Chapter Forty-Eight: Isabis the Triple-Crosser
It was always cold and dark up on the Astronomy Tower at night. Well known for its various uses, the Astronomy Tower was somewhere to sit and think, somewhere to do homework if the common room was full, and notoriously somewhere that young couples went to get away from anybody else. But after ten o' clock, the curfew came into place, and any students caught there would be in serious trouble. This was possibly the reason why Peter came here so often. Whenever it got too messy in his nest, he'd just move out for a few days, Jinx would no doubt tidy it up, then he could move back in and mess it up once more. He could also come here to smoke, which she still disapproved of. She was more and more like his mother everyday, despite barely being over five feet tall.
He sat one dark night on the battlements, his legs dangling idly over the side of the castle. There was something he loved about having his ankles just hanging over the stone walls and swinging in the breeze. Every few moments, he would expel a mouthful of thick grey smoke and watch it float away into the blanket of the sky. In truth, he despised smoking. It was just impossible to survive without it. The last breath his lungs had inhaled was full of smoke, and he'd tried the wizard substitute for cigarettes, but it just wasn't enough. He had to steal most of his cigarettes from muggle towns nearby, which was quite a journey, and once, he'd been spotted by an old man walking his dog. He'd only got away after he dumped a barrelful of whiskey on the unfortunate man, so when he burst into the local police station screaming about a ghosting stealing cigarettes from off-licence, nobody believed him. Cruel, but necessary.
Idly, he took one last drag from his cigarette and then flicked it away. It sailed away down the side of the castle, until it was invisible completely. He pondered reaching for another from his pocket, but at that moment, he heard somebody coming up the stairs to the Astronomy Tower. He quickly shuddered out of the visible spectrum, as the door opened, and to Peter's great surprise, Harry came wandering out into the night air. He was dressed in just his pajamas and slippers, his hair even more tousled than normally.
Peter watched his magical charge carefully look around for anybody else, then step out into the moonlight and the cold. He must be freezing, in just thin pajamas. For a moment, Peter considered flickering back into visibility to get him back to bed, before he realised that there were a few tears in Harry's eyes.
Too stunned to do anything, he just watched his charge cross the tower carefully, and sit on one of the stone blocks making up the wall. The Astronomy Tower was one of the few undamaged by the war. Maybe, Peter realised, this was why Harry had come here. He then noticed something his charge was holding, and leaning closer, he recognised it as a letter, stamped with the crescent of St Mungo's Hospital.
Harry sat cross-legged on the smooth stone block and held out the letter, reading through it. Peter carefully leant over his shoulder to read it too. He was never good with reading, and so ended up skimming it. Kainda Zabini... unfortunately... very slim chance of recovery... critical situation for past few weeks... powerful poison... our best and most trained physicians... working on the situation... but hopes are slim... our deepest sympathies, St Mungo's Hospital For Magical Maladies And Injuries.
Harry had finish reading the letter. Silently, a few more tears were welling on his face. Peter longed to give him a hug and comfort him, but maybe Harry needed to be alone for once. It was probably one of those situations where the young Gryffindor was too far gone for help or comfort, and the only remedy was loneliness and thoughts. Peter had only heard about this from other people... he'd always had somebody to talk to when he was growing up. Of course, Harry was an only child though, and had no parents or family close to him to speak of.
Peter wasn't quite sure how long he'd been there watching Harry. It could easily have been an hour, or maybe more, when Harry dried off his tears, took a few long breaths, and his thinking time drew to an end. He then rolled up his letter and left the Astronomy Tower, heading back down the staircase, quiet as a shadow.
Peter flicked back into visibility, watching the door swing close after his charge. For a moment, he wondered whether he should go after him to try and offer some sort of comfort, until he realised that he wasn't alone on the tower after all. His eyes had fallen on the dark, tall shape behind one of the pillars. After a moment of just staring, he recognised who it was, and gave a sigh, turning away and shaking another cigarette out of the packet in his pocket.
"Spying's rude, you know," he said.
"Indeed. Consider that next time."
He searched his pocket for his muggle lighter, flicked it, and lit the end of his cigarette idly whilst replying. "It's not like I'm the only guilty party on this tower though, huh, Snape?" Snape did not reply from his shadowy hide-out behind the pillar. Peter had to admit, he'd hidden himself very well. As he slid the lighter back into his pocket, the ghost asked, "So. How come you were following him?"
