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Snapefic! "Dark Avatar"

OK, I've been advised that a substantial number of readers don't like linking offsite out of LJ for their fic, so I shall start posting some of it in here. :) And hey! Here's one!


DARK AVATAR
Julie Fortune

Beta adoration to the lovely and talented starlet2367, mistress_mab, and krysalys73!

Summary: Something's going badly wrong at Hogwarts, and this time, it isn't Harry Potter who's the target ... it's Slytherin House.



I knew I shouldn't have come this way, Hermione Granger thought, and clutched her armload of books tighter. She'd been intending to make her way to the library, but honestly, at this time of day, she wouldn't have been able to study there anyway. Between the sniping going on between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and the excitement over tomorrow's Ravenclaw/Slytherin quidditch match, she'd have been out of patience and irritable inside of five minutes.

So she'd thought it was probably a lucky thing that the staircases had begun to shift when she was halfway up, and deposited her in a little-used part of the castle, mostly used these days for storage. Harry and Ron probably knew it better than she did. They were always sneaking out after hours, getting into trouble ... finding a quiet place to read wasn't getting into trouble, was it? Not that she was sure she was breaking any rules. Then again, the notable lack of other students – the lack of anybody – made her think that she might have just possibly missed a rule somewhere. At the bottom of the list. In very fine print.

It was getting darker, the shadows crowding closer. The place was thick with dust -- clearly, even the house elves didn't come here anymore. The rooms were stacked with leaning towers of junk and broken furniture. Hermione heard something scrape in the distance, like someone shifting their weight. She juggled books, found the comforting shape of her wand and eased it free of her pocket. "Lumos," she whispered, and a tiny pinpoint of light appeared at the tip, blue-white and steady. "Hello? Is anybody ...?"

She did hear something. Something like an eerie moan. Probably one of the ghosts, she thought, but it didn't feel convincing even in her head. Ghosts were more forthright. Nothing can hurt me here. Not at Hogwarts.

"Hello?" Nothing moved – deep dark shadows, abandoned desks draped in gray veils of cobwebs. She was on the verge of beating a very non-Gryffindor retreat when she heard the sound again. Definitely a moan. "Answer me! Who's there?"

Another feeble scrape. Oh, this is ridiculous, she thought furiously. She'd faced down Dementors and werewolves and Fluffy the three-headed dog. Was she really going to be frightened into a full-fledged panic by rats and – here was a thought – a couple of Slytherins giggling and playing a prank? The thought of Draco Malfoy's self-satisfied grin at her expense made her spine stiffen, and she decisively banged her armload of books down on an ancient, dust-furred desk. Wand at the ready. If Slytherin wants trouble, well, they'll get it!

She wished now that she hadn't turned down Harry and Ron's offer to go sit by the lake and slack off for an afternoon. The reward for good behavior ...

There was a shadow near the corner, one that didn't look quite right. Hermione took two long strides in that direction, expected to see Slytherin colors – and she wasn't disappointed. A trailing Slytherin scarf, the green nearly black in the dimness.

"Malfoy, you little toad – "

It wasn't Malfoy.

###

Severus Snape was deeply engaged in a battle with an extremely obscure Greek potion when someone assaulted his door with a furious volley of knocks. Perfect. He bobbled the critical addition of powdered devilroot, watched the entire careful mixture turn black and noxious.

"Go away!" he roared, and turned to issue the most scathing reminder possible of the sanctity of his office, but it was too late. The intruder was already inside, leaning against his desk with both palms flat on the wood, gasping for air. She looked singularly unkempt, Granger ... her hair more than usually disordered, her face as pale as snow.

It was the tears streaming down her cheeks that made him stop in mid-curse. "What the devil is it, Granger?" He came around the desk to take her by the arm. She was trembling violently.

"P-p-p-professor," she whispered, and swallowed gasps. "There's – someone's been hurt."

"Really." He let go of her and stepped back, crossing his arms. "I suppose Mister Potter has skinned an elbow. No doubt we should all rally to his immediate rescue."

"No, it's – I don't know who she is, she's a third year, I think – Slytherin – "

"What on earth are you going on about? Who's been hurt? -- Granger! Look at me!" He gave her a little shake, when what he really wanted to do was rattle her until her bones clicked. "What are you talking about?"

"A girl." She gulped for air and managed to get hold of herself. "There's a girl from Slytherin on the fourth floor, I don't think she's breathing ..."

"Take me," he ordered. He steered her through the open door of his office, glared both directions in the hall and spotted a Ravenclaw Prefect berating a couple of lagging students. They were too far from the infirmary, seconds might be critical ... "You! Fetch Madame Pomfrey. Tell her to meet me here. Go!"

The Prefect set off instantly at a run. Snape pushed Granger in the opposite direction. Once the girl overcame her shock she set a rapid pace, robe fluttering around her bare legs like bat's wings; she led him down two sharp turns, then up the staircase.

They were three-quarters of the way up when Snape felt the tell-tale lurch that betrayed the staircases preparing to move. "Faster!" he shouted, and jumped even with her to take the steps two at a time.

They jumped for the landing just as the staircase swung away with a grating rumble, and Granger stumbled, out of breath. Snape steadied her. "Which way?" he demanded. She pointed, and he pulled his wand to light the way.

Deserted, this area – not strictly off limits, but no one coming here would be up to any good. Then what was the notoriously do-goody Miss Granger doing here? No doubt she'd been haring after Potter and Weasley, who'd run for their lives at the first sign of trouble and left her overactive conscience to clean up the mess. He adjusted the light at the tip of his wand and saw a confusion of footprints in the dust, which confirmed his suspicions that she hadn't come here alone. The tracks wound through stacks of disused, rusting cauldrons, furniture barely fit for emergency firewood ...

... the light glittered on thick red blood.

Snape hesitated for a bare second, then said to Granger, "Stay here." If it had been her Gryffindor mates, he wouldn't have had a hope of his order sticking, but at least Granger tended to understand the basics of taking instruction. The blood was mere drops, followed by a smear – he followed it with long strides, saw Granger's books abandoned on a filthy desk, and the trailing fringe of a Slytherin scarf.

And beyond them, the girl.

"No," he whispered, and turned her over. Dark long hair, a milk-pale face ... open gray eyes, the pupils huge and dilated. "Giddings!" He tapped her cheek, then slapped harder. No response. "Get up, girl. Up."

That tone should have knocked any Slytherin into line, if this had been an elaborate joke on a gullible Gryffindor.

Giddings didn't move. He pressed his ear to her chest and heard nothing. Nothing.

He heard Granger's hesitant footsteps behind him. "Is she – "

"Quiet!" he ordered, and felt for a pulse. Nothing. Her skin was cold to the touch. Not dead, please not dead ...

He caught a faint, slow flutter under his anxious fingers.

"Sir?" Granger's whisper was terrified. He glanced up at her, and she took a step away, as reflexive as a rabbit retreating from a wolf.

"She's alive," he said, and gathered the third year's slight weight in his arms. She was limp as a corpse. "Go, Granger! Now!" he snapped, and she raced on ahead, her unevenly bobbing Lumos charm lighting the way. He followed, barely pausing for breath as they pelted headlong back through the shadows, to the staircase ...

... which had, of course, moved.

