Forlorn Hope

Secrets and Strangers

42 : Secrets and Strangers

An indignant screech demanded Severus' attention as soon as he stepped through the Floo. There on his desk, clawing impatiently, sat the black bird that usually bore nothing but bad news, Voldemort's bird, which usually came to Horris nowadays. The bird's sudden appearance sent chills down Severus' spine. Neither he nor Horatius had seen the foul creature for quite some time. Severus' arm had been their call lately, the familiar burning demanding the Aspian presence as clearly as the bird, and with fewer liabilities. Reaching with an inwardly shaky hand, steadied only by his trained exterior, he attempted to take the letter from the blasted beast. The bird suddenly screeched again, making Severus almost withdraw his hand. It took all his self-control to press on, the bird screeching thrice more before relinquishing the letter.

In the back of his mind, Severus wondered why Horatius never had any problems with the foul creature. Each time it had delivered correspondence to his son, the bird squawked happily, perching on the boy's shoulder and readily extending his leg while it nipped him playfully on the ear and waited for its head to be scratched. The boy's mind never seemed to be on the bird as he complied, the motion seeming thoughtless and mechanical above all else. Severus wondered if he still missed his owl (Hedwig, if he remembered correctly), having played with the idea of getting him a new familiar for his real birthday. As juvenile as the notion sounded, Severus had missed many of his son's birthdays, and felt that celebrating both dates would be oddly appropriate.

Ammodytus-

The letter began,

You are excused from meetings, as are my Aspidis. You are all to report to the gathering site the night young Viper's vacation ends. I expect all the Asps to be well versed in all curses on the enclosed list. Do not fail.

Severus ran his eyes over the other parchment, his eyes widening with each curse he read. He knew them all, naturally, a painful hoard of memories linked to each and every one of them. These were not part of what anyone could deem 'beginner' curses or (as one of his one-time friends had deemed) 'Dark-Arts 101'. No, these were the hard-core curses, each difficult to perform and each having an Azkaban sentence tied to it as the minimum penalty. Even having such a list could get a person into trouble… big trouble.

Severus did not want to teach these to his charges. Those kids might have been bred for this, but it made Severus' task no less painful. These were good kids, Horris being the perfect example. If Severus had not been told they were the feared Aspidis, he would have thought them perfectly ordinary and well-adjusted members of their respective Houses (both Houses, in Horatius' case). None of them screamed Death Eater to him, not one seeming overtly interested in that sort of alleged power. It was his duty to Dumbledore, part of his job description, quite literally, to report any child who seemed thus inclined toward the Dark Arts. Since the Death Eaters themselves had taught him before his 'conversion to the Light', he proved most skilled at this task. If he were asked that now, however, not one of the Asps would have made his list. Then again, perhaps that was the reason why no one suspected that any Aspidis attended this institution.

At first, Severus credited their disinterest in power to the powers they already had. After all, few teens (adults even) could boast abilities these kids practically took for granted. It had taken Horatius for him to truly see the extent of his misjudgment. Just like his son, these powerful teens wanted noting more than a normal life. He could taste the resentment they held for Voldemort or their parents, or both, now that he knew what to look for. He understood them, of course, knowing first hand how one tends to hate having their lives decided for them. They all had such expectations placed upon their shoulders; expectations placed there by their parents, peers, 'enemies', Dumbledore and Voldemort… each expected them to do or be something. Their parents expected the Ultimate Heirs, Dumbledore (and thus his order) expected Dark Arts enthusiasts and Voldemort expected total unwavering loyalty. The monster and Dumbledore both expected to have (or gain) total control of them; a desire they hoped to realize through Horris, a desire that Severus knew would prove fatal to both. The letter he had just received was but a tidbit of what he was expected to teach them, of what they were to know and execute flawlessly.

Severus looked over the letter once more, telling himself that, loathe as he may be to admit it, he had to tell Horatius. The sooner he did so, logically, the sooner the boy could adjust to the news. Furthermore, the nature of the letter dictated that Dumbledore must be notified as well, and he was not about to tell the old coot before Horatius had time to absorb and thoroughly assess the situation. The only problem, it seemed, was that he did not know where to find his son this Saturday. The boy had mentioned needing to meet with Minerva this morning, but Severus doubted the meeting would have stretched this long. Still, Minerva might have some idea as to the boy's whereabouts.

"Draco!" He called out tactfully while closing his office door, having spotted the blur of platinum hair on green robes.

"Yes, sir?"