There was silence for a moment, then in a brusque tone, Snape's shadow said, "I had nothing better to do in my quarters, and when I realised he was troubled, I decided there was nothing to be lost by following him for a while."
"So you were bored."
"I never said anything of the sort. Oh... Peelish... I forgot to mention. Your defences failed."
Peter twitched a little. "Oh?"
"Yes. Though I'm sure you've been berated enough for the obvious things... so I'll concentrate on one I noticed. The Dark Lord apparated into the grounds. I thought the castle was defended against those things."
Peter's eyes narrowed. "He was travelling through the fire. The Heliopaths can do it, and they must have done some charm or something to give him the ability... he used the dragon's fire to get into the school, then cast a fire charm to get out again. Lupin sorted it out this morning though, they've set up a barrier against fire-transport. Only the floo network works now, and any suspicious looking travel can be banned."
Peter ignored Snape after that, lifting the noxious cigarette to his lips and wrinkling his nose against that first inhale of smoke. Snape, in Peter's eyes, had no right to tell him how to do his job. He took a puff of smoke and choked slightly. It was horrible really. And to think, hundreds of muggles everyday smoked hundreds of cigarettes, knowing that eventually it would kill them, and they were biologically able to quit, but they didn't. Peter blew out, and watched the smoke for a moment, then said, idly, "How's he feeling now? After all, you got the biggest part of the emotional duty."
"Emotional duty?" Snape snorted. "There were complications with the bond. Obviously, you are dead. A ghost. And for half of your time, a vile poltergeist who is unfit to even breathe, let alone look after a child. The bond clearly decided I was a more suitable candidate to deal with Potter's emotions."
"I bet it was a tough decision though," Peter chuckled. "Anyway... how is he feeling?"
Snape paused for a moment, evidently thinking, and then replied, "A great deal calmer. Still worried, yes, but calmer. Potter is a typical teenager, bottling any emotions of pain or hurt, then expressing them when alone. Or at an inappropriate time."
"You were young once though, Snape," said Peter, sagely. "Don't act as though you didn't think like that once. I bet you were the sort who did something really nerdy to express emotion... like... making a really hard potion. That, or you were one of the scary ones who burnt stuff and screamed, sloshing fake blood around. Scaring local children and so forth. Of course, you still scare local children."
"Such a shame the fire killed you," Snape drawled, coldly. "If it hadn't, I could have at least had the satisfaction of doing so myself."
"Why, oh why, did Dumbledore decide you were a decent person and a respectable guardian for Harry?" said Peter, glancing at Snape over his shoulder. "He suggested it as a joke, right? And you accepted, but he didn't want to disappoint you, so just let you do it. He then thought he'd better get in somebody to be Harry's "proper" guardian, and came to me. That's it, isn't it?"
Snape was silent. Peter chuckled. The greatest sign that Snape was truly annoyed was when he said nothing, and didn't have something angry to say. The ghost sat back, gazing up at the sky above, that endless expanse of navy blue velvet and diamond stars dotted here and there, completely unspoiled by muggle technology yet. Snape came out from behind the pillar and moved to stand next to him, still silent, until a few moments had passed and the Potions master spoke.
"I wish to... converse with you. About Potter."
"Talk to me, Snape, you wish to talk to me. I can't even spell converse, let alone do it."
"He seems troubled," said Snape, ignoring Peter's quip. "In a way I cannot identify with. I wish you to talk to him and offer him advice. Many seem to view Dumbledore's speech as being a source of inspiration and soothing to the students, but I think it merely prolonged the shock of everything which happened. Potter is not the sort of boy to be satisfied with just a speech."
"Hey, hey, you talk to him." Peter looked up at Snape over one shoulder, flicking some ash away down the side of the castle. "He's your charge too. You can't just cop out of it, you know."
