Chapter 1: Prologue
When they came for him at last, when they unlocked his cell to escort him through the halls of the Ministry, Severus Snape was almost glad that it was over. Again - for despite precautionary dosing with anti-venin, he really had not expected to survive Nagini's savage attack. Now there would be an undoubtedly brief trial, a Kiss, and he would know no more.
He drew in a deep breath as he followed the guard on unsteady feet, willing his body to not betray any weakness before the Wizengamot. If these were his last hours, he intended to maintain as much of his dignity as possible.
So when the guard paused and opened a door to an interview room, Snape was taken off-guard. He entered, then stopped dead when he saw a familiar young man sitting at the table. "Potter? What in Merlin's name...?"
"Hello, Professor." Harry Potter gestured towards the chair on the other side of the table. "Won't you take a seat? The Wizengamot is still processing your papers but I'm afraid that I rather jumped to the head of the queue. I couldn't bear to think of you in those blasted cells for a moment longer."
Unexpected relief made him dizzy. Snape grasped the back of the chair. "Am I to understand that you have procured my release?" he asked, scowling at the way his words seemed to catch in his throat. Reflexively, he reached up to touch the bandage covering the still-healing wound.
Potter poured a glass of water and pushed it toward him, nodding as he did. "Of course. After all that you did for me- "
Snape picked up the glass and scowled as he saw how his hand shook. "I didn't do it for you, Potter," he said harshly.
Potter didn't seem put out by that; he nodded and said, "For my mother, then. Speaking of which..." He pulled a vial out of his pocket and set it down on the table between them. "Your memories. I thought you'd like them back. I hope you don't mind - I had to share a few of them with the Wizengamot, but I promise they were just the ones pertinent to Professor Dumbledore’s death.”
"There isn't going to be one. I spoke to the Wizengamot privately, told them everything you did for our side, and Professor McGonagall told them how you protected the students, although she didn't realize you were at the time. They have agreed to pardon you. It'll take a little bit longer to get the official pardon written out and registered, of course."
"You went to a lot of trouble for me, Potter."
Potter flushed, hunching his shoulders in an awkward shrug. "It was the right thing to do," he said lamely. "And, well, I've come to understand...to feel..." He made an impatient, awkward noise and shook his head. "What I mean to say is that I love you.”
Snape blinked. "You - what?"
Potter's blush deepened, but he met Snape's eyes with his customarily arrogant impetuousness. "I love you. And I want to marry you, if you can put up with me."
Snape's lip curled. "Oh, you’re another one of those." At Potter's blank look he added, "I've had fifteen proposals so far. I suppose there are a lot of imbeciles who want to marry anyone notorious."
Anger flared in Potter's eyes, Snape noted with relief. For a few moments, he had thought that the boy was under an Imperius curse. "I'm notorious enough on my own, thanks." Oddly enough, Potter didn't sound like he liked his fame and notoriety; maybe he'd already found out that it was a two-edged sword.
Potter shrugged. "I thought you'd be a rather interesting person to marry. And two months of sharing your memories helped me know you a bit better, of course."
"Perhaps I am being somewhat dense on the matter: residing in the Ministry cells for weeks has not been conducive to clear thinking," Snape said, his rasping voice biting. "However, you appear to have forgotten a few things, Potter. First, I had thought you rather attached to the Weasley girl."
"Ginny and I decided that we didn't suit after all," Potter began.
"Was this before or after you discovered that you apparently prefer wizards to witches?"
Potter's blush seemed to have become permanent. "Um, about the same time, actually."
"Be that as it may, you and I have never had what anyone might consider a cordial relationship.” He stilled as a thought occurred to him. "Unless that is the price for your assistance in regaining my freedom?"
"What?" Potter looked aghast at the idea. "I would never!"
Snape rolled his eyes. Of course the idiotic Gryffindor would see that kind of manipulation as wrong and dirty. "Of course not."
"Look, I know this is a bit sudden," Potter began, then he faltered, his eyes darting away from Snape to glance around the room, as if taking in his surroundings for the first time. "Take all the time you need to think about it, once you've got over all this, of course. There's no rush."
"How considerate of you," Snape said drily.
He sighed and rubbed his forehead as the pain in his temples nudged him for attention. Now that he wasn't threatened with imminent death, or worse, the aches and pains in his body made themselves known. He longed for a hot meal and a hotter bath; he had been without a proper wash for weeks, subjected to rough-and-ready cleaning spells.
"Look, Harry," he said wearily. "I am...grateful...for your aid, but I can't. I can't think. I can't see beyond this - " he gestured around at the room, " - and further than the next few days. I only want to get out of here and be left alone."
"Of course," Potter said, nodding, as a smile blossomed on his face. He stood and walked briskly to the door, rapping on it. Then he strode back to the table and leaned over, speaking so that only Snape could hear him. "But I won't give up. You said 'can't', not 'won't'. And you called me 'Harry'."
Potter pulled a copy of the Daily Prophet out of his robe pocket and set it down on the table in front of Snape, then left the room, whistling a little off-tune. Snape stared down at the paper, at the pictures of Harry Potter and himself, and at the headlines that blazed, "'The Bravest Man I Know!' says The Boy Who Lived" and swore silently.
It was just possible that Potter was going to be as stubborn about this as he'd been about everything else in his life, and refuse to take 'no' for an answer.
* * * * *
Severus Snape stepped out of the Ministry building, into the Atrium, drew in a deep breath, and smiled.
Today, a year after he had nearly died, ten months after his release from the Ministry cells, and six months after he had received his Order of Merlin First Class, he had a job again. He was once more headmaster of Hogwarts, this time by his own choice and with the whole-hearted approval of the Board of Governors.
"You do realize that our work has just begun, Severus?" asked McGonagall from beside him. It still astounded him that she had forgiven for the things he had done in order to stand between the students and the Dark Lord, and had been one of his staunchest supporters before the Board. "The castle was badly damaged during the battle and Filius's charms have barely kept the weather out."
The castle had been another supporter, as it refused to allow anyone else into the headmaster's office.
McGonagall added, "And there are the children."
War created orphans, and the most recent struggle against the Dark Lord had been no exception. There had been children without parents, or with parents in prison, with no family to take them in. Since Hogwarts had been empty of students while it awaited word of its fate, it had become a refuge for the orphans. Molly Weasley, now with an empty nest, had swooped in to take care of the little ones, and McGonagall had organized the school-age children who couldn't be placed in schools elsewhere.
"No need for them to leave," Snape said. "It will take years to finish repairs. In the meantime - perhaps we can reopen Hogwarts as a day school."
He would need to look over the school, assess how bad the damage truly was, what classrooms could be used, which dorms were habitable --
"I can't do this anymore."
Snape looked over at the third member of their group in surprise, then frowned. Potter looked drawn and thinner than ever. How had he not noticed that?
"Potter, you look like hell. Too much burning the candle at both ends?" he asked caustically.
Potter shook his head, as if refusing to rise to Snape's bait. "I'm sorry, Severus; I just can't - I need to leave."
"Leave? And go where?"
"I don't know. Europe, America, the Himalayas - I don't care." Potter raked his hand through his hair. "I just can't do this anymore," he said, gesturing around him. "The Ministry, chasing Dark Wizards, England…. I thought I wanted to be an Auror but - "
"Fine, then. Leave," Snape snapped, turning and stalking towards the Floo system.
He had no idea why he was feeling as if the bottom had fallen out of his world. He should be delighted. He had been demanding that the annoying brat leave him alone for months. Not that Potter listened. He had shown up at Spinner's End to carry Snape, sulky and silent, off for food or drinks or rides in the country on his blasted motorbike. Snape had been too listless at first to refuse these outings, which had at least kept him from brooding, even though Potter's cheerfulness had often been repaid with bitter, hurtful words. Each outing had ended with Harry repeating his proposal, to which Snape had responded at first with sharp jeers and later with a simple, short negation. Potter hadn't seemed to mind his constant refusal and, looking back, he was as much amazed by Potter's patience as annoyed by his persistence.
"Would you wait a bloody moment, you berk?" Potter grabbed him by the arm and spun him around. "I'm not leaving you, idiot, not forever - although I suppose I should be thrilled that you seem pissed off by that thought. I just need to get away from all of this for a bit, find out what I want to do with my life. I'll be back, I swear I will."
"It doesn't matter to me in the least if you come back or become a Tibetan monk," Snape said coldly.
Now that he had made up his mind, Potter seemed to regain his customary exuberance because he went so far as to give Snape a hug - in public - before bounding off towards the Floo system. "I'll owl you from Paris!"
"I'd rather you drowned yourself in the Seine!" Snape retorted, but if Potter heard him, his reply was lost in the Floo.
Snape turned back to McGonagall and, seeing the speculative look in her eyes, snapped, "Not. One. Word."
"He will be back, you know," she said. "Although if you want him to come to Hogwarts, you'll have to send for him."
"I won't do that," he said firmly.
"Oh yes you will," she replied with a twinkle in her eyes. "I was right about Mr Potter eight years ago, and I'm going to be right about this." She tucked her hand in his arm, ignoring his scowl. "Come on, you surly grouch. I'll buy you a drink at the Three Broomsticks to celebrate."
Hogwarts, May 2, 2002
Severus Snape stood at the open window of the headmaster's office and stared down at the front lawn of Hogwarts Castle. Very little evidence of the damage inflicted during the Battle of Hogwarts remained. Teams of stone-masons and carpenters and gardeners had laboured for nearly three years to restore the castle to its former glory, assisted by the innate magic of the castle itself. Towers had sprouted to replace those damaged or destroyed, floors and walls had been reassembled from the rubble, portraits had been restored and their inhabitants returned to their customary places on the walls. Even the more non-corporeal inhabitants of the castle had reappeared, alongside staff old and new. The edifice itself seemed to wake as if from a deep healing sleep, stairs beginning to shift at random once more, and the more annoying tricks like vanishing steps returning.
One final task remained before the school could officially reopen its doors: the renewal of its powerful wards. That event was to be today. As the warding was to be combined with a party to celebrate Voldemort's demise four years ago, as well as the birthday of the eldest Weasley grandchild, the castle staff was preparing for an onslaught of guests. Tables bearing light refreshments were scattered about the lawn, while the house-elves prepared a heartier repast for later, to be served in the restored Great Hall.
Pops and swooshing noises heralded the arrival by broom and Portkey of participants from all parts of Britain, while others would be Flooing or Apparating into Hogsmeade and walking up from there. Professors and former students stood chatting in little clusters, no doubt sharing all the latest gossip and speculating on events to come.
The collected noise reached all the way up to the spire where the former and future headmaster spied upon them from the shadows, uncertain of his reception among the throng. Pardoned he may have been, by the Grace of Harry Potter, but Snape didn't doubt for a moment that he had not been forgiven by all of Wizarding Britain. He was certain that he had retained his position as headmaster in part because Harry Potter had willed it so and almost everyone was willing to accede to his every whim. No doubt they would be relieved if Snape sent word that he was indisposed and continued to lurk up here in the tower.
"But I'm not a coward," he said, as if challenging an allegation made aloud. "I'll go down and be damned for it. Nothing can hurt me worse than I've already been hurt. And what does it matter what any of them think or say?"
Before he could change his mind, he turned abruptly away from the window. He snatched up his outer robe from where it lay over the back of a chair, flinging it around his shoulders as he strode toward the spiral staircase that descended from the headmaster's office.
* * * * *
Harry's arrival at Hogwarts was nothing like previous years, for which he was supremely grateful. He Apparated to the gates of the school, now repaired, rehung, and flung wide to welcome visitors. There was no one else on the pathway for he was a little late, having debated coming until the last possible moment. Enjoying the brief solitude, he slowly made his way along the path, both dreading and anticipating his first sight of Hogwarts since the battle four years prior.
As he rounded the far end of the lake, Hogwarts rose out of the morning mist ahead, gleaming proudly, timeless as always. His breath caught in his chest, as it had the first time he'd seen it, and he was suddenly glad that he had come.
This was what he'd been searching for, during the last three restless years spent travelling the globe. This was a sight more magnificent than the grandest mountains or the most elegant palace he had seen, for it was home. This was what he'd fought for, what he'd bled for, what he'd died for: the enduring symbol of the magical world. His world, he realized and finally accepted. He'd thought he'd lost it, during those angry, empty years, thought he'd forfeited it through his inability to save many of the people he'd cared about. But no, it had been waiting here for him, patient and eternal as ever. Waiting for him to come home.
As he began the walk up the long lawn, he could see a bustle of activity around the entrance to the castle. Tables and chairs were scattered about the lawn as if they'd sprouted like organic furniture. A group of children ranging in age from small to pre-Hogwarts age darted among the tables and chairs, admonished by Molly Weasley as she made the rounds with a tea-tray hovering at her elbow. A few school-age children perched on the steps, clearly distancing themselves from both the shrieking younger children and the grown-ups. Adult wizards, most of them familiar to Harry, stood talking in clusters, sipping tea and ignoring the children with the long practice of parents and teachers.
Sharp-eyed as always, Hermione was the first to spot him. She broke away from the rest, hurtling across the lawn to throw her arms around him in an exuberant hug. Ron was only a few steps behind her and joined in a three-way hug that threatened to break Harry's ribs even as it warmed his heart.
He loved it, laughing easily in a way he hadn't for months.
"Where have you been?" Hermione scolded, the same way she had when he'd been late to class.
He grinned and impulsively kissed her cheek.
"Oi!" Ron said in a mock-angry growl. "That's my wife you're kissing, Potter."
"Not till next month," Harry pointed out, with a playful elbow to his friend's ribs. "So watch out!"
Ron grinned at him, no shadow of past jealousies between them. Sometime during that horrible year and the final battle, Ron had made peace with himself, and he seemed content in a way he'd never been before.
Harry envied him that.
"It's about bloody time you got here," Ron said, as the three of them walked arm-in-arm up the lawn. "Mum's been half out of her mind, thinking you wouldn't make it in time."
Hermione rolled her eyes. "As if they wouldn't wait for Harry to arrive before they began."
"I nearly didn't come," Harry admitted. "I wanted to see all of you, of course, but..."
"The last time you saw Hogwarts wasn't exactly a pleasant experience," Hermione said sympathetically.
"Know what you mean, mate," Ron said. "George hasn't been back since...well, you know. But they've done a bang-up job of restoring the old place. Hardly can tell there's been any damage."
"Took their time about it, didn't they?" Harry said.
"It can't have been easy to repair," Hermione said knowledgeably. "There was a tremendous amount of damage to the structure, not to mention the interior furnishings. Plus Hogwarts isn't any old castle; the repairs would have needed to be done with the assistance of the school's magic to settle properly. And after the mess the Ministry was in, and all the other areas needing repair, there was bound to be a shortage of skilled craftsmen."
"They put old Snape back in charge of the place," Ron added, glancing at Harry sideways as he said that. "From what I heard, he was a right bastard to work with on the repairs, but he got it done two years before they said he would."
Harry nodded, not in the least surprised; Snape had always been a hard task-master. He tried not to think about the fact that he would see him again shortly, face-to-face for the first time in three years, although they had communicated by owl during that time. Well, Harry had rambled about the sights he was seeing and the things he was doing, and Snape had returned terse replies that berated his intelligence at the same time as they offered travel advice.
"Who else is coming to this party?" he asked as they approached the main doors to the castle.
"Most of the staff, except for Hagrid - he's off collecting the thestrals from where they've been farmed out over the past years," Ron said.
"Neville's here," Hermione added. "He took a post as assistant to Professor Sprout when he finished his apprenticeship, as she's planning to retire in a few years. And Katie Bell - she's doing her Healer's apprenticeship here at Hogwarts, with Madam Pomfrey. The Minister, of course, and Ron's parents."
"And Zabini," Ron said, disgusted.
"Blaise Zabini?” Harry asked. "What's he doing here?"
"Teaching," Hermione replied, not looking much happier about it than Ron. "Potions to the pre-NEWT students. He started doing it last year and the headmaster has apparently hired him, at least until he can get a proper Potions Master. Snape will be teaching the NEWT students himself." She sounded envious, and he wondered if she had regretted not doing that final year at Hogwarts.
"Probably can't get a job anywhere else," Ron added. "Heard him talking earlier with Professor Sinistra - she's Head of Slytherin now - and he was whining about what a tough time Draco Malfoy is having since the Ministry confiscated his dad's vault and property. As if the git doesn't deserve everything coming to him."
"To be fair," Hermione said, ignoring Ron's eye-roll, "Zabini never actually became a Death Eater or fought on their side during the Battle."
"Still doesn't mean he should be around the kids," Ron said, scowling.
"Your mum still looking after the orphans?" Harry asked.
Ron nodded. "She's happier than ever. Ministry built an orphanage where the Shrieking Shack used to be; Mum and Dad moved into it last month, with a dozen or so of the ones they couldn't place in homes." Slytherin children, for the most part, Harry reflected - not that Molly seemed to care.
"What about the Burrow?" Harry asked, not having heard about the move - but then, he'd been moving around quite a bit the past few months, restless as always when the anniversary of this date arrived.
"Bill and Fleur moved into it. Now that they've got another on the way, they wanted more room, as well as space for Remus and Teddy."
Harry nodded; one of the few pleasant surprises on that day four years ago had been when Lupin had unexpectedly revived, healed from his near-fatal injuries due to his werewolf nature. "How is Remus? He wrote but never seemed to say much about himself. Charlie had a letter from Bill, that Remus was helping him with side-effects from Greyback’s attack, but that was months ago."
"As well as can be expected," Hermione said, her face shadowing as they all looked over at where Lupin was trying to organize the children into a quieter game. Harry could see that he wasn't as thin as he had been, although his face still bore shadows. So many lives had been changed that day at Hogwarts, and not all of them for the best.
“Harry, dear, here you are!” Molly said warmly, coming up to bestow a hug and kiss. “And at sixes and sevens, by the look of you,” she scolded, tugging his shirt seams straight and sighing at the sight of his formal robe thrown over one shoulder. “You look like you’ve lost a half-stone since we saw you in Romania last Christmas! You need to settle down with a nice witch- ”
“Mum,” Ron reminded her, rolling his eyes.
“ -or wizard,” she continued, ignoring her son, “to take care of you. Speaking of which, did you hear that Ginny’s engaged?” she continued, paying no attention to Ron’s groan or Harry’s flinch. “To a nice young wizard, the press liaison for the Harpies.”
“That’s one way for her to keep her name in the papers,” Ron muttered under his breath, then winced when Hermione elbowed him.
“They won’t be able to make it till later this afternoon - the Harpies have an exhibition game this morning to help kick off V-V day,” Molly added. “Nor Charlie - they had an early hatching at the reserve, although I expect you already know that,” she said, giving Harry a hopeful look, ever the match-maker.
“No, I haven’t heard from Charlie since Christmas. Where is the birthday girl?” he asked in an effort to change the subject.
It worked; Molly beamed and turned to point at a pale-haired little girl who appeared to be at the centre of the shrieking children. “There she is, in the thick of things, as always; gets that from her mother. Teddy’s quite smitten already,” she said comfortably, as if she’d never had an issue with her Veela daughter-in-law. They watched one of the boys pick up Victoire’s fallen dolly and return it to her, and Harry noticed with amusement that Teddy’s hair currently matched Victoire’s purple dress.
"Harry, my boy!" Arthur said, as he and Kingsley joined them. He shook Harry's hand warmly. "You're looking in fine fettle - travelling agreed with you, I see."
"Glad that you could make it for one of our celebrations, Harry," Kingsley added, a glint of humour in his eyes. "Are you back in England for long?"
"Planning a media event, Minister?" Harry asked wryly.
Kingsley grinned and shook his head. "I learned the folly of that long ago."
"I see that Mr Potter has finally joined us," said a smooth, caustic voice behind Harry. "Perhaps we can now begin."
Kingsley looked pained, Arthur and Molly frowned, and Ron glared, but Harry felt his heart leap with unexpected joy at that familiar voice. He swung around, unable to keep the smile off his face. Snape looked good, better than when he'd seen him in prison, better than when he'd been the hated Potions master. His voice was a little raspy, a legacy of that nearly fatal attack, his hair was as lank and his skin as sallow as always, but to Harry's adult eyes, he was merely a strong-featured man and not the greasy git of his childhood.
"Hullo, Professor Snape," he said genially, smiling at the man, well aware of the slack-jawed stares he was getting from his friends. "Thanks for inviting me to the warding of the castle."
Snape raised an eyebrow, a look of faint amusement on his face as if he, too, was enjoying the astounded looks. "We could scarcely hold such a momentous event without Hogwarts’ most renowned Celebrity."
"Now Severus - " Arthur began, frowning, but he stopped when Harry laughed.
"I missed you, too, Severus."
"Well, shall we begin?" Kingsley said, rubbing his hands together and looking around at the assembled group.
"We will need to clear non-participants from the area," Snape stated, looking around at the children.
"Of course, Severus," Molly said, calling the children together. "Fleur, dear, would you take them down to the cottage?" At the disappointed groans from the children, she added, "The house elves have prepared lunch for all of you, and then there will be cake and ice cream back here afterwards."
Far more willingly, the children followed Fleur down the path to the cottage orphanage. Molly turned back to the rest of the group, pushing up the sleeves of her jumper. "Now then - Harry, dear, you might want to set your outer robes aside till after we're done. Warding can be sweaty work, and it'd be a shame to get them dirty."
"Good idea, Molly," Shacklebolt said, shedding his own brightly coloured outer robe and throwing it over the back of a chair. Harry did the same with his robes, and saw that several others, including Snape, set their outer robes aside.
"I've never done this before," Harry said to Ron. "What do we do?"
"It's not too difficult, just sweaty like Mum said," he replied. "Hermione and I helped ward the orphanage last month."
Kingsley quickly explained the spell involved and demonstrated the wand movements for those who hadn't done a ward, then turned proceedings over to Snape.
"For optimum efficiency, I have marked the placement of warders," Snape said and waved his wand. Small yellow and red squares appeared around the grounds, several feet apart. "If each of you will take your place in one of the yellow squares - they will change to green in colour when you are positioned properly. Minister, your place is at the top of the Astronomy tower. Mr Potter and the rest of the staff, if you will place yourselves within the red squares?"
