, he quickly squashes the thought, and lengthens his strides. As he crosses the grounds on his way to the castle, he can see from a wide distance the large windows of the hospital wing, and he can't shake the feeling of someone's gaze on him. And although he knows that he is still too far away to make out any details, he looks up. For a long moment, he thinks he can actually distinguish the shape of a small, winged figure at the third window from the left, and green eyes meet his black, but then it is gone.
'I must have imagined it. It is impossible to see anything so clearly from this distance.' He shrugs. 'Must have been the nerves. It has been a long day.'
The giant squid turns lazily when he passes the lake, and ripples disturb the smooth, sapphire surface of the water, blurring the reflections of the clouds in the sky above. Birds are singing merrily in the trees, the air carries the scent of grass and flowers, and Hagrid yells a jolly greeting from over by his hut, which Severus returns with a nod.
Yes, it is a beautiful day, and for the first time in many months he is in the right set of mind to see it.
After having made a short stop in the dungeons to change from his Death Eater attire into his customary school robes, the dark-haired Slytherin finally heads for the hospital wing. He climbs the many stairs stoically, replaying the meeting with the Dark Lord in his mind while he is walking.
Voldemort had seemed strange, well, more so than usual. Oh, he had been angry, there was no doubt about that, but there had been something else... a touch of uncertainty in the otherwise so emotionless and self-confident man. And the flicker in his eyes when he had asked about the dragon... as if he was afraid. Severus has known the Dark Lord for many years, since his late teens in fact, and is by now one of the few people that are able to look behind the atrocious mask of hatred and power that he is constantly wearing. Unbeknownst to most of his fellow Death Eaters, Voldemort has something of a soft spot for him due to his family ...background, and although the sadistic bastard knows to hide it well, Severus is aware of it nonetheless. He wouldn't have survived his absence on that first meeting in the graveyard if it were different, like Karkaroff, the weak-hearted fool who had served as an remainder of how the Dark Lord dealt with traitors at the following assembly. Now that had been a long night, and it still haunts his dreams sometimes.
He shivers, but only inwardly. After all, he isn't a spy for nothing, and a good one at that since he has managed to stay alive this long. Having plenty of experience in keeping a tight control over his face and body, he is more than adept at showing others exactly what he wants them to see. The last time he allowed his true feelings to take over had been three years ago in the Shrieking Shack Incident with Black. Hadn't done him much good, that, though. And possibly when Potter had violated his Pensieve last year. But even that had rather served to maintain his distance and prevent the dratted boy from actually pitying him, fuelling the Gryffindor's hatred for him instead. At least that had worked.
His arrival at the Infirmary shakes him out of his thoughts. Keeping his expression emotionless, he makes his way to the private room where Aenëus and Minerva are waiting for his return. Before he has the chance to raise his hand and knock, however, Poppy's voice rings from behind the door.
"Just come in already, will you, Severus?! Your little friend is waiting for you."
Putting on his customary scowl and preparing for the worst, namely an overly affectionate greeting, he opens the door and enters the sunlight-flooded room. His first glance falls on the small dragon that is sitting halfway between the bed and the entrance, his copper wings half-spread so that the velvety golden underside is visible, his rust-red body stiff and tense, his bright green eyes raking over the tall Slytherin as if to ensure that he is unharmed, before his eyes finally settle on the other's onyx orbs. Relief shines in the emerald depths, a shy joy and a scared happiness, and the slender frame starts to tremble slightly as uncertainty flickers across his gaze; the longing for bodily contact, but at the same time the fear of being hurt or rejected should he try to come nearer.
A bit overwhelmed by the so painfully familiar emotions in Aenëus' eyes, Severus drops on one knee and sorts the dilemma for him by spreading his arms in an open invitation. The dragon mewls questioningly, and makes a timid move towards him. The Slytherin rolls his eyes.
"And here I thought you might have the decency to come over and help me to get warm again after I went out there and risked my neck for you, ungrateful little whelp. Merlin only knows why it is freezing in the dungeons even at this time of the year," he growls.
Aenëus tilts his head to one side as if to ponder his words, then chirps happily and bustles over to the black-clad wizard, putting his front paws on the man's chest and enfolding him in his large wings. The Potions Master can feel the fast beating of the other's heart in the warm, still trembling body pressed against his front, and hears the dragon twittering softly into the crook of his neck. The feeling of rightness, of belonging is back, and it soothes a part of him that he hadn't even noticed was distressed. Slipping one arm under his little companion's lower body while supporting his upper half with a hand on the bronze back, he picks Aenëus up and straightens, still faintly amazed that a creature that size could be so light.
