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A pale green glow emanated from overhead. The Slytherin Common Room was located directly underneath the Black Lake, and only a sheet of glass enforced by magic separated the students from thousands of litres of water. Despite the name, the water didn’t seem black at all from Astoria’s vantage point. The chandeliers around the room sent their light into the murky depths above as well as into the common room, lighting up the dark water to a murky green for several feet. Every other week, she’d see movement up there; Merpeople gliding disinterestedly over the glass, long used to see a bunch of finless people, except for the odd youngling still curious about the goings-on below their habitat. Or there’d be a Grindylow, poised on the ornate casing and prepared to push up toward unsuspecting prey. Yet, even the creatures of the lake seemed to hold their breath as much as everyone else in their world, it seemed to her.

Frowning, Astoria returned her attention to the small gathering in the middle of the room. Two boys stood in the centre, one broad and tall, the other looking weedy and slightly stooped. Astoria couldn’t place the feeling, but he always sent chills down her spine. It was probably the eyes – they were cold with a certain maliciousness.

“Slughorn is such a failure!” Clarke Craven, the taller of the two ranted. Astoria thought he was always ranting about something or other, and tried to steer well clear of him. She’d managed so far, since she was only a fifth year and he a year above her. “He’s way too soft! What’s he doing anyway, almost locked up in his room? Why didn’t Snape appoint us another Head of House? Amycus, for example, has the right idea anyway!”

“Figures they’d be on a first-name basis,” Astoria’s friend Derra murmured next to her. Astoria only gave a tiny nod of her head, but she couldn’t agree more.

“He should be issuing the Durmstrang card any moment now … Ah, there he goes.” Astoria furrowed her brow in irritation.

“… shame, really. Father’d been so thrilled when he heard about the developments here. Durmstrang was becoming too lenient towards all that Muggle-loving scum, and we’d hoped Hogwarts would enforce its once laudable policies.”

“To be fair, though, there’s been a lot of changes,” the other boy said, a calculating look in his eyes. Astoria could feel her spine tingle at the nasty sound of his voice.

“Should have stayed at Durmstrang, then.” Daphne gracefully sank down in the armchair with Astoria, fluffing out her robes. She sounded bored, and started examining her nails. Astoria shuffled to the side a bit. She knew her sister was more annoyed at the new boys for hogging all the attention, than at what they said. Then again, Daphne had never cared for anything that much, except for her own needs. As long as she had a few boys cluttering for her attention, she hadn’t cared about their blood. Though only those well-off and with the right background – invariably Purebloods - had been worthy of receiving some attention in turn. A different kind of prejudiced, Astoria surmised wryly. But that was just the way Daphne had always been.

“Pansy’s all awestruck by their speeches, though,” Daphne continued in the same quiet voice. “She’s been shunning Tracey when Craven started going on about Half-Bloods, too.” Astoria looked from the pug-nosed girl, whispering with Milicent Bulstrode as they kept their eyes on the boys in the middle of the circle, to Tracey Davies, who occupied an armchair over in the corner of the common room, half hidden by the shadows. Tracey was a Half-Blood, and although well-accepted in her sister’s group of friends during the first years, the standing in their house had gradually shifted over the last few years, with the take-over of the Ministry giving one last, more significant shake to it. Though Half-Bloods were not that uncommon for Slytherin, their blood automatically gave them a setback these days. In addition, Slytherin had seen an increase in students that year; others like Craven and his buddy Kendon Villefort, either attracted by the government’s and in extension the Hogwarts governors new ‘Magic for the Pure’ policy or the mandatory attendance ruling. Before this year, some more radical pure-blood families had preferred to home-school their children than sent them into the care of Albus Dumbledore.

“Parkinson is not the only one,” Derra observed. She indicated a group of students a few persons down from the girl. “I think Crabbe and Goyle have found new idols. No wonder Malfoy’s always looking so pinched these days.”

