that he had inherited from his father so it wasn’t compatible with Arthur’s identity as a member of the Prince family. And cut short and slicked back, his oily hair could pass as glistening with gel or pomade. And, of course, the fact that they were both masked helped considerably. Arthur scanned the throng of people.
‘Culpeo Malfoy isn’t here, Severus,’ he complained. ‘He’s the reason I agreed to come, and he isn’t even here!’
‘Isn’t he?’ asked Snape, unconcerned. ‘Ah, well, have a drink. It’ll be the last one you get for a while.’ He gave Arthur a significant look and steered him over to the drinks table, where Draco Malfoy seemed to have made heavy inroads into the supply of champagne.
As Draco propped himself up, slightly unsteadily, on the bar, a willowy girl with long blonde hair sashayed up to him and touched his arm.
‘’ello, Draco,’ she said. ‘I ‘ave come in disguise as you requested.’
‘Yeah? So, what? It’s a masked ball; everyone’s in disguise.’ Draco blinked and tried to focus on the stranger. ‘I don’t even know you.’
The girl leaned towards him and cupped her hand to whisper in his ear in her usual accent. ‘It’s me, Hermione. Thank you so much for inviting me.’
‘Granger?’ Draco hissed back, his words slightly slurred. ‘I certainly didn’t invite you.’
‘Your parents then?’
‘No. I had to help them with the bloody invitations last Hogsmeade weekend. You weren’t on the list.’
Hermione was confused. If the Malfoys hadn’t invited her, who had? (Arthur was confused too. He was sure he knew this girl, but he couldn’t for the life of him think where from.)
Draco peered tipsily at her. If Granger was here, then so were Potter and Weasley. The three of them were as thick as thieves. But he couldn’t see them anywhere. Mind you, it was impossible to recognise anyone in these dammed masks his parents had insisted on. They thought it was sophisticated, but it was just bloody annoying. And there was just the tiniest chance he was just the tiniest bit drunk. Still, that was no reason not to continue drinking. He turned to the nearest guests, two men with long wavy hair, thick brown beards and moustaches, short, broad noses and heavy eyebrows.
‘Hey, you! What’s your name?’ Draco asked belligerently.
‘Dragomir Despard,’ replied one of them. ‘Zis, Vladimir.’
‘’Ow you?’ grunted Harry, mimicking Ron’s thick East European accent.
‘Do you even speak English?’ sneered Malfoy.
‘’Ow you?’ repeated Ron.
‘Well, you don’t need to be able to speak to drink. Down in one!’ declared Draco, pouring four generous measures of Firewhisky.
‘You want a drinking competition?’ Gregory Goyle had joined them, and snorted in disbelief. ‘Get real. You threw up in the bogs in the Hog’s Head last time we tried Firewhisky!’
‘I could drink you under the table any day of the week, Goyle. Father’s let me have wine since I was twelve, and I drink this stuff all the time now. Down it!’
‘Nah, you’re all right, Draco. Can’t be arsed.’
Draco picked up the empty bottle and looked for a moment like he was going to smash it over Goyle’s head. But then he slammed it down on the bar and hurled himself into an armchair with an air of disgust. ‘This is boring! Mother and Father’s parties are always boring, and they always insist I come. I’d rather be at school. What’s the point of getting permission for a night off if you can’t do anything interesting?’
‘Ah, now, Draco.’ Snape materialised out of the crowd to stand behind Malfoy’s chair. ‘I can assure you this party will not be in the least boring. I have prepared… shall we say a little comedy for your entertainment.’
‘Theatre’s for pansies,’ scoffed Draco. Then, catching sight of Snape’s raised eyebrow, he sighed. ‘All right, then; what’s it called?’
Draco sneered. ‘Crap title.’
Snape ignored the profanity. ‘Or should I say “The Bat’s Revenge”?’ he added silkily.
Now Draco took interest. ‘Revenge? Revenge for what?’
