I am third.

       "You did not."
       "I did too."
       "You did not!"
       "I did too!"
       Snape turned to Malfoy with a doubtful smile. "Did she really?"
       "Ask Marybeth!" Violet suggested. "She was there the first time I used it!"
       All heads turned to a table several feet away where Marybeth was sitting hunched over a sheet of parchment. She looked up sourly at Snape and her housemates, then returned her attention to her task. Several Slytherins chuckled but Snape, who was spending Tuesday evening in the common room to give the Slytherins a little of the attention they craved, just grinned and stretched his legs before the fire, determined to warm himself as much as possible before reporting for 10pm guard duty.
       "Healing potion requires powdered ivory," he reminded Violet. "Where on earth did you get it?"
       "I crushed a cameo."
       "Where did you get a cameo?"
       "Nicked it from the orphanage lost and found when I was eight," Violet told him. Snape raised an eyebrow at her and she shrugged. "It was there for months!" she insisted. "I think whoever lost it didn't realize what it was."
       With a loud scraping of wooden legs against the stone floor, Marybeth pushed back her chair and stood up, snatching her parchment and marching petulantly across the room to thrust it at Snape. It was covered with lines of her neat, tidy hand-writing. Snape had made her write 'Practice makes perfect' five hundred times.
       "Feeling a little more at ease with the phrase?" Snape inquired.
       Marybeth plopped down beside him with a sigh. "Your mercy knows no bounds, sir," she assured him. The Slytherins chuckled but Snape rolled his eyes.
       "Miss Guilford, kindly refrain from teaching her your speech patterns."
       "Sorry, sir, " Violet grinned.
       Snape bade them goodnight and not two minutes after he left, Harry Potter arrived. "Ready?" he asked Marybeth. She nodded enthusiastically even as she clenched and unclenched her aching fingers.
       Malfoy had heartily endorsed Harry's idea. While Snape was on guard duty, the Slytherins and Gryffindors were going to play a round of floo tag in which Marybeth would provide vital assistance helping the prey evade predator Ginny. The prey would floo simultaneously to Trelawney's abandoned north tower, traveling together to make Ginny think she was hearing only one player choose that path. Harry and another player would quickly descend through the trap door and then cling to the underside of the spiral staircase, leaving just enough room for Marybeth above them. She would lure Ginny through the trap door and slip quickly into her hiding place, leaving Ginny to race down the stairs and eventually exit the tower. The prey would then be free to relax for the rest of the hour in Trelawney's warm classroom. Only three people could emerge from her fireplace at the same time, but that was just as well... successfully defeating Ginny with only three prey would make Marybeth's triumph even sweeter.
       "It will boost her confidence a bit," Harry had suggested the night before. "Do you want to be the third prey?" Malfoy had declined, fearing Marybeth would feel less significant if two such accomplished wizards were involved. "Take Crabbe," he'd recommended instead.
       "What would really impress me," Snape insisted, "would be if you could change this wretched weather." He gathered his cloak more tightly about him as the cold, damp air of another snowy night poured in through the open door of the warming hut. Dobby folded his bony little arms across his sweater-covered chest
       "Professor Snape is jealous," the elf suggested.
       "I most certainly am not!" Snape roared back, completely validating the elf's theory. Dobby chuckled and Snape scowled, folding his own arms to secure some additional warmth. "I assure you, I can see anything you can see and hear anything you can hear... if I compensate adequately."
       They'd been discussing the potential transference of Dobby's latest accomplishment... tracking. The elf was convinced wizards simply did not have the necessary attributes to pursue a fleeing enemy across the landscape... specifically, bat-like ears and bulging eyes. Snape was confident he could offset these deficiencies with his own brand of magic.
       "What does Professor Snape hear right now?" Dobby asked coyly. The wizard narrowed his eyes at his partner for several seconds, then grinned slyly . "You're on!" he declared, and the two jumped to their feet to flip on all the conch shells.
       Crabbe opened the door to the Slytherin common room and quickly led Marybeth and Harry to the huge fireplace. They grabbed hands and leaned in, but just as Harry shouted the number for Trelawney's classroom fireplace, Crabbe sneezed.
       They flew into the system at break-neck speed and soared upward for so long that Harry began to worry. This is wrong, he thought as they soared through the castle. We're going too high! A moment later, they shot into the cold, dark air of the snowy night and slid rapidly across the large sheet of ice covering this particular section of the castle's roof.
