Chapter 5: Nowhere But Up
After a week’s absence, Netterheim returned to Diagon Alley expecting a report on business, a review of progress on his apprentice’s Master’s Project and then a well-deserved nap. But when he arrived mid-morning and found the Potions Shop door locked, Netterheim stepped inside with suspicion and took stock of his surroundings. He pulled an offending flask off the shelf, frowning at the brown sediment that had settled at the bottom. The rest of the shelf got the same treatment until a small collection of subpar products lined the counter, each having come out of suspension. Judging by the state of things, his shop had been vacant for days.
An Urtext edition of Valentine’s “Heimlichkeit der Welt” lay open on the worktable. Netterheim closed the medieval tome and whisked it back to the bookcase with his wand. Then his eye caught sight of his apprentice’s lab notebook… odd that it was here and his apprentice was not. That was not like Severus Snape to carelessly leave things unattended.
Netterheim flipped the lab book open to Severus' last working page. Brilliant mind, that one. If the young man could find a solution to the solvency issue, his work would be an asset to the Guild. But that didn’t mean that he could let a shop’s worth of potions sit idle in the meantime and spoil.
The Potions Master looked up as the front bell went off with a string of disparaging comments on his tongue for his protégé, but then his frown deepened as a formidable-looking Karkaroff and his cane marched up to the counter. The man moved as if people around him owed him favors; perhaps many did.
Netterheim found the man's arrogance distasteful. He met Karkaroff's solid gaze with his own. "What do you want?"
"I come for your apprentice."
Netterheim scowled. This man was meddling again. “He will not be disturbed. You cannot interfere in Guild business, or have you forgotten?”
Karkaroff tapped his cane on the floor. “You will soon see who holds the real power – you should join us while you still can. Before it is too late.”
“Threats? You were better than that once.” Netterheim moved some of the flasks under the shop counter and out of the way.
“The Guild will not protect your kind forever. We are growing stronger.” Tap, tap, tap went the cane.
“Your fight is with the Ministry. We have no issues with them. They let us be, as well should you.”
“Their limitations make us weak.”
“They make you weak. They do nothing to us. Not all power was meant to be wielded. The Guild has refused you because of your lack of wisdom in these matters. And since this Dark Lord of yours has chosen recklessness over restraint, he has no place with us either."
Karkaroff ground the tip of his cane into the floor and stiffened. "I demand that you..."
"You demand nothing!" Netterheim slammed the lab book on the counter, causing the remaining flasks around him to shudder. "I am not obligated to assist you. You can always take your business elsewhere."
"I might do that." Karkaroff said evenly. His hands clenched his cane involuntarily, not holding the same calmness as his voice. “I might let slip to the Ministry what you have brewing in the back room…”
“You are referring to the special order.” Netterheim frowned. Piles of permits for the rare ingredients, solid gold kettles for the curing, weeks to settle... The first batch wouldn’t be ready until next month and was taking up valuable storage space in his private laboratory.
"Very well, since you no longer appear to need it. Give me a moment to clear out my laboratory so I can get on with the backlog of orders for more reasonable clients."
He bent over and swung a large waste bucket from behind the counter. "Engorgio." The loss of profits would be worth getting rid of the tedious procedures, not to mention an extremely bothersome customer.
Karkaroff watched the bucket grow to twice its size and his eyes narrowed. "Wait."
The Potions Master turned to face the source of his irritation. "I do not have time for follies. If you have a dispute, contact the Guild." Netterheim was well within his contractual rights to refuse the business. This man had pushed beyond customer courtesy one too many times.
"We seem," Karkaroff began, clenching the hilt of his cane, "to have a misunderstanding."
Netterheim eyed him discriminately. Still gripping the bucket. Still half turned to the laboratory. These people with their Übermensch mentalities got on his last nerve.
"Do you have a proposition, or shall I retrieve your order?"
"Please," Karkaroff said, his tone thick with apology. "Continue with the preparation... and I will pay another five percent over your asking price to compensate for your troubles."
