The End of the Beginning

by Marina

Chapter 13
August 29, 1981

Albus Dumbledore had just sat down to enjoy his breakfast when a familiar rumble outside signaled the approach of Sirius Black's motorcycle. This was mildly worrying: he had not been expecting a visit from Sirius, and the younger generation -- which in Albus' case meant just about everybody -- did not make a habit of dropping in on him for unannounced social visits, especially not two days before the start of term. Albus conjured a second place setting for his table and walked over to the window just in time to see the bike land on the lawn in front of Gryffindor tower with a thump and a spray of shredded turf.

Sirius had not come alone. His passenger's face was concealed by a helmet, but there was no mistaking the jeans and the tweed jacket. As Albus watched, both men dismounted and removed their helmets. They spoke to each other for a few moments, then turned and walked towards the entrance. This was rather more worrying. Sirius Black was hardly a model of conventional behavior, but even he would not bring a Muggle to Hogwarts on a whim, however trustworthy the Muggle in question might be.

Albus returned to his chair and spooned a generous helping of marmalade onto a piece of toast. He had a notion of what this sudden visit was about, and wanted to be prepared. Experience had taught him that most people were disarmed by the presence of food. It was difficult to be properly rude to someone while they were eating, more difficult still if they offered to share. So he took a large bite, chewed it thoroughly and swallowed before calling out, "Come in!" in response to the knock on his door. He was not surprised to see Giles enter alone. Sirius, then, had remained downstairs.

"Ah, Giles! It's good to see you. Would you like a cup of hot chocolate? I've just made it fresh."

"No, thank you." Giles stood just inside the doorway with his feet wide apart, as if bracing himself against some potential assault. His expression was grim and extremely focused. Most people entering the Headmaster's office for the first time took at least a few seconds to gawk, but Giles seemed oblivious to his surroundings. Even Fawkes, perched near the window in his most resplendent plumage, failed to elicit a reaction. Giles' glare turned into a suspicious frown as he noted the second place setting on the table. "Were you expecting me?"

"No, I'm afraid you took me completely by surprise." Albus took an unhurried sip of his own chocolate. "You are welcome, of course. Surprises are rare at my age. Won't you have a seat?"

"I'd rather stand." Giles took two rather aggressive steps into the room and leaned forward to loom over the breakfast table, a thundercloud in tasteful Harris tweed. "You didn't tell me about Ethan," he accused.

It was exactly what Albus had been expecting to hear, and exactly what he'd hoped to avoid. The chocolate lost its savor, and he put his cup down on its saucer.

"Please sit down, Giles. This is going to take quite a bit of explaining."

Giles hesitated for an uncomfortably long time, but eventually pulled up a chair and sat. The toast rack waddled toward him hopefully. He ignored it. He looked very young and very angry. Sometimes it seemed to Albus that everyone around him was very young and very angry, from Rupert Giles to Tom Riddle (who, no doubt, would be even more angry to learn that he was still being thought of as Tom Riddle anywhere in the world). It made him feel tired.

Giles planted his hands on the table, nearly overturning the sugar bowl, which scurried hastily out of harm's way. "Ethan spoke to me last night," he said in a harsh voice, "through an astral projection spell. He said he's being held captive at the house of somebody named Malfoy. He's been there over two months now. They've poisoned him, tortured him… you knew. You knew and you didn't tell me."

"Yes, I knew," Albus admitted. "And if I had felt that it was safe to tell you, then I would have done so. But there are a number of lives at stake, including Mr. Rayne's own, and at the time, I did not know you well enough to be certain that you wouldn't do something rash. To be honest…" He met and held Giles' angry gaze across the table. "I still don't know you well enough."

"Rash." Giles barked a short, entirely unhumorous laugh. "You mean as in, try to help him instead of just abandoning him to his fate?"

