On the third Monday of the term, Snape began teaching tracking skills to his Defense classes. He'd said nothing to anyone about the methods he'd developed over the past two weeks but was secretly so thrilled with his innovations that he could scarcely wait for news of his lessons to reach the ears of Albus "I-refuse-to-make-you-Defense-teacher" Dumbledore.
       "The key to enhancing your visual and audio acumen," he lectured the sixth years as they sat cross-legged on the floor of the Great Hall, "is as close as the tip of your wand. To improve your optical or auditory ability, you need only change the color of your lumos light."
       He withdrew the wand he'd been shielding beneath his robe and swept a bluish light across the floor beside him. Speckles suddenly appeared on the smooth stones; they were all that remained of someone's spilled pumpkin juice from lunch.
       "Azure," Snape explained, "reveals the presence of moisture. Orchid will uncover disturbances in surface dust or dirt." Olive, he went on, would differentiate between different types of blood while mauve, when placed just inside the ear canal, would amplify hearing 400%.
       "But," he added with a crafty little smile, "the color must be exact... not gray but gainsboro, not orange-ish pink but salmon. It can't be light purple when only lavender will do."
       Several feet away, Lavender Brown and Parvati Patil began to giggle. Snape shot them a withering glare, then ordered the students to their feet.
       First he taught them how to produce primary colors and pigments with their lumos lights. This was tricky because it required an addendum charm, a multiple-word charm like "impedimentia odiferous" where the first word was a charm all by itself. Delivered incorrectly, an addendum charm would yield only the result associated with the first word.
       "Lumos green!" Snape called with a swish and a flick and the tip of his wand burst forth with a rich green light. "Lumos green!" the students aped, and every wand ignited with its usual white light. Snape sighed.
       "Smoothly!" he scolded. "Think of the two words as one, but try to articulate your delivery as if you were teaching a new word to a foreign language class."
       "Lumos green!" the students cried over and over and soon the hall was filled with a delightfully slythery light. They progressed to lumos red, lumos yellow, and lumos blue as Snape wandered among them, showing off repeatedly under the guise of providing helpful demonstrations. Ironic, Malfoy thought, that Snape's so good at this. He waited until the potions master was within earshot, then winked at Potter and gave his wand a swish and a flick as he muttered loudly, "Silly incantation!" Snape responded with a sharp rap on the head.
       "Now, the hard part," the teacher called when they had mastered green, red, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow, plus brown, purple, and pink. "To create orchid, the specific color you need for finding footprints, summon a related color and adjust it."
       He waved his hands to move them back into a semi-circle where everyone could see. Then he gave his wand an authoritative swish and thundered, "Lumos pink!" The tip lit up immediately. Then, as the students watched in awe, he brought the wand tip close to his lips and whispered, "Tick." The shade of pink darkened just a bit. "Tick," Snape whispered again, more harshly this time. Again the color darkened and reddened a bit as well. He did this repeatedly until his wand tip was glowing a rich orchid. Then he swept the light over the floor in front of him and revealed a mish-mash of their footprints in the dust covering the stone floor of the hall.
       "Whoa!" Ron cried. The students burst into applause. Snape couldn't help smiling. Then he extinguished his wand and did the whole thing over again, much faster this time, revealing the footprints on the floor in a matter of seconds. The students applauded again and Snape let them go on for a while before he held up a hand to silence them.
       "You should have noticed," he lectured, "that the 'tick' sound darkens and, when delivered more sharply, intensifies the color. Now," he continued, "to lighten a color, you make a sucking noise, a sort of 'soop,' as if you were sucking on an invisible straw." He illuminated the tip of his wand in blue, darkened it several shades with ticking sounds, then returned it to its initial state with a single soop. "Sooping is stronger than ticking," he explained. "I confess I cannot yet produce a soop delicate enough to lighten no more than a single tick darkens, and too much sooping will extinguish your light altogether.
       "But keep in mind," he added shrewdly, "that colors are related. You need orchid to find disturbed surfaces, but you can reach orchid from pink or red or even purple. Sooping is harder to control but faster than ticking, and you may have a talent for it. If this is the case, develop it, because speed can be vital in tracking; if you can reach orchid in 3 soops instead of 10 ticks, do so. But for heaven's sake," he finished disdainfully, "don't get stuck in a pathetic cycle of ticks and soops trying to reach a color! If you find yourself going back and forth for too long, extinguish your light and start over!"
