Disclaimer: I'm just playing around in the wonderful world created by JK Rowling. She's not to blame for anything I make her characters do in this story.
Author's Note: I would like to thank my beta readers Whimsy and Jo Wickaninnish for their invaluable help.
This story is dedicated to Whimsy, my beta reader, motivator, inspirator and co-founder of M.U.S.T.
As soon as Severus arrived back home and had magically checked all rooms for intruders, he took out a quill and a piece of parchment, a plan fully formed in his mind.
To Mr Jeremias Smith,
Several days ago I heard from the neighbour of one of my cousins that the house you own at Badgers Close, London, is for sale. From the information he was able to give me, the house seems to suit my purposes perfectly. Could you tell me more about the house, especially about the interior and the history?
During one of the Order meetings last year, Dedalus Diggle had been blathering about his estranged nephew Septimus Diggle, who lived in Germany. Severus had filed the information away in his mind; as his memory was excellent, he had had no trouble retrieving it now that he had needed an alias.
He rolled the parchment into a tight scroll and cast two spells on it. The first made the letter untraceable; if it was intercepted or if Mr Smith doubted the validity, no one would be able to trace the letter back to Severus. The second spell would completely destroy the letter and make Mr Smith forget all about it as soon as he had sent off the reply or in case he would not reply within twenty-four hours.
Satisfied that sending off the letter could in no way endanger his position, Severus attached the scroll to his owl and sent it on its way.
The next order of business was finding out as much as he could about both the Waterhouse and the Smith family. After making himself a cup of tea, he settled on the sofa with several books about wizarding genealogy from his extensive library. For the next few hours, he studied the books meticulously, every now and then making notes of relevant information on a piece of parchment.
Both Mr Waterhouse’s mother and Mrs Waterhouse turned out to be members of pure-blood families that were respectable, but not in any way outstanding. As all pure-blood families were interrelated, Severus found some distant relations to known Death Eater families as well as Muggle-loving families, but he doubted that those were relevant. Mr Waterhouse’s father was Muggle-born and the only wizard in his family.
After having exhausted the Waterhouse family, Severus turned his attention to the Smith family. This seemed to be a large family, and Severus was about to take out a new piece of parchment for his notes when a certain name caught his eye. He bent back over the book, his nose almost touching the page, his fingers tracing lines and names. After a few minutes, he was certain: only one Hepzibah Smith had lived in this century, and she was Jeremias Smith’s great-aunt.
Dumbledore had mentioned that Hepzibah was wealthy – it was not unlikely that she had owned a large mansion, which might have passed down to Jeremias. Severus closed his eyes and leaned back, intending to sort out the facts in his mind, but he was interrupted by tapping on the window.
His owl had returned, and it was carrying a reply.
Much to my regret, I have to inform you that the house has been sold to someone else this morning. I wish you the best of luck in your search for another house.
Severus read the letter twice, and then he burnt it to ashes. It had not contained the information he had expected, but instead something much more valuable, for he had now solved the mystery.
Only very few people had known this morning that the house was once again for sale, as the Waterhouses had been murdered before signing the contract. Even if, by mere chance, someone had happened to find out, it was highly unlikely that they would have bought the house immediately. Only one conclusion was possible: the house had been bought by someone who had counted on this – who had planned it.
The Dark Lord had prevented the Waterhouses from acquiring the house and had got ownership of it himself, the reason for which was now obvious: he did not want anyone else to buy the house. If the house had indeed belonged to Hepzibah Smith, then it was likely that her family had never changed much about its state; a new owner, however, would presumably redecorate rigorously. The Dark Lord would not want that to happen – if he had hidden a Horcrux there.
Severus felt no fear or apprehension as he gathered some supplies. He had known that this moment would come, and he was ready. If he died in the process, then at least he would finally have fulfilled his Vow.
“Are you certain you wish to do this, Severus?” Dumbledore asked, peering at Severus over his half-moon glasses.
Severus avoided his gaze. “I do not have a choice, do I?”
“You always have a choice, Severus,” Dumbledore answered. “You can choose to leave him entirely – the Order can hide you more fully than you can possibly imagine – you would be safe.”
“I am not a coward!” Severus snarled. “I will not hide and watch as others do the work – repair the damage I have done.”
Dumbledore nodded, and then he fixed his blue eyes upon Severus once more. “Do you realise that this will remain in effect for the rest of your life?”
The words sent tremors through Severus’ body, which he stubbornly ignored. “I do.”
“Very well,” Dumbledore said. “Aberforth?”
The only other person in the room, who had been sitting in a dark corner until then, stood and walked towards them.
“You will need to draw your wand,” Dumbledore told him gently. As Aberforth did so, Severus knelt on the floor and took Dumbledore’s right hand in his own. He fervently hoped that Dumbledore did not notice his hand shaking.
“Aberforth, please place the tip of your wand on our hands,” Dumbledore instructed.
It seemed to Severus that hours passed between the moment he felt the cold tip of Aberforth’s wand on his right hand and the moment Dumbledore finally spoke – and at the same time it all happened too fast; too soon he was facing the moment that would change his life forever.
“Will you, Severus, always be loyal to the right side and always obey my wishes?” Dumbledore asked, his voice steady. His hand seemed unnaturally warm – or perhaps Severus’ was unnaturally cold – and from Severus’ position on the floor, his rigid posture appeared to radiate power. For a moment, Severus was too frightened to utter a single word, but then he choked out, “I will.”
A tongue of bright red fire shot from Aberforth’s wand and wound itself around the linked hands. It prickled slightly, but Severus found that it was not an unpleasant feeling – it seemed to give him new strength.
“And will you, to the best of your abilities, strive towards the destruction of Lord Voldemort?”
Severus suppressed a shudder and stared determinedly into Dumbledore’s eyes. “I will.”
A second flame joined the first, and the prickling increased.
“And will you always, in whatever way you can, protect the child mentioned in the prophecy that you overheard and passed on to Voldemort?”
Severus briefly closed his eyes. Potter’s child, he would have to protect Potter’s child – or Longbottom’s. But the child was most likely their only chance at defeating Voldemort, and it was Severus’ fault that he was being hunted in the first place.
He opened his eyes, and he felt an odd sense of relief at sealing the Unbreakable Vow. “I will.”