Floo Tag

       "Goodbye, cruel world!" Violet cried, and Malfoy had just enough time to roll his eyes before she grabbed his left hand and jumped. The two of them, along with Crabbe, Goyle, Marybeth, Harry, Ron and Neville, were leaping from the railing of the 7th floor Gryffindor Tower staircase, hands clasped, to plummet to the stone floor below.
       Snape's second reward lesson had been even better than the first. Dobby had shown him how to halt in mid-freefall, then descend slowly and harmlessly to the ground. By the end of classes on Friday, half the students at Hogwarts could jump safely off a tower of tables stacked to the ceiling of the Great Hall.
       They spent the evening meal discussing all the possibilities this new trick offered. From what heights would the technique work? Could you descend on your back, firing shots at your opponent as you fell? How close could you come to the ground before halting? Was it possible to increase the hang-time? Snape had taken care to forbid any unsupervised practice of these options but had completely overlooked the idea of group activity.
       "You'll just pull your arms out of the sockets," Hermione had protested as her schoolmates had gathered on the Fat Lady's corridor to experiment. She had refused to participate, calling their plan a useless aberration that would land them in trouble. But Malfoy couldn't see anything wrong with what they were doing... until Professor Trelawney stepped into view right after they jumped and let out a scream so loud it nearly shook the castle off its foundation. The sight of the plunging children frightened her so badly she fainted, knocking her silly head soundly on the stone floor.
       Snape and McGonagall convulsed with mirth every time they thought of Suggestible Sybil's reaction to the stunt, so they were forced to turn their little heart-stoppers over to Filch for punishment. Filch, who'd always thought highly of the Slytherins because Snape had the good sense to cane them, bestowed upon Malfoy the honor of cleaning out Mrs. Norris' litter box, a task the caretaker took very seriously now that animals as well as students had limited access to the grounds. Malfoy ignored the smirks of his fellow deviants; while Filch was supervising their punishments elsewhere in the castle, he would have the run of the caretaker's office.
       Mrs. Norris gazed appreciatively at him with her lamp-like eyes as he squatted beside the box, scooping and raking and generally making a very pretentious show of doing a conscientious job. "There you are, pretty kitty," he flattered her, and the foolish animal lapped it up. "Now where does Mr. Filch keep the extra clay?"
       Mrs. Norris hopped onto a large metal box that stood between Filch's desk and her litter tray. Malfoy praised, "Good kitty!" before lifting her gently off the box and opening the lid. Then he gasped out loud at largest stash of floo powder he'd ever seen.
       He rocked back on his heels, arms around his knees, and pondered his discovery for a moment. "Can squibs use floo powder?" he wondered aloud. He turned curious eyes upon Mrs. Norris, who meowed and swished her tail calmly. It made sense, he supposed, that anyone capable of speech and grip could use the stuff, so long as he knew which fireplaces were on the system and what to call them.
       On the inside of the box's lid was a small pocket with a folded piece of parchment protruding from it. Malfoy carefully removed the paper and opened it. It contained a list of numbers next to descriptions of various rooms, beginning with:

       It went on for several columns, concluding with 'H250, Groundskeeper's Hut.'
       Malfoy's mind raced. Was this what he thought it was? It would certainly explain how Filch was able to get around so quickly and why he always looked so grimy.
       The teenager hesitated only a moment. Then he sat down at Filch's desk and began copying the list as quickly as he could. When he finished, he returned the original to its pocket and closed the lid on the mammoth floo tin.
       He gazed about Filch's office, fists clenched, desperate to flee and test his theory. Instead, he went on searching for the kitty clay. When Filch finally arrived to dismiss him, he found Malfoy sitting quietly in a chair, holding Mrs. Norris in his lap while he scratched her behind the ears.
       "Floo tag?" Harry repeated incredulously. He sat surrounded by Ron, Neville and Ginny in the Slytherin common room. Ginny was peering over his shoulder at a parchment list in his hands.
       "You don't have to know a room's name!" Malfoy explained eagerly. "Take the Defense classroom. You don't have to say 'Quirrel's classroom' one year, then Lockhart's the next, then Lupin's, then Moody's. You can just say 'H-39.' It's always H-39 regardless of who's using it or what's being taught there!"
       "Look how many there are!" Ginny breathed. The students were aware that Hogwarts had hundreds of fireplaces, but until now, they'd never had any idea which ones were on the floo system. All they'd known for sure was that, unlike the common rooms, the dormitory fireplaces were not connected.
       "Each game lasts one hour," Malfoy explained. "There's one predator and four prey. You can floo up to10 times per game, but you can't stay in a room more than 5 minutes and you can't tag in the floo system... only in rooms or corridors."
       "How are we supposed to memorize all these locations?" Ron demanded.
       "You don't have to!" replied Goyle. "All you have to do is memorize the handful you'd never want to floo into."
       "Not always knowing where you'll wind up is part of the fun," Malfoy added. "If you get caught by a staff person, you're automatically out and you'll probably get punished. So never say H2 through H9! And since Dumbledore's office has the only fireplace connected to the outside these days, it's definitely off limits."
       Harry thought for a moment, then shook his head. "Floo powder's expensive," he reminded them.