Albus shook his head. "I have not abandoned anyone. I have an agent in place at Malfoy Manor who has been working towards Mr. Rayne's rescue from the beginning, and who is now very close to achieving it. If I had thought there was anything you could do to help, I would've included you in our plans, but there is nothing you can do, and if you tried, you'd only succeed in endangering yourself, Mr. Rayne and my agent." He stopped and ate a bite of toast, not so much because he wanted one as because he thought the conversation could use a quiet moment. This was not the way he'd intended to spend his breakfast. Worry for Severus was a constant, nagging presence in his mind, no matter what else he might be thinking or doing. Saying it aloud made the feeling even more acute. And Rupert Giles had never met Severus, had no reason to care about him, was quite legitimately focused on his own friend's safety. Still, Albus wanted to make him understand.

He sighed and took another sip of his hot chocolate. "You must see," he told Giles, "how much the outcome of this war depends on us keeping our secrets and finding out the secrets of our enemy. Voldemort has his spies among my people. I have mine among his. With every piece of information we receive, we must balance the need to act on it against the need to protect the person who delivered it. Someone told Voldemort about you and Mr. Rayne. Someone close to me; someone I trust." Albus paused for another piece of toast. "In fact," he continued, "the pool of possible suspects is rather small, which is why Voldemort took your friend instead of yourself. He'd hoped to do it without me ever finding out. And he would almost certainly have succeeded, if someone close to him hadn't alerted me."

Anger, apparently, did not make Rupert Giles stupid. It took him no time at all to follow Albus' logic to its inevitable conclusion.

"And now you can't let on that you know," he said softly, "because Voldemort would know who told you."

"It would certainly narrow the field for him. And he is quite capable of… what's your Muggle phrase… killing them all and letting God sort them out."

"So all this secrecy was about protecting your spy?" Giles stood up abruptly and ran one hand through his helmet-tousled hair. His movements had become jerky and awkward. He looked as if he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "This is insane. You make it all sound like a chess game, except you can't see your opponent's pieces."

"It is not a game!" Albus said sharply. "We're fighting a very real war. Very real people dying all too real deaths -- because of a careless word, a knowing look, a revealing gesture…you were there at the McKinnons' funeral, weren't you? You know what happened."

"Yes." Giles nodded grimly. "James told me."

"The McKinnons died, and Sirius, Alastor and Arabella were badly injured, because Anita said too much to her husband. Tobias was trustworthy, yet she was wrong to trust him. What happened was not his fault, yet still it happened. Had I told you about Mr. Rayne's abduction, had you unwittingly or unwillingly revealed your knowledge… no, Mr. Giles, I cannot take such risks."

"But you can leave me to blunder on in happy ignorance while Ethan suffers." Giles loomed over the table again. "I understand why you didn't tell me," he said, "but I'm still angry."

Well, at least he was honest about it. Albus could only offer honesty in return. "I understand your anger, but I did what I felt necessary. If I the same situation were to arise again, I would still make the same choice."

"I see." Giles lowered his head a little, took off his glasses, and spent several long seconds meticulously polishing the lenses with his handkerchief. When he put them on again and looked up, his face was smooth and placid. "Well. Thank you for your candor… however delayed it might be. I suppose I'd better go now, before Sirius gets tired of hanging about in the corridor."

"We can invite him in," Albus suggested, "if you would like to stay for breakfast."

"I don't think so," Giles said quietly. He began to turn away, then hesitated. "I want to be there," he said, "when you rescue Ethan."

"I believe that can be arranged."

Giles walked to the door and paused there, looking back over his shoulder. "Doesn't it ever make you sick?" he asked.

Albus stood up and walked slowly to the window, stopping next to Fawkes' perch. The bird gave a soft, plaintive trill and rested his golden head on Albus' shoulder. Albus closed his eyes for a moment as he stroked the silky feathers.

"Of course it does," he said quietly. "All the time."

Three days later, shortly after midnight, Albus accompanied Giles to Diagon Alley. He knew that Giles had been there before, with Sirius and Remus acting as his guides, and had been delighted by the experience. Albus was glad of it. It would've been a great shame if Giles' first impression of Wizard London was shaped by their current furtive entrance, the rapid walk down a deserted, unlit pavement, the silent climb up the stairs to the room where Albus normally met with Severus Snape. They did not encounter another living soul during their journey. Albus could remember a time when, even at this late hour, Diagon Alley would be full of people. He remembered music in the cafes and laughing young couples strolling arm in arm under floating globes of light. He had to restrain a sudden, irrational urge to apologize for the state of his world. We're not always like this, he wanted to say. You've caught us at a bad time. Instead, he silently conjured an extra chair and pushed it toward Giles. Giles draped his borrowed cloak over the back, and they both sat down to wait.