‘Oh, I think we should let the leading man tell you that tale.’ He called Arthur from across the room. ‘Fox! Cousin, come and tell our host’s son The Story of the Bat.’
Apprehensively, Arthur crossed to Snape’s side. ‘Ah… yes… er, The Tale of the Bat, eh?’ Then he rallied. No one here knew about that, after all. These weren’t the sort of people he would have invited to any party of his, and he was pretty sure Snape wouldn’t have broadcast the story of his humiliation too widely. He settled into the armchair beside Draco’s and stretched expansively. ‘Well, last Halloween, my cousin,’ he shot a look at Snape, who merely inclined his head, ‘and I went to a fancy dress party at the Weasleys’ house in Devon. They offered to get us costumes from their son’s joke shop. I went as a Muggle please-man…’
Here, he had to stop the narrative as the half-bloods explained to the pure-bloods what a policeman was. Under cover of the noise, Ron turned to Harry in amazement. ‘Dad went to that party as a policeman; I’ve seen the photos. Bloody hell, Harry; that’s Dad! What’s he doing here in disguise? He’s supposed to be in Azkaban!’
‘Shut up!’ Harry hissed. ‘You’ll blow our cover!’
‘Anyway,’ Arthur continued, raising his voice over the babble of talk. ‘Severus shilly-shallied about accepting the invitation for so long that the only costume left was a bat. To take the edge off his embarrassment, he drank rather too much Firewhisky, and we were the last to leave. I Side-Along-Apparated Severus to the Hogwarts gates, but, as you all know, you can’t Apparate inside the grounds. And as this was the small hours of the morning, the walls were warded, and no one knows the counter-spells except the Headmaster, here.’ Arthur began to chuckle. ‘So what else could I do? I left him there, and in the morning, he had to walk all the way through the school grounds dressed as a bat. He’s never lived it down! I understand he always was known amongst the students as The Bat of the Dungeons; now he’s the Bat of the Second Floor!’
‘And he hasn’t taken revenge on you yet?’ someone called incredulously.
‘Oh, no,’ said Arthur blithely. ‘I’m on my guard against that!’
In the course of the story, Snape had moved away from his inquisitive audience and now skulked in the shadows. ‘He who laughs last, laughs longest, Arthur,’ he muttered ominously.
Arthur hadn’t heard. He was accepting yet another glass of champagne from his host, who had seemed very interested in his story. (Lucius had offered wine to Snape too, but Snape had refused, saying he wanted to keep a clear head.) He was just embarking on a humorous description of Snape’s costume – ‘Yes, long claws and huge ears. He looked like Dracula!’ – when he spotted a familiar figure in the crowd. Well, vaguely familiar. ‘Hermione! Shouldn’t you be in school? And you’ve dyed your hair. It looks very… well, it’s lovely to see you!’
‘’Ermione?’ the girl enquired politely. ‘Oo ees zees ‘Ermione? My name ees Adele; I am a friend of Mrs Weasley.’
Arthur jumped slightly. Had Molly found out where he was? Had she sent spies to keep watch on him? ‘Mrs Weasley?’ he asked in a strangled voice.
‘Yes,’ said Hermione, tossing her long blonde hair over her should exactly as Fleur did. ‘We were at Beauxbatons togezzer.’
Arthur breathed again. She meant his daughter-in-law. But he could have sworn it was Hermione. Surely he should know his own son’s girlfriend, dyed hair or no. Had he drunk that much champagne already? It was all getting too confusing. ‘I’m awfully sorry,’ he stammered, his ears going red. ‘I thought you were someone else.’
The girl had pulled Fleur out of the crowd and was introducing herself. ‘Fleur! Eet ‘as been too long! You remember me from school, n’est pas? Adele?’ (Hermione had been re-reading Jane Eyre and rather liked the name of Mr Rochester’s ward.)
Fleur looked blank for a moment, then smiled dazzlingly. ‘Adele,’ she cooed. ‘I did not recognise you! ‘Ow are you? Such a shame Bill could not be ‘ere. ‘E ees working very ‘ard.’