"Seven percent up front, tomorrow." Netterheim grumbled. "For my troubles." He watched Karkaroff’s cane carefully tapping out a steady beat next to his herb bins. The Guild granted him immunity from interfering organizations such as Karkaroff’s men, but that didn’t mean there hadn’t been unfortunate accidents…
From his many years, Netterheim’s ways were firmly set, but he could still bend, just a little. “When he is available, I will see that my apprentice gets your request for his presence.”
Karkaroff’s beady eyes narrowed further, a small sneer playing on his cheek. “Do not think you can protect him forever. He is already pledged to us.”
Even after Karkaroff left the shop, Netterheim’s foul mood didn’t let up. The flasks on the counter reminded him that there were still important matters to attend to.
And then finally, at half-past eleven, he heard plodding footsteps in the back hall and turned to see his apprentice make a long-overdue appearance. His potions robe was rumpled and he looked rather pale.
Netterheim breathed a sigh of relief that the young man was still whole. Looking at the state of him, it was a lucky thing that he hadn’t been in earlier. But that was as far as the Potions Master’s concern could stretch. There was work to be done.
Severus opted for silent suffering instead of explaining his neglect of the shop, which he was sure Netterheim didn’t want to hear. To avoid further lectures, he worked non-stop, catching up on missed duties. He spent the day surrounded by fresh batches of potions brewing in different states of completion, some for today’s customers and some to replace the spoiled flasks from the front shelves. And as an added bonus, the little sleep he managed on the uncomfortable camp bed in the basement was interrupted by a late night visit from Lucius Malfoy under the pretense of catching up, but more likely to prove to Karkaroff that he was still alive and they hadn’t finished him off yet. Lucius acted genuinely concerned and offered him a room in the Manor, but Severus knew better than to accept. There were too many strings attached to favors from the Malfoys.
It was late the next evening when he finally managed to break away. The sun had long since faded and the evening chill was settling in as he arrived in the hidden glen. Broken and tired, he dragged himself along the path and headed towards the gnarled tree. His arm was tied loosely in a sling which didn’t do much good. It hadn’t helped that he’d not made the time to make himself more healing potions or numbing salve. He’d been far too occupied with Netterheim’s demands to stop and take care of himself.
Dorcas was already there, pacing and looking worried about something.
As well she should. He had news.
“Karkaroff has selected a new target. I heard yesterday about his plan to go after the McKinnons. He’s determined to bring the whole family down.”
“With the potion?”
He shook his head. “It’s not ready yet. One of his spies is arranging something. Whatever it is, it’s going to be big.”
“I know them. They’re one of the last pure-blood families to hold out against the Death Eaters after the Potters were attacked.”
Severus squinted at the name. Dorcas paused, giving him a pointed look before she continued. “Mr. McKinnon told everyone how he was threatened – he was laughing it off at the last Ministry Directors Meeting. We… my boss tried to put an end to it, change the subject or something, but he just kept going on.”
“And got himself on the front page of the Daily Prophet. I saw that.” Severus remembered thinking how stupid the man was for speaking out like that – and then secretly wishing that there were more out there like him.
“At least he didn’t personally offer free copies of ‘My Life as a Muggle’ to any Death Eaters willing to come forward.”
Severus set down his satchel and tried to adjust the sling on his arm. “Would someone really do that?” It sounded too absurd to be real.
Dorcas nodded, looking a bit green. “I remember filing the report about six months ago. They found the author later in the day. He was spread out in five separate sections of the bookstore.”
“Yeah. That, I heard about.” From Wilkes, who had bragged all week about the trails he’d created in the plush carpeting. Severus winced as his arm started up again. He’d ignored his injury for too long.
“You could have told me you weren’t coming back last night.”
He had thought it was better to stay away. Safer for everyone, he’d decided.
But the day before, when he realized that he was in no condition to endure a night in the shop basement, it was too late (or rather too early in the morning) and he dared not appear unannounced at her door in the middle of the night.