       It was fascinating work, watching colored light shift as one whispered to it. Snape let them practice for the remainder of the class period, then ended the lesson with an announcement that intrigued them all. "Work on orchid for your homework," he commanded. "If the entire class can produce it in less than 10 seconds by the end of tomorrow's lesson, I'll bring Dobby the house-elf to class on Wednesday to teach you how to identify various footprints and tracks."
       On Wednesday, Dobby was so nervous that Snape feared he might have to slip him some butterbeer before class. "It's just the sixth years, Dobby," he reassured the elf. The younger students were nowhere near10 seconds and the fifth and seventh years had had insufficient time to practice due to extra O.W.L. and N.E.W.T. transfigurations homework. "Harry Potter will be there," Snape reminded the tiny creature. "He'll help you!"
       "Harry Potter is never much help to Mr. Hagrid," Dobby pointed out with a whimper, and Snape wondered how he knew these things. The elf dropped to the ground and began performing a frantic set of push-ups, a habit he'd developed after Harry and company had flown off the Astronomy tower roof. Dobby was determined that, the next time a student needed rescuing, he would be strong enough to do it himself, since, as he'd pointed out slyly to Snape, he could reach any destination in the castle faster than any wizard.
       "Get up, Dobby!" Snape barked. "You won't need help. You're a much better teacher than Hagrid." He turned around to hide a scowl of frustration. These lessons were so important to him! Wise choice, Severus, he thought to himself, hitching your wagon to this dunderhead's star. "Dobby," he snarled, whirling around to face an elf who was now whimpering with anxiety, "if you botch this, I'll wring your neck!"
       Dobby gulped but hopped dutifully onto a stool beside a large blackboard at the front of the hall and Snape breathed a sigh of relief. When the students arrived, the elf found them so eager and attentive (thanks in large part to a meaningful glare at the Slytherins from Snape) that he warmed to his task immediately. By the end of the lesson, he'd grown downright pompous. He taught the students how to discern height, weight and shoe style among human footprints, how to recognize elf, centaur and thestral tracks, and how to differentiate between human, wolf and rodent blood. The students applauded enthusiastically when he finished, inspiring Dobby to take a bow. Snape rolled his eyes and started for the front of the room but was stopped in his tracks by a pretentious throat-clearing from the elf.
       "Now," Dobby called imperiously, "for the students' homework assignment..."
       "Uh, Dobby," Snape called threateningly from the back of the room.
       "Dobby would like the students to draw 500 centaur tracks," the elf decided. The youngsters' mouths dropped open with dismay and Snape scowled, striding quickly towards the front of the room. Seeing him coming, Dobby hurried to finish before Snape could reach him. "Any student failing to produce 500 centaur tracks will receive detention and...Oomph!"
       Snape seized the power-crazed elf around the waist, snatching him from the stool as he clamped a hand over his mouth. "On Friday," he informed the students as Dobby wiggled in his grasp, "we will use the double class session for a treasure hunt. Dobby and I..." He gave the elf a sharp squeeze and Dobby yelped from behind Snape's hand, "will lay tracks for you to follow. The first group to find the treasure will receive mail order gift certificates to Honeydukes."
       The students cheered. Snape carried Dobby to the door of the hall and dropped him neatly to the floor outside. When he returned to dismiss the students, he found Hermione Granger thrusting her hand eagerly into the air.
       "Please, sir," she begged, "couldn't we do it outside? The snow is all gone!"
       "Yes, yes, let's do it outside!" several students chimed in.
       "Are you out of your minds?" Snape thundered. He dismissed them abruptly and headed to the staff room for a cup of tea, wondering all the way when they were ever going to grow up.
       On Thursday night, after the students were safely sequestered in their common rooms, Snape and Dobby set about laying trails throughout the castle. Every few feet, Dobby jumped into the air and spun around to cast an enchantment on their tracks, cackling merrily as the charm sprang from his fingertips. Snape, whose task was far less enviable, found Dobby's behavior immensely annoying, but the charm was necessary to preserve the trails from the foot travel of the castle's other inhabitants. "Just don't forget where we've placed the blood," he snarled as he flicked some drops on the wall from one of the many vials he was carrying in his pockets. It would be Dobby's job to assign various elves the task of cleaning the corridors when the hunt was over. "We don't want thestrals roaming the school licking the walls."
