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Chapter 73 : The Quest For Answers
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Sirius was also rather wary; Harry had told him everything Scrimgeour had said about the Serpent Sworn and from that Sirius had gathered that these Serpent Sworn people were somehow connected to Voldemort – Scrimgeour had pretty much told Harry that – but he hadn’t yet been able to figure out how. Serpent Sworn wasn’t a name he’d ever heard, and through Reg and the Order, he’d thought he was very well informed.
He’d asked Remus – who’d been very reluctant to talk about his encounter with Scrimgeour – but Sirius had pressed until he gave in and admitted that Scrimgeour had only wanted to make sure that – now that Remus was dating a trainee – he was over his days of punching Aurors. Sirius had laughed at Remus’ embarrassed look while he told the story, but something hadn’t sat right with him about the explanation. It was possible that Scrimgeour would still be sore about Remus punching him the previous May, but... well, Sirius didn’t think his best friend was a liar – certainly, Remus wouldn’t lie about something as important as Voldemort – but he didn’t think he’d been entirely truthful either.
Not knowing who or what the Serpent Sworn were made him seriously uncomfortable, particularly because - while they might be targeting the Ministry - anyone connected to Voldemort would almost certainly have it out for Harry. And Harry was, now that school was back, out of Sirius’ sight for seven hours a day, five days a week. Sirius still thought it was a bad idea to let him take his wand to school, but Sirius had put a charm on Harry’s mirror to shrink it, and protect it from being broken, and Harry now carried that in his pocket at all times. Sirius, likewise, was carrying his, and was comforted by the thought that if something happened, he could be at Harry’s side in seconds.
Despite the potential danger hanging over them, though, Harry’s first day had been an exciting occasion; Sirius had been working on his bike in his spare moments since getting it back (Dumbledore had stored it in a room on Hogwarts’ seventh floor that Sirius hadn’t even known existed, and it had greatly resembled a motor garage) into a functional state, and he’d taken it to drop Harry at school, much to the excitement of his classmates, and the disapproval of the teacher on morning duty.
Harry, for his part, was taking the news of the Serpent Sworn rather well. He’d been spooked after the day at the Ministry, and had been asking a lot of questions about the war, but Sirius had, eventually - after his second day at school - foisted him off onto Remus, and that seemed to have calmed Harry down more than Sirius had managed to. Remus, too, had taken it in stride, and looked grim whenever it was mentioned, but not terribly worried.
And, while it was good Harry was no longer flinching at every noise or sudden movement, and that Remus wasn’t panicking and making contingency plans, Sirius was still very on edge when he was in at the Ministry, and days of research – in Grimmauld’s library, and in the Ministry’s vastly more extensive one – had yielded nothing.
Which was why Sirius was standing – very reluctantly – outside this particular door,
He checked his watch – it was just after four, which meant classes should have ended by now – and then knocked.
This is a terrible idea, he thought. The door opened and Sirius was greeted by a supremely unimpressed look.
“Twice in as many weeks...” Sirius shoved his hands into his pockets and said nothing. “Aren’t I lucky?”
“Very,” Sirius replied flatly. Snape gave him a cold look, and Sirius refused to break eye contact, certain that if Snape decided to try to read anything out of his head, that Padfoot would be able to put a stop to that. Snape lifted his eyes eventually; he glanced at the dark stone ceiling of the Hogwarts dungeons, as if he was praying for strength, or patience, and Sirius rolled his own eyes.
“To what do I owe the... pleasure?” Snape asked finally.
“Can I come inside?”
“You are currently placing an inordinate amount of stress on a very fragile tolerance,” Snape informed him, but stepped aside. “Touch nothing.” Sirius didn’t. He stayed standing, like a naughty schoolboy, while Snape swept over to his desk and sat down. Snape didn’t offer him a seat. “Well?”
“Who are the Serpent Sworn?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The Serpent Sworn,” Sirius said.
Snape hesitated and then said, “I don’t know.”
