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The Truce

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"Hoopers and Zellers have been thick as thieves for years," Vera muttered, squinting harder at the eyepiece of her handsome telescope, as if that would make the stars above any easier to see. "Burrows was smart to latch on to that fast."

"But she's the one that moved my things," Lily said, sounding confused. "I thought she was, you know, starting it."

"Burrows is half-and-half, like Sev here," Vera said, still squinting. "She's not starting anything, oh no. Just doing as she's told."

As soon as she'd heard Lily say it, Vera had begun calling Severus 'Sev' almost aggressively, as if to show her determination to be friendly. Severus thought he understood; in the few classes they'd already shared with Ravenclaw, he hadn't seen the other Ravenclaws talk to Vera more than once. Last week, during their second ever Astronomy lesson, Vera had set her telescope next to those of the Gryffindor girls. Early on in that lesson, a low, heated little spat with Georgie Hooper soon had the telescope moving again, propelled by Vera's slim, dark hands to a spot on Lily's left.

"Really," Lily said, uncertainly. "I see."

She didn't. Still didn't, as far as Severus could understand, and for once he could see why. Jemima Burrows was taller than Hooper and Zeller, and prettier too. Back on Spinner Street, she'd have run things, easy, because she looked the part. Here, plain little Leticia Zeller was the one to make Lily's life a misery.

"If I were you," Vera said, "I'd have scraped for them."

Lily colored. "What about you? Why didn't you scrape?"

A half-smile crept over Vera's face. "Because they're idiots," she said. "If there were any justice in the world, they'd have been in Hufflepuff."

Severus snorted. "What, all of them?"

Vera shrugged, stepping back from her telescope. "Why not?" she murmured. "In for a knut, in for a galleon."

"Well, if you're wishing, wish that lot in Hufflepuff," Lily said, as Severus turned his attention back to his own telescope. "No, them over there."

"Potter?"

"And Black," Lily said. "They're awful to us." Severus, stiffening, knew what she really meant—that they were awful to him. "Why, just today—"

"Lily, would you look at this?" Severus moved back, bumping the telescope so that it swung away from the patch of sky they were supposed to be observing. "I'm not sure if I'm seeing what I should here."

"Nudging it like you are won't help," Lily said, coming in to take a look. "You're right, though; you're way off."

"Professor Lissane said fourth quadrant, right?" Severus moved over next to Vera, hoping she wouldn't ask how the boys had embarrassed him on the way to the greenhouses today. If she hadn't seen them knock him down then 'by mistake' there was no need to tell her about it now. "Do you know?"

"Dunno," she said, her gaze still on Black, who was four or five telescopes over from them, on their left. "But why's Sirius on you, anyway?"

Severus shrugged. "He's a bully," he hedged, instinctively avoiding the question. Anyone on first name terms with Black was automatically suspect in his book, whether they liked him or not. The Slytherin boys in their year got like that when they were insulting Black, and they'd never hesitated to go after Severus and Lily when they could. "People like him don't need a reason."

Lily, in the midst of adjusting Severus' telescope, didn't take the hint. "Sev was hoping to be in Slytherin, and he said it on the train. They heard, and both of them keep bringing it up."

"That's his reason? Really?"

"I know," Lily said, with a dark look in Potter's direction. Then she tugged on Severus' sleeve. "I think it's fine now—take a look."

"Let me make sure about the quadrant," Vera said, rolling up the star chart she'd been working on. She tied it to one of her telescope stand's legs with the grubby ribbon she'd had round her wrist. "I'll just ask Madame Lissane."

"Oh, will you?" Lily smiled at her, as if she didn't know what flipping quadrant they were working on today. "Thanks."

Vera nodded, and set off in the direction of Professor Lissane's glittering orange shawl, distinctly visible in the moonlight.

Lily sighed, going back to her own telescope. "Better check mine's in the right place too."

"What was that about?" Severus asked, trying to sound calm. "What on earth did you need to tell her any of that for?"

"You heard her," Lily said, taking out her pencil again, as if they were having a conversation about the weather. "She asked. I told her."

"What, so she can help?" Severus felt himself reddening despite the cold. "Yeah, I can see it; she'll just walk up to them and have a little chat, and naturally they'll feel so bad about themselves that they'll stop."

Lily blushed, hard. "I didn't ask her to do anything," she said. "I just thought...I don't know."

Severus sighed. "Look," he said after a minute, despite his doubts, "She probably won't do anything." They worked in silence for a moment after that, both pencilling in points on parchment as quickly as they could. Speed was the main thing here, so you could get down the brightest stars in a quadrant before they moved out of it, and you had to start again.

Just as Severus put what he judged to be the last star down, he heard a crash on the left. He didn't look up, jotting down the name of the star instead.

"Oh, no," Lily said, beside him. Severus looked up and left, then froze. Vera was right behind Black and Potter and the other two, and was leaning in and trying to help with the fallen telescope.

"Sorry," he heard her saying. "Let me help?"

"No," Black said, without looking at her. "Piss off."

"Don't be like that," Vera said, sounding put off. "I'm only trying to—"

"Baddock?" Black stared at her. "Merlin. Is this another—for goodness' sake. James, you remember what I said, about taste?" His attention seemed focused on Potter now, but Severus knew from experience that anything Vera said now would only make things worse. "This," and he indicated Vera with his thumb, "this is a prime example."

In Vera's position, Severus would have just tried to walk away. She did the stupid thing, standing there, looking upset. Talking back, even. "Excuse me?" she said. "That was a mistake, all right?"

"Oh please, we both know Cissa sent you," Black said, contemptuously. "Bit sad that she's still bothering, three weeks in. With a Ravenclaw, no less."

"Oh," Vera said, with a too-bright smile, "oh that's rich."