       "Actually, Professor," Dobby murmured with a thoughtful tilt of his head, and Snape had to admit that the same idea had just occurred to him. A thestral round-up would make an excellent test of the students' skills. He shook his head violently as if to clear it of such ludicrous thoughts.
       "No, Dobby!" he snarled. "And that's another thing." Dobby leapt into the air with a shriek to cast another charm and Snape snatched him in mid-air, twisting him around to hold him menacingly nose to nose. "When I ask you to lecture to my class, just lecture to my class," he hissed at the elf. "It's not your job to assign homework... or to administer discipline."
       "Hmph," Dobby snorted, popping loose from Snape's grip to continue down the hallway with a pout.
       "If you can't respect that," Snape called after him, "I won't invite you back to teach forest sounds."
       The elf paused long enough to mutter slyly over his shoulder, "Dobby will speak to Professor Lupin," then took off at a run. Snape caught up to him in a single bound and had him by the throat when Winky appeared beside them with a pop. She didn't bat an eyelash at the throttling in progress.
       "Winky is sorry to interrupt, sir," she hiccuped, "but Professor Dumbledore wishes to see Professor Snape in his office right away."
       Snape released Dobby with a warning glare and swept away down the hall.
       When he arrived at Dumbledore's office, he was surprised to find the headmaster in the company by Madam Pomfrey and a small boy who looked to be about 11 years old. The child was dirty and disheveled and did not seem to notice Snape's arrival but stared blankly into space.
       "Severus," Dumbledore began gently, "do you recognize this child?"
       Snape took a step closer and peered at the child's face, then shook his head at Dumbledore.
       "Look again," the headmaster urged. "Could he be the younger brother of Miles Bletchley?"
       "Michael?" Snape asked. Michael Bletchley was an eleven-year-old who'd been sent a letter of admittance last summer; it had come as no surprise to Snape or Dumbledore when he'd failed to appear at school. Snape peered at the boy again.
       "There's a family resemblance," he admitted, "but I couldn't say for sure. I've never seen any pictures." He straightened up and asked, "Where did the boy come from?"
       "He stumbled up to the front gate a few minutes ago," Dumbledore explained. "Professor Vector and Winky were on guard duty. They brought him to me after they found this hanging around his neck." He reached inside the boy's shirt collar and withdrew a metal item which he held high enough for Snape to see. It was Bletchley's pewter vial.
       "The boy does not speak," Dumbledore went on with a brief nod at Madam Pomfrey. "He appears to be quite traumatized. Do you suppose..." He hesitated, then continued more gently. "Do you suppose Miles might have rescued this boy from his family and then been unable to bring him to Hogwarts? He could have placed the vial around his neck so we would know him."
       Snape didn't know what to think. "I saw him at Ollivander's on Sunday," he reminded Dumbledore. "Surely he would have said something."
       Dumbledore thought it over. "Were there other people present?" he asked, and Snape was hard-pressed to hide his scowl.
       "Yes," he admitted, wishing he'd thought of that first.
       Dumbledore walked over to his fireplace and removed some floo powder from a tin which he used to call Mr. Ollivander. Snape joined him at the fireplace, effectively blocking the rest of the room from view, while Madam Pomfrey drew the child close and placed a reassuring arm around his shoulder.
       "Professor Dumbledore!" cried Ollivander eagerly from the flames. "What an honor!"
       "I wonder if you could help us," Dumbledore replied when the greetings were concluded. "Can you tell us where your apprentice, Miles Bletchley, resides, and whether he has a fireplace on the floo system?"
       Ollivander frowned. "Bletchley lives in one of the apprentice flats here in Diagon Alley," he explained, "and no, his fireplace is not on the floo system. Quite inconvenient," he added with a shake of his head. "I've told the Ministry several times that apprentices need to be at their masters' beck and call and they simply can't afford..." He broke off with an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, I'm rambling on and your needs must be pressing. You would not be able to contact Bletchley this evening anyway, so might I be of some service instead?"
       Dumbledore thanked him and explained that they very much required a conversation with Bletchley as soon as possible.
       "I've sent him to Hakim Habar's on a wand-buying expedition," Ollivander explained. "He was to apparate to Egypt this morning, which, as you know, means he will be quite unavailable tonight."
       Dumbledore nodded. Egyptian wand-buying protocol was rigid indeed; Bletchley would have spent the morning and afternoon admiring Habar's product, then gone out socializing with him at various gathering houses until the wee hours. He would rise late tomorrow morning to begin bargaining in earnest.