There was no time to think of a curse vicious enough to suit the occasion. Snape saved his breath and led the way to the right, past the gallery. No time to wait on the notoriously fickle stairs. He'd have to go the long way around, to the North Tower and steps that stayed sensibly in place. It was a long run, carrying an extra eighty pounds. Every time he glanced down at the slack body in his arms the sight of her vacant eyes made his heart clench painfully. He couldn't tell if she still breathed. Damn you, Dumbledore ... if he'd been able to Apparate ...

They gained the round circular stairs. Granger clattered down and cast anxious looks back as she ran. She'll break her fool neck if she doesn't watch herself ... he tensed as she slipped, but she caught herself and concentrated on keeping her feet on the narrow stone steps.

When they gained the safety of the ground floor, Snape passed her at a flat run and scattered yelping students out of his way with the sheer ferocity of his presence. Hermione raced behind and shouted in a shrill voice for Professor McGonagall, Madame Pomfrey, anyone.

Snape's lungs were burning when he made the last turn and saw a small knot of teachers moving toward them, alerted by Hermione's screams. Slytherin was gathering as well. He spotted Draco Malfoy's pale hair and surprised face – Crabbe – Goyle – Bulstrode – both Montagues –

Madame Pomfrey broke from behind Minerva McGonagall's tall form and rushed forward with arms extended. Snape skidded to a halt and fought for breath. "No," he said. "I'll carry her."

Pomfrey hesitated, frowning, but it was McGonagall who read his face and nodded her understanding. "Yes. Yes, let's get her inside, quickly."

Snape shoved the door open to his office and swept his desk clean, laying Giddings down flat on its dark surface. Her hands fell limp at her sides, and Merlin, she looked dead.

"Back," Madame Pomfrey said briskly, and followed it up with an emphatic shove to Snape's chest. "Professor, please. Allow me to work."

He crossed his arms and moved beside McGonagall; her attention was on Granger, who was again battling tears. "Tell me, child, what did you see? What happened?"

Granger visibly fought for the famous Gryffindor courage, and spewed out what little she knew. Nothing new to learn from it, though McGonagall tried with more patience than Snape himself would have had.

He looked up to see a cluster of worried faces just beyond the open door. Slytherin had pushed the other houses out of the way: he saw nothing but his own students packed in, jostling for a view.

He was about to order them on – sternly, but without anger – when he heard Madame Pomfrey draw in a startled gasp, and snapped his attention back to where she was examining the seemingly lifeless Giddings.

He met her eyes, and saw a flash of something both grim and alarming. "Professors," she said. "Please take Miss Granger outside and close the door. I'll need both of you, I think. You'd best summon the Headmaster as well."

"I'm afraid he's unavailable," McGonagall said. "He's been called to London."

"Oh dear." Pomfrey's eyebrows pulled together in a concerned line. "Then we shall have to muddle along without him. Please, remove Miss Granger so that I may proceed."

"Just tell me what's wrong with – " Snape began.

"Get her out," Pomfrey insisted urgently. McGonagall nodded and gently steered Granger to the door. The frowning Slytherins looked of a mind to block her, but an imperative snap of fingers from Snape cleared them back. They'd be all over the girl in seconds, pummeling her mercilessly for information, but he couldn't worry about that now. Best of luck, Granger, he thought, and slammed the door to turn back to Madame Pomfrey.

"Blood," he said, drawing her attention as well as McGonagall's. "She was lying in a small puddle of it."

"Yes," Pomfrey agreed. "No head trauma -- help me get her robe off ..."

Snape didn't move. McGonagall stepped forward to assist, carefully stripping the black Hogwarts robe from the girl's unresisting arms. "Nothing," she reported slowly, and skimmed up the girl's shirt sleeves to bare her arms. "No, nothing here ..."

Snape, watching with his hands folded behind his back, caught sight of something as McGonagall moved her, and the dark skirt slid a little farther up to reveal a pale expanse of leg smeared with red. He stepped forward, but immediately checked himself as McGonagall held up a hand. She had seen it, too, and her face had gone very still. She exchanged a look with Pomfrey.

"It's possible," she said slowly, "that the girl may be having – " She glanced involuntarily at Snape. He felt an unbearable flash of irritation.

"For Merlin's sake, Minerva, we're none of us blushing virgins," he snapped. "Is she having her monthlies?"

"Turn your back, please," Pomfrey said, and he did, arms again folded, head bowed. Cloth rustled, and then Pomfrey said, in a strangely colorless voice, "I'll need to do a more in-depth examination, I'm afraid."

"What is it?" he asked, and had to fight an overwhelming urge to whirl around and see for himself. Neither of the women spoke. "Damn you, say something!"

It was Pomfrey who finally answered. "There seems to be a good bit of bruising on her legs. How old did you say she was? Thirteen?" She clucked her tongue. "I don't like this at all."

"Are you telling me – "

"I'm telling you nothing, at present, except that I shall have to do a more thorough examination," Pomfrey interrupted. "Right. Severus, take her, please, let's get her to the Infirmary."

He silently turned and, at Pomfrey's nod, gathered the girl up in his arms. She weighs no more than a cat, he thought. Too thin. Too small to fight off anyone larger ...

He pushed away the thought, the imagination, the terrible boiling memories. He cradled her against his chest as McGonagall opened the door for him. Pomfrey followed.

Slytherin – nearly the entire house, by the look of it – stood in a solid mass five deep around the door. Behind them, mixed into no particular grouping, were at least a hundred more children crowding for a look, but it was Slytherin who held the guard. Somewhere toward the back, Granger huddled with Potter and Weasley, well back from the throng.

They all fell silent at the sight of Snape, with Giddings in his arms. He stepped forward, and Slytherin juniors scrambled to open a path for him, fiercely shoving aside anyone in their way without regard for rank, house or status. One or two Prefects and the Head Boy fell victim to their violence. No one complained.

No one said a word as Snape carried his small, limp burden away, with McGonagall and Pomfrey in his wake.

###

Whatever tests Pomfrey was about to perform, Snape had no stomach for them. He knew that the whole of Slytherin House had forsaken class and was currently milling about in the hall, hissing and whispering among themselves. Even McGonagall had temporarily forgotten to be her usual imperious self and order them all back to studies.

He paced restlessly on one side of the white fabric screen around Giddings' bedside. Behind it, Pomfrey murmured incantations and snipped cloth and did Merlin only knew what; he felt an urge to smash something, and instead turned to glare at McGonagall.

She knew what he was thinking. He saw the same burden of grief in her own expression. But, being McGonagall, she kept her mind on the business at hand, and said, "I've owled Albus to come back as quickly as possible. He'll bring a Ministry official with him, but I don't think we should wait for their arrival. We'll need to speak with Miss Granger again to find out the full story – "

"Yes." He bit the word off viciously. "I want to handle that personally. If that arrogant little twit has been lying to me about so much as a second of the time – "

"Please, Severus." She laid a hand gently on his arm. "Save your fury for someone who deserves it. I doubt the girl knows anything useful, and besides, she came running to fetch help. You might consider how deeply distressed she was."

"I'll be gentle," he lied. "But I won't stop with her. I'll question everyone in this bloody pile of rocks until I get an answer. And then ... "

He was speechless with fury, sick with anguish. His student. Giddings had not impressed him overmuch – timid, an average student, a tendency to sullenness that rivaled a Gryffindor – but she was Slytherin. His responsibility. More than that, she had placed her safety in his trust, and somehow, somewhere he had failed her. "They chose a time when the students would be unprotected, with Dumbledore gone."