       Malfoy rolled his eyes. "So?" he drawled.
       "So, it sounds like a rich man's sport to me!"
       "So is quidditch, Potter," Malfoy told him coolly. "You'd know that... if you'd ever paid for a broom yourself."
       The game was a huge hit. At first the students stuck to parts of the castle they knew well and only played when the staff were likely to be holed up in their offices or quarters. But soon they branched out, exploring the far reaches of the castle during games scheduled at more daring times of the day... and night.
       Hogwarts' owl population made up for weeks of inactivity by delivering regular supplies of floo powder from Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley and Harry soon became the possessor of the world's shiniest Firebolt as he generously allowed students to earn handfuls of the stuff by polishing his broom. Malfoy, on the other hand, kept his resources to himself, refusing to help others acquire the added expertise that came from playing the game as often as possible. Floo tag was the one activity outside of potion-making where he surpassed Harry Potter and he intended to keep it that way.
       He prowled the castle for hours, exploring obscure rooms on the system, and soon developed a secondary reconnaissance game where he'd floo into a room after hours and then sneak back to his common room from the remote destination. "Why don't you just floo there and back?" Crabbe asked one night when he'd sneaked triumphantly back into Slytherin at 2am. "Twice as expensive with none of the fun!" Malfoy replied.
       The Slytherin sixth year was soon the undisputed champion of the school with Potter a consistent second. "You could beat him if you'd study the list more," Ron pointed out, and Harry shook his head with a grin. Malfoy had nearly all 250 fireplaces memorized, but Harry found it more fun to shout, "H-173!" with no idea where he would turn up.
       What vexed Ron the most was that Malfoy was equally good at evading or chasing. The same insight that made him so effective at insulting others also allowed him to guess with amazing accuracy where his prey had fled when he pressed his ear to the wall and listened to the whoosh of his opponent's flight through the floo system. "The next time I'm predator," Ron swore, "I'm going to catch him no matter what."
       He got his chance after Professor McGonagall marched up and down the rows between the house tables in the Great Hall on the Friday morning before Holy Week, handing out revised schedules for the last week of classes before the Easter hols.
       "Look!" Hermione pointed out as he and Harry finished their hot cereal. "We have Defense with the 5th and 7th years at the end of the day next Friday! I wonder why?"
       Lupin found no reason to be coy or secretive about it and by lunch time, every student at Hogwarts knew that Severus Snape would be delivering a lecture on why people become Death Eaters during the last period of instruction on Good Friday. The Great Hall abounded with speculative conversations and furtive glances at the head table.
       "Maybe we shouldn't play next week," Harry muttered to Ron as he toyed with his food. Their game with Crabbe, Goyle and Malfoy was scheduled for Thursday evening, the last night Snape would have to work on his lecture. Ron said nothing.
       "It's not that I'm afraid of getting caught," Harry insisted. Neither he nor Ron would have to answer to Snape anyway. It just seemed... inappropriate, somehow.
       "I'll be predator for you," Ron offered a bit too quickly. "Just make up some excuse!"
       That evening, he sent Ginny to the Slytherin common room to pass Crabbe and Goyle a note instructing them to meet him in the corridor. Then she distracted Malfoy ("Payback for November!") so they could slip out of the house unnoticed.
       "With Harry out," Ron told them, "it's just the four of us. Here's the deal. If you help me catch Malfoy, I'll help you catch Harry next time."
       Any other pair of Slytherins would have rejected this proposal out of hand; news of Snape's lecture had the green house once again circling the wagons. But Crabbe and Goyle didn't even hesitate. Ever since they'd mastered patronus production, Malfoy had made a few too many remarks about "idiot savants." "Deal!" Goyle agreed, offering his hand for Ron to shake while Crabbe nodded in enthusiastic agreement.
       "Miserable, back-stabbing prats!" Malfoy thought furiously to himself when he realized the others were ganging up on him. They were good at it, too. Twice he evaded Ron by mere seconds as Crabbe and Goyle helped him listen and pursue Malfoy throughout the castle. Time to use the secret weapon, Malfoy thought. He'd been saving this particular evasion for just such an emergency.
       He floo'd to H-225, a dark, unused classroom he'd scouted a few days before. All the desks were pushed along the walls, leaving the center of the room completely bare. His plan was to use the leaping technique Snape had taught them in his first week of defense classes to jump from the fireplace to the back row of desks, well-shrouded in shadows where he could hide. Anyone who followed him to the room would discover a dust-covered floor devoid of footprints and assume Malfoy had floo'd there only as a diversion. His pursuer would beat a hasty retreat back through the floo system, listening frantically for sounds of Malfoy's flight, while he would slip nimbly into the corridor and hide nearby for a much-needed rest.
       Malfoy rocked back and forth in a crouch, listening carefully as he struggled to control his breathing. Ron was closing in. He would have to be quick and absolutely silent. He rocked backwards once more and then sprang into the air. His toes had barely touched the surface of one of the desks when it collapsed beneath him and crashed to the floor with an ear-splitting bang.