Astoria’s eyes wandered, yet again, to the new subject of her friend and sister’s whispered commentary. Draco Malfoy had come back much more subdued this year. She’d have thought, what with his previous superior attitude, he’d milk the situation for what it was worth, lording the fact that his home was the Dark Lord’s headquarters over everyone else. Instead, he glowered at anyone who approached him. He still held power if for no other reason than the fear that one word from him at home might cause the Dark Lord to target the offender. But he wasn’t the Slytherin Prince anymore. The demotion of his father had certainly contributed to that. Her eyes bored into his nowadays impenetrable mask, the features itself still the same of the boy she’d had a crush on in her third year.

“What do you think, Astoria?” Daphne poked her, looking expectant, before rolling her eyes when she noticed the younger girl hadn’t paid attention.

“She is thinking about whether or not to get Deverill to go out with her,” Derra explained lightheartedly.

“Deverill?” Astoria saw the sixth year in deep discussion with Harper. The pair didn’t seem to pay attention to the now enlivened discussion, where Vaisey and Zabini had got involved. “He’s a sixth year,” Astoria stated plainly.

Daphne lifted her eyebrows questioningly. “So what? He’s good-looking, and from a respected family. Not so invested in this pure-blood talk he’d bore one to death, and from what I can tell, not too clingy.”

“Why are you even asking me, then?” Astoria fluttered her hands in irritation, sinking down in the chair so she could go back to her lake-gazing. She heard Derra giggle and Daphne huff agitatedly.

“Poor boy,” Derra mused aloud, excusing herself to the dorm. Astoria swept her gaze once more over the assorted groups of Slytherins. Even though those clad in green-and-silver-lined robes were perceived as one and the same by the other houses, it was clear in the confines of their own common room that there were distinct differences in the ranking. Shaking her head, she stood, saying, “I might get up and see Pomfrey; see if she has a tonic for my stomach.”

“You feel it too?” Daphne responded plaintively. “Must be those house-elves; I am telling you they’ve been slacking.”

Astoria suppressed any comment; simply turned toward the common room entrance, listening to Daphne make a spectacle of announcing they were on their way to the hospital wing.

“We’d better escort you up, ladies. You never know what’s out there.”

Astoria whipped around at the cold voice. Craven had positioned himself in their path, and Daphne was all but draped over his arm. “… and of course we’d feel much safer under your protection.”

Astoria almost rolled her eyes at her sister. Granted, her sister was two years older than her, and she herself might see the appeal before long, but right at that moment, the blatant flirtation was grating on her nerves.

“Much safer,” a deep growl had Astoria wiping around. Great, didn’t Goyle have some worshipping to do?

Craven led the way out. “Two Pure-Blood girls shouldn’t be out alone these days. Hostility everywhere. It’s a shame, really. But the problem will be seen to, I am sure. And we will be there to see it all; we will be envied by generations to come for this historical opportunity of living in a time where everything is set to rights.”

As he droned on, Astoria watched the familiar portraits on the walls, the tapestry and nooks and crevices she knew so well. Walking up to the Hospital Wing to get a potion had never been a problem before.

“Who’s there? Wandering … oh, you’re Slytherins. Where’re you headed to?”

“Hospital Wing, sir.” Craven replied diligently, as Amycus Carrow regarded him with a would-be benevolent expression, an abrupt change from just moments before, where he’d sported unholy glee and meanness at the prospect of finding students out after hours.

Astoria could barely hold back from rolling her eyes. Now they were making mountains out of molehills. She’d only wanted a little potion.

“’m on a mission, you must know. Blackguards messed with that damn swamp in the first floor corridor. Same ‘un those troublemakers left behind years ago, that caretaker tells me.”

Goyle piped in, rubbing his hands, “We might be able to help. Bet it was those Gryffindors again.”

Astoria was about to object, when her eyes came to rest on a pair of brown, wide ones in the denser shadow of the corridor. Looking more closely, she could indeed see two Gryffindors.

Ginny Weasley and her friend.

If the professor caught them, they would be in trouble indeed.

Astoria quickly cast a glance towards the group, seeing Carrow and the two boys getting ready to chase the culprits. Goyle’s liking for doling out punishments for his new favourite teachers was widely known.

