Warning: swearing continues unabated
Chapter 2: Rumor
Three in the morning. Three in the morning in the bowels of the Ministry, the worst place to be. They had me in that chair.
"If you don't help us, if you won't speak…" Longbottom looked over at Moody, who nodded. He went on, reasonably, "what's the point? If you're no use to us, we might as well forget about you. I have a terrible memory." The door clicked behind him with awful finality. I twisted against the bindings. Of course it was useless. There was nothing I could do to keep from falling into the pit where they were all forgotten. There were so many of them. I kept slipping in the dark as I struggled to climb them, all the bodies. The pile kept shifting. An Auror, petrified, looking at me, slid away under my hands. I hauled myself up and a young woman in a track suit tumbled sideways. He was sitting in the space she left behind, white face bright in the darkness.
"Ah, Severus, my dear friend. I knew you would come back to me."
I jerked awake, the afterimage of his white face floating before my eyes. I sat up in bed, grinding the palms of my hands into my eye sockets until the aching explosions of color drove away his face. Damn Shacklebolt and his favors! I could handle the Ministry dreams or the Dark Lord dreams, but both at once was a bit much. It had been almost a month since his visit, and I was still getting them.
No use sitting around in the dark where the images could find me. I pulled on my dressing gown and made myself tea in the kitchen. Three in the morning. It probably wasn't worthwhile trying to sleep again. Well, my variant was only a few hours of work away from being sent in to the lab for testing. Probably another dead-end, but still… I had to keep trying.
I'd had some triumphs with the variants, after all. One was the successful delay process I developed by which a potion could be taken and lie dormant until it was trigged by an illness or transformation. A breakthrough in itself, as Dick, the head of the lab, had told me. And it did net us the Paracelsus Prize in potions. But a mechanism by which I could engineer a repeating potion eluded me. I would develop potential variants and send them in for testing knowing that they would fail again. And I knew why. I was coming up against the hard edge of Frazier's second principle of dark magic: all energy must have a source. And every potion ever made had a source, certainly. The physical mass and properties of the ingredients, the heat of the brewing, and the reactions between created the energy… for a single iteration. And here I was trying to draw more energy out of nothing, to twist the very patterns of the world onto a new course. Ridiculous.
So I and the lab had concentrated on developing the delay process in the context of existing potions. Wolfsbane first, then Blood Replenisher, Pepper-up, and other healing potions. The licensing fees from the variants were all well and good, and the Paracelsus was highly satisfying, but I was frustrated by my inability to move forward. The ability to take a potion once and then depend on its effects at every illness or transformation would be hugely significant. I supposed I ought to give it up as a bad job, but I had always been one to chase after lost causes.
By ten I had my vials of doomed variants double-packed and my charts organized and topped with a cover letter to Dick. Would he be able to make sense of my charts? No matter, if the research assistants couldn't replicate it, he'd contact me for instructions. I headed into the city to post it to the lab in Brazil.
It was brighter on the mainland than out on the island; the Pacific clouds were separated by the skyscrapers and a generous broad swath of sunlight glinted off windows and drew steam off the wet pavement. After I dropped off my package at the long-distance albatross post, I bought a copy of the Seattle Diviner at a newsstand in the Undercity, then apparated back to the spot just outside my wards, below the greenhouse. Perhaps I would be able to go back to sleep now. I turned on the wireless in the kitchen to keep myself awake while I made breakfast. Some mindless talk show, perfect. There were only a couple of wizarding broadcast stations in the Seattle area and they were generally filled with drivel.
"Occult, in the original meaning-"
"Of the word."
"Of the technical term, just means 'hidden,' as in 'hidden or secret knowledge.'"
"That's why these stories crop up and catch on. It's so incredibly appealing-"
"Like knowing a secret."
Why did Americans have a horror of allowing anyone to finish a sentence?
"Exactly. You think you've discovered this hidden knowledge kept secret from the rest of the world. So of course you –"
"Have to let everybody know."
"Yes. And it's also part of why these stories attach to this figure, who's almost synonymous with secrets and hidden identities –"
"Yes, we are always fascinated with a character like that, even if the rumors are ridiculous."
"Well, it's almost beside the point whether it's true or not. It has exactly the features that attract our imagination. And when there's this element of doubt –"
"The body which was never recovered –"
"And that the story is supposedly coming from a position of authority, a Canadian Auror station, so we overlook the weaknesses in the story; the anonymous tip that can't be verified."
"And the coincidence of this story coming out on the heels of the Vance revelation, and almost at the third anniversary of the end of the war –"
My stomach dropped. They couldn't, it wasn't possible. I felt like I was trapped in my nightmare of the previous night.
"You ignore all this because it doesn't fit with what you want to believe, however unlikely."
"Well," said the host, "I'm afraid we're out of time, but I hope you can join us next week when we find Jimmy Hoffa."
The guest laughed. It wasn't sodding funny!
"We've been talking to Doug Noguchi, professor of media and communications at Undercity University. Thank you for joining us."