"Really?" Black was already turning back to his telescope, the stand of which Lupin had just put back together for him. "Lovely to know."

"You treat that poor halfblood in your dorm like dirt," Vera said, wonderingly. "And you, in Gryffindor, sniffing around, what, a Potter?" She shook her head. "Like I said. That's rich."

"How original," Black said, without turning around. "Why don't you just call me a blood traitor or whatever it is, and piss off. Eh?" And that was how Severus knew that something Vera said had gotten to him—Black was looking at her now, narrowly, ready for the usual insult.

"Oh, like I care what house you're in," Vera said, rolling her eyes. "No one does. No one ever did."

"Yeah," Black said, smiling at her. "Right."

"At least I'm no one's dog," Vera said, with an answering smile. "Keep a tight leash on him, will you, Potter?"

"Stupid cow," Black said, loudly, hands in his pockets. "Piss. Off."

"Sirius," Potter said, warningly, "Professor's looking."

"Yeah, that's right," Vera said, nodding. "Heel."

Despite all common sense, Severus watched the expression on Black's face change, morphing from annoyance to rage as Vera Baddock turned away. Madame Lissane, hard of hearing and impatient as anything, swooped down on Potter and Black. She alone was happy to fill the avid silence that had fallen on everyone as the argument went on, and she alone could get away with scolding Potter and Black for standing around as the stars moved over their heads.

"Get back to work," she cried, at them, then at everyone else within range. "We've only got half an hour left up here."

On reaching her telescope, Vera simply did as Madame Lissane's impatient voice commanded, unrolling her unfinished star chart and setting back to searching the fourth quadrant for stars. "Bugger," she muttered, as soon as she'd gotten a good look up. "Everything's moved."

"Bugger yourself," Severus whispered, pretending to examine his own chart. Just before he'd looked away, he'd seen Black glare right at him. "They're looking at us now, thanks to you."

"Who is?"

"Don't look," Severus said, going back to his telescope, though it was the last thing he wanted to do. "You know who. They're going to think I put you up to it, now."

"You heard him," Vera said, now making notes on her chart. "He thinks Narcissa Black put me up to it. Nothing to do with you."

Severus rolled his eyes. "Why are you still talking to us, then?"

"That's easy," Lily said, in an almost cheerful whisper. "You were almost a Slytherin. So was she."

"And you?"

Lily snorted. "Well, I don't count, do I?"

Vera coughed, hard. "Suppose not," she said, after a bit, with a sly look at Severus. "Not to them, anyway."

* * *

An hour later, Severus could have strangled Vera for making a joke of the whole thing. Could have strangled himself.

Cautious, he'd kept away from Potter's group as they made the long journey back to Gryffindor, hanging back with Lily as much as he could. Even then, Black had aimed the odd glare back at them, singling them out.

Just outside the portrait, Severus had decided to go to the showers instead of his dorm; the idea of being in there Black and the others in their current state scared him. Then, once in the near-empty showers, he'd thought he might as well fit one in, so he could have an even earlier start tomorrow, and had gone on to have a nice, long shower, free of the worry that some other impatient boy would try to turn him out.

When Severus got out, every stitch of his clothing had disappeared. A confused, sleepy search revealed the fact that most of the towels were gone, too, except for a few old ones in the cupboard.

Worried and shivering, Severus dried himself off, then debated going back to his dorm. His wand had been in the shower with him, protected by a careful waterproofing spell, since leaving it out in the drying area of the shower room had always bothered him. You couldn't hear anyone coming and going while the shower was on, not if they were quiet, especially not if they had been sneaking, like whoever had lifted Severus' things.

A whispered Tempus had told him it was half-past one a few minutes ago. Another now told him it was one thirty-four.

I can't just stand here, Severus thought, pulling the largest towel he'd found tight around his waist. He did anyway, for the next half hour, checking the time every ten minutes till it read four minutes past two. Then, and only then, did he rise from the damp seat he'd found on a bench against the wall. About half an hour was enough time for the boys to have given up waiting for him, if that was what they had been doing after nicking his things.

Ten minutes more, and Severus would see if they'd fallen asleep. Ten minutes, and not before.

Ten minutes ended up being another hour, one Severus fitfully dozed away on the damp, horribly cramped bench. Every time he checked the time, or stood up, meaning to get out of the showers, Severus started to think of the kind of traps the boys could have set for him. Something, for example, might be rigged to fall on him once he came through the door, freeing Potter and Black of the need to keep awake lest he come back.

They could have put any number of things in or under Severus' bed, or in his trunk; they were perfectly comfortable doing things like that, after drawing a large, if crooked picture of a snake on his sheets every day for the first week. Eventually, the house elves had tired of replacing his white sheets only to find them ruined again, and had begun putting in sheets in Slytherin green, which they obviously hoped wouldn't show the green ink Black had been using to draw the snake.

Potter had even thrown that in his face the morning after the switch, ribbing him about his green sheets as if he and his friends hadn't been the cause. Now, Severus' robes were gone, and he didn't know why, couldn't predict how this prank would end, and couldn't bring himself to get back and find out.

Can't stay here, Severus thought, casting another Tempus. Half past four. In an hour and a half, people would start trickling in to nab a shower, and he would be seen. Questioned. Severus ran a nervous hand through his matted hair, and heard the things that would be said about him if he stayed till people came in.

Weirdo, he was used to; he'd been called that back at home, after proving no muggle bully could keep a hold on him for long. Stupid would be new, and that drove him mad; he'd sworn to himself that they wouldn't make him out to be an idiot, because he wasn't, and on top of everything else it was just unfair.

"Tempus," Severus said, his mind made up even before he saw it was four thirty-six. He folded up the towels and put each one back where he'd found them, all but the one he wore. It was time to go in.