Ten minutes later there was a faint pop as Severus appeared in the room, clutching the raven-feather quill that Albus had earlier made into a Portkey for him. He staggered slightly on the landing, caught himself with one hand against the wall, then stood up straight and nodded to Albus before casting a wary, narrow-eyed look at Giles.

"Severus. I'm glad to see you safe." Albus stood, took Severus' arm and guided him to the bed. Severus sat down heavily and slumped sideways against the footboard.

"Headmaster." His voice was hoarse and slurred. "And Mr.--"

"Giles," Albus said quickly. "He's a friend of Mr. Rayne. Who is..."

"Here." Severus took a lumpy gray rock from his pocket, placed it on the floor at his feet and held his wand over it. His hand shook slightly. "Finite Incantatem."

The rock vanished. In its place lay the still body of a man in Muggle clothes. Giles gave a startled exclamation and clambered out of his chair.

"Ethan!" He knelt at his friend's side, searched frantically for a pulse at his throat, and looked up with grief and accusation in his eyes. "He's dead."

"No, he's not," Severus said wearily. "The potion will wear off in a few moments. He should drink plenty of fluids after he wakes up, but take no solid food for twelve hours."

As if on cue, Ethan Rayne twitched, coughed, and began to breathe in loud, wheezing gasps. Giles propped him up against the bed and loosened his collar while Albus poured a glass of water from the jug on the washstand. Ethan drank greedily, tipping the glass back so quickly that water streamed from the corners of his mouth and dripped onto his shirt. He gulped down three glasses that way before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and mustering up a shaky grin.

"Ripper! Fancy seeing you here." He looked around the room, taking in Albus and Severus' presence with a smirk. "And in such disreputable company, too."

"Ethan…" Giles sat back on his heels, took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "God… Are you all right?"

"Bursting with health. Or so I'm told." Ethan leaned his head back against the edge of the bed to glare up at Severus, who stared back impassively. "Your antidote had better work, Snape. Or I'll come back to haunt you."

"It'll work." Severus' hair was falling into his eyes. He raised one hand as if to brush it back, then let the hand fall into his lap again. He was shivering. And he hadn't even insisted on the hour-long Polyjuice vigil that had begun every single one of their past meetings. It was that bad, then. Albus said nothing; he had learned the hard way that Severus tended to interpret expressions of concern as accusations of weakness. So he contented himself with taking a Honeydukes bar from his pocket, tearing off the gold foil, and holding the chocolate out in silence. Severus stared at the offering with a slightly dazed expression, as if he wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to with it. Finally he broke off a piece of chocolate with an unsteady hand, popped it into his mouth and chewed. It seemed to revive him a little -- he sat up straighter and, after another couple of bites, reached into his own pocket to take out a small flask. He pulled out the cork, and Albus caught the cloying scent of Numbing Draught.

Ethan Rayne tipped his head back to watch Severus drink. "If that's booze," he said, "I'll have some, please."

"It's not." Severus re-corked the flask and stowed it back in his pocket. His voice was stronger already, his movements steadier; obviously, the Draught was having the desired effect. "And you won't. No alcohol for the next twenty four hours, no potions of any kind for at least three days. Go away and get some sleep, Rayne. We'll both be happier."

Giles looked indignant, but Rayne merely smirked and rolled his eyes.

"You're all heart, Snape," he drawled. "Get me out of here, will you, Ripper? I've had enough of these nice people you've been hanging around with."

"Yes, of course." Giles grasped Rayne's hands and pulled him to his feet, supporting him when his legs buckled. "We'll go straight away… won't we?" He gave Albus a dubious look. "I've never left Diagon Alley on my own. Will the doorway let us through?"

