Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter, it's characters, or anything associated with it. I'm not making any money from this story, and I don't intend to. I'm writing it purely for the satisfaction of it, and because several people warned me that there would be dire consequences if I didn't finish it. Please don't sue -- I don't own enough to make it worth your while.
Note: This is a Harry / Severus slash story -- and while their relationship is also accompanied by plot, action, and drama, if you seriously object to the slash element -- or to the particular pairing -- then don't read the story!
The Mirror of Maybe
Chapter Ten - Questions and Answers
By Midnight Blue
For Severus Snape, the next day passed in a blur of confusion and mixed emotions. On the one hand, it was incredibly flattering to know the War Mage found him attractive. But on the other hand, Severus didn't for one minute believe that that the man was sincere in his little 'be all two people can be to each other' speech.
It was plain, however, that the Dark Arts teacher did find him desirable -- no matter what his other reasons might be. One simply did not look at another person in that lingering and... appreciative... way, without at least some genuine interest.
//The question is,// Severus mused, //what should I do about it?//
Knowing that there must be something else the War Mage wanted from him, didn't mean that Severus would ever have to give it to him. So long as he refused to indulge the other man in anything more than a casual relationship, then a few nights spent together wouldn't compromise anything. In fact, it might even be useful, since the mage would probably reveal his real reason for wanting the liaison as soon as he thought Severus was sufficiently infatuated with him.
But in the meantime, it might be nice to have a warm bed to sleep in, and someone to hold close through the night. It had been far too long since Severus had last enjoyed a lover's touch, and loneliness was, indeed, a very powerful aphrodisiac.
Severus had indulged himself in a few casual relationships over the years, and knew all too well how they invariably ended. Eventually, the other party would discover that he really was exactly what he appeared to be -- and not some secretly repressed kind-hearted innocent -- or else they finally realised that they weren't going to get whatever it was they wanted, and quickly ended the affair in order to try their luck elsewhere.
Whenever that happened, it caused Severus a mild sense of regret -- but it was only a small pain, since he'd never been under any illusions about the permanence of the relationship in the first place. In fact, he was sometimes grateful there'd never been any great love in his life -- loved ones were a weakness that Voldemort ruthlessly exploited, and that bastard had enough of a hold over him as it was.
And yet, while they lasted, the satisfaction Severus derived from the occasional lover more than made up for whatever tiny pang of hurt he felt when they left.
But this time, Severus found himself wondering whether the War Mage might actually be willing to continue the liaison after he discovered that Severus would not give him whatever it was he wanted.
When he'd first seen the mage's photo' in the Daily Prophet, Severus could remember thinking that the man had been blessed with a truly ordinary face. Not handsome, not ugly -- it was just a face, and would be easily forgotten in a crowd. There had been any number of times when Severus would have killed to have such a face -- one that would not identify him, or let people remember him as easily as his own features did.
Then he'd actually met the man.
War Mage Ash had presence. He could probably charm the birds down out of the bloody trees if he felt like it. In person, there was nothing forgettable about him at all. Even after Albus' little 'demonstration' at the welcome feast, most of the students -- and certainly all of the staff -- were still enamoured of him. A bit more wary perhaps, but enamoured nonetheless.
That being the case, the mage could have found a lover anywhere he wanted. Hogsmeade, for instance, was conveniently nearby and had a large enough population that there would certainly be several suitable witches he could have approached.
But there were not very many suitable wizards he could have approached.
Wizards who preferred the intimate company of other men were in the minority, and while they were not hounded or persecuted, a preference for your own gender was still considered somewhat... disappointing... by a young wizard or witch's family.
Severus -- who had no brothers or sisters, and whose parents had died before his twelfth birthday -- had not had anybody to disappoint. Thus, he'd never bothered to hide his preferences, and had never felt any obligation to 'settle down' and produce grandchildren. It was only his intense desire for privacy, and his dislike of public emotional displays, that kept others in ignorance.
That meant it would've been relatively easy for the mage to discover that Severus was only interested in men. Certainly Albus and Minerva knew, and probably several of the other teachers did as well. A few charming smiles and some staffroom gossip would've ensured that the Dark Arts teacher was also privy to the information.
If the War Mage was exclusively interested in men, then there was a chance he might accept an offer to continue in a casual relationship simply because it was convenient. He was attracted to Severus -- he already knew Severus had a preference for male lovers -- and they were both teachers at Hogwarts: even living in the same isolated corridor.
One did not survive the life Severus had lived by being anything less than brutally honest with yourself, and Snape was well aware that with his hooked nose and pale complexion, he wasn't exactly the epitome of male beauty. He was by no means ugly either, but he wasn't very likely to be appearing on the cover of Witch's Weekly any time soon.
If the mage could be bothered to make a few enquiries, he would eventually find others who were younger, better looking, and not so prone to insults and sarcasm. At that point, 'convenience' was all that would be left in Severus' favour.
