NEW FRIENDS FOR FILCH
Argus Filch sat at the top of the steps, his back pressed against the massive castle doors, knees bent and pulled up almost to his chin, a jug of cider cradled to his chest. He stared out at the darkness beyond the Quidditch pitch. That's where the Potter boy had last seen Snape, out there by the gates.
He shifted his weight; his piles were acting up again. He hadn't at first believed the news: that Snape had killed the Headmaster and then run for it—couldn't believe it—wouldn't. He took a halfhearted swallow of the 'hard stuff', swathed in a twisted paper bag against the night chill and prying eyes. Whose business was it but his own, what or where he drank, now that there was no more school and no more rules.
He'd heard the news from Hagrid, who was understandably cut up about Dumbledore's death. Filch was too, though he didn't show it. "Tears are for women," his father always told him, "women and little kids." Never show weakness. Never crack a smile, except to gloat. Never make friends unless the bloke has something you need.
Well, he had made a friend, of a sort, and not one he particularly needed. Or perhaps he did. Of all the staff, Severus Snape was the only one who understood the students the way Filch did. You didn't have to explain your educational philosophy to the Potions master. He knew how clever and sneaky the little buggers could be. He understood the need for rules—and punishment.
Argus was comfortable with the idea of punishment. He had grown up with it. His father had spent a lot of time and wandwork disciplining him, and though the results had pleased no one, least of all Filch himself, it had fitted him perfectly for this job.
And his mother's tongue was sharper even than Poppa's switch. How that woman could curse. In fact, the only witch he'd ever met who could hold a candle to his her ranting was Irma Pince. The hoity-toity librarian used an elegant hyperbole that cut even deeper than Mum's insults. Over the years, Filch had developed a certain grudging admiration for her refined invective.
What is this swill, Filch? Cleaning solution? Smells like spoiled Polyjuice. Get it out of my library or I'll plant you in the Herbology dung-tip—head down!
If you value the use of your limbs, Master Filch, you'll not touch one book in my library with those grimy Squib's fingers.
Have a care for that chandelier, Mister! If I find one shard on my precious parchment, you'll be having ground glass for dinner.
The feisty wench could raise the hairs on the back of his neck just by walking into the room. She made him feel homesick.
He rubbed his face. There was something he needed to do now—but he couldn't remember what. It would come to him eventually. Despite a desultory education, he had an excellent memory and a finely tuned, legalistic mind. He knew how many windows there were in the castle, where all the secret passageways and cubbies were, the market value to the nearest Sickle of every painting, suit of armor, tapestry, vase, and stick of furniture. In fact anything in the school, so long as it was inanimate and incapable of thwarting his will, had his tender, unflagging care and affection. Too bad he hadn't paid more attention to that Vanishing Cabinet....
He was having trouble holding on to his train of thought as the drink worked at deadening brain cells and loosening moral fiber. He had a sudden thought that he might just as lief follow Snape and join that nest of vipers the Dark Lord had gathered about himself. What were they called? Dead Bleeders? Den Leaders? He could tell them a lot about Harry Potter: where he liked to hang out, who his friends were, his shoe size, his favorite chewing gum. It wasn't that Filch had anything against Potter, any more than he had against any of the other magical brats overrunning the school, but that was just it—Potter was a brat—a wiley, snarfy, lying little wizard, who refused to have the snarfiness and lies disciplined out of him.
"That Voldemort's a nasty piece of work though," he thought. "Best not tangle with him. Got a slate loose somewhere, I'll be bound. Steer clear, that's the ticket." He toasted his shrewd reasoning with another swig.
He'd heard that Draco Malfoy was a member of the Dark Lord's army and had been with Snape in the Astronomy Tower when the Headmaster bought it. That took balls. That thought and another healthy swallow—this time in honor of Malfoy's nerve—started him reminiscing about last year.
He'd very nearly managed to create the Hogwarts of his dreams those few months that he and Umbridge and Malfoy had been running things, though he never did manage to excise his well-deserved pound of flesh out of those Evil-Weasel Twins. Still, for a short time after they left, he became like a king in his castle with the increased powers Dolores brought him. She was a woman after his own heart. If only she didn't have the face of a bulldog chewing a wasp....
A long pull on the jug replaced this disturbing image with that of Irma Pince, flashing her slim ankles at him in a swirl of petticoats from that rolling ladder she was forever pretending to look for books on. The tart! She had a wand for that, hadn't she? Could point it at whatever she wanted and shout "Ax-ee-ho," or whatever it was wizards always muttered when they wanted something. And she never wore robes like the other teachers—oh, no—always those tight-topped, swirly black floor-sweeping frocks that showed off her upper torso. Surely the witch was taunting him deliberately with her delicate hands, fluttering like an insect's wings, her wasp-thin waist, and the bracing sting of her words.