       Harry recognized immediately where they were. His shout, garbled by Crabbe's sneeze, had sent them flying out of the warming hearth that stood in one corner of the roof of the Astronomy tower... the highest tower at Hogwarts. Because of the snowy nights, no one had been up here since last term, but the snow had been accumulating, melting and refreezing until the entire area was covered in a thick layer of wet, slippery ice. "Hang on!" Harry screamed as the three students barreled straight for the edge, clawing desperately at the ice as they slid.
       "Switch!" Snape ordered, and Dobby, leaning with his left ear out the door to the hut, jumped into the air and spun around 180 degrees before landing and sticking his right ear out the door instead. Snape, meanwhile, abandoned the conch he'd been using and pressed his ear to a different one, the one relaying sounds from the monitoring device closest to the grounds. They listened in silence for a while. Then Dobby grinned.
       "Snoring," he reported.
       Snape chuckled and added, "Dumbledore. Only the old man can rumble like that." He leaned a bit closer to the conch and listened hard. "Thestral!" he breathed after a few moments. "Near Hagrid's hut!"
       Dobby nodded his agreement and put a hand to his ear. "Two of them, Dobby thinks."
       There was quiet for a bit, then Snape whispered, "Wind. A few miles away. We'll have a breeze in a bit." He shivered and pulled his cloak tighter still. Dobby shook his head and grinned at Snape.
       "That's not wind, Professor Snape," Dobby assured him as the wizard glanced back over his shoulder at the elf. "That's the floo system. The floo system always makes a..."
       He broke off suddenly at the sight of Snape's horrified face, then spun around just in time to see three children sail right over the edge of the Astronomy tower roof. As Snape tore from the hut, Dobby let out a piercing scream and raced after him. "Hang on!" he cried to the children above as he raced across the grounds behind Snape. "Hang on!"
       Harry, Marybeth and Crabbe clung to the edge of the roof, groping desperately with fingers that slipped and slid on the icy surface. For a brief moment, Harry had hoped that they might be able to drop safely to the ground using their stop technique, but Dobby's screams tearing through the night told him they were too high.
       It was too slippery. It was just too slippery. They would never be able to hang on until help arrived. Harry glanced at Marybeth dangling beside him and saw the terror in her eyes. Her fingers were sore, he remembered, and Crabbe's were chubby. He had to find a way to help them. Was there a spell he could use? Did he dare let go one hand and reach for his wand? He tried loosening his fingers just a bit and dropped several inches as his other hand slipped. Marybeth let out a scream to split the night as Harry flailed desperately to regain his grasp.
       Snape, tearing through the castle as fast as he could run, heard the child's scream and feared the worst. I will never leave my room without floo powder again, he swore to himself as he raced up staircase after staircase. He burst through the door to the Astronomy tower roof and tore over to the ledge as fast as the slippery surface would allow. All three children were still hanging on.
       He grabbed Harry first, then Marybeth, then Crabbe, tossing each child unceremoniously to the floor after hauling them over the ledge. When the last dangling child had disappeared from view, Dobby rushed into the castle and popped up to the Astronomy tower roof with a snap of his fingers. He found Snape standing over the sprawled children, dark and terrible, silent except for his labored breathing. The teacher glared at Harry with a loathing the boy hadn't seen in ages.
       "Dobby," Snape hissed to the frightened elf who was nervously twisting his sweater in much the same manner he used to abuse his tea towel, "go wake Professor Flitwick and tell him you will require a new partner for the rest of your guard duty shift."
       Dobby disappeared without a word and Snape turned to Harry.
       "Get out of my sight," he snarled, spitting each word furiously at the boy.
       Harry climbed carefully to his feet. Then he stood silently before the potions master, refusing to be intimidated. It won't be long before we're the same height, he thought, meeting Snape's angry gaze with an indignant glare of his own. He cast a quick, sympathetic glance at Marybeth and Crabbe, then departed.
       Most of the Slytherins had gone to bed but Malfoy was sitting by the fire reading when Snape arrived back at the common room. He hauled Crabbe and Marybeth by their collars in one hand and clutched his cane tightly in the other. "Line up! All of you!" the housemaster thundered, and as Malfoy's housemates began spilling out of their rooms, he watched Snape thrust Crabbe and Marybeth aside so he could grab a common room table and drag it furiously into position at the top of the two queues. Oh, no, Malfoy thought.