“Rubbish,” Sirius said, and Snape’s eyes flashed. “You hesitated.”
“I hesitated because I was trying to form a polite answer instead of an insulting one. I see now I needn’t have bothered.”
“You have to know,” Sirius said.
“Very well,” Snape said. “You’ve caught me, Black. I, Severus Snape am the leader of these Swearing Snakes-”
“Serpent Sworn,” Sirius corrected, frowning.
“The name doesn’t matter,” Snape snapped. “Because, as I have told you, I haven’t even the slightest idea what you are talking about.”
“None?” Sirius asked. “It doesn’t sound even a tiny bit familiar?”
“Not in the slightest,” Snape told him. “Should it?”
“I don’t know,” Sirius sighed. “All I’ve got to go on, is that it’s something to do with Voldemort-”
“The Dark Lord?” Snape asked, and Sirius curled his lip.
“No, the other Voldemort,” Sirius muttered.
“Nothing,” Sirius said; he’d come for help, and he wasn’t going to get it if he was insulting. “I assumed that the Serpent Sworn were... I dunno, elite Death Eaters, or something, but I can’t find anything on who they are, or what they want.”
“The elite?” Snape asked slowly. He was silent, surveying Sirius through cold, dark eyes for almost a minute, before - looking unsettled - he spoke. “It seems you’re more of a fool than even I ever thought.” Sirius said nothing, and Snape lay his arm on the table and pulled back his sleeve. The Dark Mark rested there, seemingly innocent, a faded black stain on the pale skin, except Sirius knew what it meant. “Did you forget about this?”
“No,” Sirius said. “It’s the reason I came-”
“You came to ask an old Death Eater for help regarding what you suspect may be the uprising of new Death Eaters?” Snape asked. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything more stupid, and I mark Gryffindor essays.” He recovered his arm. “We are not friends, Black, despite having proven on several occasions now that we can share the same space for short periods of time without the world ending. I hold no fondness for you, nor do I particularly care whether or not you make it to your next birthday, nor, do I owe you anything, be that my information, or my honesty.”
“Okay,” Sirius said, because really, there wasn’t much else he could say. Snape was right – they weren’t friends - and the rest of what he’d said made perfect sense too. Sirius did, oddly enough, trust him more than was probably smart to, but he certainly didn’t trust him blindly; his trust came from trusting Dumbledore’s judgement, but Sirius didn’t trust Dumbledore blindly either. And, he wasn’t about to tell Snape that, because that gave him information he’d rather his old enemy not have.
“Okay?” Snape repeated, blinking.
“Yep,” Sirius said, stepping back toward the door. He’d got most of what he needed anyway; Snape hadn’t seemed at all concerned by the Serpent Sworn until Voldemort was mentioned, and Snape’s Dark Mark was faded; obviously, he wasn’t involved (at least not directly) but hadn’t wanted to say anything more on the matter until he had instructions, and knew what speculation it was and wasn’t safe to share. And Sirius, despite his contempt for all things Death Eater, could appreciate that, even if it annoyed him. So, fairly certain that Snape currently didn’t know any more about the Serpent Sworn than he himself did, Sirius didn’t want to risk undoing all of the awkward, tense progress they’d made for something that wouldn’t get him results. “Thanks for your time.”
He let himself out and shut the door behind him; he let out a deep, steadying breath – quite a bit of tension faded, once there was a door between him and Snape – and was half-certain that Snape was doing exactly the same thing on the other side of the door.
Sirius walked after that, through the familiar corridors of his old school, thinking. He had a general destination – Dumbledore’s office – but he certainly wasn’t taking the quickest route there, so that he could give himself proper time to consider all of his options. By the time he’d reached the gargoyle – and was greeted by the cheery statue – he’d decided on his course of action, and was feeling nervous, but certain that he’d made the right choice.