Everyone dispersed, and Harry found himself standing on a spot in front of one of the side doors. From what he could tell, the red squares were anchor points for the wards, with the yellow squares providing coverage over the large expanse of the school. He could see McGonagall, Flitwick, and Sinistra at the corners of the school within his eyesight, and imagined that Sprout was at the distant corner by her greenhouses. Snape was positioned at the front steps, and as he glanced up at the top of the school, he saw Kingsley standing at the highest point.
At the signal, each of them pointed their wand at the ground and uttered the spell, pointing their free hand at the nearest warder so as to link the points together, then slowly lifted their wands until a green web-like construct hovered at knee level. Snape looked around and made adjustments to the links, assisted by Kingsley who could see the entire web. Once satisfied, everyone began to slowly draw the web upwards. Harry concentrated on keeping his movements slow and steady, muttering the spell under his breath; he could feel his shirt growing damp from the exertion and was glad that he had taken off his outer robe. By the time the web stretched over his head, he felt as if he'd been duelling for hours.
He watched as Snape gathered together the web edges, aiming his wand towards the sky. Now Harry could see that Kingsley had been weaving his own web, one that stretched across the sky above him; together, he and Snape attached the tendrils from the ground, creating a unified field. Harry was grateful when Snape indicated by a jerk of his head that he could drop his wand, and stood shaking out his arms and rotating his sore shoulders. Once all the tendrils were connected, Snape uttered the final bit of the spell and the entire web glowed gold for a moment before it disappeared.
"Amazing," Harry murmured, and once again he was glad he'd come. He felt a little light-headed and ravenously hungry, and joined Ron in raiding the refreshment tables.
"Honestly, Ron," Hermione said, amused disapproval in her voice. "You could at least tidy up a bit first."
"But I'm starving!" Ron said. "Warding makes me hungry."
"Everything makes you hungry," Harry teased.
Hermione shook her head but cast a quick cleaning charm over both Ron and Harry, then handed them their robes.
"That was brilliant," Harry said as some of the other warders joined them for refreshments. "I'm glad I came, and you were right about the robes, Mrs Weasley."
"Molly, please," she said, holding up two black robes. "Whose are these?"
"Mine," said Snape and Zabini at the same time as they approached.
Snape eyed the robes and then Zabini. "Mr Zabini, I am quite familiar with my robes and both of these are mine," he said, pointing at the black embroidered snakes along the collar.
Zabini shrugged. "Probably," he said with what Harry thought was incredible cheek. "The potion I was bottling spattered my robes this morning and I didn't have time to run to my own rooms, so I grabbed the spare in the workroom." He took one of the robes from Molly's hands and pulled it on. "You don't mind, do you, Severus?"
"If you damage it, the cost will come out of your pay," Snape said, taking the other robe. He pulled it on, then frowned and reached into the inner pocket, pulling out a piece of parchment. He glanced at it briefly, frowned, and incinerated it, then turned and stalked off in the direction of the Minister of Magic.
Harry realized that he was grinding his teeth and glaring at Zabini when Ron elbowed him and muttered, "Easy, Harry." He drew in a deep breath, unclenching his hands, and managed what he hoped was a bland expression when Zabini looked his way.
"Potter," Zabini said, in a greeting of sorts. He looked Harry up and down, raising his eyebrow and smirking in that insufferable way Harry remembered. "Dressing better these days, I see."
"Zabini," Harry said coolly. "I understand you're back at Hogwarts, teaching Potions."
Zabini shrugged. "For now, until Severus finds someone to take on the position full-time, then I plan to go into Potions research." He paused. "What about you, Potter? Killed any Dark Wizards lately?"
"Harry may not be, but I'm willing to," Ron growled.
Zabini glanced briefly at Ron. "The Ministry let you off your leash yet, Apprentice Auror Weasley?"
"Ron," Harry said, grabbing his arm to keep him from going for his wand. "It's fine." Turning to Zabini, he said, "Actually I've been travelling, seeing the world and other magical places. Been brilliant, really."
"I saw an article about you in the Prophet, Harry," Katie Bell said, joining them and giving Zabini a disgusted glare. Zabini didn't seem bothered by that, smirking at all of them before going off to join the other teachers where they were talking. "Did you really solve the mystery of the Phantom at the Paris Opera house?"
Harry winced slightly at the mention of the Daily Prophet, as he still hated it with a passion. "I suppose I did, yeah. Turns out he was just lonely and didn't realise he was scaring the tourists. Once I showed him how to access the sewers to get to other places, he was willing to let them alone. Last I saw, he and Jim Morrison were chatting about music."
Hermione laughed at that although both Ron and Katie looked puzzled. "Only you, Harry," Hermione said affectionately.
"Congratulations on your apprenticeship, Katie," Harry said warmly.
Katie's cheeks went pink. "Thanks, Harry. I was lucky to get one here at Hogwarts; Professor Snape gave me a recommendation for the Healers program or I don't know what I might be doing."
As she left them to join Pomfrey, who was chatting with Molly about one of the orphans, Harry glared at her back. "Does everyone have a thing for Snape?" he asked.
"Only you, mate," Ron said fervently. "The rest of us still have all our marbles." Hermione elbowed him and Ron winced. "Oh look - cake!" he said to divert their attention as the children returned to the gathering and the house-elves produced the birthday cake for Victoire.
Harry accepted a slice of birthday cake and, looking around, caught sight of Lupin sitting beneath a tree. He was watching his son cavorting with the other children, a wistful look on his face.
"Hullo, Remus," Harry said. "Mind if I join you?"
Lupin gestured to the ground next to him. "Be my guest, Harry."
Once Harry was sitting, he became aware that Lupin was studying him with a peculiar half-smile. "What?" he asked. "Have I got something on my face?"
Lupin smiled and shook his head. "No; I was just looking for traces of the young boy that I had the pleasure of teaching that year. You don't look quite as much like James anymore - I can see a great deal of your mother in you now. You've grown into quite a young man, Harry. Your parents would be proud."
"I hope so," Harry said, then sighed. "I haven't been doing much these past few years to make them think so, though."
"I believe that ridding the world of Voldemort is quite enough to be going on with," Lupin said drily. "And you have been doing something, Harry - you've been living, something you've had little chance to do before now."
Harry nodded, then said, "I've been thinking about settling down a bit, only I don't want a proper job in an office or teaching or anything."
Lupin smiled. "Well, that's a relief - I thought you might be after my job."
"Your job?" Harry asked. "I thought you were settled with a Ministry pension."
"I was, but I suppose I've become a bit restless, too. Severus offered me the Defence Against the Dark Arts position here, starting in the autumn."
Harry was surprised. "Is it still cursed?" he blurted out without thinking.
Lupin laughed, the first from him that Harry had heard all day, and Harry thought that it made him look years younger. "I suppose we'll find out, won't we? Maybe that's why he gave it to me!"
"Is Teddy going to live here with you? Or stay with Molly?"
"No, he's going to remain at the Burrow with Bill and Fleur." Lupin's face shadowed a little. "I'll miss him, but he's accustomed to them and the house, and I want him to have as normal a childhood as possible. I'll be commuting home for the weekends, so I'll see him nearly as much as I would if he was with Molly. But enough about us - tell me about this latest adventure of yours! I heard that you solved a mysterious haunting in a fort in some place called Kentucky?"
Harry laughed. "Not so much a haunting as a pair of escaped nifflers trying to build a nest..."
* * * * *
When Lupin went off to collect his son and convince him to eat something other than sugar, Harry caught sight of Katie standing a little way away, watching the sun set over the Quidditch stadium. He wandered over to join her. "Watching the sunset alone, Katie?" he asked.
She looked around with a smile that seemed a little sad. "Those were good years, weren't they, Harry? Not towards the end, but the first few?"
Thinking about Quirrel and the basilisk, Harry said, "Some of it."
"I remember my first game," she said dreamily. "I was so scared that I thought I would faint and fall off my broom, but then I got the Quaffle and it was brilliant.
Harry smiled. "Yeah." He glanced sideways at her. "You play anymore? I expect the Weasleys organize pick-up games."
Katie shook her head. "Can't anymore, not since I touched that necklace. I get dizzy spells sometimes."
"Right," Harry said, recalling the sight of Katie in the grip of the curse.
"What about you?" she asked. "Have you played lately?"
He shook his head. "Lifetime ban on Quidditch, remember? They haven't got around to having it removed. And I'm out of practice." Looking out over the field he said, "But it would be brilliant to play again, wouldn't it?"
One of the orphans came over to them, tugged on Katie's robe and, as she bent down, said, "I don't feel good, Katie."
"Upset tummy, honey?" Katie asked. "Let's get you something for that." She looked over at Harry, rolled her eyes and grinned. "Never a dull moment, yeah?"
Harry laughed at that, but as Katie went off with the little girl, he turned and looked back out over the Quidditch field. "It would be brilliant," he repeated.
"Talking to yourself, Potter?"
Harry looked around to see Snape standing nearby, arms crossed over his chest, watching him. "Hullo, Severus," he said. "Just reliving some memories - good ones, for a change." He cocked his head as he studied the headmaster. "You're looking better than you were the last time I saw you," he said, then flushed. "Sorry. A little tactless of me to mention that, I suppose."
"As always, Potter, your ability to say and do the wrong thing astounds me." Oddly enough, the corners of Snape's mouth appeared to curl up in something resembling a faint smile. "Your world travels don't appear to have changed you in that regard."
Harry grinned. "Wouldn't want to change too much, or you might think me a polyjuiced impostor."
"No chance of that," Snape said drily.
Impulsively, Harry said, "You wouldn’t happen to have changed your mind, would you? About the question I asked you?"
Looking blank at the sudden change in subject, Snape said, "Question...?"
Harry flushed again. "My proposal of marriage."
Snape frowned. "I thought you had forgotten that nonsense. With all your travelling, I hoped you had."
Harry shrugged. "I suppose I tried, but you know my disorderly mind; I forget the things I'm supposed to do and remember things I should forget." He looked squarely at Snape. "Although it would take a major memory loss for me to forget you, Professor. Severus."
"Mr Potter - " Snape sounded half-way between annoyed and apologetic, and Harry cut him off before he did something uncharacteristic, like apologize.
"I won't give up, you know," he said, with a determined air. "I'll try not to be a nuisance, but I intend to propose to you at irregular intervals. On your birthday, perhaps, and Guy Fawkes Day - "
"Potter, don't be a fool - "
"And on April Fool's Day, of course," he added with a grin. "But feel free to ignore me, if you like."
Snape muttered, "You're a bit difficult to ignore."
He looked as if he wanted to bite his tongue, so that must have slipped out unintentionally. Harry felt heartened and decided that, discretion being the better part of valour, he should retire from the field.
Spending time with his friends had made Harry realise that the old restlessness was finally gone and he was ready to return to England, to settle down and do something with his life. And after talking to Lupin, he had come to realise what it was that he wanted to do. So after the party was over, he allowed Ron to talk him into joining them for a drink at the Three Broomsticks before they all went home. Once they were seated at a table with their drinks, Harry outlined his plans.
"You want to start a private investigation firm?" Hermione repeated, wrinkling her brow at that. "What, like Sherlock Holmes or something?"
"Sort of," Harry said. "When I was in America, I read a Muggle book about a wizard who investigates supernatural and magical mysteries, mostly for Muggles but sometimes for other beings in his magical community."
Ron frowned. "What does an investigator do? I don't ever think I've heard of one."
"People hire an investigator to figure out things they can't work out themselves, like puzzles," Harry explained. "If Great-Uncle Edward misplaced Great-Grandmother's heirloom necklace, for example - you can't call the Aurors to look for it, they haven't got the time. Or say a Muggle thinks they've been cursed or that their house is haunted. They hire me, I put together the clues, and there you are - necklace found or curse lifted."
"You'd work for both Muggles and wizards, then?" Hermione asked, obviously turning the idea over in her head.
Harry nodded. "It's the sort of thing I've been doing the last few years - hell, since I started at Hogwarts, if you think of it. I might not know as much as you, Hermione, or understand strategy like Ron, but I can put together clues and come up with answers."
"He's right, Ron," Hermione said. “It’s an interesting idea.”
"I'd need an office," Harry began. “Someplace easy for both Muggles and magical clients to find me.”
Ron nodded vigorously. "And I know just the place," he said, then turned to Hermione. "Remember that flat we looked at last week? The one down from the Leaky Cauldron?"
Hermione's eyes lit up. "It would be perfect!" To Harry she said, "It has an entrance on both Charing Cross and Diagon Alley, plenty of office space on the ground floor and a flat above. Ron and I looked at it, but it's out of our budget, plus we don't need the shop space."
"Sounds perfect," Harry agreed, then said, "What if I rented it and then sub-leased the flat to you? I don't need it - I have Grimmauld Place, now that Kreacher has made it liveable again."
"Oh Harry! You're not planning on living there alone!" Hermione said.
"It's not so bad," he said with a shrug. "And it's not like I need much. I was going to give it to Tonks' mother, but since she died, I'll probably give it to Teddy when he gets old enough; he's the only one with Black blood left."
Ron and Hermione exchanged a look. "It's closer than Shell Cottage, which was our only other option," Ron said. "And you'd have the chance to look for a new job without worrying about meeting the bills."
Harry gave Hermione a curious look. "I thought you liked working for the Ministry?"
Hermione sighed. "I do, and it's important work, but there's so much to be done for people that no one else has the time or energy to be concerned about non-humans right now. I've been trying to settle the children Greyback turned, but there aren't enough hours or funds to do it properly."
"And don't even get her started on house-elves," Ron said darkly.
"Come and work for me," Harry said impulsively. "It would be brilliant, you know it would. My ability to put together clues, your brains figuring out what they mean - we could do this. And if we need official Ministry help, we just happen to know an Auror..."
"All right," Hermione agreed, then laughed. "You're right - it will be amazing."
"It's settled, then." Harry raised his glass. "To Wizard Investigations!"
"Wizard Investigations!" Ron and Hermione chorused, clinking their glasses with his.
Harry smiled at them. He was home and about to embark on a new adventure. He could hardly wait.
Hogwarts, Christmas Holidays, December 27, 2002
Severus Snape strode briskly down the third floor corridors as he patrolled the castle and grounds for a final time before retiring for the night. The faint light cast by his wand-tip made a number of the portraits grumble until they recognized the headmaster; a few of them bade him good-night as he passed, greetings that he generally ignored. The corridors were dark and empty, as was usual for that time of night, especially during the Christmas break. At the end of the hall, he ascended the stairs to the fourth floor and began checking it.
He paused at the tapestry that hid the staircase-shortcut to the second floor and twitched back the heavy material to make certain that no courting couples or miscreants were lurking behind it, then let it fall back again. He had taken a step away when he realized that something had caught his eye, something out of place. Once again, he lifted the tapestry and spelled his wand-light brighter, lifting it to shine on the walls.
Words were scrawled across the stones, in lurid purple paint that glowed in the wand-light, paint that he'd seen marking the walls on three previous occasions in the past three months. He could see two distinct messages - "You are all bloody cowards!" read one and then, more ominously, "I will make you pay". He cast a spell to preserve the images until he could have them photographed.
"You there! Stop!"
Snape dropped the tapestry and swung around at the sound of a furious voice from down the hallway, raising his wand to see who it was. "Minerva?" he said, recognising the tartan-robed witch storming toward him. Her steps faltered in speed and he saw her raise her own wand for light.
"Severus? Is that you? Have you seen anyone else come this way?"
"No, although it is apparent that someone did." He gestured towards the tapestry. "Our Poison Pen has been at work again. Did you catch sight of them?"
"Oh, dear." McGonagall drew back the tapestry and studied the writing. "No, I didn't see anyone, but I've just come from the library. You had better take a look at this."
She led the way back to the library and opened the doors, then gestured towards a table in the centre of the room. Lying in the middle of it were the remains of a book, one whose pages had been ripped out and then piled on top of the cover before all were set alight. He flipped back the scorched cover and saw that the book was one of several detailing Voldemort's first rise to power and subsequent destruction by the infant Boy Who Lived, the one authored by Alexis Zabini.
"It appears that this book was chosen deliberately, either for the subject matter or the author," he commented. "I believe that Alexis was our Mr Zabini's grandfather." Snape looked around the room and saw that nothing else appeared to have been disturbed, although there were a few piles of books on other tables. "Was the room unlocked when you arrived?"
"Yes," McGonagall said. "I was walking past when I thought I heard something and saw a flicker of light. I thought perhaps it was a student, either studying or, more likely, trying to get into the Restricted Section. When I entered, I saw the book on fire and immediately put it out, then looked through the shelves for the culprit. I heard something in the corridor and thought it might be them, but it turned out to be you."
"And you saw no one go past you before you reached the library?"
"I certainly would have remembered that - and issued them a detention!" McGonagall said with a bit of a snap.
"I saw no one in the other direction, either," Snape said, looking back toward the tapestry-covered stairs. "I believe that the messages must have been written before the book was set ablaze, or one of us would have encountered our culprit."
"Unless they were operating under an invisibility spell or potion."
"It is doubtful that Mr Potter would have loaned out his cloak for such purposes, although not completely to be ruled out," Snape said drily.
"They could have set a timed spell," McGonagall said, her forehead creased in thought. She cast a stasis spell over the entire table to preserve it. "I'll ask Filius to have a look at it in the morning."
"And I will have Madam Pince check the library for anything else out of place," Snape added.
"Severus," McGonagall said, her voice becoming even more serious than before. "If this bit of mischief was done by our Poison Pen..."
"Yes," he agreed, scowling at the thought. "It means that they are escalating to other, more dangerous, ways of attracting our attention."
"They have to be stopped, before they hurt someone."
Snape nodded. "I believe that it is time I called a staff meeting to discuss the situation."
* * * * *
"There has been another series of incidents," Snape announced to the teachers gathered around the table in the staff room. "More writing on the walls - on the fourth floor corridor behind the tapestry - and property damage as well. One of the library books was burned in the library."
"How tiresome this is getting to be," Professor Sprout said with a sigh.
"It is more than tiresome," Madam Pince said sharply. "A book was destroyed last night! Set on fire! It could have set the entire library on fire if Minerva hadn't found it."
"I didn't mean to imply that it wasn't a serious incident," Sprout said, looking a little flustered. She turned to McGonagall. "What was the subject of the book?"
"It was about He-Who- " She paused and corrected herself, "Voldemort's first rise and demise. Completely shredded and then set ablaze, as Irma said," she added with a nod toward the librarian.
"When did the incident occur?" Flitwick asked.
"It was close to two o'clock," McGonagall said. "I was passing by the library when I saw a flickering light inside. I thought it was one of the students at first, working by wand light, but when I entered, I found the book. And no apparent sign of whoever the mischief-maker was."
"A rather odd hour of the night to be just passing by the library," Professor Vector said, a shade of suspicion in her voice.
"I was returning to my rooms," McGonagall said defensively. "One of the students remaining over the holiday became unwell from too many holiday sweets, and I had escorted her back to Gryffindor."
"I can confirm that, Headmaster," Madam Pomfrey spoke up. "Charity Beetlewart - I let her go shortly before eleven.”
"Surely it didn't take three hours to get the young lady settled," Vector began.
“I patrolled the corridors after I left Gryffindor.” McGonagall bristled. "Are you accusing me of being our mischief maker?"
"No one is accusing anyone," Flitwick said sharply, giving Vector a look that made her close her mouth with an audible snap. "However, it will help narrow down possible culprits if each of us can confirm our location last night, say from one until two?"
Madam Hooch leaned back in her chair, frowning. "Don't see that it'll be of much help, Filius. I was in bed - alone - and asleep at that hour, as I suspect many others were." There were nods around the table at that.
"I was conferring with the Astral Plane at that hour," Professor Trelawney said airily. "I find that the spectral energies are particularly good during the early morning hours."
"Don't suppose any of the spectral energies are able to give you an alibi?" McGonagall asked drily.
"Alibi?" Professor Sprout said sharply, looking toward the man sitting silently at the head of the table. "Surely it hasn't come to that!"
"At least the timing of this latest bit of mischief rules out most of the students," Flitwick said.
"Yes, and makes one of us more likely as a suspect," Hooch added. She looked at Snape as well. "Something has to be done to stop this nonsense."
"It appears likely that our Poison Pen will not stop unless someone makes them do so," Snape agreed. "Moreover, the nature of their...activities...appears to be escalating."
"You don' think this person will hurt someone, d'you, Headmaster?" Hagrid asked, looking anxious.
"It is hard to predict," Snape said. He rested his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers, staring at them in thought. "Up to this point, our culprit has appeared content to issue slurs and innuendo, through personal messages and graffiti. Damaging property must be seen as an escalation."
"Headmaster, don't you think it's time to call in outside assistance?" Zabini asked. "The Board of Governors or the Ministry?"
"Surely not!" McGonagall protested.
"Ministry interference has always been disastrous in the past," Hooch pointed out. "Umbridge, for instance."
"I agree," Sprout said. "We should be able to locate this Poison Pen on our own."
"Not if we can't trust each other," Pince pointed out sharply.
"I agree," Vector said. "We need an outside viewpoint."
"Whatever we do, it should be soon," Sinistra said. "Scribblings and attacks on books are one thing; what if this person attacks a student?" Implicit in her tone of voice was the thought that, given the nature of the messages so far, a Slytherin—for whom she was now Head of House— was likely to be the target of such an attack. "We've just reopened the school; if a student was to be attacked, many parents will pull their children out, and it's likely that Hogwarts will be shut down for good."
"Perhaps it would be wise to consult someone outside of Hogwarts," McGonagall said reluctantly to Snape. "Kingsley, for example?"
Snape looked around the table at the faces of the staff, all looking to him for guidance. For a moment, he acutely missed Dumbledore and his wisdom in matters of school politics. "Very well," he said finally. "I will consult with the Minister on the matter. In the meantime, if each of you would make note of your location and activity during the hours of midnight to three and send that to me by the end of the day, it might assist in the investigation."
