As the final month of winter began, Violet suspected she was the only contented person at Hogwarts. Concerns about Voldemort intensified the despondency brought on by short, dark days and wretchedly cold weather. Each morning, the Daily Prophet arrived filled with stories of misfortune and woe, none of which were attributed to the dark lord but all of which felt extremely suspicious.
       The Slytherins assumed these pressures explained Snape's sudden, fierce protectiveness toward them and Violet, who understood a bit more, held her tongue. They spent their evenings huddled around their common room fireplace, craving warmth, and Snape obligingly took a chair farther away to leave more room for the students near the hearth. He permitted their illicit attempts to coax more heat from the fire with inappropriate charms and glanced up from his book at regular intervals to confirm their well-being, which they found immensely reassuring.

And when Marybeth Montague, desperate for more comfort than a warm fire or a big brother could provide, climbed into Snape's lap one night, he allowed that, too.

       On a particularly chilly morning in the dungeon, the fifth year Gryffindors and Slytherins huddled around Hermione's copy of the Daily Prophet, trying to read between the lines of a story about a fire at St. Mungo's as they waited for Snape to show up for Potions class. He arrived just in time to hear Ron tell the Slytherins that several Gryffindor seventh years were finding it harder and harder to stay at school... "in light of the recent... unpleasantness."
       "Really, Mr. Weasley?" Snape asked icily as the students hurried to their seats. "What good do they think they'd be elsewhere?" Several Slytherins snickered and Malfoy gave Harry a little shrug as he tried to suppress his grin.
       Snape picked up a piece of parchment that contained the day's potion recipe and shoved it into his desk drawer. "Instead of preparing Grillstop potion," he murmured as he erased the potion name from his blackboard, "why don't we spend the hour seeing how prepared YOU are to make a difference at this point." He whirled on them, his tone suddenly icy. "Oral quiz," he hissed. "Ten points from your house for each incorrect answer. Put your books on the floor."
       The teacher began to stroll the aisles, searching for his first victim. "Longbottom!" he thundered. The Gryffindors winced. "How many speral roots do you add to a bloodstop potion?"
       "Six, sir," Longbottom replied, and the overjoyed Gryffindors burst into applause.
       "Silence!" ordered Snape. "Miss Bulstrode! What is the active ingredient in a sirian burn remedy?"
       "Eucalyptus, sir," Millicent answered correctly.
       "Finnegan. How long do you boil a short-term invisible ink potion?"
       "Three minutes, 35 seconds, sir," Seamus responded, keeping Gryffindor in the black.
       "Miss Parkinson. What color is the crystal dust of a properly-prepared convalescious potion?"
       "Oh, that's so easy!" Ron protested to Harry in a whisper. Snape whirled on him angrily but then stopped himself and said nothing. Instead, he gave Ron a small smile. But there was a particularly malevolent gleam in his eyes.
       "White, sir," Pansy replied.
       Ron, Harry, Crabbe and Goyle all got their questions right, too. Then Snape turned to Hermione.
       "Miss Granger," he said with the same little smile he'd given Ron. "From what country would you import simple pero clippings?"
       Hermione froze. The Gryffindors were shocked to see that she didn't know the answer. Harry didn't blame her. He'd never heard of pero clippings. "Guess!" he suggested in an encouraging whisper.
       "Bulgaria, sir?"
       "Ten points from Gryffindor," Snape smiled. Hermione turned red and bit her lip.
       "Malfoy? What must you do to flobberworm entrails before adding them to a rapid-sustenance potion?"
       "Freeze them, sir," Malfoy grinned.
       Snape nodded and surveyed the students. Then he turned back to Hermione. "Miss Granger. What happens if you add underaged Mandrake to a narcosepsis potion?"
       Hermione knew all about Mandrake but had never heard of a narcosepsis potion. She looked helplessly at Harry and Ron who could only shrug. "I don't know, sir," she admitted.
       "Twenty," Snape tallied. "Malfoy!"
       Draco jumped, surprised to be called on again. His second question was, "What potion ingredient would you feed a hippogriff with an injured wing?"
       "Oh!" Ron was appalled by the irony of the question.
       "Ground newt eyes, sir," Malfoy said, but he wasn't smiling this time.
       Every eye followed Snape as he strolled through the room. He glanced at Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil. Then he whirled on Hermione.
       "Miss Granger," he began.
       "Oh, come on," Harry said just loudly enough to be heard. Snape glared at him. Harry stared right back and the Gryffindors held their breath. But Snape just smiled and turned back to Hermione.
       "Why can't you mix feddergrass with gillyweed?" he asked.
       Hermione bit her lip so hard her classmates wondered she didn't begin to bleed. They knew she was trying desperately to hold back tears. She answered Snape in a tone laced with anguish. "I don't know, sir."
       "Dear me, Miss Granger, can't you get even one right?"
       Smiling nastily, Snape alternated seven more times between Malfoy and Hermione until he had taken an even 100 points from Gryffindor. Ron's face flamed at the sight of Hermione, who sat so still and defeated she seemed to be staring at nothing, lost in her own world. Harry reached over and took hold of Ron's robes in case it became necessary to force him to stay in his seat.
       "Really, Miss Granger," Snape purred as the quiz came to an end. "It takes more than a convalescious potion to be of use in difficult times. One would think you don't care."
       Sure enough, Ron leapt, and Harry had to jerk hard to keep him in his seat, forcing a choked gasp from Ron's throat. Snape spun on them and the three wizards glared at each other, frozen in a furious tableau.