“Come in,” Dumbledore said, as Sirius knocked on the wood of the door. Shaking his head in wry amusement, Sirius pushed open the door and walked in. Dumbledore looked surprised for a moment, and then offered Sirius a tentative smile. Then his eyes dropped to Sirius’ side, and the smile faded and became concerned. “Is everything all right?”
“Nothing’s wrong yet,” Sirius said, carefully. Dumbledore gestured to the seat in front of his desk and Sirius sat down. “Something’s come to my attention though, through the Auror Department. I half expect Amelia or Mad-Eye have already had a word with you-” Understanding flickered over Dumbledore’s old face, and Sirius sat straighter. “You know.”
“I assume you’re talking about the Serpent Sworn?” he asked heavily.
“Yes,” Sirius said. “Are they with Voldemort? What do they want? How many are there?”
“May I just say, before I answer your questions, that I am touched you still brought this problem to me, despite the fact that you no longer trust me as you once did.”
“I trust you with this,” Sirius said quietly. “You’ve got more experience with this sort of thing than anyone else I know, and I’d be stupid to ignore that.” Dumbledore watched him without blinking, but Sirius didn’t feel anything probing his head, so he thought it was safe to assume that Dumbledore was only looking at him. What he was looking for, Sirius had no idea.
“I’m certain you’ve heard it numerous times in the last few months, but allow me to add my own support to the fact that you have certainly grown up.”
“Thanks,” Sirius said, a little uncomfortable with Dumbledore’s piercing stare, and more than a little determined not to show how much the praise from his old headmaster meant to him. “So, the Serpent Sworn?”
“Ah,” Dumbledore said, folding his hands on his desk. The atmosphere in the room changed at once, from friendly and a bit wary, to business-like. Fawkes ruffled his feathers and glanced between them both. Dumbledore spared his pet a look, and then turned back to Sirius. “We don’t have it confirmed,” he said, “but we believe it’s possible that they are in league with Lord Voldemort, or are at least following his ideals to some extent.”
“Old Death Eaters?”
“It’s possible, but again, unconfirmed,” Dumbledore said gravely. “What we can be certain of is the fact that there is someone clever behind it; they have so far managed to operate with the utmost secrecy, and toe the line between threatening and mediocre; Alastor tells me that Scrimgeour was unprepared to take them seriously until Amelia talked sense into him.”
“Shouted, really,” Sirius said, and a small smile worked its way onto Dumbledore’s face.
“I had not heard that,” he murmured, seeming amused. “What they want, I imagine, is power – most groups like this do, as I’m sure you know, but they have not yet started to target muggleborns or those considered ‘blood traitors’. Their only attack so far – that anyone knows of – was on Scrimgeour himself, and Scrimgeour is a half-blood, who was in Slytherin.”
“So... what? They want chaos for the sake of chaos?”
“Perhaps,” Dumbledore said. “No one will know until they make another move, and I fear we’ll be too late to do anything but react, and try to recover, because we have no way of predicting what they’ll do next.”
“Oh, well, that’s comforting,” Sirius said, rolling his eyes.
Dumbledore smiled sadly and said, “Your optimism for an easy resolution is admirable, Sirius, but you’ve been at this long enough to surely know that these things are never as simple as we’d like them to be.”
“I know,” Sirius mumbled. “So what else can you tell me?”
“Very little – I have been given a limited amount of information on the matter, most of which I’ve shared with you. I’ve made deductions, but whether they’re true or not remains to be seen.”
“What deductions?” Sirius asked.
“That they’re a reasonably large group-”
“And you consider ‘large’ to be...?”
“Thirty or more, I would imagine.”
“Thirty?” Sirius asked weakly. “But a group that big would have done something to draw attention-”
“Unless they were structured,” Dumbledore said. “Which I suspect they are, and they’re – as I said before – almost certainly led by someone that knows what he or she is doing.”
“Which could support the Death Eater theory,” Sirius said.
“It could,” Dumbledore agreed. “It also could not. It’s difficult to know. But, I think it is safe to assume that they’ve had training of some form, or that they are a collection of very talented witches and wizards.”
