"Madness is a foregone conclusion, Madam Martinez," Severus retorted dryly. "As to the status of the Elixir, I am not so certain. I think Professor Hunter would agree with me that there is occasionally some historical truth to myth, though the fact at the core is often clouded by time."
"It's true that the few references are obscure and ambiguous, Luisa," Almeida quietly said. "But it is entirely possible that it existed. The Philosopher's Stone was considered mythical as well, until Flamel succeeded."
"But we are talking about something far older than the Philosopher's Stone, César," Martinez insisted, ignoring Velasquez' urgent tuggings on her sleeve for translation. "It's never been referenced in anything but symbolic terms -- ones that make no sense today."
"But what are symbols but a kind of code?" I murmured, and then stopped, embarrassed. I hadn't meant to say it aloud -- I was simply trying to process it for myself.
"Please continue, Professor Hunter," Almeida urged.
"A code is a kind of language, mathematics being the purest and most abstract -- that is, least dependent on a common culture," I said slowly, trying to dredge up what I remembered from Linguistics and symbolic logic. "And that language may represent ideas, as in a writen or verbal language, or actual physical properties or entities as in Alchemy and Chemistry. It depends on the parent culture's point of reference and stage of development."
"Precisely," Almeida said, nodding. "And to break the code, one finds the key. The Rosetta Stone, yes?"
"But it can take years -- centuries -- to do that," Martinez said, aghast. "Even the Muggles with their computers can have difficulty deciphering codes."
"True. Unless you have a good sense of the culture, and enough sources to begin to understand the way that culture ordered its world," I said. "Some sense of its priorities, its mythologies, records of its numbering systems -- even mundane, everyday transactions are helpful...."
"Which is, no doubt, why you requested our assistance -- the cultural heritage," said Almeida with a satisfied look to Severus. "You must have suspected before that it was the Elixir Voldemort seeks. I wondered why you approached us rather than the Americans."
Severus was sitting back in his chair, contentedly watching the debate rage about him, and his mouth twitched at Almeida's good-humoured accusation.
Sneaky bastard. The Latin races are 'more mystically-inclined than necessary,' my arse.
My husband is an incredibly devious and brilliant man. Have I mentioned that lately? I find that immensely attractive about him.
"The vestigial connection to the culture is certainly an asset," he admitted, "as is access to primary and potential sources of information. And while American researchers have the advantage in facilities and financial wherewithal, they are almost to a man so deeply entwined with the commercial establishment, both muggle and wizard, that I deemed it impossible to obtain their involvement on any meaningful level.
"There is, in addition, an interesting point about Pettigrew's capture in Knockturn Alley," he noted suddenly, steepling his fingers before his lips. "It appears he was there at Voldemort's direction to obtain a particular ingredient from one of the more... shady purveyors of potions supplies. Fortunately said purveyor is an acquaintance of mine, and I persuaded him to provide me with it after Pettigrew was unable to keep their appointment -- and before the Ministry was able to acquire it."
"And it is --?" Almeida prodded.
"That I don't know, and neither did my source -- he was strictly a middleman. I have never before run across it in sample or description. It appears to be a mineral ore with an alkyd component, but beyond that I cannot commit. I only know that Pettigrew indicated it was an essential ingredient for the Elixir."
"You think we can identify it?"
"Yes. If not by sight, then by analysis. Your nephew is well-equipped to do so, I believe?"
"Good. We had corresponded at one time, but I fear it was long ago. I am not convinced he would respond well to me. He has reason to doubt my motives."
"Ah. The Elixir was what Voldemort had directed you to prepare for him, then, when you were in his service," Almeida said softly, and Severus froze briefly, and jerkily nodded assent.
"There were two ingredients whose identities and properties I was never able to ascertain," Severus admitted, voice tight. "This would appear to be one of them."
Martinez' nerves were drawn tight as a bowstring, absolutely intent on the implications of this little exchange -- as was I. (Velasquez had given up the fight and was all but snoozing in his chair.)
Almeida turned to her. "Before you object, Luisa," he said quietly, "Dumbledore assured me that Professor Snape is to be trusted. There is no question of loyalty here."
Severus relaxed slightly, and nodded his thanks to the other wizard.
"But what good will it do?" she whispered, staring at the two men in turn. "We don't want him to find it."
"Think, Luisa," Almeida said swiftly. "We don't want him to successfully develop the Elixir accurately, on his own."
"But a tainted form of it is quite another matter," Severus added smoothly. "Flawed, perhaps dangerously so. At worst it would be have little effect and convince him he was invulnerable. At best, it might kill him outright."