       "Dammit!" Malfoy screamed as dust and debris settled around him. It wasn't an abandoned classroom at all, he realized. It was a storage space for furniture deemed unworthy of repair; the desk he'd landed on had three broken legs. What are they saving it for, he wondered furiously, Bonfire Night?
       He scrambled to his feet and raced out one of the classrooms' two doors as Ron shot out of the fireplace. Then Draco streaked up the corridor to the other door, praying Weasley would be stupid enough to follow his tracks. Sure enough, the first door opened again as Ron came barreling through it into the corridor and Malfoy jumped back into the room through the second door and raced over to the fireplace.
       It was time to take the ultimate risk, he decided. He just couldn't bear to lose at Floo Tag. Snape was probably in his office working on his lecture anyway. If not, Malfoy would just have to explain; maybe his housemaster would understand. "H9!" he whispered as Ron came streaking back into the room. The Gryffindor raced to the fireplace and listened hard but the sound of Malfoy's path was completely foreign to him. He had no idea where the Slytherin had gone.
       Malfoy shot into Snape's parlor and straight into a writing desk his housemaster had apparently moved closer to the fireplace since Malfoy's last visit to this room. "Dammit!" he screamed again, in pain this time. There was no point in being quiet; even if Snape had missed his entry, he surely would have heard the crash of Malfoy's impact with the desk followed by the clatter of desktop items falling to the floor. But Snape was nowhere to be seen.
       "Finally, a break!" Malfoy muttered as he massaged his sore leg. When the pain of his barked shin began to subside, he climbed to his hands and knees and began crawling around Snape's sitting room, retrieving the items he'd knocked off the desk.
       "Parchment," he muttered to himself, absently cataloging the items as he returned them to the desktop, "...quills, paperweight, Blot-be-gone..." He reached beneath a chair and fished out the last item to be retrieved. It was a book, now covered with dust that had been collecting beneath the chair. Some house-elve's head should roll, Malfoy thought. He puffed out his cheeks and blew the cover clean.
       It was Lucius Malfoy's diary.
       The boy froze on two knees and one hand, holding the diary beneath his disbelieving eyes. Snape must have gone after the journal last winter, he realized. Why didn't he tell me? Malfoy wondered. Why didn't he show it to me? Then it occurred to him that he had no more right to it than Snape had. Depending on the contents, Snape might be the perfect person to own it now. But I sure as hell have every bit as much right to read it, Draco thought defiantly as he climbed to his feet and sat down resolutely at Snape's writing desk.
       He turned immediately to the back of the book, searching for the last page with any writing on it. The page contained the final three entries of his father's life. The first was from the day of that glorious quidditch match when Draco had sat between Snape and his father to watch Violet and the Slytherins finally beat Gryffindor using Draco's brilliant scheme.
       The entry was flattering in a way but lacking nevertheless. What about my strategy? Draco wondered indignantly. What about beating Gryffindor, about triumphing over Harry Potter? The next entry was dated on Halloween. That was the last time I saw him alive! Maloy realized with a start.
       Violet, Malfoy thought with a smirk.
       Malfoy thought back for a moment to that wretched Halloween. He saw Snape striding purposefully towards him as he stood alone on the quidditch pitch, devastated by the possibility of what he now knew for sure; his father had wanted to kill his best friend. There was little comfort in the confirmation that Violet had been right about his father's brief repentance.
       The final entry was dated just a few days later.
       It pleased Draco to imagine that his father's final correspondence, a request sent to Snape moments before his death, had been an act of restitution. He flipped to the front of the diary and read the first entry. It was dated around Christmastime late in his father's career at Hogwarts.
       Voldemort, Malfoy thought, thumbing through the pages. Where's Voldemort? There he was, a few months later.
       The next few entries described the Slytherins' secret trips to Hogsmeade and the dazzling array of skills demonstrated by Voldemort. Malfoy found one entry particularly intriguing.
       The rest of the page detailed an on-going political discussion that dominated the next few entries.
       Omygod, Malfoy groaned to himself, rubbing his temples just like Snape. My father invented the Death Eaters. How pleased Voldemort must have been, not to have had to make the suggestion himself. Draco flipped ahead several pages to the end of his father's school career.
       Where do I come in? Malfoy wondered, and he began flipping pages again.
       "Where did he go?" Goyle demanded as he, Ron and Crabbe pressed their ears to a classroom fireplace, listening desperately for any sign of Malfoy in the floo system.
       Wish I could show this to Potter! Malfoy thought as he chuckled at his father's description of a particularly clever revenge taken against the marauders by the older Slytherins during a surprise visit to town over a Hogsmeade weekend.
       Malfoy began turning pages rapidly, scanning for the word 'correction,' hoping to find another example of marauder humiliation. Instead he discovered a new victim.
       What? Malfoy wondered. What happened? The teenager checked the date and realized with a start that the entry was recorded on the day of his birth. But there was no mention of him anywhere. Too busy celebrating, Dad? Malfoy wondered sourly. Snape would have been out of school at that point, he realized. He jumped ahead again, searching for any mention of his name, and stopped when he saw Dumbledore's.
       "We're going to have to tell Snape," Crabbe moaned. The three boys were standing next to a secluded fireplace where they'd begun the game. Malfoy should have appeared at the end of the hour to claim victory. But there was no sign... or sound... of him.