       "Dismissed," Snape hissed when the bell finally rang.

       That evening in the common room, Violet joined the older students near the fire. "Why aren't you in line, little Snape snuggler?" Malfoy asked her. Marybeth and the other first year girls were clustered around Snape, waiting their turns to climb into his chair and listen to the soothing beat of his heart.
       "There are other laps," Violet smiled, and she climbed into Montague's. He was arguing softly with Malfoy about potions class that morning.
       "It just seems a little off to me," Malfoy insisted. "Snape's the one who made us invite them over. And now he's back to tormenting Gryffindor?"
       "He wasn't tormenting Gryffindor," Montague countered. "Just Granger."
       Violet flinched. "What did he do?"
       "He took 100 points from Gryffindor because Granger couldn't answer questions most of the staff would have missed," Malfoy said with a shake of his head.
       Violet gulped. "Maybe he's just trying to push her to be her best," she suggested feebly.
       The Slytherins looked at her through narrowed eyes and Malfoy folded his arms across his chest. "So now she's a Slytherin?" he asked so snidely that Violet quickly conceded, mumbling,
       "I take your point."
       She gazed into the fire, wishing someone else would say something. After a while, she began to swing her feet. Malfoy, remembering her nervous 'tell' from the sorting ceremony, reached out and caught her shoes with one hand.
       "Tell us about your trip to London, little snake," he suggested with just enough sternness to make his expectations clear. Violet recounted the tale as truthfully as she could remember and wasn't surprised, upon finishing, to see angry faces. Montague spoke first.
       "It was Granger's idea?"
       "And she took you to Borgin and Burke's?" Malfoy's question seemed more like an accusation. Violet said nothing, and after a few seconds, Malfoy rose and headed for his room. He stopped after a few steps and whirled back towards the fire.
       "Violet," he fumed, pointing an angry finger at her, "if you ever let a Gryffindor push you around again, I'll skin you alive."
       He left the common room and Violet glanced across the room at Snape, who smiled a mischievous little smile and gave Marybeth's hair a yank. The startled first year let out a delighted squeak at being teased by her head of house. Violet shook her head.
       This is not going to be pretty, she decided.

       At Gryffindor, Hermione spent the evening in her room perusing advanced potions manuals she had borrowed from the library. She refused to show her face in the common room.
       "Hermione, you're being ridiculous," Ron insisted from the doorway to her room where he and Harry were beseeching her to reconsider. "It's Snape everybody's mad at, not you!"
       "I am NOT leaving this room," Hermione shouted, "until I learn about feddergrass!"
       "But you've read those books before," Harry reminded her. "I've seen you."
       "Well, I must have missed something," Hermione blamed herself as she returned to her reading. Harry and Ron shook their heads and left for the common room.
       They found Fred and George deep in conversation, their brows furrowed. "We've got a theory," George announced as they approached.
       "There's only one reason Hermione wouldn't know something in your potions class," added Fred.
       Ron and Harry exchanged looks before asking in unison, "What?"
       "If it were Dark Arts material," George declared.
       The younger Gryffindors were shocked. It made sense, but would Snape do such a thing?
       "How could we find out for sure?" Ron wondered. Fred jerked his head toward the common room door. The younger boys nodded and the four of them settled down to wait for Professor McGonagall's nightly appearance. When she arrived, they surrounded her.
       "Professor McGonagall, what's feddergrass?"
       "Feddergrass?" The head of Gryffindor regarded Fred sharply.
       "And what are pero clippings?" added George. Before she could reply, Ron blurted out,
       "What's a narcosepsis potion?"
       Professor McGonagall shook her head. "Where did you hear those terms?" she asked, sounding somewhat exasperated. "Is Professor Snape teaching that in seventh year potions?"
       Fred pasted an innocent expression on his face. "Shouldn't he?"
       "Well, it's terribly advanced material," McGonagall replied. "You only learn potions theory on that level when you're doing advanced work with a fellowship mentor. You wouldn't even be able to find any material in our library to support your work in those areas!"
       The boys looked terribly disappointed and settled glumly onto sofas without even remembering to thank their transfigurations teacher. Professor McGonagall's suspicions were immediately aroused.
       "Is there something you'd like to tell me?" she asked the four boys. When none of them responded, she turned pointedly to Harry. "Potter?"
       "No, Professor," Harry insisted, shaking his head.
       When Ron proved equally tight-lipped, McGonagall made a quick scan of the common room. "Where's Miss Granger?" she demanded to know, and before anyone could shoot him a warning look, Ron announced,
       "She's in her room, studying potions."
       Harry flinched.
       "Potions," murmured McGonagall with a bit of a snort. The teacher of that subject hadn't spoken to her since she'd removed Hermione from his office. She turned abruptly to Harry. "Potter, how did the fifth years fare in potions today?"
       Harry looked to the twins for guidance but they just shook their heads, defeated. "We lost 100 points," Harry admitted.
       McGonagall pursed her lips. "Then perhaps you should emulate Miss Granger's efforts," she suggested. The boys obediently left the common room . . . and so did Professor McGonagall.
       She had the good fortune to catch Snape as he was leaving his common room for the evening.
       "Severus, I'd like a word, please."
       "I have potions homework to mark," he replied, striding angrily in the direction of his office. She kept pace with him, carefully maintaining her composure.
       "I think it's important."
       They'd reached his office and Snape whirled on her. "So now you encourage tattling, Minerva, is that it?"
       "Severus! How dare you!"