Dismissed, the staff members began trickling out of the room. Snape watched them covertly, noting that - unlike at past meetings - they were all silent and avoided looking at each other, and he frowned. Much as he disliked the idea of bringing in an outsider, something would have to be done and soon.
* * * * *
Shacklebolt listened attentively as Snape described the previous series of pranks and the most recent destruction, his frown deepening as Snape talked.
"Sounds bloody appalling," he said when Snape had finished talking, "but I don't know what you expect me to do. Surely you and your staff are more equipped to discover this Poison Pen - your lot knows the castle better than anyone."
"The problem is knowing whom to trust," Snape said as he paced back and forth in the Minister's office. "So far, the events have transpired in such a way as to leave none of the staff with a clear alibi. We are starting to look at each other suspiciously; it is nearly as bad as during the Dark Lord's time."
Kingsley looked troubled. "Then you think it is one of the staff? I would have thought that these writings were juvenile in nature."
"It can hardly be anyone else," Snape said. "Many of the incidents have taken place after lights out and the first letter was received during the Warding, before most of the current students were at Hogwarts. There are a few students who could be considered suspects, and who could even be roaming the castle at night, but the kind of attacks made seem to preclude most of them. If we could have someone outside of Hogwarts' general circle come in and take a look around, they might be able to see clues that we are missing."
Kingsley frowned in thought. "Frankly, Severus, I'm not sure if that would work. Whoever is doing these things is bound to be suspicious of an outsider arriving in your midst, especially a Ministry official. They could very well go underground until the heat is off and then start again, and then we'd be back at the beginning."
Snape sighed as he sat down in the chair opposite the Minister and began rubbing his temples with his fingertips. "I have thought of that, too, but reluctant as I am to risk it, I believe we have no other choice."
"Maybe we do," Kingsley said, and he turned the newspaper on his desk so that Snape could see the advertisement on the bottom of the page. "Wizard Investigations", it read, and in the middle of the text was a picture of Harry Potter.
"No," Snape said flatly. "Anyone but him."
Kingsley raised an eyebrow. "I would think that you would be the first to sing his praises- "
Snape scowled. "Of course. Seeing that he kept me out of Azkaban and probably saved me from being Kissed, I am naturally bound to find him delightful!"
Kingsley's other eyebrow rose. "A little sensitive on the subject, Severus? I was going to say 'as an investigator', considering that you were his first case."
"I fail to see where my relationship with Potter is your business," Snape retorted, then regretted his outburst as he saw the other man look intrigued at the word 'relationship'. He silently cursed his overreaction, and wondered what demon possessed him to make him display every disagreeable trait in his character at the mere mention of Potter's name. Unlike his father, the boy had done him no harm; he had only saved Snape from a shameful fate and offered him an unswerving personal devotion, and had never seemed to expect his gratitude. It was not pretty that his only return should be a snarl of resentment.
"I know that you've never liked the boy," Kingsley said, "but he has a knack for solving puzzles of this sort, and he is discreet. Plus, no one will think it odd for him to be visiting Hogwarts, and his time there is recent enough that he shouldn't have any trouble finding his way around. If anyone can discover your Poison Pen, it's Harry."
"Very well," Snape said. "I agree to at least lay the information before him and see if he has any insights." As Kingsley began to smile, he added acidly, "For what little good I think it will do."
"Excellent," Kingsley replied, reaching for parchment. "I'll send a note to his office and see if he has time to meet with us this afternoon."
London, December 27, 2002
Harry shuffled along Charing Cross Road, ignoring the curious and revolted looks of the Muggles he passed. A few doors down from the Leaky Cauldron, he opened the Muggle-side entrance to his office, making the bell above the door jingle, and closed it behind him with a sigh of relief.
A glob of green goo fell off his nose and onto the floor.
"Wizard Investigations, may I help - Harry!" Hermione popped out from behind the wall that separated the library from the reception area. "What happened to you?" she asked, looking over him with amusement tinged with disgust at the revolting-smelling goo that covered him from head to toe, except for one leg which was bare of goo - but also of trouser and hair.
"Good and bad news," Harry said with a sigh as he carefully extracted his wand from an interior pocket and set it on his desk. "It wasn't Bundimun infesting the Crypt at St. Martin's, it was imps and magical mildew."
"And let me guess - they tripped you into it."
"I tried a cleaning spell, but..." Harry sighed and gestured at his bare leg.
Hermione let out the laugh she'd been suppressing. "Don't tell me you walked all the way back looking like that!"
"Well, I wasn’t sure what Apparating would do to me, like this. And none of the cab drivers would stop for me," he replied, absently scratching an irritated patch of skin.
"I can't imagine why," Hermione murmured as she waved her wand and cleared the mess off of Harry and the floor. "You have an owl from Kingsley waiting for you," she said, gesturing toward the perch behind his desk.
The owl obligingly held out its leg for Harry to remove the message, accepting a treat delicately. He glanced over the brief note, then looked at his watch. "Kingsley has a possible job for us, wants me to come over there to discuss the details this afternoon. Have we got anything on the books?"
Hermione glanced at the magical calendar board on the wall in the library, watching as the "Bundimun-St. Martin's?" notation changed colour from red to green and a few other items began jockeying for the freed-up time. "There's that disappearance at the Russian embassy - possibly a Pogrebin. I can look into it if you don't mind closing up the office for a few hours."
"You're better at cheering charms than I am, in any case," Harry agreed.
"And there are a few possible hauntings - Muggle-side requests, neither urgent," Hermione said. "One was confirmed by that telly group but they haven't decided if they want it laid, and the other is iffy. On the wizard side, one potential Doxy-infestation. They could handle it themselves but..." She rolled her eyes as they both mentally finished it that they wanted the prestige of the Boy Who Lived fixing the problem for them.
Harry disliked living off his reputation but it paid the bills and he was a realist. "Schedule that one for tomorrow; I'll check with Jiggers for more antidote if we don't have enough." He sighed and ran his hand through his hair which still felt sticky although the goo was gone.
"Go on up and use the bath - I cleaned the robes you left behind last time and they're hanging in the hall cupboard," Hermione said, pulling out a scrap of parchment and scribbling on it. "I'll send the reply to Kingsley before I head over to the Embassy."
"Thanks, Hermione," Harry said gratefully as he shuffled up the stairs to the first floor flat. Carefully not glancing into the newlyweds' bedroom - there were things about his friends that he definitely did not want to know - he grabbed the spare set of clothes and hung them on the back of the bathroom door, then immersed himself in the cleansing warmth of a shower.
* * * * *
Half an hour later, clean and dressed in the fresh robes, Harry left his office via the narrow hallway to the Diagon Alley entrance so he could pop into the apothecary to put in the request for Doxy anti-venin before using the Leaky Cauldron's Floo to get to the Ministry. Kingsley's assistant looked up briefly from the stack of papers he was working through and, recognising Harry, waved him in.
"Hello, Kingsley," he said breezily as he entered the office, then he paused at the sight of the other wizard standing at the window. A genuine warm smile lit up his face. "Professor Snape! What a pleasant surprise!"
"A surprise perhaps, Potter, but hardly a pleasant one," Snape said shortly, seating himself.
"Harry, Severus has need of your professional services," Kingsley said, waving Harry toward the other chair.
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Some kind of magical manifestation that you can't handle?" Harry asked, disbelief in his voice. Then his eyes widened. "If you want me to get rid of Peeves for you, I categorically refuse."
"Our problem is not with a non-living entity," Snape said shortly, then paused and added, reluctantly, "as far as we know."
Harry leaned back in his chair and focused his attention on Snape, not a hardship in itself. He listened quietly as Snape went through the series of events that had occurred, making mental notes as the tale unwound. When Snape had finished, he turned to Kingsley and said, "Am I to understand that you wish me to investigate the source of this mischief?" He gave Snape a brief, wistful smile. "I know that Professor Snape would never request my help."
Before Kingsley could reply, Snape said, "While I might not have initially thought to request your assistance, Kingsley is correct in his opinion that we need an outsider to sort out this situation. Your reputation in this area is quite remarkable, considering."
"Why Severus!" Harry said with a grin. "That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
"If there was another option, I would readily take it. As there doesn't appear to be, I am stuck with you," Snape said drily.
Harry's smile widened. "I won't let it go to my head," he promised.
Kingsley looked back and forth between them, clearly both amused and intrigued by the banter. "Then you'll take the job?"
"With a few conditions," Harry said. "It will be easier for me to investigate this if I am staying at Hogwarts, and if everyone believes I'm there for other reasons."
"Acceptable," Snape said, then thought for a moment. "Professor Lupin could use assistance with his class, particularly following the full Moon. We will tell the students that is why you are there. However, the staff will need to know your true purpose."
Harry frowned. "Aren't they the prime suspects?"
"Perhaps, however..." Snape paused. "There are already trust issues, stemming from my past role as spy and the deception I was forced to maintain while I was first headmaster. I cannot deceive them in this matter, not without undermining my authority with them."
"I understand," Harry said, then sighed. "But it won't make my job any easier. Are there any staff members that you have cleared from suspicion?"
"Hagrid - he was not at Hogwarts when the first Poison Pen letter was received and it would be difficult for him to creep about the halls. Also, to be blunt, it is not precisely his style, and there are magical spells involved requiring skilled wand-work."
"No," Harry agreed. "What about the others who have been on the staff for a long time? Professors McGonagall and Flitwick, for example?"
Snape hesitated. "I would be loath to believe that either of them is capable of such acts, however neither has a clear alibi for any of the times in question. Nor do any of the other staff members, myself included."
"What about students?"
"There are a few who were present during the summer and are in residence over the holiday," Snape said. "I would eliminate all but the older students, primarily based on the content of the parchment missives."
"You have kept the messages?"
Snape nodded. "All but the first," he said. At Harry's frown he added, "The first missive was tucked into my robes and, as I had no notion that it would be the first of many, I destroyed it."
"What did it say?" Harry asked.
" 'Murderer. How does your boyfriend like poison in his tea?' " Snape said blandly. At Harry's raised eyebrow he added, "No, I do not have a boyfriend. I assume that the Poison Pen saw me giving you a cup of tea last May and misinterpreted."
Harry frowned. "You put your robes in that pile with the rest of ours, right? No, I haven't suffered short-term memory loss," he added as Snape gave him one of his patented Looks. "Just clarifying. Have you received any notes since then?"
"Then it is possible that the note could have been put in your robe by mistake. There were several black robes in that pile, including mine."
"Have you murdered anyone recently, Potter?" Snape asked snidely.
"Yes," Harry said bluntly. "And don't say it's not the same thing because to Death Eaters it is."
"And have you received any Poison Pen letters since then, Potter? No? Then I believe it is safe to assume that the original note was not intended for you."
"Which doesn't mean that it wasn't for someone else, not you," Harry said stubbornly. "At this point, I don't think we should assume anything - not until I finish analysing all the facts."
"Very well," Snape said. "When you arrive at Hogwarts, I will make available all the documents as well as the information I have collected so far."
"I'd appreciate that," Harry said. "So the next question is - when do I start?"
* * * * *
Hermione wasn't back yet when Harry returned to the office, so he filled in the time by completing paperwork on the last few cases and submitting requests for payment. With any luck, the business would finish the year in the black. Six months in business and their growing clientele was nearly enough to cover the expense of their prime location and Hermione's salary. Not that Harry was worried about the money, but he knew that it would make Hermione feel more comfortable. Add to that the generous remuneration that the Minister had offered for taking on this case.... Yes, Hermione was going to be very happy.
Giggling from the doorway made him roll his eyes and then lean back in his chair so he could peer around the partition. "I take it that it was a Pogrebin?"
Hermione nodded, covering her mouth as she attempted to control her giggles. "Just one, smuggled in with the Ambassador's household goods. Department for the Regulation of Magical Creatures has it now, and we have a cheque, paid in full." She waved it in front of him. "Now if you'll just invoice the last accounts - "
"Good. Then we might be able to pay the rent on the first after all," Hermione said, relieved.
Harry pulled out a parchment and handed it to Hermione. "Pay the rent and your salary as well," he said. "And any accounts we have outstanding."
Hermione's eyes widened at the amount on the bank authorisation notice from the Ministry. "Harry!" she breathed. "What in Merlin's name do they want you to do for them?" Then her face shadowed and she looked at Harry, biting her lip in worry. "Harry, you haven't agreed to hunt any more Dark Wizards?" she asked anxiously. She had seen first-hand how that had affected him during the year after Voldemort's demise, when the three of them and Neville had helped the Ministry track down the last Death Eaters. Ron had thrived, Neville had gained more self-confidence, but Harry had seemed to diminish with each fight. He had been on the edge of a breakdown by the end of the year and had taken off for distant parts the minute the last one was captured.
He waved a hand, negating whatever she was about to say. "No, it's nothing like that, and it's not dangerous. At least, I don't think it is."
"There's a Poison Pen at Hogwarts, sending people ugly letters, scrawling messages on the walls, and destroying property. Kingsley wants me to investigate, see if I can find out who it is before they do something worse."
Hermione sat down in a chair across from him, her forehead wrinkled in thought. "Do you think it could be...like Ginny?"
"Like the diary?" Harry frowned. "Could be, but I doubt it. Only Riddle knew how to make Horcruxes and they were all destroyed. There aren't any more pieces of Voldemort lying around."
"And what does Professor Snape think about this? I can't imagine he'll be happy to have Ministry interference at Hogwarts."
"Actually, Snape was the one who asked the Minister for assistance. There's a good chance that it's one of the staff."
Hermione looked horrified at the idea. She never had liked it when any of their teachers had turned out to be evil.
"I'll be going undercover," Harry added. "At least to the students. I'm being presented as Remus's teaching assistant, until I discover their Poison Pen."
Hermione absorbed that. "So you'll be gone for a while, then."
"Potentially - or I could get lucky and find out who it is before the end of the first day. And it's not like I'll be far away, or so busy that I won't be able to pop back here if something comes up." He glanced up at the calendar. "I should be able to finish our current obligations before I start at Hogwarts, which should leave you plenty of time to research the two haunted houses to see if there is anything we can - or should - do."
Hermione nodded. "Don't worry - I'll hold down the business while you're gone." Then she smiled mischievously. "And who knows? Maybe being around Professor Snape all that time will change his mind - or yours."
Hogwarts, January 6, 2003
On the day the students were due back from holiday, Snape was working at his desk in the headmaster's office answering his seemingly endless correspondence, when Harry tumbled out of the Floo and sprawled on the hearth rug.
He looked up from the letter he was answering, catching sight of the younger man mid-tumble. Once again, he had eschewed an outer robe so that Snape was presented with the enticing sight of Potter's taut arse followed by his firm, muscular legs.
A frisson of desire stirred in him, for the first time in years; to cover it he said, in as cutting a tone as he could manage, "On time for once, Mr Potter?"
To his surprise, Potter merely grinned at him as he climbed to his feet and brushed himself off. "Miracles can happen, Severus," he said cheerfully. He looked around him in evident curiosity and waved at the portrait of Dumbledore behind Snape's chair. "Hullo, Professor Dumbledore," he said. "Good to see you, sir - last time I was here, you were asleep."
"Hello, my dear boy," Dumbledore's portrait said in reply. "I am delighted to see you here at Hogwarts again, even if it is under less than desirable circumstances. Perhaps, once you have solved our little mystery, you could drop by for a chat before you leave?"
"Of course, sir - with Professor Snape's permission," Potter said, with a nod in his direction. "And speaking of the mystery, have you or the other portraits seen anything odd?"
Snape was surprised at the question, and a little chagrined that he hadn't thought to ask. However, Dumbledore shook his head in response, as did the other portraits - the ones that were awake, at least.
"Alas, no, but I can pass on the word that you wish all portraits to be alert, if you wish."
"Thanks - and ask them to report anything to either myself or Professor Snape," Harry said.
Snape frowned. "Mr Potter, may I remind you that I am not above suspicion in this matter."
"Bollocks," Harry said succinctly. "If you were the Poison Pen, you would hardly be enlisting the Minister or me to investigate."
"I could be attempting to avert suspicion," Snape pointed out.
"If you were, you'd do a better job of it. Besides," Harry added with a grin. "Anonymous bashing is hardly your style. You're not afraid to say what you think of people to their face - as I know from personal experience."
Severus could feel a spot of colour on his cheeks. To cover his momentary confusion, he picked up the folder he had prepared and stood, rounding his desk to hold it out to the other man. "I have the original documents as well as the observations I made at the time."
Harry took it, glancing briefly inside. "Thanks. I'll look it over later so that I can concentrate on each. Is there anything in particular you've noticed that I should know?"
Snape nodded, leaning back against the desk and crossing his arms over his chest. "There is no noticeable handwriting style and penmanship charms show that they were most likely made with a Quick Quotes Quill. Unfortunately, they are common enough - although restricted for student use. The type of wording on the messages indicates that the writer has average, or above, language skills, although issues with proper grammar can be masked with such quills."
"That wouldn't help with the messages on the walls," Potter pointed out.
Snape agreed. "However, they could have composed the message with a Quill and then transcribed it onto the wall."
"I suppose so." Potter considered the folder for a moment. "Any new incidences since the book burning?"
"None that have been brought to our attention, although that is not unusual. After such activity, our culprit tends to be dormant for a few weeks, barring the letters. Those have been arriving on a daily basis."
"Well, I had better get settled into my room so that I have a chance to go over these before dinner," Potter said, closing the folder and tucking it under his arm.
"I have assigned you to a suite of rooms near Professor Lupin's. I have taken the liberty of scheduling a staff meeting before dinner so that you may ask any general questions you may have." He sighed. "I hope that it will also help to allay fears and settle their nerves, as the tension among the staff has become nigh on untenable during the past week."
"Of course," Potter said. "I expect that I have free rein to explore where and when I wish?"
"Certainly," Snape said, then added drily, "I am hardly likely to give you detention."
Potter gave him a cheeky smile, his eyes twinkling. "Too bad," he teased, and then he was gone.
Finding his rooms proved to be more of a challenge than Harry had thought. It wasn't that he didn't remember where Lupin's rooms had been when he was teaching here - he did. The problem was that the rooms appeared to have relocated themselves. (Not an uncommon occurrence for Hogwarts, as Harry vividly remembered when the Infirmary had moved from the first to third floors.)
After wandering around the second floor for a bit, he headed for the staircase to see if he could find a staff member to ask for directions.
"May I help you, sir?" said a voice from behind him, and Harry turned around to see a student standing in the hallway, holding a library book and watching him with an air of curiosity. The badge on his robe indicated that he was the Head Boy, Harry saw with relief.
"Yes, thanks," he said, smiling in a way that he hoped would put the young man at ease. "I'm looking for my rooms, which are supposed to be next to Professor Lupin's, but I'm afraid I'm a bit lost."
The young man flicked his eyes toward Harry's forehead and nodded to himself, as if in confirmation. "Quite understandable, sir. The DADA classrooms have moved up to the second floor since you were last a student," he said, turning to lead the way up the stairs, "and you'll be on the third." He led the way down the main corridor, took a left turn, and then paused. "Professor Lupin's office and rooms are right here," he said, gesturing to the left, then pointed to a staircase across the hall saying, "That will take you down to the DADA classroom, Professor Potter, and here's your room at the end of the hallway."
"I'm not a professor," Harry protested. "I'm just here to assist Professor Lupin for a bit."
"Then you're not here to investigate our Merry Prankster?" he asked, turning to look directly at Harry. His eyes candidly appraised him, and the firm set of his mouth told Harry he wouldn’t be fooled, no matter how clever the cover story.
"I was under the impression that none of the students were to know that, Mr - ?"
"Bewick, sir. Benedict Bewick," he replied, and a corner of his mouth quirked up. "And we haven't been told, but it wasn't hard for me to guess. I've read about some of the investigations you've done elsewhere, and I'm not an idiot. Sir."
Harry couldn't help grinning back at that. "No, you wouldn't be, would you, Mr Bewick. All right, yes, I am here to find Hogwart's Poison Pen. Would you have any ideas on that subject?"
Benedict's eyes shuttered and he stiffened a bit. "I wouldn't like to speculate, Prof - sir."
"But you've been at Hogwarts before this year," Harry said shrewdly. "You know the other students."
He nodded, deliberately not meeting Harry's eyes. "I was a second year when... My parents were killed for being Blood Traitors, sir. I've lived here at Hogwarts ever since then."
One of Molly's orphans, then, Harry thought. If he could be persuaded to help, maybe it would speed up Harry's investigation. "I see. Then perhaps later we could meet and discuss your thoughts on the other students and staff," Harry said, and added, "Mr Bewick, I'm not looking to get anyone in trouble. Whoever is doing this needs help, and I want to make sure they have it, before they do something to harm someone and end up in Azkaban."
There was a moment of silence and then Benedict nodded. "I understand, sir. I'll help if I can. Now if you'll excuse me, Prof - sir, I need to do some studying in the library."
Harry nodded and waved him off, watching for a moment as the young man hurried around the corner toward the stairs. As he turned to enter his rooms, it suddenly occurred to him that Mr Bewick was most likely on the list of suspects as well.
* * * * *
Cursing under his breath, Harry entered the rooms assigned to him. They were nice rooms, set into one of the small towers, with a private bathroom as well as a small living area in addition to the bedroom. After setting the door locks for his personal access, he put the folder Snape had given him on the table and went into the bedroom to unpack and shake off the dirt of travel.
Once dressed in clean clothes, he settled down on the sofa to look through the folder. Inside were the original missives and he could see that the writing was in the generic script common to Quick Quotes Quills. Most of the content of the messages was the same: the recipient was to blame for whatever it was that the Poison Pen held a grudge about, or that horrible things that would happen to them "when they got their due." He flipped over one of them and saw that Snape had noted the recipient as well as the day and time it was received, and the method by which it was delivered. Most had been found on beds or night tables, but a few had been delivered by school owl. Not much to go on there, for the moment, he thought.
Similarly, the graffiti on the walls had been captured by photograph, with notes about the location and date written on a scrap of parchment attached to the picture. The damaged book, or what remained of it, was sealed in an envelope, with a description of the events surrounding its finding written by Professor McGonagall and attached to it. Finally, there was a small ledger where Snape had recorded each incident and the alibis - or lack thereof - of each of the potential suspects. All in all, a very thorough job, Harry thought.