“Why?” Sirius asked.
“Attacking the Head of the Auror Department is a bold move,” Dumbledore said. “Tom didn’t attempt it with the Death Eaters until the sixth or seventh year of his... campaign-” Sirius set his jaw. Charlus Potter’s death hadn’t been nearly as difficult for him to overcome as Lily and James’ deaths, but the mention of the man he’d considered a father set off a dull ache in the pit of his stomach. “-when he had the resources, and when his Death Eaters had the experience and skill necessary to pull off such a feat.”
“So they’re dangerous?” Sirius asked flatly.
“And that they possibly have people on the inside – likely in the D.M.L.E. or Magical Maintenance – who are keeping an eye on things.” Sirius had to admit that Dumbledore had a point – Remus had wondered the same thing a few nights ago. Dumbledore cleared his throat gently. “I suggest, if or when the time comes that you are forced into a confrontation, that you do not underestimate them.” Dumbledore leaned back into his chair, looking grave.
“All right,” Sirius said, a bit unnerved. Sometimes, he looked back on the war with fondness; James and Lily had been alive, he’d had Marlene, Peter hadn’t destroyed everyone’s lives yet... But he’d forgotten how much he hated the stress of feeling like it was up to him to help, and that he had to always be doing something, else he was a coward, or wasting time, or putting people in danger. He hadn’t missed that feeling at all. “And that’s all you know?”
“I do not have the influence in the Auror Department that I do with some of the others.” Sirius could appreciate that; while he knew Amelia and Mad-Eye would keep Dumbledore in the loop, the Auror Department functioned in a way that was almost completely removed from the rest of the Ministry. They had for years, and it had been a cause of consternation with Ministers over the years, particularly those that wanted to feel like they were in control of their Ministry. Aurors and Hit Wizards certainly didn’t spend as much time checking up on policies with the Minister and Undersecretaries as the other departments did. “I know only what I am told.”
“And no one’s telling you anything?” Sirius asked.
“Alastor has been assigned the case,” Dumbledore told him. “I know that much.”
“That’s good – he can keep you updated-”
Dumbledore sighed, looking resigned and said, “Not quite, I’m afraid. Scrimgeour is keeping a very close eye on the case, and as such, a very close eye on Alastor.”
“So he’s staying quiet,” Sirius surmised.
“And rightly so,” Dumbledore replied. “Alastor’s loyalty should be to his job more than it should be to me. Would you like a sweet?”
“Thanks,” Sirius said, accepting one. Dumbledore plucked one out of the bowl for himself, and popped it into his mouth.
“This is not yet my battle. I do not feel as responsible for this as I did for Tom’s uprising, and the Ministry has not yet asked for – formally, or through their own lack of action – my assistance. I am happy to let them handle things for the time being.”
“So if I need information, go to Mad-Eye?” Sirius asked.
“Perhaps,” Dumbledore said, twiddling his thumbs. Sirius sighed. “Is something wrong?”
“Mad-Eye and I- well, we get along, but it’s not like it was before everything; he doesn’t trust me like he used to.”
“Crises will do strange things to trust,” Dumbledore said. “Look at us.”
“Yeah, normal people trust people they know they can trust more easily. But Mad-Eye – great bloke – but he’s the most paranoid, secretive person to grace Britain, and I’m fairly certain he’ll trust me less-”
“Constant vigilance,” Dumbledore murmured, and Sirius chuckled.
“Exactly. He won’t say a word, other than to tell me to keep my nose out before he hexes a chunk out of it to match his.” Dumbledore was the one chuckling now.
“Then perhaps,” he said, once he’d settled a bit, “you could talk to someone that Alastor trusts.”
* * *
“The Serpent Sworn?” Narcissa repeated, squinting at him though the bars of the Manor gate. Severus tightened his cloak around his shoulders as he was buffeted by a particularly strong gust of icy wind, and felt momentarily sorry for Narcissa, who was wrapped only in a dressing gown. She shivered. “No, Severus, the name means nothing to me.”