       Snape stepped into his office and spun around, glaring at McGonagall as he blocked her entrance. "Instead of coddling the whiners," he hissed, "perhaps your time would be better spent reigning in those reckless marauders you call students!"
       And with that, he slammed the door in her face.

       Late the next morning, the Slytherin fifth years clambored noisily through the door to Transfigurations class, their last lesson before lunch in the Great Hall. They stopped at Professor McGonagall's desk to help themselves to some of the tree bark they would be transforming into dragon-hide gloves and converted the bark temporarily into wooden tumblers for a little cup game action before class. When Professor McGonagall entered, they were tapping and banging away merrily, completely unaware of her presence.
       "Stop this nonsense immediately!" she commanded. The Slytherins froze, the tumblers still clutched in their hands. Professor McGonagall waved her wand and the tumblers transformed back into bark with a jerk, giving several of the students splinters.
       "Ow!" Pansy gasped without thinking.
       "Silence!" Professor McGonagall snapped. She strode angrily to her desk and Montague leaned over to Malfoy.
       "They finked," he whispered.
       Malfoy couldn't believe it. He shook his head at Montague. "Let's see what happens with the points," he whispered back.
       "Mr. Malfoy!"
       Draco jumped. "
       "Kindly come stand at the front of the room," McGonagall commanded.
       When he arrived, she told him to hold out his hands. Draco raised them tentatively in front of him, palms down. "Leave them there," she ordered. Then she turned on the rest of the Slytherins and proceeded to harp at them through an hour of glove-making.
       Each time they successfully produced a pair, she brought the gloves forward and tried them on Malfoy's extended hands. As class wore on, his arms began to ache. Halfway through the hour, Professor McGonagall noticed his clenched jaw.
       "Problem, Malfoy?" she asked tartly.
       "No, Professor," Malfoy answered firmly.
       "I should hope not. It's not that difficult a task."
       As the noon hour approached, she brought one last pair of gloves forward to try on Malfoy's hands. She jerked them snugly into place and Malfoy cried out in surprise. The gloves had adhered themselves to his flesh, fusing with his skin. He looked like he had dragon paws for hands. Malfoy gaped at Professor McGonagall, who merely smiled.
       "Montague," she chided, "it would seem you've gone a bit too far with the form-fitting aspect of your gloves." She smiled kindly at Draco. "Accompany the rest of your class to lunch, Malfoy, and I'll come remove the gloves as soon as I'm able."
       Her purpose could not have been clearer. When the fifth-year Slytherins entered the Great Hall, the Gryffindors who were already present took one look at Malfoy's hands and roared. Several Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws stood up to see what was so funny. The Slytherins abandoned their table to cluster protectively around Malfoy. "Just pray McGonagall gets here before Snape does," he told them.
       But Snape stormed in while the Gryffindors were still laughing uproariously. When he spotted Malfoy's hands, Violet trembled.
       Snape jerked his head furiously in every direction, searching for McGonagall. Not finding her, he rushed to Malfoy with his wand drawn and destroyed the gloves with one angry blast, leaving Malfoy's hands reddened but sound. The Great Hall fell silent.
       From the corridor came the sound of Professor McGonagall's high, light-hearted laugh as she approached the hall accompanied by Professor Sprout. When she entered and saw the silent students and the infuriated head of Slytherin, she paused and cleared her throat. Then she marched confidently up to Snape with her head high. Snape glared at her with a dangerous glitter in his eyes and was just about to open his mouth when Dumbledore entered. He, too, paused at the sight of the silent students and the two staff members standing toe-to-toe.
       "Good afternoon," he said after an awkward pause. Snape and McGonagall turned from each other without a word and took their seats at the head table. The Slytherins sat down, Violet grabbing a spot across from Malfoy and Montague.
       "What happened?" she whispered, leaning across the table.
       "They finked," replied Montague.
       In one unison gesture, all of Slytherin turned to glare at Gryffindor.

       On Friday morning, a notice from Professor McGonagall in her capacity as deputy headmistress was delivered to Snape, Sprout and Flitwick. Snape carried his copy to the common room and read it to the Slytherins before they left for breakfast.
       "By order of the deputy headmistress," he recited, "all students will report to the Great Hall at 7pm this evening for an introductory lecture on animagus training with Professor McGonagall."
       Snape rolled the parchment back up meticulously. "You will not be going," he added, inspiring Malfoy to sigh with relief,
       "Oh, thank God."
       "Furthermore," Snape continued, "you will not be going to potions class today."
       The first, third and fifth years exchanged looks. They had double potions on Fridays.
       "I feel compelled," Snape explained, "to give a little extra attention to the Gryffindors."
       As soon as he was gone, the Slytherins whooped for joy.

       This time they told. It was Hermione, accompanied by a Gryffindor first year and third year, who marched resolutely up to Professor McGonagall at the head table during supper in the Great Hall. None of them spoke loudly enough to be heard by anyone other than their head of house, but every Slytherin and Gryffindor noticed that the first year teared up ... twice. Snape watched the entire conversation with a satisfied smile on his face and continued to smile as the three Gryffindors returned to their seats and McGonagall turned to glare at him. When his students finished eating, Snape escorted them to their common room and settled in, foregoing his usual Friday night activities to keep watch over his Slytherins.
       At 7:10, someone knocked on the common room door. Snape opened it to find Professor Dumbledore standing in the corridor. "May I have a word with you please, Professor Snape?" he asked politely. Snape stepped into the corridor, pulling the door shut behind him.
       Dumbledore spoke very firmly. "Severus, did you excuse the Slytherins from potions classes today?"
