Living with Danger
Chapter 25: Curiosity and What It Killed
By Anne B. Walsh
Chapter 25: Curiosity and What It Killed
Severus Snape would have been perfectly happy to stay in his beloved dungeons for days, weeks, on end. But the Headmaster had the house-elves under his command, and in the summer they would only deliver two meals a day to his living quarters. If he wanted a third, he had to emerge and get it from the kitchens himself, or eat in the Hall with the rest of the faculty.
During the school year (which, he remembered with distaste, would be starting again soon), the ridiculous rules were even tighter. Only one meal a day would be delivered, and even that was frowned upon. And house-elves had a way of letting one know, ever so subtly, when they were displeased. It was never anything one could put one’s finger on, but the soup, say, would be just a touch too salty, and if one sent it back, it would return too watery; or the salad would have no dressing, and the horrendous miniscule creature would apologize profusely and proceed to drown the lettuce with goo. And so on.
And so it was that he was coming up from the dungeons in search of a late lunch when he saw Aletha Freeman crossing the entrance hall, talking to a little boy whose hand she was holding. Her other hand had a lead wrapped around it, connected to the collar of an enormous black dog.
Does she have nothing better to do? I see her here almost every other week. Ministry Liaison or not, that is absurd. And always with these other people tagging along.
The other people in question were behind her, a man and woman gazing adoringly at one another, each with another child by the hand — no, the woman had two, the smaller of which belonged to Freeman if he wasn’t mistaken. He stopped to observe them.
They appear to be about my age, but I have never met them that I recall… they could be immigrants, home-educated, or non-magical. The third is improbable, considering the anti-Muggle security on this school, so it is likely one of the first two…
And I thought I had trained myself out of curiosity. Here I am, exhibiting it again. Clearly, I need more self-discipline.
Snape started for the hallway which led to the kitchens.
He had gone only a few steps when something hit him in the back, knocking him to the ground and winding him. He twisted over onto his back, gasping for breath —
And the thing started licking him. It was the gargantuan dog Freeman had been walking. It must have pulled the lead from her hand.
"Padfoot!" Freeman shouted, running towards him. "Come here! Bad dog! Come!"
The dog paused, looked at her, then turned back deliberately and gave Snape one more enormous lick, thoroughly coating his face with a repulsive slime of saliva. Then it — minced was the only word possible — over to Freeman, who backhanded it on the nose. "Bad dog. Bad Padfoot. If you ever play a trick like that again, I’ll have you neutered!"
The dog whined and lowered its head.
"That’s better." Freeman looked over at Snape, who had pulled himself into a sitting position and was attempting to dry his face with his sleeve. "I’m terribly sorry, Professor. Are you all right?"
"I will be perfectly fine, Madam Freeman," Snape said through his teeth. "Please try to control that… animal of yours better in the future."
Of course she named her dog after Sirius Black, he thought bitterly, picking himself up off the floor as Freeman and her flock of followers headed for the open front doors. I should have expected that.
I wonder where he is now. Two years since the sighting in Diagon Alley. With Harry Potter in his arms, no less. Is he taunting us, I wonder? That would be very like him, would it not…
Remus maintained a straight face all the way across the grounds and into Hagrid’s back garden, where he sat down on the back steps, looked at Sirius, and started laughing uncontrollably. Sirius, for his part, rolled ecstatically on his back, paws waving, emitting a high-pitched noise that sounded like a cross between a gleeful whine and a howl of joy. Aletha leaned weakly against the wall of Hagrid’s hut, unable to stand upright.
In between giggles, Danger explained what Sirius had done to the bewildered Hagrid, who promptly joined in the laughter, drowning everyone else out for a moment or two. "Licked his face!" he guffawed. "Yeh’ll need a drink after tha’, I think!" He filled a bowl for Sirius out of his water barrel, who lapped it up gratefully.
The children silently communicated bewilderment. It had been funny, but not that funny. Adults were strange sometimes.