"Yes, but you really shouldn't..." Albus hesitated. He wanted to talk with Severus as soon as possible, so that the boy could go home to recover, but he couldn't very well let Giles and Rayne walk through Diagon Alley unprotected in the middle of the night. He was just about to ask them to wait downstairs, when Severus resolved the dilemma for him.

"I'll wait here till you come back, Headmaster."

"Are you certain?" It was the most practical course of action, but Severus was obviously in a bad way, and Albus hated the thought of abandoning him in this shabby room while he went out to escort other men to safety. His concern must've shown on his face somehow, because Severus' expression hardened abruptly, and his voice turned flinty and cold.

"I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself for a few minutes, Headmaster. By all means, walk your Muggles home."

"Yes, by all means, do." Rayne slumped heavily against Giles, who eyed him with increased concern.

"Ethan, are you injured?"

"No, he's not," Severus snapped. "He's weak and disoriented and has a headache, but these are normal symptoms after being dosed with the Draught of Living Death. Put him somewhere dark and let him sleep it off."

"Why, thank you, Snape. I don't know what I'd do without you around to tell me how I feel." Rayne's smirk turned into a scowl. "And in case you haven't noticed, I have been kidnapped, drugged, tortured and turned into a rock. I may not be injured, but I'd like to state for the record that I've been severely inconvenienced."

"All the more reason, then, to get you home as soon as possible." Albus opened the door. "After you, gentlemen."

The walk to the Leaky Cauldron was not a pleasant one, accompanied as it was by Ethan Rayne's continuous commentary on the indignities he'd suffered at Malfoy Manor. The descriptions were certainly gruesome, and Albus had heard enough from Severus to know that most of them were true, but there was an exaggerated, theatrical quality in Rayne's manner that made it difficult to find much sympathy for him. Albus sternly reminded himself that different people had different ways of coping, and exerted himself to be kind and not to dwell on the fact that he had spent the past two months fending off Rayne's increasingly horrific assassination attempts. It was a great relief to finally tap the wall and step into the Leaky Cauldron's dusty courtyard.

"One last suggestion, Mr. Rayne," he said, cutting off yet another litany of complaints. "Thanks to Severus' efforts, Voldemort and Malfoy both believe that you are dead. You're safe only as long as they continue to believe it. If I were you, I would keep my head down from now on. In another country, if possible."

"Wonderful." Rayne heaved a big, theatrical sigh. "Abducted, tortured, exiled from my home..."

"Ethan." Even Giles seemed to be losing patience with the melodrama. "Your home is a cockroach-ridden flat in Pimlico."

Rayne schooled his face into a virtuous expression and clasped his hands under his chin. "Be it ever so humble..."

"There should be a law against you ever using the word humble," Giles grumbled, and gave Dumbledore a small, wry smile. "I'll take it from here, sir."

"Thank you, Mr. Giles." Albus tapped the Cauldron's back door with his wand to open it. He waited until the two men reached the front door and disappeared into the Muggle street on the other side, and relocked the pub before Apparating from the courtyard to the opposite end of the Alley.

Back in the room, Severus was fast asleep. He had curled up on the bed with his boots and robes and cloak still on, pulled the bedspread over himself like a cocoon, and hugged a pillow to his chest as he slept. In the dim light of the bedside lamp, the dingy linen of the pillowcase appeared to be the same color as his face and hands. Albus was careful to make no noise as he pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down. He considered transfiguring the bedspread into a down comforter, but decided that Severus would be annoyed by it when he woke, so he contented himself with charming the bed linens clean. A quick survey of his pockets produced a pencil, several packets of sweets and a book of acrostic puzzles. All the necessities of life, conveniently at hand. Albus popped a sherbet lemon into his mouth, opened the book to a random page, and settled down to wait.

He was half-way through his fourth puzzle when Severus awakened with a start, flinging one arm out and knocking the pillow to the floor.

"Wha-- Headmaster?" He sat up slowly and carefully, as if the movement hurt, and pushed his hair back from his face. "How long have I been asleep?"

"Not long," Albus told him cheerfully. "I've been so engrossed in these puzzles, I've hardly noticed. I say, do you know a twelve-letter word for "disarming speech"?"