He pulled out his own investigative tools, including a fresh Muggle composition book, and began making a time-line of events.
He was half-way through the personal missives when there was a knock on the door. Marking his place, he went to the door and opened it to find Lupin outside.
"Harry," Lupin said with warm affection. "I'm glad to see that you made it here, although I am sorry we had to pull you away from your new business."
"No need to apologize," he said with a smile. "Hermione was glad to have me out of her hair for a bit. By the time I get back, she'll have organized the office to her standards, at last. Every time she makes a start, she says I mess it up."
Lupin laughed at that. "I don't mean to intrude while you're getting settled in, but Severus has called a staff meeting before dinner. I thought you might walk down with me."
Glancing at his watch, Harry realized that it was nearly dinner, and his stomach took that moment to complain that he hadn't eaten since breakfast. "Just let me grab my robes. I won't be a minute."
He stepped back to let Lupin into the living area and hurried into his bedchamber to grab a set of robes out of the wardrobe. When he returned, he saw that Lupin was reading his notes and a niggle of suspicion went through him. Surely not Remus. And yet, Lupin had excused the pranks that Sirius and his father had played, even if he hadn't participated, and he might have a different point of view on the matter. One that made light of these pranks.
"I see that Severus has you hard at work on uncovering our Prankster," Lupin said, turning away from the notes Harry had spread over the table.
Harry crossed the room and picked up his notebook, ostensibly to add something to it, as he said, "Sooner begun, sooner done." He closed the notebook and set it down on the table, bending to straighten up the folder as he added, casually, "What do you think about it?"
"I neither participated in these pranks, nor have I encouraged them," Lupin said quietly. "And when the last incidents occurred, I was at the Burrow for the holidays, with my son."
Harry straightened and looked over at him. "I wasn't accusing you, Remus."
"You would be justified in doing so, given my past history," Lupin said frankly. "Although Sirius wouldn't have gone to the trouble of writing messages like these -- too much like school for him. James preferred to take direct action, too, rather than skulking in the shadows."
"Like Severus," Lupin agreed. "Although I doubt that these could be his work. What would be the point?"
Harry shrugged. "Revenge of a sort, without the possibility of being caught and blamed?"
"We might not have got along, but Severus has never been a coward," Lupin objected. "And he has had the best sort of revenge: he outlived his enemies, was exonerated by the Ministry, and has a position of power and prestige. Why would he risk any of that for petty and spiteful scribblings like these?"
"You're right," Harry said. "He wouldn't. And, before you ask, I don't think he did it either. So that leaves you, Hagrid, and Snape in the clear."
"And almost one hundred other potential suspects. I don't envy you your job, Harry," Lupin said and clapped Harry on the back. "Come; let's get this meeting over with so you can get your dinner. You're going to need your strength."
* * * * *
Snape began the meeting by reminding them why Harry was there and ordering them to give him their full cooperation in the matter, then turned the proceedings over to Harry. Facing the collected staff was one of the most awkward and uncomfortable moments in Harry's life, and that included the day he had told Ginny that he was gay and therefore couldn't marry her. At least on this occasion he doubted that anyone would slap him. However, he had known many of the people in the room for all of his adolescence, and the thought that one of them had gone barmy enough to send anonymous Poison Pen letters was disconcerting.
"Thank you, Headmaster," Harry began, looking around the room as he talked to see if there was anyone who failed to meet his eyes or looked as uncomfortable as he felt. "I have had the opportunity to briefly look over the messages and records of the damage done so far, and I will be looking more closely at them over the next few days. I think that it would be best to begin by determining who exactly would have had access to the places and people targeted so far."
"So far," Sprout echoed. "Then you do believe that there will be more of these disgusting messages?"
"I'm afraid so, Professor," he said. "In events like these, where the culprit is obviously bitter and angry about some perceived injustice, the person generally builds one action upon another, until they finally commit the act that they have been psyching themselves up for. It's possible that their genuine target hasn't even received one of these messages yet, and has no idea that they are at the root of this person's hatred."
"Isn't hatred a bit strong?" Flitwick protested.
"A book was destroyed, its pages ripped out and set on fire," Harry pointed out. "There's anger at the root of that - a lot of anger."
"It didn't start until the beginning of the fall term," Sinistra pointed out. "Surely that points to a new student, or perhaps one of the new staff." She eyed Neville and Zabini with a bit of suspicion in her eyes.
"Not necessarily," Harry said. "People may go on quite all right for a time, till something sets them off. The whole difficulty with these things is that the person generally behaves quite normally in other respects. It might be anybody." There were murmurs over this then he added, "And I'm afraid that there was an earlier message, last May."
"This is the first we've heard of it," Vector said. "To whom was the message addressed?"
"Myself," Snape said. "Slipped into the pocket of my robe while we were raising the wards. At the time, I took no notice of it, as it was not the first message of that type that I have received."
Several of the staff members flinched at that; Harry made note of who seemed to be uncomfortable with their headmaster, for future reference.
"That would eliminate any of the students, with the exception of our orphans and weekend boarders," McGonagall said.
"It is unlikely to be anyone who is not a resident of Hogwarts," Snape added, "as they would not have had access to the school during term."
"Someone outside of Hogwarts could have sent the owls - " began Madam Pomfrey.
Snape shook his head. "The majority of the messages were delivered at times and in such a way as to eliminate the casual visitor. Rather, the owls appear to the exception to the rule, no doubt designed to muddy the waters."
"Whoever left the messages on the beds and night tables had to have access to the House common rooms," Zabini pointed out. "That would seem to indicate Heads of Houses."
"Or house-elves," Neville added.
"I cannot imagine one of Hogwarts’ house-elves writing such disgusting messages!" McGonagall protested. "Most of them have been with the school for decades, without causing a bit of trouble."
"What about that odd one?" Zabini asked. "One of the two freed elves who worked in the kitchen? She always seemed a bit queer to me, sitting in the corner, drunk on butterbeer most of the time. Wasn't she Crouch's house-elf before he freed her for not doing her job properly?"
"Winky's better - she works in the Infirmary now," Pomfrey said. "We haven't had a bit of problem with her."
"And Dobby vouched for her," Harry said.
"Right," Zabini said with a snort. "The other odd house-elf. That's a ringing endorsement, that is."
"There is a problem with a house-elf being involved," Flitwick said. "They are bound to Hogwarts, and thus to the headmaster."
Everyone turned to look at Snape.
"I assure you that I am not utilising Hogwarts' house-elves to deliver Poison Pen messages," Snape said drily.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, then Harry said, "I am confident that Professor Snape is not involved in the writing or distribution of these messages; you have my word on that."
There was a noticeable air of relief throughout the room at that.
"What about those who live outside the castle itself but on the grounds?" Pomfrey asked.
"According to the headmaster's notes, Hagrid was away on school business when the first message was delivered so that eliminates him," Harry said.
"But not the Weasleys," Zabini pointed out.
"The twins knew all sorts of secret passages," Neville began, then flushed and stammered, "not that Mr or Mrs Weasley would ever..."
"Secret passages!" Vector said triumphantly. "Anyone could have got in through those!"
Snape shook his head. "Most of the passages were located and closed during my first tenure as headmaster. As to the one remaining passage, it is well protected."
"And surely we would notice a stranger roaming about the castle at night," Sprout added.
"It might not be a stranger," Sinistra pointed out. "An old student, one whose parents were convicted or disgraced...?"
The word "Malfoy" seemed to hang over the room, and Harry made a mental note to find out from Kingsley where the Malfoys were now.
"We can also eliminate anyone who wasn't here over the Christmas holiday," McGonagall said briskly. A few of the staff who had been away looked relieved by that, but Flitwick shook his head.
"The book had a timed spell on it, and the writings on the walls could have been covered by a timed glamour as well," he said.
"Well, I certainly would have noticed a damaged book sitting on the table, alight or not," Madam Pince said sharply.
"So then we can eliminate those staff members who left Hogwarts before the library closed at- " Harry began, then looked at the librarian.
"Noon," Madam Pince said grudgingly.
"Noon, then. Which would eliminate any students who took the train, as well as which among you?" Harry asked. Lupin and Neville raised their hands. "Madam Pomfrey, I understand that you had two students in the Infirmary for the start of the holiday."
"That's right, Mr Potter. We released the young lady from Gryffindor shortly before midnight, but a first-year from Ravenclaw was with us for another day. Dragon Pox, and a nasty case of it."
"You were with him all night?"
She nodded. "And through the next day and night as well. My assistant and I took turns nursing him while the other napped on the cot in my office."
Harry made a mental note of that. "The headmaster has noted alibis for all of you for the night in question, although given the timed spell that may be moot."
"What now, Mr Potter?" McGonagall asked. "How do you intend to proceed in this matter?"
"Well, first I will be reviewing all the evidence and information that's been gathered," he said. "I may need to speak with each of you individually, to clarify a point or two. In addition, I believe that we should begin patrolling the corridors at night, when most of these incidences have occurred, in pairs. I will come up with a suggested rotation, in conjunction with the headmaster. Beyond that, I'm afraid that all we can do is wait for them to strike again."
"You do realise, Mr Potter," Vector said slyly, "that if the culprit is one of us, you have just tipped that person to your plans?"
Harry smiled, and it was not an entirely pleasant smile. "Ah, but how do you know that I haven't made additional plans, which our Poison Pen will have no inkling of?"
With that, he rose and left the room, aware that the headmaster was pacing alongside him. "Plans, Mr Potter?" Snape said in a low voice, the one that made Harry shiver. "What other plans would those be?"
"Now, Severus, you've known me for how many years? Have you ever known me to have a plan?" Harry turned and grinned at Snape before he headed toward the Great Hall, whistling tunelessly.
Dinner in the Great Hall was uncomfortable that evening, although Snape noticed that the students didn't appear to notice the tension at the High Table. They chatted cheerfully - and loudly - with frequent curious glances in Potter's direction. Potter, for his part, didn't appear to notice either the attention he was receiving from the students or the tension among the staff. Seated on Snape's right, Potter spent most of the meal cheerfully chatting with Lupin, seated next to him, or Hagrid on Lupin's other side. For his own part, Snape focused his attention on conversation with McGonagall, on his other side, and surreptitiously studying his staff and the senior students under suspicion.
Mr Bewick, seated at the Slytherin table, seemed as unconcerned about the recent incidents as always, but Snape could hardly expect otherwise - he was a Slytherin. Miss Glasspool, one of the other students on his list of suspects, was a different matter. She sat quietly at the Ravenclaw table, hunched over her plate but merely picking at her food. The third suspect, Head Girl Zoe Barker, sat in a cluster of other Hufflepuff students, as usual, chattering and sending occasional longing looks in Potter's direction. He narrowed his eyes as he studied her and resolved to mention them to Potter.
The main course was cleared from the tables, and during the lull that followed, Snape rose to his feet to address the students. Quiet fell over the Hall and heads turned in his direction as he touched his wand to his throat.
"I am certain that all of you have noticed - and recognized - our visitor, Harry Potter," he began, gesturing toward Potter. "I am pleased to inform you that Mr Potter will be remaining with us for the next few weeks as a guest instructor. He will be assisting Professor Lupin with Defence Against the Dark Arts classes, and will help establish a Duelling Club. I expect all of you to treat Professor Potter with the respect due to all of your teachers, and to make him feel welcome."
Snape ended the spell and took his seat again, the signal for pudding to be served, and once more a cacophony of sound overtook the room. An elbow nudged him from the right and he turned his head to see Potter regarding him with amusement, although he refrained from saying anything during the meal.
Potter wasn't so reticent when Snape stopped by his rooms that evening.
"A Duelling Club, Headmaster?" Potter asked as he poured out two glasses of Firewhisky and handed it to him. "You failed to mention that to me."
Snape shrugged. "I am certain that you will be able to fit it into your busy schedule, Mr Potter. Many of our six and seventh year students have expressed interest in such an organization; I believe it would be an excellent opportunity for you to get to know them."
Potter raised an eyebrow. "I take it that includes the students you think might be suspects?"
Snape nodded. "Our NEWT level student population is very small - only ten in total."
"Why so few?" Harry asked, sprawling on the couch with his glass in hand.
Snape took a seat in the armchair across from him, sedately sipping at his drink. "While Hogwarts was rebuilding, most parents preferred to send their offspring to other schools - in France, Canada, and the United States, primarily. Those who could not afford to do so attended Hogwarts as Day Students, went to Muggle Schools, or were home-schooled. Students remaining at Hogwarts after taking their OWLs preferred to condense their NEWT studies into one year so they could begin apprenticeships sooner. Mr Bewick and Miss Barker agreed to remain another year, as Head Boy and Girl, to help Hogwarts during the transition. Miss Glasspool, our other seventh year, is competing with them for the Rowena Ravenclaw Prize, which pays all apprenticeship fees.”
Potter frowned. "The three of them seem unlikely pranksters, don't they?"
Snape tilted his head in thought. "Mr Bewick is one of our orphans; his parents were killed by Death Eaters for refusing to join the Dark Lord. Miss Barker is a high-spirited young lady and has a reputation for mischief, although generally of a harmless nature. Miss Glasspool is from an impoverished family; the scholarship is her only hope of furthering her education, and of late I have noted that she appears to be under strain."
"And you think she might have cracked?"
"It is possible. In addition, all three were present during the warding in May, as well as remaining in the school in December."
"What about the other students?"
"Due to the nature of the charms placed on the damaged book, it is unlikely that any students below fifth year could have accomplished them and, since Filius has not yet taught timed spells to the current crop of fifth years, the current sixth years are the only viable suspects among the students."
"Hermione could do timed spells in our fourth year," Harry said.
"I am not going to inquire how you know that, or under what circumstances she demonstrated this proficiency," Snape said drily. "Suffice it to say, among our current crop of students, only Miss Glasspool possesses the same burning desire for knowledge as Miss Granger, and she is a suspect already. Furthermore, the younger students who were present at Hogwarts in May were otherwise occupied at the party at the Weasleys' orphanage, which means that none of them could have placed the note in my robes."
Potter picked up a paper notebook and jotted down a few things. "I'll try to talk to those three, see if they are viable suspects in any of the other incidences. By the way, I ran into Mr Bewick when I was trying to find my rooms and he has already guessed the true reason for my presence here."
"I am not surprised; Mr Bewick is very sharp and doesn't miss much."
"I had the impression from him that he had some suspicions about the culprit, but he was reluctant to speak."
"Of course. You were a Gryffindor."
Potter grinned at that. "The Sorting Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin. I talked it out of that."
Snape was stunned. "The Hat wanted - " he paused, then frowned. "Why did you - never mind. Thank Merlin that Minerva had to deal with you as Head of House."
"Any thoughts on our little mystery, Mr Potter?"
"Have a heart - I just started going over the data today." He tapped the folder with his notebook, saying, "You've been very thorough in your documentation."
"One of the requirements of my profession," Snape replied. Potter gave him a puzzled look and he rolled his eyes. "Potions, Mr Potter."
"You consider that your profession, not the Defence Against the Dark Arts?" Potter asked, curious. “Everyone thought you preferred the Dark Arts.”
"Despite rumours to the contrary, I did not covet that position. It was the Dark Lord's wish that I obtain that position, and to maintain my cover as a spy, I was required to feign a preference for it as well."
"Well, you had me convinced," Potter said honestly. "I thought you seemed happier that year you were teaching DADA."
Snape thought about that. "If I seemed to be, it was because students in general prefer taking that class to Potions. It is easier to display enthusiasm for a class that your students enjoy. Very few students, with the exception of Ms Granger and a handful of others, actually enjoy Potions."
"My mother did, didn't she?" Potter asked quietly.
"Yes; she had quite a knack for it as well - it was an interest that we shared after coming to Hogwarts," Snape said, his voice equally quiet. "Professor Slughorn was not lying to you about that."
Potter picked up the bottle of Firewhisky, topping off his glass and offering it to Snape. He raised his eyebrow. "Trying to get me drunk and take advantage, Mr Potter?"
The younger man laughed. "I can't imagine that two drinks would get you drunk. And you know that you can call me 'Harry'."
Potter blinked. "Why can you call me Harry? Because it's my name, and I was under the impression that we were becoming friends, if not more."
"Why are you interested in becoming more? You persist in proposing to me, and yet I have no idea why you would wish to do so." Snape poured more into his glass, then sat back in his chair, eyes on Potter as he sipped from his glass.
"Is there necessarily a reason for these things? What if I just took a fancy to you?"
"For seven years of your life, you hated me and were convinced that I hated you in return," Snape pointed out.
Potter's eyes met his challengingly. "Maybe we were sublimating our feelings, expressing them in hostility instead."
Snape's lip curled. "Did Miss Granger come up with that? It has the sound of that know-it-all."
Anger flared in Potter's eyes. Snape noted with interest that his face became even more compelling when he was angry. "No, I came up with that one on my own. Two months of sharing your memories helped me know you a bit better."
"And has it escaped your recollection that I was in love with your mother?"
Potter shook his head. "I don't believe that. Yes, you loved her - the same way that I love Hermione. That doesn't mean I want to marry her."
"A good thing, considering that you're bent," Snape said coolly.
"And so are you!" Potter snapped, stung. "Don't try to tell me that you're not!"
"Very well, I won't." Snape took another swallow from his glass. "However, that doesn't mean that I love you or, more to the point, wish to marry you. It might help to change my mind if I knew why you wish to marry me."
Potter stared down at his glass for a long moment.
"When you died...when I thought you died,” he said, "I realised that I didn't hate you. As I viewed your memories, I realised that you didn't hate me, either." His lips quirked up. "You wanted to, wanted to hate me for being James Potter's son - and perhaps you had reason - and you tried to make all you did for me about my mum. But I saw how you reacted when Dumbledore told you that I had to die. And it made me rethink everything."
"You are obsessed over a memory," Snape said flatly. "And you felt guilty."
"Perhaps at first," Potter admitted. "You were right to refuse me the first time. I was very confused by my feelings. But then we started going out - "
"You started dragging me out."
" - and I discovered the real you. And I realised that I liked the real you, surly and uncooperative bastard that you are."
"Not helping your cause, Potter."
"Very well," Harry said. "You want reasons? You've got a sense of humour, and brains - being married to you wouldn't be dull. I'm never bored when I'm with you, or worried that you're only with me because I'm famous, or that you'll dump me when you get tired of the craziness that is my life. Turn me into potions ingredients, maybe," he added, grinning. "Being married to you would be interesting. I'd wake up and there would be a lot of brilliant things to do with you all day, and then we'd go to bed and that would be brilliant, too." Potter flushed a bit and Snape idly wondered, gossip aside, how much sexual experience he had. "Am I helping my cause at all?"
"Perhaps." Snape finished his drink and set down his glass, then rose to his feet. "In any event, it is getting late. I have endless correspondence to read, and you have files to study."
Potter followed him to the door. "Good-night, Severus. Pleasant dreams."
"Good night," Snape replied, striding down the hallway. At the bend for the main corridor, he turned and looked back to see Potter leaning against the doorway, watching him.
Lupin invited Harry to breakfast with him in his rooms the next morning, so that they could go over their schedule and make plans. Coming up with a balance between the cover story and Harry's real purpose was tricky, but finally they decided that Harry would regularly assist with the NEWT level classes so that he could get to know the possible suspects. He would only take over the lower level classes on the day after the full moon, so that Lupin could recover from his transformation. Both of them would run the once-weekly Duelling Club, swapping back and forth between the younger and older students.
Since Lupin only had the lower level classes the first two days, Harry spent his time checking out the various sites where the vandalisms had taken place. The clean-up had been too thorough, however, and the sites yielded little information. Knowing that sometimes investigations were one step forward and two steps back, he was prepared to write the week off as a loss, as far as new information was concerned.
So he was pleasantly surprised when, half-way through lunch on Friday, he received an owl inviting him to tea on Saturday with the NEWT level students in their common room. This turned out to be the room where Slughorn had held his "Slug Club" parties, furnished with worn couches and chairs for comfortable seating, tables for studying, and a fireplace for warmth.
"A hold-over from the Refugee days," the Head Girl, Zoe Barker, said, pouring out tea and passing it round. "With the orphans occupying Hufflepuff, all the school boarders crammed into Slytherin, the other two Houses under renovation, and the Library in disrepair, the sixth year refugees told the headmaster they needed a quiet place of their own or they'd go mad."
"And no one wanted the room this year so we kept it for the use of the Uppers," added a sixth year named Dylan Lewis as he casually sprawled across one of the sofas. "With the occasional guest," he added, waving his hand in the direction of one of the tables where Katie Bell appeared to be tutoring one of the girls. She raised her head and gave Harry a brief smile before returning her attention to her student. Harry recognized her as the twitchy seventh year, Miriam Glasspool; she was hunched over her book as if proximity to the material would help her absorb it better.
"What about your House common rooms?" Harry asked, accepting a cup of tea and absently stirring it. "They're all repaired now. Don't you want to be with your House-mates?"
"We are," Benedict Bewick said, passing a plate of biscuits to Harry. At Harry's puzzled look, he said, "Look, I know it was different when you were here, and when we were firsties, but these last four years, there haven't been enough of us to split into Houses. Dylan and I are the only NEWT-level Slytherins, and if I had to spend all evening staring at his ugly face, I'd go mad."
Dylan, who was generally thought to be a handsome Welsh lad, lobbed a cushion at him amid general laughter from the others.
"Professor Snape is very keen on inter-House study groups," added a sixth year Ravenclaw named Collys Connolly from where she lounged in front of the fire, scribbling on what appeared to be a Charms essay. Her study partner, a pale-haired young man wearing a Gryffindor tie nodded agreement as he briefly looked up from a library book.
"Which is a laugh as I heard he was The Ultimate Slytherin during your time," added a Hufflepuff boy named Alwyn Foulkes with a grin and a sideways look at Harry.
"Mmm, yes," Harry agreed, taking a sip of his tea and wishing it was something stronger. "Points from all Houses except Slytherin, sometimes just for breathing too loudly," he said, making a humorous face and they all laughed. "But then again, he was playing the role of spy so he had to appear to favour his House over others."