The Pack had come to Hogwarts for several reasons — to have lunch with the Headmaster, of course, and to say hello to Hagrid, but Aletha had also brought a number of official documents with her, some of which were intended for Minerva McGonagall, and although she had dropped these off with the Deputy Headmistress, she had accidentally left one upstairs, in Professor Dumbledore’s office.
Of such accidents are stories made.
Late that same evening, Minerva sighed, checking through the parchments Aletha had dropped off. I thought they were sending me a copy of that new decree about animal-to-human transfiguration. They were certainly very flattering in the letter — "world authority" and "lend your expertise."
Perhaps Aletha merely forgot to bring it with her. Or it got lost in the shuffle of papers. She asked her great-grandmother to check and see if, by any chance, it was on Dumbledore’s desk, and in a few moments had her answer — it was.
I doubt he’ll mind if I pop up there and get it. She was on her way almost before she had finished the thought.
As she picked up the decree, she noticed a photograph half-covered by another sheet of parchment. A lighted Christmas tree and the edge of Dumbledore’s favorite holiday robes were visible.
I wonder. Where did Albus spend this past Christmas? He almost never leaves Hogwarts at the holidays — the last time I remember him doing so was to visit his brother in jail, and that was years ago…
It couldn’t hurt, just to have a look. One look.
Feeling an unexpected rush of lawbreaking spirit, she tugged the photograph free.
Two small children sat on Albus’ lap in a rocking chair, with two others perched precariously on the arms of the chair. He was reading to them from a picture book. She noticed that first, and smiled.
Then she noticed the children’s faces, and screamed, dropping the picture as if it were a snake.
"I say!" said a disapproving voice from the wall. "Some of us are trying to sleep here!"
"My apologies," Minerva said automatically, while taking another, disbelieving look at the photograph where it lay on the desk.
This cannot possibly be true.
But the boy on Albus’ lap, pale-blond and aristocratic, the image of Lucius Malfoy, could only be his missing son, Draco. The girl beside him was certainly Aletha Freeman’s daughter Meghan. And the black-haired boy balanced on the chair arm was unmistakably Harry Potter.
And I have seen the other girl somewhere — heavens above, I saw her today. She was with the people Aletha had with her. Along with two little boys…who could have been Harry and the Malfoy child, under glamours…
But everyone knows that Sirius Black has Harry Potter. How could Aletha Freeman possibly be involved with…
She gasped as previously unconsidered things locked together in her mind.
The ring Aletha wears — the ring she began wearing shortly after Black’s escape — a wedding ring, no matter what she claims. And her child — supposedly adopted, but she bears a suspicious resemblance to her mother, except for her eyes, her gray eyes…
That dementor last year did not enter Aletha’s house by chance. It was seeking Sirius Black!
She all but ran from the Headmaster’s office, her mind racing. One thought came uppermost as she regained the safety of her own desk and chair.
I must know the truth. If Albus has in some way become unbalanced enough to permit this — this — atrocity — then I must know that, so that I can begin the necessary proceedings.
I must go to Aletha’s home. But not like this. No, I must go in a form no one will regard, no one will notice…
And I have such a form at my command.
After all, who looks twice at another gray alley cat?
She quickly scribbled a note to leave on her desk.
Out, back later. MM
After closing and locking her office door, she stowed her wand safely away and transformed, since she made better time with four feet than with two.
As well, I am easier to overlook in this form. This is one errand I would rather not be seen going on.
She hurried from the castle and onto the path to Hogsmeade, her thoughts moving as swiftly as her paws.
Aletha and her friends always go to visit Hagrid after they have seen Albus. Does Hagrid know who they are? And if he does, why has he said nothing?
She sighed at her own obtuseness. Of course, Hagrid would reach with his bare hand into a dragon’s mouth if Albus told him to. He would consider it an honor to share in such a secret. But I cannot think he would countenance any mistreatment of Harry…
Her mind darted onto a tangent. Aletha’s friends. A man and a woman. The children are supposedly theirs. Who are they? What have they to do with this? Do I know either of them?
She recalled something from their brief visit to her office. The man never spoke. The woman did all the talking, to the children and to Aletha. Why would he remain silent?