“You look worse than you did two days ago.”
He felt worse too. There was no opportunity to clean himself up – he’d been so tired…
“The room is still available.”
Severus’ arm ached to rest on the pile of pillows propped up in the guest room instead of hunching over his side in the camp bed.
“And there’s a potions book and several doses of healing potion in the kitchen. That’s why I thought you were coming back.”
Both sounded like more than reasonable excuses. He shouldn’t be going back there, but he wanted his book back, he needed the potions and he still had that cramp in his side.
She’d gotten damned good at wrapping those bandages too.
Dorcas insisted on examining Severus’ arm and casting several cleansing charms, and this time she was surprised by how easily he fell into the kitchen chair and let her. When she finished, she took a step back and examined her work. She was no Healer, but it would do. He certainly looked more human. And smelled better. His face was slightly flushed and his skin was warm – she checked for a fever.
“What would the Death Eaters want with a shipment of plate silver?” she asked him when she was sure there was no sign of infection.
Severus shrugged. “The masks.”
“Huh.” Rumor was they all had one. “Where’s yours?”
“They give them to the people lucky enough to do their dirty work or if they’ll be seen in public. So far, I’ve only made potions.”
Dorcas couldn’t tell whether he was sarcastic or bitter about that. Even so, she felt a bit better knowing that he hadn’t been involved in any public altercations. But he had to have heard things. She heard lots of things at Order meetings that she was never involved in. “Do you know anything about a warehouse by the docks?”
“Not one by the docks, no. Why? Is something going on there?” He pulled at the fresh bandage a little. She must have wrapped it a bit tighter than necessary.
“I’m not sure yet.” She got a day-old roast out and hacked it into thin chunks, thinking that if only he’d come back last night, he would be half-healed by now, not at risk of infection. She was still on edge that he hadn’t bothered to tell her where he was or that he hadn’t intended to come back. And then she set the knife down before she lopped off a finger in frustration.
She shouldn’t care so much. He’s supposed to be an assignment from the Order. That’s all. It shouldn’t have mattered that he hadn’t come back. It shouldn’t have mattered that he hadn’t let her know his plans.
She tried to convince herself that it was alright to be a little concerned… professionally, of course. They needed him.
Dorcas stole a look at the sullen man sitting at her kitchen table. He might not have contracted a fever, but he looked half-starved. “I’m hungry. Have you eaten?”
His shoulders were hunched over at the table, staring at his clenched hands. He probably didn’t want to be here – she should stop pushing. Dorcas turned back to the counter.
She looked up to see Severus holding a scrap of parchment she’d left on the table from the night before. She went over and snatched it away from him. “Advertisement. For the spare room.”
“You were planning on publishing that?” he said in an accusing tone. “Don’t you have friends? People you know?”
She decided to address his first question, and ignore the others. “I haven’t yet.”
“You shouldn’t run it at all.” He sounded like Marlene. She thought it ironic that her best friend would be giving her advice on personal safety when Marlene took so many risks herself. The family she married into was a fine example. What the McKinnons had done, an act of open defiance, even if it was within the walls of the Ministry, was even more irresponsible than soliciting strangers to rent out a room. Dorcas needed to talk to Marlene first thing tomorrow.
She slapped the cut-up meat on thick slices of bread, set a plate in front of Severus and sat down across from him with her own. By the time she finished her sandwich, he still hadn’t touched his. Maybe he was sick after all.
“Got any spicy mustard?”
She got him a jar and a knife and watched him slather it on. His whole face wrinkled up at the first bite, but then relaxed as he chewed. It was almost meditative-like. Until he reached for his glass and gulped it down without a breath.
He put down the glass and looked down at his plate.
He tensed. “What?”
“You could have told me you didn’t like corned beef.”
Severus drew his lips into a thin line and picked up the sandwich again. He met her eyes, steely. “I don’t like corned beef,” he said – then took another bite.