       "Let's not panic," Ron argued. "He might just be stuck somewhere." He told them briefly about the time the Weasleys had tried to floo into 4 Privet Drive. "I suppose some of the fireplaces in the castle could be boarded up, too."
       "Well, if he's trapped," Goyle almost shouted, "how the bloody hell are we going to find him without help? There's not enough floo powder in all of Slytherin to check every fireplace in the castle!"
       "I know how to find him," Ron assured them, and he led them quickly to Gryffindor Tower.
       Crabbe and Goyle waited in the common room while Harry obligingly checked the marauder's map. "He's in Snape's parlor!" the startled Gryffindor told his roommate.
       "Is Snape there?" Ron asked, horrified.
       "No, Snape's in his office." Harry replied. "But..."
       Ron peered over his shoulder at the dot representing Draco and nodded. "Malfoy's not moving," the red-head observed glumly.
       Maloy smiled as he finally came across an incident he remembered, a dinner table conversation at his home.
       Didn't Dad ever write about me? Malfoy wondered. He started skimming again, searching for his name. Finally he found it.
       Malfoy searched for that entry but found none. He remembered the conversation well, though. How he'd raved about the estimable Severus Snape, champion of the Slytherins, tormentor of the Gryffindors! How he'd basked in his father's complete and uninterrupted attention on that occasion.
       Draco let the diary fall closed for a moment and stared at the blank parchment on Snape's desk, lost in thought. He'd idolized Snape at that age, just as he'd idolized his father. But a time had come when his estimation of his pater had slipped dramatically. It was the night Crouch had sent the dark mark into the sky. It had sickened him to see his father so frightened, and in his confusion he'd said something he probably shouldn't have. "Professor Snape wouldn't be afraid," he'd insisted. His father had slapped him so hard he'd fallen to the ground. They had stopped speaking to one another until after Draco had returned to Hogwarts.
       The year that followed had been the worst of his life. Snape had had little time for his students, distracted as he was by Harry Potter's participation in the Triwizard Tournament. The only bright spot had been that first potions class after Potter's name had come out of the Goblet of Fire. Snape, convinced that only someone as clever as Hermione Granger could have found a way to slip Potter's name into the competition, had punished her by insulting her large teeth. She'd fled in tears and Malfoy had caught Snape's eye, certain they shared the same thought. She wouldn't have cried if she'd been guilty. Unfortunately, that realization had only given Snape more to worry about.
       Draco had stayed at school over Christmas that year because of the Yule Ball and had heard very little from his parents. But he had so looked forward to going home for the summer hols, assuming Voldemort's return would finally make things at home right again. Instead, his father had been tense and agitated, vicious and remote. And Snape's visits had been private affairs, the two men sequestering themselves in his father's study. Why? Malfoy thumbed through the diary, looking for an entry from that summer.
       A wave of fury broke over Malfoy. You were the idiot, Dad, he thought. Snape was using you to spy on the Death Eaters. How nerve-wracking that summer must have been for poor Snape, Draco realized. Any one of his visits could have landed him in the middle of a group of his father's... friends.
       But that was where his father's true stupidity lay, Draco thought. "He stares so intensely with those cursed black eyes, as if watching my face for a sign." Snape was there for you as much as for Dumbledore, Dad, Malfoy now realized. He would have helped you, if only...
       The trio huddled together in the dungeon, peering around the corner of an alcove at the door to Snape's office.
       "Will one of you just GO!" Ron hissed. But neither Crabbe nor Goyle moved. One of them had to go knock on the door to Snape's office, gain entrance, and keep him busy. Then the other could lead Ron to Slytherin, floo into Snape's parlor, and retrieve Malfoy's presumably unconscious form. But neither Slytherin could bring himself to approach Snape's door.
       "Damn that Lupin!" Goyle snarled. If it weren't for that blasted lecture, knocking on Snape's door would be no problem. But to approach the potions master as he was preparing to address a topic that had been forbidden for more than a dozen years...
       Ron's patience gave out and he put both hands to Crabbe's back and shoved him into the corridor. At that precise moment, the door to Snape's office opened and the potions master emerged. Ron and Goyle leapt back into hiding, leaving Draco's chances of avoiding detection resting entirely upon the ability of Vincent Crabbe to think on his feet.
       Tough luck, Malfoy, Ron thought.
       My birth! Malfoy thought. Surely Dad wrote something about my birth eventually! He flipped back in time and found an undated entry that, by its first line, looked to be a likely candidate.
       Nope, not me, Draco sighed to himself. Surrounding entries revealed that the page he was reading was recorded during Snape's sixth year at Hogwarts.
       Malfoy stared at the last three words. Then he let the diary fall shut and buried his face in his hands.
       Barely a moment later, the door opened and Snape walked in.
       Malfoy looked up and the two wizards froze at the sight of each other, Snape wide-eyed with surprise, Malfoy bright-eyed with pain. Snape scrutinized the smudge on his nose and the state of his clothes, then traced the path of dust from Malfoy's feet to the fireplace grate. He turned back to the boy, his mouth open as if to speak, and that's when he noticed the book in Malfoy's lap. Their eyes locked for a few moments. There was no room in Malfoy's heart for fear. Then Snape snapped his mouth shut and strode purposefully past Malfoy into his kitchen.