Perhaps because if he spoke, I would recognize his voice?
He’s not Black under a glamour, though. Black is a bit taller, and broader in the shoulders. No, this man is built more like…
Like Remus Lupin.
Who has not been seen since Black’s escape and Harry’s abduction, and whose voice I certainly would know.
She speeded up. She needed to know the truth, and she needed to know it now.
The Pack sat on their front steps, watching the sun set.
Danger gave a sigh of pure contentment and leaned back against Remus’ shoulder. Have I mentioned lately that I love you?
Only four times today.
Oh dear, I’m behindhand. I love you, I love you, I love you. There, that should bring me up to speed.
Remus laughed aloud. Have I mentioned lately that I love your sense of humor?
Yes, you have, but I always like hearing it again…
A feline head poked around the corner of the house.
I would know that laugh anywhere. Quiet but earnest, just like the man himself. Lupin.
And that dog… Her eyes fixed on it, and she hissed. That dog is not a dog. Who did the transfiguration, I wonder?
It is a truism among wizards and witches that one human in animal form, whether Animagus or transfigured, can always pick out another. Patrick the Plump, for instance, was a very successful thief, robbing fifteen stores in Diagon Alley on separate days and always vanishing before the Aurors arrived, until one day a young man whose Animagus form was a falcon took to the skies and noticed a certain fat pigeon who had a bit of a different look to him…
Of course, the noticing goes both ways. If the unfortunate Patrick had ever looked up, he would have been able to tell that the winged death descending on him from the skies was not really a falcon…
Sirius’ head snapped up, and he looked quickly to one side. With a thunderous bark, he launched himself across the yard, chasing a gray blur which appeared from out of nowhere.
"What is that?" Aletha got to her feet, exchanging bewildered looks with Remus and Danger.
"Ki’y!" Meghan exclaimed, running after her father.
The gray blur shot down the road and up the small ornamental tree in the two-doors-down-neighbors’ front yard, where it resolved itself, in the failing light of dusk augmented by the streetlights, into a small gray cat.
Sirius sat down at the foot of the tree and growled at the cat. He looked back at the rest of the Pack and beckoned them closer with a paw.
"Something’s up," Aletha said. "He wouldn’t go after just any old cat like that."
Remus intercepted Meghan halfway down the sidewalk and took another look at the cat from his closer vantage point, while Meghan squalled and kicked at him, trying to get away.
Danger felt his surprise, tinged with worry and a touch of humor, reverberate through her. Dear Lord, it’s got spectacle markings around its eyes.
And that means… Danger tapped Remus’ memories, and was rewarded with an image of a stern-faced woman changing into a spectacle-marked cat — a Hogwarts Professor, no less, and the head of Gryffindor House, responsible for many of the Marauders’ detentions in their school days. Oh no, and Sirius has her treed…
It’s unlikely she’s here by accident. She must know something. Tell Aletha what’s up, would you?
Danger relayed the information, and Aletha sighed, looking torn between laughter and concern. "Cubs, go inside," she said quietly. "Now. And stay there until we call you."
Draco looked like he wanted to ask why, but Neenie and Harry got up without question, and after a brief moment Draco followed them into the Den and closed the door.
Remus was now standing beside the ornamental tree, his eyes approximately level with McGonagall’s, Meghan in his arms demanding to pet the kitty now. As Aletha and Danger came down the sidewalk, McGonagall inched forward on the branch she was crouched on and delicately slid her head under Meghan’s reaching fingers. Meghan squealed happily and patted McGonagall’s head, in an enthusiastic two-year-old kind of way. The cat winced.
Remus caught Meghan’s hand. "Gentle, Meghan," he said firmly. "Show me gentle."
Meghan stroked Remus’ arm softly.
"That’s right. That’s gentle. Now you be gentle with the kitty."
Meghan started stroking the small gray head. It was made easier for her by McGonagall’s fixed stare at Remus.
It’s been a while since I’ve had one of these.
One of what?
The patented "Minerva McGonagall I-Know-What-You-Did Look of Doom." Though yours come close, my dear.