Snape frowned. "I think that Potter would probably prefer to receive advice from you, rather than - "
"No no no, Sev." Peter turned on the wall to face him, looking seriously up at him from under a mess of dark hair. "You don't understand anything about teenagers, do you? Here's the deal... no matter how much trouble a teenager is in, they will only ever properly accept advice they go looking for. If he asks for help, give him it, and he'll go to the one of us that he thinks is most likely to give him the best. If he goes to you, you advise him, and you do it good. If not, then leave him to it. This is his grieving time. Soon, he'll be feeling better. Give him a few days. If he wants help, he'll ask. Clear?"
Snape's eyes narrowed slightly. "Peelish, don't pretend you are a psychologist. It does not suit you."
"Did I ever say I had to be a psychologist?" said Peter, raising his eyebrows. "I'm thinking about what's best for Harry. He's growing up, Snape. You look at him one day, just look at him, and you'll see that next year, he's leaving school, to get a job and start a family and be an adult. He'll want to make his own decisions and start handling problems on his own."
Snape looked irritated for a moment, then gave the merest hint of a nod, folding his bony arms across his chest. "Mm. Very well, Peelish... keep an eye on him though. He may be an adult, but he will always require - "
At that moment, there was a sort hoot from nearby, and next second an owl came flapping around the corner, a note clamped tight in its beak. Snape stretched out his arm, and the owl landed on it gracefully, handing over the letter. Snape took it and read with a raised eyebrow.
"What is it?" asked Peter, kneeling up to try and read it.
Snape frowned and turned the letter so that Peter couldn't see. Once he finished reading, he drew his wand and ignited the parchment. Peter choked with disbelief as the paper fluttered into a pile of ashes at his feet. "Damn, paranoid!"
"Dumbledore's orders," said Snape, simply, flicking his arm. The owl swooped off into the air with a screech. Snape turned away, opening up the door back into the main school. "Keep an eye on Potter."
And with that, the door slammed, and Snape was gone. Peter frowned and hopped down off the block, listening vaguely to a clock striking midnight somewhere, before he walked away down the staircase and melted into the shadows.
The reason for Dumbledore's call for Snape had all begun ten minutes earlier, in the entrance hall, as Harry was making his way down from the darkened tower. He had just needed a little air after getting the letter from St Mungo's. Now that he'd cleared his lungs and his thoughts, he was ready to start looking up to life again, and at least try to let his life settle back into a normal rhythm. It was time to move on now.
He was just passing the top of the marble staircase to take the corridor up to Gryffindor Tower, when he realised there were two figures standing in the entrance hall below. One was languishing near a pillar by the doors, and the other sat on the bottom of the stairs, playing with something. Harry recognised Ron's red hair with his silly white stripe, and Draco's silver-blonde mane. He toyed with his invisibility cloak for a moment, and then stepped forward, pulling it off.
Draco looked up with a startled expression, jumping slightly as somebody materialised out of thin air. Ron whirled around, still holding whatever it was he had in his palms. "Harry?" he choked.
Harry smiled, and stepped down the marble staircase. "Hiya."
"What are you doing here?" said Ron, but Draco had shot forward.
He snatched the invisibility cloak from Harry, held it up to the light of a candle and watched it faze in and out of visibility. "I knew it," he hissed. "It was you! Near the Shrieking Shack, wearing this, wasn't it? Damn you, Potter!"
Harry chuckled at the memory, taking his cloak back and draping it proudly over one shoulder. Ron was sniggering. "You don't know half of what we've done to you over the years."
"What?" said Draco, sharply, rounding on him. "Precisely how much do you think you've got past me?"
"Oh, quite a lot," said Ron, wisely. He caught Harry's eye and they both grinned.
Draco glared at them both, his eyes still fixed on the cloak. "Hm. Where did you get that, exactly? I know your parents were rich, but an invisibility cloak?"
"I don't know where my dad got it," Harry admitted, realising this for the first time.
"He was an auror, wasn't he?" said Draco. He raised an eyebrow and gave a short sigh. "I suppose he stole it from the ministry. How typically Potter-esque."
"No, he had it when he was at Hogwarts," said Harry. "I remember Lupin told me something about him and Sirius Black stealing food from the kitchens underneath it."
"Lupin?" said Draco, blankly.
"Professor Lupin," said Ron, staring at him as though he was stupid. "You know, greying hair, teaches here, turns into a werewolf once a month, wears patched robes... come now, think hard."