"How much of your research do you still possess?" Almeida asked.
"All of it, though not in the original notation. I took care at the time to transcribe when I could, and to make use of a Pensieve when that was too dangerous. I feel the notes are accurate, with the exception of the two unidentified ingredients."
"So you propose to turn it over to my nephew?"
"Yes. There are three people capable of brewing such a complex potion -- your nephew, myself, and Werner Gerhardt. Gerhardt has been missing for three months, and it was his disappearance which led me to think Voldemort might be pursuing this again. Presumably he has Gerhardt, willingly or by force."
"Could not Pettigrew confirm it and divulge Gerhardt's location?"
"Possibly -- were he in any condition to do so." Severus' voice went very grim. "Two days after he was captured, Voldemort activated the Mark on his arm -- his alone -- presumably when he realised Pettigrew was not returning, or learned he had been captured. While it is impossible for him to kill his followers outright through the Mark, if it burns for too long it can drive the bearer mad -- literally."
Sweet Jaysus. It was probably a damned good thing Voldemort had obliterated the runes from Severus' Mark, then -- he could have left them intact, and tormented him with it. I wondered why he hadn't: hubris, perhaps, trying to make a grand gesture to Severus about being an outcast, and giving him a far worse scar so he shouldn't forget it.
Evil Overlords should not make grand gestures. Not when it leads them to underestimate small but powerful boys, or to leave wild cards like Severus Snape in play.
"Pettigrew is in a vegetative state at St. Mungo's, and will likely remain so. The Aurors were unaware of Gerhardt's disappearance or its significance, and so hadn't asked Pettigrew about him during the initial interrogations. Therefore, I have no way of telling how far along Gerhardt might be, but the loss of the sample will set him back considerably. He -- or Voldemort -- will have to find another source. I suspect it will be easier for us, once your nephew has run his analysis -- for all I know," Severus admitted, "he may be able to manufacture the compound in the laboratory. I haven't kept up with the advances in Muggle methods."
Almeida nodded. "I believe Miguel will be intrigued with the project -- it should be easy to bring him on board. So, then, we are looking at chemical and magical analyses on this substance, and further research into the historical texts which describe it."
"Precisely. In addition, it would be worthwhile to begin a search for other supplies of the substance -- if only to keep it from Voldemort's hands."
"And perhaps the analyses will allow us to speculate possible identities of the second, still unknown ingredient -- Miguel and I will supervise that work." Almeida turned to Martinez. "Luisa, you and Jorge will be in charge of the academic research. I would suggest you look at some of the recent archaeological discoveries in Guatemala as well as the known Codices and reliefs. I have contacts in that community that should be helpful."
I wasn't certain what was involved here, but I suspected he was talking about Ancient MesoAmerican cultures. Mayans, Aztecs, Incan.... Sun gods and god-like rulers. Often exceptionally brutal, warlike rulers, who were only overthrown by Muggle Europeans with gunpowder and the introduction of virulent diseases.
Possibly. Then again, I wasn't up on wizarding explorers. Maybe it had actually been hexing duels at the apex of the Chichen Itza pyramid.
We discussed the agenda for the next few days -- the visitors would be observing several of my classes, to maintain the cover -- and then the meeting adjourned.
As Almeida wanted to meet Minerva he accompanied us back to the castle, and quizzed me on the way as to the structure of the Muggle Studies curriculum -- why, I didn't know; his field was apparently potions research, but he and Severus obviously couldn't discuss it openly on the road from Hogsmeade to the castle.
"Have you ever visited Brazil, Professor Hunter?" he asked at one point, abruptly switching topics.
"No," I admitted. "I studied and worked in the States for a while, but I've never been to South America. Or Europe or Africa, for that matter."
"You shall have to visit us when this business is concluded," he said obliquely. "Rio de Janiero is the most famous, of course, but there are many beautiful areas."
He was very charming, erudite and intelligent -- and undoubtedly about 70 years older than I (110 would be just past late middle age, for a wizard).
So what. Highly intelligent, charming, powerful and self-assured, and a delightful accent: certain to attract my interest. I'm a sucker for that combination, especially the intelligence and accent -- the sweet but thick lads at home had never appealed to me.
Severus seemed to sense my interest in Almeida, and was amused by my responses to him. Almeida was lacking in dry humour and snark, though: Severus didn't have a thing to worry about, and knew it.
I left them on their way to Minerva's office.
It was the smell. I woke up in a hurry.