       Snape grabbed Crabbe and bent him firmly over the table. Then he did the same to Marybeth. Oh, no, Malfoy thought again just before his housemaster grabbed him by the collar and bent him over the table as well. What did I do? Malfoy wondered desperately even as the first stinging stroke landed solidly on his backside. Malfoy gasped and grabbed desperately for the far side of the table, clutching the edge tightly with his fingers as he clenched his teeth. Swish came the second angry stroke and an image of Buckbeak suddenly leapt to Malfoy's mind. Behind him, he heard his housemates whimper in sympathy. What did I do? he wondered again as Snape administered four more equally painful strokes.
       Crabbe's six were just as hard and Malfoy prayed Snape would go easier on Marybeth. She's just a little girl! he pleaded silently in his head. But Snape's fury had not abated when he reached the youngster and spanked her hard enough to make her cry pitifully, "Ow!" after each stroke.
       He didn't bother ordering them to stand when he'd finished. Instead, he whirled furiously on the remaining Slytherins and snarled, "You will NEVER play that game again. EVER! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?"
       The Slytherins trembled, their lips wobbling with fear. Some of them managed a weak, "Yes, sir." The rest could only nod. Snape stormed from the room without another word and his three victims climbed slowly off the table. Malfoy flashed furious gray eyes at Crabbe.
       "What the hell did you do?" he demanded before spying something that startled the anger right out of him. Crabbe was crying. He was quiet about it, but tears were streaming down his cheeks.
       "Crabbe?" Malfoy whispered uncertainly. But the boy just turned away, staring straight ahead as he walked slowly between the two queues and then down the boys' corridor to his room. Goyle started to follow him but stopped when Marybeth broke into anguished sobs. She threw her arms around Violet and cried on her shoulder. Violet slipped her arms around Marybeth's waist and rested her cheek against the top of her roommates' head, gazing helplessly at Malfoy, who put a hand on Marybeth's shoulder.
       "Marybeth," he said gently, "what happened?"
       Marybeth cried as if her heart would break. The Slytherins broke ranks and clustered around her, anxious to hear what she had to say. Finally she lifted her woebegone little face and whispered the words that would tear every Slytherin heart in two.
       "He saved Harry Potter first."
       It took Malfoy a week to figure it all out. He sat on his cot the following Tuesday evening, replaying the events of the past seven days in his mind and trying to talk himself into doing what had to be done.
       Snape had arrived in the common room Wednesday morning to find the Slytherins cool and remote, which had infuriated him. He'd actually looked a bit penitent as he'd approached them, but when they had refused to meet his eyes, he'd become enraged, counting them quickly and warning them they would do well to be on their very best behavior.
       His fury had escalated when Harry Potter had refused to be intimidated by him in potions class. Malfoy supposed Potter was simply too old to be frightened by Snape's wrath anymore, especially when his conscience was clear, which it seemed to be; he'd returned every murderous glare from Snape with an equally filthy look of his own. The incident did seem to have some sort of negative impact on the House of Gryffindor, however, as Malfoy noticed that Granger and Weasley were constantly running to try and keep up with Potter, who seemed determined to stalk angrily by himself everywhere he went. Feeling the pressure, Chosen One? Malfoy had smirked to himself. McGonagall, he had noticed, watched her student with a more tender but nonetheless exasperated expression. Malfoy had no idea what punishment, if any, Potter had received for the incident.
       The Slytherin was more concerned about Crabbe anyway. His performance in Defense class had completely deteriorated until Lupin had held him back after class on Monday to discuss it. Malfoy and Goyle had lingered in the hallway to listen.
       "I'm just no good at Defense, sir," Crabbe had insisted. "You'd best concentrate on the others."
       "Vincent," Lupin had responded earnestly, "why in heaven's name would you say that? You helped defeat the Montagues last term, you generate a strong, shiny Patronus..."
       "Those things don't matter, sir," Crabbe had explained. "Others are better, and that's what counts now." He'd gone on to tell Lupin about what had happened on the roof, finishing up, "I figure Professor Snape saved Potter first because he's so good at Defense. That's what counts now, being good at Defense for fighting Voldemort."
       Lupin had buried his face in his hands with such a pained groan that Malfoy had found himself wondering how much he knew. "Vincent," the teacher had insisted, making a feeble stab at Snape-like sternness, "I can assure you, Professor Snape values you very highly indeed. He would be very..." Lupin had hesitated, then cleared his throat before trying again. "He would be very... hurt... " The eavesdroppers had stifled snorts. "...if he heard that you felt this way."