It wasn't really much of an incentive.
And so, Severus spent a large part of Saturday vacillating between the thought that it might be nice to indulge in a brief affair, and the knowledge that it probably wouldn't last very long -- and then he would have to put up with seeing the man every day and knowing that he probably had a lover somewhere else. That kind of depressing reminder Severus did not need in his life.
However, it was not until late Saturday evening that he suddenly realised there were a couple of very important reasons why Severus Snape should probably stay as far away from the Dark Arts teacher as he could possibly get... and oddly enough, it was a glass of wine that finally reminded him of the realities of life -- or at least the realities of his life.
It was late -- several hours past dinner -- and Severus had long since retired to his rooms. He was comfortably ensconced in his favourite armchair, watching the fire burn low in the hearth. After absently taking a sip from his wineglass, he lowered his arm only to find his eyes drawn to the flickering highlights reflected in the delicate lead crystal. Severus noted that the red colour of the wine looked remarkably like blood in this light.
Then his eyes were drawn to a darker image.
When he'd raised the wineglass to his lips, the sleeve of his robes had fallen back, exposing the Dark Mark on his forearm. With his hand palm-up to cradle the glass, the Mark lay fully exposed in the firelight -- an indelible reminder of Voldemort's presence in his life -- and of where his public loyalties were supposed to lie.
Seeing the Mark on his arm was like having a bucket of ice water thrown over him.
The War Mage had already killed one Death Eater, and Severus had heard from others that the man had also refused the Dark Lord's invitation to join them -- and refused in such a way that he'd made it plain he felt nothing but contempt and disgust for Voldemort and all his followers.
//What was I thinking?!// came the shaken realisation. //Even if the mage didn't kill me, Voldemort would!//
None of Severus' previous lovers had been powerful, visible, or important enough, for Voldemort to care less about -- and all of them had already known about the Dark Mark. But in the War Mage's case, Voldemort would have to wonder why one of his supposedly loyal servants had taken up with a powerful and dangerous man who'd already declared himself an enemy. Severus had enough problems keeping the Dark Lord convinced he was loyal, without giving him more reasons to doubt it. And as for the mage himself, Severus certainly couldn't explain that he was Dumbledore's spy! Even if the Dark Arts teacher believed him, Severus hadn't survived this long by trusting virtual strangers with his most closely guarded secrets.
And certainly not over something as trivial as sex!
//Bloody hell!// he swore to himself. //What's wrong with me? -- one look from a man I hardly know, and I'm no better than those idiotic walking hormones I'm forced to teach all week!//
Worried that his finely honed sense of survival was slipping, Severus studied his reaction to the War Mage with as much dispassionate logic as he could muster. Belatedly, he remembered the dark and dangerous version of the mage he'd glimpsed at the end of their first late night encounter in the staff lounge. He could remember thinking then, that the man had already killed one of Voldemort's followers. Why had he forgotten that?
Eventually, Severus reached the conclusion that it was probably because he'd spent the day thinking of the mage as a potential lover. He'd never had to worry about Voldemort -- or a violent anti-Death Eater prejudice -- with any of his previous partners. It simply hadn't been an issue. In some strange way, those previous experiences had merged together in his subconscious, and somehow... isolated... his idea of a bed partner from the larger picture of his life.
It was a dangerous isolation -- and now that he was aware of it, he would take care to guard against it in the future.
//But for now,// he thought as he finished his wine, //I believe I shall stay well away from War Mage Ash.//
Sunday afternoon found Ron and Hermione walking back to the school after a pleasant afternoon spent with Hagrid. They'd become much closer to the half-giant since they'd discovered he still had a connection to Harry. Every day they would stop by for a visit, which always began with Hagrid's assurance that Harry was fine. From there they would often talk about their missing friend, before moving on to other topics such as the school, their classes, and the world in general.
Ron enjoyed hearing Hagrid tell stories about Charlie -- his oldest brother -- and the mischief he'd gotten up to when he'd been a student at Hogwarts. As it turned out, Charlie had always shared Hagrid's bizarre love of dangerous animals, and Ron privately suspected that Hagrid might even have been the cause of Charlie's decision to study dragons.
It had surprised Ron to learn that his brother and Hagrid still owled each other regularly, and that Hagrid even had a photo' album full of pictures of Norbert -- all courtesy of Charlie. As the Norwegian Ridgeback had grown, Hagrid had acquired new pictures from Ron's brother, detailing all of the dragon's physical changes.
"Look 'ere, Ron!" Hagrid had eagerly pointed out. "That's Norbert's first flight! Yer brother caught 'im just as 'e was leapin' off the rock! Well, it was more like fallin', really -- but 'is wings were spread an' Charlie said 'e landed a good twelve feet down the slope! His first flight -- my little Norbert!"