"Oh, my dear," McGonagall whispered, and moved her hand to stroke his hair. In that instant they were not Gryffindor and Slytherin, glaring at each other across the boundaries of house allegiances; they were not even teachers, separated by pride of place. This was a thing that could have no sides in it at all. "It cannot be what you're thinking. If – if any of Lord you-know-who's lackeys had found their way inside, Albus would have known ..."

"He's not here." He should break away from her touch, he realized, but he craved the blind comfort of it. "Minerva -- "

She knew. There was so much sympathy and gentleness in the warm press of her hand on his cheek. "I'll find you as soon as Madame Pomfrey knows anything. Go on, Severus. And for Merlin's sake, be careful."

She meant careful with the children, of course; he was always careful with himself. He nodded, cast one last look at the shadows moving on the linen divider, and stalked away to stiff-arm open the doors.

He found Slytherin gathered there, waiting. Not unexpected that they had formed into smaller groups, in the absence of the other houses; Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle stood alone, disdaining the others, but even they seemed sobered. It was Malfoy who stepped forward, using his newly-won status as Head of House to outrank even the seventh years.

"What happened to her?"

Snape regarded him for a long moment, and said, "I expect the facts will become clear in time, Malfoy. For now, you are all restricted from this area." He expected the whispering rush of resistance that erupted, and crushed it. "If I find one of you here without my leave, you will all long for the days when Filch hung offenders in the dungeons by their thumbs, do you understand?" He reinforced it with a glare. They all fell quiet. "Off with you."

"Back to the Common Room?" That was Millicent Bulstrode, who was likely out to find a handy escape from Divination. Not that he did not sympathize with her aversion to Trelawney.

"To classes, you cretin. Move! The last one there arrives with my bootprint on their backsides!"

They scattered like doves flushed from the wood. As they did, Snape caught sight of Malfoy glancing reluctantly back over his shoulder at the closed infirmary doors. Instinct flared, and he grasped the sixth year's arm as Malfoy started past him. "Not you," he said, and was rewarded with a flinch. "Mister Malfoy." He made the name a purr. "Were you a special friend of Miss Giddings?"

"Friend?" Malfoy, mouth twisting in distaste, met Snape's eyes without any attempt to evade. "No sir."

"No ... extracurricular time spent in windowsills after lights out? No trading of favors in out of the way corners between classes?"

Malfoy looked repulsed. "No sir!"

"Why not?"

"She's third year, sir! And worse, she's a – " Something awful dawned in Malfoy's eyes. "Why are you asking me?"

Snape didn't answer. Malfoy pulled free, breathing faster, a light of panic in his expression. "Sir, I didn't – I wouldn't – "

Snape crushed him by simply saying, "I know your father."

He let the boy flee the field. Malfoy did seem genuinely distressed, and even better, horrified at the notion of involvement. That eased his mind. However, it only left more than a hundred and fifty possible suspects left to interrogate.

Well. Best get to it, then.

###

He cornered Granger outside of her Common Room an hour later, and reduced her to near panic again within ten seconds of beginning to barrage her with questions: Why had she left her friends to go poking about in dusty closets? Who was she planning to meet on the fourth floor? Had she seen anyone? Heard anything? Did she have a grudge against –

"That's enough!"

Harry Potter, of course. The boy was furious – green eyes flickering dangerously behind his glasses, scar on his forehead flushed. He wasn't stupid enough to have drawn a wand, but Snape could see in his eyes that he was tempted. Behind him bobbed Ron Weasley's flame-red hair as he charged to the rescue; he took the trembling Hermione and cradled her in one arm as he joined in nailing Snape with a furious glare.

"She did nothing but try to help," Potter said. "You can't blame her for this!"

"I don't," Snape replied with deceptive calm. "However, Miss Granger is the only witness available. She must tell what she knows."

"But I don't know anything!" she said, and yanked free of Weasley's overprotective embrace. "Professor, I'd have told you! Why would I lie at a time like this?"

"I don't know, Granger. Perhaps because it might be a friend of yours ...?" His gaze implicated Weasley, then Potter. Granger – who was miles smarter than either of them, he had to admit, probably the best mind he'd ever taught – colored in outright fury.

"Sir!" she snapped. "Harry and Ron would never – how could you even – that's a filthy lie!"

"A filthy Slytherin lie? I've often heard the Gryffindor table muttering about how Slytherins deserve some comeuppance. Would this be a way to go about exacting revenge?"

"No," she gritted out. "Sir. Absolutely not."

"I see. Then think on this. You were roaming the hall alone, were you not? Like Miss Giddings? ... Apparently the luck of the Gryffindor holds. If you'd been found alone there an hour earlier, Professor McGonagall might even now be having this conversation with my students."

That took the color from her cheeks. As he turned away, she had the amazing temerity to reach out and grab his arm. He looked pointedly down until she released it.

"Please, Professor – how is she? I don't know her that well, but – she seems ... nice." Her voice had gone quiet.

"Does she." She had hit him low, beneath the armor, and he fought hard to keep his tone dry and passionless. "I'll convey your undying loyalty and friendship at my earliest opportunity, Miss Granger. If she lives."

He swept Potter and Weasley with another look, decided they were simply too thick to be guilty of anything without showing it, and prepared to move on.

Again, it was Granger who stopped him. "Sir? I'm sorry, but -- you may not know it, but I saw a group of older boys with her three days ago. They were pushing her and making fun of her. She was -- she was crying, sir. They chased her when she ran."

"I see." He bored a hole in her with his eyes. "And what did you do about it, Miss Granger?"

She looked, if possible, even more miserable. "Nothing, sir. I -- it didn't seem to be my business."

He let his contempt show openly. "Not your business, when a younger student is bullied by her elders? Whatever happened to the vaunted Gryffindor honor and courage?"

Potter and Weasley looked mortally offended, but they both looked to Hermione for leadership. She took in a deep breath and said, without a tremor, "I assumed it was a house matter and you'd take care of it, sir. Since they were all from Slytherin."

The silence echoed. Whatever the three Gryffindors saw in his face, it kept them quiet and still; he turned and swept away, back to his office. At the door he paused, well aware of the churning fear and fury in his guts; it wouldn't do, to spend time in there among so many delicate and breakable things.

As he was making his way back toward the Infirmary, he heard McGonagall calling his name, and turned to see her rushing toward him, green tartan over-robe fluttering in the haste of her passage. She looked flushed and out of breath.

"He's back," she said. "And two Aurors are with him."

###

Dumbledore was expecting him, of course; the moment he'd appeared in front of the Phoenix, it had commenced its turn to raise him to the study, and he'd had to jump sharp to take the ride. When he stepped out into the warm, eternally comforting luxury of the Headmaster's study, Dumbledore had been standing there, hands folded. Waiting.

Snape paced, hands clasped behind his back, well aware that Dumbledore would require him to speak the first word, but his throat was locked tight. Finally, the older wizard sighed and gestured absently at a teapot across the room, which hissed steam and poured its contents into delicate china cups.

"Sit, Severus," he murmured. Snape cast him an evil look. "Very well, then. As you please. However, it's difficult to drink hot things while jerking back and forth in that manner."

"I don't want your tea."

"I am well aware of it."

"Where are the Aurors?"

"Talking with Poppy at the moment. They shall return soon. Until then, I suggest we sit and talk."

Snape abandoned his pacing to stand before the Headmaster, back straight. "Do you think it was done by someone from outside of Hogwarts?"