“Lucius hasn’t mentioned it?” he asked.
“No,” she said, apologetically, but firmly, and then yawned. Severus didn’t think he’d ever seen her do anything as mundane as yawning. “I don’t even think I’ve heard-” She yawned again. “What’s happening?”
“Nothing,” Severus replied.
“Severus, it’s the middle of the night,” she said flatly. “Why would you come now, if it wasn’t-”
“Perhaps I thought I ought to repay you for all the times you’ve inconvenienced me,” he said coolly. Narcissa’s mouth twitched, and he wondered when they’d reached the point that one of them could throw barbs without the other feeling the need to retaliate. He trusted her a bit more than Lucius – Narcissa, at least, had simple motivations, when it came down to it – but that still wasn’t all that much, particularly after she’d told Draco that she shouldn’t be trusted.
“It’s snowing,” she said, shifting one slippered foot. He eyed the wet, pale blue satin with disdain, and she shifted again and folded her arms. “Obviously this is important, Severus, or you wouldn’t be here, and obviously it’s something that requires discretion, or you’d be having this conversation with my husband.”
“Discretion would be appreciated,” Severus said, and she nodded curtly. He was troubled on the inside; Black had come to him of all people, to ask for... well, not help, but certainly information, and he wouldn’t have done so without strong need. Severus didn’t loathe the man anymore, but the dislike was still there, and he was reasonably sure Black felt the same, so Severus suspected the visit that afternoon had been one born of desperation. And if the Dark Lord was involved in any way, shape or form, then Severus needed to know. “At least for the time being.”
“What’s happened?” she asked again. Severus hesitated. While he trusted Narcissa enough to come to her for information, he didn’t think telling her was a good idea. Not because he feared she’d tell, but because he feared what she’d do – as far as Draco was concerned – if she thought the Dark Lord was coming back. He’d give her warning if or when that occasion arose, but givine her time to stew on it wouldn’t be good for anyone.
“If it becomes relevant, I’ll let you know,” he said.”I assure you of that.”
“You don’t trust me,” she said, in a hurt voice that he suspected would work on most people; he, however, knew that Narcissa was too controlled to let her voice sound that way by accident, and that she probably didn’t care enough about his opinion of her to be hurt by his lack of trust. He arched and eyebrow. She tucked her hair behind her ear; it was a futile endeavour, because the wind was tugging on it in all directions. “After everything the pair of us have been through the past few years, you don’t trust me enough to let me-”
“I will treat you with the same courtesy as you have treated me,” he said; I will tell you what I believe you need to know, when it is relevant.” Her hurt facade dropped at once, and for the second time that night, her mouth twitched.
“Very well,” she said. Severus looked over her shoulder at a brown blob that was moving about in the gardens behind her. He drew his wand, and Narcissa, spun, her hand jumping to her own wand, which had been somewhere in her dressing gown.
“Dobby,” she said, relaxing. Her tone was both explanation, and a summons, and the elf vanished out of the gardens and appeared beside her on the frozen gravel. “Could you make me a cup of tea, please. A warm one.”
“Of course, Mistress,” the elf squeaked. “But Master is telling Dobby to finish the gardening – ‘tis Dobby’s gardening night, Mistress-”
“Nothing’s going to grow in this weather,” she said dismissively. “I’ll handle Lucius. You may handle my tea.” The elf trembled and vanished with an obedient squeak. “Did you need to ask anything else?” she asked, turning back to Severus.
“And Draco’s still welcome tomorrow?”
“Draco’s always welcome,” Severus said quietly. And it was the truth. Draco was visiting more regularly now. Severus wasn’t sure what excuses Narcissa was making to Lucius, but frankly, he didn’t care. It wasn’t his problem, and Draco and Lucius and Draco and Hydrus were now so different that Severus got the impression that Draco wasn’t having an easy time at home, not because they were bullying him, but more because he was lonely. Severus always tried to make Draco feel as welcome as possible. Severus wasn’t a very welcoming man, and he still gave Draco a lot of tedious, menial tasks to work on, but he also took care to listen to his godson, and he took genuine interest in how Draco was.