"My pleasure, thank you for having me."
"On the second half of today's show I'll be talking to Vera Starcevic about the Seattle City Council's hearings on increasing flying restrictions in urban areas in light of the fatal streetcar line accident last fall. I'm sure that many of you will want to weigh in on this issue and our lines are open –"
No! Who cared about the Seattle City Council, bunch of useless nitwits, I needed to hear about the 'anonymous tip'! I wanted to shake the wireless and shout at it to go back, but of course it was useless. It was impossible! But the references to Vance, the war, Canadian Aurors and a missing body, it all added up to me. There had to be some way to check. I attacked my copy of the Seattle Diviner. It was a small story on the second page of the local section: 'Severus Snape Alive? Rumors Spread Across BC.'
As more details emerge in the shocking house elf trafficking case, an unusual rumor has begun to circulate that the anonymous tip that alerted the Prince George Aurors was none other than Severus Snape, the presumed dead hero of England's recent war. The rumor cites 'an Auror with inside knowledge of the case,' though the Prince George Auror Station has denied all knowledge. Lack of proof has done little to stop the story's spread; it has been reported in –
Dear lord, it was worse than I thought. It was spreading.
But how could someone at the Prince George Auror Station reveal my name? Shacklebolt had assured me that he had secret-kept my name and he was the only keeper. That son of a bitch, he had forced me into a situation where I had to trust him, and then he betrayed me! He had assured me again and again that he wouldn't coerce me, and now this. I could only imagine that it was a warning, that he would reveal my alias and location if I didn't cooperate with his request. Sod him, he couldn't threaten me. I pulled out the Protean note that he had given me to contact him.
'How dare you,' I scrawled across it.
His answer came only a minute later; he must have been waiting for my response to his handiwork: 'if you're at home, stay there, will portkey to you, one hour.'
And now he wanted to dictate my movements? As insufferable as it was, I had to meet him, and I didn't want to leave the house, not now.
The pot I had put on to cook an egg was spitting and boiling over. I dumped it in the sink; I couldn't stomach breakfast now. I could barely sit still. Ruined.
The changes I had made in my appearance over the past few years may have been superficial, but combined with my very distinctive appearance before, my comparative isolation, and my supposed death, I considered them sufficient to keep me hidden. My hair was cropped short and dyed brown, and I wore muggle clothing, as so many American wizards did. I was aided by the care I had taken over the years to never be photographed. I knew that there were a very few old ones which had been taken prior to the war. They weren't of very good quality, but they had been reproduced after my supposed death. And now if someone looked at me with an idea of my survival in mind…
The phone rang in my office off the kitchen. Shacklebolt. I made sure I wasn't carrying any active spells and stepped across the salt wards to the one room where muggle technology would work. The phone was a concession to the lack of any floo network on the west coast, much less any international connections. I was heartily regretting it now.
"Ah, Cyril?" Dick said tentatively.
I made an effort to get my tone back under control. "Yes, Dick?"
"Well, Grossman and I were just discussing the RAs' schedule for the next two weeks, so I thought I'd check in and see if you have anything for them to work on."
"I just sent you some variants for testing. There's a protocol enclosed. They told me there's a tailwind, so it should be at the lab in four days."
"Good, good! And, ah, how are you, Cyril?"
"Good," he said dubiously. "Everything's going well, then?"
"Fine, I'm fine, everything's fine."
"Glad to hear it. Say, why don't you stop by for a few days and get us started on your variant?"
"Perhaps because I don't care to be questioned at the moment?"
He laughed. "All right, I won't badger you. Well, whatever it is, take care of it. Just stay in touch, yes?"
"I have to go."
"Take care, Cyril."
I rang off. If there was any way at all to 'take care of' a spreading rumor, I wouldn't have such a problem.
Shacklebolt arrived almost half an hour late. Finally. I stopped pacing and wrenched open the front door. He was standing with his arms slightly out to his sides, showing me that he wasn't armed. What did that matter? The damage was done, wasn't it?
"How dare you?"
"It wasn't me."
"Who the hell else? You're the bloody secret keeper!"
"Are we going to talk about this out here?"
I gripped the doorknob. I didn't want him in my house again, but I wanted the chance of someone overhearing still less. I dropped the wards and stood back from the door.
"Thank you," he said evenly.
I didn't look at him, but set myself to resetting the wards. When I turned he was looking down at the small black box that held the medal, still in the center of the side table where he had left it. He turned to me.
"It's a logical thought, but if you look at it carefully, you'll see I'm not the only possibility."
"You're the one who insisted on giving my name to the inspector and the commissioner –"
"Who wouldn't have released you otherwise."
"You betrayed me!"
"No, I did not! I have never released that secret and I have never broken a promise to you. And don't be so dramatic."
"They know I'm alive! It's in the papers!"
"Let me see."
He followed me into the kitchen and waded across the scattered pages to the article in question.