* * *

"Tempus." Miraculously, it was only four thirty-eight, and the long, shivering journey Severus had anticipated hadn't lasted more than two minutes. Severus paused in front of the door to his dorm, weighing his choices, switching from one foot to another to save his bare feet from the painfully cold stone floor.

"Alohomora," Severus whispered, to start with. He put a tentative hand to the doorknob, and, meeting no resistance, turned it and pushed in the door as gently as he could manage. Unable to hear or spy anything about to drop on him from above the door, Severus slipped into the room. Looking around, he found nothing very different from the times he'd hung back and come in here only after being sure the boys had fallen asleep. Curtains closed, soft snores...very convincing.

Severus eyed his own bed, trying to see if there was anything wrong with it. The curtains were drawn, which made him nervous, but everything seemed to be fine. His trunk was there, and everything. He just needed to take a look; that, Severus could deal with. He advanced on his bed as quietly as he could, then peeked through his curtains.

His robes were there. Damp. Severus was just about to touch them when he connected the sharp, unfamiliar smell to the uneven stains on his robes and his bedding: piss.

Blinking hard, Severus forced himself to look in his trunk. The same smell arose from there, stronger, since the anti-odor charms on his trunk were only meant to keep smells in, and not to diminish them. Severus hadn't taken his schoolbag to Astronomy with him, and had left the star chart folded up in the pocket of his robes—that was likely on his bed. The bag had been left under the bed, jammed into the corner between his school-provided cupboard and his bed. For some reason, that was untouched.

Sitting down on the floor, Severus held the worn bag to his chest, fighting for breath, trying to keep silent.

It was several moments before he could breathe again, think again. Severus, drying his eyes, remembered his habit of putting a change of robes in the cupboard. If he was lucky, that might have been overlooked. If he wasn't, there would be nothing dry to wear right now, and damp robes later on.

Mum had always told him to take more care with his drying spells. The washing ones were fine, so he'd get the piss out somehow, but nothing would have time to dry before lessons.

"Tempus," Severus said, unable to help himself, though his delays were what had eaten the time that could have helped him solve the robe problem.

When the numbers had faded entirely, he opened the cupboard door. There was no smell within, no damp, no stink. Patched robes, already all he could have hoped for, were joined by an extra shirt and much-appreciated, if slightly whiffy pair of breeches. Now, most of his soiled things could wait for the house elves.

Moving quickly, Severus tugged on the robe, then put the shirt and breeches in his schoolbag. Starting tonight, he was going to have his revenge. He didn't have time this morning, so it would have to start with something small.

But, Severus told himself, I'm going to start. He looked from his ruined bed to his open trunk, anger condensing into bitter resolve.

It was ever so easy, after that, to go right up to the two beds he'd always avoided even looking at, and silently open one of their trunks. Severus, shaking again, had to force himself to think small, to set aside the fine robes and luxurious pens and boxes, and look for something that would be missed, if not immediately.

Coming to the still-new Potions book in Potter's trunk, Severus paused and leafed through, then tore out five of the most crucial pages in their assigned reading. The Astronomy book beneath it felt a little more looked-through, so Severus went to the back and tore out the reference star charts. A minute with his wand and a close-cutting charm disguised his rough work, and then he was at Black's trunk, rummaging through with more care, because he'd seen the warning runes inscribed on the rim.

Some careful digging showed that Black's Astronomy book wasn't in his trunk. Severus closed it carefully, angry, then began to nose about around and under his bully's bed. Black's fine leather schoolbag was hard to spot in the dark, but Severus eventually saw it and dragged it out. The Astronomy book was there, with a finely finished star chart stuck in the middle.

Thinking of his own ruined work, Severus would have liked nothing better than to shred Black's assignment for him in turn, but caution restrained his eager hand. Instead, Severus cut out two of the reference star charts in the back, then took out every page related to the assignment for the week. Smiling, he went on to cut out every page he saw after then that looked remotely the same. Pages in hand, he replaced the book and put the bag back where he'd found it.

Halfway satisfied, Severus stuffed the pages he'd torn out into his schoolbag, then surveyed the room. Potter's trunk looked normal, as did Black's. Everything in here looked as normal as it had when Severus had come in, ready for the worst.

Standing there, Severus found himself wondering what things would have been like if he'd just let the Sorting Hat alone, if he hadn't asked, like some idiot, to be where Lily was.

I didn't think, Severus thought, feeling stupid, moving mechanically back to his bed. When he drew open the curtains, the smell hit him again. Blinking hard, he left them open, then opened his trunk as well. I hope they smell it when they wake up, he thought, angry that that was what was left to him. Angry that he was relieved that he hadn't been here, relieved that he'd escaped the same treatment as his bed and trunk.

"Tempus," Severus said. It was five twenty-five, about half an hour earlier than when he usually woke. Steeling himself, Severus picked up his unpleasantly damp boots from his bed, then shouldered his schoolbag. He left for the showers then, weighted, hoping no one would see him come or go.

* * *

In the end, Severus was forced to get help. The piss had rinsed out of his boots, but a sharp smell lingered, and the tatty leather had stubbornly resisted all of the drying spells Severus tried.

At least, he hadn't had to ask for it. Weasley, a prefect that was usually up and showering around the same time Severus did, had seen what he was doing and had barreled in, taking the boots from Severus.

"These need patching," Weasley had said, examining the leather with the air of someone used to such things. "What did you do, wear them in the shower?" But his tone had been free of malice, and Weasley had rubbed down the boots with his own towel. "Water's an awful conductor, don't you know? Especially with something this old. Try it now."

Severus, red in the face, had mumbled out a weak drying charm, and his boots had been good as new. Weasley, naturally, had already started heading out of the showers, and didn't acknowledge Severus' stammered thanks with more than a brisk nod.