       "I expect to hear from him some time after lunch tomorrow," Ollivander concluded.
       "When you do, " Dumbledore smiled, "will you please ask him to contact me right away?"
       Ollivander promised to do so, then disappeared as Dumbledore and Snape turned back to the others.
       "I should get the child to bed, Headmaster," Madam Pomfrey urged, but Dumbledore shook his head. "Soon," he promised, "but it would be most helpful if we could confirm the boy's identity tonight."
       Snape rubbed his lip thoughtfully. "Lavender Brown was... well-acquainted with Bletchley last year," he began. "Should we..."
       Dumbledore shook his head again. "What about Miss Montague?" he suggested instead. "Is it possible she would recognize the boy? Perhaps he got the idea to run away from her and went to his brother for help."
       Snape nodded and hurried away to Slytherin. His students were all in their cells and Violet and Marybeth had been asleep for about half an hour when he knocked softly on their door and let himself into their room.
       "Miss Montague, wake up," he whispered, shaking Marybeth's shoulder. Violet began to stir in the opposite cot and Snape added more loudly, "Miss Guilford, go back to sleep."
       "What? What?" Violet asked in confusion, reaching groggily for a quill and parchment. Snape rolled his eyes.
       "Montague, up!" he barked. "Guilford, asleep!"
       Violet dropped back onto her pillow without another word as Marybeth crawled off her cot and reached for her robe, yawning and wiping the sleep from her eyes. Snape motioned to her to be quiet and led her out of the house and into the corridor.
       "Is something wrong, Professor?" she asked as they made their way back to Dumbledore's office.
       "I'm not sure," Snape told her. But when they reached the spiral staircase, he hesitated just a moment, then sighed and took hold of Marybeth's hand before leading her into the headmaster's office.
       Once inside, Marybeth spied the mysterious child immediately. She stopped short with a gasp, clutching Snape's hand more tightly. After a moment, Snape stepped closer to the boy, pulling Marybeth alongside him.
       "Miss Montague," Dumbledore asked gently, "do you recognize this young man?"
       Marybeth stared in disbelief at the quiet, unblinking child. Then she lifted bewildered eyes to Snape and said, "That's Michael. Michael Bletchley."
       Snape nodded and released her hand to rest his own on top of her head, as if to give her a single, approving pat. But then he slid his hand smoothly down to the back of her skull and gave her a little push towards Michael. Marybeth stiffened and shook her head, fumbling for Snape's hand and clutching it desperately. But her housemaster just narrowed his eyes in stern expectation, so she released him with a whimper, took a deep breath, and stepped cautiously closer to the silent youngster.
       "Michael?" she whispered when she was a mere foot away. "Michael, it's Marybeth. Marybeth Montague."
       Snape thought he saw the tiniest flicker of movement in the boy's eyes. Then, nothing. Dumbledore shook his head.
       "Thank you, Miss Montague," he said wearily. "Take him to the hospital wing and put him to bed, Madam Pomfrey, I'll have Dobby send a couple of elves to watch over him through the night."
       He dismissed the others and Snape walked Marybeth back to Slytherin. "I think it would be best," he counseled the child, "if you said nothing about this for the time being."
       Marybeth nodded. When they reached the entrance to the common room, she lifted uncertain eyes to Snape and whispered, "What do you think is wrong with him, sir?"
       "I hesitate to think, Miss Montague," Snape replied. "I suggest we wait to hear from his brother."
       Marybeth nodded again. After a moment, she added, "I wish Bletchley were my brother." Then she let herself back into Slytherin and crept quietly back to bed.
       The 6th year Defense students thought Millicent, Hermione and Neville were the team to beat, though Ron, Malfoy and Harry had high hopes for themselves. "Now that we've drawn lots for groups," Snape told them Friday afternoon, "I will assign your departure times. You will then leave the hall at two minute intervals. The trail begins around the farthest corner; Dobby is waiting beside the treasure to mark the time of your arrival. Whichever team reaches the treasure in the shortest amount of time, wins."
       The students nudged each other with excitement.
       "Remember that only rat blood accompanies the correct trail," Snape continued. "If you find any other type of blood along your trail, you've taken a wrong turn." He tilted his head slightly to smile at Malfoy's group. "You three will go last," he told them. "Mr. Potter needs time to return to his dormitory and retrieve a certain item for me." He raised an eyebrow at Harry and added, "You wouldn't want your classmates thinking you'd had an unfair advantage, after all."