       "My students excel at potions, Headmaster," replied Snape evenly.
       "As does Miss Granger, I believe. And now you've excused them from Professor McGonagall's lecture?"
       Snape barely nodded. "That is correct."
       Dumbledore waited a few moments. When Snape remained silent, he asked, "Is there anything else you'd like to say, Severus?"
       "No, Headmaster."
       Dumbledore nodded. "Then I'd like you to return to your common room, send your students to the Great Hall immediately, and report to my office, please."
       Snape promised his students he would return later that evening to check on them. As they made their way to the Great Hall, Malfoy tried to reassure them.
       "She won't do anything to us with the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws there," he theorized.
       The Slytherins filed into the Great Hall, took seats at their table, and bore silently Professor McGonagall's tart remarks about their late arrival.
       "Now let's see, how shall we begin?" she asked when they were all settled. "Dear me. I'm not sure there's room to demonstrate properly with all of you here!"
       Oh, no! thought Malfoy.
       "I think it would be best," Professor McGonagall continued cheerfully, "if the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs returned to their common rooms. I'll provide a second demonstration for them tomorrow night."
       As the confused Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws took their leave, Malfoy pulled Montague and Goyle close. "She doesn't touch the three youngest years!" he whispered fiercely. "That's the best we can do."
       The Slytherins passed the word up and down their benches to protect their youngest housemates at all costs.
       "The hard part," McGonagall lectured as she strolled among them, "is accepting the nature of your true inner animal. Those who dream of being lions. . . " She paused to smile fondly at the Gryffindors. ". . . often discover they are merely weasels." And she turned to stare pointedly at the Slytherins. Several Gryffindors snickered. "Of course," McGonagall continued, "there is no shame in being a weasel." Now she stood next to her Gryffindors and they all stared at the Slytherins. "Weasels make excellent food for lions," she concluded.
       The Gryffindors laughed and clapped and McGonagall climbed gracefully on top of their table. "Montague!" she commanded, pointing her wand at a spot beside her. Montague dutifully joined Professor McGonagall on top of Gryffindor's table and all the Slytherins stood up in their places, tensed and ready. "Sit down," McGonagall hissed, and, fearing any resistance would make things worse for Montague, they obeyed.
       "If you select a form that does not reflect your true inner animal," McGonagall explained, "you may achieve transformation, but the change will be short-lived. Far more important is will, which is the lesson I would like to stress tonight. Attempting animagus transformation in the midst of conflict can produce severely compromised results if your adversary is present. . ." McGonagall paused to look at the Slytherins again. ". . . and equal or stronger in will."
       She turned to look Montague straight in the eye. "Now, Montague. Select the first animal form you would like to try."
       Montague thought hard. "A Labrador," he decided. McGonagall nodded.
       "Now concentrate, and will your selection with every fiber of your being," she instructed. It sounded like a threat to the Slytherins. Montague shut his eyes and clenched his fists as McGonagall waved her wand. When he opened them again, he was regarding her with the sweet beady eyes of a skunk. Only his back half was a Labrador. The Gryffindors roared.
       Then it got worse. Montague's front half spotted his back half and the skunk tried to flee in terror from the back paws of its natural enemy. The cockeyed animal waddled desperately off the edge of the table and fell to the stone floor, banging its little skunk head on a bench on the way down. Violet covered her eyes with a whimper and Malfoy savagely tore her hands away from her face. "Sit up!" he snarled at her, and Violet saw that every Slytherin was sitting straight and tall and stone-faced, glaring tight-lipped at McGonagall.
       Montague, returned to human form and sporting a large bump on his forehead, shook his head to clear it and looked up. McGonagall pointed to the spot beside her again and without a word, he stood up and climbed back onto the table to face her.
       "Now what?" she asked pleasantly.
       "A cougar," Montague replied with a determination that gave the Slytherins fresh hope. McGonagall smiled and waved her wand. This time, Montague mastered the front half of the animal. Unfortunately, McGonagall had willed his back half to become a porcupine, and it came as no surprise to the Slytherins when the cougar snapped and got a face full of quills. They were still lodged in Montague's lips when he converted, and even after McGonagall waved the quills away with a flick of her wand, the swelling remained. If the Slytherins had been able to tear their eyes from their housemate, they might have noticed that the Gryffindors were not laughing anymore.
       "One last time," McGonagall suggested, and Montague tried desperately to think of an animal with no natural enemies. He picked a walrus. Again he won the front of the animal, but McGonagall made his backside a polar bear, which frightened the walrus so badly it began to bark hysterically. Montague came to on his hands and knees, racked and heaving with frantic exhortations, retching from the violence of his own spasms.
       Professor McGonagall excused Montague and made Millicent and Pansy clean up after him without the benefit of magic. When a working order had been restored to the hall, she turned to the Slytherins to select her next example.
       "Miss Guilford."
       Malfoy rose instead, holding Violet down in her seat with a hand on her shoulder.
       "Excuse me, Professor," he said smoothly, "but Violet isn't well this evening. I'd appreciate it if you would allow me to be next instead."
       The teacher could not refuse such a well-mannered request, and she pressed her lips together tightly, furious that she'd been outmaneuvered by Slytherin cunning. Then she smiled. "If you insist, Malfoy," she replied so archly that Violet trembled.
       Once again, every Slytherin stood up as Malfoy climbed onto the Gryffindor table. This time, McGonagall did not order them to sit back down. She was already focused on the task at hand.
       "Well?" she demanded when Malfoy reached the appropriate spot on the table.