He reminded her of a wild animal, temporarily sated by food but ready to rip her throat out if she turned her back at the wrong moment. An old saying came to mind, something about not feeding strays because they kept coming back. For a moment, she forgot why that was a bad thing… then their staring contest was interrupted by an insistent knock on her door.
What did she think she was doing? If they found him here, if they found her... She couldn’t protect him. This was Auror’s work.
Distracted, she opened the door to find Josef Graves leaning against her doorframe.
This was not what she had in mind at all.
“I have to talk to you,” he said, his voice low and raspy.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, not as much shocked as exasperated by his appearance. “Aren’t you supposed to be...” Anywhere but here, doing something important.
“There’s someone I want you to meet,” he began.
“It’s late. What’s going on?”
She stared, dumbfounded. No ‘it’s nice to see you’ or ‘I’m sorry I was such a bastard’. “I’m not going anywhere. I think you need to leave.”
“You have to come with me.” His bloodshot eyes bore desperately into hers. Not someone she should be going anywhere with.
“Listen to me,” she said as he stepped into her living room, forcing her to back around the couch. “I’m tired. It’s good that you’re doing... well.” She cringed. There was something definitely off about him. “But I’m not going anywhere except to bed and you are leaving.”
He moved faster, maneuvering around the coffee table towards her. “Remember how much you wanted to be a part of something big? Well, I got you this chance. Come with me and I’ll show you.” He grabbed at her arm but she scrambled out of reach.
“I already told you Josef, I’m not going. Leave!”
Josef surprised her by drawing his wand. “I didn’t want to do it this way, but you’ve left me no choice.”
And then she must have blinked because the next thing she saw was Josef’s wand fly across the room as he was pinned against a bookcase. The fragile knickknacks on top of the bookcase rattled, but stayed put. Severus’ wand was at his throat.
Josef looked alarmed for a second and then he recognized his attacker. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s not your business. You aren’t supposed to be here. You don’t know that I’m here. By the time you get home, you won’t even remember coming here.” Severus’ voice was low, almost hypnotic.
For a long moment, Josef stared off into nothing and then came back to reality. Severus let him go. Looking back at them both, the Auror straightened his collar and looked affronted and slightly confused. “What’s he doing here?”
Dorcas had watched the exchange from behind the couch, unsure of whether it would still be in one piece when they were done. As Severus stepped back, she took her cue. “You should leave.”
Josef didn’t say anything else and gave both of them a glare. When Severus handed him his wand back, he glared some more. Then he abruptly turned and walked out the door. Dorcas locked it after him.
“What did he want?” Severus asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, leaning against the door. “He wanted to take me somewhere. Said it was important. Sounds ridiculous.”
“I assumed you didn’t want to go.”
She nodded, trying not to look too grateful.
“Don’t you have security on this place?” He frowned at the front door.
“I do... I just...” she faltered. Opened the door to the wrong guy. “That looked bad, didn’t it?”
The kettle whistled from the kitchen and Dorcas straightened, eager for a distraction.
“No.” He followed her into the kitchen and located his potions book and the stash of orange vials. “How much gold do you want?”
She turned sharply, looking about as affronted as Josef had before he’d left. All she’d done was offer leftovers and get a few extra healing potions. She wasn’t accepting gold for that. Besides, after what just happened, she felt she should be paying him. “What do I need your money for?”
“For the room. You can name your price in the morning.” Severus snatched up the unpublished advertisement that Dorcas had left next to the stove and waved it at her. “Get rid of this..”
Wilkes blinked at Rosier, being his usual thickheaded self. "What do you mean? There's always something odd going on with Snape," he said, clearly missing the point. His dart hit home on the cork board, landing in the inner green above the bull’s eye.
Rosier rolled his eyes. "Yeah, but there's really something odd going on this time. He hasn’t visited since before Christmas and no one’s seen him since his place burned down last week. I'm starting to worry.” He twirled a stick of chalk between his fingers.