‘Now, I’m sure you ladies would like to speak French,’ cut in Snape smoothly. ‘None of us wants to deprive you of the opportunity to converse in your native tongue.’
Hermione shot a swift look at Snape. He was smirking. Had he too seen through the Transfiguration? Oh well, she thought, nothing for it. She should have bargained for this when she was thinking out her disguise. ‘Je voudrais un chambre pour deux personnes, s’il vous plait,’* she said, dredging up the smattering of French she’d learnt on holiday.
Fleur’s smile never slipped. ‘Bien sur, Adele. But we must not speak French all evening. Ze ozzer guests will not be able to understand a word we say!’
Still confused, Arthur drew Snape aside. ‘Severus, I could have sworn that was Hermione Granger. Wouldn’t I know my own son’s girlfriend?’
Snape looked impassive. ‘I grant you there is a passing resemblance,’ he drawled. ‘But equally, shouldn’t I know my students? After all,’ he muttered, turning away. ‘I taught the little know-it-all for six years.’ But as he passed “Adele”, he murmured in her ear, ‘You know, you do look very like a student of mine. A student who, at this moment, should be at school revising for her NEWTS.’
Hermione turned her head to look at him. He was going to pay for that know-it-all comment. And for forcing her to speak French. ‘Ah, Monsieur Snape,’ she said with a tinkling little laugh. ‘I think you must ‘ave a, ‘ow you say? A leetle crush on zees student, and zat ees why you see ‘er in every woman you meet, non?’
Flushing brick-red, Snape muttered, ‘No, of course not,’ and hurried away to find a glass of champagne – clear head be damned. When he’d sent the invitation to her, he hadn’t expected the joke to backfire on himself!
When he returned to Arthur’s side, nerves steadied by alcohol, Draco was causing yet another drunken commotion. ‘Take your mask off!’ he yelled at Adele.
‘Ah, non,’ she demurred. ‘I ‘ave a pimple on my nose. I look ‘ideous.’
‘Off, off, off!’ Draco chanted, emphasising each word by banging an empty wine bottle on the table.
Lucius Malfoy strode over to take charge. ‘Now, now, Draco; play nicely,’ he drawled. ‘In this house guests are free to do as they please, and if the young lady wishes to remain…’ he shot a lascivious look at the disguised Hermione, ‘…fully clothed, that is her prerogative.’
Hermione was saved from answering this embarrassing comment by a commotion at the door. A tall, black-haired woman had just arrived, more than fashionably late. She was evidently an eagerly awaited addition to the party, as Snape glided over to greet her. ‘Countess. I’m so glad you received my invitation,’ he said silkily, ushering the woman over to Lucius Malfoy.
Malfoy detached himself from Hermione’s side, looking stunned and delighted that his birthday party had apparently just been gate-crashed by the nobility. ‘My Lady, I am honoured. I don’t think we have been introduced.’
‘I am the Countess von Dragomir,’ the stranger replied in a light accent.
‘A very old family friend,’ Snape clarified. ‘Visiting England from Hungary. Allow me to offer you a glass of champagne, my Lady.’ He took the elegant woman’s arm and escorted her over to the drinks table.
In the corner, Ron stared gobsmacked at Harry. ‘The Countess von Dragomir?’ ’ he hissed. ‘How is someone else using my pseudonym?’ His face turned suddenly from shock to horror. ‘Mum! She’s the only one I told about breaking into Gringotts; she’s got it from me!’
‘Why would your mum be at Lucius Malfoy’s birthday party?’ asked Harry, bewildered.
‘I don’t know, but Dad’s here in disguise, why not Mum? I bet she’s come to keep an eye on him!’