       Harry scowled but hurried away, returning with the marauder's map moments before his team was due to depart. He thrust the parchment at Snape, then joined his teammates near the door, muttering loudly enough for Snape to hear, "I can't believe he thinks I'd cheat."
       Malfoy shook his head at yet another Gryffindor idiocism. "Makes you wonder," he said more loudly still, "what he really wants it for."
       There was no time to consider the possibility further. "Good-bye, gentlemen," Snape called, and the trio took off at a run. Snape watched them go; as soon as they rounded the farthest corner, he bolted from the hall and raced to Lupin's quarters.
       "Come in!" Lupin called in response to Snape's pounding. The potions master burst into the chamber to find the Defense teacher sitting up in bed reading a book. He hurried across the room and thrust the marauder's map unceremoniously under Lupin's nose.
       "How do you work this thing?" he demanded.
       Lupin stared curiously from the map to Snape, then took the parchment in one hand and retrieved his wand from the nightstand with the other. He whispered the necessary incantation, waited for the map to fill in, then handed it silently back to Snape, who grinned with delight at its contents. "Let the games begin!" he murmured before plopping down on the bed beside Lupin.
       He set the map down where both of them could see it and Lupin leaned over it, picking out the various trios with his index finger.
       "What are they doing?" he asked.
       "Treasure hunt," Snape replied, giving Lupin a quick and falsely modest description of the techniques he'd developed along with the exercise he'd planned. Lupin was truly amazed.
       "Severus!" he beamed. "That's incredible!"
       "Ssh! Here we go!" Snape cut him off with a wave of his hand, leaning eagerly over the map to point to the group consisting of Tracey Davis, Dean Thomas, and Justin Finch-Fletchely. Their dots made their way slowly up the corridor leading to the kitchens, then stopped short, jumping in place before frantically retreating several yards at a dead run after a dot representing a house elf suddenly appeared before them. Snape fell back on the bed, roaring with laughter as he imagined the shrill shriek of a house elf crying, "Boo!"

       "Severus!" Lupin scolded, trying hard to hide a grin of his own. "That was cruel!"
       "Nonsense!" Snape insisted, wiping his eyes on his sleeves as he sat up again. "They learned a valuable lesson. You can't disregard your environment just because you're tracking."
       Lupin rolled his eyes and shook his head, but Snape noticed he watched that part of the map carefully and shook with suppressed mirth every time another trio blundered into the house elf booby trap.

       There were other stumbling blocks along the way as well. "Look at these ninnies," Snape said of the Hemione-Millicent-Neville group who were stymied along one of the corridors in Ravenclaw Tower. "We spattered a combination of rat blood and wolf blood along that passageway. Granger and Bulstrode will argue for 20 minutes about what it may or may not be while Longbottom stands there helpless, too intimidated by their intelligence to interrupt with his own common sense."
       "Oh!" Lupin realized. "The groups aren't just for safety!"
       "They need to learn to work effectively with others," Snape insisted. "Look at these three." He pointed proudly to the Malfoy-Ron-Harry trio.
       The boys were zooming along the trail at break-neck speed. Snape and Lupin watched their dots with delight; every time they hit a snag, they stopped, paused briefly, then set off again. Sometimes they went the wrong way, but by cooperating and making decisions quickly, they were able to cover far more ground than their classmates, zeroing in on the treasure in rapid order. "They don't have experience," Snape explained, "so they are wisely choosing to follow as many leads as possible." He pressed his lips together to conceal a smile, then glanced sideways at Lupin, who was grinning at him.
       "We have fine sons, don't we?" the werewolf teased, and the two men burst out laughing, chuckling ruefully over their foolish pride in Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.
       The boys had just made their way to the Headmaster's corridor when a dot representing Dumbledore emerged from his office and hurried down the spiral staircase. "Hold on a tick," Snape muttered, frowning at the map. "He better not be trying to help them!"
       Dumbledore's dot approached the three boys' dots and paused for a few moments before hurrying away. Snape and Lupin watched as he approached another set of students and then another, pausing by each of them.
       "Well," said Lupin, "if he's helping,, he's helping everybody."