"Expelliarmus." Severus stifled a yawn and rubbed.his eyes. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean to leave you waiting like that. You should've just woken me up."

"Not at all. We all need a nice nap once in a while. My brother Aberforth, for example, insists on taking one every afternoon, from two to five. Which probably explains why he never managed to retain an office job." Albus scratched his beard thoughtfully. "I've always told him he should have gone into the Ministry. You need not be awake for government work. In fact, it's often better if you're not."

He chatted at random for the next couple of minutes, while Severus splashed water on his face, straightened his robes, brushed his fingers through his hair and generally did his best to look as if he hadn't slept at all. Once the boy looked calm and collected once again, Albus quickly wrapped up his litany of Aberforth's misadventures and composed himself to listen.

"It all worked out as we'd planned." Severus sat up ramrod-straight as he spoke, hands clasped tightly in his lap, looking as if he feared he might fall asleep again if he let himself relax. "Voldemort thinks Rayne died of heart failure brought on by prolonged effects of the poison. It's a well-documented side effect. Voldemort was furious, but he wasn't suspicious." He shuddered and closed his eyes for a moment. "He ordered Lucius to get rid of the body, and Lucius, of course, passed the task on to me. It was all fairly... straightforward."

"No, it wasn't," Albus said sternly. "Don't belittle yourself, Severus. It was a highly dangerous, risky plan that might have gone wrong in a hundred different places. It succeeded because you made it succeed, not because it was easy. You've done extremely well."

"Thank you, sir." Severus nodded slightly, but did not smile or relax. If anything, he seemed even more tense than before, which was far from his usual reaction to praise. The boy was frightened, Albus realized. Or, no, not precisely frightened but… braced. That was it. Severus had the definite air of being grimly braced for something painful and unpleasant. Albus wanted to reassure him, but he had the feeling that he might be the source of the problem.

"Severus," he said quietly, "is there anything else you need to tell me?"

"Yes." Severus hunched his shoulders and held his clasped hands against his stomach. "I think... I think I know who Voldemort's spy is."

"Indeed." Albus kept his face and voice impassive, despite the combined anticipation and dread churning in the pit of his stomach. This was vital information whic Severus had been trying to uncover for almost a year. Yet now Albus found himself not wanting to hear it, not wanting to know which trusted friend was about to be condemned. "And who is it?"

Severus took a deep breath and lifted his head to meet Albus' gaze. When he finally spoke, his voice was firm and his eyes shone with perfect conviction.

"It's Sirius Black."

"Sirius." Dumbledore unwrapped another sherbet lemon, though the first one hadn't yet finished dissolving in his mouth. The sweet-and-sour, slightly fizzy taste on his tongue failed to provide its usual comfort. "I see. That is…" Appalling? Unthinkable? "Unexpected. I assume you have evidence of this?"

Severus' eyes flickered uncertainly. "I haven't actually seen him," he admitted. "No one's seen him except for Rayne and Voldemort himself. Even Lucius has been made to keep out of the way in his own house. But I've spoken to Rayne and... the description he gave sounds like Black"

He hesitated a moment on that last sentence, a pause so brief, it was barely more than a breath. But something about it prompted Albus to ask, "And how detailed was Mr. Rayne's description, exactly?"

"Not… not very." Severus bit his bottom lip and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He looked less like a spy reporting on a mission and more like a schoolboy desperately attempting to justify a faulty essay. Of course, he had been a schoolboy, less than five years ago, though Albus recalled that his essays had never been faulty. "Voldemort doesn't take any chances -- he's made Black wear a mask every time he comes to the Manor. But the height and build match."

"Sirius Black's physique is hardly one of a kind," Albus pointed out, and allowed himself a fleeting smile. "Despite his own frequent claims to the contrary."