"As I recall, you and Professor Snape were always at daggers-drawn," Zoe said, eyeing Harry with avid curiosity. "Was that real or for show? Did you know that he was a spy?"
"Headmaster Dumbledore had told me that Professor Snape was a spy," Harry said slowly, "although I didn't completely believe it at the time." With a self-deprecating shrug he added, "I was young and stubborn and thought I knew better. It wasn't until the final battle here that I found out just how much he had done to protect me, and everyone else here at Hogwarts."
"Did he really save your life?" asked Gemma Hughes, a sixth year Gryffindor, with a bit of scepticism, as if finding it hard to believe that their dour headmaster had ever done anything so brave.
"Oh yes, loads of times," Harry said with a nod. "At least once a year that I knew about - possibly more."
There was silence for a few minutes as everyone seemed to digest that, then Zoe asked, "So are you here to lay the spectre of our Poltergeist?"
The silence this time was much more pointed, and Harry was very aware of many pairs of eyes fixed on him. "Why do you say that?" he asked casually.
"Please," Dylan said with a snort, "we’re not nearly as thick as the teaching staff would like to think."
"You must admit that it is a rather peculiar coincidence," spoke up Elyn Griffiths, a quiet-seeming Hufflepuff.
"Yes," agreed Zoe. "Some loony goes bashing about the school, leaving nasty notes and scrawlings, burning up a bunch of robes, and suddenly here you are. And we've all read the stories in the Prophet about the cases that you've solved all over the world."
"I hadn't heard about robes being burned," Harry said. "When was this?"
"Middle of last term?" Gemma said, looking at the others for confirmation. "I wasn't there - it was during the fifth year Care of Magical Creatures class. Hagrid sent the class back to the castle and put it out, so I heard."
"Could have been some fire salamanders in a pile of rags," pointed out a sharp-featured Ravenclaw boy whom Harry thought was named Lonan Flaherty.
"The point is, staff don't seem to be getting anywhere with their investigation, and then you pop in to help with a bit of teaching?" Zoe shook her head in disbelief.
“Look here,” said Benedict, “we know you can't say anything to us about what you think, in case one of us is the nutter, but there’s no reason why any of us shouldn't tell you what we think, is there?" He looked around at his fellows as if checking for a consensus. "No? Well, here's my point. What is the bloody reason for all of this nonsense? It doesn't look like a personal grudge against anybody in particular - we've all got at least one note, if not more." Nearly everyone nodded at that, and Harry took careful note of the few who didn't. "It’s a kind of blind malevolence, directed against everybody at Hogwarts. What’s at the back of it?”
“It might be somebody who thought that Hogwarts as a body had injured them," Zoe said.
"Or it might be a personal grudge masking itself under a general attack, just to throw everyone off," said Gemma.
"Or it might be somebody with a mania for creating disturbance in order to enjoy the fun," Dylan said. "That’s the usual reason for this kind of outbreak, isn't it? If you can call it a reason.”
"Or it could be that someone's just gone round the twist and is taking it out on everyone else," Zoe added, with a sly look towards a few of the others.
"You mean me, don't you?" said a tight voice from behind him, and Harry turned his head to see Miriam stand up from where she had been sitting with Katie. She was clutching a parchment tightly in one hand, crushing it, a look combining wild indignation and fear on her face. "Oh, yes, I've heard you talk when you think I'm not listening. You think I've lost it, don't you?"
"Miriam," Benedict said in what was clearly meant to be a calming tone, but she didn't appear to be having any of it.
"Well I haven't, and it's not me!" she said, an edge of hysteria in her voice as she scrambled together her belongings and clutched them against her chest. "And if you want to talk more about me behind my back, I'm not going to sit here and take it!"
With that, she stormed out of the room and down the corridor, leaving an uncomfortable silence behind her.
"I rest my case," Zoe murmured.
"Zoe," Benedict said in warning, then swept out of the room in the wake of the other girl, clearly intent on finding and calming her down.
"Well, we're not showing up very well, are we?" Gemma said frankly, plopping down in the chair that Benedict had vacated. "What do you think about this business, Mr Potter?"
"I believe that I agree with Mr Bewick," Harry said, pausing and then adding, "which is that I can't say anything to you about what I know, or think I know, or even guess. Not without having a great deal more information. To which point," he said, setting down his tea cup and rising, "if any of you should wish to speak to me confidentially about anything to do with this business, my door will always be open."
And leaving them with that to think on, Harry took his leave.
* * * * *
Hagrid wasn't present at the feast that night, so Harry made his way down to his hut on Sunday, both to visit with his friend and to find out more about the mysterious fire. As always, Hagrid was pleased to see him, and before long Harry was settled in front of the fire with a huge cup of tea and a plate of rock cakes.
"A fire?" Hagrid asked when Harry asked him, scratching his beard as he thought. "Don' think I noticed anything queer 'bout it at the time. Just a bunch of old rags tha' caught fire, likely from a bit o' carelessness. 'Twasn't much trouble to put it out, neither." He frowned. "Ya think it was our mischief maker?"
"It's possible, but without other information, I can't be sure," Harry said frankly. "Is there anything you can tell me about the rags?"
"Looked to be old school robes, but they were ripped to pieces so's hard t' tell."
"And nothing inside to identify who they belong to?" Harry asked. "No name tape or House tie or anything personal?"
Hagrid shook his head and said, apologetically, "There weren’t much left o' them when all's said 'n done. Din think to check them fer no marks."
"That's all right," Harry said with a sigh. "I don't imagine our Prankster would have left anything incriminating on them -- they've been too careful."
"Ya gettin' anywhere with yer investigatin'?" Hagrid asked, then added hastily, "Not tha' you should tell me if you got suspicions - I'm bad 'bout keeping secrets."
"So far, I've mostly been eliminating those who couldn't have been involved and trying to narrow down the list of suspects," Harry said. "Have you seen anyone acting peculiar?"
"Not so's you'd notice," Hagrid said thoughtfully, "although I s'pose we're all a mite bit peculiar, when you think on it."
Harry laughingly agreed and switched subjects to the latest news and gossip about their friends.
* * * * *
After bidding Hagrid good-night, Harry made his way up to the castle, shivering against the January cold, even under his warm cloak. He was looking forward to a glass of something to warm his insides - and take away the taste of Hagrid's tea - beside a warm fire in his rooms. However, as he entered the castle and found the entrance hall teeming with students and staff, he realized that he would have to wait for that.
He grabbed the arm of a passing student. "What happened?" he asked sharply.
The student, a fourth or fifth year, stared up at him with wide eyes. "Professor Potter! The Prankster attacked someone!"
The boy pointed mutely towards the staircase, and Harry sprinted for it, moving upward through the milling students as quickly as he could. The first through third floors were clear, and he was on his way up to the fourth when he met Snape coming down.
"Ah, Mr Potter, just the man I was coming to look for," Snape said, pausing to look around at the students who were milling about or had followed Harry up. "Back to your Common Rooms, please," he said, raising his voice to be heard above the excited chatter. "Prefects! Take charge of your Houses!"
Reminded of their duties, the Prefects began herding their respective House-mates off and Snape turned back to Harry.
"There has been a bit of mischief done, in the hallway outside the prefects' bathroom," he said tersely, then turned and began ascending the stairs.
Harry hurried up in his wake. "More writing on the walls?"
"Not this time. It appears that our Prankster has once again escalated."
A cold feeling settled in Harry's stomach. As he followed Snape down the hallway, he saw one of the female prefects sitting on the pedestal of Boris the Bewildered's statue, attended by Madam Pomfrey and Katie Bell. She looked more shaken than injured, he was relieved to see. Just past them, in front of the door to the prefects' bathroom, what appeared to be a large sofa cushion draped in a student's robes hung from the ceiling.
"Well, that's odd," Harry said, looking over the large dummy. "I take it that it was not just hanging like this when the young lady happened upon it?"
"No. Miss Connolly said she was unaware of it until she said the password to the door, after which it appeared out of nowhere and knocked her to the ground."
"Interesting." He waved his wand over the dummy to see what spells had been used on it. "It appears that a charm was used to anchor it to the ceiling," he said, levitating the dummy into place, "until the password was uttered." Both men moved out of the way as the dummy swung down from the dark ceiling in an arc that would have easily knocked even an adult off their feet.
"Which means that our Prankster knows the password as well," Snape said. "That narrows it down to other prefects and Heads of House."
"Not necessarily," Harry said. "I was given the password by a prefect during the Triwizard Tournament - our Prankster could have got it in the same way. Or they could have hidden out of sight one night and waited for a prefect to come by and say it loud enough to overhear." He carefully removed the robes from the dummy, looking them over closely visually and by spell. "Nothing to identify whose robes these are, except that they are a bit worn and creased, so I'd say they've been sitting in a chest or on a shelf for a few years."
"Handed down from a parent or older sibling?"
"Possibly. Or a teacher who has held onto their student robes for a number of years."
"What about the cushion? We should be able to identify where it was taken from - "
Harry shook his head as he cancelled the spell that anchored the rope to the ceiling. "Don't bother. I recognized it right away. In fact, I was sitting on it last night, in the Common room for the older students."
Snape frowned. "I think it highly unlikely that that is a coincidence."
"So do I." Harry examined the dummy itself. "Nothing here to identify who put it up, either. Nothing but this."
Pinned to the dummy was the front page of the Daily Prophet from four years earlier, with the headline "Voldemort Vanquished!"
Harry exchanged a look with Snape. "Well, that's less than helpful. It could either be a supporter of Voldemort targeting those who fought against him, or someone looking for revenge against Death Eater supporters. In which case, why haven't you been more of a target?"
"You sound disappointed, Potter, which does not bode well for your marital ambitions in regard to me. Should I ever be foolish enough to marry you, I would have to sleep with a wand under my pillow."
Harry raised an eyebrow. "You mean you don't already?"
When Snape didn't reply, Harry gave himself a point on a mental scoreboard.
* * * * *
Hogwarts, February 2, 2003
Harry spent the next few weeks being busier than he had been in a long time. In addition to talking to each of the staff members and getting their alibis - or lack thereof - for each of the incidents, he had the NEWT level classes to help with, as well as the Duelling Club to get started. To add to his load, the full moon was at the start of the following week, and he took over Lupin's classes while he recovered.
He half-expected the Prankster to get up to something at the dedication ceremony for Dumbledore's statue, which was unveiled at the start of February amid a flurry of press and Ministry officials, and stayed up all the night before - under his invisibility cloak - on watch. The night passed without incident, however, as did the public dedication, after which Harry collapsed in his bed and slept the clock round.
Harry woke late the next evening to a nearly empty castle - Snape had given the school a Hogsmeade weekend in tribute to the previous headmaster, and most of the students were now sleeping off their excesses. He thought about joining the staff for dinner, but as McGonagall and Sinistra were exchanging remembrances of Dumbledore (after judicious sips of whisky, he surmised), he slipped down to the kitchens instead. Then he settled down with his supper and all the data he had acquired so far, giving it another in-depth look.
What he had amounted to pathetically little. Very few of his primary suspects had an alibi for any of the events. No one had been around to see who had set up the pranks or delivered the letters, most of which had appeared overnight in the dorms and offices. The culprit had been careful to avoid being seen by any of the ghosts or the portraits. And they had managed to get into each of the Houses without arousing suspicion. Which, in itself, was suspicious.
Harry sat back on his sofa with a sigh and raked his hand through his hair. So far, he was failing spectacularly at this job. Deciding that it was time to get another opinion, he fire-called Hermione.
"Sounds like a right nutter," Ron commented from where he sat on the hearth next to Hermione.
"Someone has to have seen something," she said, furrowing her forehead in thought.
"Or else the culprit has a way of being invisible," Harry agreed, "or the most unbelievable luck."
"Who would be there but invisible?" Hermione said, as if to herself.
"Ghosts," Ron said. "Only they can't write messages."
"House-elves," Harry said, "only they are bound to Hogwarts and the headmaster."
"Are they?" Ron asked. "Look at the kinds of things Dobby did for you when he was still working for Malfoy."
"I'll do some research," Hermione said. "See if I can determine just how far they can stretch their autonomy. I wanted to gather that information for my petition for house-elf rights anyway. Have there been any more letters?"
"Not since the incident with the dummy - not that have been turned in, at any rate. Which is odd, as those were coming pretty regularly."
"I don't like it being quiet for so long, Harry," Ron said. "Reminds me of the twins; when they were quiet that long, you knew something was going to explode -- usually in Percy's room, or mine."
"I'll watch out - "
There was a sudden loud noise in the corridor outside, and Harry jumped up from the hearth.
"Sounds like something did explode," he said. "I'll call you later."
Wand in hand, he went out in the hallway. One of the large statues in the hallway between his rooms and Lupin's had been tipped over on its side and, as he looked around for a sign of anyone lurking, he heard another similar boom from the second floor below. He raced down the stairs and saw that the suit of armour outside the DADA classroom had been knocked down and the classroom door was open.
Cautiously, he peered inside to find the room in complete chaos. Books, supplies, and chairs were flung in every direction, as if tossed by a wind spell. As he looked around, all the torches went out in the hallway.
He cast a Lumos spell and went back in the hallway, making his way to the central staircase. The entire floor was dark and the torches wouldn't light. As he groped the holder, he found out why - they had been removed. By wand light, he made his way down the corridor and encountered a large puddle of water on the floor outside of Moaning Myrtle's bathroom. He glanced up at the walls, half-expecting to see writing on them, but they were blank. Cautiously, he glanced into the bathroom but, except for the fact that the toilets were gushing noisily, the room was empty.
There was a noise in the corridor behind him and he put out his wand, listening carefully. The castle was quiet as it was late at night, but he was sure that he could hear footsteps. Moving as quietly as he could, he crept down the corridor after them, then reached out and grabbed an arm.
"Gotcha!" he said triumphantly as he lit his wand.
"You certainly have," Snape said drily, his look scathing even in the dim light. "I would ask what you plan to do with me now, but I am certain that I do not wish to know."
Harry frowned. Was it possible that it was Snape behind the actions? Part of some devious plan, or even proof that the man's mind had snapped? "What were you doing?"
"I was patrolling the corridors on the first floor when I saw the lights go off up here. I came up to investigate." As Snape finished, Harry saw the lights go out on the two floors above and there was another crashing sound.
He released Snape's arm, relieved that he had been unconditionally cleared from his suspect list. "Our Prankster is up to something - follow me!"
They raced up two flights of stairs, and Harry found that once more the torches were missing. "They've left this floor. I'll go up and catch them if they go up to the next floor. You go down and check from the dungeons up."
Snape nodded and strode quickly out of sight. Harry hurried up the stairs and, as he reached the fifth floor, he saw the lights go out above, followed shortly by a crash. He swore under his breath; the Prankster was moving fast and, apparently, creating general mayhem which would make them difficult to catch.
As he sped up to the seventh floor, he heard sudden screams and then what appeared to be all of Gryffindor poured into the corridor ahead of him - along with the unmistakable stench of dung bombs. He grabbed one of the students, pulling them aside.
"What happened?" he asked. "What did you see?"
The boy, a third-year by the look of him, stared up at Harry through streaming eyes, coughing. "Didn't see anything, sir! We were studying - the door opened and something was tossed in." The boy began coughing again and Harry let him go, pushing his way through the crowd to get to the door so that he could question the Fat Lady. One look at her, though, made him sigh - she was lying sideways in her frame, giggling and blowing bubbles, apparently under some spell. He collected two of the least affected students and sent one to Flitwick's office and the other to the Divination tower, to locate either teacher.
He intended to try to calm down the students, to defuse the situation. But the sound of crashing armour below set up a general cry of "The Prankster!" among the Gryffindors and, as one body, they surged down the stairs in pursuit. Harry was carried down the stairs with a rush of students, hurtling down in the near-dark until they reached the first floor. There he managed to push his way out of the crowd to the side where he ran into Professor McGonagall.
"Thank Merlin!" he said, grabbing onto her arm. She had apparently been working in her office and was wrapped in her tartan robe.
"What's happening?" she asked, bewildered.
"The Prankster," he said briefly and, when she would have broken away to pursue her students who were now heading towards the staircase to the ground floor, he held onto her arm. "Hold a moment, Professor. I'll have an alibi for you if I die for it." As he spoke, the lights in the entrance hall went out along with a crash of armour. "You're all right," he said, relieved. "Now then! The Prankster will be heading for the dungeons or Ravenclaw Tower. I'll take the dungeons, you take Ravenclaw."
Later, he was appalled by the fact that he had ordered his old House Head about, but now she just nodded briskly and began pushing her way through the crowd of students. He could hear her brisk voice ordering them to stop running and settle down, and left the task of calming Gryffindor to her. He ducked down a back staircase to the ground floor, then along a corridor to the entrance hall.
There he was stymied in his attempt to get to the dungeons, for all the inhabitants of the castle seemed to have decided to gather in the entrance hall, and the staircases to the lower floor were blocked by a crowd of students, among them Hufflepuff, while a crowd of house-elves who had come up from the kitchens added to the confusion and congestion. There he found Snape again, herding Slytherin students up from their dorm, and Filch. The caretaker was standing in the doorway to the Great Hall, a large cudgel in his hands, and behind him the Hall lights blazed brightly.
"They won't get these, Headmaster, sir," he said grimly. "Every blasted one of the other torches on the floor is gone, but they won't get these."
"Good man," Snape said, giving him an approving nod. He swung about in a swirl of cloak (and Harry resolved to ask him how he did that) and touched his wand to his throat.
Snape's amplified voice echoed through the castle, bringing everyone to instant and complete silence. Harry took the opportunity to send up a ball of light, making it hover in the air midway up the main staircase, illuminating the darkness above.
"Everyone STAND STILL!" Snape ordered. "If you have a wand, LIGHT IT!" In the darkness, there was a sudden sea of firefly-like light. "Now, prefects please escort your students into the Great Hall, slowly, and in an orderly manner!"
Once the students began moving, Snape turned to Harry. "Have you located any of the rest of the staff?"
Harry nodded. "McGonagall. She was with me when the lights went out down here, so she is clear. I sent her to check on Ravenclaw."
"At least one positive note," Snape said. They both watched as the students milled into the Great Hall, keeping their eyes out for any of the suspects among them. Not that it would mean much at this point, as Harry thought that the guilty party was probably mixed in with the others.
When the torches were replaced and light restored to all the floors, the damage was seen to extend beyond torches. The Prankster had passed through the school, either in the dark, or while the others were gathered in the Great Hall. In most of the classrooms, ink bottles were smashed and papers flung into fires, while corridors had toppled statues and armour.
But it was the headmaster's office where most of the damage had been done. Papers from the desk had been tossed about, some into the fireplace. Crockery had been smashed against the wall and the antique tea service twisted out of shape. Books had been knocked off the shelves, some of them ripped apart and flung around the room. And all the chair and sofa cushions had been slashed to ribbons, with the knife left embedded in the centre of the headmaster's desk.
Ravenclaw Tower, in contrast, had not been touched, a fact that caused all Ravenclaw members to be eyed with suspicion and grumbling for days.
* * * * *
Harry would have thought that such an event, witnessed by so many, would have provided alibis for all the innocent inhabitants of the castle. In reality, not so much. Some alibis were established: Snape and McGonagall had been with Harry when lights went out and so were cleared. Lupin was at the Burrow with Bill, Fleur, and their assorted children. Madam Pince had been at a niece's wedding, so she was removed from Harry's list, although he had not seriously thought her capable of damaging books. Hagrid, who had not been a suspect, was at the Three Broomsticks until chucking out time, but he had not been alone: Flitwick had been with him, indulging in his fruity umbrella-laden drinks. Neither had arrived back at Hogwarts till well after the fun was over.
However, Professor Sprout had left them about thirty minutes before the first lights went out and, according to her, had been walking slowly along the road, admiring the snow-laden trees so that when she arrived, the crowds were already milling in the entrance hall. Trelawney had likewise been communing with nature; she had had a sudden urge to wander around the snow-covered gardens by moonlight to better speak with the spirits and had claimed to have been unaware of the commotion. (McGonagall had commented, only for Harry's ears, that one would have thought that her spirits would have alerted her.) The Infirmary had been empty, allowing both staff members a rest, although Katie had been inventorying potions when they went in search of her and claimed not to have heard any of the disturbance. Sinistra had heard the commotion and went to check on the Slytherins, when she was grabbed from behind by strong hands and flung into the wall, knocking her out. She had lain, stunned and apparently unseen, for several long minutes before she recovered and staggered up the stairs to join everyone else. The only proof of this story was the considerable bump on her forehead. Vector had been in the library when the torches went out and had made her way to the hallway where she said she'd been swept along with the crowd. No one could remember her but she was that kind of person. Zabini had heard some of the noise but thought it was the students playing around; as his room was at the far end of the corridor from Slytherin house and he was marking papers, he ignored it the noise. Madam Hooch, with rooms in Ravenclaw Tower, had never heard the noise and hadn't known about the events until breakfast the next morning, but she had no eyewitness to her story that she'd been reading Quidditch Weekly in her room until bedtime.
Among the students, Miriam had claimed to be in her room studying until late, but as she had a private room, there was no corroboration from her fellows. Benedict, likewise, had claimed to be alone and studying, and hadn't heard the headmaster rousing the House. Zoe, however, had been hosting a party in her room and had three witnesses so Harry was able to cross her off his list.
Professor Snape addressed the school at breakfast the next morning, when the full extent of the damage was finally known, and the knowledge of how much worse it could have been had sunk in. He exhorted the culprit to come forward, and for anyone with information to contact Harry or himself, with assurances of strict confidence. Harry didn't have faith that either request would be followed.
It didn't help tempers to find, upon leaving the Great Hall after breakfast, the words "Ha! Ha!" had been painted across the entrance hall floor in bright purple paint.
Another immediate result was an increase in tension among the staff not cleared through a proven alibi. Tongues were sharpened, tempers were shorter, and subtle digs were made regarding the validity of proffered alibis. Alliances were formed between various members at tea, only to be broken and new ones taken after dinner.