After that, they'd also seen Norbert's first hunt, and Norbert's first kill -- to which Hermione had gone "Ewww..." -- but Hagrid hadn't seemed to notice, and kept right on talking about Norbert's first meeting with other dragons and how they'd accepted him, and Norbert's first this, and Norbert's first that, until finally there were no more photo's left.
It had been interesting for Ron because it involved his brother and the work Charlie was doing in Romania. But for Hermione, it had been interesting (if a bit bloodthirsty) because she suddenly realised that Hagrid must have been wanting to talk about Norbert with somebody for ages. But since very few people knew Hagrid had once owned an illegal pet dragon, there was really nobody he could tell.
Hermione discovered that she rather liked the feeling that came from simply sitting there and allowing Hagrid to chatter on about his dragon. It wasn't hard to do, and it made the half-giant very happy. In return, his happiness bubbled up to fill the room, and both Ron and Hermione always came away with smiles on their faces.
On that particular Sunday afternoon, as she and Ron were saying their goodbyes to the Gamekeeper, Hermione was especially aware of how much more cheerful she was, than she'd been when she arrived. As she and Ron walked back up to the castle under a calm early autumn sky, she considered her emotions, and Hagrid's unconscious ability to make her feel better.
//Could this be something like Heart Magic?// she wondered -- and then the curious thought occurred to her that perhaps some kinds of power weren't simply magic or muggle -- but came in degrees of... of 'magicalness', if such a word existed. If that were true, then the happiness she received from Hagrid's company was definitely Heart Magic -- a less magical form than what Harry (or maybe Professor Ash) had performed, but still Heart Magic nonetheless. That, in turn, meant that there were some things that were both muggle and magic, and could, perhaps, only be truly understood by specialists from both backgrounds.
//I wonder what would happen,// she thought, //if you had both muggle researchers and wizarding ones working together on the same problem...//
Walking back from Hagrid's hut on that perfectly ordinary Sunday afternoon, Hermione had no idea that she'd just had a revelation that would someday lead to an entirely new branch of study -- one wherein science and magic would be blended together to create marvels based on the newly discovered realm of technomagic.
Had Harry been there to explain his experiences in the Mirror, he could have told her about an old word put to new use, whereby 'magician' would come to mean a muggle who could manipulate magic through the use of machines keyed to his or her personal mental signature. There would never be many such muggles, since the link between mind and mechanism demanded that the magician also understand what the device was doing -- in effect, limiting the gift of magic to those with the ability to create such machines.
But the one thing Harry would never have told her about, was Robert -- the very first muggle magician -- and the man who might someday also be her husband.
As Ron and Hermione entered the school, they found themselves once more talking about Harry, and by extension, their frustration with Padfoot, Moony, and their Dark Arts professor.
"What did Padfoot's letter say, again?" Hermione asked.
Ron grimaced. "Only that Harry is safe and we shouldn't worry. I can't believe he and Moony left without telling us what was going on! We waited and waited -- it was torture sitting through Dark Arts and having professor Ash stand out there in front of us like nothing happened! And now this! Don't worry, he says! Well, I am bloody worried!"
"Yes, and it's very strange, too," Hermione agreed. "Remember what the professor said? -- he said he hadn't done anything with Harry that he cared to discuss in front of his students. That sounds like he knows exactly what happened..."
"Yeah -- and I bet he told Padfoot a whopping pack of lies to get him to just leave us hanging like this."
"I don't think so," Hermione disagreed, "Padfoot isn't stupid you know. I don't think he'd accept an explanation without some kind of proof. And Moony's pretty smart too. I really don't see how Professor Ash could have fooled them both."
Ron scowled. "Then he probably cast a spell on them or something."
Hermione looked worried. "That always possible," she admitted. "But then why hasn't he done anything to us? He knows we're suspicious of him."
"Perhaps," came Ash's voice from behind them, "because he hasn't done anything wrong, and thus has nothing to fear from your suspicions."
The two students jumped at the first word, and by the end of the mage's statement, they were both facing him, huddled together and pale-faced with fright.
The professor sighed. "Look, I'm really not the bad guy here, all right?"
Ron gathered his courage and took a half step forwards. "Then tell us what you did with Harry," he challenged. "Tell us where he is!"
Unexpectedly, Ash smiled. "You have the courage and tenacity of true friends," he told them. "It's... very good... to know how much you care about him."
"So you'll tell us?" Hermione asked uncertainly.
The mage considered it. After a moment, he replied, "I can't tell you much..." and then he looked around, "-- and I'm certainly not going to discuss it in a hallway, even if it does appear to be empty." He turned, and gestured for them to follow. "Come along," he told them, "We'll talk about this in my quarters."
The two worried students trailed after their Dark Arts teacher, half afraid of being alone with him, and half hopeful that they might finally discover what had happened to their best friend.
At one point, Ron leaned in close to Hermione and whispered, "D'you think we should be following him off like this? He might be trying to lure us somewhere private so he can cast a spell on us..."