Harry stared at the “Countess”. Mrs Weasley was wearing a very low-cut dress which transformed her usually dumpy figure into something curvy and voluptuous. He shook his head. He was absolutely not going to have those sort of thoughts about his best friend’s mum. Although they did say look at your girlfriend’s mum if you want to see how she’s going to look in thirty years time. And if Ginny looked like that, Harry would be very happy. He removed his glasses and polished them on the sleeve of his dress robes. Stop it, he told himself firmly. Mrs Weasley was here in disguise; she had clearly got hold of some Polyjuice Potion from somewhere, and the figure which had caused Harry such disturbing thoughts wasn’t hers. And Ginny would kill him if she knew what he was thinking. ‘We need to leave,’ he hissed at Ron. ‘Now!’
‘Someone’s going to twig you’ve got the same name sooner or later. They’ll introduce us to her and she’ll know we’ve bunked off.’
‘But how are we going to get back? The gates’ll be locked.’
‘We’ll sleep at Grimmauld Place and sneak back to school early tomorrow,’ Harry decided. ‘Let’s get Hermione and get out of here!’
Molly gulped her champagne. She was more than a little nervous. She was glad she’d taken the time to Transfigure some of her old robes into a gorgeous dress dripping with jewels. She had only thought of giving herself confidence – no one would associate the impecunious Weasleys with the amount of diamonds she had on, but it was a good job she had, since Snape had evidently decided she was to be the guest of honour. Well, she’d just have to go along with whatever he had planned until she found an opportunity to unmask Arthur – literally as well as figuratively.
‘Dance with me, Severus,’ she demanded, rolling the “r” slightly, and holding out an imperious hand.
‘I do not dance,’ said Snape laconically. ‘Why not take a turn about the floor with my cousin?’
‘Severus, I can’t!’ hissed Arthur, scandalised. ‘What about Molly?’
Snape shrugged. ‘What about Molly?’ he asked softly. ‘Arthur, I brought you here to enjoy yourself before your little “island sojourn”. Molly will never know.’
Just then the orchestra began a particularly fast Strauss polka (Lucius’s one concession to the Muggle world was classical music), and Molly had an idea. Arthur’s most prized possession (apart from that damned car) was the watch she’d given him on his promotion. He delighted in showing it off to anyone and everyone. If she could get him to show it to her, she wouldn’t need to unmask him now; she would take the watch and present it to him later as proof of his duplicity. Seizing his hand, she dragged him determinedly onto the dance floor.
As the music ended, Molly stumbled theatrically and grabbed Arthur. ‘Ah, Mr Fox, I will faint!’ she exclaimed.
‘Come and sit down, Countess,’ said Arthur solicitously, leading her to a sofa.
‘My heart, it beats so fast! I cannot breathe!’
Smiling broadly, Arthur drew a silver fob-watch from his waistcoat pocket. ‘Let me take your pulse, dear lady.’
Molly returned the smile: this was too easy. ‘Ah, what a sweet little watch!’ she cried.
‘It’s a Muggle antique,’ said Arthur proudly. ‘It’s clockwork. You wind it up using this little wheel here, so it doesn’t need batteries or eckeltricity.’
‘May I look at it?’
Arthur handed over the watch, charmed by the woman’s interest. She held it up to her ear to hear it ticking, then – it happened so fast, Arthur didn’t see how it happened – she dropped it into her bodice.
Merlin’s beard; what was he to do now? He couldn’t go round accusing members of the Hungarian aristocracy of theft. Investigations would be instituted, and awkward questions asked. And there was no question of him retrieving the watch himself – not given its current location. And yet he had to have it back before he saw Molly again. No, this Countess was Severus’ friend, and Severus would have to ask for the watch’s return. He’d have two weeks to get it, after all. Arthur closed his eyes and leaned his pounding head back on the sofa; the music was really far too loud, and the Countess wasn’t the only one to feel dizzy.
When he opened them, she was gone, replaced by a man in a most alarming mask – black with a long pointed nose. He reminded Arthur of the plague doctors he had seen in his Muggle history books.
‘Good heavens!’ exclaimed Arthur. ‘I mean… er… how do you do? My name is Fox.’