As he lets his gaze wander around the room, he notes the other occupants. Poppy is standing next to the table beneath the large windows, a friendly smile on her lips, while Minerva is sitting on one of the chairs, her face clearly expressing her relief upon his safe return and another chair is occupied by...
"Albus?" the Head of Slytherin exclaims. "What are you doing here? I thought you wanted to stay in Romania until tomorrow."
The silver-haired wizard smiles warmly and nods. "That is correct, my young friend. Alas, when Minerva called me, telling me you had been summoned, I decided to head back early, knowing I could always return in the morning should I so desire. And looking at your little friend, I am glad that I arrived here in time, for even though my company may not have provided him much comfort, I think Fawkes' could help ease his anxiousness somewhat."
Severus' eyes snap to the back of the Headmaster's chair, and sure enough the magnificent phoenix is sitting there, preening his crimson wing feathers.
"Aenëus spent the whole time waiting at the window, stiff as a statue in the beginning. After about an hour, he started first trembling, then shaking. It was rather bad, but he would let neither Poppy nor me near him, so we were unable to do anything. Fortunately, Albus came, and Fawkes' singing finally managed to calm him down a bit. He only relaxed when he saw you walking up to the school from the gates, though how he knew it was you when you were still no more than a dark spot in the distance is beyond me," Minerva tells him calmly.
Poppy shrugs next to her. "Probably the same way he sensed that Severus was already up here. He jumped down from the window-sill and settled on the floor, staring a hole into the door just before you arrived. I think he knew even before Albus did."
The Slytherin guards his expression closely, but he knows that the older wizard will guess what unsettled him. The time in which Aenëus had been so upset is almost exactly the space of time that he spent in the company of the Dark Lord, with approximately one hour before and one after. His arms tighten slightly around the sleek body of his companion and the dragon folds his wings back at his sides.
'How much do you know? What did you remember?' he wonders briefly.
Aloud he says: "Now I am more intrigued than ever to hear what you learned about what kind of dragon he may be, Albus. From your words, I take it that Aenëus showed no inclination of accepting any food?" Seeing their confirming nods, he continues: "Well, then I suggest we have some dinner while I give you my report of the meeting, and afterwards the Headmaster can tell us what he learned in Romania."
"That is a fine idea, Severus," Albus agrees, twinkling merrily, "But I must insist that you wait with your report until all of us have finished our meal. Wizards in my age have their difficulties with concentrating on more than one thing at the same time, you know?"
The Potions Master snorts in mild amusement, 'Difficulties concentrating, my arse...', but moves over to the others nevertheless.
He swiftly discards the absurd notion of keeping the dragon on his lap, and sets him down on the window-sill next to the table. Aenëus chirps a faint protest, and Severus can't help the annoying feeling of loss which he knows is purely irrational. The room is thoroughly warmed by the sunlight and its cosy temperature alone would have sufficed to chase the chill of the dungeons out of his bones, despite what he had told his little companion earlier.
Taking a seat next to the dragon seems to satisfy the other's need for proximity however, and after Albus has clapped his hands and summoned dinner for them, they eat in silence for a while, only broken by the occasional comment about Aenëus' cute table manners and healthy appetite. This time, the little dragon doesn't ask for a second helping when he has emptied his bowl, and starts to clean his paws and face instead.
"He behaves like a cat," Minerva notes with approval.
Her old mentor regards the copper and golden creature thoughtfully.
"That he does. Well, I suppose it fits with the information I gained today. But I think we should first listen to what Severus has to say, before I can tell you more."
The Slytherin nods and launches into a detailed account of his meeting with the Dark Lord.
When he has finished talking, Albus and Minerva are looking thoughtful, while Poppy frowns in confusion.
"But why did you make up that story about an ancient conjuring spell?" she asks puzzled.
He scowls, but it is the Headmaster that answers in his stead.
"Severus set him on a false trail to keep him from coming too close to the truth, which is that Harry is not only very much alive, but still among us. Very well done, my dear boy. True enough to keep him occupied, but too far off to need to fear him discovering what really happened. I doubt I could have done it better myself."
Again, the Potions Master nods, and adds: "Knowing ...the boy, we cannot keep him hidden forever. As soon as he has recovered and becomes more comfortable with his environment, he is prone to follow his desire to explore, and I sincerely doubt he will content himself with the castle. With the story I fed the Dark Lord, should Aenëus be seen by ill-disposed eyes, I can tell him that we have found a similar spell and are testing its limits."
The Head of Gryffindor shoots him a respectful, tight-lipped smile.
"It is a pleasure to see the famous Slytherin cunning at work for the good cause," is all she says, and from the stern Transfiguration teacher, this is high praise indeed.
"I can only agree with that," Albus sides with his colleague, and flashes Severus a proud smile. "Alas, I think it is time to rely what little information I was able to gather. I will make it short: There is no dragon type in existence that fits our young friend's description."