       Crabbe had said nothing more, and Lupin had finally risen to his feet, murmuring, "Perhaps I'll have a little talk with Professor Snape."
       At that, Crabbe's eyes had flown open wide. "I wouldn't, sir, if I were you..."
       "Nonsense, Vincent," Lupin had smiled. "I can talk to Professor Snape. He's not going to hex me."
       It had taken Madam Pomfrey all night to clear up the triple-sensitive hemorrhoids.
       It was the hex, or more specifically, Snape's regression to school-day behavior, that had finally provided Malfoy with the insight he needed to understand his housemaster's conduct. He now knew exactly what to say to the Slytherins, but thanks to the prophecy, he couldn't say it. He knew precisely what to say to Snape, too, but Snape wasn't on speaking terms with the Slytherins. That left only one person he could turn to. So, galling as it was, he dragged himself off the bed, departed his house, hiked grudgingly through the castle, knocked on the appropriate door, and stepped resignedly into the office.
       "Will you help us?" he asked.
       "I'll do my very best," McGonagall promised.
       Knowing surprise was her best weapon, she opened the door to his office without knocking, then fended off his fury with a straightforward inquiry. "Why is it you never come to me at times like this?" McGonagall wondered. "I come to you."
       That staggered Snape enough to give her time to cross his office and assume a seat across from him. By then, she was ready with a spirited offense.
       "I should punish you for what you did to Lupin. I could, you know."
       Snape recovered at that. "Did you have in mind the technique you employed after the spellwad incident?" he wondered. "Or am I too old for that?" Minerva chuckled and he added sourly, "You would do better to discipline me for neglecting my house while assisting that feral former student from yours."
       To his surprise, Minerva nodded. "You may be right," she mused. "At the moment, I understand your house better than you do."
       "You do not!"
       "I do, too."
       "You do not!"
       "I do, too! And for the record, Severus, this time around, they understand you better than you understand yourself."
       That gave him pause. He would have liked to think it true, actually. The past week had been one of the worst of his career; he had never been at such odds with his students, never. He missed them. He wished they were thinking about him.
       "You may explain," he told his colleague loftily.
       "Wednesday morning..." Minerva began.
       Snape groaned. "Would you believe," he interrupted her, "that I was actually nervous, going into the house for inspection?" He snorted. "I haven't been nervous about housemastering since my first day on the job!"
       Minerva smiled. "What was troubling you?" she inquired gently. Snape glanced up at her and scowled at the loaded question.
       "I thought perhaps I'd been a bit too harsh," he admitted peevishly. "I soon discoverd I hadn't been harsh enough."
       "Oh, Severus," Minerva protested, rubbing her temples in such a Snape-like manner that if the Slytherins had seen her, they would have laughed. Snape bristled at her disdain.
       "How dare they?" he argued. "How dare those little swine presume to judge..." He stopped. A wave of shame washed over him. He did not think his students were swine. "Minerva," he began again, "I've always been strict with the Slytherins." He raised pained eyes to her wise old face. "They've never resented it before!"
       Minerva hesitated. Then she reached out and laid her hand on top of his to cushion her response. "When you feel you've been attacked, Severus," she counseled him, "you have great difficulty remembering you might not be the only victim in the room."
       Snape's face darkened and he tried to pull his hand away. She held tightly to it as she continued earnestly, "They are no more angry with you for taking a firm hand then you are with them for playing Floo Tag. Or with Harry Potter for putting himself at risk." She let go of him but Snape left his hand where it was. She folded her arms on the desk and leaned closer to him. "Your having to put Harry first hurt them, too, Severus," she whispered. "Not as much as it hurt you, I admit..." Her tone sharpened a bit at that. "...but a great deal, nonetheless."
       She rose to go and marched regally to the door. But before she left, she turned back to Snape and addressed him with her usual businesslike tone and suspiciously bright eyes. "Some day, Professor Snape," she announced, "we are going to have a long talk about the idiocy of students and housemasters who believe they have nothing in the whole wide world except each other." She marched out the door and shut it firmly behind her, then opened it again and stuck her head back into the room. "By the way," she called more softly, "if you have any thoughts on how to reach an extremely defensive teenage boy, do let me know."
       Crabbe was not in the common room so Snape ignored the students who lined up for him and proceeded straight down the boys' corridor. With a jerk of his head he ordered Goyle out of the room. Then he leaned against the boy's desk, folding his arms and crossing his legs at the ankles to calmly study Crabbe, who stood awkwardly beside his cot.