Only the other night she had asked him to come to her room in the south-east tower to refasten a shelf that had come loose from the wall. Whoever heard of a witch needing a Squib to fix something? There was a come-on if he ever heard of one. But when he got there, he saw the shelf actually was broken, split almost in two, and hanging by a few bent nails. A large mass of books lay on the floor underneath.
"Looks like you're overloading it."
"What's that you say?" She was sitting at a desk, bent over some scrolls, pretending to ignore him, her shiny black dress buttoned provocatively to her chin, long, tight sleeves and flowing skirt setting off the bit of pallid skin she allowed his devouring eyes.
"Too many books. You need to do a lighting charm or something on them with that… that stick of yours."
She stared at him out of ice-blue eyes. "That's 'light-EN-ing charm.' And for your information, not all of us can do all the spells ever developed."
"No." She flushed and returned to her writing. The bit of color in her cheeks looked good on her. What did she have to be embarrassed about? She was magical, after all, and his superior in every way.
Filch fixed the shelf in a trice, and thought to restock it. Then he remembered—she didn't like just anybody handling her precious books. "Do you want me to… er…?" He gestured to the mess on the floor, then to the shelf.
"Yes. Would you… please?" The last word was spoken so softly, Filch wasn't sure he heard right. He put up the books without a word, gathered his tools, and made to leave.
She stopped him with a small cough. "Would you like some wine?'
"What? I mean… Ma'am?"
"I… erm… still have some of that brambleberry cordial my sister sent me at Christmas. I remember you liked it."
Filch remembered. She had brought the bottle to share at the holiday dinner. It had been fruity, but not too sweet, with an unusually strong nip to it for a woman's drink.
"All… all right."
She brought out the bottle and one glass, her words coming very fast as she poured and passed. "I really don't drink much myself and I was hoping you'd like to…"
Finish the bottle, like the low-life she thought him to be? And maybe make a fool of himself, so she could mock him yet again?
"Won't you join me?" he asked huskily.
"Oh, I couldn't… it wouldn't be… proper...."
He felt a surge of indignation. He wanted to throw her words back in her face. Not proper? To drink with the hired help? The non-magicals? The Squibs and the Muggles?
But he only shrugged and handed the glass back to her, untasted. "Naw, I just remembered. The nurse says I shouldn't. Not good for my innards." He put his hand to his chest, where surprisingly there seemed to be a pain starting, not unlike heartburn.
He made to open the door, just as there came a knock at it. It was a house-elf, and he looked in a right state, breathless and quivering with energy—but then this particular fellow always did.
"Mistress Pince, Master—er—Filch— Professor McGonagall told Dobby to come and tell you—oh it's the worst news—the very worst!"
"Calm down, old sod, and tell us what's got your knickers in such a knot."
"Dobby doesn't wear knick—oh Dobby sees, sir—it is a joke."
There came a booming noise from behind Dobby and a crash, and an acrid smell filled the air.
Irma Pince grabbed Filch's arm, digging her nails into his skin. "Dobby, what's happening?"
"It's He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Miss. His followers have captured the castle!"
Irma had grabbed her wand and insisted on accompanying him and Dobby to the foot of the Astronomy Tower, mumbling something about protecting him—him—the castle's caretaker! By the time they got to the scene of the action, it was all over but the burials. Well, actually, besides Dumbledore, there was only one other corpse—a Deaf Feeder nobody could put a name to. But there were plenty of bodies strewn about, unconscious or twitching—mostly students and Ministry blokes. He and Dobby carried Bill Weasley—one of the few of that family Filch had been able to tolerate—up to the infirmary. His face was a mess, but Filch could get no information on who or what had mauled him.
He took another drink and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He'd gotten the story in bits and pieces from various staff members. The Bed Bleeders had invaded, not through the gates, which any self-respecting Dark bloke who played by the rules would do, but from within the castle itself! They'd managed to slip through a student patrol, headed by another of those Weasels—the one they called Ron. And the means of entry was a portal Draco Malfoy had crafted out of a pair of Vanishing Cabinets, one located in Knockturn Alley and the other which had been secreted in the Come-and-Go Room by Filch himself only last year, after it had been found to be malfunctioning. Malfoy must have come upon it accidentally and recognized it as the perfect answer to his Dark Master's plans: a secret portal into the stronghold of his archnemesis. So in a sense, the invasion—and the Headmaster's death—was Filch's fault.
