Chapter 49 : Smiles and Secrets
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Smiles and Secrets
Severus Snape strode through the crowd of witches and wizards at Flourish and Blotts, and those who caught a glimpse of him—billowing black robes, scowl, and eyes that radiated a fierce need to hex something, along with a raven fluttering above like a harbinger of doom—were quick to vanish from his path. Most knew him and his famous temper, or of him, and it was a toss up who was more frightened. Either way, in ten seconds tops, the crowd had parted faster than the Red Sea when Moses had commanded it.
No one was foolish enough to get in the way of the Potions Master in a temper . . . except the oblivious Gilderoy Lockhart standing in front of the table with his smiling façade all over it, still beaming his thousand Galleon smile and gripping Harry for all he was worth and waving at the cameras, which had stopped taking pictures because a certain raven had flown down and shat on the lenses.
Harry, who detested celebrity mug shots, nearly cried in relief to see Skull and Severus coming. He half-sagged against Gilderoy’s shoulder and said, “Look, I have to go now, Mr. Lockhart . . .”
“Oh, don’t be so formal, Harry! I feel like we’re best friends already!” Gilderoy beamed. “Now, smile for the camera!”
Harry was horrified. He’d sooner be best friends with a chimera! And he hated the fake smile—charming though it was, that Gilderoy seemed able to produce at will for any reporter looking to make a name for himself. He tried to tug free of the other’s restraining hand just as Severus, looking like Death come to claim his own, arrived.
Help me, he sent silently to his adopted father.
Severus did not disappoint him. “Release him, Lockhart! Before you find your fingers on the floor next to your autobiography.”
Lockhart blinked stupidly. Then he saw Severus’ wand, drawn and pointed unerringly at him. “But . . . but . . . we were only doing a publicity shoot! Surely you understand the importance of such things, Severus—may I call you that?” Again the man flashed that winning smile, the one that had been awarded Nicest Smile Award from Witch Weekly several years in a row.
“No, you may not,” Severus snapped, longing to put his fist through those perfect teeth. “Harry is my son and therefore my responsibility. He is not allowed to do any publicity shots without my express permission. Now let him be, Lockhart, before I demonstrate the true worth of your defense capabilities and make the Headmaster seek a new teacher for this term.”
Several witches gasped and glared at Snape for his threat, and Lockhart gulped and released Harry, who ran and half-hid behind Severus’ sheltering robes.
“Now, now, Professor, there’s no need to make threats. We wouldn’t like anyone to get hurt, now would we?”
Severus scowled. “Like you?’ he hissed, but no one heard except Harry and Lockhart. “Don’t test me, Lockhart. You’ll lose.”
“Oh! You—ah—really wouldn’t want to duel me, Professor Snape!” Lockhart stammered. “It would be—”
“—a pity if someone got hurt,” finished Severus silkily, and there was no doubt in his voice which of the two would be lying on the floor if that happened. He placed an arm comfortingly about Harry’s shoulders and whispered, “Are you all right? Skull fetched me as soon as he could.”
“I’m fine, Dad,” Harry whispered back. “Just a bit . . . shook up. I don’t like being the center of attention. You know that.”
“Yes, I know.” He fixed Lockhart with a glare he reserved for especially dense people, enemies, and the idiots from The Daily Prophet. “You’ve had your fifteen minutes of fame, Lockhart. If you ever lay a hand on my son again, you’re going to be a cripple with a room reserved for you in St. Mungos—if they can reassemble all the pieces, that is. Am I understood? Harry is not some prop for you to exploit in your quest to become the next bestseller at Flourish and Blotts.”
Lockhart gulped audibly, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down spastically. “Y-yes, I . . . I understand, old fellow. But I didn’t do the boy any harm, I just wanted a few photos together—you know, two celebrities posing for a few quick candids for the Prophet—”
“Did you even ask Harry first, or did you just assume and shove him in front of the first reporter who happened by?” sneered Severus, his voice as biting as the North Wind and twice as frigid.
“He yanked poor Harry up here quicker than you can say Quidditch, Sev,” Skullduggery reported, landing upon the professor’s opposite shoulder. “I nearly had a conniption.” He clicked his tongue at Lockhart and squawked, “Next time, pretty boy, don’t touch what don’t belong to you, or I’ll breaka you face! Capish?”
Lockhart looked so shocked that Harry wouldn’t have been surprised if he passed out. This was probably the first time people hadn’t gone all gaga over him and his handsome self since leaving Hogwarts. Harry fought to keep a straight face, but it was hard, especially after Skull’s Mafia impression. Suddenly, Harry remembered Dante and looked around for him.