Decisions, decisions… should I hit you, thank you, or both?
Aletha was holding a hand-signal yes-and-no conversation with Sirius. After a moment, she made a brief series of signals to Remus and Danger.
They both think we should at least try telling her the truth. Input?
You know her, I don’t. Your decision.
Remus nodded to Aletha and Sirius. "Nice to see you again, Professor," he said quietly. "Would you care to come inside and talk?"
The cat looked skeptical.
"No evasions," Aletha said. McGonagall turned her head to put Aletha under scrutiny. "No lies, no half-truths. We’ll tell you everything that’s going on, if you’re willing to believe it."
The cat looked hard at each of them, then delicately stretched, yawned, and stood up, tail waving in graceful curves. With a last mistrustful glance at Sirius, she leapt to the ground and followed Aletha toward the Den.
That was easy.
But convincing her may not be. She’s liable to curse us all if she feels threatened in any way.
I have an idea about that. Danger explained.
Good thinking. Remus dropped back to talk to Sirius, while Danger sped up a little to tell Aletha the plan.
Now all we have to do is hope she believes us…
Minerva trotted up the front steps of the duplex, every nerve alert. Her original reconnaissance had shown only protective magics on the house — no wards against Apparition, no booby traps — but she was still deeply mistrustful of this.
But subtlety was never Sirius Black’s strong suit. I assume it is he who is in control here, since he was apparently quite high in the esteem of You-Know-Who — oh, all right, damn you, Albus, in Voldemort’s esteem.
Thinking of Albus’ calm insistence that she use the evil wizard’s proper name joggled Minerva’s memory of a particular time when he had done so — a November night, when they had sat outside a prim house in Surrey together, waiting for the arrival of a little boy…
A little boy who was removed from that house not even six months later. Knowing what I know about those people, I cannot help but be relieved — unless, as I have feared ever since, he was taken from a bad home to a worse one…
The four people following her reached the steps. Lupin reached carefully over her head with his non-child-holding-arm and opened the door. "After you, Professor," he said politely.
You want me to enter a strange house first? You must be joking. Minerva shook her head.
"As you wish," Lupin said. He mounted the steps and entered the house, turning on a light within. Then he reached into his pocket and withdrew his wand. Minerva tensed — but he laid the wand carefully on a table just within sight of the door. "We mean you no harm," he said. "And to this we pledge our wands."
Aletha and the other woman likewise entered the house and disarmed themselves.
Minerva eyed the huge black dog balefully. If you make one wrong move…
But the dog bounded up the steps and into the house, rounded the corner of the door so that a passer-by would no longer be able to see him, then reared onto his hind legs and casually changed into Sirius Black.
Black, an Animagus! I knew he was good at Transfiguration, but I never dreamed he was that good!
Black, too, placed his wand on the table. "Our home is yours, Professor," he said politely.
Minerva hesitated for one more moment. This might still be some kind of trick…
Then she heard the sound of pattering feet.
A little boy, his hair blond and tousled, ran into her line of sight, straight to Black, and hugged him around the waist, which was as high as he could reach. Black smiled and picked him up, and the boy turned inquisitive green eyes on her.
My God. I know those eyes.
Almost against her will, she stepped forward into the house, and the strange woman reached behind her to shut the door.
Upon returning to his office, Professor Dumbledore noticed a piece of parchment lying on the floor, where it had not been when he had left. And a certain photograph lay exposed on the desk, where it had been hidden before.
"Who was here while I was gone?" he asked the portraits sternly.
Half a dozen voices volunteered that it had been Minerva McGonagall, that she’d come for a copy of something that had been forgotten, that she’d pulled out the picture from under the parchment hiding it, that she’d seemed very agitated by it…
"Yes, I have no doubt she was," Dumbledore said grimly. And I have no doubt she is by now investigating the matter herself…
The instant the door was closed, Minerva retransformed, drawing an amazed "Ooh" from the child in Black’s arms, and drew her wand.
"What is going on here?" she demanded.
"I win," Lupin said, grinning at Black.