"My God, Severus, you stink --"
"Fermented tree frog venom," he muttered into my hair, and ruthlessly tightened his arm about me when I tried to pull away. "It's harmless in residual vapour. I'm too bloody tired to bathe now."
'Deal with it,' in other words.
"What have you --"
"The substance has to be transported in a stabilising fluid. I was showing Almeida its preparation, in the event they discover more."
"Oh. Just let me get back to sleep right away, then, it's really awful." I buried my face in the pillow to try to escape the stench. I don't know how he could stand himself.
"I'd prefer that we both did, actually." He perversely moved even closer, tucking his legs in behind mine.
And then he proceeded to fidget at precisely the right intervals to prevent me from dropping off.
"What is it?" I moaned into the pillow.
"Like hell. I'm tired, you're exhausted -- for once, just tell me, please?"
Finally he stated, "You weren't surprised that I'd worked on such a potion for Voldemort."
So much for just telling me.
"Severus, at this point I wouldn't be surprised to find out you were once a trapeze artist in a circus."
"I came very, very close," he continued, heedless for once of my snark. "My inability to pin down those last two ingredients or find good substitutions was the only problem."
I thought this through for a moment. If I could latch onto the right thing, we could make this relatively short and both get some sleep. It was probably one of two things: discomfort at how close he'd come to providing Voldemort with greater power, or...
"And now you have to turn your baby over to someone else for tending."
The whuff of a heavy sigh hit the back of my head, followed by a soft, "Yes."
There was nothing I could say that would help that. I knew how he felt: I'd had a project I dearly loved yanked away from me once, and it still hurt and rankled -- and he was having to turn over his willingly, with the implicit admission that there were people better equipped to deal with it than he, at least at the moment. All I could do was cover the fisted hand that nestled between my breasts with my own, and knead it gently until his fingers relaxed and interlaced with mine.
"Will you tell me about two things, at least?"
Good -- he sounded sleepy. He often did when I started asking questions he didn't want to answer.
"The history of the Elixir, and the Prophecy."
Not two minutes after that, he was snoring.
I suspected he'd used my toothbrush, too, and it was my last one, damn it: another trudge to the Apothecary in Hogsmeade, since I refused to send the Elves on errands like that.
I don't care how many sanitising charms your spouse may know: physical intimacy should not extend to the sharing of ones' toothbrush.
Eventually I had to burn the pillowcases. The Elves' best efforts couldn't entirely remove the reek of fermented frog venom.
"Did you sleep well last night?" I asked her -- knowing the answer was probably 'no': she had a decidedly sleepy look this morning. Must be a night owl, like me.
"Oh, very well. I was too tired not to -- Apparation across the Atlantic's terrible. No trouble for César, and Jorge's used to it -- he has a girlfriend in Barcelona -- but I'm not used to it, and Mrs. Weasley's wake-up tea didn't seem to help. This isn't, either," she said with a distasteful look at the so-called coffee the Elves had provided.
"That's the one thing the Elves seem incapable of producing -- a really good cup of coffee."
"I would kill for something even remotely like home," she moaned. "I didn't think to bring any with me."
"Hmmmm.... I might be able to do something about that. We have a half-hour before class starts -- are you done?" She'd barely touched her breakfast.
"Yes -- do you mean you have --?" she asked hopefully, and I nodded and rose, making a wordless apology to Minerva for leaving the High Table early: she didn't seem to mind, for once, enthralled with something Almeida was saying. (I suspected her taste in men was similar to mine; she'd as much as admitted it my first Yule at Hogwarts, when she'd said she'd appreciated Severus' intelligence.)
We went to my rooms and Martinez made herself at home in front of the fire while I began to make the coffee.
"How strong do you like it?"
"Dark and bitter -- practically Turkish. Is it always this cold here? It's not that we don't get snow in some areas, but --" she said fretfully.
"Cuts through you, doesn't it? I'm used to it, but not all the snow. I was raised on the west coast of Ireland -- lots of wind and rain, but not three feet of snow."
"I'm good at Transfiguration, at least -- I have a warm enough sweater, now...." her voice trailed off as she watched me fill the carafe and plug in the machine. "You're Muggle," she said with astonishment.
"Didn't Snape say?"
Well, that's interesting. You'd think he would have warned them.
"Severus Snape," I said repressively, "has to tendency to divulge things on a strictly 'need to know' basis. And his idea of 'need to know' is very narrow, indeed."