Dumbledore slowly shook his head. "Nor do the Aurors."

"Do you seriously consider that any teacher or staff member at this school would -- " He searched for a word. "-- would so degrade their trust?"

"Not for a moment, I assure you."

"Do you think that we have another of Voldemort's spies inside the castle?"

"No."

"Why not?" Snape flung back. "Our security seems to leak like a rusty bucket!"

That brought silence and a long, considering look from the Headmaster. "I assure you, Severus, measures have been taken. We will not have such failures again. We cannot afford it."

"Then if we eliminate the teachers, the staff and any random wickedness from Voldemort, what remains?"

Dumbledore's lips thinned. "I'm well aware of the implications."

"Miss Granger just informed me that Slytherins were tormenting the girl just a few days ago!" The impulse to kick one of Dumbledore's overstuffed chairs, in the absence of a more satisfying victim, was nearly overwhelming. "My Slytherins. Tell me, am I that poor a -- "

"Role model?" Perfect, ringing silence. Dumbledore regarded him with those limpidly innocent eyes, expression almost unreadable behind the heavy white beard and kindly-grandfather illusion. "I don't know. How much time do you spend with your house, would you say? Outside of the classroom, of course?"

"Enough. I expect them to control themselves. Behave like -- "

"Like small-scale adults, which they are most decidedly not. Severus, have you considered that one of your own students might have done this thing?"

He had to reluctantly contemplate it as he stared hard at the carpet. "Anyone is capable of anything, given license and timing. But believe it – no. Not against one of their own."

"But you realize that with Granger having witnessed the incident with the boys ..."

"That suspicion will immediately fall to Slytherin? Yes. Of course. I expect the Ministry will find that a most satisfactory resolution, to blame it on my house. No doubt Granger will be volunteering the names of the guilty parties faster than they can ask the question." He raised his gaze again to Dumbledore's face. "But I won't wait for the Ministers to organize themselves. I can promise you that tonight my house will have all of my company that they can stand."

The Headmaster nodded slowly. "I think that would be well advised. But remember, please, that they have suffered a loss today, and there is no doubt that there will be those in other houses who will exploit it. Question them if you must, but support them as well. I know it is not in your nature to be -- " A slow smile. "-- nurturing, but I think this particular occasion might require you to expand your role."

Snape kept his face carefully blank.

"The other heads of houses will be strongly cautioning their students to treat Slytherin with respect, but we both know that there will be incidents. It would be a terrible pity if their bad opinion of Slytherin was proved true. As to the truth of what happened to Miss Giddings, we simply must wait for the Ministry to come to a conclusion, or for Miss Giddings herself to be able to tell us." Dumbledore pierced him with a look. "You must keep your students well in hand. The best way to do that is to set a good example."

He lost the fragile hold on his temper. "Perhaps you should have been thinking of examples during the past five years, in which you consistently favored Gryffindor above Slytherin House purely for personal reasons ..." He stopped the hot gush of words, because he hadn't actually intended to say that. At least, not in Dumbledore's austere presence. Even if was true.

"Personal reasons?" The white eyebrows climbed high, piling wrinkles atop them. "Do you know how difficult it can be to find just the right tool to motivate four disparate houses at the same moment, when it is critical that they all excel?"

"That has nothing to do with it!"

"I'm afraid it does. What drives Gryffindor?"

"Arrogance," he shot back. "Insufferable insolence. Self-centered -- "

"Self-confidence," Dumbledore corrected blandly. "Which may well verge into arrogance, and insolence, if left unchecked. What drives Slytherin? I suspect there are traits in common, particularly the burning desire to outdo their rivals. But more importantly, Gryffindors, as you have previously noted, tend to splinter and turn on each other when faced with an overwhelming challenge. Their self-confidence shatters. Slytherin, on the other hand, adores being slighted because it only gives them more to prove. Your students take a great deal of pride in being the outcasts, Severus. If my preferential treatment of Gryffindor alarms you, rest assured it is not because I love them best. I simply give them the food that strengthens them, regardless of how that may reflect upon me." He let a slow smile slip free. "And, I think, you do the same, whether you want to admit it or not."

He had no answer for that.

"I am still struggling with Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw, who feel very much lost in this battle of titans," Dumbledore admitted. "Hufflepuff takes enormous pride in Cedric Diggory's heroism, as well they should. But I wish that death had not been the road to unity. I will not allow it to be again. ... Severus, you do understand that we will face a great many questions about what has happened here? And that your ... past ... may be called into question again?"

Snape felt himself go pale, his stomach plummeting into emptiness. "Of course, Headmaster. I expected no less." He hadn't expected that at all.

Dumbledore gave him a small, sympathetic smile. "If you wish to be useful, I believe Poppy may require your assistance in determining what should be done to break the hex that still keeps the girl unresponsive. It may be a potion, you know."

He hadn't thought of it, but now that it was said, his mind automatically raced to think of likely suspects. "There are a few potions that might produce the result," he admitted. "But they are very advanced. More advanced than I teach at the O.W.L. level."

"Then perhaps you should concentrate on advanced students," Dumbledore said. "Separately or together. The brewer of the potion may be separate from ... the guilty party. But I'd use some haste, Severus."

"Are you saying that I should attempt to prove myself innocent of this crime?" Snape asked slowly.

"You said it yourself, my boy ... the Ministry may stop at the first likely explanation. Slytherin boys were seen tormenting the girl. Your past is not without stain. You can see for yourself that it might be ... prudent ... that you not abandon a separate line of inquiry."

Snape stared at him. "Will you stand by me? If it comes to that?"

Dumbledore's eyebrows rose dangerously high. "Whatever gave you the idea that I would not?" He turned away and picked up a cup of tea, which still steamed lightly on the cool air. "Tea?" he offered.

Snape accepted without a word.

###

When he opened the secret entrance to the Slytherin Common Room and stepped inside, he interrupted what was clearly a council of war, chaired by Malfoy; the boy arrested what he was saying in mid-syllable. The majority of students looked by turns shocked, horrified and terrified.

Just the reaction Snape had hoped for.

"LINES!" Malfoy bellowed, in his best quidditch-pitch voice. The Slytherins scrambled into a lines by year, facing forward. The dungeon -- warmer than usual, by virtue of some charm placed on the huge blackened fireplace -- was dimly lit and draped ostentatiously in Slytherin colors, with ancient smudged portraits that watched Snape's approach with keen interest.

"All here?" he asked. Malfoy, eyes straight ahead, flushed and shook his head. "Then get them here."

The boy glared meaningfully, and two first-years scampered to obey. Snape stood with his back to them by the over-warm fire, frowning into its secrets, until the first-years returned with seven stragglers in a panting group. He waited until they were all in line, and then turned to regard them.

They were in order by year, of course, seventh years at the top, stretching down to the lowly 11-year-olds at the end. There was a prominent and carefully left empty space in the third year section. He kept his eyes on it as he spoke.

"I hate speeches," he said. No doubt they'd expected him to shout; he disappointed them. "Speeches are for motivation; I see no need of that in Slytherin. So I will simply tell you what I expect."

They were as quiet as the grave, his little serpents.