Without turning around, Harry replied, "I wouldn't need to get you alone for that Mr Weasley, and you need to lower your voice more if you wish to speak privately with Miss Granger."
There was silence in the hallways after that.
Soon after, they came to a part of the castle that neither student had visited in quite a while -- not since their exploration trips during first and second year, in fact.
"Doesn't Professor Snape live somewhere around here?" Ron asked his fellow Gryffindor.
"I think so..."
"Yes," Harry told them. "His rooms are a few doors down from mine."
"You live next to Snape?!" Ron exclaimed.
"Professor Snape," the War Mage mildly replied, "is an excellent neighbour."
Ron shot Hermione a disbelieving look. She responded with one that plainly said 'So what? -- and for god's sake, don't make an issue of it'.
Ron scowled, but didn't pursue the impossibility of a neighbourly Snape.
As they turned into the final corridor, both Ron and Hermione were surprised to see Draco Malfoy hanging about. They immediately assumed he must be waiting to see Snape -- his Head of House -- and were surprised when it turned out to be Ash's door he was loitering around.
"Draco," Ash acknowledged in warm tones.
Ron and Hermione shot worried looks at each other. They'd never heard their Dark Arts teacher address the other boy as anything other than 'Mr Malfoy' in class. It didn't bode well if the professor was actually friends with the likes of Draco Malfoy!
Draco himself looked quite pleased that the War Mage was willing to use his first name in front of the two Gryffindors. For Draco, it meant that the professor wasn't ashamed of being publicly associated with the son of a Death Eater. And considering Ash's dislike of the Dark Lord's followers, that only confirmed that Professor Ash really did think of him as a separate person in his own right -- and not just his father's son.
Draco managed to shock the other two students again by giving his teacher a genuinely pleasant smile. "Professor," he replied, "I was hoping to talk to you, but I can see you're busy."
"Was it important?" Ash asked. "I can postpone this if it is."
"No," Draco replied, "it was just talk -- nothing that can't wait," and then he smirked at the two Gryffindors, obviously assuming they were about to be punished for something.
Ron bristled, and even Hermione looked indignant.
"Draco," Ash gently admonished, "they aren't in trouble -- I just need to speak with them about something."
Draco looked faintly disappointed. "Pity," he murmured, "I was hoping they'd done something extremely Gryffindor."
Harry bit back a laugh, remembering how Draco had worked out that the Gryffindor weakness was being so brave that they occasionally did things only an idiot would attempt.
Ron and Hermione looked from their teacher, to Draco, and back again -- obviously wondering whether they'd just been insulted, but unwilling to admit their ignorance by asking.
Draco only looked more amused as he easily bid the Dark Arts professor goodbye, and sauntered off down the hall.
Ron kept an eye on the untrustworthy Slytherin until he was out of sight. He heard Professor Ash say "Open" behind him, and turned back to see the War Mage ushering Hermione inside, and waiting expectantly for him to follow. With some trepidation, he entered the War Mage's personal quarters.
The cheery and comfortable room beyond the door was a complete surprise. Ron and Hermione stood gawking in the middle of their Dark Arts teacher's living room as they slowly turned in place, gradually taking in all the strange sights, interwoven with familiar objects from the school.
The mage himself disappeared into the kitchen, leaving them to talk privately for a few moments.
"Ron?" Hermione asked quietly, "This room is..."
"...really great," Ron finished in a quietly amazed voice.
"You feel it too?"
"Yeah -- it's like... like being in our common room or something -- except it's not just the Gryffindor common room..."
"No," Hermione agreed, "it's the whole school. I feel like I've been away for the whole summer, and I've just walked in the front door again." And as she continued to look around, Hermione's eye fell on a small, cracked glass sphere sitting on one of the shelves. It looked familiar, but she couldn't place it -- and then the professor returned.
He was carrying a tray with hot water, cups, milk, biscuits, and drinking chocolate -- all of which he deftly slid onto a low table near the fireplace. "Would you two like some hot chocolate?" he asked.
They stared at him in surprise. Hermione found her voice first, and politely answered "Yes, thank-you, Professor."
"Are you mad?!" Ron hissed quietly in her ear.
"I think," Professor Ash replied, "that Miss Granger has simply noticed that there are three cups on the tray -- indicating that I fully intend to drink from the same mixture of ingredients that would be in your own cups. Thus, she feels no need to worry about being poisoned or slipped any strange potions."
Ron had the grace to look embarrassed, and apologetically mumbled "Sorry, 'Mione."
"So," Ash asked again, "would you like a hot chocolate Mr Weasley?"
"Erm... yes, thanks," and then -- as if to prove he was now firmly on the side of the hot chocolate drinkers -- Ron asked, "Are there any marshmallows?"