Minerva blinked. "Win? Win what?"
"We had a bet on. I said you’d get us at wandpoint first, then ask what was going on. Sirius said you’d ask first." Lupin looked highly satisfied. "So now he has to do the dishes for three days."
"Oh, now wait just a second," Black protested. "One day is all I bet."
"No, you said three," the strange woman put in. "I distinctly remember you saying three."
"You did say three," Aletha said, chuckling. "And you wouldn’t want to break a promise, now would you, Padfoot? Not setting a very good example there."
Black glared at all of them, then sighed. "All right, fine, you win, three…"
"Three what?" asked the little boy.
"Three days I have to do the dishes, Harry. Moony just suckered me into it."
"Moony," Harry scolded. "Not nice to sucker Padfoot."
"That’s right," Black said, looking vindicated.
"Too easy," Harry finished.
"That’s ri — hey!" Black dropped Harry to the floor in outrage as the other adults laughed.
"QED, Padfoot," Lupin said, shaking his head.
Black groaned. "I can’t win."
Minerva stared at them all, baffled, her wand dropping to her side. It was a dialogue she had heard many times before. Never quite in these words, of course, but it was exactly the style of joking banter that the four boys who had styled themselves the Marauders had always used. And it was impossible to reconcile with her current image of Sirius Black — traitor, murderer, kidnapper…
Something is wrong here.
"Professor," said Aletha quietly. "Would you care to sit down?"
"Yes," Minerva said frankly. "Yes, I think I would like that very much indeed."
"Would you mind unglamouring the children?" the other woman asked as they all found seats.
"Children?" But then she saw the other little boy and the little girl, peering down between the bars of the balcony railing overhead.
"Come on down, you two," Lupin called.
"Yes, the boys are both beglamoured. Remus is as well, if you wouldn’t mind…"
Minerva flicked her wand at the three wizards as a chime sounded from the other room. "Excuse me," Aletha said, standing up. "That’s the fireplace."
The little girl with the brown bushy hair — who rather closely resembled the woman Minerva didn’t know, she noticed — climbed into Lupin’s lap, as the other boy, now obviously Draco Malfoy, claimed Black’s. Harry, dark-haired again and looking startlingly like his father, was cuddled next to Black, and Meghan sat at his feet, absorbed in a small and brightly colored toy that made clacking noises as she turned it over and over. The older three children were eyeing Minerva curiously, as if she were something they’d never seen before.
But it is not fear. They are not afraid of me. And they are certainly not afraid of Black.
"Something is very wrong here," she said quietly in frustration.
"Indeed," said a voice she knew quite well, but had not expected to hear, startling her into a small jump.
Though considering what brought me here, perhaps I should have.
"Professor!" The little girl slid quickly to the floor and ran to Albus Dumbledore, hugging him around the legs. "Be welcome in our Den," she recited when she let go.
"Be welcome," the boys repeated from behind her, giving little bows, then each solemnly extending a hand for Dumbledore to shake. Meghan dropped her toy and came over, beaming at Dumbledore, and he lifted her up, placing her on his shoulder, where she giggled and held onto his hair for balance.
"The only thing wrong, Minerva, is the story you know about Sirius Black and the Potters, which is wrong almost in its entirety," Dumbledore said, seating himself and placing Meghan in his lap after disentangling her. "I assume you want an explanation for all of this, and my involvement in it."
"I do," Minerva said fervently. She looked away from Dumbledore’s eyes, ostensibly to take a look around the room, but really because — well, because he knew. She could see it in his face; he knew what she had done, and how she had found out where these people were.
And she also knew he would never mention it, to her or to anyone. She would simply be included in this secret, as if she had a right to be, as if these people had chosen to tell her instead of having her invade their life.
And that is one of Albus’ greatest weapons. The guilt of others. He simply allows them to punish themselves for wrongdoing, as much or as little as they choose…
There are days I hate him for it.
She shook her head slightly and prepared to listen to what she was sure would be a close-to-unbelievable story.
But with this cast of characters, I will be surprised at almost nothing.