Draco shot him a death glare, and opened his mouth to reply, when the oddest sound filled the entrance hall. It was like a whimpering, a soft whine, and it only carried on for a few seconds before it was gone, as quickly as it had come. Ron opened his hands, and looked down. Harry realised he had Sneezy the opsittop sitting there, eating an acorn with a placid look on his face.
"Was that you?" Ron demanded.
Sneezy looked up at him innocently, and shook his head, before offering Ron the acorn.
"What have you got him here for?" asked Harry.
"Hagrid wants me to look after him," said Ron. "He's still looking after Norbert, Sly and Kibbles II. He says they need a lot of comfort now... I guess he does too. He's been handing opsittops out to his trusted students to look after. He wanted us two to take care of Sneezy."
Sneezy beamed up at Harry and nibbled on some more of his acorn, starting to sing pleasantly, before he fell silent. They all listened. There was that odd whining again, like a dog in pain, and to accompany it this time was a faint scratching. It only lasted for five seconds at most, before fading out, yet again.
Draco looked a little un-nerved. "Is it one of the ghosts?" He looked around quickly, and said, "Stay together, if it's Peeves..."
"Peeves won't hurt us," said Harry, frowning. "And I don't think it's a ghost... it's too clear... listen!"
They fell silent, and yet again, there was that whimpering. Somebody crying. Scratching at something. Then they heard a word, just one whispered word, coming from close by. "Please..."
Draco backed closer to Harry by instinct, staring at the shadows not chased away by the torchlight. "It's a ghost. There's a ghost somewhere, I can tell. We should have some new ones after the siege."
"Will you shut up and grow a spine?" Ron hissed. Sneezy nodded fervently in agreement.
Harry wasn't listening to them, but concentrating on the frantic scratching. It was growing louder now, stronger, as though whoever it was had more strength. Or was more desperate, he thought, with a sickening sort of flush. He moved tentatively towards the doors. It was getting stronger. Whatever it was would be outside. He reached out a hand for the handle, but Ron grasped him by the back of the robes and hauled him back. "What are you doing?" he hissed. "What if it's Voldemort?"
Harry gave him a disbelieving look. "I can really imagine that Ron. Lord Voldemort is lying sobbing on the front steps of Hogwarts."
"It might be," said Ron, his ears turning pink.
Harry reached out, and pulled the door open with no hesitation. As it swung into the hall, moonlight came pouring inside, and a thousand pollen particles, glittering and twinkling in the pearly shafts of light. And on the step, curled in a ball, wearing torn robes and covered in dried blood was Mundungus Fletcher.
Draco made an odd noise, like a vacuum cleaner sucking up a child's toy. Ron was drawing back. Harry moved forward and crouched down, staring at Mundungus in alarm. The scratches and wounds on his face and shoulders were not accidents. They were purposely done.
"Mundungus?" he said, uncertainly.
"'Arry?" came the croak, strangled and so full of hope and relief.
Ron held the door open wide as Harry half-helped half-dragged Mundungus into the entrance hall, supporting him under his arms. He was weak and shaking, and dragging his feet as though it hurt to walk.
"What happened?" Harry asked, urgently, stopping to let Mundungus breathe. Mundungus reeked of sweat and blood, dirt, and the unmistakable stench of cheap muggle ale.
"I... I need... to see Dumbledore, 'Arry... b-be a good lad, and just take me..." Mundungus gave a weak shudder, and closed his eyes, retching. "I reck'n Snape'll want to 'ear this as well..."
Harry looked around at Ron and Draco, seriously. "Ron, help me with Mundungus... Draco, can you go and wake up Professor Snape? Just... do it quietly."
"Are you crazy?" said Draco, raising one slim eyebrow.
"Just go!" Ron and Harry both said together.
Draco turned on his heel and hurried away down the steps to the dungeons, as Ron took Mundungus under his other arm, and he and Harry began to help him towards Dumbledore's office. Mundungus was wincing on every other step, and looking down, Harry saw blood soaking through his scruffy old trousers.
They made their way unsteadily to Dumbledore's office, and Harry paused before the gargoyle, realising he was unsure of the password. Mundungus, however, said hoarsely, "Jammy dodgers," and the gargoyle turned to life, springing aside to let them past. They pushed open the door, hobbled through with Mundungus, and made their way up the moving stone staircase.