Unsure, she cast a glance back at the two girls, hidden behind the tapestry. Vanessa’s expression had turned pleading, Ginny’s grim.

Astoria looked back, licked her lips.

Then she went with instinct.

Astoria threw a hand to her brow, sighed dramatically, and sank to the floor. Then she opened one eye.

The men were still debating. Impatiently, she let out a most unladylike snort, which drew her sister’s attention.

“Oh no! Poor Astoria!”

Her sister was on her knees, beside her, in a heartbeat, exclaiming. This obviously drew the other’s attention.

“Oh, she needed to go to the Hospital Wing. Damn those Gryffindors!”

Someone had obviously conjured a stretcher, because Astoria found herself lifted on it. She debated miming regaining consciousness, then decided she might get to her destination quicker this way.

She looked back, saw one anxious and one speculating pair of eyes looking back at her.

*

“Weasley. How are the kids?”

Trying not to show his chagrin, Arthur fixed a pleasant smile on his face before turning around. Walden Macnair, the Ministry’s henchman.

“Walden,” he replied, putting particular emphasis on the first name. “You know, the kids are fine. Good of you to ask.”

The other’s face morphed into a mocking grimace. “My duty as a decent wizard, you see. Wouldn’t want them to go astray.”

The grill’s of the lift opened, and Arthur squeezed in with an obligatory greeting, not meeting anyone’s eye. Macnair followed closely on his heels.

He was finding it hard not to lash out; his temper could prove disastrous if provoked enough and he usually kept a tight leash on it. Concentrating on the contents of his robe pockets, he would nod his head while Macnair was talking.

“… that radio station is a bloody nuisance … telling them to get rid of it …”

Arthur fussed with the roll of Spell-o-tape; he’d picked it up the day for Molly and hadn’t yet given it to her. Someone sneezed behind him, making him feel around for an handkerchief. Of course, it was wedged into the very bottom of the pocket.

“… those Mudbloods think they can just be like us …”

As his fingers came across a couple of paperclips, he bore down on them, twisting them apart with a vengeance.

Macnair, too, got out, as well as a couple of others. “Well then, Weasley, stay on the right path. – Meanwhile, I have business here.”

Arthur watched him walk away, took a deep breath. Thought to himself that Macnair had walked away at the right moment, for he had come across another Muggle trinket in his pocket, and he would have been sorry if he had squashed the light-bulb before being able to give it a good look.

He shook his head at the absurdity of it all, and turned around.

The tall young man stood slightly in the shadows, watching, as he had done, as Macnair disappeared down the hallway. One eyebrow was lifted as if in – disapproval?

With a sinking heart, Arthur realised that he must have ridden in the same elevator as his son without realising it. He’d give all his Muggle trinkets in a heartbeat if only his kids were really all fine, and together once more.

“Percy?” he whispered, tentatively.

The redhead gave a start, and for a moment closed his eyes. Arthur thought Percy would reply, when clanging and banging and the unmistakeable female voice in elevator shaft announced the imminent arrival of people.

With a stiff nod, Percy strode away, disappearing into one of the doorways someway down the hall.

Arthur found his way to his desk without any recollection of getting there. He threw the paperclips into his bin, smashed the light-bulb in his hand in helpless frustration. Calmer, he swept his wand over his hand with a healing incantation, and vanished the broken bulb with the cynical thought that someone might actually have the bright idea to search his rubbish.

With an absent-minded gesture, he pushed at his glasses, and sat down. Arthur stopped short, and seized once more into his pocket. There hadn’t been a parchment in it when he’d rummaged around in it in the elevator. But then he’d felt one when he’d grabbed the light-bulb.

Slowly, he produced the item in question and unrolled it; it had been tightly folded.

Ted Tonks, Dirk Cresswell and goblin Gornuk killed by a gang of Snatchers. Official reports of deaths by the Daily Prophet discontinued.

Arthur sat staring at the piece of parchment, unable to catch his breath. He knew those names – and what it would mean to their loved ones. The thought of who had given the note to him and of its authenticity reared its head briefly and was pushed away again.