       "Do you think I've ever lied to you, Vincent?" he finally asked.
       The question confused Crabbe. He looked uncertainly to his right and his left as if seeking help with a trick question. Snape rolled his eyes. "Come here, Crabbe," he said quietly, pointing to the floor directly in front of him. "Right here." When the boy reached the designated spot, Snape took hold of his chin and lifted it to look Crabbe straight in the eye.
       "Do you think I've ever lied to you?" he asked again, more intensely this time.
       Crabbe's eyes filled with tears but Snape ignored them, keeping his face carefully neutral. After a moment, the boy shook his head. It was all he could manage.
       "Then promise me something," Snape went on. "One day, you will learn why I saved Harry Potter first. Promise me now that, when that day comes, you will remember that saving Harry Potter first hurt me more than it hurt you. Ten times more. Maybe a hundred. Maybe a thousand."
       Crabbe couldn't stand it anymore. He buried his face in the front of Snape's robes, clutching the black fabric in both hands. Snape put a reassuring hand on the back of the boy's head and another on his shoulder.
       "I know, Crabbe," he murmured. "You're always third, right?"
       Crabbe looked up, startled.
       "You're third behind Malfoy and Goyle, and now you're third behind Potter and Miss Montague, isn't that what you've been thinking?"
       Crabbe barely nodded.
       "You're not third, Crabbe," Snape insisted. "You're tied for first with approximately 150 other children, and you always will be." He gave the back of the boy's head a reassuring squeeze and reminded him, "I've never lied to you."
       Crabbe nodded and blew his noise loudly on the sleeve of his robe.
       When the boy was dry-eyed again, Snape suddenly whirled on the door, banging it open with a flash from his wand to reveal 51 sniveling, eavesdropping chips off the old block crowded together in the hallway. Stifling a laugh at the startled expressions on their faces, Snape roared, "DID I TELL YOU TO BREAK RANKS?" which sent the Slytherins scampering back to the common room as fast as they could go. Snape watched them go with a satisfied grin, then turned a mild gaze upon Crabbe.
       "Promise?" he asked.
       "Promise," Crabbe whispered.
       Snape slipped quietly from the room, then marched briskly up the corridor and down the aisle between the two queues of Slytherins standing neatly at attention in the common room. "Since you listened," he told them pleasantly when he reached the top of the two lines, "perhaps you would like to spend the next thirty minutes standing here thinking about what I said."
       The Slytherins just smiled at one another. "Love to," Violet whispered to Marybeth.
       "Malfoy, come with me," Snape ordered before marching out of the room.
       He held the door for Malfoy when they reached his office, then entered behind him to close it and lean against it. After a few moments of studying the slender blonde teenager, he shook his head and confessed, "I am sorry, Malfoy, that I was so hard on you."
       "Don't apologize, sir," Malfoy insisted. "It was flattering, in a way, the correlation between how hard you hit us and how much it hurt to save Potter first." The teenager grinned ruefully. "You give a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'This hurts me more than it hurts you.'"
       Snape laughed out loud. Then he stopped abruptly as a thought occurred to him.
       "Did you ask Professor McGonagall to speak with me?" he demanded.
       The boy hung his head with false modesty but Snape could tell he'd be wagging his tail if he had one.
       "You do make it hard not to play favorites, young man," the housemaster murmured before turning away to head to his desk. But Malfoy did not follow him. Instead, he stood by the door, his visage suddenly darkening. Snape sat down and then peered quizzically at the troubled teenager.
       "Something else?" he wondered.
       "Favorites," Malfoy whispered, more to himself than to Snape. The potions master frowned and Malfoy, catching sight of him, suddenly crossed the room rapidly to stand before Snape's desk.
       "Do you love us?" he asked.
       Snape blinked. He squinted at the boy. Then he frowned uncertainly and asked, "Is this about Potter again?"
       Malfoy shook his head once and waited for an answer. After a moment, Snape raised an eyebrow and said defiantly, as if he were admitting an unpopular point of view he refused to abandon, "Yes. Yes I do."
       He expected a flush or a bashful ducking of the head. Instead, Malfoy looked nervously around the office for several seconds, then turned back to Snape and narrowed his eyes to ask,
       Snape stared back at the boy for a moment, then leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers thoughtfully across his stomach. "Malfoy," he began slowly, "that's not the sort of information one has at the tip of one's tongue."