Severus glowered, clearly unamused. "I'm aware of that, Headmaster. But you must admit that it fits." He hauled himself to his feet and began to pace, staggering with unsteady steps from the bed to the door, and back again. "We know the spy is someone close to James Potter. Someone who is either an Auror, or works closely with them. Someone who knew about the Channel Islands raid. Someone--" He lurched to a stop and spun around on his heels, fixing Albus with an intense, glittering gaze. "Someone who knows both proper magic, and... and that other kind. The pool of suspects is really quite small. And out of all of them, Black is the only one that fits"

"But he doesn't fit," Albus pointed out. "Sirius has never learned any of the Muggle methods of magic. According to Mr. Giles, he's never so much as floated a feather an inch above the ground."

"He's faking!" Severus sputtered indignantly. "Anyone can pretend to be incompetent. If Black is the spy, of course he's not going to advertise what he can do! But he's been there for nearly every lesson, you've told me so yourself."

"So I have, yes." Albus stroked one hand from his chin down to the tip of his beard, wincing slightly as a few stray hairs snagged on the bulky seal ring on his finger. The Hogwarts crest winked at him in the lamplight -- lion, badger, eagle and snake, cunningly wrought in red and yellow gold, silently waiting on his judgment. Objective. He must be objective. What, all personal considerations aside, did he know about Sirius Black? A brilliant, difficult student, far too easily bored, unfettered by such prosaic concerns as school rules or common sense. An effective, if somewhat reckless, agent. Popular, independently wealthy, a talented wizard with every path open to him. It was almost impossible to imagine his succumbing to Voldemort's lure of a pureblood revolution.

Yet that was the point, wasn't it? Voldemort's spy had to be someone above suspicion, else he would've been suspected already. Of course if he followed that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, then Sirius Black must be innocent by virtue of having now been suspected. Albus shook his head ruefully.

"Severus," he said quietly, "I need more proof."

Severus stood there and glared at him, eyes growing colder with every passing moment.

"You don't believe me," he said in a flat voice.

Albus suppressed a sigh. "I believe you're reporting the facts accurately as you know them. But you yourself must admit that the facts are rather sketchy. I cannot accuse one of my most trusted people--"

"On the word of your least trusted." Severus gave a short, angry laugh. "Of course. I understand."

"You know that isn't true." Albus made no attempt to gentle his voice this time. "I trust you to do the right thing, Severus. If Sirius is the spy, I trust you to find solid evidence of his guilt. And if he's innocent, then I trust you not to find any solid evidence of his guilt. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal," Severus hissed through clenched teeth. Albus could almost see the disappointment and fury radiating from him in a thick black wave. He had looked exactly the same as a furious, battered sixth-year, looming over Albus' desk in torn and bloody robes, growling, "You're not even going to punish him, are you?" Nothing less than Sirius Black's immediate incarceration in Azkaban would have appeased Severus then. Nothing less would appease him now. "And what are you going to do about Black, while I'm out gathering my solid evidence?"

"I will make sure that Sirius is watched." The prospect filled Albus' mouth with a bitter taste no amount of sherbet lemons could overcome, but he couldn't in good conscience do anything less. "I will find harmless work for him to do. And I will wait."

"Don't wait too long," Severus muttered sullenly. "Voldemort has decided to go after the Potters. If Black is the traitor, this will be his big opportunity to prove his worth to his master."

Just when he thought he was finished with bad news for the night… "Voldemort's after James and Lily? Why? Or rather, why now?"

Severus shrugged, affecting a not entirely convincing air of indifference. "Something to do with a prophecy, apparently. He's decided that if he kills Potter and the brat, Lily Potter will somehow go over to his side and win the war for him. And no, I don't know how it's supposed to happen. But you do see why Black needs to be kept away from the Potters, don't you, sir?"

"Yes, I do." Albus sighed. He was not looking forward to telling James Potter that his family was a target, or that his best friend was under suspicion. "Thank you, Severus. I will do what I can."

Two weeks after Ethan Rayne's rescue, Albus received a note from Giles, delivered by a small, ragged owl that he dimly recognized from Peter Pettigrew's time at Hogwarts. The note extended a lunch invitation and specified the address of a café in Muggle London. Albus accepted with pleasure; he hadn't been to Soho since the Sixties.