"One. I will speak with each of you in turn about today's events. You will all remain here until I see you, no matter how long it takes." A few throats worked convulsively, whether from guilt or nervousness he couldn't tell. "Two. I expect that regardless of provocations from any other house -- " Meaning, of course, Gryffindor. " -- you will conduct yourselves with dignity and pride, and will do nothing that will cause the reputation of Slytherin to be blackened. You will also answer any questions put to you by the Aurors who have come to investigate this matter."

Crabbe, Goyle, and Malfoy exchanged fast, darting looks. No doubt they already had some mischief planned.

"Third." He moved down the line, engaging them one at a time, until he was at the very end, with a frightened 11-year-old looking very near to wetting herself with dread. He broke eye contact and walked away to stand in front of the fire again, not watching them at all but very aware of their stares drilling his back. "Many of you are, of course, concerned about the wellbeing of Miss Giddings. I have arranged that members of Slytherin House may visit her during the normal hours for such activities, but under no circumstances will any of you attempt any counter harms, hexes, or other treatments designed to assist her in her recovery. I will work with Madame Pomfrey in this matter."

"Sir." He turned to see that Gregory Goyle, of all people, had his hand in the air. He narrowed his eyes, but nodded permission to speak. "There's talk it was Gryffindor did it. Is that true?"

"Don't talk nonsense," he snapped. "If I possessed any proof at all as to what happened, do you think I'd be here, talking to you? It's possible that the villain is from Gryffindor. It's equally possible that he hails from Ravenclaw, or Hufflepuff ... or Slytherin." He put special emphasis on it, looking into Goyle's eyes. "Though Merlin save him if he is."

Somebody else raised a hand. Bulstrode. "Sir, is it true that she was strangled?" Gasps from the younger students, stony expressions from the elders.

"It is not." He let nothing move in his expression. "I will see each of you in turn, beginning with first years. Now."

He turned on his heel and headed for the small private room – supposed to be designed for potions practices, but he suspected it was used by a variety of nefariously lecherous purposes by the older students – and as he put his hand on the serpent-shaped knob, he heard someone behind him whisper, "I don't know what all the fuss is about, she's a only mudblood, after all ..."

He whirled, cape flying, and crossed the distance to where the younger Montague boy, Mortimer, was huddling in a group of his cronies. They scattered. Mortimer tried to flee, but Snape snatched his arm and dragged him to a halt, then grabbed him painfully by an ear and bent it. "What did you say?" he snarled, and yanked him closer. "Speak!"

"I said – I don't know what all the fuss is about – sir – "

"Use the word."

Montague clearly didn't want to, but he licked his lips and whispered, "Mudblood."

Snape resisted a blinding urge to rip the boy's ear from his head. The other Slytherins were transfixed, staring; some – Malfoy among them – were smiling, though Snape thought their amusement was not so much agreement with the righteousness of Snape's anger as at Montague being caught out.

"Mudblood," Snape repeated tonelessly. "I see. Because Althea Giddings had a Muggle parent – on one side only, I might add – she is unworthy of your concern? Is that what you are trying to say, Mr. Montague?"

"Y-Y-No, sir ...?" He made it a question. Snape squeezed hard on the offending ear, eliciting a strained whimper. "Sorry, sir!"

"Do not lie to me. Ever. Do you believe that Miss Giddings is beneath your concern because she is not pureblood?"

"Y-y-yes sir."

He released Montague abruptly. The boy stumbled backward, wide-eyed; his older brother, standing in shadows at the back of the room, did not look likely to come to his rescue.

"Let me make this very clear," Snape said in a deadly quiet voice, to that cold and silent room. "Whatever she may be or do outside of this school, Miss Giddings is Slytherin. I will not tolerate any petty distinctions among you. Slytherin is your only identity. If I hear that word on any of your lips again regarding your housemates, you will find yourself out of Hogwarts. Do I make myself clear?" He fixed his eyes on Montague, who had steadily paled. "Not. In. My. House."

Montague managed a convulsive nod.

He expected whispers to follow him into the small study room, but he heard nothing. If they were speculating on the violence of his reaction, they were doing it in remarkably discreet silence. No doubt, in a little while, Malfoy would explain to them that Snape was merely keeping up appearances in order to retain Dumbledore's favor. That logic would appeal to Malfoy a great deal.

Snape sat in the black leather armchair and waited. In a few short seconds, the youngest of the first years stumbled inside, clearly off of a push by one of her fellows. A thin, dark child with plaited black hair. Her robe was too large for her. If her parents had hoped she would grow into it, they were clearly hopeless optimists.

"Sit," he nodded, and wracked his memory for a name – Winter. Winter Westmarch ... She looked ready to bolt, but tentatively perched in the chair across from him to nervously swing her feet back and forth. "Do you know Giddings?"

Westmarch met his stare guilelessly, eyes wide and dark. "Yes sir," she said softly. "She's nice. She learned how to knit at home, she made me a scarf."

Somehow, Snape had never imagined what life would be like on the girl's side of the dormitory wall; he'd always imagined it to be as dark and competitive as that of the boys. Knitting? Giving gifts to homesick first years? Ridiculous. "A scarf," he repeated. "I see."

She wordlessly unwound it from her neck and held it out for inspection. Slytherin colors, beautifully executed. He nodded his approval and she put it back on and hugged it for warmth.

"Is she all right, then?" Westmarch asked.

"She will be." He didn't know that, but it seemed the appropriate thing to say. "I have a report that she was being bullied by older Slytherins. What do you know of this?"

"I – " She shook her head. "I don't want to say, sir. But it wasn't just her. It was all of us. All the younger ones."

"Why didn't Giddings go to Malfoy, if you were being bullied?" As head of house, that was Malfoy's responsibility. "Or to me?"

"She -- she said you weren't a true Slytherin if you couldn't handle your own troubles. She's very brave, Professor -- "

"That is not bravery, Westmarch, that is sheer arrogance. Slytherin is not Gryffindor. We are not heroes, and we do not fight battles alone. There is strength in numbers ..." He allowed a very slight smile to curl his lips. "... particularly when the enemy has the advantage of size." Which everyone did, for her.

"I told her that, sir. She laughed and said maybe the Sorting Hat put her in the wrong house. She said she was going to make the older kids leave us alone."

He should clearly have taken more time to get to know Miss Giddings.

"Names," he reminded Westmarch in a tone that could have frozen winter. She would have been made of harder stuff than Harry Potter to resist that order; she blurted the identities out in a fast, shaking stream. Third and fourth years, six of them, with the ringleader -- and here was no surprise -- Mortimer Montague.

"You may go," he told her.

She didn't move. Her shoulders hunched together, and he felt himself start to frown; what the devil was the difficulty with this child?

"Sir," she said in a muffled, thin voice, "may I see -- may I see the Dark Mark?"

He could not have been more surprised if she'd turned into a Boggart. "No you may not!" He sounded outraged. He was outraged. For an eleven-year-old to bring that up ... "How dare you -- "

She looked utterly terrified, but determined. His impulse was to cuff some sense into her, but he heard Dumbledore's kindly voice echoing in his head ... I know it is not in your nature to be nurturing, but I think this particular occasion might require you to expand your role.

He lowered his hand to the arm of the chair and asked, "Why?"

She dropped her gaze to the hands that wrestled each other nervously in her lap. Frightened to the bone, Miss Westmarch, and of more than him. "I -- I want to know what it looks like," she faltered. "In case -- "

"In case you should see it again?"

She nodded tentatively, and it occurred to him that Miss Westmarch was not at all a stupid girl. He silently slid up the sleeve of his robe and the black frock coat beneath, to reveal the chilly pale skin of his forearm.