Dumbledore was sitting in a large, winged purple armchair beside the fire. There was an incredibly thick book open on his lap, nearly as deep as it was wide, and when they staggered in, he looked up at them over the rim of his teacup. "Good evening... now, what have we here?"
Ron and Harry helped Mundungus into the room carefully, and Dumbledore put down his book, hurrying forward and drawing a chair. Mundungus collapsed down into it and Dumbledore pushed his cup into the man's hands. "Drink," he said, firmly.
"We just found him on the front steps," said Harry, looking up at the headmaster's wizened face. "Just now."
Dumbledore nodded and then turned back to Mundungus. He watched him drink the tea carefully. As Mundungus put the cup down on the desk, his eyes briefly crossed. Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. "Mundungus... you need to tell me what happened."
The door suddenly opened, and to Harry's surprise, the Bloody Baron swept into the room. A gaunt, Slytherin ghost, nobody had yet been able to work out where the blood stains all down the baron's front came from. Even more surprisingly, the Bloody Baron was dragging Draco along by the throat. Draco was struggling to get out.
"I found him trying to break into Severus Snape's office," said the baron, in a hoarse whisper. "I deemed it best to bring him here."
"Let go of me!" Draco choked, thrashing around.
Dumbledore frowned mildly. "Baron, I did not give you powers of solidity so you could strangle my students. Please release Mr Malfoy."
The Bloody Baron raised one dark eyebrow, but released his hold, and let Draco get free. He swept his cloak around him with a contemptuous snort, glaring at the baron over one shoulder. He then turned to Dumbledore. "I was looking for Snape." He glanced at Mundungus, and explained, "He said we would need him."
"Indeed?" said Dumbledore, mildly. He took a piece of parchment from one of his desk drawers, and a quill, and began to quickly write a note. "Severus is quite a heavy sleeper... I'm sure he can be woken up though." He beckoned an owl from across the room. It was wearing a little harness with the Hogwarts crest on, apparently used to deliver official letters. He rolled the parchment up, gave it to the owl, and said, clearly, "Take it to Severus Snape, please."
The owl hooted in understanding, then spread its wings, and took off through one of the windows into the night. Dumbledore then turned his attention back to Mundungus, who had finished his tea, and was just sitting with his eyes closed.
Harry, Ron and Draco were hovering awkwardly near the desk. Sneezy, who had wriggled out of Ron's hold, was sitting on one of Dumbledore's saucers and eating biscuit crumbs, burbling happily. Ron poked him and muttered, "Be quiet." Sneezy frowned up at him and squeaked, "No!"
"Who on earth taught him that?" Ron murmured to Harry in amazement.
"Harry," said Sneezy.
Ron glared at Harry. Harry stared back at him, with a protest of, "It wasn't me, honestly."
The Bloody Baron was glaring at them all with those wide, piercing eyes, an air of great dislike pouring from him. Harry tried a weak smile. It was not returned. Dumbledore had now dragged his armchair in front of Mundungus, and was pouring more chamomile tea out into a cup for him. "Perhaps some time in the hospital wing for you..." he was murmuring. "Once we've sorted all this out... now then..." He handed Mundungus the tea carefully. "Drink... it will soothe your wounds."
Mundungus gave a feeble groan of thanks, and lifted the cup to his lips. He was unshaven, even more than normal, and his dark hair hung in matted clumps around his eyes. "Ta, Dumbly..."
Just then, the door opened, and Snape swept in with a brief, "You wished to see - ", and then he stopped, seeing Ron, Harry, Draco, Mundungus and the Bloody Baron.
"Ah, Severus, do come in," said Dumbledore. He drew up another armchair. "Please sit down... Mundungus has news for us."
Hesitantly, with a very suspicious expression, Snape sat down in the armchair and glared at Mundungus, still very wary. The Bloody Baron gave a contemptuous sort of sigh. "I would love to stay and have tea, but it is midnight, and my blasted grandson causes most mayhem then."
Dumbledore shook his head. "No... Peter is in ghost form tonight, I believe."