A smile played about the professor's lips. "No, I'm afraid not," he replied. "I was unfortunately called upon to donate my last packet to a friend. However I humbly ask to be forgiven, and offer these cream-filled biscuits as a poor substitute."
Generously, Ron declared, "That's all right -- I'm sure these will be fine."
Neither student noticed that they were slowly becoming more relaxed in the War Mage's presence as his rooms and his light banter continued to ease their suspicions. When he had the time for it, Harry was very skilled at getting people to trust him -- and his two friends were well worth the effort of winning over.
Once they all had a drink and a biscuit in their hands -- and after Ash had deliberately taken the first sip from his own cup -- Ron and Hermione settled into their seats, both sets of eyes expectantly pinning their teacher to his chair.
Ash smiled at them. "Yes," he admitted, "I do know where Harry Potter is, and no -- I can't tell you."
"What!" Ron cried, "Why can't you tell us? We're his best friends! We deserve to know just as much as Dumbledore does!"
"And Dumbledore does not know where he is either," came the unruffled reply.
"But the Headmaster knows that you know," Hermione guessed.
Their teacher inclined his head in agreement.
Scowling once again, Ron asked, "So what can you tell us?"
"As much as I've told the Headmaster -- providing you swear that you will not tell others, and that you'll take care not to discuss this where there's a chance you may be overheard."
"We swear," they both promptly agreed -- and Ash frowned at their quick reply.
"Do you, indeed," he asked slowly. "And do you also realise that should certain people in the school come to hear of this, not only will I become a target for their scheming, but you'll also be setting yourselves up for possible kidnapping and torture."
The two Gryffindors paled.
"That," Ash explained, "is the risk you take when you hold more secrets than the people around you." Then softly, he added, "Scientia est Potestas -- 'Knowledge is Power' -- and even the little bit I'm willing to share with you, is more than Voldemort knows. What do you think he would do -- or more to the point, is there anything you think he wouldn't do -- if he believed that either of you might have an answer to even one of his questions?"
Ron swallowed hard, "He -- he can't get into Hogwarts -- it too well protected, and Dumbledore's here..."
"And you don't go home for the holidays?" the War Mage asked with raised eyebrows, "You don't have friends -- family -- who live outside the school?"
"My family are muggles," Hermione whispered. "Ron -- they wouldn't stand a chance!"
Their Dark Arts professor leaned back in his chair. "It's not even a matter of how much I tell you," he explained, "It's a matter of how much the enemy thinks you might know -- and as you pointed out, you are Harry's best friends..."
By now both Hermione and Ron were looking considerably more serious about what they were agreeing to.
"Are you sure you want to know?" Ash asked them. "It would be safer for you -- and for your families -- if you didn't; but I'm still willing to tell you. After that, it will be up to you to make sure you don't give yourselves away. Dumbledore understands this. I need to make sure you two do as well."
It was Hermione who eventually broke the silence. Turning to Ron, she said, "If we do this, then we can never discuss it outside of these rooms or the Headmaster's office. There are secret passageways and hidden doors everywhere. We might be overheard -- even when we think we're alone."
With a solemn expression on his face, Ron painfully admitted, "Then I don't think I should stay. I... I think I would have to talk about it 'Mione. I don't think I could know where his is, or what he was doing, and keep it all bottled up inside. I need to talk about him -- it makes me feel like a little bit of him is still here."
The War Mage interrupted them: "You would be welcome to use this room whenever you wish. My quarters are secure, and I'm perfectly happy to work in my study if you want privacy. The only thing you should be aware of, is that you'll probably run into Draco from time to time. He often comes here after class."
The two students considered this. Carefully Hermione said, "Professor... you do know his father is a Death Eater, don't you? Please say you haven't told Malfoy about Harry..."
Ash regarded her with an air of disappointment. "Miss Granger," he said, "you are doing Draco an injustice. He is not his father, and it's unfair of you to assume he's going to be a Death Eater just because Lucius Malfoy is. Are you going to be a dentist just because your parents are?"
Ron was quick to defend his fellow Gryffindor. "But sir -- Draco wants to be a Death Eater!"
"Ah," the professor replied, "he's told you that, has he? You've actually asked him?"
"Well, no -- but everybody knows --"
"Nothing," Ash interrupted firmly. "Everybody knows nothing. They -- and you -- have assumed a great deal."
"You mean he doesn't want to be a Death Eater?" Hermione asked with some surprise.
"That's really none of you business," their teacher calmly replied. "What Draco and I talk about is between he and I -- and I won't discuss it with you, anymore than I would talk about our current conversation with him." Then the mage tilted his head thoughtfully to one side, and added, "However, it may interest you to know that he's never even mentioned Harry to me. In fact, now that he's no longer at the school, I don't think Draco really gives a damn about Mr Potter."
"Well, I know that's not true," Ron said confidently. "Malfoy hates Harry's guts!"