After Weasley's departure, Severus wet the boots again, paranoid of smelling like piss. He barely resisted the urge to go over them with soap, but felt much better, nevertheless, when he'd held them under the water for a good two minutes. He dried them again, toweling them off first before trying any spells, and though they went on feeling squeaky, they made Severus feel clean.

* * *

"Are you all right?" was the first thing Lily said, on seeing his face.

"No," was Severus only answer, and, being used to the way of things, Lily left him alone. She passed things to him without being asked and sneaked concerned looks at him as he ate, but didn't pry. Severus, still almost able to feel the stink rushing up at him as he opened his trunk, tried and failed to make himself eat.

Thinking of the stolen pages in his schoolbag only made him angrier; surely there was something worse he could do. Something more lasting. Telling Professor McGonagall would label Severus a sneak forever, but he couldn't help thinking that the effect it would have would be cheap at the price. Sneak had been their word for him from the start, even when he didn't deserve it. Why not prove them right, at their bloody expense?

"If this keeps up," Severus said, in a half whisper, for fear that anyone but Lily would hear. "If they won't stop being such..."

"Idiots," Lily said, firmly. "Stupid, time-wasting, bullying idiots." Then she looked up at him from her empty plate. "You'll...you'll do it?"

Even she couldn't say it here, despite her insistent advice from the beginning. "Tell someone," Lily had urged. "Take it to a teacher. It's not fair, and they'll know it.

"Why not?" Severus set his fork down, unable to eat anymore. "Wouldn't hurt."

"There he is," someone shouted, from across the hall, over by the doors. It was Potter, an excited look on his face. "Hey, I've found him! I've found Mr. Piss!"

Thankfully, only a few heads remained turned in his direction; being richer and louder than half the school, Potter could draw everyone's attention for a moment, but keeping it needed more. Just now, he wasn't doing anything interesting to anyone, striding up between the Gryffindor and Hufflepuff tables, headed right in Severus' direction. Black, Lupin and Pettigrew were right behind him, Black smirking, the other two smiling uneasily.

For his part, Severus wanted to die. He also wanted to stand and leave, but grim practicality kept him in his seat. You didn't leave while Potter and Black had their eye on you, or when they were approaching; they could get in your way, block you, trip you, just surround you and laugh, and you would be helpless. Better, Severus tried to tell himself, better to sit and let them get through with it, let their attention switch to something else, and then escape.

Potter clapped him on the shoulder as he passed him by, beginning the assault. Black put both hands on Severus' shoulders and squeezed.

"If it isn't the Piss man," Black said, brightly. "How are you doing?"

"Watch it, Sirius," Potter said. "The stink'll rub off."

"Oh, right," was the answer. People giggled as Black gingerly removed his heavy hands from Severus' shoulders and wiped them on the sides of his face, despite Severus' useless effort to squirm away. "God, did you even wash this morning?"

"Why do you care?" Lily's eyes smoldered with dislike, her face white. "You're always on about it, nagging away like you're his mum. Pathetic."

"If anyone's his mum, it's you," Black returned, smoothly. "Can't even let him have," and here, he pinched at Severus' cheek, "a little friendly conversation, like a big boy—"

"Get off," Severus snarled, and somehow he got his face away from Black's grasping hands, got to his feet, got his bag in hand, and made his way away. Lupin let him go, but he was smiling like it was all in fun, the way they all smiled, the way everyone smiled around those two bloody bastards, like everyone was having a jolly good time, even Severus, whose face was so red he half expected it to start burning off.

Worse, he could still hear them teasing Lily behind him.

"Where d'you think you're going, Mrs. Snape?" Potter's voice was loud enough to cut across the crowd at breakfast, loud enough to follow Severus all the way to the double doors. "Hold on a moment, will you? I only want to ask—"

"Let me go!"

The doors shut behind Severus, swallowing Lily's outrage. He kept walking until he reached the heavy oak front doors, then stopped there automatically, waiting for her.

She came out in silent tears, walking doggedly, like he had been. "I'm sorry," she gasped, as soon as she saw him, but Severus just opened one door and started down the stairs, pretending he hadn't heard.

He barely heard her shut the door. Her footsteps, louder than the muted, cold music of the morning, scuffed along somewhere behind him. Gradually, they caught up, accompanied by small sniffs and gulps.

"I'm sorry," Lily said, again. Severus, grimly plotting how best to get through the day without attracting any more of the boys' attention, didn't bother to reply. "Please say something."

Severus slowed, struggling for words, and savored how she slowed with him. The anxious look on her face filled him with slow satisfaction, but none of the feeling settled. Lily's concern and bloody useless interference were all of a piece. Which would have been fine, if Lily had been better at reading the situation.

"I can take care of myself," Severus said, finally. "Really."

Lily nodded, wiping her eyes. "All right."

The rest of the walk to the greenhouses passed in uncomfortable silence, during which Severus couldn't help but remember all the times he hadn't taken care of himself. By the time he and Lily slipped in through the open glass door, an uneven clump of black robes had just emerged from the front doors of the castle, with one student well in front. Severus, too busy digging out his Herbology text and laying claim to one of the trays nearest the front of the class, didn't give the lone student a thought until he heard them tramp into the greenhouse, then head straight for him and Lily.    

It was Vera, her expression oddly calm, though she held her bag in front of her like a shield, her fingers tightening around the strap.

"What do you want?" Severus got out, before Lily could say anything.

"To sit," Vera said, slowly. "If it's all right."

The students she'd been racing ahead of—all Ravenclaws, as far as Severus could see, were now piling into the greenhouse, whispering and giggling amongst themselves, noisily claiming trays. A burst of girlish laughter had Vera twitching and biting her lip in an effort not to look round, but Severus fiercely reminded himself of his bed and trunk.

"It's all right," Lily said, elbowing the unclaimed tray next to her own. "Sit." When Severus glared at her, she reddened, but held up her head. "I told her about Black. She was just trying to help. Weren't you, Vera?"