"They are beginning to mistrust everyone else," Harry said to Snape after the end of the week, when a simple staff meeting had dissolved into tears and temper.
"What do you expect?" Snape said shortly, rubbing his temples. "If any of them had found another staff member or even reliable students and remained with them, they would have an alibi. That they didn't makes them look foolish, and none of them want that." He looked across the table at Harry. "Are you any closer to knowing the identity of our Prankster?
Harry made a face. "I've eliminated a few and I'm narrowing down the rest." He hesitated. "I have a theory, but I am reluctant to say anything as yet. I have no proof, you see, nothing but a - a feeling."
Snape nodded slowly. "I will respect your wish to wait before speaking - but Harry? Do not wait too long. I am concerned that the more we delay, the more damage will be done. And I am not talking about property."
Hogwarts, April 12, 2003
Following the Great Uproar, as the students had taken to calling it, the entire castle was on alert for further mischief. However, there was no further defacing of the corridor walls and the Prankster was relatively quiet. Letters dwindled down to one or two a week, with the occasional drawing left pinned to walls. Harry made note of those received - the ones that he knew or heard about - and continued patrolling the corridors at night, but the rest of the castle started to relax. As the snow melted and temperatures rose, students and staff drifted outdoors. Tensions in the staff room began to ease and, as March became April, the whole school began to look forward to the Easter holidays.
Harry was one of the few not looking forward to the holiday. The lack of activity by the Prankster was frustrating, and Kingsley was starting to hint that perhaps he or she had given up, and that Harry's task was complete. While Harry would have been glad if that had been the case, he had a feeling that the Prankster was merely lying low, perhaps planning an even worse attack on the school or its inhabitants.
So when Hermione owled him that she had finished compiling reports on what their prime suspects had been doing for the past four years, he hoped that what he found would give him the clues he needed.
Hermione also let him know that the office had finally been connected to the Floo system, so after breakfast on Saturday a week before the holidays began, he drew Snape aside and said, in a low voice so that only the headmaster could hear, "I need to go to my office to pick up some new information. May I use your Floo?"
Snape nodded assent and, impulsively, Harry said, "Would you like to come with me? You haven't seen my office yet. And we could have a bite to eat in Diagon Alley - it'd be a nice change of scenery."
Snape frowned slightly. "I don't believe that I've been away from Hogwarts since our meeting at the Ministry. Very well, Potter, I accept."
"One condition," Harry said, holding up an admonishing finger. "You have to call me 'Harry', at least for the duration of our outing. I am, after all, showing you the deepest recesses of Wizard Investigations."
Snape rolled his eyes but assented. They agreed to meet in Snape's office in an hour, and Harry dashed up to his rooms to change.
* * * * *
Snape's first impression upon stepping from the Floo in Harry's office was clutter and books - not entirely surprising, he thought, given the Granger girl's affinity for them. It was a cosy area, obviously used more by the staff than clients. Harry quickly dumped books off one of the chairs onto a side table (carelessly, which made Snape wince and would probably get Harry's head handed to him by Granger) before waving him to it. The rest of the office appeared similarly comfortable and slightly worn, and Snape recognized a few of the better pieces as having come from Grimmauld Place. He hoped Potter had thoroughly de-doxied them before removing them.
"Have a seat, I won't be a moment. Hermione said the file is locked in her drawer - " Harry fiddled with the desk in the corner, popping open a drawer, and removing a Muggle folder from it. He glanced inside and sighed. "I'll have to take a look at this, but I can treat you to a coffee down the street while I read it."
Snape assented, and before long they were settled at a little outdoor cafe, chatting idly about the day and the passers-by. Once they had received their coffee, Snape relapsed into silence, studying Potter while the young man turned his attention to the documents from Miss Granger.
He had thought he knew the man, thought that he was a carbon-copy of his arrogant father, but time had proven that the boy was not much like the father. While there was a definite resemblance to James, there were also differences, and not just the eyes. The nose and mouth were more delicately shaped, similar to Lily's and yet uniquely his own. His ears were also more finely sculpted than James's, although they were almost hidden under that ridiculous mop of hair, worn longer than James Potter had worn it as an adult. The set of the chin was stubborn like Lily's, but there was a faint hint of a shadow along the jaw line - and apparently Harry preferred Muggle means of shaving rather than magical ones. The scar on his forehead was, of course, uniquely Harry, but there was also a faint scar on his cheek. He wondered whether the Muggles had given it to him or if he had acquired it during his travels - he certainly didn't recall any such injuries during his Hogwarts years, besides which, Poppy would have healed it. And the fact that he knew every one of Harry's injuries while a student was enough to scare any sane man.
His eyes drifted down from Harry’s cheek and chin to his throat, where he could see a bit of white against the tan. He wondered where Harry had acquired a tan that had managed to survive through winter, and just how far the tan went down...
A sudden intake of breath made him look up to meet Harry's brilliant green eyes, and Snape could feel the sudden hot stain of scarlet on his own cheeks, as if steam from a cauldron had scalded his face. The sun seemed to have dimmed and the sound of his heart beating drowned out any other sound around him. Potter's eyes were riveted on the notes again, but his face looked flushed as well and he was breathing as if he had been running.
Snape leaned back in his chair, holding his chilled glass of wine against his hot cheek with unsteady hands. So it has happened, he thought absently to himself. But it had happened a long time ago, apparently, because it didn't feel like a surprise. The only thing new was that Severus was now aware of it, and conscious of Harry's every movement, of every page he turned, and every breath.
What to do now? Harry had to be aware that he was now aware - the flush of his face was testimony enough to that. Would Harry acknowledge it, by word or deed? Would he press his proposal again, or act as if consent had already been given? Would he continue to court Snape as he had, or would he treat him as a sure conquest? Although, come to think of it, Harry hadn't proposed to him once during the past three months, or hinted at the relationship he had wanted. Was it possible that the younger man had changed his mind and was content to settle for friendship? Could Snape be content with that kind of relationship, now that he knew that his heart had been given into Harry's keeping?
Feeling deep disquiet within, Snape looked away from the man across from him, his eyes staring unfocused at the street beyond them. He was aware when Harry finished with the notes and said, before Harry could suggest going somewhere for dinner, "We need to return to Hogwarts."
Harry blinked but agreed, setting out a few Galleons for the coffee and gathering the folder in his hands. After he'd locked the folder back in Hermione's desk, Harry said, off-handed, "I need to stop at the Three Broomsticks on the way back. Is it all right if we Apparate to Hogsmeade and walk up to the castle from there?"
Snape agreed, although he was wary about being alone with Harry along the pathway from Hogsmeade, given his recent discovery. However, after a brief conversation with Rosmerta about a fall she'd had the previous week, Harry seemed to disappear into his own thoughts. Snape didn't know whether to be piqued or not following such a major self-revelation, but since Harry had retreated into a brooding silence, he did the same.
* * * * *
As they approached the castle, the sight of something on the top of the Astronomy tower caught Snape's attention and he frowned. One of the students was leaning too far over the edge for safety, as if staring down at the ground right beneath the tower. "What in Merlin's name is that idiot child doing?"
Jolted out of his thoughts, Harry stared up at the tower as well. "Who is that?" he asked sharply. "I can't tell from this distance."
Harry swore, his face going pale. "Accio broomstick!" he shouted, holding out his hand even as he turned to Snape. "You need to get up there as fast as you can, Severus! I'll fly up just in case."
"You really think - "
"Yes!" Potter's broomstick slapped into his palm and he was on it and kicking off a second later.
Snape wasted no more time, running into the entrance hall and beginning the long trek to Astronomy tower staircase, bellowing to students to get out of the way as he raced up stairs and down corridors before reaching the spiral staircase. He passed Flitwick and a prefect on the way, pausing just briefly to instruct them both to go out to the tower base and be ready with cushioning charms.
When he reached the top of the tower, he couldn't see the girl and for one horrifying moment, he thought she had jumped. Memories of the last time he'd been on this tower, of watching Dumbledore's lifeless body topple off into darkness, were so thick that for a moment he thought that everything since had been a dream. But then there was movement at the battlement, and he came back to himself and this time and place.
"Miss Glasspool," he said loudly, in his most commanding tone of voice. "What are you doing up here at this hour?"
Miriam was standing at the outer wall, one knee between the crenulations of the parapet. She started at the sound of his voice and turned her head sharply. From here he could see the wild look in her wide eyes and the nervous swallow of her throat. "Don't - don't come any closer!"
Aware that he wouldn't be able to reason with her while she was in this state, he said sharply, "Of course I'm not coming closer; you are going to get down from there and come inside - and if you're lucky, you won't get a week's detention for being out of bounds."
"Detention?" Her voice sounded high and slightly mad. "You think I care about detention?" She laughed, a panicky edge to it, and Snape wondered where in Merlin's name Harry was. "I'm going mad, but I won't let them put me in St Mungo's! I won't!" She scrambled up onto the wall, teetering slightly in her haste. "I'll kill myself first!"
"Miss Glasspool, there is no need for this," Snape said, forcing his voice to remain calm. "Whatever the problem, if you come down from there, we can sort it out over a nice cup of tea."
"I don't want tea," she snapped, and of course she didn't, it was an idiotic suggestion - if he wasn't careful, he'd be offering sherbet lemons next. "I want them to stop."
"Who do you want to stop?" said a calm, quiet voice from behind Miriam, and Snape saw that Harry was hovering on his broomstick just outside the parapet. "Tell us, and maybe we can help."
"The voices," Miriam said, her lip quivering. "In my books, my bed, everywhere I go." She turned her head towards Harry, and Snape could see the moonlight catch the sheen of tears in her eyes. "Can you make them stop?"
"We will, I promise," Harry said. "Just let Professor Snape help you down, and we'll get rid of the voices, but you have to show us where they are."
"All right," Miriam said, her voice child-like and trusting. She turned back towards Snape - and slipped quietly over the edge.
Whether it was deliberate or that her eyes were too blinded by tears to see, Snape didn't know. Harry uttered a curse word and dove out of sight after her. Snape raced to the edge of the parapet, leaning over and aiming his wand for an attempt at a levitation spell, but it wasn't needed. With an incredible speed, Harry had caught her mid-fall, his broomstick wobbling under the unexpected weight. He managed to pull up enough for Flitwick's cushioning charms to soften their landing. A few of the other students and teachers were there, assisting with the cushioning spell, and as he watched, Hagrid appeared to take Miriam from Harry and carry her up to the Infirmary.
Snape sagged back against the wall, putting away his wand, and wondered about the voices.
* * * * *
"What in Merlin's name made the idiot try to kill herself?" Snape demanded, pacing back and forth across his office floor. "Guilty conscience?"
He had just returned from the Infirmary where Miriam was resting, apparently none the worse for her attempt at suicide. Madam Pomfrey had her mildly sedated, and as they watched the Infirmary's house-elf attempt to coax the girl into eating a little soup, gave her opinion that it would be better to send Miriam home with her parents than to St Mungo's, as she appeared to have an irrational fear of that place. Flitwick, as her head of House, had gone off to contact her parents via the Floo in his office, and Snape had returned to his office to find that Harry had helped himself to his Firewhisky and made himself comfortable on Snape's sofa. He tried not to notice how attractive Harry was, sprawled across the cushions with his feet propped on a table.
Harry shook his head. "I doubt she's the one, although a few of the sixth years have been eyeing her oddly. I would say that her nerves got the best of her."
"I think this is the reason," Flitwick said, holding up a sheaf of papers as he entered the headmaster's office. "Miss Connolly went to Miss Glasspool's room to fetch her night things and found these in the bedside drawer and tucked into her school books." He handed them to Harry.
"Merlin's pants," Harry murmured, looking over the sheets of Poison Pen letters. There were thirty or more, starting with general abuse similar to letters received by others before narrowing to personal attacks. The most recent messages in particular had found and targeted the girl's fears about failing her NEWTS and losing the Ravenclaw Prize, and they had hammered mercilessly on the matter. "You deserve to fail and I shall laugh when you do," read several of the letters. "Don't you feel your brain going?" taunted a few more. More ominously, the most recent notes said "Better dead than locked up with the other loonies in St Mungo’s" and "In your place, I'd throw myself off the tower."
"Why didn't she tell me?" Flitwick asked with a sigh. "Poor child, brooding on these horrible notes all alone."
"She wouldn't," Harry said with the insight of one who knows. "If she said anything, she believed she'd be thought mad, and so she went a bit mad trying to prove that she was sane."
"This was a deliberate attempt at murder," Snape said shortly. "It is pure luck that Mr Potter and I were coming along the road at that hour and saw her."
"We'll keep her in the Infirmary overnight," Flitwick said. "Her parents are coming in the morning to take her home; I don't know if she will be back after the holiday." He sighed.
"The Infirmary house-elf managed to coax a little soup into the girl, with Miss Bell's help," Snape added. "Apparently, she hasn't been eating, either."
Harry gave him a startled look, opened his mouth, then closed it again and appeared to think deeply about something. Slowly, he said, "I don't think she should be alone. If her House mates could take shifts sitting with her through the night, to help keep her spirits up? Have them talk of cheerful things, not classes or what she tried to do, might do her a world of good."
Flitwick nodded and went off to arrange it.
Snape narrowed his eyes at Harry. "That was not merely an idle or kind suggestion. You suspect someone and think they might try to get to her before she leaves."
Harry shook his head. "I think she's safe enough, but I'd rather err on the side of caution. But yes, as I told you earlier, I have a feeling. Nothing substantial or proven, yet. Hermione has a few more lines of inquiry to pursue."
"Potter - "
Harry smiled at him, an air of mischief in it. "I thought you had agreed to call me 'Harry'."
"For the duration of our date, which is over." Snape could have bit his tongue at that slip as he saw Harry's eyes light up.
"A date, yeah? I suppose it was. Should I tempt fate by asking for a kiss as a proper end to our date?"
Snape scowled and pointed at the door. "Out, Mr Potter, unless you wish to find yourself on the receiving end of a hex."
Laughing, Harry left as ordered.
Which is why it was completely unreasonable for Snape to curse the man for not pressing his demand for a kiss...
During the rebuilding years, the Hogwarts staff had made a habit of gathering on Sunday evenings in the staff lounge to discuss the repairs for the week ahead as well as any issues with the students, both boarders and orphans. The habit had carried over once the school reopened, the new staff integrated into the old tradition. Harry had been invited to join them as well, and usually spent his evening playing chess with Lupin while he heard all about his godson's latest achievements. Tonight, Harry thought he would turn the gathering into a more practical use, that of gathering some of the final bits of information he needed to close this case. With that in mind, he settled down at the chessboard with half of his attention on the chessboard and half on the staff as they trickled in. Fortunately, Lupin didn't expect him to win, but his helpful advice about strategy allowed Harry's mind to stray elsewhere.
Tonight the staff was subdued, the mood darkened by the near-suicide and worry over the future of the school. The headmaster's absence from the gathering seemed to have taken on an ominous cast, many of them worried that he might already be besieged by owls from concerned parents. Miriam's had arrived that morning to take her home, and although they hadn't blamed anyone, it was clear that they were uncertain about the wisdom of allowing her to return. Harry could tell that the staff was worried about what would happen when the news got out, and about what the Poison Pen would do next.
Sinistra was the first one to break the silence. "Such a pity about Miss Glasspool, Filius," she said. "She was such a bright girl."
"But it does pave the way for your Mr Bewick to win the Prize," Vector added slyly from where she sat gossiping with Madam Pince.
"I'm sure that Mr Bewick would prefer to win on his own merit, rather than by default."
"The Glasspool girl needed more of a spine, if you ask me," Hooch said. "Wouldn't say 'boo' to a goose."
"Not all of us are mad-cap dare-devils, Rolanda," Flitwick pointed out. "Miss Glasspool was more interested in exercising the mind. It's a pity about the prize, though - she was counting on that to pay for her apprenticeship. Without that, she won't be able to pursue a job in Charms development."
Pince said, "Sad to say it, Filius, but perhaps she didn't have quite what it takes to be a scholar."
"It doesn't seem fair to have all her dreams crushed because of someone's spite," Lupin said, moving a piece on the chessboard. "Check, Harry."
"Well, you'd know all about that, wouldn't you, Remus?" Vector said pointedly.
"It isn't quite the same," Lupin replied, no hint of rancour in his voice. "I did behave carelessly, and threatened lives." He looked over at Harry apologetically. "It's just fortunate that I didn't hurt anyone. Besides, the DADA Curse would have cost me the job in any event."
"And he did get the job again," Harry said. "It's not as if his dreams were permanently crushed." His eyes travelled over the staff members casually, masking his keen appraisal of each one's reaction to that.
Pomfrey looked wistful. "I remember what it was like to dream, to want something more than anything else, and to lose that." As everyone looked at her in surprise, her cheeks coloured. "It was before all of your times, except Minerva, but at one time I was quite good at complex Transfiguration spells and thought to be -- well, never mind that."
"I remember," McGonagall said. "Accident in Care of Magical Creatures, wasn't it?"
Pomfrey nodded. "My hand was crushed. They repaired it, of course, but I was never able to do the complex wand-work again. I remember being devastated."
"Nonsense," Hooch said briskly. She sat at a table mending a broom, and she paused in her task, gesturing with her knife. "Whining about not getting what you wanted in life is a waste of time and energy. If you get tossed off a broom, you get back on it. And if you can't, you find something else worthwhile to do."
"The Muggles say 'whenever God closes a door, he opens a window'," Katie Bell said quietly from the corner where she was reading.
"Exactly," Hooch said. "Expect you know all about that, Potter."
Harry examined the board and made a move - a bad one, if the groaning from his pieces was any indication. "I don't think I'm a good example, Professor. I didn't really have any big dreams for my future - except surviving Voldemort." There was a general chuckle at that.
"Thought you wanted to be an Auror," Zabini murmured from the corner where he was marking papers with vivid red ink. "Didn't have what it took, Potter?"
"Mr Zabini," McGonagall said sharply, but Harry waved her off.
"It's all right," Harry said. "I don't know if I had what it takes," he said to Zabini. "I just found I didn't much like chasing down Dark Wizards, when it came to it. But being an Auror wasn't my life's goal; I only wanted to be one because of my parents.”
"I always tell my House that it's a mistake to try to do something or be something because of your parents," Sprout said absently as she paged through a seed catalogue. "Stand on your own two feet and grow your own roots, like Neville, here." Neville, taking notes next to her, flushed and ducked his head over the parchment.
"Good advice," Sinistra said, "although not everyone is able to escape the legacy of their parents, as many in my House know. Young Mr Malfoy, for example."
"I doubt that you'll get much sympathy for the plight of the Malfoys," McGonagall said drily.
"Why not?" Zabini asked. "Why shouldn't Draco get just as much sympathy as Lupin or Glasspool? Yes, he made what now seems a stupid choice, but was it a choice? Or, as Professor Sinistra said, was he unable to escape from the path his father had started down?"
Harry bit back the retort he wanted to make; he was here tonight to observe, not to wrangle with Zabini.
Neville, however, had no such qualms. "He did have a choice. He could have said 'no'."
"And died? Not all of us have the ability to come back from the dead, like Potter here," Zabini said dryly. "Or, worse, watch his parents die for his refusal?"
"Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe," Neville said stubbornly. "No matter the cost."
"Hear, hear!" Flitwick chimed in.
"Even if the choice isn't made willingly," Katie said from her corner, "should that excuse someone from their actions? Aren't they accountable for what they did?"
"Of course they are," Lupin said. "But with justice must also come mercy, and forgiveness."
"You are too ready to excuse the behaviour of others," Vector said, disapproval in her voice. Harry had noted at the last meeting that she was one of the few who seemed to still have reservations about Snape, and wondered if there was more to it.
"And some things cannot be forgiven," Pomfrey said, sipping at her tea. "Not when you've had to treat the damage done."
"You’re still hoarding that peppermint tea, Poppy," Sinistra said teasingly. She leaned forward to say to Harry, "Blaise gave Poppy a jar of it for Christmas and she hasn't let any of us have a single drop of it."
"I've seen the way you lot go through coffee," Pomfrey retorted. "And some days, my tea is all that gets me through." She raised her mug to Zabini in salute and he nodded gravely in reply. Harry thought that she looked more tired than usual.
"But speaking about those who make bad choices," Pince said, "will no one say anything in the defence of their families? Or should they just accept their deaths without a peep, in defence of the greater good and moral principles?"
"Well, one feels sorry for them, of course," Hooch said. "But wouldn't it be worse to live, knowing that your child or spouse made a bad choice just to save your life?"
"I don't know about that," Sinistra said. "Ask Molly Weasley's orphans if they'd rather have their parents alive or know that they died making the right choice."
There was dead silence in the room and everyone pointedly didn't look in Harry's direction.
Sinistra flushed. "Sorry, Potter, Longbottom."
Harry shrugged. "It's all right. I do wish they were alive, and I suppose if they'd chosen not to die, I wouldn't know about it because I would be dead. But I am proud of them for standing up for what was right, no matter what the cost."
Across the room, he saw Neville's nod and the approving smile on Katie's face, although predictably, Zabini's lips twisted with a disbelieving sneer and Vector looked sceptical.
"Good for you, Harry," said Lupin.
"You mentioned that with justice must come mercy, Remus," Harry said, returning to his study of the board, "which reminds me of a story I heard while I was travelling." He made a move, ignoring the bishop who was covering his face while the knight made throat-slashing gestures. "One I'm afraid doesn't have a very happy ending."
Lupin looked up at him shrewdly, then went back to studying the board, while the rest of the staff quieted down to listen.
"There were two towns, one on each side of a stream that both claimed. One of the men in the first town decided that the other town took too much fish from the stream, so he gave a few of the fish a potion that wouldn't harm them but would kill whoever ate them. A man from the second town caught one of the fish and took it home; his wife and children ate the fish and they died.
"Now he was a good man, a kind husband and loving father, but the death of his family drove him a bit mad. He went to the elders of the village and demanded justice, and retribution. He asked for the lives of the poisoner, and his wife and children, that they be put to death in justice for the loss of his own family."