He was close to tears and the dregs of his bottle when he saw movement in the shadows below. Now there rose up to his unwilling ears two voices from the misty gloom of the castle lawn—familiar, unpleasantly similar voices. Out of the dark strutted two figures, alike as two Flobberworms in a dung heap. He rubbed his eyes, hoping it was just double-vision setting in from the drink. But no, it was them—the Evil Weasel Twins, back to make more trouble, no doubt. But he was too pissed to stand up to them now, and almost too pissed to care.
"—well, Fred, she's not here yet. I say we just go on in—"
"No, George. Mum'll have kittens if we don't wait for her and Dad. Besides—"
"Hold on, bro." The one twin threw his arm out and blocked the other at the foot of the steps. "Whozzat up there?"
"Sitting there against the door."
"Not Mum, she doesn't ever look that gloomy—even on washing day."
"Hallo—it's Filch, isn't it?"
"Whoops, m'dear. Maybe we'd best beat a strategic retreat."
"Whatever for, Georgie, old bean?" The speaker started climbing boldly. "We're of age now, aren't we? Adults. Just like him."
George followed gingerly and soon they were at the top of the steps, staring down at their old enemy. "You're calling him an adult?" said George. "Looks more like a potted plant to me." They had on sharp-looking leather suits of a bilious green. Filch cursed inwardly. They really were of age—and looking more prosperous than they deserved.
"Whew, Argus, old man, what's that you're swilling?" George reached down and took the jug from his unprotesting hand. "Mind if I have a taste?" He saluted his former nemesis, took a drink, and smacked his lips. "Mmmm… good scrumpy. But if you're hell-bent on pickling your brains, I recommend a little smackerel of this." He took out a silver flask and offered it to Filch.
"This isn' one of your tricks, is it?" Filch slurred.
George looked hurt. "No, my dear sir. That is a peace offering, between responsible—and—erm—intelligent equals. The best Firewhisky Galleons—or pounds sterling—can buy."
As if to reassure him, George took a healthy swig and passed it to Filch who essayed a cautious sniff. It smelled fine, in fact, better than fine. And as its owner hadn't yet turned into a canary or a plate of bangers or anything, he threw caution to the winds and poured it down his throat.
"Good," he grunted as the aptly named beverage burned its way to his stomach.
George slid down the wall to join him, and Fred followed suit on his other side.
"What choo been doin'?" he asked. It was the polite thing to say, after all.
"We've been out of the country," said George, "at a shopkeepers' convention."
"Whasha doin' here?" Filch asked, hiding his confusion. The rules were changing too quickly for him. The Evil Weasels as sober businessmen was not a picture his mind would readily accept.
"Mum sent us an owl to meet her here. Said it was a Matter of Life and Death. But we weren't to come inside until she and Dad got here."
"You don't suppose it's a surprise party, do you?" said Fred wistfully. "I mean, Mum says everything's an M.O.L.D. It can't be for our birthday, of course—well it could be a belated surprise party—"
Oh, it's a surprise, all right, thought Filch, thinking of the raw meat that was Bill Weasley's face.
"Nah," countered George, "they wouldn't hold a birthday party here at the castle. I'm thinking Dumbledore wants to reinstate us. You know. Tell us all's forgiven and that those little incidents of last year are being expunged from our record. Not that we care, of course, but Mum would like it."
Filch felt a stab of painful irony at the Headmaster's name, but he shrugged it off and an evil grin spread over his face as the Firewhisky ate through the last small strand of moral fiber he had left. They really didn't know anything about the attack, did they? Maybe it was time to get a little of his own back. Lead them around by the nose for a change. So he told them the story of the attack, the students' participation and the many more Aurors and other volunteers who were involved, relishing every gasp and gape from his audience, though he said nothing yet about Bill—or Dumbledore—yet.
"Wait a sec," said Fred to George. "That must be why Mum wanted to meet us here. If Ron or Gin got hurt...." He turned to Filch. "Was anybody hit? I mean the students… you know… our brother and sister… they're all right aren't they?"
"Lessee," said Filch as if trying hard to remember something that had happened ages ago. "Ron… is that the smartypants one, so full of himself an' all with all 'is OWLs and NEWTs and such? Strutting around real stiff-like with his chest thrown out, so 'is prefect's badge'll sit just right...."
"No, that's Percy. Hey, we wouldn't care if he snuffed it… well not much anyway."
Filch stifled a giggle. "Thass all right. I didn' see him 'mong the wounded. I'd a 'membered him."
George tried to hurry things along. "Anyway, Ron's tall and a little spacey—with lots of freckles and red hair of course. So did you see anybody like that?"