Vera nodded slightly, but her eyes wouldn't meet Severus' gaze. There was no truth in the expression on her face, only a weariness and fear that deepened as the laughter of the Ravenclaw girls went on. Severus nodded back without really meaning to, and tried to ignore the relief in Vera's sagging shoulders as she flopped onto the seat next to Lily.

Somewhere in between the bustle of the filling greenhouse and the quiet that Professor Sprout commanded, Vera found time to slide a grubby bit of parchment over to Severus. It was thick, of good quality, and had been folded only once.

Sorry, it read. Wondering if there was any truth in it, Severus folded the note and slipped it into his book, nodding to show he'd seen it. Lily smiled a little at him, as if she'd written the note. Vera, beyond her, gave him a wary, echoing nod, and went on staring at her open text as Sprout droned on in front.

* * *

The rest of the day went by in a haze, with Severus shuffling from lesson to lesson without really taking anything in. That night, he hid in the showers fully clothed, clutching his wand and twitching at every odd noise he heard. It was well after eleven thirty before he got up the courage to go to his dorm. There, he found everything as before, except for his clean bed and smelly, but clean trunk. Quickly, quietly, he readied his things for the next day, then made the rounds of the other boys' trunks.

Potter lost a whole section from his Potions text. Lupin and Pettigrew gave up the indices from their Charms texts. Black lost his Transfig homework, and every last star chart in his Astronomy book. Severus carried the messy bundle of paper back to his own bed. Astronomy was the third and last class tomorrow; the free period after that would be more than enough time to burn all the pages somewhere private.

Severus sat down, closed all the curtains around him, then began to fold the pages he'd taken so they would fit in his schoolbag. He half wanted to burn them now, but couldn't bring himself to risk waking anyone up by lighting the fire in their dorm's small grate, or sneaking down to the common room at this time. Someone might see him on the way down, or might be there cribbing away, or might catch him burning the pages, or on his way back upstairs.

Besides, it was late, and he was tired. Getting rid of them could wait till tomorrow.

Then again, Astronomy was the last lesson tomorrow, and that was the subject for which Potter and Black had lost the most from their texts. Potter would already be angry from Potions, and perhaps suspicious after the first strange absence of pages in Charms. Black would be furious, simply furious. Severus could easily imagine what Black would do if he thought Severus had anything to do with his lost homework—search him or his things, most likely.

Severus shut his eyes. If the missing pages stayed in his schoolbag, he'd be well and truly buggered. And there was that stupid free period right after Astronomy, giving them more than enough time to bugger him up, curse him, beat him up, humiliate him.

Pulling off his boots with shaky hands, Severus let them drop to the floor. Then, working as quietly as he could, he stripped the bed and began to slice open a flap in the thick material that bound his bare mattress. Luckily, he met no resistance; perhaps the elves hadn't had time enough to re-charm and protect the mattress after sorting last night's damage out.

As soon as the flap was open, Severus folded the textbook pages in batches, then stuck them in one after the other, pressing them in among the tightly packed cotton stuffing. Once it was all in, he set about mending the hole. Five rather frustrating minutes went to trying different mending charms until one sealed the flap properly, and five more to re-making the bed without getting out.

Then, feeling the ridge the flap's resealed edges made, Severus stripped the mattress and fought to turn it over, using lightening charms layered on in rapid sequence until they took, and let him tip the unwieldy thing over without squashing himself. Re-made, the too-light mattress shifted beneath Severus. It was an age before he finally began off, into a lowly lit dream where he slept on shifting sand.

* * *

Despite the mattress, Severus slept well—too well. He nearly didn't wake up in time. When he stumbled out of bed, Lupin was up and about, wearily digging a robe out of his trunk. Ignoring him, Severus rounded his things up and made himself leave, despite the sinking feeling that told him Lupin was sure to look in his Charms book in a moment and find everything out much earlier than planned.

Hurrying into the shower room, Severus tried to reason his way out of his dread. If, by some bloody miracle, Lupin realized that Severus had torn out the indices from his Charms book, he'd tell Potter, or Black. If they listened to him, found their own missing pages or did both, they would go through Severus' things.

But, Severus thought, waiting impatiently for the idiot using his favorite shower to leave, they won't find anything right away, will they? People thought of looking under a mattress, so his bullies would.

Inside the mattress? Not a chance.

Not this morning, at any rate, with them still dull and sleepy. They'd take a day or two to think of it, maybe accuse Severus without proof. By then, he'd surely have had a free moment to himself, two minutes or five minutes to get out the pages and get rid of them. If he didn't, and one of the boys thought of ripping up his mattress, they would still look worse if they took it to a teacher.

"Destroying school property," McGonagall would say, coldly. "What on earth were you thinking? Why," and here, Severus couldn't help a thin smile, "why didn't you come to me, if you suspected Snape of stealing your things?"

There would be no good reason why not. Not for Potter, not for Black; not for any of them, with the way they half-ruled the first years already.

I have them, Severus realized, no matter how this turns. He'd had them since the very moment Potter or, more likely, Black, had whipped it out and pissed on his robes. He had them now, anxious as he was, standing in the steam of the shower room, unable to keep from watching the door in case they came in. He had Potter, Black, Lupin and Pettigrew as surely as they'd had him since the Welcome Feast, and the thought nearly made him swoon.

A bleary-eyed boy stumbled out of the shower Severus had been waiting for, and he stepped in, his skin prickling with the thought of his power.

He had them, now. Soon he'd see them realize it, see them pay.

* * *

Lily was silent at breakfast, nervous, even, darting quick glances toward the doors every so often. Severus ate fast, not wanting to have the boys come in and spoil his good mood. When he and Lily left the Great Hall, they didn't spot the boys on their way out, and for once Severus didn't worry about why.