He didn’t see the boy anywhere and was about to ask Severus where he was when Lockhart said, “It was an honest misunderstanding, Professor Snape. No hard feelings now, eh, Harry?”
“Umm . . . not really,” Harry managed to say before Skull stuck his tongue out and blew a raspberry at the blond man.
“I say! Is he always that . . . umm . . . obnoxious?”
Severus raised an eyebrow. “If you are referring to my familiar, you may ask him directly. Skullduggery?”
“Are you always such a dandy, Lockhart?” Skull queried mischievously. “I’ve seen billionaires with less flash, old boy. You might want to tone it down, one day you could be mistaken for a fancy rubbish bin with all those doodads. Is that your real hair color, old boy, or did you get it out of a bottle? Sort of reminds me of the time my cousin Hugin got into a bucket of Goldrush paint way back when they were sprucing up the Ministry building . . .”
Lockhart put a hand to his hair and sputtered, “I . . . I was born with it . . . You really ought to teach your familiar some manners, sir!”
Severus shrugged. “Manners are something ravens make up on their own, Lockhart. Or don’t you know that from all of your . . . travels around the world?”
“Yes . . . yes, of course! I am intimately familiar with the habits of manitcores, lamias, banshees, and all manner of magical creatures as you’d know if you’ve read my books—” he gestured to the pile of books surrounding him, most of them with a picture of his face smack dab in the center of the cover.
“No, I’ve been reading more important things, Lockhart,” Severus dismissed the other wizard with a wave. “I don’t have time to waste reading fiction when I need to brew drafts for next term.”
“Fiction! Fiction! I’ll have you know, professor, that every word is one hundred percent true! Every word, I swear it upon my—my mother’s grave!”
“Your mother passed away? I wasn’t aware, Lockhart,” Severus interrupted smoothly. “My condolences. Now, if you’ll excuse me, your adoring public is waiting and we must be going.” He firmly ushered Harry towards the registers. “Come, Harry. Let’s pay and get some lunch before you expire.”
Harry allowed himself to be guided through the crowd and joined the queue at the cashier desk. “Did his mother really die?”
“I doubt it. Last I knew she was alive and well in Cornwall and lamenting her poor excuse for a son,” Severus snorted. “He can lie through his perfect smile when he wishes, Harry. Remember that. Now, let’s pay and then meet up with your cousin, whom I left outside to wait for us.”
It took about ten minutes for Harry to purchase all his books and then they were headed out the door. His stomach was rumbling and he hoped their next stop would be lunch.
Severus halted at the edge of the building and glanced around. “Dante? Dante, where are you?”
“Was this where you left him?” Harry asked as Severus glanced around.
The boy was nowhere in sight.
“Skullduggery, see if you can find—” Severus began when he caught sight of a familiar figure walking up the street. “Never mind. There he is!” He waited, hands on his hips, for Dante to come up to them before he scolded, “Next time, tell someone where you’re going, young man.”
Dante glanced up at him and swiftly looked away. “Chill, Severus. I was just using the bathroom. When you gotta go, you gotta go.”
Severus sighed impatiently. “Very well. Let’s go get some lunch, now that I’ve rescued Harry from that utter idiot, Gilderoy Lockhart.”
“What happened in there?” Dante asked, swiftly directing attention away from himself. He fought to keep from shivering and blurting out the truth of what had gone on while Severus was inside the bookstore. He knew better than to even hint that he had been dragged off by the UK’s version of Necromancers Anonymous. You didn’t fool around with those people. Not if you wanted to keep breathing. And they had made it very clear that Sulla had owed them for something and now Dante was responsible for it. Whatever “it” was. Dante was unsure, but knew it must have cost them a great deal for them to want him to pick up his father’s tab now that he was dead.
He listened with half an ear as Harry began to explain about Lockhart, his mind replaying the darkened room and the figures in gray robes and masks, and the one hard voice saying, A debt is a debt, Dante Prince. I’m sure your father taught you about that. Now we’re calling in our marker. And you’re the one we’re collecting from, as Sulla’s heir. Do what we want, and all debts are cancelled. Don’t and you’ll find yourself dancing on air from a short rope, or squirming while fire melts the flesh from your bones. Tell anyone about what we just discussed and you’ll learn a new meaning of pain and suffering . . . and so will your cousins Snape and Potter, or whatever he calls himself now.