"Oh, I'm just surprised, that's all," she said hastily. "I know Salem Academy has a Muggle on faculty, but I didn't know Hogwarts did."
"Albus Dumbledore hired me in '94, and Headmistress didn't seem to have a problem keeping me on. I presented at the International Conference on Muggle Studies last year -- that's probably what put the idea for your cover story in Snape's head," I said, pulling out the mugs and cream (I assumed that, like me, she didn't take sugar).
"What is it like?"
She smiled at the outrageous word and tried it out -- it was a new one for her, apparently -- and gratefully took the coffee mug from me and added just a hint of cream before taking a long, blissful sip.
"My nephew was Muggleborn, so I knew something was up when he started demonstrating his talents. And my grandmother never discounted the more mystic side of life -- not the New-Age kind of stuff, but she raised me to accept that there might be other possibilities than what we can sense, so I suppose it wasn't that great a shock. I love the Elves, I hate Flooing -- I don't care for Apparition, either, but that's probably because someone always has to help me. Teenagers are exactly the same, as far as I can tell," I said dryly. "But as far as living what I think is a normal life, you can see Dumbledore made an effort to make these rooms as home-like as possible. I've no idea how they did it -- takes some doing apparently, with all the wards and interference."
"Advanced Arithmancy, probably -- like Muggle Physics. I know Miguel Almeida. He's arranged to have his potions laboratory linked to his labs at university, and he has to use Arithmancy to ward against bleed-through to the Muggle equipment. This is good," she added in reference to the coffee.
"Not quite home, but better than the Elves' slush?" I guessed, teasing, and she grinned.
"So what," she asked delicately, "do you, as a Muggle, make of all this business?"
"In general," I said slowly, "I don't think there's any difference at all. There are people who try to be decent human beings, and those who don't. Some of whom I can safely say are the epitome of evil."
"And what of Professor Snape? You didn't seem surprised, yesterday, to find out about his association with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."
"I knew he'd been a Death Eater. Dumbledore needed my help on another matter, and I found out then. I didn't know he'd worked on anything like the Elixir, but it doesn't surprise me. I know he's highly qualified and skilled, far more so than the average Potions teacher, I imagine."
"You think he can be trusted? I know César, does, but still.... We've had our own version of He-Wh-- Voldemort, you see, and I'm afraid my family was badly damaged...."
"He can be trusted," I said firmly. "For what it's worth, Luisa, I don't know why he joined, but I think that was when he was very young, before he realised the consequences. And I know he's been trying to make amends ever since. I trusted him for Dumbledore's sake, at first, and he's given me no reason not to continue to do so."
Slight fib there, concerning that little matter of tricking me into marriage. But that's another matter entirely. Chalk that up to the mischievous fifteen year-old Slytherin that still lurks in his psyche.
"He's very appealing in a way, isn't he?" she said in puzzlement. "He's one of those dark ones that you think might have a great deal of -- of depth --"
I choked ever so slightly. "It's the intelligence," I said decisively. "You go for the highly complex and intelligent ones, don't you?"
"Yes." She blushed. "Jorge and I tried, once, but he's just too... transparent. Not unintelligent, but not intriguing. We work well together, but...." She shrugged.
"There's a very thick protective veneer there that one has to be patient to get through, and he's not always the most pleasant person in the world to deal with. Seldom is, in fact. But in any case, as far as honour and loyalty are concerned, I don't think you need to worry. And we're probably very lucky for his past, at this point."
"What about Harry Potter?"
"I don't know Potter well at all. He's very quiet, and I just don't have a lot of opportunity to interact with him." I'd surreptitiously pointed him out to her at breakfast, at her request -- but I was not about to divulge the almost-hexing. "You'll see him again in the Sixths' class today."
"It's just incredible that the fate of the Wizarding World hangs on him," she murmured.
"You can say that again," I mumbled in reply, and then the bell rang for First Period and we had to leave off.
I'd say he deserved it for insisting on all the secrecy, but I suspected he missed some of the excitement of his cloak-and-dagger days. The adrenaline rush, if you will.
I, for one, had had all the excitement I could handle. My nerves were fraying badly.
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Many cultures with pantheons have referenced to "ambrosia" or the "elixir of the gods" -- chocolate being one traditional historical reference. The term has now been overused and degraded to the point where it's used to describe colas and various alcoholic beverages.
And speaking of edible pleasures like chocolate, a rather sentient billywig overheard an interesting exchange of the cookie variety one evening. If you're under 17 don't worry, you won't miss anything by being good and not reading it: it's pure silliness. I'm old enough to read this.