       Snape scowled, peering at the map. Dumbledore made his way quickly through the castle, eventually reaching the dungeon where Crabbe, Goyle, and Lavender Brown were hopelessly off track. "Cretins," Snape muttered with a shake of his head. "We didn't even lay any tracks in the dungeon."
       Lupin frowned, watching Dumbledore hurry through the passageways, then turned thoughtful eyes to Snape. "Severus," he asked hesitantly as a possibility took shape in his mind, "... could he be looking for you?"
       Snape froze.
       "DAMMIT!" the potions master roared, springing up from the bed to snatch the map and race from the room without another word to Lupin.
       Why didn't I stay somewhere he could floo me? he thought furiously as he tore through the corridors, both eyes glued to the map as he followed Dumbledore's movements. "Out of the way, out of the way!" he snarled at any students he banged into as he hurried through the halls.
       He finally caught up to Dumbledore in the deserted Defense classroom corridor. But before he could speak, Dumbledore laid a gentle hand on his arm and said, "Severus, Bletchley is dead."
       Harry, Ron and Malfoy hurried past the entrance to the Gryffindor common room and continued down the corridor towards the empty quarters where visiting professors sometimes stayed. They knew they were on the right track. At least, they thought they were, until they spotted something shiny and silver on the ground several feet ahead of them.
       "Unicorn's blood!" groaned Harry and Draco in unison, coming to a dead halt. Ron stopped short beside them. They swore and kicked the stone floor in frustration, wondering where they'd gone wrong and what to try next. But after a few moments, Malfoy smirked and began to chuckle. Harry knew immediately what he was thinking of. He grinned broadly at Malfoy and asked, "You're not going to scream and run off, are you?"
       "Oh, shut up!" Malfoy barked, chuckling all the harder nonetheless. Harry laughed, too, while Ron looked helplessly back and forth between them. Finally they sobered up and Malfoy shook his head as he gazed once more at the silvery substance lying on the stones several yards up the corridor. "I can't believe Snape wasted unicorn's blood on a class exercise," he told the others. "It's really expensive!"
       Ron nodded and Harry suddenly grew thoughtful, frowning as he stared at the glistening spot. "Wait," he murmured, moving a bit closer to get a better look at the shiny matter. "I don't think that's unicorn's blood."
       The others closed in around him and together they moved slowly forward, staring at the silvery material on the floor ahead of them. It was too whispy to be blood, Malfoy realized. He felt a thrill of fear course through his veins as an idea occurred to him. "Is that..." he began tentatively.
       Harry held out both arms to stop the other two boys from proceeding, then nodded slowly. "It's a thought," he whispered.
       Malfoy spun around, checking the corridor behind them as he returned his wand light to lumos white. He whipped back and forth, trying to check both ends of the passageweay at once as Harry cried, "I'll go get Professor Dumbledore!"
       "No!" Malfoy shouted, grabbing him by the arm to keep him from darting away down the corridor. "You stay here with me. Weasley, you go get Dumbledore!"
       Ron looked uncertainly from one boy to the other. "Why should you stay with Harry?" he demanded of Malfoy.
       Because I'm better at defense, you long-legged moron, Malfoy thought. "Because you're better at running, you long-legged moron," Malfoy said. He told Ron the password Snape had used to let them into Dumbledore's office during Holy Week and Ron took off at a sprint.
       Harry and Malfoy watched him go, then backed up slowly until they were pressed against a corridor wall. They glanced frequently up one end of the corridor and down the other, wands trained for whatever might approach.
       Ron burst into Dumbledore's office without knocking. He found a tense-faced Snape and Dumbledore at the fireplace, talking with Kingsley Shacklebolt, of all people. Quickly, before Snape could thunder at him to get out, Ron shouted, "Harry and Malfoy and I found a thought on the floor of Gryffindor Tower!"
       Dumbledore and Snape didn't even say good-bye to the auror. They tore from the room, Snape grabbing Ron by the arm as they went, and the three wizards raced back to Gryffindor.
       The silence was becoming unbearable. Both boys kept glancing at the thought on the floor up the hall as if expecting it to turn into a serpent and attack them. "Hey!" Malfoy said too loudly, making Harry jump. The Slytherin reddened a bit and continued more softly, "Do you ever use that pensieve you bought last year?" Potter had not brought the item to the Dursleys' for the summer, Malfoy knew.
       Harry shook his head. "I tried it a time or two," he admitted, "but it's uncomfortable being without all your thoughts." He stiffened at the sound of running footsteps. "Here they come!" he cried, and both boys whirled in the direction of the approaching trio.