"Mmm, well, I never trusted a Peelish anyway," said the Bloody Baron, coldly, as he glided to the door. "How my daughter could marry into such a disgusting family and mother children of their blood I shall never know." With that, he opened the door and swept out, slamming it behind him.
Dumbledore brought the attention back to Mundungus, as he sat forward, and said, seriously, "Mundungus... you need to tell me what happened, and where you have been."
Mundungus nodded. He was silent for a moment, and then he said, hoarsely, "I were in Knockturn Alley... jus' doin' some normal business, Dumbly, y'know?"
"What normal business?" asked Dumbledore.
Mundungus was quiet, and then he said, "Y'see, this bloke met me in the Leaky Cauldron. 'E said 'e 'ad some int'restin' stuff. For trade only, mind, twasn't like I were goin' t' hatch 'em or anythin'..."
"What did he have for trade?" asked Dumbledore, raising an eyebrow.
Once again, Mundungus paused, then said, "Chimaera eggs."
"Mundungus... I shall reserve my judgement until later. Go on."
"Well, I were in Knockturn Alley, standin' around in a doorway somewhere and waitin' for this bloke... 'e said 'e were gonna be there at eight, at night. Safer doin' business there at night. So there I was... and swear t' Merlin, Dumbledore, it were seconds. That were all it took. A gang got me, just came outta there shadows and dragged me out. Someb'dy 'it me with summet 'ard, and that was that."
"Go on," said Dumbledore, quietly.
"So I was knocked out, and when I wakes up, it were this room... real dark... black walls, 'orrid brown carpet... and I were tied to a chair, and there were all these peop'l there. Peop'l in masks. White masks."
"Death Eaters," murmured Snape.
Mundungus nodded, closed his eyes, and went on. "And there was sayin' they knew I was... I was in with you, Dumbledore. They said they was bored." He took a breath. "They roughed me up a bit... nothin' nasty, mind you, it was jus' a bit of a beatin'... and then someb'dy else arrives. Rookwood. And 'e 'ad a woman with 'im. Real pretty. Dark hair, all pale, lookin' a bit ruffled but she were smilin'. Holdin' 'is 'and. Like they was jus' married."
Harry noticed that Snape had gone very, very still in his chair.
"And they... they tortured me, Dumbledore... they 'ad spells and curses, but they was usin' muggle stuff too..." Mundungus put his face in his hands, taking a few slow breaths. "Knives and... jus' sharp stuff. Jus' leave it at that. And Rookwood and 'is woman were laughin'. Laughin' like mad. And I 'eard 'im say to 'er, "You know you're better off with me, far better than with Snape", and she said, "Yeah, always". And then they jus' kicked me out back int' Knockturn Alley, and told me t' go 'ome." He shuddered a little. "And 'ere I am..."
As he finished, nobody was actually looking at him anymore. They were all watching Snape. The Potions master was sitting in his chair with the air of one who had just been stabbed viciously in the back with a long carving knife. His hand was curled around the arm of the chair, but his knuckles were white, and he was even more pale than normal.
"Severus," Dumbledore began, softly, soothingly. "I'm sorry that - "
"No, Dumbledore." That was all Snape said. He got up, crossed the room in four strides, wrenched the door open and snarled, "I may have no explanation for this but there is one, and I intend to find it," before he stormed out, slamming the door so hard that Sneezy fell off the end of the desk and shot into the waste paper basket with a loud squeak.
Ron, Harry, and Draco all swapped looks. So she had betrayed him, after all, after spending so much time searching the forest for her and all the bad luck he had endured for her. Dumbledore gave a little sigh, and stood up. "Well, boys... to bed with you, I think. You will need your rest for lessons tomorrow. Come along, Mundungus... to the hospital wing."
They made their way back up to Gryffindor Tower in silence, and nobody said a word. They let themselves in, changed into their pajamas, and got under the covers of their nest, trying not to wake the others. Not a single word was passed.
Until Ron said, quietly, just as an afterthought to the whole thing, "Do you two have Potions tomorrow?"
"Yes," said Draco and Harry.
Ron gave a little sigh. "I don't envy you... remember that an upturned cauldron can make a wonderful shelter from an enraged Potions master."
"I'll try to keep that in mind," said Harry, gravely, as he pulled up the covers, and closed his eyes.
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