He looks gravely into the round.
"And that is exactly why I wanted to stay. The Dragon Keepers have access to an excessive library which I hope may provide further clues as to what kind of dragon specifically it is that Harry has turned into. Mr Weasley thinks it might be a race that is believed extinct, and could therefore be mentioned in the ancient tomes that are stored in Bucharest. In connection with what Minerva told me, I think it will be best if we pay them another visit tomorrow and see what we can find."
The Slytherin cocks an elegant eyebrow. "We?"
"Oh, I apologize for my vagueness. I meant Minerva and I, of course." The old wizard twinkles benignly at his younger colleague. "I need you to stay with Aenëus, to watch over his recovery and help him to settle in. I doubt you would like to leave him alone in your chambers at this point anyway."
Black eyes narrow dangerously and start to glitter. "I beg your pardon, Albus? Did I just hear you mention this dragon and my chambers in the same sentence?" Severus snarls.
"I think you heard him quite well," Minerva cuts in with a warning glance. "Aenëus must remember that he is Harry Potter as soon as possible, and staying here in the Hospital Wing is not going to help him. He needs to see things and places he knew before the change, but slowly, step by step. As we consider staying in Gryffindor Tower an unnecessary burden to ask of you, we think it will be best if he moves into the dungeons with you. This way he will have a neutral place to retreat to when things get too much for him, and you have the sanctuary of your rooms."
The tall Slytherin grimaces. 'Neutral place? Who do they think they are kidding?'
"Don't pull such a face, Severus," Poppy chides him. "Judging from what I have seen so far, I am fairly certain you two are going to get along quite well, once you got used to each other. For now, I think you should stay here one more night, to see how he reacts to the stress of the afternoon. But after breakfast, I will have another look at him, and if his condition this morning was any indication, he should do more than nicely, and you will be able to leave tomorrow."
"Splendid," he presses through clenched teeth.
The silver-haired wizard raises his white brows at him. "No arguing, Severus? How unusual. Is this a new tactic?"
The Potions Master sneers. "It seems I am outvoted anyway, so I might as well spare myself the effort."
Planning to cross his arms in front of his chest to emphasize his point, Severus is shocked to find that one of his rebellious hands has once again found its way to his little companion, and is currently stroking the dragon's head. It is resting on his shoulder, with the rest of Aenëus' body still lying next to his chair on the window-sill.
"I see," Albus replies, smirking into his beard. "Nice name you chose for him, by the way. I really like it."
The younger wizard groans inwardly. So much to his supreme body control. 'Did that annoying twinkle just get brighter? Oh, one of these days Albus will get his, and I hope I will be there to enjoy it!'
Two hours later, the Slytherin and the transformed Gryffindor are alone in the room, both lying comfortably on the large bed. A light breeze stirs the curtains and carries with it the scent of night-blooming jasmine and the song of a nightingale. The air is soft and warm and like a caress on the skin, and the light of a half-moon together with Severus' lit wand cast the room into shadows of different shades of grey, silver and blue.
Albus, Minerva and Poppy had left shortly after he agreed to allow Aenëus into his dungeons, staying just long enough to go through their plans for the next few days a last time. Albus and Minerva would go to Bucharest tomorrow, and search the library for any mentioning of shapeshifters who could change into dragons, or a dragon race that resembles the one Harry had turned into. Poppy would give Aenëus a final check-up after breakfast, then spend whatever time she could spare researching ways to help Aenëus overcome his memory block and relay them to Severus. The Potions Master finally would look after his charge, help him to settle in and keep him occupied, while doing his own research in the library. Thank Merlin that Madam Pince was currently on holiday in Germany visiting old and illustrious libraries; she would get a heart attack if she ever saw a dragon amidst her precious books!
Severus chuckles inwardly at the thought.
The tall, dark-haired wizard is unusually relaxed this evening, calmly reading his potions book and lazily stroking his scaled companion. The little dragon, however, seems unable to calm down completely and is still fidgeting around even after another hour has passed. Eventually, the Slytherin lowers his book and frowns at Aenëus, but only receives a soft whine and a whimper in return. Heaving a deep sigh, he decides that he would have to do something if he wants to sleep this night, so he raises his potions book again and starts to read out loud.
For the first couple of minutes, the small dragon just listens to him in rapt fascination, head cocked to one side, emerald eyes shining brightly, but finally, he snuggles into the wizard's side and lays his head on his chest. Severus can observe the other's breathing gradually evening out within the next few minutes, and a short while later, he puts his book on the bedside table and extinguishes the light with a whispered "Nox".
'I better follow his example and take all the rest I can get. I have the feeling I am going to need it tomorrow...'
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