"You would not happen to know where I might find my son?"

"No, sir… I haven't seen him all morning."

"I see." Severus did not know the precise reason, but something about Draco's answer struck him as odd. The boy seemed almost hesitant when it concerned Horatius, almost as if he wished to avoid the subject. The two had not fought lately (a rare occurrence in and of itself), not that their disputes ever affected their outlook on each other… Severus had half a mind to sit the boy down and demand to know what happened. "If you do see him, Draco," he said instead, "do tell him I need to speak with him as soon as possible."

"I will pass it on to the Asps, sir… nothing happened, did it?"

"A letter from the Dark Lord." Severus replied, releasing no further information.

He glided up out of the dungeons, meeting no other Asps on his trek to Minerva's office. When he got there, the door was closed tightly, wisps of Minerva's voice in full lecture mode seeping out. Absently wondering what Horatius had done to earn Minerva's scorn, he proceeded to knock.

"Come in!" Minerva's voice answered Severus' knock,

"Is Horatius still there, Minerva?"

"Severus?" She whispered back, nearly hissing, mild panic in her usually stolid voice. Severus was intrigued instantly, wondering why his presence suddenly had such an effect on her.

"Is something the matter, Minerva?" He asked calmly, watching her intently.

"Not…not at all," she forced out, "I wasn't expecting you."

"Yes, well," he continued lightly, not at all convinced, "Horatius did mention he was to meet you this morning, I assume-"

"I couldn't find the sugar, Minnie…" a new voice cut him off, coming from some adjacent room… a voice strongly resembling one Severus had not heard in decades. "Do you mind taking it with cream alone?"

Severus peered at Minerva, her face becoming paler with each passing second.

"That… that's fine, dear." she called out after a moment, her eyes fixed on Severus.

"A cup of strait black for me Abigail." Severus called in a neutral tone, fighting to keep his smirk from showing as he heard the satisfying sound of fine china breaking on the stone floor."I still say she ought to let me do the blasted wandless magic thing…" Snape sighed, twirling his wand aimlessly.

"Going for the easy grade, Horris?" Hermione called back teasingly.

"No, not at all."

"Oh really?"

"Drop it, Lea… I'm really not in the mood."

"Wow, she must have really rubbed you the wrong way…"

"She basically blew me off for some woman who came by." He specified, growling.

"Parent-teacher conference perhaps?"

"Doubt it…. More of an annoying relative thing, I doubt many parents dare call her 'Minnie'. Which reminds me, where's Ginny?"

Ginny, from her spot behind the bookcase, cringed. What was Snape doing going around calling her Ginny? She had expected 'annoying redhead', 'that Weasley girl' or 'Weasley'… but Ginny? Slytherins did not call her Ginny!

"Don't get me wrong, Lea," Snape continued, "but she's been sticking to you like glue for a good week now…"

"Hopefully, she's given up trying to get me to talk about Ron… I was starting to think she'd follow me into the Slytherin dorms!"

Snape chuckled, surprisingly malice-free. Regardless, Ginny swore to herself she'd die before setting foot there.

"There hasn't been any change, has there?"

"With Ron? No." Snape replied, his off-hand tone annoying Ginny to no end. "Didn't I tell you you'd be the first to know if I heard anything?"

"Right behind your Asps and dearest father, dear Alpha…"

"Lea!" He snapped, suddenly quite angry, "I didn't throw up the silencing wards!"

After that, Ginny didn't hear a thing, though she figured Lea was getting an earful. Obviously, Snape was able to throw the wards up far quicker than Fred and George could. Either way, she'd heard enough. She may not know what an 'Alpha' was, but she had listened in on her parents enough to know what 'Asp' meant…

How could Hermione be coaxed within a hundred yards of one? Not only did she know what he was, she joked about it! Didn't she realize what that…that creature was capable of? Why, he could kill her in a heartbeat! On impulse, Ginny leaned over the side of the bookcase as her last thought registered… what if he had killed her? She had let sensitive information slip, after all, and Voldemort was certainly known for killing for less! And she was Muggle-born!

Clearly, Hermione hadn't sensed the danger. Nope, she was still motor mouthing away, seeming quite smug about something. Honestly, the girl ought just stop pretending and ask for a bloody transfer… the whole school knew it was the Snake pit she preferred!

"Oh for Merlin's sake, Horris, shields down!" the unmistakable voice of the ex-king of Slytherin sounded in the (seemingly) deserted library. "There's no one here and I need to talk to you!"