The newcomer regarded Arthur blearily; the champagne was flowing freely tonight. ‘Fil… I mean Frank. Frank… er… Smith.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Frank. Can I get you a drink?’
‘No need, Fox, mate; no need. I came prepared.’ The plague doctor held up two bottles of clear liquid. ‘Shhtol… Stolichnaya. And Shhlivovitzshhh.’
‘Bless you,’ said Arthur, pouring them both a large one.
In the shadows, Severus Snape watched this little pantomime with satisfaction. His stocks of Polyjuice would be severely depleted by tonight’s escapade, but it would be worth it to see Arthur Weasley’s face tomorrow. He had also had to sacrifice two bottles of rather good alcohol to Filch’s disguise, but again, he would have a clear head tomorrow, while others would be distinctly worse for wear.
Severus’ silent gloating was interrupted by the appearance of his victim’s outraged wife.
‘Have you seen him, Severus?’ she hissed. ‘He’s cavorting with his gaoler while his poor son’s in prison!’
‘What a touching reunion there will be in gaol,’ Snape replied sardonically.
Some time later, Filch poured the last of the vodka into Arthur’s glass. ‘Slainte!’
‘’s Irishh.’ Meansh Cheersh.’
‘Shhkål,’ countered Arthur.
Both men fell about laughing, fell off the sofa, and fell asleep.
Arthur woke to blinding sunlight and a blinding pain in his head. He was sprawled on the floor and his mouth felt like sandpaper. He had a nagging feeling there was something he had to do, but he just couldn’t get his beleaguered brain to concentrate. A reedy voice came from somewhere at his feet.
‘Have you got the time, Fox? My watch has stopped.’
Arthur patted his pockets, sat bolt upright in horror and groaned at the movement. ‘At least you’ve got a watch, Frank. That Hungarian woman stole mine.’
‘Where is it then?’ asked Filch regarding him blearily. His mask was hanging around his neck, and his hair stuck up in clumps.
‘In her décolleté.’
Filch sniggered delightedly. ‘Well, it’ll take you a while to find it there!’
‘It’s no joke!’ said Arthur desperately, hauling himself up onto the sofa. ‘My wife gave it to me; I’m going to be in hot water when I get home!’
‘Ah, there’s a Mrs Fox, is there?’ leered Filch, hauling himself up beside Arthur. ‘Serves you right for dancing with the foreign floozy. I’d like to see you get yourself out of that one, Fox, mate!’ He clapped Arthur on the back, making him lurch forward and clutch his head. ‘Ask your cousin the time, then.’
‘The time is half past eight, cousin,’ said Snape smoothly, materialising once more at Arthur’s shoulder, suave as only someone who had spent the night in a proper bed could be.
‘Half past eight?’ asked Arthur muzzily. ‘I could’ve sworn we’d been here longer than that.’
‘Half past eight in the morning,’ Snape clarified with an amused smirk.
That sobered both Arthur and Filch up immediately. ‘I’m supposed to be at work!’ Filch exclaimed, dashing out of the house.
‘Merlin’s beard, Severus!’ whispered Arthur. ‘I’ve got half an hour to get you know where!’
‘We’d better make a start, then’ said Snape smoothly. ‘Lucius, many thanks for your hospitality.’
‘Glad to be of service,’ drawled Malfoy, strolling back into the room having bid Filch a hurried goodbye. ‘As I told Mr Smith, you can Apparate outside the gates of the Manor.’
‘Oh, I think we should walk at least part of the way. Give my friend a chance to sober up.’
‘All the better.’
As he saw his guests off the premises, Lucius shrugged to himself. If Snape wanted to get wet, that was none of his business. ‘To each his own,’ he muttered.
A/N: Hermione’s French means ‘I would like a room for two, please.’ The quotes in italics are from Deathly Hallows, The Chamber of Secrets film, and various translations of the German opera this is based on.
Filch’s mask is Il Dottore from commedia dell’arte: http://cdn16.create.net/siteimages/16/2/7/162799/1580264/f_1138929.jpg