"Does he?" Ash asked with a disconcerting stare, "or was it simply that 'everybody' expected him to feel that way? When the whole world believes you'll do something, or be something, then it's very hard to go against that belief. Did Harry never tell you how much he hates being the Boy Who Lived? There are so many people -- all expecting things from him -- regardless of what he wants. It seems to me, that Harry and Draco have rather a lot in common when you think about it." Then the War Mage paused before adding, "And you Mr Weasley, should consider the number of times you've heard your parents reviewing your brothers' achievements, and remember how it feels to know they expect certain things from you, just because your brothers did them."
Ron looked mortified. "I hate that!" he admitted. "I... I don't like the thought of doing the same thing to someone else -- even if it's Malfoy." Then he grimaced. "But I still can't stand the smarmy little git!"
Ash laughed. "Then just ignore him. I think you'll find that now Harry isn't with you, he'll be perfectly happy to ignore you right back."
"Why," Hermione suddenly asked, "do you call Harry and Malfoy by their first names, but not us?"
With no pause to acknowledge the abrupt change of topic, the War Mage smoothly replied, "Do you remember what I told your class about War Mages and their names?" Both students nodded. "Well, I have the right to use Harry's personal name, and although it's true I didn't formally ask Draco for permission -- it's also true that there are... certain things... between us, that allowed me to presume upon his permission. Had he objected, I would of course, still be calling him Mr Malfoy, even outside of class."
"Oh," Hermione said. "So it's just a matter of permission? That's all?"
Smiling, her teacher asked, "Miss Granger, would you like me to call you Hermione when we're not in class?"
"Yes please," she smiled, "-- especially if Ron and I are going to use your rooms when we talk about Harry."
Inwardly Harry himself was cheering. Hermione had been won over -- now only Ron remained. "And you Mr Weasley? Or has Hermione mistakenly assumed you still want to know as much as I can tell you?"
Ron was quick to support his friend. "Hermione knows me pretty well, Professor. I still want to know about Harry -- and you can call me Ron if you like. Just please -- don't ever call me 'Ronald'."
"Ron it is," their professor smiled. And then he proceeded to tell them only as much as he'd told Albus Dumbledore. He skirted the truth carefully, and silently thanked Hermione's intelligence when she filled in the blanks by herself, just as the Headmaster had done.
When they came to the end, it was Hermione who frowned and said, "Is this what you told Padfoot and Moony?"
Ash laughed. "No," he replied, "can you imagine Harry's godfather being satisfied with that?"
"Are you saying," Ron demanded, "that you told them more than you've told us -- more than you've told Dumbledore?!"
"Yes," Ash stated, and then raised his hand to forestall Ron's next outraged comment. "But Padfoot and Moony were a special case," he explained. "Even should it become known that they have information on Harry's whereabouts, they stand a much better chance of not divulging the information than you do. After all, you'd have to find them first, and then you'd have to convince them to talk."
"Dumbledore," Ash continued, "is easy to find because he's here at the school. And even though I doubt he'd ever talk, the Ministry, the Aurors, and the media could make it very difficult for him. It's better that he doesn't know -- then he can honestly say so, and -- as you'll notice -- because of that, all those vultures eventually gave up and went away."
"As well," their Dark Arts teacher concluded, "can you honestly say that either of you would be able to stand up to torture -- or veritaserum, if it came to that?" Ron and Hermione looked fearful, but determined. "Yes," Ash told them, "I know you'd do your best, but none of us can ever really know how we'll react to something like that until it happens -- and neither of you have been trained to avoid answers, or to give a truthful but misleading answer, while drugged up to the eyeballs."
"Suffice it to say," he concluded, "that I was prepared to take a greater risk when it came to Sirius Black and Remus Lupin -- and they were prepared to accept that risk, knowing exactly what Voldemort and the Aurors and the Ministry and the media would do if they ever found out."
Hermione shivered. "It would be the biggest manhunt in the world," she said. "Everybody would be after them."
"And knowing that is, perhaps, the greatest secret you currently hold. One word out of place and either of you could trigger that manhunt. Even Dumbledore doesn't realise they have any more information than he does -- and you mustnít tell him. You cannot tell anyone!"
Ron was both awed and shaken by the realisation that his mouth could quite possibly get both men killed. "Then why did you tell us?" he asked.
Hermione rolled her eyes. "Because we were there, Ron," she explained, "and because you and I both know Padfoot would never have left until he had a better explanation than the one we just got. Sooner or later we would've realised that he and Moony knew a whole lot more than we did. This way the professor can make sure we understand just how serious that tiny bit of information is. Otherwise, we might have owled Sirius, demanding to know more."
"Gods!" Ron exclaimed. "Don't even think about that while you're holding a quill! The thought of it on parchment -- anywhere -- is horrible!"