"Honestly, Draco, you've simply the worst timing!"

Ginny could literally feel the blonde's smirk widen.

"Forgive me, Lea, though make-out sessions are usually conducted in the astronomy to- OUCH! Damn it, Lea, that hurt!"

"It was supposed to." Hermione agreed smugly, "And we were not making out!"

"Only you, Lea, would call an opportunity to get out of studying a 'distraction'." The blonde remarked, seemingly unconcerned with her earlier blow.

"We were talking, Draco, Lea thought I might have seen Ron…." Snape explained.

"You're still fussing?" Malfoy demanded, presumably turning to Hermione. "That scum nearly got you killed, tried to turn you over to Voldemort, kidnapped you, and you're still worried? Damn Gryffindors… no wonder your lot dies so much; turn one of you and the rest will practically beg the traitor to come back and kill some more of you!"

"Drop it, Draco." Snape rebutted, his voice suddenly filled with utter finality.

The ex-king did as ordered, giving Ginny a sinking feeling of why Hermione had referred to Snape as 'Alpha' and the Asps as 'his'…

"You said you needed to speak with me, Draco?" Snape prompted,

"Yeah, your dad's looking for you… he got an owl from... you know."

"Did he say where I could find him?" a pause, "No matter. Anyway, I'll see you all in the common room."

Ginny ducked as she heard his footsteps near, the information she had listened in on reeling in her head. At home, one could not survive (or have a personal life) without mastering the art of 'sticking your nose where it don't belong'. Without blackmail material of your own, no secret of yours was safe. Still, in all her years of listening in, the fruits of her labor have never been so substantial. After what seemed like hardly any time at all, she had learned what all of Christmas vacation spent nosing into her parents' affairs (regarding the Order) had not answered. All she had learned, actually, was that there were Asps among the students of Hogwarts and that any of these 'kids' were a force to be reckoned with. But now…

What did she know? She knew Malfoy and Snape were two of them, as she had suspected, and that there was apparently some sort of ranking system among them… of which Snape seemed at the top. Well, perhaps not all the way on the top, but above Malfoy, clearly. Then again, who (besides Snape, apparently) could be above the blonde brat? Malfoy had been, after all, the proud prince of Slytherin before Snape jr. had shown his mug… She had never seen or heard of Snape taking orders form anyone, besides his father and the other professors… no student at least.

An Alpha male was, in packs at least, the leader… it only sustained logic that the Alpha Asp would be the leader as well… what did that make Malfoy then (other than jealous that is)? More importantly, why did Hermione know? Why hadn't she told her? They could have told Dumbledore, gotten him to force Ron's whereabouts out of them…

"So, what have you and Viper been so intently discussing?" Malfoy asked, seemingly having gotten situated near Hermione.

'Viper' Ginny mouthed, bewildered.

"I just thought he might have heard something about Ron is all…"

"Oh for Merlin's sake, Lea," Malfoy sighed, sounding quite annoyed, "do you expect him to waltz up to Voldemort and ask what ever happened to Weasley? I bet that would go over well! You'd have heard if Horris had so much as thought he'd heard something about him… why do you care so much, anyway? That brown-nosing Death Eater has done nothing but harm to everyone- including you. Horris nearly paid for your safety with his life, Lea, how can you still think about that Weasel idiot?"

"If Horris… if Horris decided that he couldn't deal with things anymore and turned back to Voldemort-"

"He won't, Lea." Malfoy responded instantly,

"That's not my point," she shushed him. " If he changed sides, if he suddenly became your enemy, would you just write him off and kill him as if he'd been no more than yesterday's news? Or would you try to get him to see reason again, to come back… even if it seemed hopeless?"

Malfoy, seemingly, couldn't answer.

"Most friendships in Gryffindor are like the one you share with Horris… and me. They are nothing like the political relationships you Slytherins make and break daily. Ron isn't like Crabbe or Goyle to me or Harry or anyone else in Gryffindor. There… there was a time we would have died for each other… I can't give up hope, Draco, even if I know he'll probably never come back. There is nothing anyone can do to change that… there is a bond between him, Harry and I that we wouldn't be able to get rid of, even if we tried."

"Then why are you the only one left, Lea? What of the great 'Gryffindor Trio'?"

"I do hope you'll understand someday, Draco…" Hermione sighed, seemingly not hearing this for the first time. "You'll feel like that towards Horris one day. Maybe you already do and just don't know it yet."

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