It was cleaner than he remembered, and a great deal noisier and more crowded, filled with American and Japanese tourists taking photographs of the club signs and shop displays. Albus arrived early and took a table by the window, where he could watch the passing crowd in all its delightful variety. The girl who brought his coffee sported vibrant blue hair, a leather corset, and a complicated Celtic knot tattooed on one bony shoulder. Albus, in his khaki trousers and Hawaiian print shirt, felt positively subdued by comparison. Even Giles, arriving exactly on time, had eschewed his usual tweed in favor of black jeans and a black cotton sweater.

"I wasn't sure if you'd come," he said, unslinging a fat canvas backpack from his shoulders and letting it drop with a heavy thump as he sat down. "Peter seemed quite shocked when I told him I was inviting you here, but I've grown rather tired of needing an escort every time I want to speak with you. I thought it would do you good to come out to a non-magical place for once." There was a challenging note in his voice.

Albus looked out onto the pavement, where a young woman in a long purple dress was making a pair of marionettes dance a tango in front of a slowly gathering crowd. "I would hardly call this place non-magical."

The waitress reappeared, teetering in her high-heeled boots, to take their orders for soup and sandwiches. Giles called her back at the last moment to ask for a pint of bitter, and waited for her to return with his glass before he spoke again.

"I'm leaving England," he said. "Three days from now. I don't know when I'll be back."

Albus took small, slow sips of his coffee as he pondered this announcement. "Because of Mr. Rayne?" he asked after a while. Giles shook his head.

"No. He left last week, to visit some friends in Italy. I'm going to Romania."

Albus pondered some more. "You're still angry with me," he said after a while.

"No." Giles seemed to become deeply absorbed in the trickle of foam that was sliding down the side of his glass. "Or rather, I am, but that's not why I'm leaving. I have… obligations. There are people who had a claim on my loyalties before I ever heard of you or Voldemort. If they say I must go and translate some early medieval manuscripts in Bucharest, then I must go and translate some early medieval manuscripts in Bucharest." He kicked at the backpack that lay next to his chair, pushing it across the floor toward Albus. "I have some books here I'd like you to give to Lily. I would've given them to her myself, but it seems she and James have disappeared off the face of the earth. Peter says they've gone into hiding. Remus says you're the only one who knows where they are. Sirius says a number of things that don't bear repeating in polite company."

"They're all telling the truth," said Albus. Giles smiled ruefully over the top of his beer glass.

"Including Sirius?"

"Probably." Albus had read the reports filed by the two Unspeakables he had assigned to watch the house Sirius was sharing with Remus. He knew that Sirius had been furious when he discovered the Potters had gone into hiding without informing their friends. It was hardly a surprise. James had been furious too, refusing to even consider the possibility that either Sirius or anyone else close to him might be a traitor. He would have stayed in his house and thrown parties for all his friends every day, just to prove a point, had the danger been to himself alone.

The waitress arrived with their lunch. Albus' roast beef sandwich was so thick, he had to take it apart and eat with a knife and fork. Giles peppered his soup, but made no move to eat or even to stir it.

"Are they going to be all right?" he asked. "Lily and James and Harry? Just how safe are these safehouses of yours, exactly?"

Albus resisted the temptation to offer a reassuring lie. "I don't know. In the short term, probably safe enough. In the long run… it depends on how badly Voldemort wants to find them."

"I don't suppose there's a chance I could see them before I go? Just to say good-bye?"

"I don't think that would be wise, Mr. Giles. But I'll make sure they get the books."

"Thank you." Giles seemed to suddenly notice the bowl of soup in front of him, and picked up his spoon. Albus slathered more horseradish sauce on his meat, and for the next few minutes both men ate in silence. It was probably very good food, Albus thought wistfully. Regrettably, neither one of them was in a fit state of mind to enjoy it.

Giles finished first -- or, rather, he gave up the effort first, pushing his bowl away while it was still half full.

"Tell them I'm sorry, all right?" he said. "Tell them I wish I could've stuck it out here with them. Tell them… oh, never mind. I'll tell them myself when I come back, and all this mess is over and done with. Won't I?" He didn't sound as if he believed it.

"Of course you will," Albus told him. "They will want to return your books to you, after all." He made himself sound as if he believed it.

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