"You're starting to sound like a girl," Avery guffawed, throwing a poorly aimed dart at the board.
"Yeah? And it's likely your fault that he doesn't come 'round anymore, you dolt! You mucked up his place. Left him for dead." Rosier plucked Avery’s dart out of the wall a few feet away from the board and settled into the worn couch. It creaked.
"Hey! I repented. I got my punishments. I even have the scars to prove it." Avery held up his shirt.
"Cover up, you dolt! No one wants to see that. You think anyone cares about another scar? Malfoy's even tired of seeing your scarred sorry arse with all the times he has to put you to rights. Maybe one day the Dark Lord'll do you in for good."
Wilkes stood closer to him, looming over him like a crooked troll. "Maybe... maybe you’ll be worm food soon and then we'll have more space around here. Maybe Snape's waiting for you to slip up again, and then he can have his space AND yours."
"Hey," Avery said, backing away. "You can’t touch me, remember? The Dark Lord needs me. I'm... I’m..."
"His official pain in the arse, you are!” Wilkes leaned in. “He needs you like he needs a Dementors’ kiss. But you're right. He’d likely be upset if he ever wanted to blow off some steam and found out that you'd already been taken care of." Wilkes leered even closer. “Not that I'd mind a few scars myself for the pleasure of doing you in."
Avery’s cowering was laughable. He was too easy. "But look." Wilkes continued, backing off and leaning casually against the wall. "Here's me, showing a bit of self-restraint. Even Malfoy'd be impressed with me right about now.” He put on his best imitation of their old Arithmancy professor. “Him and Severus, always the models of self-control, those two."
Rosier whistled from the couch. “Speak of the devil. Look who’s here.” He reached out with his wand and ignited a small fire behind the floo guard. “It’s gotten dark already, you lot. Let’s put on some light for our guest, shall we?”
Severus hadn’t even bothered to knock before he let himself into the half-empty flat, stopping to admire the peeling wallpaper, the impossibly stained area rug and a few other things that made the flat look over-used and uninhabitable.
Rosier stood up and clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s been a while, Snape! Last time you came ‘round, we had that wicked card game late into the night, remember? The one I still owe you for... wait. You didn’t come to collect, did you? Because I’m a little low on funds at the moment...”
Wilkes shushed him. “When are you not low on funds, eh?” He stepped forward to greet Severus with a handshake. “Sorry about your place, mate. It was a tidy pad... not like this dump. I kinda miss it.”
“I miss my place too,” Severus said, sending a look at Avery.
“The smoke…” Avery began.
Wilkes battered him over the head with a brick-sized fist. “Shut it, dunce. You’re ruining the moment.” Avery frowned and backhanded the air beside Wilkes’ head.
“So,” Wilkes said, turning back to Severus. “Too busy to come ‘round to see us? What’ve you been doing?”
“Working,” Severus emphasized. “Long hours. Every day. Something some people in present company are not accustomed to.” He looked at Avery, who was now studying the floor. “Or appreciate.” He glared at Wilkes.
“Come now, Snape. You know he didn’t mean it like that. Here.” Rosier tossed him a bottle. “Relax.”
Severus caught it out of the air and turned it over in his hand. “Butterbeer?”
Rosier shrugged. “We take what we can get. Besides, it’s free. Compliments of Malfoy Manor.” Wilkes and Avery grinned in approval.
“Nice that they’re treating you so well.” Severus rolled the neck of the bottle between his finger and thumb.
Wilkes reached down and snagged a bottle from Rosier’s stash in the ice-filled rice-cooker, pried the cap off with his teeth and spat it out on the floor. It clinked on the bare stone and rolled around itself before lying still, next to a remarkably similar cap and a careless pile of walnut shells.
“If you’re needing a place, we could make room for you here,” Wilkes said, and then gulped down half the bottle. “Rosier’s got the largest space. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind sharing a bunk.”