"The elders refused him, of course?" McGonagall asked. "One could see asking for the poisoner's death, but surely his family were guiltless."
"So were the bereaved man's wife and children," Lupin pointed out. "Does the poisoner's family have more right to life than our poor widower's family? 'An eye for an eye', say some of the old Muggle laws."
"Yes, and if we went around putting out all the eyes of people who have hurt us, we would all soon be blind," Vector said tartly. "That's where mercy comes in."
"What if the family wasn't innocent? What if they had known and hadn't stopped him, or had even helped?" asked Sinistra.
Less certainly, Vector said, "The wife, possibly, but surely not the children? Even if they helped, they would be too young to know what they were doing."
Harry continued, "The elders did refuse, even to the death of the poisoner, because they were an enlightened people. They offered to punish the guilty man themselves, by imprisoning him."
Pomfrey nodded in agreement of that decision, but Hooch said, "Good for them, but that doesn't seem fair to the man who lost his family."
"But surely he would understand, once he recovered from his grief," McGonagall said. "If he is a good man, as you say, then he should value all life."
"Losing a family can make even kindly people want revenge," Lupin murmured.
"There is wanting revenge, and then there is taking it," Neville said, his face pinched.
Harry eyed Neville and Lupin, then glanced around the room at other faces of people who had lost loved ones or suffered themselves during the last war. He regretted that he was causing innocent people pain, but part of his job as an investigator required ruthless rooting out of facts and feelings.
"How does the story end, Mr Potter?" asked Madam Pince.
"As I said, it's not a happy story," Harry said. "The night after he buried his family, the bereaved man went to the first town and burned down the house of the man who had poisoned the fish, killing him as well as his entire family. And not only did he burn down that man's house, he burned down all the other houses in the town because he said they were just as much to blame as the poisoner. Then he hung himself from a tree in the town square."
There was silence for a long moment. "But...it's just a story, right, Harry?" Neville asked, eyes wide.
Harry shook his head. "I've walked through the streets of the town that was burned. Nothing remains except the ghosts of those who died, both the innocent and the guilty."
"The poor man," Pomfrey said into the silence that followed. "He must have been quite mad in his grief."
Heads nodded in agreement, but as he looked around the room again, in at least one pair of eyes he saw the burning fanatical gleam for vengeance. He looked up at Lupin and knew that he had seen the same thing. Lupin tipped over his king.
"Check-mate to you."
Friday, April 18, 2003
A loud knocking on the outer door woke Snape out of a troubled sleep where bodies tumbled off the Astronomy Tower battlement. It was not the first time he'd had this dream, but tonight Dumbledore's familiar form changed to Miriam Glasspool's slight frame and then, more disturbingly, to Harry's. He was almost glad to be awakened.
Wondering if the Poison Pen had been at work again, he flung on his dressing gown and shoved his feet into slippers, then made his way to the door. Madam Pomfrey was standing on the other side, and he frowned.
"Poppy, what's happened? Has there been another attack? Is someone hurt?"
"Oh, no, sir! It's just that Katie and I think we've found the Prankster, and I thought you should come at once and see for yourself, if you please."
"Of course! Where - "
"The unused classroom near the Infirmary," she said as he followed her down the spiral staircase. "Katie was leaving after her shift as we have no patients at present, and she came back after a minute to tell me that she heard someone moving about in the classroom around the corner. She thought it was a courting couple, the door being locked, but when she put her eye to the crack, she saw just one person. They were talking to themselves, and that's when she fetched me. She is waiting outside the door, on watch in case they come out."
"Good." They went down the staircases together, until they reached the third floor. "Fetch Mr Potter, if you would, Poppy - we will have need of him. I will join Miss Bell on watch." As she hurried down the corridor toward Potter's rooms, he continued down the stairs until he reached the classroom near the Infirmary. Katie was waiting in the corridor, anxiously staring in his direction, and he saw the relief on her face.
"Headmaster," she murmured, too quietly for anyone inside to hear.
"No one has come out?" he asked. She shook her head. "And they are still inside?" She nodded at that. "Good. I have sent for Mr Potter. As soon as he arrives, we will confront our Prankster at last."
While they waited, Snape drew his wand and checked for spells on the door. In addition to the locking spell, there was a strong obscuring charm, obviously designed to keep anyone from discovering the Prankster at work. He put his eye to the crack, peering into the room. Only one torch was lit, and in its faint light, all he could see was a shadow of a form at one of the student desks.
There was movement next to him and he stepped back to allow Harry to have a look. "Obscuring charm," he murmured in Harry's ear. "Shall I break it?"
Before Harry could reply or Snape could make a move, there was a sudden disturbance in the room. The torch went out, there was a clatter as if something had been knocked over, followed by a loud whoosh!
"They're getting away!" Harry shouted and, pointing his wand at the door, shouted "Alohomora!"
The door burst open and they rushed in, wands at the ready, but it was too late. The room was empty with chairs knocked on their sides between the desk and the door, and the window open; Harry ran to it but it was obvious from the slump of his shoulders that the Prankster had escaped.
"They got away," Snape said, frustration making his voice sharper than ever. He turned to the two women. "Miss Bell, what precisely did you see?"
Katie swallowed in apparent nervousness, not too surprising under the circumstances. "I - it was too dark to see much, sir. A black-robed shape hunched at the desk, nothing else."
"What made you suspicious of the room?" Harry asked as he prowled around the room, looking at the window, the torch, the chairs, and the desk.
Katie glanced briefly at him, then back at Snape. "The door was closed, sir. It's usually open - nothing much here but desks and chairs. I tried the door but it was locked. I put my ear to it - I thought it was students up to a bit of snogging, thinking I'd hear giggles or kissing or - " She broke off, blushing.
"What did you hear?"
"He - she - it - was talking to itself, real quiet, but I could hear a few words and they were...not right, if you understand what I mean. Frightened me, they did. So I went for Madam Pomfrey."
"Thank you, Poppy, Katie," Snape said when Katie had finished her report. "We will take it from here. And please do not tell anyone about this."
The women nodded and left. Snape joined Harry where he was studying the parchment on the desk. It was similar to the other letters, this one reading "Snape, you murderer. Your boyfriend got you off last time, but you won't be so lucky next time. I'll see you in - " It ended abruptly, with a squiggle and a smudge, as if the writer had been startled and the pen fell to the desk.
"One assumes I'll either end in Azkaban or Hell, although not much difference between the two," Snape said drily.
"Is this the first one you've received?"
"Since the very first one, at the warding in May." Snape cast a revealing spell on the parchment and quill, but they were as clean as the previous parchments. He frowned. "Odd. I wouldn't have thought our Poison Pen had time to wipe their magical signature from these."
Harry was doing the same thing to the cloak lying across the desk's chair. "Same here, but I've seen this cloak before." He held up the cuff, which was torn and badly mended. "This has been hanging in the antechamber off the Great Hall since my fifth year, at least."
"So whoever was working here grabbed it as a disguise in case they were caught."
"Apparently," Harry said, appearing to be deep in thought. He turned and looked at the fallen chairs. "I wonder why those were knocked over. If our culprit was heading for the window, these chairs are in the opposite direction."
"Perhaps they became disoriented in the dark," Snape said, frowning in thought. "Or they'd placed their broomstick on the chairs and knocked them over in snatching it up."
"Perhaps," Harry said. He looked around the room.
"Harry - " Snape began, then stopped, shaking his head.
"Something worries you about this room, doesn't it, Severus?" Harry asked.
Snape nodded. "Yes, and I obviously don't need to tell you what it is."
Harry smiled faintly. "No, I am convinced that our hearts and minds are as one. But tell me anyway."
Snape ignored that deliberate provocation and gestured toward the torches, extinguishing all but the one that had been burning while the Prankster worked. He sat down at the desk, looking down at the parchment before him. "With only that torch lit, my shadow covers the parchment - I can't see a word on it. Now, that might not mean anything as our Poison Pen was dictating to the Quill, but still...."
Harry nodded. "Exactly. And why would our Poison Pen bring a broomstick with them, unless they were planning to use it from the start?"
"The scene was set for our benefit," Snape said flatly. "We were meant to find this display."
"Yes. Otherwise why set up in a room across from the Infirmary, on a well-patrolled corridor, when there are dozens of deserted corridors and rooms throughout the castle suitable for nefarious purposes?" Harry asked.
"You have been consulting a thesaurus, I see. And I am not going to inquire how you know about those corridors," Snape said.
Harry gave him an impish smile. "Not for snogging, if you are worried about that. When I left Hogwarts, my heart and body was pure."
Snape wondered if, and when, that might have changed and then decided he didn't want to know. He thought about the location and looked around the room again. There were two staff members with rooms on this floor including Pomfrey, and Madam Hooch had rooms directly above as well as uncontested access to brooms. "Harry," he said slowly, "I am beginning to have a dreadful suspicion."
Harry nodded. "I know. But say nothing as of yet. As I said, Hermione is doing some checking and I have faith in her ability to ferret out the information I need." He paused. "Severus, would you be offended if I suggested that you should take some personal precautions?"
Snape frowned. "Why?"
"I think that you and at least one other person might be in danger of a physical attack. I don't think there will be any more letters - our Poison Pen may have been spooked by Glasspool's near suicide and wanted to dump the evidence before rooms and belongings were searched; they won't risk obtaining other tools. But I think that the next attack will be both physical and serious."
"I believe that you may rely on me to protect my person," Snape snapped, then recalled Sinistra's story of uncommonly strong hands slamming her into the wall. He thought about the long, dark, deserted corridors he regularly patrolled at night alone. "But I will heed your words and be careful."
"Thank you," Harry said simply.
* * * * *
After the excitement of the day before and his disturbed sleep during the night, Snape was not surprised to find that he'd overslept the next morning. Not that he always joined the staff for breakfast on Saturday morning, but he usually liked to get an earlier start to the day, to work his way through his correspondence. That was the only thing he missed from his tenure as headmaster under the Dark Lord: parents and Ministry officials hadn't had the nerve to bombard the right-hand of the Dark Lord with their inane requests or their feeble-minded twaddle about their offspring's grades or detentions. Eyeing the pile of messages that morning, he was more than a little tempted to blast them into tiny charred fragments or send replies advising the doting parents that yes, their little heirs were indeed that mentally and/or morally deficient.
It didn't help that the top letter on the pile was from Potter, advising him that he'd run back up to London to "pursue another line of inquiry," reminding him to be careful, and asking him to keep an eye on Madam Pomfrey until he got back. His heart sank at confirmation that Poppy was, indeed, Potter's prime suspect. He had known the matron since he was a boy; she had patched up his injuries from his abusive father, his Marauding persecutors, and the Dark Lord's wrath and insanity. She had nursed him during a particularly virulent outbreak of a childhood disease, and had been kinder to him than his own mother. She had been one of the few to know just how bad Dumbledore's cursed arm was and, he suspected, to know the true state of his allegiance during that long, terrible year before Potter brought down the Dark Lord. The thought that she hated him enough to pen that latest letter or, worse, had lost her mind, was more painful than the loss of his mother had been. The only thing that sustained him was the hope that she was under an Imperius curse and that the true puppet-master would be found.
Following lunch, Snape and McGonagall had their regular weekly meeting in his office, a meeting that Snape found his attention wandering from at odd intervals. What was Potter - Harry - Potter looking into and why did it take him away from Hogwarts? Surely Miss Granger's research abilities were better suited to such tasks...except that Harry - Potter had a way of enticing people to talk to him, and it wasn't just because of his fame. Snape had seen his own staff members, some of them wary or hostile at the start, unbend during a discussion with Har- Potter to such a degree that they had no doubt revealed just what he wanted to know. Even when Snape was sitting in the same session and seeing/hearing the same things, he was aware that Harry was garnering more information than he.
And it wasn't because Snape was unobservant -- years as a spy had made Snape aware of both words and body language to a finely tuned degree; after all, his life had depended on his ability to read the Dark Lord and react appropriately. No, Harry had an innate ability to read people and situations and leap to a valid conclusion, moving from Facts A and B to Result Z without touching on other points along the way. Snape had known that, instinctively, when he'd given Harry his memories, had known that Harry would only need to see them to connect the dots and know what he had to do to defeat the Dark Lord.
He wondered what Harry's instinct for reading people and situations was like in regard to people that he cared about. Certainly the boy had put up with a lot from Ronald Weasley over the years, even when Weasley was acting like a prat; he must have known that, at the core, Weasley was worth having as a friend to put up with it. Could that be why Harry was so determined to court and win him? The mutual antagonism they had both felt for seven years, which had its roots in willful blindness to the other's true nature, had been blown apart for Harry by those memories, and for Snape by Harry's willingness to stand up to the Wizengamot for him. Had this unique ability of Harry's also allowed him to see, four years ago, that they could both come to this place in their lives where they could meet as equals? Where they could equally respect - and perhaps love - each other?
An amused sound from McGonagall made him realise that he had missed what she had said while his mind was wandering. "Perhaps we should continue this next week," she said tactfully, "when you don't have so much on your mind."
"I apologize, Minerva. I admit that I do have other things occupying my mind more than end-of-term business. This latest attack by the Poison Pen is troubling; a dozen parents have owled me, worried that Hogwarts still isn't safe."
McGonagall made a non-committal noise but the way her shrewd eyes studied him, he knew that she could see that wasn't all occupying his thoughts. "You should make up your mind, one way or another, Severus, or you'll never have any peace of mind."
He feigned ignorance. "Make up my mind about what?"
It didn't work. "About Harry, of course. About whether you are going to marry him or not."
He sighed and rubbed his temples. "I have a bloody horrible temper, I'm surly and unforgiving, and I'm no one's idea of a perfect husband. I'd make his life a misery."
McGonagall shrugged. "Well then, if you feel you'd make him more miserable living with you than without you, you should send him away once and for all and be done with it."
He raised his head to glare at her. "I've been trying to send him away for years!"
"Nonsense," McGonagall said briskly. "I've known you for over thirty years, Severus. I've heard you give the rough side of your tongue to enough people, Harry included. If you really tried you could send him away in five minutes."
"Meaning, I suppose, that I don't really want to?"
"Don't be dense, Severus." She rose from her chair. "You and I haven't always seen eye to eye on many things, including Harry. But I think we can both agree that you'd be better off with him in your life. So do stop dithering and do something about it!"
"Before he comes to his senses or someone else snatches him up?" he said mockingly, still unwilling to admit that she could be right.
"If Harry were going to allow anyone to 'snatch him up', he'd be married to the Weasley girl; she certainly tried hard enough. And I believe that Harry knows his own mind well enough and isn't likely to change it. However, he might accept that you will never change yours and abandon the attempt. And I do think that would be a dreadful thing, don't you?"
* * * * *
McGonagall's words weighed on Snape's mind for the rest of the day, despite his attempts to occupy himself with other business. Part of the reason for his on-going refusal was, as he had stated, his self-awareness about just how difficult a person he was and how likely he was to take his temper out on whoever was near at the time. Another reason was his reluctance (some would say his inability) to share; even as a boy, he had had difficulty with his school-mates, and the thought of sharing a home with another person who would with him round the clock was ghastly. But cogitation on that problem (as he informed Mrs Tweedlepop that no, her precious son could not have unlimited access to the kitchens at night and that yes, flying lessons were mandatory) reminded him that, as both of them had full-time careers, they weren't likely to be in each other's pockets for twenty-four hours of the day. And even if they were, Harry had proven to be far less annoying than he'd thought he'd be. The plain fact of the matter was that he had become accustomed to having the younger man about the castle and, rather to his surprise, he missed him.
As he patrolled the corridors that night, wand in hand, he ruminated over the final reason for denying Harry the answer he wanted: Snape was reluctant to offer his heart up for more pain and loss. Despite what Harry had said about Snape's gender-preference, Snape had loved Lily, perhaps more hopelessly for the fact that she was a woman, and her rejection and loss was a scar still tender to the touch. It was possible (highly likely) that he could (had) transferred his deeper emotions (love) for Lily to her son. But could he get past the fear that someone else would snatch Harry away from him, as Lily had been taken away by first Potter Senior and then the Dark Lord? Could he survive such a devastating loss a second time? Was it truly better to have loved and lost, or was that another inane Muggle saying more appropriate for greeting cards than real life?
Then again, if something were to happen to Harry today, tomorrow, next week, if that bright light were to be put out forever, could he say that it wouldn't hurt him to the core? If he was likely to suffer grievously when Potter's luck inevitably ran out, was he likely to suffer less as a friend than as a spouse? And if the pain of loss was going to be just as deep, shouldn't he try to grab for as much joy (and pleasure) as he could before he lost the other man?
Thoughts of grabbing for pleasure (and the pleasure of grabbing) were pushed aside as he approached the corridor where Madam Pomfrey had her rooms. The door was slightly ajar and he could see a light inside. Poppy must not have closed it completely when she left -- and the thought that she might be elsewhere in the castle causing mayhem spurred him into action. He would check her rooms for evidence while she was out, and then confront her privately and offer her the help she needed if she would confess and resign.
Quietly, he pushed the door all the way open and stepped inside, then looked around. The room was in a bit of disarray, unusual for the tidy matron, but perhaps that was another sign of a disintegrating mind. He glanced around, wondering where incriminating evidence might be kept, then stilled as he heard a sound from the bedchamber. Had Poppy not gone out? But then, why was her door ajar? Unless -
The torch went out abruptly, and as he turned, strong fingers grabbed his throat.
He had two advantages: he was taller than his opponent and he was partly prepared. He grabbed the wrists, trying to pry them apart, and managed to dislodge one of them. His assailant then tried a different tactic, with a sharp elbow to the ribs that made him catch his breath followed by an equally sharp blow to the nose that knocked him back, causing him to lose his footing. He was falling, as if in slow motion, as he'd seen Dumbledore and Harry falling in his dreams, the sound of hoarse and foul invective in his ears, and then his head hit something sharp and the world dissolved into blackness.
* * * * *
Someone had a headache and was moaning about the pain of it. Given the proximity of the noise, Snape was fairly certain that it was he.
He managed to pry open an eyelid, squinting against the light, and recognized the ceiling of the Infirmary above him. A face, anxious and pale, hovered over him, saying something that he couldn't quite catch. He did understand what the bottle being waved under his nose was and, opening his mouth, was quite relieved when the potion knocked him right back out again.
The next time he awoke, the pain was much more manageable and the room was darker, torches faintly lit against the night provided just enough glow to see that the chair beside his bed was occupied - by Harry, no less, sleeping in a most uncomfortably upright way. Relief at seeing him warred with chagrin at not having taken his warning more seriously; had their positions been reversed, Snape would have handed the young man his head. Which reminded him that his head hurt and he reached up to assess the damage. There was a thick bandage on one side of his head, his neck hurt abominably, and for a moment he didn't know when he was.
Then Harry stirred in his chair, opened his eyes and, seeing him awake, smiled. "Hullo," Harry said softly, in the tone of voice that spoke of experience waking with a head that felt as if it had taken a bludger. "You're awake."
"Obviously," Snape said, his voice coming out like a bullfrog's croak. "What - "
"Let me get you settled more comfortably and then I'll answer your questions."
Harry picked up a potion bottle from the night table, squinted at the label, then opened it and held it to Snape's lips. He swallowed obediently, feeling it start to work immediately on his sore throat and aching head. He shifted on his bed and, with Harry's help, managed to get settled into a more upright position. Harry then handed him another bottle; Snape recognized it as a blood-replenishing potion and raised an eyebrow.
"You cracked your head on a table going down," Harry said helpfully. "Bled like a stuck pig till we could get it stopped."
Taking the "we" in that statement to be literal since Harry was playing nursemaid, Snape said, "Taking up a new career in healing, Potter? Where's Poppy?"
"Two beds over," he replied. "We found you lying on her floor and I helped her patch you up, then she took a nose-dive of her own. Apparently, finding your near-corpse bleeding out on the ground twice in a decade was too much for her heart - which had also been weakened by repeated doses of a very subtle poison." As Snape, alarmed, tried to sit up to look over at the matron, Harry firmly pushed him back against the pillows. "Relax. A Healer from St Mungo's has been here and seen both of you. Poppy will be fine, although he recommends a rest cure of several months. And you're apparently too stubborn to stay dead so you'll be fine as well."
Snape looked around for the apprentice Healer. "Where's Miss Bell?"
"Resting in her rooms. She received a message that one of the Quidditch players was injured during practice and went down to treat them, only no one was practicing. She was shoved inside the broom shed and locked in, and spent hours pounding on the door for help since her wand was taken as well. Her hands were all banged up; the Healer saw to them as well."
Snape frowned. "When was this?"
"About the same time you were being strangled and knocked unconscious," Harry said lightly. "And, by the way, you deserve my ire. Weren't you going to take better care?"
"I was armed with my wand and I have held my own against Dark Wizards in the past," Snape pointed out. He certainly wasn't going to confess to Harry about why he hadn't been as alert as he should have been. "I was patrolling the corridors and saw that her door was ajar and the torch lit inside. I thought..." he paused. "I thought she might be up to something elsewhere and wanted to check for evidence."
"Quite right," Harry said. "I would have done the same - and probably would have been nearly killed as well."
Drily, Snape said, "I can't tell you how thrilled I am to discover that I have become nearly as impulsive and unconcerned for my physical well-being as you."
Harry laughed. "I do believe that I am rubbing off on you, Severus."
"Did you find out what you wanted to in London?"
The smile faded from Harry's face and he nodded soberly. "I wish I could say that I hadn't but - yes. I found it. I understand exactly what is going on, and why." Harry's eyes met Snape's. "You do, too, don't you?'
"I will admit that I was fooled - briefly - but yes." Snape smiled faintly. "Our minds are indeed as one."
Harry's eyes lit up; he clenched his fists in his lap as if afraid of what they would do should he turn them loose, then rose to his feet. "And now I'll leave you to get some rest. When you're feeling better in the morning, I'd like you to call a staff meeting so we can lay the spectre of the Prankster to rest, for once and all."
Monday, April 21, 2003
"Congratulations on not being dead - again," McGonagall said from his bedside the next time he awoke.