       Malfoy slipped into the chair across from Snape as unobtrusively as possible as his housemaster continued. "Each of you has qualities that would make a parent or guardian proud. And we're bound by a common hardship, of course. Plus, no one cares for children in a substantial way without developing some degree of affection for them. But I suppose the primary reasons are..." He gave Malfoy a little shrug. "You deserve it, and you value me."
       Malfoy thought that over, eventually dropping his gaze to his lap. Snape watched him quietly, then murmured, "You must miss your parents terribly."
       Malfoy looked up in surprise. He raised one eyebrow and shook his head. "I hardly miss them at all," he confessed. His eyes narrowed again and added, "That's mostly because of you."
       Snape could not imagine why the statement sounded like an accusation. "Draco, whatever is the matter?" he asked earnestly. Malfoy took a deep breath and spit it out.
       "Montague," he replied. "The night he came back..." Snape couldn't help wincing. "He said you... he said we had no idea..." He took another deep breath and blurted it out. "You're not just good to us so you can steal us from our parents for your own nefarious purposes, are you?"
       The question hung in the air between them. Malfoy held his breath. To his surprise, when Snape finally responded, it was with something like a grin.
       "I'm not laughing at you," he assured the boy. "And it certainly isn't funny, the idea of Death Eaters indoctrinating former Slytherins against me. It's just that..." He thought about it some more and his grin grew sly. "When people propagandize against you, it's generally a sign that they fear your capacity to thwart their evil purposes. I confess I enjoy the idea that my former tormentors and would be assassins live in such fear of me."
       Malfoy was not amused. Snape cleared his throat, sobering substantially before continuing.
       "Malfoy," he lectured, "when a quarter of our house defected but the others remained, Professor Dumbledore gave me credit for setting an example that allowed so many to choose to resist Voldemort. And I took it!"
       Malfoy smiled just a bit.
       "If you were to ask me, in another burst of Potter-like subtlety, if I hoped to turn as many children away from the path of their Death Eater parents as possible during my tenure as a Hogwarts head of house..." Snape shrugged again. "I'd have to say yes."
       For some reason, this fretted Malfoy, and that made no sense to him. He, himself, had tried to persuade his housemates to choose Snape over their Death Eater parents last April, and he certainly didn't think Marybeth would be better off at home these days. Why did Snape's words trouble him?
       "Malfoy," Snape went on, "this is rather like the flogging I gave you last week. As much as it hurt me to see those seventeen children leave, and as proud as I am of those who stayed..." He sat up straight in his chair, pulling it neatly all the way up to his desk. "I'm proudest," he insisted, "of the 50% of the parents who did not write in the first place."
       Much better, Malfoy thought, his relief registering on his face. He rose to ask permission to leave when an idea occurred to him. While he held no grudge against Snape for the caning of last week, a little vengeance couldn't hurt. Besides, he figured, if he could make Snape apologize to Potter, he wouldn't have to do so himself.
       "There's one more thing you should know about that game of floo tag, sir," he told Snape lightly. "It was Potter's idea. He thought it might boost Marybeth's confidence." And with that, he spun around so he wouldn't grin at the sight of what he knew would be Snape's sourest expression.
       Ginny answered Snape's knock on the fat lady's portrait and carried the message that he wished to speak with Harry Potter to the rest of the inhabitants of the Gryffindor common room. "Oh, thank God!" Hermione sighed with relief. Harry tossed her an all-too-familiar scowl before striding menacingly out of the room. He struck a defiant stance as he stood before a mild-looking Snape in the corridor, his arms folded across his chest, and Snape nearly laughed at their inverted attitudes.
       It had taken a repetitive chant of, 'You owe Minerva, you owe Minerva, you owe Minerva,' to propel him up the stairs to Gryffindor Tower. Now he reminded himself firmly that no marauder offspring was more honest than Severus Snape. "Because you had the decency to acknowledge that Sirius Black had flaws..." he began.
       Harry's green eyes flashed but he said nothing.
       "I would like to acknowledge your attempt, misguided though it was, to bolster the spirits of Miss Montague."
       Harry took a step backwards and squinted at the man in front of him as though not quite certain who he was.
       "I am fond of the Slytherins, Potter," Snape said somewhat acidly, "and I do appreciate those who show them kindness."
       Harry shook his head in wonder. "How did you know?" he asked.