In the opposite chair, Harry was both elated and saddened. He'd managed to convince both his friends that 'Ash' was trustworthy, but the price for doing so was that both of them were now far more aware of the stakes involved in keeping his secrets. Never again would they whisper theories and gossip to one another with a child's careless disregard for where they were, or what they were about to say.
It was somehow appropriate that in forcing them to grow up just a little bit, he'd also brought them just a little bit closer to being friends with his adult self.
Later that evening, Ron and Hermione were sitting in a corner of the common room pretending to study, while actually holding a quiet discussion about their Dark Arts teacher.
They were very carefully avoiding any mention of Harry.
"You know," Hermione was saying, "there's something very strange about Professor Ash..."
"You mean aside from the fact that he's a mage; he's friends with Malfoy; he thinks Snape is a good neighbour; and we still believe what he told us?" Ron asked with a grin.
"Stop that," she glared at him. "That's not what I meant."
He didn't sound very sorry, but Hermione too busy trying to sort through her observations and fit them into some sort of pattern, to really notice.
Ron -- who'd been expecting a comeback -- saw that she was wearing her 'thinking-about-something-serious' expression, and quietly asked, "What's wrong, then? You don't think he lied to us, do you?"
"No," she said, dismissing the suggestion immediately. "It's something to do with the professor himself. I just can't put my finger on it..."
While Ron wasn't any help at all when it came to Hermione and schoolwork, he did know exactly what to do when she got stuck on an idea like this. "Tell me everything," he suggested, "and we'll see what we can come up with." He'd been acting as her sounding board for years now, and he knew that all she needed at this moment was someone to bounce her ideas off. Somewhere along the way, she would usually get herself unstuck. Ron's game was to try and figure out what she was talking about before she reached that point and rushed off to the library.
"All right," Hermione agreed, warming up to her topic. "First of all, there's the fact that Professor Ash showed up in Diagon Alley only a day or two after Harry disappeared."
Ron refrained from pointing out that he'd probably helped Harry disappear.
"Then," she continued, "you just happen to meet him over the summer -- coming out of a broom shop, no less -- and he instantly decides to buy you and Ginny an ice cream and milkshake, while at the same time asking you all kinds of questions. But they're questions about things he should already know! For instance -- I talked to Ginny, and she told me he was surprised that you two had to stay together. But these days no-one goes out by themselves. He's a War Mage -- how could he not have noticed?" Then a new idea struck her, and she added, "Unless he'd just arrived from some place that was even more dangerous -- meaning it didn't look so bad to him here in Britain."
"Well, he did say he'd come from overseas," Ron threw in.
"Yes," Hermione agreed impatiently, "but You-Know-Who is here, and has been for the last few years. Where in the wizarding world would it be worse than it is here?"
"Does it have to be the wizarding world?" Ron asked, "Some of those muggle wars are pretty bad."
"Maybe..." but Hermione sounded rather dubious about the possibility. "Anyway," she continued, "after that he turns up here as our Dark Arts teacher -- and then it gets really interesting."
"It does?" Ron asked. So far Hermione was winning this game -- 'cause he hadn't a clue what she was getting at.
"Oh yes," she confirmed. "Because that's when we found out he loves Quidditch, and that you think he flies the same way Harry does."
"Well, not exactly the same..."
"But close enough to remind you very strongly of Harry, right?"
"Yeah -- I guess so. Is that important?"
"It's a clue," Hermione stated, "By itself, it's not important, but when you add in all the all rest of the clues -- then yes, it becomes important."
"Okay, so what are the rest of the clues?"
"Well, the most important ones are from this afternoon," and she marshalled her observations for him. "He knows Draco even better than the Slytherins do, but he's only been here three weeks. His apartment looks like he's lived in it for years, and it feels as if the the whole school exists in there -- oh, and don't forget that he somehow managed to get all those staircases to move when he jumped down the main tower -- so he definitely has some kind of connection with the castle itself. And after all that, we also find out that he knows a couple of things about you and I that he really shouldn't."
"Like what?" Ron asked.
"Like the fact that both of my parents are dentists," she replied. "And that he knows how you feel about being compared to you older brothers -- not to mention how he could possibly know you even have older brothers. Unless you told him about them in Diagon alley?"
Now somewhat disturbed, Ron slowly replied, "No -- I'm pretty sure I didn't tell him about my family. I don't think he asked..."
"Well they're not here at Hogwarts anymore, so how did he know about them?"
Ron shrugged, "Maybe the other teaches told him. It's not like Fred and George were easy to ignore. The professors probably tell horror stories about past students to all the new teachers."
Hermione pursed her lips in consideration. "All right, I'll grant you that's possible. But then," she continued, "there's Padfoot and Moony. I won't say anything more specific in the common room, but just think about this -- what could Ash possibly say to them that would convince those two to just up and leave like that?"
Ron frowned. "Now it sounds like you're saying the professor did lie to us."
"Not at all," Hermione argued, "I'm just saying that I don't think mere information would have satisfied those two. I think Professor Ash must have done something, or showed them something, in order to convince them."