       Malfoy listened to him rummaging through his cupboards and wondered if his housemaster was retrieving some domestic implement of correction. But Snape returned not with a large wooden spoon but rather a jigger of firewhiskey which he set down firmly in front of Malfoy. "Merry Christmas," he said, and after a startled moment, Malfoy raised the drink with a small nod and toasted dully, "Happy New Year."
       He drank the entire shot slowly and carefully, then took a deep breath and sat quietly, twirling the small glass between the fingers of one hand while he clasped the diary with the other. Snape watched him but Malfoy kept his eyes on the contents of Snape's desktop. Eventually, the teacher drew up another chair and sat down.
       "I always hoped," he began gently, "that my friendship with your father would prove stronger than his subservience to Voldemort, because..."
       Malfoy waited, and when Snape didn't finish, he suggested, "Because the marauders' didn't?"
       Snape snorted. "That was part of it," he admitted.
       "What changed your mind?" Malfoy asked. Snape looked confused and Malfoy clarified, "About Voldemort."
       Snape shook his head. "I never changed my mind about Voldemort."
       Now Malfoy looked confused. Then his eyes narrowed and he demanded to know, "So why did you join in the first place?"
       "To kill him," Snape replied simply. Malfoy paled, blinking hard. Snape shrugged. "How else could I prove to Dumbledore and the marauders what scum they were?" Malfoy opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Snape added, "Needless to say, I was hoping to die in the process."
       Malfoy shut his mouth and pressed his lips together hard. "Don't you dare laugh, young man!" Snape threatened, but Malfoy chuckled anyway.
       "I'm sorry, sir," he told Snape as he set down the shot glass. "I've never understood martyrs." Snape muttered something that might have been "Good!" as he turned to gaze out the window but Malfoy thought he saw the slightest blush creep up the potions master's cheeks.
       "I guess you overestimated yourself?" he asked gently after a brief silence.
       "A common mistake in youth," sniffed Snape.
       Another silence followed. Eventually Malfoy opened the diary and read aloud, "'Thank you, Albus.'" He closed the book again and asked the obvious question. "Why are you here, sir?"
       Snape didn't speak right away. Instead, he stood up, took the journal from Malfoy's hands, and placed it carefully on the desktop. "You won't find the answer in there," he explained. He jerked his head towards the door and Malfoy rose and followed him out of the room and into the corridor.
       They made their way out of the dungeon and through the castle to Dumbledore's office. Snape rode ahead of Malfoy up the spiral staircase and knocked rather softly on the Headmaster's door.
       "May I borrow your pensieve, sir?" he asked after Dumbledore ushered them inside. The elderly wizard looked calmly from one face to the other, then nodded and retrieved the pensieve, setting it down on his desk.
       "Would you like to use my office, Severus?" he asked kindly.
       "Thank you, Headmaster," Snape replied, and Dumbledore gave Malfoy a small smile before departing.
       The two Slytherins approached the desk and Snape touched his wand to his temple, removing a silverly thought which he placed in the pensieve. Then he turned hesitantly to his student.
       "Draco," he began, and Malfoy stiffened. The occasions on which Snape used his students' Christian names were seldom pleasant. Pansy at the train station, Violet last May, the death of his parents...
       "It's one thing to hear Miss Montague tell of it," Snape warned him. "It's quite another..."
       Malfoy nodded. He stepped closer to Snape so they could place their noses into the pensieve together. To his surprise, Snape took hold of his arm. He wondered if perhaps Snape thought he'd never used a pensieve before. Then they were leaning in, falling, whirling...
       Malfoy gained his feet only to find himself assailed by screams so sickening his knees buckled. He fell against Snape, who held him firmly by the arm.
       "Don't be sick," Snape whispered sternly. "You mustn't be sick."
       They were torturing Dobby.
       He was in the basement of his home and Voldemort was there, along with the few Death Eaters he permitted to meet together unmasked. Snape was present, standing next to his father who stood beside Voldemort and Aunt Bellatrix. Beyond her was Marybeth Montague's father. Malfoy concentrated on their faces, trying desperately not to see what they were doing to Dobby for sport. But the house elve's high-pitched, agonized screams became too much to bear and he clamped his hands over his ears, screwing his eyes shut as he buried his face in Snape's shoulder.
       There was a shout and the room grew quiet. Malfoy opened one eye cautiously and then the other, slowly dropping his hands to his side; Snape still held him by the arm. Dobby lay whimpering in a heap at his father's feet; everybody else was staring at the pensieve Snape.
       "I beg your pardon, Severus?" said Voldemort coldly, and Malfoy felt his housemaster's grip on his arm tighten. The boy glanced quickly up at him, but Snape's eyes were focused squarely on the memory before him.
       The pensieve Snape was clearly frightened. He swallowed, and there was a slight tremble to his slender frame as he stood before the semi-circle of sneering Death Eaters. Apparently he had cried out and sprung forward; now he stood half-surrounded by powerful, contemptuous wizards. But he composed himself and actually managed a curl of his lip as he seethed, "This is a waste of our time!" He strode purposefully over to Dobby and scooped him up in his arms, apparently intending to carry him to the elf's bed, a pile of straw in the corner of the room. But Voldemort stopped him after just a few steps.