That had sealed his lips, and whatever hope he had of getting away from Sulla’s twisted bargain. Dante had known his father dealt with some pretty shady characters, you didn’t get to the top like he had without making a few deals with the devil, but he had thought now that Sulla was keeping company with Lucifer in hell, those old “business” associates would fade back into the shadows and leave him be. After all, he hadn’t helped his father do anything, Sulla hadn’t even talked to him about half of what he did. Dante didn’t even know he’d had relatives in Britain until the lawyer had told him so the day after the funeral.
And now here was Sulla’s past coming back to haunt him.
Dante silently cursed his father to the depths of perdition and nodded his head as Harry told him about his ordeal in the bookstore. All he wanted was to go home (even though the cottage was hardly home to him) and bury his head in the pillow and sleep for the next year. He was not used to feeling terrified and helpless now that Sulla was gone, and he had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that these people meant him harm, despite their assurances that they wouldn’t hurt him if he did as they asked. Dante knew how that went. One favor became two, then three, then four, until before you knew it you were handing over your first born for a ritual sacrifice. And he was caught like a spider in a web, tangled and trapped, with no hope of breaking free.
“We’ll go back after we eat and get your books, Dante,” Severus was saying as they entered a small café and sat down at a table. “By then things ought to have calmed down with Lockhart and we can get what we need and leave. We can go to Madam Malkin’s robe shop first, that will give us plenty of time to ensure Lockhart and his train of flunkeys are gone before we return there.”
Dante just nodded, not saying anything and pretending to study the menu.
“Hey, what kind of wand did you get?” asked Harry curiously.
“See for yourself,” Dante took the wand out of its sheath and showed Harry. Fat lot of good it did me against those dark goons, he thought bitterly, though the truth was he hadn’t dared draw it after they had grabbed him. It would have been suicide, or worse, they’d have taken it from him, and how would he have explained that to Severus?
Skull watched as Dante picked at his roast beef with au jus sandwich, curious as to why the boy didn’t seem more excited to get his wand. Most boys his age would have been vibrating off the seat and gobbling down everything in sight, not eating like they were on a starvation diet. Then again, maybe the boy was nervous going off to Hogwarts, a stranger in a strange land.
The raven accepted bits of cheese and cold cuts from Harry, who had a ham and cheese on a roll, and pieces of hamburger and bun from Severus. When Dante shoved his plate away, Skull came and ate the rest of the sandwich and crisps accompanying it. “Thank you,” the raven trilled.
“You’re welcome,” Dante said softly.
“Are you finished then? You hardly ate anything,” Severus observed.
“I’m just not hungry now,” Dante said shortly. He had barely managed to choke down two bites with the way his stomach was churning. He pushed back his chair and stood. “Which way to this robe shop?” he asked, anxious to get out of this place. He felt as if eyes were watching him.
“It’s over here,” Harry said, remembering from when he’d gotten robes last year. “What House do you think you’ll be in?”
“Hopefully none,” Dante replied.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Severus demanded at Dante’s truculent tone. “I assume harry explained about the Sorting to you?”
“He told me some beat up Hat tells you which House you’re supposed to be in,” Dante said, a sneer in his voice. “In America, you or your master picks your course of study, not some crazy inanimate object.”
“The Hat is enchanted, and has been around for thousands of years,” Severus said sharply. “It’s how it’s done over here, and you shall be Sorted, like every other student, Mr. Prince. Your father was Sorted as well during his time at Hogwarts.”
Dante looked a little startled. “What House was he in?”
“Slytherin, like most of the Prince family.”
“Isn’t that your House too?” Dante clarified.
“Yes. I am Head of the House of Serpents.” Severus nodded.
Dante immediately decided to pray he was never Sorted there. The last thing he needed was Severus Snape breathing down his neck. In fact, he didn’t want to be Sorted anywhere. He didn’t think he belonged here and he was sure the Hat would confirm that the moment it was placed on his head.
“You could be in Gryffindor, like me,” Harry said encouragingly. “Of course, you’d be third year, a year ahead of me, but it wouldn’t be too bad.”
Dante said nothing, just stared at the pavement as he walked. This trip couldn’t end soon enough. Then there were a few more weeks of summer and school would begin. And sometime afterwards the Death Eaters would contact him again and tell him what he would need to do to repay his father’s debt. Whatever it was, Dante was sure it would be unpleasant. He looked over at Harry and suddenly envied him his carefree attitude. If all Harry had to worry about was being famous, he was lucky and this year would be a breeze for him.
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