She sucked in a shaking breath and looked shocked. He instantly covered the Mark again.

"Have you seen it?" he asked. His voice had gone unaccountably gentle. She nodded convulsively. Looked sick. "Here at Hogwarts?"

A negative head-shake, this time. He thought for a few seconds, and then he knew, and felt a violent surge of an emotion he couldn't name. "At home?"

No answer at all. She looked very small, very alone, sitting on a massively carved chair, in a hand-me-down robe at least two sizes too big. Like Malfoy and Montague, she was pureblood; unlike them, her family had no history of involvement with Voldemort that he was aware of.

"Your father?" he guessed. Her eyes squeezed shut. Agonized tears rolled down her cheeks. "Miss Westmarch." She didn't look at him. "Winter."

That shocked her into a response, and it came as a lost, desperate wail. "He told me not to tell! He showed it to me and said that since I was a Slytherin I'd understand, that Lord V-V-V -- he would be proud of our family! But I'm not proud, I'm not! Althea is nice! They didn't have to hurt her! I don't want to be like them ..."

He should make it quite clear that this kind of childish behavior would never be permitted at Hogwarts, not to mention Slytherin House. He was not suited to this nonsense, and never had been.

I know it is not in your nature to be nurturing ...

He stood, looking down at her, and slowly extended his hand. Rested it on her thin, shaking shoulder. Her tears fell warm on his fingers. She sobbed all the harder.

"Please don't send me home, sir. Please don't send me home, I'm frightened ..."

"You're safe here," he promised, and closed his eyes. It was a foolish promise, an indefensible lie.

And yet, he meant every word.

###

After Winter Westmarch, the rest of the students proved far less of a challenge. Uncovering Montague's clique of bullies was a special dark treat; he made their punishment public and somewhat barbaric, probably in revenge for his moment of weakness with Westmarch. Afterwards, the rest of the students who filed in were decidedly tamed.

One of the last -- as dawn bid fair to appear -- was a fifth-year boy. Thomas Thesbury. No history of making trouble, and undistinguished in his studies, as well -- part of the vast gray middle of the student body. It was doubtful that Thesbury would have had anything to do with the matter, as he'd only arrived back at Hogwarts one day before. A funeral leave, Snape recalled. The boy's mother had died after a long confinement.

Thesbury looked pale and tired, but otherwise composed.

Snape's zest for the chase had long since passed; he shot Thesbury a weary look as the tall, gangly boy folded himself into the chair. "Well?" he said. "Do you know the girl?"

"Yes sir," Thesbury said. "Althea. We -- we're friends, sir." He looked briefly wretched, then seemed to will himself to a blank stillness. "You said she'd be all right. Are you sure -- "

"One can never be completely sure of anything, Mister Thesbury. Did you see Giddings yesterday?"

"In the Common Room, before breakfast, and then in the library, sir. We don't have classes together. She's two years behind me -- "

"I know perfectly well how old Miss Giddings is," Snape interrupted, irritated. "Did you catch sight of her in the hallways?"

"No sir."

"And she didn't tell you she was going to the fourth floor."

Thesbury shook his head. "If I'd paid attention -- I should have looked out for her, sir. I knew she had the bit between her teeth about protecting the younger girls -- I should have made sure she was safe."

Snape tilted his head slightly, drawing the boy's gaze, and fought past a growing weary headache to read his thoughts. Sincere distress, bordering on guilt. The boy had suffered much with the loss of his mother, and now this.

"Not your responsibility, Thesbury," he said. "I am responsible for the safety of everyone in Slytherin. Therefore, whatever has happened to Miss Giddings reflects on me, not you."

Thesbury looked away again, blinking hard. Snape had no patience for tears. "You may go," he said, and the boy hurried away as if he'd been released from a torture rack.

Two more to go. Snape sighed, rested his aching head against the harsh carved wood of the chair, and sighed, "Next!"

###

"And?" Dumbledore prompted, helping himself to a cinnamon scone from a massive stack on the teachers' dias. He had listened with great attention over breakfast, as had McGonagall. Snape would have rather it hadn't been Minerva, but Dumbledore had included her on the claim that Gryffindor was as much involved as Slytherin in this. A specious argument, but it wouldn't do to have a public debate with the Headmaster in full view of curious, whispering students. "Severus?"

Snape drank his coffee, which was thankfully hot and very bitter, and cast a dark look toward the Slytherin table. Very subdued, this morning. "I do not think we shall have any further trouble from Mister Montague and his cohorts," he said. "I questioned them thoroughly. I am satisfied that although they are wretched bullies and miserable cowards, they were not responsible for Miss Giddings' injuries. They were, in fact, tormenting another first year by setting an owl on her rat. The rat sustained minor injuries."

"Unlike Mister Montague, I see," McGonagall said. Her voice was very cool. "He looks thoroughly thrashed."

"He'll heal."

"Severus – "

"Minerva," he returned impatiently. "I assure you that the punishment fit the numerous and rather serious crimes. And while the golden angels of Gryffindor may be the soul of honor and compassion, my little serpents occasionally need lessons to remind them of their manners."

Her lips pursed in that familiar condemning expression, but she sipped tea and did not pursue matters. Down at the Gryffindor table, Potter and his cronies were whispering and casting not-well-concealed looks at both Snape and the Slytherin table.

"Be that as it may, you're quite sure the boys did not – "

"I'm certain," Severus cut McGonagall cold. "I have personally interviewed every member of my house. I am convinced none of them had anything to do with Giddings' – " He hesitated over the word that came first, and chose the second. " – attack."

Dumbledore brushed crumbs from his thick white beard. "Say what you mean, Severus. I assure you that neither of us will faint with shock."

"Fine, then. Her rape." The word was as bitter as the coffee. And perhaps neither of them fainted, but McGonagall did indeed look a bit ill. "I have reported my findings to the Aurors, of course. I've also spoken with Madame Pomfrey. I'm preparing a selection of counteragents for her to use in Giddings' treatment to try to break the enchantment that holds her. I believe it was brought on by a potion used in liquid, perhaps pumpkin juice or tea."

"Why use a potion?" McGonagall wondered. "A girl that small, it seems to me that she might have been overpowered quite easily. A potion's quite a lot of effort, isn't it?"

He hated to admit it, but McGonagall had a point. "Perhaps he's not physically strong. Giddings had a reputation as a fighter among her housemates."

"Then why choose someone you'd have to drug?" she pointed out. "If he was looking for an easy victim, surely they were available."

Winter Westmarch, nearly swallowed by her oversized robe. Yes, they were easily available.

"Perhaps Giddings had a special meaning," Dumbledore said, and took a bite of scone. "Severus? Any thoughts?"

"None. She's entirely unexceptional." And then he remembered Montague. "No. Not entirely. She's one of the few Slytherins with a Muggle-born parent."

Dumbledore and McGonagall exchanged looks.

"There are others?" McGonagall asked, surprised. "I thought that Slytherin liked its students pureblooded."

"The ways of the Sorting Hat are strange," Dumbledore said. "And to his credit, I don't believe that Severus has ever subscribed to the notion that one's parentage makes one a better or worse wizard."

"Not for a long time," Snape agreed, and fixed his gaze on Potter, who was staring at him. The boy looked hastily away. "If some secret clique within the house planned to purge it of Muggle-borns, I'd have known last night. Besides that, we appear to be short a basilisk, these days. I doubt we're in danger from the Heir of Slytherin."