"I have no idea," Hermione admitted, "but I also keep thinking about this little cracked sphere I saw in the professor's rooms. I know it's important, and I'm sure I know what it is -- but I just can't think of it..."
"Sphere? You mean like a ball of some kind?"
"I... yes, I think so -- but it looked like it was made of glass or crystal..."
"A crystal ball? Sounds like someone got sick of doing their Divinations homework and threw it out a window," Ron joked.
"Threw it... Of course!" Hermione exclaimed. "It was Neville's rememberall! He broke it last year -- and gave it to Professor Flitwick to see whether he could fix it!"
"Yeah," Ron agreed, "but Flitwick couldn't do anything with it, so Neville didn't bother to ask for it back. You say it's in Ash's rooms? Why would he want it? It doesn't work anymore."
Suddenly Hermione's face got that astonished expression that told Ron she'd just come unstuck. "Oh no you don't!" he said as he grabbed her by the wrist. "It's too late to run off to the library now -- and we can't borrow Harry's invisibility cloak anymore, so Filch or Mrs Norris would catch you for sure!"
Reluctantly, Hermione subsided, but here eyes were bright, and her cheeks were flushed with the heady rush of insight.
"How about letting me in on the secret this time, eh 'Mione?" Ron wasn't hopeful, but maybe she'd throw him a few scraps of information. It was moments like these that he really wished he knew what she was thinking.
"Oh, Ron -- I'm not sure! I mean -- it makes sense, but it's so far-fetched!"
"What?" Ron asked. "What makes sense?"
"It makes sense when you think about how Professor Ash flies like Harry, and loves broom shops and Quidditch. It makes sense when you think about how he knows the school and all of us, so well. It makes sense when you think that he didn't turn up until just after Harry disappeared. It even makes sense when you consider that he probably arrived from a place that wasn't anywhere on earth, but was much more dangerous than it is here in Britain. And," she finished triumphantly, "it most definitely all makes sense when you consider the reason someone would choose to keep a broken rememberall -- Neville's broken rememberall -- in their living room!"
Ron could feel a headache coming on. //The professor arrived from somewhere not on earth?// He winced. //Do I even want to know?// He must have looked as confused as he felt, because Hermione just sighed and prompted him with: "Ron, think about the first time you saw Neville's rememberall. It wasn't a frustrated Predictions student who threw it -- it was Draco Malfoy."
Ron still wasn't getting it.
Hermione tried again. "What do you think of when you picture Malfoy throwing the rememberall?"
"Harry's first time on a broom," Ron promptly answered. "He was amazing! It was the first time he showed up Malfoy, and it earned him a place as the youngest Seeker at Hogwarts in over a century!"
"And it got him his very own first broom," Hermione added. "Now why would Ash want to keep something like that?"
Ron took a guess: "To remind him of Harry?"
"No." Hermione shook her head. "If I'm right, then he doesn't need to be reminded of Harry. Try again."
"Umm... Look Hermione, I really don't know. It's late and I'm tired -- and I'm still stuck on the bit where you said the professor might not be from earth."
Hermione laughed. "I never said he wasn't from earth -- I just said he arrived on earth -- sometime after he left it!"
"Oh. So he's definitely human? Because at this point, I'm beginning to wonder whether this might all make more sense if he was an alien from another world."
Hermione snorted with amusement.
"Come on 'Mione!" Ron begged, "Can't you just this once tell me straight out? I helped you..."
Hermione arose from the table and gathered up her books.
"Bugger," Ron said dejectedly. "How am I supposed to sleep with this going 'round in my head?"
He didn't see Hermione's wicked grin as she suddenly stopped and headed back to him. "Well," she smirked as she leaned down with an armful of books, "in the interests of a good night's rest, perhaps I'll just mention that tomorrow you're going to be helping me in the library --"
"I already knew that," Ron whined pathetically.
"-- and we'll be trying to find out where people go when they get sucked into mirrors, and whether time is constant for them, and also how to see through glamours and disguising spells."
Then she turned and strolled off up to bed for a good night's sleep.
Ron looked like he'd been hit with a zombie curse. Wide, staring eyes looked blankly into space, and his mouth hung open in shock.
Eventually, the mouth closed, and he swallowed a few times, trying to get a bit of moisture back onto his tongue.
"Oh my god..."
Other than those words, Ron's mind had gone completely blank with shock.
"Oh my good god..." he finally added. "It can't be..."
But as far-fetched as it was, all the facts fit perfectly -- up to and including Padfoot and Moony's belief that Harry was fine. Because, of course, if Hermione was right then Sirius and Lupin had actually met Harry, and Harry really was fine...
...and was also teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts right here at Hogwarts.
Some time later, Ron realised that he was sitting in a deserted common room in the middle of the night.
"How am I supposed to get to sleep now?" he complained.
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