Rosier had spent his school years in the same dorm room with these same people. He’d counted himself a few steps up from the other two, performing more respectable duties than simply roughing up people who owed more than they could pay... or mucking up lunch orders. He was sure that a promotion of some kind was right around the corner. Malfoy kept telling him so. And yet he was still here, surrounded by these goons, surprised at how little had changed. He was pretty sure that Severus wasn’t going to come back and join him, especially since Wilkes and Avery were still trying to work out their heads from their arses.
Snape, you lucky bastard. Probably thought he was better than all of them now. Looked down his long nose at them often enough.
Severus Snape had always been aloof, off by himself most of the time. He knew things. If you stood near enough, he could pick things out of your mind. Probably was what made him one of Malfoy’s favorites.
Rosier grinned at the memory of Wilkes’ face when Snape had let slip a few things one night after finding his socks permanently charmed pink again. They’d made a game out of it for a while too, trying to “fake out Snape”. But he always won. Figured out Rosier’s mother’s middle name. And then one night Avery, who never stood up to anyone, adamantly insisted that they put a stop to it. After that, Rosier would bet Galleons that Severus’ socks were never messed with again. They’d never spoken about the mind games since.
Regardless of their early mistreatment of Severus, he’d always made a habit of stopping by, and it wasn’t always for deliveries. Except he’d been absent more and more since the New Year. Rosier couldn’t figure out why.
Avery tried for the board again, his dart landing far from it, remarkably close to the hole he’d already made in the paint-chipped wall. He let loose enough expletives to curdle pumpkin juice as Rosier chuckled and retrieved that one too. He took his chalk and drew a circle around the holes where the darts had landed, filling them in with a solid circle and then drawing a larger circle around them. “There you go, Avery. We’ll just let you keep score over here, how’s about?” He glanced over at their sullen visitor. “Unless Snape has a potion for that.”
Severus almost cracked a smile, and for a split second, he thought that Avery might have returned it before looking away and knocking back his drink. A lone cricket buzzed haltingly. Avery went over to the wall near the window and spoke in low tones.
Severus raised an eyebrow.
“It passes the time,” Rosier offered, waving to the rest of the crickets pinned to the wall. Only the one made any noise.
“He’s got a lot of kick left.” Avery stepped away from the window.
“Aren’t you supposed to kill them first, before you pin them up?” Severus asked.
Avery snickered. “Why bother? He’ll be quiet by morning.”
Severus threw a questioning glance at Rosier, who shrugged it away. Having Avery as a roommate for so long, he’d learned to live with his strangeness, including the mysterious box he kept hidden under his bed and wouldn’t let anyone touch. Contained souvenirs, he’d said. Rosier left it at that, because anything Avery tended to find interesting was usually not worth Rosier’s time. Knowing Avery, it could be more dead crickets, or his unwashed socks from the last Hogwarts Quidditch match. Rosier swore back in fifth year that the git had a bad obsession with socks… and then it had been bottle caps the next year. Now it was crickets. Avery was odd that way.
And the idiot couldn’t even hit the dart board.
“I can’t stay.” Severus stood abruptly. “Malfoy said you needed this straight away.” He threw the package he’d been holding on the upturned crate that passed for a table, set the unopened bottle next to it and headed for the door.
Wilkes rummaged through the package. “It’s all here. Let’s go over the plan for our secret mission with Karkaroff. He’s bringing one of them new recruits. Says he knows how to get past security in the Auror’s Department.”
Rosier stepped closer to examine the contents, unaware that Severus had slowed on his way to the door. “Yeah. It’s only a day away from tomorrow. Malfoy wants us to be prepared this time or else.”
“What secret mission?” Avery asked in a stupidly innocent tone. Rosier contemplated whether or not he should throw him out for an hour or two. Avery wasn’t included in this one by strict orders and Rosier didn’t want to take any chances of something going wrong.
Severus closed the door quietly behind him, knowing he shouldn’t be around for the rest. He’d heard enough.