Dumbledore smiled. "Then we come back to the potion. Have you give any thought to who might have had the expertise required?"

"It's a short list," Snape said, and looked across at McGonagall. "Malfoy. Emory from Ravenclaw. And, of course, Hermione Granger."

McGonagall looked deeply offended. Before she could rush to the girl's defense, Dumbledore put up a gentle hand to forestall it. "Minerva, Severus is not accusing, he is merely naming candidates. I would suggest that the two of you interview these three children together, to show that the houses are aligned on this matter. And if you need me, of course, I will be happy to attend."

"No," Snape said. Minerva murmured a demur as well. "I believe they will be more forthcoming without your presence, Headmaster."

Dumbledore inclined his head and held up the platter. "Scone?"

No point in pretending they weren't good. Snape took two.

###

By common consent, they interrogated Malfoy first.

Snape didn't allow him to sit. The boy stood rigid and pale, and stared straight ahead while Snape circled him like a vulture. McGonagall, by contrast, sat with her hands folded, bloodless and impartial. She did not care for Malfoy. That failed to distress Snape, who did not particularly care for the boy either, except as was strictly necessary to his duties. Still, Draco was clever, occasionally brilliant; it was hardly the boy's fault to be born in an age when The Boy Who Lived would overshadow the accomplishments of every other wizard of his generation.

It would have made anyone jealous and petty.

"Mister Malfoy," Snape said at length. "We have information that a Holding Potion was used on Miss Giddings. Do I have to ask the question?"

Malfoy's chin came up. "I didn't make it."

"But you are capable of making it," McGonagall said. "Are you not?"

"Yes, Professor." He didn't make a hot denial of it; he understood well enough that the accusation in itself was a backhanded compliment. "But I can think of at least three other people here at Hogwarts who could make that potion."

"Three others?" McGonagall's eyebrows rose, and she looked pointedly at Snape. They only had two other students to interview.

"Ethan Emory," Malfoy said. "Hermione Granger." He was unable to keep the contempt out of his voice on the Gryffindor name. "And Professor Snape, of course."

McGonagall raised her thin eyebrows and cast a quick look at Snape, who fixed his attention ruthlessly on the pale-haired boy standing in front of him. Malfoy, although he could not have known that Snape was reading his mind, winced and nearly turned away, but it didn't matter; one brief contact had been more than enough. Malfoy was hiding nothing, at least nothing to do with potions; that, Snape was sure of. But ...

"You have something to tell me," Snape said. "Well, Malfoy? Spit it out."

Visible workings of Malfoy's throat. "Sir. I – Giddings came to me, sir, a few days ago. About Montague and the other boys. She said that if I wasn't going to stop them, that I should at least teach her how to defend the younger ones against them. She wanted to learn dueling, sir."

Yes, Snape thought, he should definitely have paid more attention to Miss Giddings. A pudding face and a colorless character in class did not indicate her true depths. "And did you?"

Another convulsive swallow. "She didn't give me the chance to refuse. She ordered me to meet her there. On the fourth floor. Yesterday."

Silence. McGonagall slowly rose from her chair in a menacing whisper of robes. "And why did you not meet her, Mister Malfoy? Did you think it amusing to abandon one of your charges at her hour of need?" she asked. Bravo, Minerva, Snape thought. He had never heard that particular tone from her, or seen that look, either. Malfoy quailed.

"I – " He sucked in a deep breath and shut his eyes. "I didn't think it was important, Professor. I had other things – I never said I would -- "

"Who knew you were planning to meet her there?" Snape interrupted.

"No one."

"Someone knew, Malfoy, or else you become the most likely suspect and I assure you, that will not be pleasant for you!"

"I don't know who she might have told, sir!" Malfoy blurted angrily.

"So you ignored a child who quite properly looked to you for protection, and found that you had better things to do, is that it? What manner of things would those have been? Trading barbs with Mister Potter? Sniffing around Susan Bones for more clandestine kisses?"

Malfoy exploded. "I was wrong! I should have gone, but she was just a stupid little girl and – it was humiliating. Being mother hen to these stupid Mud—"

His eyes flew open, and met Snape's unforgiving stare.

"Ah," Snape said in a whisper. "It is evident where Mister Montague learned his manners."

Malfoy flushed a bright, unpleasant red. "Fine, then I'll say it! She's just a Mudblood! And soon she and all of those like her will be put where they belong, back with the Muggles! She deserved what she got – "

Snape didn't remember moving.

"Severus!" McGonagall's hand on his arm, holding him back. He could barely hear her through the hissing roar of blood in his ears. "Severus, no! Malfoy, go to the Headmaster. Now!"

Malfoy retreated, all semblance of arrogance gone. Snape watched him through slitted eyes, tasting the acrid metallic tang of rage at the back of his throat. He became aware that even after the door was closed, McGonagall held on to him with surprising strength.

"Dear Merlin, Severus -- what's gotten into you? You struck a student! Why?"

Snape shut his eyes. He felt the rage drain out of him, leaving a leaden weariness in its wake. "Someone has to wake him up, before it's too late. I'd give my soul if someone had -- " His voice failed. He could still feel the sting in his fingertips where they'd hit Malfoy's pale cheek. "I won't lose them to Voldemort."

Nothing she could say to that, he supposed. The furious grip on his arm changed to something like a caress, and finally, McGonagall's austere warmth moved away.

"I suppose we'd best see Mister Emory," she said then, "before he flees in terror. But this time I will do the talking, if you don't mind. Sit, and keep your hands to yourself, you great git."

He allowed her to bully him to the chair, and fixed his eyes on the door, where at her gesture it opened and Emory moved hesitantly inside. Tall, awkward, with hands and feet too large for his frame. Emory was a seventh year, but he still had prodigious growth ahead of him. Snape wondered if he had Giant blood hidden in the family tree.

And he knew, from the instant that he caught sight of the terror in Emory's eyes, that they had found their answer.

Before McGonagall could even begin to speak, Snape said, "Holding Potion," and the flinch from Emory was unmistakable. McGonagall's mouth shut with a snap. "I already know you made it, Emory. Who did you give it to?"

Emory looked utterly undone. Devastated. "I – Professors, you have to understand, I didn't mean any harm, I didn't know it would be used to – for – "

"Any potion can be used for evil," Snape said. "As you should know, being one of the most effective practitioners of the art within this school. Or have you ignored every lesson I have taught you to date? ... No, clearly not, as you remembered well enough to make one of the twelve Restricted Potions. Without authorization."

Emory stared hard at the carpet.

"Emory?" McGonagall had evidently chosen to play the good wizard to Snape's bad; her elegant voice had gone warm and sympathetic. "My boy, please, sit down. I'm sure you never meant any harm, but you need to tell us everything. Begin at the beginning."

Emory gratefully collapsed into a straight-backed chair and began tugging at his fingers. "I -- look, potions is something I do really well, but I'm not so good in Arithmancy, and I had my N.E.W.T.s coming, and -- he's a genius at it, really. He said he'd trade me, lessons how to make a Holding Potion for his best study guides."

"Who?" Snape asked. The word burst out of him with the force of a blow. Emory's red-rimmed eyes flew up to meet his, wide and undefended.

"Thesbury, sir. From Slytherin."

Thesbury? Impossible. That colorless boy ... Snape had looked into his eyes and seen nothing but grief. Impossible!