Easy not to, when Severus would gain no matter what they did. That thought put a real smile on his face, one that stayed.

"You're happy this morning," Lily muttered, as they walked to the Charms classroom. "Why?"

"I'm more nervous than anything," Severus said, stretching a little. He was a bit; he might have chosen the wrong pages to take. Or Lupin might have found everything out, leaving him nothing to watch for in lessons today, no reactions to savor.

Lily didn't look at him. When she finally spoke, her tone was a little too light. "Why, then? It's only Charms first, then Potions."

"It's them," Severus said, unable to contain his anticipation. "You'll see. If today isn't enough, I'll tell."

"What do you mean, enough?" Lily slowed before he did, so that she wound up further away from the door to the Charms classroom. "Are you planning something?"

"Planned," Severus said. "I planned something. Did it last night." Lily looked alarmed; hinting at anything more didn't seem like a good idea. "Don't worry about it."

Lily stared at him, then looked away. "I won't," she said, uncertainly.

"You shouldn't," Severus said, trying to sound calm. "I'll handle it. Handle them." She gave him a look then, that asked 'how?', but he ignored it, ignored her, ignored everything until they were in their seats, and listening to Flitwick babble on about movement charms.

Lily, entranced, didn't notice Lupin's consternation when he realized what had happened to his textbook. Then again, it wasn't much in the way of a reaction; just a grimace, really, and a thumb and forefinger tugging at what was suddenly, unnaturally the last page of the book.

Lupin looked up, meeting Severus' eyes. Severus held his confused gaze, then markedly turned away, satisfied.

Potions was even better.

Potter, as Severus had quickly realized earlier on, wasn't much at the subject. In their last two classes, Lupin and Black had whispered to him constantly, shaking their heads and pointing out the instructions Professor Slughorn had so neatly written out on the board, instructions Potter only seemed to understand a step behind his friends.

Today's lesson, a primer on murtlap and other useful tentacles, didn't have much in the way of practical potion-making. However, their assigned reading had been chock full of explanations of the usual extraction methods for tentacles in general, with step-by-step instructions for the three major methods. It was prime test material, and, sure enough, halfway into the lesson, Slughorn admonished them to take out some parchment and a quill.

"One of the most useful skills you will learn in this class," Slughorn said, "is how to read and understand instructions. Today, I'd like to see how well you can understand the instructions for extracting useful essences from tentacles. Summarize each extraction method for me in order, leaving out the least significant steps. You," he added, with a kind nod, "may refer to your texts, so long as you each work on your own."

Lily bit her lip and went to work. Severus skimmed the relevant passages he'd already marked out and put together a decent, if slapdash interpretation of the instructions for each method mentioned in the book. Then, blotting a few stray ink drops, he looked to see how Potter fared.

Flap, flap, flap, went the pages as Potter flipped through his book, searching for the passage Slughorn had pointed out. He blinked, frowned, rubbed at his eyes, and adjusted his grubby glasses, all in vain. Severus hadn't bothered to remove every reference to murtlap, tentacles or murtlap tentacles, but the entire section relating to extraction methods was gone.

The bell for the next class rung sooner than Severus would have believed possible, surrounding him with the bustle of people more than ready for a break from lessons. Severus and Lily were out the door first, so Severus didn't see Potter's reaction to having to hand in his likely awful explanation right then.

Lunch passed by in nervous, too-fast chewing, in tune with the shaky anticipation Severus could feel in his restless hands. Afterwards, Astronomy answered his anticipation with more than he'd ever dreamed.

"It was right here!" Black dealt roughly with his Astronomy text. "I remember folding it, for goodness' sake." He slammed his book shut, glaring at it. "It should be right in the middle, and it's not."

The boys were over to Severus and Lily's left. Potter and Black, as usual, had commandeered the seats next to the window of their stuffy classroom, which had been mostly silent before Black's outburst. Madame Lissane was off at the back, explaining things to a knot of confused-looking Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, each of them making use of the joint study period to babble out questions about their latest assignment.

"Just make it again," Potter said, crossly, with a look back at Lissane. When he'd satisfied himself that she wasn't paying attention to his conversation, he leaned toward Black and continued speaking in a lower tone. "It's not that hard to copy from the charts, if you make sure yours looks like... like the given ones in... you have got to be flipping kidding me!"

Lupin looked up from his own chart. "What?"

Potter firmly shut his Astronomy book, closed his eyes and pulled at his hair. "I don't have any charts," he muttered. "No charts. In my book."

Lupin shot a look at Severus, forcing him to look down and away. "You're having me on," Lupin said, over the sound of rustling pages. "You're sure you had them?"

"I dog-eared the one," Potter hissed, "I did, and it's gone. It's just not there."

"Let's see about mine instead," Severus heard Black say. Something thumped—his book, probably—and Severus heard more pages being rustled along. "Oh no."

It was a struggle to keep the grin off his face, but Severus managed it. Lupin would be looking at him right now, he just knew it, and if grinning didn't give him away, Severus didn't know what would.

"Pissing hell!" Black's shout did attract Madame Lissane's attention, as well as Lily's, as well as, if Severus was honest, that of half the class. "This is so not on."

"Eh?" Lissane demanded, from all the way in the back. "What is not on? What so stirs you that you must disrupt the class again, monsieur?"

"My star charts," Black began angrily, but Potter elbowed him hard in the side.

"Pardon," Potter said, quickly. "We're very sorry."

"No," Black said, even louder than before, "this is too much. First, the murtlap section, gone, and now—"

"Tais-toi!" Lissane said, advancing on Black and Potter, a perfumed, angry old cloud. "Who asked you the question, Black? Who, eh? Moi." She seized one arm of his and dragged him to his feet. "And you answer, you face him, as if I, I do not exist. Attendez-moi," she cried, snapping her fingers in his face. "First, Monday, you argue with someone over nothing, de rien. Now you wave your hands, you scream like the world is ending, et pour quoi?"