       'How did you know, SIR,' you miserable little... "Malfoy told me," Snape responded shortly.
       Huh! What a guy! thought the naive Gryffindor. Snape narrowed his eyes at the boy's smile.
       "Potter," he continued more coolly, "you do understand..."
       Harry placed one hand on the corridor railing and leaned against it. "That you feel I torture you when I make you put me first," he interrupted, "because you moronically insist on telling yourself that you only care about the Slytherins?"
       Snape raised both eyebrows, but to Harry's surprise, he did not lose his temper. Instead, he simply nodded, "Well put!" and whirled around to march away down the corridor.
       Harry watched him go, clenching and unclenching his fists with rising frustration. An opportunity he needed badly was disappearing down the hall and he might not get another one any time soon. "Professor Snape!" he hollered, then sprinted down the corridor to where Snape had stopped in response to his shout. "May I please ask you something?"
       Snape frowned slightly. "Is this something you might discuss with your own head of house?" he wondered.
       Harry shook his head emphatically. "No, sir," he explained. "It has to be you. Please?"
       Snape sighed but nodded. Harry took a deep breath and began working out a difficult question. "On your way up the stairs, as you were running to the Astronomy tower... were you talking yourself into saving me first? Were you arguing with yourself all the way up, worried you wouldn't be able to do it?"
       Snape stared at the boy for several seconds, then shook his head slowly. "No," he replied. "I knew what I had to do, I knew I would do it, and I did it." He took in the boy's worried expression and added firmly, "So will you, Potter."
       Harry raised doubtful eyes to the potions master, then hopped up to sit on the corridor railing, dangling his legs in front of him as he wrapped one arm around a support post. Snape resisted the urge to grab the boy's free arm and pull him back down. Instead, he reminded the teenager, "You've already done things that had to be done, Potter. Several times, in fact."
       Harry shook his head. "I didn't kill Sirius when I was a third year," he confessed.
       Snape rolled his eyes with annoyance. "Well, that didn't need doing, did it?" he chided impatiently. "That just proves you can rely on your instincts."
       Harry ran the fingertips of his free hand along the surface of the support post, then worried a scratch he found in the finish for several seconds before asking quietly, "Professor Snape, did you ever kill anybody before the siege?"
       Snape stood quietly before him for so long that finally Harry looked up, only to lock eyes with the older wizard for several seconds. Then a thoughtful Snape slowly crossed the corridor and leaned on the railing next to Harry. "At a trial," he began carefully, "they don't just convict the person who cast the spell. Many people can be considered guilty of the murder of one person, and anger and hatefulness..." He looked up to see Harry watching him intently. "Indulged feelings can place you in situations where crimes of omission or cowardice or apathy can make you just as guilty..." He shook his head and stood up abruptly. "This isn't helping you," he insisted. He took Harry by the arm and pulled him firmly down from the railing. "You are not alone, Potter," he insisted. "We will help you. You will be ready."
       With that, he stepped around the boy and headed for the staircase, only to spin back around and ask suddenly, "Do you know what I imagine the Dark Lord will do first if he lives and you die?"
       The question horrified Harry, but after a few moments, he merely shrugged and shook his head. "Come looking for you?" he guessed.
       "Professor Dumbledore?"
       Snape smiled at that. You wouldn't be dead if he were alive, foolish child, he thought before giving the boy the answer. "Granger," he said simply, and Harry's eyes flew open wide. "If I were the Dark Lord, I'd get rid of Granger as soon as possible." He started down the hallway again, then turned back one last time. "Potter," he called to the boy who was still staring after him, " I think Professor McGonagall would appreciate a promise that you won't play floo tag anymore."
       Harry blinked a few times, then smiled and nodded. Snape turned smartly on his heel and started back down the corridor. Harry watched him for several paces, then waved at his back and shouted, "Thanks for stopping by!"
       Snape paused long enough to mutter exasperatedly, "Good night, Potter," then squared his shoulders and stormed off.
       "Good night, sir," Harry whispered when he was sure Snape was out of earshot.
       Snape stopped in the common room long enough to bid the Slytherins a goodnight, then proceeded to his quarters and let himself in with a satisfied sigh. All's well that ends well, he smiled to himself. He gave the door a firm push to snap the lock into the latch; the moment it clicked, his eyebrows burst into flames.
       "LUPIN!" he roared so loudly the owls in their tower fluttered indignantly off their perches and flew away into the night.

An Obedient House