       "A fox," Malfoy responded, making McGonagall smile.
       "Clever," she assured him. "Clever, clever Malfoy. A pity it's not enough."
       "Please, God," Violet heard Millicent pray softly beside her. But in McGonagall's eyes she saw four long years of anger stacked against five short months of progress. She had no doubt whose will would prevail.
       McGonagall waved her wand, and Malfoy's top half transformed into a beautiful silver fox.
       His bottom half became a skinny white ferret.
       To the Slytherins' horror, Malfoy began to snap viciously at his own torso. Blood spotted the ferret's white fur.
       "Stop it!" Violet cried, springing forward.
       Montague grabbed her and jerked her back. "Be still," he commanded. The rest of the Slytherins stood straight and unflinching.
       McGonagall waved her wand to speed Malfoy's return to human form and he found himself on all fours on top of the table, panting and bleeding. His robes flopped to one side and where his jumper hitched up, the Slytherins could see blood spotting his white shirt.
       "On your feet, Malfoy," Professor McGonagall commanded. As he rose, Malfoy wondered to himself what in God's name Snape had done to the Gryffindors.
       "Ready to try again?"
       Just then, Filch burst into the hall. He ran to the Gryffindor table with noisy, slushy strides, his boots dripping wet, his trousers soaked to the knees.
       "Professor McGonagall," the frantic caretaker called as he ran. "I'm sorry to interrupt your lecture, but someone's cast a flow charm in your office and I can't make it stop! The water's already two feet high and I'm afraid your rugs and plush chairs are ruined!"
       As McGonagall streaked from the hall, Montague threw his arms over his head. "Yes!" he shouted as the Slytherins punched triumphant fists high in the air, chanting, "Snape! Snape! Snape! Snape!"
       Malfoy climbed carefully down from the table to rejoin his housemates. Violet flung her arms around his waist, making him wince.
       The Gryffindors rose quietly and had just begun to head for the door when Montague called out, "Bye bye, hag!" in the general direction in which Professor McGonagall had departed. At this, the Gryffindors stopped.
       "What did you say?" George demanded as the Gryffindors turned to face the Slytherins.
       "You heard him, Weasley," Goyle answered for his housemate. "And he meant it."
       "Say it again," suggested Harry, taking a step closer to Montague.
       "Potter," the other boy shot back, "I wouldn't know what to call her first."
       Before things could go any further, Hermione thrust herself between the two boys. "Drop it!" she commanded Montague. "Snape started all of this, so you just drop it!"
       "Snape?" Malfoy stepped forward himself, Violet clinging to him all the while. "You started it, Granger! All Snape did was teach you to pick on someone your own size!"
       Hermione looked stricken, but Ron didn't notice. He was so infuriated by the idea of Snape teaching a Gryffindor morals that he burst forward, his face as red as his hair. "What the hell are you talking about?" he demanded.
       Harry noticed Violet clinging to Malfoy and suddenly understood. "London," he murmured, astonished. His voice began to rise. "This whole thing has been about Hermione's trip to London!" He shouted it at the Slytherins as if revealing an atrocity. But Malfoy just grinned loftily.
       "Someone's finally teaching the Gryffindors," he nodded, "they can't run roughshod over smaller Slytherins any time they feel like it."
       The Gryffindors gaped at this revelation. Then, to Malfoy's chagrin, the twins burst out laughing. But Harry shook his head in disbelief.
       "Are you serious?" he asked Malfoy. He looked at the Gryffindors all around him and then turned back to the blonde Slytherin. "You tell your head of house, Malfoy," he seethed. "You tell him... from all us Gryffindors... to GET OVER IT!"
       Violet released Malfoy to rush forward and shove Harry in the stomach. "Don't you dare!" she cried, pushing him into the twins. "Don't you dare make what they did small, you marauding little bastards!"
       Ron laughed and pointed at her. "Who are you calling bastard, Voldemort?" he asked, saying the name easily for once.
       "Who are you pointing a finger at, Percy?" Malfoy responded. Every Gryffindor flinched and Malfoy grinned broadly at their distress. "Excuse me," he pretended to correct himself as he pulled Violet back to the safety of his side. "Ron."
       The twins took a menacing step forward but Harry held up one hand to stop them.
       "You don't know what you're talking about, Slytherin" he told Draco evenly. "And you shouldn't talk anyway, should you. . . Malfoy." He said the name as deliberately as possible, and, never taking his eyes off Draco's face, he continued to spit out equally suspect names born by Slytherins. "Or Crabbe. . . or Goyle . . . or Mcnair. . . or Nott. . ."
       "You'd better stop," Malfoy warned, but Harry just smiled and added one more name.
       ". . . or Snape."
       Malfoy's clenched jaw shook with rage. He felt Violet tremble against him and remembered her trick. He waited until the perfect response came.
       "Snape," he reminded Harry, "was a Death Eater War hero. That makes him the only Death Eater War hero Head of House at Hogwarts."
       The Slytherins smiled triumphantly. But so did Harry.
       "I'd like to see how heroic he is," Harry replied, "when he's not hiding behind Dumbledore's robes."
       Malfoy moved so fast Harry never saw it coming. He tore out his wand, spun loose from Violet and lunged to deliver a curse right between Harry's eyes.
       "Malfoy!" Violet screamed.
       Malfoy froze. Harry's hands hung at his sides, one of them close to his wand, ready to draw if Malfoy broke eye contact for even a moment. In the time it had taken Violet to cry out, every Gryffindor and Slytherin in the room had drawn a wand on each other.