More likely than not, that piece of bad news would turn out to be true.

*

“Overconfident, optimistic folk.” Wiping his brow as if to get rid of a bothersome thought, Aberforth shuffled to the door, sliding the bolt home with a quick, determined motion before producing a long, thick wand from behind his ear. He then slid the curtain aside so he could peer out after the last stragglers; they would be hard-pressed to reach the apparition point before curfew. Aberforth furrowed his brow; if nothing else, those so-called preservers of wizardkind were bad for business.

Shaking his head after the disappearing people, he swept the street with one last, suspicious glower, then retreated to his private rooms over the dingy little pub.

“See, sweet, Albus’s friends were here again. Don’t know what they are playing at, invitin’ trouble as they are.” As he was talking, Aberforth shuffled over to his fireplace, laboriously lit the candle stumps on the mantle. The girl, clad in a flowery summer dress and strawberry-blond hair caught in two long braids, giggled merrily.

“You like them, Abey.”

“Like them, pah!” Grumbling under his breath, Aberforth proceeded to put the kettle on. “It’s just like Albus; inspiring those young fools were there is no hope.”

“Grumpy Abey. But I know you keep the miiiror.” Chanting, the girl danced around as far as the confines of her frame let her.

“Mirror, mirror. Don’t know what Albus was thinking, leaving me Black’s mirror. Mind you, Black’s always been amusing, sneaking into the Hog’s Head as he did. A shame, really. Should have stayed where he was.”

Vexed, he shoved his hands into his pockets, felt in the depth of them the very item Ariana had just teased him about. Aberforth humphed in annoyance. He had indeed kept it close, as Albus had asked of him.

“Cheeky girl.” Still annoyed, he pulled the mirror out. Wiped at it with the scruff of his sleeve. “Still no sign of the boy.” He shook the ornately decorated looking glass. “Maybe it’s broken.”

“Why would Albey give you something broken?” Ariana queried, sounding genuinely confused.

Aberforth shrugged his shoulders, reminding himself of Ariana’s innocence. Why, indeed.

Aberforth poked the reflecting surface again. “Nothing is happening. I should be able to at least see Potter.”

“Does he know how to use it?” Ariana asked in all seriousness.

“…” Aberforth closed his already opened mouth. Surely someone must have ... surely Albus had told the boy to use the mirror to contact Aberforth if he needed him?

Uttering expletives under his breath that had Ariana cover her ears and run for cover behind one of the bushes at the side of her portrait, Aberforth flung the mirror down so it skidded over the carpet. Cursing even louder, he stalked across his living area, snatched up the mirror and shoved it back into his pockets. That would be just so typical …

As he scowled back towards Ariana, he saw her peeking over the bush.

“You can come out. I’m all done.”

“Good. You are not supposed to use those words, Abey. See, he’s finally coming; I knew it.” Giggling, Ariana hopped back into sight and began smoothing down her skirt.

“Who’s coming?” Absently, Aberforth started preparing his tea.

Ariana lifted up on her tiptoes, shaded her eyes. “Nevvy. I talk to him sometimes, he sleeps now in the Ever-Changing Room.”

“The Ever-Changing Room? What are you talking about?”

Aberforth felt his jaw drop, as the tiny spot he hadn’t really paid attention to but which Ariana had observed grew steadily larger, until it looked like a stick-figure. And still it grew.

“I invited him, and he came.” Ariana was all smiles. Momentarily flummoxed, Aberforth watched the boy’s progress.

“Longbottom,” he muttered, recognising the family likeness and remembering the disastrous little meeting Potter had held at his pub years ago.

Then, they boy’s gangly frame seemed to fill the whole canvas, and Ariana’s chant of “open up! Open up!” recalled him to the present, and to his surprise, the portrait swung forward with the lightest pull, causing the boy to tumble out.

“I expect a reasonable explanation, boy, for showing up in this unusual – even for a wizard – way in my living room.”