       "What are you doing, Severus?"
       The pensieve Snape stopped, then turned to face them, the elf cradled in his arms.
       "Are you going to spoil our fun?" Voldemort glanced briefly at Lucius with eyes that were beginning to flicker with anger before turning back to Snape. "You've always been the sort to spoil the fun, haven't you, Severus?"
       Lucius glared at Snape, who murmured deferentially, "I confess it has never been my chief pursuit, my lord. I prefer to serve you with more purposeful activity."
       Voldemort took a step forward and Malfoy was sorry to see the pensieve Snape flinch. But he stood his ground as Voldemort asked him, "What if I prefer... carrying on?"
       Snape held the dark wizard's gaze for just a moment, then looked down and away, no doubt searching his mind for an answer he could live with, literally and figuratively. Finally he lifted his head. "I'll leave," he suggested so humbly it sounded like an acquiescence, as if he were volunteering to remove his spoiling presence from a party.
       Voldemort was not fooled.
       "Lucius," he called lightly, "do you think Severus should leave?"
       All eyes turned to the pale blonde man except those of the pensieve Snape who stole a quick glance at Dobby before lifting his dark gaze to Voldemort's profile. Lucius hesitated only a moment before replying, "I think Severus should learn not to take himself so seriously."
       Voldemort whirled quickly around and the pensieve Snape flinched again. "Excellent suggestion!" the dark lord cried, drawing his wand. Malfoy held his breath. Voldemort took a slow and menacing step closer to Snape. "Severus," he whispered, hissing as he came, "learn perspective." And with a flick of his wand, Snape was dangling upside down before them, his robe falling over his head.
       The Death Eaters howled with laughter. But Malfoy shook his head. That was a mistake, he thought.
       Dobby's tiny feet peeked out from below the hem of pensieve Snape's robe as the wizard dangled him at arms' length. Malfoy felt the real Snape lean forward a bit and followed his example, drawing just close enough to hear a frantic whisper emanate from beneath the dark fabric. "I have to let you go!" the pensieve Snape hissed, and Dobby fell to the floor and scrambled quickly out of the way.
       They tormented him, of course, though not as brutally as they'd tortured Dobby. There were burns and blows, taunts and brief strangulations but no blood-letting, broken bones or cruciatus. Voldemort pinned the dangling Snape's arms to his side and his robe to his knees so the Death Eaters could see his face throughout the ordeal. Though the Death Eaters whooped and laughed, the brutalized young man kept rigidly silent, save for the occasionally involuntary grunt or gasp. This displeased Voldemort, who brought the festivities to a halt with a wave of his arm and then slowly approached his dangling young servant, hands behind his back.
       Malfoy wanted desperately to shut his eyes again.
       Voldemort circled the pensieve Snape slowly, sometimes staring at his face, sometimes turning thoughtfully away. He stopped when the inverted wizard was once again facing him, then leapt back and lashed out at Snape with a vicious thrust of his wand, hurling a black streak of light that slammed into Snape's pelvis. Snape screamed as if electrocuted and flopped frantically, groaning and gasping as he bucked in midair, helpless to stop the pain. Eventually it subsided and he hung quietly again, ragged breaths heaving in and out of his chest. Voldemort rejoined the semi-circle of Death Eaters who had watched the display in quiet awe.
       "Severus," he announced calmly, "you will never have children."
       It was at that moment that the real Snape released Malfoy's arm. The teenager could not bring himself to look at his housemaster. Instead, he lifted his eyes to his father's face.
       The senior Malfoy merely raised an eyebrow.
       Voldemort dropped Snape to the floor and watched with amusement as the wretched young man climbed slowly to his feet. He stood before them, shaking, and Malfoy knew he was not trembling with fear this time. Voldemort gave him a small smile and said, "You will not leave us, Severus. You will stay and demonstrate unceasing loyalty. If you serve me well enough, perhaps one day I will return your... fruitfulness."
       And as the Death Eaters roared with laughter, the humiliated young Snape fled from the room.
       Malfoy didn't wait for instructions from the real Snape. He tore off after the pensieve Snape as fast as he could go, following close at hand as the angry young man stormed out of the house, tore across the grounds and ran into the woods that surrounded the Malfoy home. Blinded by fury and the tears that accompanied it, the dark wizard stumbled over a fallen log and fell loudly to the forest floor, screaming with rage and frustration. He lay there and continued to howl as if trying to vomit up all of his humiliation until his voice grew ragged and he suddenly convulsed, climbing to his hands and knees to be sick. Then he fell back against the log he'd tripped over, sitting quietly for a moment before wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his robe. The real Snape approached Malfoy from behind and stood just in back of him.
       For a long time, there was no sound but the fluttering of the forest, pensieve Snape's ragged breathing and the occasional echo of laughter from the house. The night air was cool and moist on Malfoy's cheek. Late spring, he thought. Then the thin wail of an infant pierced the darkness and Malfoy realized with a start that this must be the occasion of his birth. He had just begun to spin around to ask the real Snape about it when an unexpected voice nearby almost made him jump out of his skin.