Snape grimaced and accepted the potions she handed him. "First Potter and now you. I believe that I am going to have to complain about the level of service offered in our Infirmary." To belie his words, he glanced over at the bed where Madam Pomfrey lay resting quietly. "How is Poppy?"
"Better, according to the Healer from St Mungo's," she replied. "Although she'll need complete rest for a little while with someone to take care of her."
Snape nodded. "Potter wanted to call a meeting of the staff, to disclose his findings."
"He has: in two hours, which should give you enough time to make yourself presentable again." She hesitated then said, "He was quite worried about you, you know. Sat by your bedside till you awoke, not saying a word but looking pale as death himself."
"Don't push, Minerva," he said, irritably.
"I'm not pushing," she said indignantly. "I'm...encouraging."
"Any more encouragement and you'd be subjecting me to a wand-point wedding."
Tartly, she said, "Would it help?"
Under her bullying, he consumed a light meal and then managed to get vertical and into the Infirmary bathroom, although he drew the line at McGonagall helping him in there. A long, hot soak in the tub made him feel less fragile, and when he'd arrayed himself in his customary black robes, he was grimly ready to finish the matter and get on with his life.
He'd half-expected to see Harry waiting when he got out of the bath, but there was no sign of him as Snape made his way down to the staff room, the next to last to arrive. Snape slowly made his way to his chair, receiving concerned greetings and well-wishes from the staff on the way. He'd barely taken his seat when Harry breezed in, folder crammed with evidence tucked under his arm. Glancing around the room, Snape saw that all of the staff was present, with the exception of Madam Pomfrey and Katie Bell, both resting under Healer's orders, and Madam Hooch. Kingsley was also there, sitting at the place on Snape's right with two Aurors leaning against the wall behind him.
"Thank you all for taking the time before you start on your holidays to attend this meeting," Harry said as he stood at the opposite end of the table from Snape and set the folder down in front of him. "As you all know, the Minister and the headmaster asked me to come to Hogwarts to look into the activities of the person you were calling the Poison Pen or the Prankster. I won't bore you by going into all the details of the case, which you already know. I will just talk about the most important points, the ones that led me to identify the culprit in the events that have been occurring here."
"Then you've discovered who it is?" Flitwick asked.
"Yes, I have," Harry said. "But since this person has not confessed, nor is likely to, I would like to lay out the case so that we can determine how to proceed. Also, for the present I will be referring to the perpetrator as 'X' who I will tell you is female."
The staff members shifted in their seats, glancing around at the female members present and, from the looks on the faces of several of the staff, thinking about those absent.
Snape signalled for quiet. "Please carry on, Mr Potter."
Harry nodded. "The first thing that became obvious to an outsider coming into the case was that X had access to nearly all parts of the castle, including the headmaster's office and the Houses. While all staff can enter the headmaster's office, the only people with access to all the Houses were the heads of them and Infirmary staff. Theoretically, any one of them could enter the dormitories at any time to leave the Poison Pen letters. In reality, it's difficult to come and go from dorms without being seen. Students are up at all hours: studying in the common room, using the loo, raiding the kitchens, and so forth. The presence of a staff member, especially in a House not their own, would be noticed and gossiped about and, as we know, there has been no such talk. Which leaves the only other beings in Hogwarts who are able to come and go without being noticed - the house elves."
"Are you saying that X is a house-elf?" McGonagall asked.
Harry shook his head. "No; X used a house-elf to accomplish part of her plans."
"But as we've said before, the house elves are bound to Hogwarts and the headmaster," Flitwick pointed out.
"All but one: Winky. After she was freed against her will, Dobby brought Winky here and Professor Dumbledore arranged to pay her, just like Dobby. However, Winky was unhappy as a free house-elf, and took to drinking as well as letting her appearance deteriorate. And then along came X, who understood and offered Winky what she dearly wanted: a proper job as a house-elf. Because X knew what it was like to want to do the job that you were meant to do, and knew how it felt to be prevented from doing that job by other people.
"Now I'm going to tell you a story about X, a story I learned about two days ago. You see, X was once meant to do something else, something she'd dreamed about since she was a little girl, and her dream was within her reach when there was a horrible accident. An accident caused by someone else's malicious actions. She was badly injured and nearly died, and when she awoke in St Mungo's, everyone said that she was lucky to be alive. But she didn't feel lucky, because she found out that her dream had been snatched away from her. She had been injured in such a way that prevented her from ever being able to follow her profession.
"Still, she was determined to make the best of her situation. During the long months she spent convalescing at St Mungo's, she came to admire the Healers there and so she decided to become one so that she could, in turn, help others. She was a good student, and at the end of her training, she came to Hogwarts. This was a mistake because she was reminded almost daily of what had happened and what she'd lost, and she began to brood. As she maintained a cheerful front for the world, no one noticed - and if anyone remembered that she once had other dreams, well, she seemed content so they assumed those had been forgotten.
"It was at the Warding ceremony that brooding first changed to action, an impulsive and unplanned act. X overheard Mr Zabini talking about the Malfoys, whom she had learned were behind the accident that had destroyed her dreams. In a fit of anger, she grabbed an unused Quick Quotes Quill from the Infirmary - used to make notes on patients' charts while hands are full - and wrote a note to Zabini, then slipped it into his robes to be found later. What she didn't know was that Zabini had damaged his robes while bottling a potion and, in his rush to get to the warding, had simply grabbed a spare one hanging in the workroom belonging to Professor Snape. When we put our robes back on after the warding ceremony, they accidentally switched robes and so Professor Snape found the note and thought it was aimed at him, thus confusing the matter.
"Meanwhile, X had discovered that putting quill to paper was an excellent relief for her pent-up anger, and for a time cast her Poison Pen letters indiscriminately at the Hogwarts staff, many of whom she blamed for not preventing the events that led to her accident. With one exception: Professor Snape did not receive any of the messages, except for the one that went astray, for reasons that I will explain shortly. However, X found that simply venting her spleen was no longer enough; she wanted to get a reaction, even frighten her victims. The staff was too tough for those tactics, so that's when she started targeting the students.
"By this time, she had already recruited Winky to her side by binding her to the Infirmary's service, so accessing student rooms was easy, and the psychological impact was almost enough to satisfy her. Almost, so she began painting threats and slurs on the walls. Her first attempt was a disaster as she spilt paint on the old school robes she was wearing, so she had to burn them - the robes that Hagrid found. After that, she waited till the students had left for holiday before she painted on the walls again - I expect that she was nearly caught the first time. The book burning was also aimed at Mr Zabini, as the author was a relative of his; Winky helped stage the burning so that no one would know who did it.
"At that point, I was asked to come and investigate. The dummy outside the prefect's bathroom was for my benefit, with no specific target in mind - its main purpose was to get that clipping into my hands and make me think that the Prankster was a Voldemort supporter, targeting his enemies and the school in revenge. When I refused to take the bait, X went on that rampage through the school - a sheer tantrum on her part. She also attacked another person in Hogsmeade, one whom she blamed in part for her accident.
"By now, X had narrowed down her Poison Pen targets to the sixth and seventh year students, particularly those who seemed to be about to achieve their own dreams. Miss Glasspool was a perfect target - almost too perfect; X was hoping for a mental breakdown and perhaps hospitalisation, and the suicide attempt shook her. It was then she decided that she needed to get rid of the evidence in her rooms, and so she staged a 'discovery' in an unused classrooms, casting spells once Professor Snape and I were present that made it seem as if the Prankster had left through the window, thus providing an alibi and implicating at least one other staff member.
"At this point, I was certain in my suspicions but couldn't explain why X was doing these things, until X inadvertently revealed her motive at the staff gathering. But I still didn't have proof, so the next day, I went to St Mungo's to confirm her medical condition, and then to the Ministry to check house-elf registrations."
He laid a copy of the registration on the table, face up, where everyone could plainly see the name 'Katherine Bell' next to Winky's.
McGonagall gasped. "But surely this is not possible! Katie was set upon by the Prankster herself."
Harry shook his head. "She had planned to attack Madam Pomfrey in her rooms, having weakened her heart with the poison she'd put into her peppermint tea. If it was discovered, she planned to blame Zabini for the poison. She hid parchment and a partially completed note in the bedside table, to be found after Poppy's death. Unknown to Katie, I'd asked Madam Pomfrey to go with me to St Mungo's for Katie's medical information. So it was Professor Snape who was attacked instead, and he fought back. By the time she discovered her mistake, he was unconscious and bleeding, and she was no doubt covered in bruises and bloodstains. She was too rattled to cast healing spells on herself and could hardly ask Poppy, so she had Winky lock her in the broom-shed, then proceeded to cover up the bruises and blood with her own. As to proof -- "
At that moment, the door opened and Madam Hooch entered, holding up a wand. "This what you were looking for, Mr Potter?"
He nodded. "Where did you find it?"
"Students have a secret stash for their fags and such," she replied with a grin. "Don't think I know about it, but they'd be wrong. I found it tucked it there, nice as you please."
"It should be easy to identify this as Katie's wand," Harry said, setting it on the table next to the registration. "In addition, I have a statement from the captain of the Wimbourne Wasps that they had made a tentative offer to Katie as 3rd string chaser, and a report from her Healer at St Mungo's regarding the irreparable damage the cursed necklace did to her inner ear which affects her balance. She is incapable of balancing on a broomstick." He glanced up the table at Snape. "You had already guessed, hadn't you?"
Snape nodded slowly, so as not to jar his head. "It was her performance at the staged display. She said that she heard the Prankster muttering to itself inside the room - the only person who heard anything, and through an Obscuring charm. Miss Bell said the Prankster was dictating to the Quill and that the words frightened her, but in point of fact, nothing was written of a frightening nature."
Harry nodded and pulled the parchment out of the stack, laying it out for all to see. "I imagine that she was so caught up in her play-acting that she over-did it."
"You said that Professor Snape was not a target but you haven't explained why," Sinistra said. "I would have thought that the mess made in his office the other day was an attack."
"That was more of a temper tantrum, but yes, at that point, X - or Katie, if you prefer, was very angry with the headmaster," Harry said. "With both Headmasters, actually - current and past. Katie blamed four people for the loss of her Quidditch career: Draco Malfoy for the cursed necklace, Madam Rosmerta for putting her under Imperius and giving her the package, Professor Dumbledore for being Malfoy's target, and Madam Pomfrey for not being able to remove the curse sooner." He shrugged. "I am not saying that it makes sense, only that she felt these four were to blame. She overheard a Healer at St Mungo's say that her inner ear damage could have been prevented if the curse had been lifted sooner and misinterpreted that as saying that Poppy had been incompetent. Professor Snape got a pass from her because he was the one who removed the curse, saving her life and because..." He paused and then continued, "and because he had killed Dumbledore. She thought in some way that it had been done for her, but when he spoke in support of Dumbledore at the memorial, she transferred him to the list of enemies. That memorial was also the reason for her tantrum and rampage through the school."
Kingsley, who had been listening silently up till now, said, "Harry, if you have finished presenting your evidence, I think it's now time to hear from Miss Bell."
"I don't advise that, Minister," Harry said flatly. "It would be best if she was sedated and quietly taken to St Mungo's."
"My Ministry will not see anyone convicted without having a chance to tell their side," Kingsley said firmly. "I will not have a Sirius Black on my conscience." He turned to McGonagall. "Minerva, would you please bring Miss Bell here?"
As McGonagall left, Harry made a gesture of resignation and turned away, going to stand at the windows. Seeing the slump of his shoulders, Snape had a feeling of foreboding and bit his lip to keep from speaking out. Kingsley was right; the girl deserved to be heard, and if she was mad, it was better to have it out here rather than in front of the Wizengamot. Everyone sat silently, no doubt consulting their own memories on the events, while Kingsley slowly went through the stack of letters, pictures, notes, and official documents Harry had amassed.
The door opened and both Katie Bell and Madam Pomfrey came through, the latter escorted to a chair by McGonagall who stood next to her, a hand on her shoulder. Snape hoped she also had a restorative in her pocket; the news was bound to shock and sadden the Infirmary matron.
"You sent for me, Headmaster?" Katie asked politely, then her eyes fell on the house-elf registration lying on the end of the table and the wand beside it. She drew her breath in a startled hiss, her eyes darting wildly around the room like a wild animal seeking refuge.
"Miss Bell," Snape said quickly. "I understand why you feel you have a grievance against Mr Malfoy and Rosmerta, but surely the students like Miss Glasspool are innocent of any wrong-doing."
"Innocent?" Katie said, drawing herself up. "I was innocent and what good did it do me? Better that they learn sooner rather than late that the world is a horrible place that crushes your dreams. Better if they don't dream at all!"
"Am I to understand," Kingsley said, "that you admit you're responsible for the letters and attacks on the property and inhabitants of Hogwarts? I sent for you so that you could have a chance to clear yourself - "
"Clear myself?" Katie laughed, an ugly, angry sound. "I wouldn't trouble to clear myself! I did it all, every bit, and not one of you ever suspected! Had to bring in the precious Boy-Who-Lived to save you all - again. Don't you get tired of it, Harry?" she asked suddenly, turning and addressing him. "What did they ever do for you, except stick you with those bastard Muggles and then expect you to throw yourself in front of trouble for them!"
Harry turned away from the window, shaking his head. "It's not like that, Katie - "
"Bollocks it isn't," she snapped. "Do you think any of them care about you? They don't, not a one of them - not even him," she said, pointing her finger at Snape. "Yes, I've seen the way you look at him, but it'll do you no good. Cold he is, cold as a snake, and uncaring. Didn't mind that at first - at least he didn't pretend to care. Not like them," she said gesturing to the other teachers. "Pretending that the students matter when all they care about is this precious school and their precious jobs. He didn't care either," she said, her voice rising a little hysterically. "Dumbledore, the great Dumbledore - only he wasn't so great, was he, in the end? Patted me on the head and said 'too bad about the curse but you're all right now' - all right? When I can't even stand on a chair without feeling sick to my stomach, much less play Quidditch - and I was good, I was going somewhere, and then it was over. And they never even punished Malfoy for it, not then and not now. Malfoy money bought all of them, and me left to clean bed-pans and pour potions down the throats of ungrateful brats gorging themselves on sweeties! It wasn't fair!"
She was nearly screaming now, and Harry went to her, his face troubled. "Katie, please, this isn't good for you - "
"Traitor!" she spat at him, and he flinched back just as if she had struck him. "Hypocrite! You're the worst of them all! You did this - betrayed me to them! How could you?"
"It's my job," Harry said, quietly.
"What kind of job makes you hunt down someone who's only trying to get justice?" she demanded. "I wished I'd killed you. I wish I could kill all of you, just like that man in the story," she said, glaring around the room at all the staff who were staring at her, aghast. "I wish I could burn down this place so no one else would ever have their dreams ripped to shreds like I did - "
"This is quite enough," McGonagall said firmly. She grasped Katie by the arm, pulling her round and slapping her briskly across the face. Katie, startled in mid-shriek, gave a gasp and then collapsed against McGonagall's chest, crying hard but without the edge of hysteria. " Poppy, do you have - ah, thank you!" She coaxed Katie into swallowing a calming draught, then she looked over at Kingsley who was sitting in stunned silence and said, quietly, "I think it would be best if your people took her, now, gently and quietly."
Kingsley nodded, and the two Aurors with him quietly escorted Katie out of the room.
"Well," Kingsley said, into the stunned silence that followed. "I believe that we can consider this matter closed." Looking at Snape and then McGonagall, he said, "I will personally see to it that she gets the best care possible." Snape nodded, seeming unable to speak at the moment, and Kingsley turned to Harry. "Walk out with me, Mr Potter?"
Harry obediently followed the Minister to the entrance hall, watching as he shrank down the folder of evidence and put it in his pocket. He thought that he should have some qualms about that, but at the moment it was hard to feel anything. Besides, he knew that Kingsley would safeguard it better than anyone else.
"Thanks for your help with this," Kingsley said, shaking his hand. "I knew you were the right man to get to the bottom of it, although I'm sorry that it had to be someone you knew."
Harry shrugged, feeling exhausted and wrung out all of the sudden. "The war is still claiming victims, it seems."
"That's one of the hellish things about war," Kingsley said. "Most of the damage isn't done with spells and curses, and some of it we don't see for years."
Harry nodded, thinking about the orphans living in Molly's cottage, and the sixth and seventh years who had seen the Battle of Hogwarts close up and were far too old for their years. He thought about Severus and the scars he still bore that kept him from reaching out, even though Harry was quite certain that he wanted to be with Harry. He thought about his own childhood, saviour-victim of the first war with Voldemort and sacrificial-lamb of the second one.
"All we can do is keep living," Harry said. "I suppose that's the only true victory."
Kingsley nodded and then, with a glint of humour in his eyes, cocked his head in the direction of the staff room. "Speaking of which....Snape? Really? After the way you used to snarl about him?"
Harry smiled ruefully and shrugged. "What can I say? The heart loves where it will."
"Well, I hope that you get what you want and that it makes you happy," Kingsley said, clapping him on the shoulder in farewell.
"That's all that any of us can really hope for," Harry said to himself as he watched Kingsley leave Hogwarts, then he turned and walked back into the staff room to help begin the healing.
By that evening, the school was getting back to normal and Harry was packed to return to London. He was strangely reluctant to leave, and not just because of his feelings for Snape. Looking around his rooms a final time, he shrank his trunk to a manageable size and went down to the entrance hall where staff members were waiting to bid him good-bye.
"Well, that's done, then," Harry said, setting his trunk down. "Prankster aside, it's been wonderful seeing all of you again. Let's just make it for happier reasons next time, yeah?"
"Cheeky," McGonagall admonished, then stepped forward to give him a brisk hug. "I will expect to see you here frequently," she said with a sideways glance at Snape.
"I'll try," Harry replied, deliberately not looking at Snape to see how he took that statement.
Lupin was next. "Thank you for all your help with my classes," he said, then stepped forward to embrace Harry. "Your parents would be so proud of you," he murmured into Harry's ear.
Harry's throat tightened at that but he managed a nod. The rest of the teachers shook his hand and expressed good wishes for the future, and then he was facing Snape. And he knew what he wanted to say to the man, but not here, not in front of the rest of the staff.
Snape seemed to feel the same thing. "I will walk you to the Apparation point, Mr Potter."
Harry nodded and picked up his trunk, following Snape out of the castle.
"You did a splendid job, Harry," Snape said as they turned onto the road to Hogsmeade.
Harry shrugged. "I wish we could have had a better ending."
"Given the circumstances, it was perhaps the best we could have attained. Miss Bell will have all the care she needs, and with time she may recover. And Poppy will recover fully, after a little rest holiday. Which," he said, thinking, "I don't think she has ever taken."
"I can't tell you how disappointed I am that Zabini didn't turn out to be the Poison Pen," Harry said jokingly. "I still think he's a berk."
"Think of him as another in a long line of disagreeable Potions Masters," Snape said, a glint of humour in his eyes, and Harry laughed.
They walked slowly towards the gate, comfortably silent in a way they hadn't been the last time they'd walked this way from the other direction. Remembering that, Harry paused and looked up at the Astronomy Tower, now reassuringly empty. Looking at the tower reminded him of the previous time he'd stood on it, and the events that had put Snape in prison.
"Severus, I want to apologize for the last five years."
Snape turned to look at him. "Shouldn't it be the other way around? I...was not kind, particularly during that first year."
"And why should you have been? You'd been through a ghastly ordeal, in fear for your life, not a friend in the world. And when I should have been thinking about you, I chose instead to push myself at you and demand that you love me, like a selfish, spoiled child."
"All I can do is try to explain where my head was back then." Harry was quiet for a moment as they continued walking toward the gates. "It was a horrible year, terribly lonely even with Ron and Hermione along - or maybe more so, as they were obviously in love. And then I found you, the real you, beyond all hope and expectation, and I was so afraid of losing you that I just babbled out everything and made a mess of it, Merlin help me, thinking all I had to do was ask and I would get it. You. Bloody self-important - as if the name of Potter wasn't the most abhorrent to you..." He trailed off and gave Snape a sheepish look. "Um, say something?"
"Very well, Harry." Snape thought for a moment. "Yes, you were a prat." Harry was startled into a laugh. "However, you appear to have improved over the past five years. You are very nearly acceptable company for moderate periods of time. It is possible that you will continue to improve."
"Thanks - I think." They walked on for a little bit, Harry eyeing Snape sideways for a moment before he said, "So, any plans for the holiday?"
Snape shrugged. "Try to find new Infirmary staff? Clear the correspondence from my desk? I would say 'enjoy the bliss of no brats about the place' but there are the refugees and orphans."
"You could ask Minerva to do those things and come away with me for a few days," Harry suggested. "Sun, sea, silly drinks with umbrellas - or, if you prefer, dank and mouldy dungeon tours?"
Snape was quiet for a long moment, and Harry thought he had his answer. He was about to say good-night and leave when Snape spoke again. "Harry, if I say 'no', would you be devastated?"
"Devastated? No. Disappointed, yes." Harry dredged up a smile. "After all, I can always try again on your birthday."
"And if I said 'yes'?"
"I'd be delighted, of course, and book the next Portkey - " Harry had continued walking for a few steps before he realized that Snape had stopped. He turned, his heart beginning to hammer in his chest, and took a few hesitant steps back toward Snape. "Severus? Are you - are you saying yes?"
Snape hesitated, staring down into Harry's face, trying to find the words that would carry him the next step forward, into a future that he was just starting to realize he truly wanted.
It was Harry who found the words for him. Taking Snape’s hands, he placed them on either side of his own face and willingly opened his mind so that Snape could see how he felt.
And as Snape whispered, "Legilimens," Harry smiled.
* * * * *
Filch, returning from an evening pint at the Hog's Head, stumped grimly past the Great Gates of Hogwarts, eyes averted, and reflected that Hogwarts was not what it was during Armando Dippet's time. But what could he do? If the Headmaster of Hogwarts chose to snog the blasted Boy-Who-Lived right up against the gate-posts, he couldn't stop him. Although, with the Headmaster otherwise occupied, there would be more of the little brats roaming the hallways for him to catch. With a grim smile, he straightened his coat and stomped on his way.