       Malfoy and Harry stared, their eyes locked. Malfoy's face grew angrier and angrier, his jaw clenching tighter and tighter. Suddenly, he threw his wand to the floor. The Slytherins and Gryffindors relaxed, lowering their wands to see what would happen next. Malfoy and Harry continued to stare each other down, and Malfoy began to growl.
       He flung himself at Harry with a force that knocked them both to the ground and pummeled the Gryffindor mercilessley with his fists. Instantly every Slytherin and Gryffindor in the room except Violet jumped on another student and began punching. Drawing on her institutional upbringing, Violet crept a safe distance from the melee and settled down to watch. "That's better," she nodded to herself as her schoolmates pounded each other.
       They'd been beating each other senseless for about three minutes when Dumbledore walked in. Violet gave him the briefest glance and a quick, "Hello, sir," before returning her attention to the action. Not a single battling student noticed his presence, so a stunned Dumbledore tapped Violet on the shoulder. "Miss Guilford?" he murmured bemusedly, hoping for an explanation. But Violet just shrugged.
       "It's all right," she assured the headmaster. "They're not biting or gouging. It's a clean fight."
       Dumbledore shook his head in disbelief. He pointed his wand at his throat, murmured "Sonorus," and then took a few steps away from Violet to spare her ears before he thundered, "CEASE!"
       The Slytherins and Gryffindors froze. Some were splayed on the tables, some were straddling the benches, some were knotted together on the floor. They stared at their headmaster in horror and released each other, rising abashedly to their feet.
       "Quietus," Dumbledore charmed himself again. Then he turned to Potter and Malfoy who, as best he could make out, were at the center of the brawl.
       "What is the meaning of this?"
       The boys stared at each other. Something would have to be said, and it certainly couldn't be the truth. Finally an answer came to Malfoy and he smiled.
       "The Gryffindors claim you like them better, sir," he told Dumbledore.
       The headmaster left without another word.

       "You did very well, " Violet assured the Slytherins when they reassembled in their common room a few minutes later. "For people used to fighting with wands, I mean." She wandered sympathetically among her housemates, admiring the Gryffindor handiwork. Every face in Slytherin except hers was bruised, blackened, or swollen. Malfoy was in particularly bad shape since he'd had the misfortune to jump a wizard who'd spent a lifetime fending off Dudley Dursley. Pansy was revolted to the point of nausea by the blood from a loosened tooth. Her queasiness suddenly reminded Violet of something.
       "I saw her!" she cried. The Slytherins could barely be bothered to look up from their suffering, but Violet continued anyway. "Hermione," she explained. "I saw her the night after our trip when I returned Potter's pensieve." Violet brought to mind Hermione's pale, wretched face. "She didn't look good," Violet recalled.
       "I'm sure McGonagall creamed her," Malfoy nodded wearily. Goyle dropped onto the sofa beside him, chewing on a swollen lip.
       "This is stupid," he insisted. "They torture us, so we beat each other?"
       "We have to sort this out," Malfoy agreed. "If we don't meet with Gryffindor and come up with a plan, our own heads of house will destroy us long before Voldemort can get his hands on us." He turned to Montague, who said nothing. "What do you think?" Malfoy pressed him. "Tomorrow morning, in the Great Hall after breakfast?"
       "Hang on!" Millicent waved a hand at him. "Don't you imagine we'll be spending the entire weekend right here?"
       Malfoy considered that. He turned to Violet. "Find Snape," he ordered. " Ask to talk to him in his office and tell him some tale of woe that will keep him there for hours. Keep him out of the common room for the rest of the night so he doesn't see us like this."
       "Wait a minute," Millicent objected. "He said he'd check on us. And what if Dumbledore's already told Snape about the fight?"
       Malfoy shrugged. "Chance we'll have to take," he insisted.
       Millicent covered her face with her hands. "I cannot live the life of a Slytherin!" she moaned.
       Violet thought of another obstacle. "What about breakfast?" she reminded everybody. "Snape will see you then."
       Malfoy looked appalled. "We're still gonna look like this at breakfast?" he demanded incredulously, making Violet smile. She ran to her room and returned promptly with a small container which she handed Malfoy.
       Then she slipped out of the common room to find Snape.

       When Fred Weasley admitted Malfoy, Crabbe, Goyle and Montague to the Gryffindor common room a few minutes later, they found Harry Potter wandering among his housemates, tending to their wounds as best he could. The Gryffindors regarded the four Slytherins with more chagrin than anger.
       "We're wondering if you'd like to talk this through a bit," Malfoy asked no one in particular. Fred and George nodded and so did several other Gryffindors. "Tomorrow morning, after breakfast in the Great Hall?"
       Fred shook his head. "It might have to wait a few weeks."
       "Or months," George added.
       "Maybe not," countered Crabbe. "Violet's boring Snape to tears as we speak."
       Fred got the idea and took a quick look around the common room. "Patil," he decided, pointing out the only Gryffindor who'd taken all her licks to the stomach and still had an unblemished face. Parvati nodded and immediately left the common room.
       "Here," Malfoy went on, offering Hermione the small container he'd received from Violet. "Come up with a potion for more of this, and send us the recipe or make enough for us, too, all right?"
       Hermione took the container and checked the label.
       'Concealer,' it read.

       The next morning at breakfast, Albus Dumbledore was extremely confused. Professors Snape and McGonagall, while clearly furious with each other, showed no irritation at all with their students. Yet the students looked completely healed, which would have been impossible without the intervention of their heads of house or Madam Pomfrey, who had assured Dumbledore she'd had no customers the night before.