       "Good evening, Severus."
       Pensieve Snape leapt to his feet and spun around as well, drawing his wand. He found himself facing a sedate, unarmed Albus Dumbledore. The elderly wizard glanced at the wand in Snape's hand but refused to draw his own. Instead, he lifted the hem of his robe and stepped carefully over the log pensieve Snape had tripped over and sat down on it. He smiled pleasantly at his former student.
       "Never in a thousand years would I have guessed you would become a Death Eater, Severus," he began. "I thought you would be the one to make a difference. I thought you would be the salvation of Slytherin."
       Malfoy's mouth popped open with rage and the younger Snape grew livid; it was hard to say which Slytherin was more angered by Dumbledore's remarks. Pensieve Snape's eyes bulged with fury as he jabbed his wand viciously at the old man.
       "Evil sorcerer!" he hissed. "Lying hypocrite!" Spittle flew from his lips as he snarled, "You're worse than Voldemort! You're worse, because you're supposed to be good!"
       Dumbledore knit his brows in confusion. He scrutinized Snape's face closely but ignored the wand Snape held on him.
       "What are you talking about, Severus?" he asked, genuinely concerned.
       "YOU!..." Snape started to shout, then forced himself to lower his voice, glancing in the direction of the house before continuing in a softer but still enraged tone, "You told James Potter I was an enemy to be defeated!"
       At first Dumbledore could only stare, completely perplexed. He searched his mind for the source of this accusation... and finally it came to him. His face flooded with distress. "Severus..." he pleaded, one palm extended as he climbed to his feet. "Severus, I..."
       The pensieve Snape sneered as he waited for Dumbledore to justify his behavior. Seeing this, the old man's eyes began to snap, his pain yielding to anger. The beseeching hand he was extending straightened, then rotated and clenched to become a pointing finger. "I will have my revenge for this moment, Severus Snape!" he promised. "Some day, I will put you in charge of a large group of children, and we'll see how you fare!"
       After a startled moment, a guffaw burst past Malfoy's lips and his housemaster cuffed the back of his head. In Snape's memory, Dumbledore sat solidly back down on the log and gazed calmly up at the young wizard still pointing a wand at him.
       "You will find it can be remarkably difficult to get through to students, Severus," he lectured. "For example, a child might eavesdrop on a group of peers and nearly get killed for his trouble, then turn around and eavesdrop again that very same night!"
       Malfoy bit back a chuckle; the pensieve Snape lowered his wand.
       "I know you understand what I did, Severus," Dumbledore continued. "I admit I let the ends justify the means. But I had to get through to James. I had to turn a thoughtless boy into a committed adult, immediately. Time was running out, you see. So I used his feelings about you and Sirius to reach him."
       Pensieve Snape folded his arms across his chest. "Did you ever set him straight?" he asked pointedly. Dumbledore's mouth dropped open in protest and he began to sputter.
       "But... but..." He gestured helplessly at the house in the distance. "You BECAME a Death Eater, Severus!"
       "I thought not," Snape concluded.
       Dumbledore sighed and patted the space beside him on the log. "Please sit down with me, Severus," he implored. But Snape shook his head. When Dumbledore spoke again, he sounded exceptionally weary.
       "What you must remember about that night," he lectured, "is that James Potter had just learned a terrible thing about his best friend. He'd learned that his dearest companion had more hate in him than love, that he would destroy a friend's life to harm an enemy."
       "To murder an enemy," Snape corrected.
       Dumbledore took a deep breath. "The point I am making, Severus," he continued firmly, "is that you were never one to practice blind loyalty. You've always scrutinized the conduct of others. But James blamed himself for Sirius' behavior. He blamed himself for not making a difference. To this day, he strives unceasingly to be the best possible friend to Sirius."
       Pensieve Snape took a step closer to Dumbledore. "I wonder how Lupin feels about that," he murmured silkily. Dumbledore chose to ignore the remark.
       "I used what I had at my disposal, Severus," he finished simply.
       Snape put his hands in his pockets. He glanced nervously at the house, then down at Dumbledore. The elderly wizard tried a warm smile. "You're wondering where that leaves you," he told the young man. Snape scowled. "Let me take you back with me," Dumbledore suggested. "Come back to Hogwarts, Severus. Let me prove to you which statement was true."
       Snape curled his lip. "You can't do that," he sneered at the old man. "They'd never accept me." He glanced at the house again. "On the other hand..." A small smile crossed his lips. "Imagine if I marched back into that house and announced that Albus Dumbledore was spying in the woods nearby."
       For a moment, the elderly wizard seemed to be politely considering the scenario. Then, suddenly, he drew in a sharp breath and leapt to his feet, grabbing pensieve Snape's arm in the process. "Severus!" he cried. "You're brilliant!"
       Snape stared at the old man, bewildered, and pulled away. But Dumbledore forged ahead. "I'll prove myself to you right now, and give you a chance to prove yourself to others!" He took Snape by both arms and spoke more earnestly to him than ever before. "A child is to be born," he whispered urgently. "A child with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord will be born at the end of July. It will be the son of either Lily Potter or Alice Longbottom." Snape tried to pull away again, horrified, but Dumbledore held him tightly. "I need you to find out which, Severus. Find out which child Voldemort intends to kill and warn me!"