But Filch would not be rushed. He was having too much fun, giving them the mickey for a change. "Well… one person I carried to the 'firmary had red hair… I think… but that mighta just been the blood… but I don' remem'er any freckles." That was no lie. If Bill Weasley'd had freckles, they'd all been clawed off.
"Couldn't be Ron then, or Charlie." said Fred, his voice trembling now. "Anyway, he's still in Romania… I hope."
"You said you got a sister too, right?" asked Filch, just to liven things up.
"Yes… Ginny." Fred's voice sounded tight and painful, as if he had just swallowed his wand, sideways. "She's okay… isn't she?" he squeaked.
"Thass the one does the Bat-Bogey Hex, i'n' it?" Filch remembered pulling the wretched things off Draco Malfoy's face the year before. "Lessee, does she wear her hair tied back?"
"I dunno. It's long enough, I think."
"Oh, not Ginny. Please say it's not Gin," cried Fred. "Mum'll just die!"
"No, come 'a think of it, the person mussa been a bloke. No… thrup'enny bits. You know what I mean?" Filch mimicked cupping a pair of melons to his chest.
"Tits? I dunno. Did Gin have 'em yet, Fred?"
"What're you asking me for? I don't look at my sister in that way."
"She's sixteen. She's gotta have 'em by now." George gave a sigh of relief. "So she's all right then."
But Fred looked horrified. "So the only person it could be is—Bill!"
Filch nodded and confessed finally. All this hearts-and-flowers stuff was giving him gas. "Chaps, I was havin' you on. Yes, it is your brother Bill. But 'e's all right. Just… uh… cut up a bit."
"Who did it?"
"Dunno. Didn' see it. All I know's Malfoy let the Debt Eaters in through that Vanishing Cabinet I had stored in the Come and Go Room—"
"What? Oh, the Room of Requirement." Fred perked up. "Great invention! It's saved our lives many a time."
Filch's voice broke and a sob escaped his lips. "Well, it was death to the Headmaster," he croaked.
"Dumbledore. He was killed in the battle."
"Yes, 'e was. Deader 'n' a doorbell…a dumbnail…er…whatever."
Filch told them the rest of the story, including Snape's part in it, and they passed the flask around until it was empty, the twins elaborately cursing the Potions Master, and all of them toasting Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, one name at a time.
"But I still don't understand," said George. "If Ron and Ginny and Neville were patrolling that corridor outside the Room of Requirement, how did the Death Eaters manage to get past them?"
"Arr, Malfoy had somethin'… some kind of… instant… dark-making stuff that he used to muck up the air."
"Not—not—Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder—?" Filch nodded. "Oh no, Fred, that's one of our imports."
"And Malfoy bought some. I remember."
"It's our fault. We should have known better."
"Naw, naw, boys," Filch interrupted, almost gently. "It was my look-out. This castle's my bailey-wick, y'know. I'm the one shoulda been more viligent… digilent… Oh tcha! You know what I mean."
Fred Accioed another flask, and they passed it around once more, taking long pulls to numb their collective guilt.
And there Molly and Arthur Weasley found the trio, sobbing in each others arms and singing the school song, each to a different tune. She sobered them up briskly with a Conjured pot of tea while Arthur knocked on the great front door.
"Everything's locked up tighter than a Lethifold's grip," he explained. There's a guard at every door, day and night."
"Woops, that reminds me," said Argus, staggering to his feet. "I'm s'posed to take over for somebody at the side door at eight."
"Well, it's almost ten now."
"Tha's good. We got two hour shifts, so that means I'm almos' done."
The door was opened by Nymphadora Tonks.
"Wotcher, Arthur—Molly—boys." She distributed hugs all around. "Bill's much better, Molly. Fleur's been with him all day. Oh, there you are, Argus, Irma was just looking for y—"
An angry face thrust itself around the door.
"Argus Filch, you crack-brained gimboid, where have you been?!"
Madam Pince charged out and took him by the ear. "I've been waiting two hours for you to relieve me."
"Bu' Irma, I…"
"Madam Pince to you, you slimy Squib. Ee—ew! What's that smell? A cross between a brewery and Bundimun smuts. You need a good Scourgifying, I can tell you."
She marched him into the castle, still steering him by the ear, and scolding non-stop. "…I will not be stood up. You made me miss my favorite wireless program. And I won't, I repeat, WON'T be seen with you, behaving like you've been wallowing in a nest of Billywigs, do you hear me?"
And as she pulled him up the stairs to the south-east tower, Filch thought to himself, through the pain in his head, I think she likes me.