       After breakfast, the Gryffindors and Slytherins hid in classrooms or milled around the corridors in strategically small groups until the Great Hall was deserted. Then they slipped back in and sat down next to each other around the tables. Malfoy stood on top of a bench so they could all hear him.
       "We've got two problems," he began. He paused and then continued with a little shake of his head. "There's nothing we can do about the row between Snape and McGonagall. Every student at Hogwarts thinks his head of house is the best. If we tried to interfere, we'd just ending up pounding each other again."
       The Slytherins and Gryffindors nodded in agreement.
       "But we have to find a way to keep them from taking it out on us," he continued. "We can't go to Dumbledore and we can't very well tell them to stop their nonsense..."
       A few students chuckled at the Snape/McGonagall-speak.
       "... so does anybody have any ideas?"
       He waited for several seconds but nobody made a sound. Then Millicent, who was sitting at the end of a bench nearest the door, sneezed violently. She took out a handkerchief and blew her nose, accidentally removing the concealer hiding her bruised lip.
       That's when Snape walked in.
       Millicent saw the concealer on her handkerchief and immediately put the handkerchief back up to her nose to hide her lip.
       Snape gazed contemptuously around the room at the intermingled Slytherins and Gryffindors. He turned to Malfoy, who was still standing on the bench. "What," he snarled, "is the meaning of this little gath. . ."
       Then he noticed Millicent, who still had the handkerchief at her lip.
       "Miss Bulstrode? What are you doing?"
       Millicent swallowed hard. "I'm going to sneeze, sir," came the muffled response from behind her handkerchief.
       Snape waited. So did Millicent, who began to redden as the seconds ticked by. After a while, she faked a sneeze, rather poorly. She kept the handkerchief pressed firmly to her nose. It came as no surprise to anyone when Snape strolled slowly over to her and jerked the handkerchief away. When he saw her face, he grabbed her chin and wrenched her head upwards for a better look. He wiped the rest of the concealer away with his own handkerchief, making Millicent wince as he scrubbed her bruise clean.
       "Who did this?" he demanded to know.
       Millicent opened her mouth, then looked confused. "I'm not sure, sir," she had to admit.
       Snape shoved her chin away and whirled on Lavender Brown, who was sitting next to Millicent. He spotted the concealer on her face and on that of the Slytherin sitting next to Lavender. One by one, he grabbed the chin of each Gryffindor and Slytherin to tilt their heads up and roughly wipe their faces clean, revealing black eyes, bruised cheeks, and swollen lips. He'd made his way up one table and halfway down the other and had Hermione in hand, wiping off concealer that hid a black eye, when Professor McGonagall entered the hall.
       McGonagall froze, shocked by the sight before. She marched furiously over to Snape, who tightened his grip on Hermione's chin and twisted her head to show Professor McGonagall her face. "Behold," he said softly. "The noble Gryffindor."
       Professor McGonagall stamped one foot. "Let go of her!" she snapped, barely in control of her temper.
       Snape released Hermione's chin with a shove and Malfoy, who was still on his feet, spoke up tentatively.
       "Professor Snape..."
       "Sit down!" Snape roared. Malfoy dropped instantly onto the bench. Snape turned back to McGonagall with a dangerous glitter in his eyes.
       "Shall we send for the headmaster?" he baited her. "Or is this another transgression you'd prefer to cover up?"
       McGonagall was so angry she shook. "I have NEVER shielded a Gryffindor from punishment," she retorted, "and you're a fine one to speak of cover-ups!"
       "Of course!" Snape's voice rose as he took a step closer to McGonagall. "You know little of such dark things in Gryffindor. You leave others to fight those battles!"
       "Don't you dare question the courage of my house!" McGonagall cried. She thrust her chin defiantly at Snape. "We have an integrity you'll never possess!"
       "You have a hypocrisy you'll never confess!" Snape thundered back. "Your courage is opportunistic, your sport is at the expense of others, and your heralded bouts of heroism are the epitome of self-centeredness!"
       McGonagall clenched her hands into tight fists, perhaps to prevent herself from reaching for her wand. "My students," she all but shouted, "are exemplary!"
       "Your students are worthless!"
       "Your students... are present," said Dumbledore quietly from the doorway.
       Snape and McGonagall jerked their heads toward the door where Dumbledore stood regarding them with unspeakable heartache. In an instant, their anger evaporated. They turned to each other, shocked and horrified, then looked around the room at their students. Snape hoped he would never see expressions like that again as long as he lived.
       "Prefects," Dumbledore said gently, "please take your houses back to their common rooms."
       The students filed out without a sound, leaving the three adults alone in the huge room. Minerva stared at the floor and Snape wished he could step closer to her, stand side by side with her. There was nothing to do but wait for Dumbledore to speak.
       "When I need you the most," Dumbledore said so softly they had to strain to hear him. "I am sick with disappointment."
       He turned and walked across the room but paused at the doorway to turn back to them, his face suddenly contorted with rage. "A plague on both your houses!" he roared. Then he left them.
       They stood silently for a long time. Finally Minerva lifted her head and Snape recognized his old friend, shame, on her face. My world and welcome to it, he thought bitterly.
       Professor McGonagall's eyes grew dangerously bright. "Don't!" Snape commanded. "DON'T!"
       She didn't cry, but she did go to him and lay her head on his shoulder, wrapping one arm around his waist. He put one arm around her shoulders and they stood quietly for a full minute, just breathing. Then Minerva pulled back suddenly, a horrified look on her face.