       Snape tore himself loose from the old man's grasp with all of his might, flinging himself to the ground in the process. He scrambled away backwards like a crab fleeing some monstrous predator until he banged his head against a tree. "You trapped me!" he cried, collapsing to a sitting position. "You tricked me! You gave me no choice!"
       Dumbledore smiled, then shrugged slightly. "I suppose I could alter your memory," he suggested.
       "Then do it!" Snape screamed, no longer caring who heard. But Dumbledore shook his head.
       "Never," the old wizard insisted, gazing calmly at the young man sprawled on the ground in front of him. Snape stared back at him, his horror giving way to anger. He sprang furiously to his feet and viciously brushed the leaves from his robe. Then he drew himself up to his full height and glared at Dumbledore.
       "I may have no choice," he hissed, "but you have no guarantee! You will never know for sure if I am on your side! Never!" Snape drew his wand again, illuminating its tip for the trip back to the house. "Live in fear, old man," he finished with a snarl as he turned to head back to the Death Eaters.
       Dumbledore shook his head. "I prefer to live in faith," he called after the young wizard. "And Severus..." Pensieve Snape glared grudgingly back at him over his shoulder. "'Live in fear, Headmaster,'" Dumbledore corrected him with a smile.
       He disapparated almost immediately as the real Snape took Malfoy by the elbow, pulling him back into Dumbledore's office. The boy clung to the headmaster's desk for a moment, steadying himself, then walked around it and dropped solemnly into Dumbledore's chair.
       "You had to stay with them a long time," he whispered as Dobby's screams rolled around in his mind, occasionally banging into one of the images from Marybeth's stories. Snape nodded and Malfoy's face darkened.
       "Let's go," he said defiantly. "Let's just go." Snape made no response and Malfoy's anger grew. "Millicent was right," he snarled. 'You should just pick up your house and go. Voldemort won't care about you, as long as you're not here." He stood up abruptly. "This isn't our fight," he insisted.
       Snape shook his head. "It's my fight, Malfoy," he assured the boy. And he showed his student one last memory.
       Malfoy left the headmaster's office shortly after Dumbledore returned. He hurried back to Slytherin, determined to find Crabbe and Goyle and apologize for being jealous of their patronuses. Dumbledore detained Snape briefly to ask a favor.
       "May I attend your lecture tomorrow, Severus?"
       Snape hid his reaction behind his usual sneer. "You don't need my permission to supervise your staff, Headmaster," he replied coolly.
       "No," Dumbledore agreed. "But I'd like it."
       Snape gave him the curtest of nods and departed.
       The last person he saw that night was Hermione Granger, who appeared in his office long after she should have been in bed.
       "You shouldn't be roaming the halls this late," Snape scolded
       "I couldn't sleep," the Gryffindor explained. "May I speak with you, please, sir? Is this a good time?"
       Snape nodded and rose from the stool he'd been sitting on by his work station to return to his desk. Hermione glanced briefly at the potion he'd been brewing, then took a chair across from him. She sat quietly, staring at her folded hands in her lap, and for a moment Snape wondered if she was going to start pulling on her fingers. Then she looked up suddenly and blurted out,
       "I'm the one who set your robe on fire during Harry's first quidditch match against Slytherin."
       Snape couldn't have been more surprised if she'd announced she was secretly engaged to Crabbe.
       "We thought you were on the wrong end of the curse!" Hermione explained before dropping her gaze back to her lap. She felt Snape's eyes piercing the top of her head and was startled when he spoke up as suddenly as she had.
       "I thought you helped Potter put his name in the Goblet of Fire," Snape confessed. "That's why I mocked your teeth."
       Hermione lifted her head slowly, reaching back in her mind for the incident. At first she looked hurt. Then she found herself grinning in spite of herself. "You thought I got past the Goblet of Fire?" she asked shyly.
       "It's nothing to be proud of, Miss Granger!"
       "No, no, of course not, sir," Hermione agreed quickly. She gave him a slightly reproving look and added, "Really, Professor, you should have known I would never use magic in any way that might harm a single living..."
       "Triple volley in the Shrieking Shack," Snape interrupted her. Hermione blanched.
       "Never mind."
       The silence that followed grew awkwardly long and Hermione found herself gazing again at Snape's work station. "I wish..." she began falteringly. "I wish you would let me..."
       Hermione sighed. She studied the grain of Snape's desk and the contents of his shelves. Eventually she found her voice again. "I really appreciate your asking me... It was such an honor to..."
       She looked up and found Snape gazing as gently at her as he had the night she'd helped him make convalescious potion. When he finally spoke, it was in a tone equally as gentle but rich in conviction. "Do you know, Miss Granger...no matter what anyone says about Albus Dumbledore or Tom Riddle or Harry Potter..."
       He rose and crossed the office to his door. "...I suspect you will turn out to be the finest student to ever pass through these halls."
       With that, he open the door for her departure.

An Obedient House