Draco had quickly realised that Severus’ office – and time with Severus – was safe, and had responded in turn; Severus wasn’t sure whether he was saddened, or selfishly pleased that his ten year old godson’s best friend was a middle-aged potions professor.
“Always?” Narcissa asked. Severus inclined his head, and Narcissa smiled. “Thank you, Severus. It’s nice to know you’re watching out for him. And the training – I haven’t thanked you for it – and it hasn’t been easy – on any of us – but I truly think that it’s for the best-”
“That remains to be seen,” he said, but he thought – or hoped – she might be right. He also hoped that there was a chance that Draco might not follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Death Eaters if or when the time came, but he thought the chances of that were slim; Draco would probably look at the Dark Mark on his father’s arm, and at the one on Severus’ (not knowing that Severus didn’t much care for the brand) and decide he wanted the same. Severus sighed. The boy wasn’t even at Hogwarts yet, but Severus and Narcissa had already planned his entire future, and he’d follow that future, because they’d manipulated him into doing so.
Narcissa pursed her lips and said, “I’m going to have a cup of tea, and then I’m going back to bed. Good night, Severus.”
“Good night,” he said, and pulled his wand out of his pocket.
“And, Severus,” she called, before he could Disapparate. “If I hear anything about your Serpents, I’ll let you know.”
He inclined his head, and spun on the spot, as Narcissa strode back toward the Manor, like a ghostly shadow against the snow.
* * *
“You’re late. Close the door.” The man who’d just entered the room did so without question.
“It’s dark,” he said.
“Is that a problem?” replied the man who’d just reprimanded him. There was something like humour in his voice. “I’d have thought you of all-”
“No,” replied the other.
“Good.” The man’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he was able to make out the other man, sitting on an overturned crate of broom polish, and with all the haughty grandeur of a king on his throne. “Would you like a seat?”
“I’ll stand.” The man who was sitting down, shrugged, and then looked up, eyes sharp and bright in the darkness.
“You wanted to tell me something.”
“Black’s been asking questions.”
“Has he?” There was interest in the seated man’s voice now, and the barest hint of smugness. “Fancy that.”
“You’re not surprised,” the man snorted.
“No,” the seated man admitted. “But it’s good to know all the same. Where did you hear that?”
“I have sources too,” the man replied, and the seated man’s face twisted.
“I hope they’re reliable. If this gets to the wrong people-”
“My source is trustworthy,” the man said, folding his arms, and privately enjoyed how rattled his superior was to hear about his sources.
Ha! You’re not the only one who can play this game, he thought.
“Has Black found anything?”
“Nothing that endangers us,” he said, and then with grudging admiration, “If anyone was going to work it out, it’d be him.”
“Perhaps,” said the seated man, but it was obvious that he agreed. “With any luck, he – and the rest of them - will have no idea what’s happening until it’s happened.”
“With any luck,” he agreed. “You really think we can pull this off?”
“I think so, yes,” the seated man said confidently. “It’s a bit more extreme than anything we’ve ever attempted-” The standing man murmured his agreement. “-but everyone knows their role, and we’re a proficient lot. The only thing I’m a little worried about-” The man’s eyes widened at that; the seated man was not the type to admit to worrying about anything. “-is people getting hurt.”
“If our lot get hurt, it’ll be their own fault,” the man said gruffly. “They should be able to handle anything thrown their way.” The seated man made a noise that might have been agreement, but the man couldn’t be certain.
“Should being the key word here,” the seated man said. “But time will tell, I suppose.”
“Are you still thinking Christmas?”
“I am.” The man nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you for telling me about Black. I’ve got others watching, but the more eyes we have on him, the better.” The man snorted, and the seated man smiled wryly. “It’s all for him, after all.”
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