Despite the storm, Black tried to speak. "Madame, je suis desolee," he began, in better-sounding French than Potter had, but Lissane swept up his Astronomy book and forced it on him. "Je m'excuse," Black said, desperately, but his handsome schoolbag knocked into him too, whisked along by Madame Lissane's furious movement.

"You are just like your cousins, monsieur," Lissane said, derisively. "Always, something is happening. Always the centre of everything, the centre of my class, as if we have nothing better to do than to wail about your stupid textbook. Out." She punctuated her flat command with angry little motions, pointing at the door. "Get out." She encouraged him along with a spell, one that propelled his stumbling form to the door, which sprang open just as he met it, and closed behind him with a neat little snap.

Lissane, still angry, her shoulders heaving beneath the silk of her gaily patterned robe, turned and surveyed the class, turning until her gaze fell on Potter once again. "If anyone else would like to interrupt my class for a trifle, you may do it now. Save me and your classmates the time, if you please."

No one pleased. No one moved, until their professor sighed, lifted her delicate old chin, and went back to the cluster of students she'd been talking to when it all started.

Severus, a desk behind the path Black had taken out of room, lost control of his grin. He kept his head down, hiding it, until he could make himself look calm again. Then someone poked him in the side, hard.

It was Lily, and despite her smile, she shook her head at him. "You planned that?" she asked, in a careful whisper. "God."

"Not that exactly," Severus whispered back. "Lovely, though."

Lily's smile turned into a quick grin, then faded. "They're looking at you," she warned, almost too low to hear.

Sure enough, Potter, Lupin and Pettigrew were glaring at him. They did all the way through the lesson, save for when Madame Lissane looked anywhere in their direction.

Severus, still savoring Black's last look of humiliation, didn't care.

* * *

After Astronomy, Black was nowhere to be seen. Severus and Lily, ever wary, walked to the library as fast as they could. They argued in whispers about whether going to Gryffindor would be safer, but decided that there was really no point in trudging all the way up there and having to go all the way down to the Great Hall for dinner an hour later. Besides, Gryffindor was where Potter and the others seemed to head for immediately, and the last thing Severus wanted right now was to be within reach of them, Black or no.

They studied all the way through their free period, arguing cheerfully about all sorts of boring things. Severus watched the library doors just in case the boys' frustration might lead them back to him to for answers about their missing textbook pages, but it was a lazy, distracted watch.

"What do you think they'll do?" Lily finally asked, after checking the time. She still pushed up her sleeve to do it first, before remembering she didn't have a watch and reaching for her wand. "Well? What do you think?"

"I think," Severus said, with relish, "that it doesn't matter one bit." Without going into very much detail, he explained the position he had them in, skirting widely around what they'd already done to his bed, and leaving out any detail about what he'd done to them. Lily looked sceptical, but the dinner gong rang a moment later, putting them much closer to finding out.

"If you think you've got it sorted, it's sorted," she said, on the way out of the library. "I really hope—"

"I know," Severus said, still keeping an eye out for Black, for Potter. "I know."

* * *

Severus fidgeted. He'd been grateful that Lily had volunteered to be the one to fetch her DADA book so they could both finish the first three chapters. Now, he couldn't help but remember that he hadn't seen Black since Astronomy, and that he could walk in any moment.

Weasley wasn't in the common room, so Severus wouldn't dream of going up to the only prefect in here and asking if she'd seen Black. For one thing, he'd never spoken to her before. For another, it would look daft for him to pull her arm for information he could have had from any of the lower years, a small group of which had taken over the couch nearest to the fire.

Not that he'd ask them. They were on Black's side, all of them, always laughing at Severus when Black or Potter made him the joke.

"Are you blind?" Lily sounded more annoyed than angry, and oddly out of breath. Severus looked up, expecting to see her heading for him, and saw only her pigtails and the back of her oddly wrinkled robes. "Oh, I forget, you are."

"When it comes to you, Evans, we all wish we could be blind." It was Potter, half hidden by Lily, probably standing by the last step. "I mean, look at that hair—ow!"

"Like I said," Lily said, as Potter wrung the hand she'd just slapped away from her head, "pissing blind."

Potter frowned as she turned away, his four-eyed gaze roving the room until it landed in Severus' corner by the fire. "Oi, Snape!" Severus wished he hadn't been looking at Potter, so he could pretend he hadn't heard. "Come up. Talk."

Lily, in the middle of retrieving her fallen book, looked up and straight at Severus. Somehow, that was what let him stand up without shaking, without bothering to gather up his things. He passed her on his way to the stairs, following Potter's rapidly disappearing back.

He didn't look back.

* * *

Instinctively, Severus stayed behind Potter every step of the way. He didn't seem interested in playing any tricks on Severus before they got to the dorm, but now wasn't the time for Severus to let his guard down. When Potter opened the door and waved him in, bowing sarcastically, he didn't take the bait.

"You first," Severus said, and Potter glared at him.

"Fine time to turn chicken, I suppose," Potter said, straightening. "What are you afraid of, anyway?"

"You first," Severus repeated, not moving a muscle.

"Coward," Potter said, leaving hold of the door, coming forward. "Stinking little coward." He got hold of Severus' arm, and wouldn't be—shite—dislodged. "You're going in if I have to drag you—"

"Go ahead," Severus spat, trying to pull away. "Go on. Like I'll leave this out when McGonagall asks—oh, they pissed on my bed, but nothing else, really. My bruises? I fell into a bloody door!"

He reconsidered saying that almost as soon as it was out of his mouth; Potter took it all as license to shove him into the doorjamb and bump him into the door as he dragged him in. Severus tried to wriggle away as Potter closed the door by hand, but ended up smashed against it for his trouble, caught between his bully and the door as it was closed.