Neville jumped immediately to his feet, blushing profusely. “I am sorry, sir, ... erg. Ariana, erg, the girl in the picture, she said to come. She, uh, actually was quite adamant, and praising your cooking.”

Aberforth put his hands on his hips, puffing out a breath. “Longbottom, didn’t your grandmother teach you better manners? Stumbling into another’s four own walls, then stumbling over your tongue? – And for future reference, it is Aberforth Dumbledore.”

Neville gasped. “Dumbledore? You are Dumbledore’s brother.”

“And Dumbledore’s son. Alas, not Dumbledore’s father, though, as that would require me having sired a son.”

Aberforth found that he was starting to enjoy himself. Meanwhile, young Longbottom was shaking his head, looking to Ariana for help, who was smiling benighly.

“But … you are Professor Dumbledore’s brother. And you, uh, well …”

“Own a dumpster of a pub. Yes, quite astute. – Now, what might lead you here today? The desire for food, or an escape route, maybe? I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning, when that dratted charm will be taken off.”

Neville gaped at his unwilling host, before shrugging his shoulders; then he indicated one of the chairs. “Might I sit? – My name is Neville Longbottom, but Neville is fine. I have been talking to Ariana quite a lot, and today, while I was contemplating how to get my hands on something to eat, the little black door appeared, and the tunnel led me straight here. Where Ariana mentioned food was to be had. – But do you know my Gran?”

Aberforth grimaced. “I do indeed. She’d probably be after me with her handbag if she learned I had left her grandson go hungry. – I’ll prepare something for the both of us.”

Neville mumbled a thank you, fidgeting some with his hands before putting them on his knees. “Uh, sir, why do you own a pub?”

Aberforth sent a mild look over his shoulder. “Why ever not? – Tell me, the two of you, how could there be a door leading to my home? Are you sure you are not some Death Eater in disguise?”

Neville denied that vehemently, then launched into his story. “It is that room. If you wish for the right thing, it will appear. I was picturing a cozy room to while away time, plot some, even live comfortably without being able to be found. And there was this room, that had a sleeping cot, books, a desk. It looked like someone might just have left it yesterday, with pots of ink and parchment scattered around, a stack of books. And that portrait of three children that was leaning against the desk. I put it up on the wall, and then …”

Neville gasped, eyes widening in realisation. “You are one of the boys. You are Ariana’s brother.”

Gruffily, Aberforth affirmed that, “That would be so. I had often wondered where that picture had disappeared to.”

“Then the other boy …”

“And you think nothing of entering strange pathways? Not very considerate, boy.” Aberforth started ladling soup into two bowls and carried them over. They were eating in silence, and yet he could feel the boy’s eyes at him from time to time.

Shoving his bowl aside, Aberforth went to his fireplace, plucked a jar from the mantle. “So, I might not be Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, but I do have some tricks left in my sleeve. I can see you safely home to your Gran.”

Neville rose slowly. He looked at the jar in Aberforth’s hand, and back at the open portrait. Aberforth felt humbled when the boy’s – no, the man’s eyes swept back to his. “My time, my place. This is where I am supposed to be when he’ll be back. I can feel it. Will you be there with us?”

After moments of silence, Neville said his goodbyes and clambered back into the tunnel.

“Whenever you’re hungry, here’s more,” Aberforth called grumpily, and watched the portrait swing shut. Ariana sent him a confused glance, then hurried to Neville’s side to accompany him back.

He stoically put the jar back into its place, started tidying up. “Bloody optimistic fools. A lot of good they are going to be on the run and under lock. – I am so not going to talk to Augusta for the time being.”





A/N:
Momentarily surfacing from the rock I’ve crawled under – might as well have for the limited internet access I had. I never realised how dependent I had become on being able to just pop in and look something up or whatever. Signs of addiction? ;)

Astoria’s friend Derra is from one of my one-shots, so the one or other of you might recognise her. The Slytherin bit really got me thinking about what it would have been like for them “behind the scenes”.
The portrait of the Dumbledore siblings is a figment of my imagination, yet everything else is, of course, Joanne K. Rowling's.

Thanks for the continued interest, guys!!!

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