"Snape, they are clearly treating it as an unverified rumor-"
"That's spreading. You knew before I wrote," I declared.
He sighed. "You know how the Prophet is; nobody believes what they print."
Oh, so it was in the Prophet now too?
"As much as they believe you?" I asked.
"Look at me; I did not spread this rumor. I have no reason to want to hurt you!"
"You could have started the rumor as a warning of what you could do if I don't cooperate with you."
He stared at me. "Oh my god." He sat without invitation at the kitchen table. "Is that how your mind works?" He gave a grim smile. "I shouldn't be surprised; I suppose that's something Crouch might have done. Fine, let's assume the worst, as always. If I was really spreading rumors as a warning to cooperate, then why the hell would I deny it? Shouldn't I want the warning to be as clear as possible?"
I didn't answer, but I took a seat at the table.
"Why don't we look at another possibility? Now, the inspector and the commissioner can't reveal your name, but there were several other people who saw you in Prince George. If I recall correctly, you weren't exactly going out of your way to befriend them. In fact, I think I had to give you a warning about making enemies. If one of the others noticed a resemblance and decided to do some digging –"
"Sergeant Preston, that bastard."
"There's absolutely no proof it was him, and there never will be. If he ever stepped forward or did anything to confirm the rumor, it would cost him his job, so it'll stay an unfounded rumor. I think you're overestimating the impact some rumor will have on your life. Do you know how well you've done for yourself? You're alive, well, and safe. You're the 1999 Paracelsus prize winner in Potions, so you've made a tidy sum. Yes, I know about 'Dr. Cyril Ramson,' it was pretty clear once we intercepted that letter of yours to your friend in the lab in Brazil. Oh yes, and you have friends, a house, an orchard, and a private supply of poisonous newts. I would think you would be over the moon. You've come out of the war in very good shape, much better than some of the other survivors. That's why I came to you, you know. I see the people who lost family and still don't know what happened to their loved ones."
I glared at him. Did he think I hadn't lost anyone? Hadn't I had to lose my friends one by one, for years? And my own students – and I could never show any of it.
"I'm not trying to diminish what you went through, but you are in very good shape now. I can't tell you how many times I've wished that I could change my name, disappear, and live however I please. Particularly whenever I have to talk to the sodding Restoration Committee."
"So you recognize exactly what I have to lose if I come forward or if this rumor is believed."
He shrugged. "It's a risk. Only you can decide how much you'll risk for the good of others. I've seen you make that decision, and I don't mean when you were answering to Albus. I mean only a couple of months ago. And that call you had with your 'eye', Miss Bulstrode. I know you mean to do right by yours. That's why I won't coerce you, and I would never threaten or betray you. It's not my decision to make. Look at me. Do you believe me?"
He held my gaze. I didn't answer.
"Fine, don't admit it; it's as good as an answer."
He took a small box from his pocket and set it on the table. I made no move to pick it up. If he was trying to tempt me with more medals I wanted no part of it.
"I don't want anything except for you to think it over. There's no deadline on this; we will take your help whenever you want to give it. I'm leaving you a Portkey to my secure office. If you decide to help, you can use the Protean note to contact me, then come by Portkey. I'll arrange security and a safe place to stay." He stood to leave. "I didn't want your name to come out, whatever you believe, but now that it has… I think it will give you more freedom than you realize."
I sat at the kitchen table after he had gone, half-heartedly trying to put the paper back together. I couldn't decide if things were better or worse than I thought. Whichever it was, it was impossible for it to be the same, not after my name came out, the thing I had feared for so long.
I reached Dick on the phone from my office.
I didn't speak for a moment. He waited.
"I just spoke to Kingsley Shacklebolt. He knows I worked for you in the lab."
"Yes?" I tried to keep my tone even.
"Cyril, he visited me about a month ago. He had a letter you were trying to send me, but it ended up in his hands somehow. He told me that he's known you're alive for some time."
"What did he want? Was he trying to get information on me?"
"Well, at that point, he knew more about your location than I did. It was the other way around, really. He was letting me know that he knew about you."
"He didn't say exactly. I think he wanted to open the possibility of you or I coming to him if you were in a dangerous situation or needed help."
"Would you do that?"
"Well, if I really thought that you were in imminent danger, yes, I think I would. Does that bother you?"
"I don't know. Every time I speak to him he inserts himself more and more into my private business."
"Cyril, I think you have more friends than you realize. That's a good thing."
I tried to reconcile myself to that idea after I rang off, but I couldn't quite see it. Of the very few friends I had left, all I could see was a growing heap of obligations that I couldn't repay.
A/N: I know some of you were wondering if there was going to be any Dick in this story. Of course! What good is a story without any Dick in it?
The update schedule will still be every-other week for a bit longer while I work on editing and revisions.
Thank you very much for reading. And thank you to my reviewers and my anonymous reviewers, since I can't respond to you directly. Welcome back, At Last and no-name! It was so good to hear from you and I'm so glad you're still reading.