Then, miraculously, Severus was let go. He slid half to the floor before he realized it, and straightened surrounded by malicious laughter.

"Look at him," Potter said, gasping. "Like a girl. Like his mum downstairs..."

That connected, though he knew they only meant Lily, knew they couldn't know. His mum had almost always cried well after her arguments with Da turned nasty, well after she was done screaming back at him. Severus squared his shoulders and decided he wasn't going to cry.

He had them, after all. They just didn't know it yet.

The laughter had already died down, and Potter, to his left, nudged Severus toward his bed. It was stripped, and the contents of his open, much abused trunk were strewn in front of it, everything old and dingy in the light of the dorm room.

Black swung down from Severus' bed, and stepped hard on one of Severus' quills as he came forward. Despite the smile on his face, there was an angry gleam in his hard grey eyes, one that would have made Severus brave the showers again for a night rather than come back to his dorm.

I have them, Severus reminded himself, but it felt awfully thin up here, with nothing but air between him and an angry Sirius Black.

"You're a thief, Snape," Black said. "A thief, and a stupid little sneak. Did you think we wouldn't find you out?"

"Actually," Severus said, clenching his shaking hands, fighting to keep his voice even, "I was hoping you would."

"Be serious, Snape," Black said, taking his wand out. "I want to know."

"Are you deaf? I said, I was hoping you would." Ignoring how Black was inching forward, Severus took a good look at his things on the floor. "Hoping you wouldn't be stupid about it was too much, naturally."

Without warning, Black dug his fingers in at the neck of Severus' robes, then jerked him forward. "Look at me when I talk to you, you—"

"Are you trying to get suspended?" Severus managed. "Let me go."

"All you've ever been is a whining, lying little crybaby," Black said, obviously not listening. "Where's all those pages you stole from our books? Tell us, and I might not sort you out."

Severus shivered, but made himself speak. "You do anything to me, and the first person I talk to will be McGonagall." Black, eyes narrowed, seemed to be listening now. "Bruises and everything. And I won't just talk about this time. I bet she'll be thrilled, just bloody thrilled, to hear that you and your lot went pissing in my things."

Silence reigned in the room. When Severus made the effort to look behind him, he saw that Potter was red in the face. Lupin, lingering by his own bed, was giving Black a hard look. Pettigrew, beside him, was looking at the floor.

Severus took a deep breath, enjoying his bullies' surrender. "Let me go," he said again, politely. Black glared at him for the longest time, but eventually loosened his grip on the front of Severus' robes.

Severus, still high on the moment, took the time to straighten his robes and rub at his neck before he spoke. "Here's the deal, going once. We've talked, right? So we leave, do whatever, and forget about everything."

"Everything?" Lupin didn't sound like he believed Severus, and Severus suddenly knew that all four of the boys had done it, had contributed to the disgusting mess in his bed the other night. Look at them, he thought, standing around like logs of bloody wood, panting after what I have to say.

"Everything," Severus said, finally. "You mind your business, I mind mine. The day something happens—the day any of you do something to me, is the day I spill for McGonagall. Understood?"

Black shook his head. "What if we keep quiet, and wait until it's been months till we pay you back?" He had a grin starting now, a grin without meaning or mirth. "Who're you going to go to, crying over an old secret?"

"McGonagall," Severus said, his tone as cool as he could make it. "Think about it. What can't I say is the reason why I didn't come forward now?" He shrugged. "And anyway, who's to stop me from having a bit of a chat with her now, starting to report something, then leaving off?"

"What a bleeding sneak," Black said. But he didn't move to stop Severus as he turned away and made for the door. Potter glared at him, but didn't say a word as Severus skirted him and opened the door.

"Remember," Severus said, hand on the doorknob. "I only need one reason." When he had the door between him and his bullies—soon, hopefully, to become his former bullies, Severus prodded his face and neck for aches, to see if any bruises would come up from Potter's rough handling of him earlier on.

Wait, Severus asked himself, or go?

He couldn't hear a thing from where he stood, just by the closed door. Perhaps they were whispering. Perhaps they weren't talking at all, and the next person out would be Black, wand out, ready for a second go.

Considering the latter, Severus started in the direction of the stairs. No reason to hand himself to Potter or Black by just standing here, no reason at all.

He'd just reached the top of the stairs when he heard a door open loudly behind him. "Snape," and it was Lupin, calling after him, "Hold up."

"What for?" Severus found himself waiting there, one hand on the bannister, stupidly unable to move. "If this is another—"

"You've got a deal." Lupin's unsteady voice came from a little closer by, behind Severus. "All right?"

Severus closed his eyes. Lovely, he thought, halfway unable to believe it. "Good," he said out loud, over his shoulder, then started down the stairs.

"Wait! What about our things, the pages?"

"They'll turn up," Severus said, shrugging. Cutting them out of his mattress could be done tonight, if he liked, or was stupid enough to hand them over without seeing if the boys kept their word. "Eventually."

Lupin, whose voice had been coming closer, clattered down after him and, with a neat turn, rounded him off. "Won't you even tell us where they are?"

Severus gave him a hard look. "Are you lot after a deal, or your stupid missing pages?" When Lupin started to shake his head, Severus edged to the left, intending to squeeze past. "If it's the pages, you can piss off. If not, they'll turn up when I bloody feel like it."

"So they're safe, and you know where they are?"

"Yes," Severus said. "Now get out of my bloody way."

Surprisingly enough, Lupin did. "I'll tell them," he said, nodding. "But, you know, Astronomy's—"

"Next Monday, at midnight," Severus said, continuing down the stairs. "You lot can pool charts till then."

Behind him, he thought he heard a faint "thanks". When Severus turned, Lupin had gone.

* * *