Yet there was no deception in Emory, though Snape ruthlessly plundered his mind for it. He came up out of the chair and stood staring down at the boy, vibrating with fury and tension, until McGonagall sensibly stepped between them and informed Emory that she would speak with him later. Emory fled nearly as quickly as Malfoy before him.

"Thesbury," Snape repeated aloud. From Slytherin. He felt sick.

"It's possible Thesbury was simply obtaining it for someone else. He should be questioned as well -- Severus -- wait! At least wait for Albus ...!"

He couldn't have possibly obeyed her, even if he'd wished to try.

###

Thomas Thesbury, according to his schedule, should have been in Divinations, but when Snape burst into Trelawney's class -- occasioning a startled cry from the owl-eyed, simpering fool -- the boy was nowhere to be seen.

"Ah," Trelawney said in her most irritatingly pompous voice. "You're looking for a student, Professor Snape. I see it. Don't bother to deny it."

He exchanged a look of naked annoyance with McGonagall, not trusting himself to speak without defaming the other woman personally and professionally, and McGonagall stepped in between them. Brave woman. "Sorry for the intrusion, Professor Trelawney, but we're looking for Thomas Thesbury. Is he not in class this morning?"

"Thomas? Thesbury ... oh, yes. Slytherin." Trelawney sighed and moved her arms wide in a tinkle of beads and bells. The entire room stank of some kind of incense that reminded Snape heavily of garish day-glo colors and drug-hazed concerts; he'd heard that students regularly napped in her sessions. That offended him deeply -- not simply because he'd have caned anyone who dared fall asleep in his own classes, but because, at a very deep level, the teachers at Hogwarts were all that stood between these gifted children and the evil of the outside world. Sleeping? There were days, remembering what he'd seen under Voldemort, when he was tempted to cane Trelawney and not the students.

She had entered her full theatrical gypsy-tea-room mode. "I see a troubled boy, very troubled -- " Her arms outstretched, trailing silk scarves, and she proclaimed it in a wavering voice that no doubt was intended to remind them of ancient Greek soothsayers.

One of the students in the back -- probably a Slytherin -- muttered, "Troubled? Not if he's cut this class, he's not." Even a few Gryffindors snickered.

Trelawney, of course, was far too thick to be dissuaded. "I see a dark cloud hanging over him -- a cloud of evil -- " Her eyes fastened on Snape with unholy glee, and she pointed a bony finger directly at him. "A Slytherin cloud!"

He took a step back, deeply offended. McGonagall said, in a no-nonsense voice that would have frozen a charging hippogriff, "Thank you, Professor. I'm sure all will be well."

She grabbed Snape's arm and towed him back down the wood-paneled hall, away from the risers filled with students, glowing crystal balls and avid whispers.

"The nerve of that -- " he began.

"Not here."

He bit his tongue, all too aware that Trelawney was watching, and the children were acutely listening. He waited until they were on the winding tower stairs before he finished, " -- that amateur. A Slytherin cloud! Dark cloud of evil! What utter rot! Why Dumbledore insists on keeping that stupid woman on staff I'll never -- "

McGonagall shushed him again, and they both turned at the clatter of feet on the stairs. A student was pelting down breathlessly in their wake, face flushed, eyes wide -- a blonde child, in Ravenclaw colors. Tansy Burbage, one of his best young Potions students.

"Sir," she blurted, and then corrected herself. "Professors, sorry -- I saw Thomas. He didn't look well. I think he was going back to the Common Room to lie down. He hasn't been -- I don't think he's felt well since he got back from home. From the funeral."

"Ah," McGonagall frowned. "Thank you, Burbage. Run along now."

They watched the girl race back up the steps, and then McGonagall turned to him with the frown still intact. "Funeral? You failed to mention this, Severus. If the poor boy has lost someone recently, perhaps we should -- "

"The boy traded for the Holding Potion that was used on Miss Giddings. And he lied to me, sitting no farther away than you are to me now. You understand the significance of that?"

She did. McGonagall understood full well how powerful he was at both Legilimens and Occlumens -- second only to Dumbledore himself. For a mere boy to best him ...

"We'd best find him, then," she said quietly, and led the way down the rest of the steps with her robes fluttering like a Scots war flag in her wake.

###

CONTINUED IN NEXT JOURNAL ENTRY! (Sorry, LJ keeps cutting me off ...)

Comments

( 7 rants — Rant )
circe_tigana
Jul. 17th, 2004 09:55 am (UTC)
OMG! Where is the rest??!?!?!?!?!?

::panics::

::flails::

GIVE ME THE REST, I NEEDS IT!

THIS IS SOOOOOO GOOD!
anniesj
Jul. 17th, 2004 10:23 am (UTC)
OMG EVERYTHING SHE SAID!!!11

*loses mind from not knowing what happens next*

THIS IS SO FUCKING GOOD! GAH! GAHGAHGAH!

*clings to Circe and babbles incoherently for more*
circe_tigana
Jul. 17th, 2004 10:30 am (UTC)
It's totally the kind of story I didn't even realize I needed until I started reading it!

And because I've been thinking about the individual houses a lot since being Sorted into Ravenclaw, I am eating the story up with a SPOON!

The glimpses of Malfoy are really interesting. And Snape! God, I love gen Snape fic!!!!!!

I adore his sense of responsibility, and his fear that he is not a good rolemodel. You totally give a sense of what it means for that ostracized little boy whom everyone hated to become Head of House, part of something worthwhile ....

PLEASE GIVE US THE END OMG! ::hates LJ::

(and Hi Annie! I have yet another Sirius fic idea but I'm too lazy to write it! I feel the need to pass it off to someone else!)
anniesj
Jul. 17th, 2004 10:38 am (UTC)
I know! I'm not even a big Snape fan, but Julie's Snape *always* mesmerizes me. And I *love* this glimpse into the inner-workings of Slytherin house, the responsibility Snape feels as Head of House, his guilt over what happened and GAH. I NEED MORE OMG!

(And damn you, Circe! DAMN YOU! *omg gimme the bunny you know it's like crack to me*)
circe_tigana
Jul. 17th, 2004 10:43 am (UTC)
Did you email me your new phonenumber and address??

::can't remember and wants to call you::

God, I'm jetlagged.

And, uh, Julie! MORE PLEASE :P I forgot to mention -- I love how Snape's thoughts turn inexorably to Moony in that last bit ;)
turnedskyward
Jul. 17th, 2004 11:56 am (UTC)
Aside from there not being an end to this, the obvious complaint, I have one note. In the beginning you say that Althea is a third year, then go on to say that Thesbury is a fourth year. However, Thesbury says that she is two years behind him. Just thought I'd point that out before I give you a real, hero-worshipping comment about how fabulous you really are once the entire story is up!
juliefortune
Jul. 18th, 2004 07:25 am (UTC)
YAAAAAAAGHHHHHHH!
I'm so, so sorry. As you can (hopefully) see, I went back and split it into two posts. LJ, you BITCH! You lied to me! I previewed it, I did I did ... ... I already had a migraine so I didn't come back to look at it later. My bad.

:wahhhhh:

Thank you for bearing with me. Hope it's worth the frustration!

Oh, and turnedskyward I fixed the screwup you pointed out -- sorry, he should have been a fifth year. I kept fucking around with the ages of the kids. My bad, AGAIN!

-- J.
( 7 rants — Rant )