       "Severus!" she gasped. "You don't think. . ." She paused, unable to finish her horrible thought.
       "What?" Snape scoffed at her concern. "He'd torture our students to get back at us?"
       "Just because we did," McGonagall reminded him.
       Snape stared. After a moment, his mouth actually dropped open. Then he grabbed her hand and they tore out of the Great Hall and down the corridors at a dead run, eventually separating to race to their own houses.
       Snape burst through the stone door of the dungeon common room and stopped short, breathing hard. There stood all his Slytherins, silent, stone-faced, and blessedly healthy.
       They did NOT line up.
       Snape sighed with relief as his head began to throb. "I need a drink," he muttered to himself and left the common room.

       "Hello, Severus!" said the barmaid at the Three Broomsticks warmly. "Professor," she added politely to Professor McGonagall.
       "Keep 'em coming, Rosmerta," Snape requested, handing her several galleons. He sat down at a table across from Professor McGonagall, but before either of them could speak, an attractive young witch walked by, touching Snape softly on the shoulder as she passed.
       "Hello, Severus," she smiled at him.
       "Hello, Bedelia," he answered politely and then turned to McGonagall. "All right," he told her. "Take your best shot."
       Minerva waited until Rosmerta had set down the first round. Then she spoke gently but shot from the hip.
       "You hold grudges, Severus," she insisted. "Far longer than any adult should. And you overindulge in self-pity."
       Snape made no response. Another witch passed their table and greeted him and he responded in kind. Then he sat in silence.
       "You're doing it right now!" McGonagall pointed out.
       "No," said Snape. "I'm holding my tongue."
       "Well, don't," McGonagall admonished. "I'm sure I can take as good as I give."
       "Hello, Severus!"
       "Hello, Elizabeth." Snape took a swig of mulled mead. Then he said, "You think you're superior. You criticize me easily and often unfairly."
       McGonagall looked taken aback. "There ARE things to criticize, Severus," she responded guardedly.
       "But that's not all there is."
       "Hello, Severus."
       "Hello, Madeline." Snape glanced briefly at the fifth witch to greet him, then returned his attention to McGonagall. "People who strive make mistakes. You don't criticize me because my wrongs are so terrible. You criticize me because you resent my achievements."
       "Severus, that's ridiculous!"
       "Think of the war we've been fighting, Minerva," Snape reminded her. "Think of what I've accomplished. What have YOU accomplished?"
       They sat in silence long enough for three more witches to greet Snape before Minerva came up with a response.
       "I taught you," she said simply.
       Snape nodded. "That's why it bothers you so much."
       "That our outlooks have grown apart."
       McGonagall shook her head. "I don't accept that," she insisted.
       "And you probably never will," Snape admitted. "And I don't want to accept that."
       "Hello, Severus."
       "Hello, Annabel."
       "Oh, for pity's sake, Severus!" Minerva chided him. Snape just shrugged. Rosmerta brought another round and McGonagall picked up a fresh glass of mead.
       "I wonder how long we'll be stuck with each other?" she mused. When Snape didn't answer, she pressed him. "If you could leave tomorrow, Severus, would you?"
       Snape responded in a tone that was almost harsh. "I would never leave decent people who need me," he insisted. "But the time will come when I am not needed any more, and then I WILL leave."
       "Won't you miss it?" McGonagall wondered. "Being an educator?"
       "You're an educator, Minerva," Snape responded. "I have a different calling."
       "Hello, Severus!"
       "Hello, Loreli."
       McGonagall rolled her eyes before continuing earnestly. "Severus, you're an outstanding educator. You have the most determined students in the school."
       Snape thought of the picture she'd given him. My God, this woman can nurture, he thought. He gave her the smallest of smiles and said, "See? I told you we do-gooders are worth our mistakes."
       Minerva settled back in her chair and took a long drink. "Speaking of mistakes," she said mournfully after emptying half her glass, "you know what we have to do, don't you?"
       Snape shuddered. "I haven't had enough alcohol for THAT yet."
       "Well," McGonagall prodded, "I'd rather do it on our own than wait for him to force us."
       Snape nodded and rose, offering Minerva his arm. They got as far as the door before she stopped him for one last question.
       "Severus, if I ever need one, will you be my Secret-Keeper?"
       "If you'll be mine," he promised.
       "You old honey dripper," she teased.
       Together, they made their way slowly back to Hogwarts.

       Once more unto the breach, the educator thought as yet again he found himself surrounded by students in a common room.
       "Nothing that has gone on between Professor McGonagall and myself is your fault," he told them. "I regret the way I have treated her and her students more than I can say. She has been my friend for many years and there isn't a Gryffindor in this school who doesn't deserve the respect and admiration of every staff member at Hogwarts."
       He took a deep breath. "I offer no excuses," he continued. "They don't fix problems, so what good are they? I am profoundly sorry. Nothing you heard today was true. Not one word. My conduct reflected my own flaws and no one else's. You are the pride of this institution and of the wizarding world. And you are extremely important to me.
       "You know what the future holds," he nodded, adjusting his voice just a bit. "And I understand that it is your future. I've had my turn. I promise you that I will teach you and serve you to the best of my ability to give you the brightest future possible. And I ask your forgiveness for all my transgressions."
       Snape's apology left the students speechless. Finally one of them whispered. "Yep. That's pretty heroic." So they answered him in perfect unison.
       "Certainly, sir," said the Gryffindors.

The Smallest Slytherin