       Ron stopped when he reached them, but to his surprise, Snape and Dumbledore ran right past Harry and Draco and continued down the corridor. The boys took off after them, following the men as they raced down the hall and burst into the room where Sybil Trelawney was staying.
       They found her sitting in a chair, staring blankly at the wall in front of her, without a thought in her head.
       A quick check of the marauder's map confirmed that the guilty Death Eater was no longer in the castle. Dumbledore sent Ron and Malfoy throughout the castle to ask the teachers to dismiss their classes and send their students back to their common rooms. The heads of house were asked to report to the headmaster's office as soon as possible. Madam Pomfrey brought Professor Trelawney to the hospital wing and Harry, map in his pocket, returned to his dormitory with instructions to say nothing to anyone about the incident; the heads of house would brief their students as soon as possible.
       "I've been staring at that cursed map for half an hour!" Snape seethed as he accompanied Dumbledore to the headmaster's office. "Why didn't I see him?"
       "He's been gone for hours, Severus, I'm sure," Dumbledore soothed his youngest teacher. He suspected Snape was burning with guilt over the possibility of having sent the sixth years out to roam the castle in the company of a Death Eater. Knowing it would relieve his tension, Dumbledore assigned him the tedious but exhausting task of carrying to the Owlery each successive batch of letters he and the other heads of house would spend the next several hours producing.
       The students ate supper in their common rooms, waiting anxiously for their heads of house to appear and explain what was going on. When Snape finally arrived in Slytherin around 7pm, his students took one look at his face and instantly regretted their eagerness to hear the news.
       "Children," Snape began softly after holding up a hand to excuse them from lining up, and Malfoy winced at the tender form of address. Snape looked at one face after another, then turned away to look out the enchanted window for several seconds before forcing himself to get on with the matter at hand. "Children," he began again, even more gently than before, "... Miles Bletchley is dead."
       Several girls cried out. Malfoy paled and gripped the arms of his chair tightly.
       "He was killed by a Death Eater or Death Eaters who placed his pewter potions vial around the neck of his younger brother and sent him to the front gate of the castle so they could sneak in behind him beneath an invisibility cloak."
       Marybeth shrieked and clutched her head, throwing it between her knees in a desperate attempt not to faint as Millicent patted her reassuringly on the back. "Do not be afraid!" Snape thundered, knowing they were all remembering the Montagues' attempt to breach the castle in January. "The Death Eater is no longer present and the castle is secure."
       The Slytherins exchanged uncertain looks. Then Goyle raised a tentative hand and Snape shook his head at him. "They won't be back," he said grimly in response to Goyle's unspoken question. "They got what they came for."
       He stared at Marybeth until she felt his eyes upon her and raised her head to meet his gaze. Snape stared firmly at her and Marybeth nodded, wiping her eyes with a sniff before stiffening her spine to sit up straight again. Snape nodded once in approval, then continued. "They used a pensieve to remove the thoughts of our resident seer, Professor Sybil Trelawney. Tomorrow morning, after breakfast, you will assemble in the Great Hall at 9am, at which time Professor Dumbledore will provide a fuller explanation."
       He turned to go, hesitated a moment, then turned back to them, his face filled with sorrow. "Children," he said softly, "if there was anything I could say..." He faltered, then went on. "... anything I could say about Bletchley to make you feel... to make you feel..." He stopped, his face filling with bitterness before he announced, "I thought very highly of Miles Bletchley. I think very highly of you all." He swept from the room without another word.
       Several Slytherins began to cry. Violet pulled out her wand and hugged it tightly. "Bletchley!" she whimpered as she rocked back and forth. "Bletchley!"
       The sounds tore at Malfoy's heart; he feared the pain would rip his heart in two. Then he remembered callously telling the Gryffindors that two years was plenty of time to recover from the death of a housemate and a fresh wave of agony drove him to pound his fists against his temples. "God!" he cried out in anguish.
       Someone knocked on their door. They looked up dumbly from their suffering, too helpless with grief to move. The door opened anyway and one by one, the Hufflepuffs paraded into the room past Professor Sprout, who held the door open for them. Silently, their faces filled with sorrow, they gathered around a large table and placed on top of it a bouquet they'd made from flowers their head of house had fetched from a greenhouse at their request. They filed back out again without a word and Malfoy, remembering his conduct at the death of Cedric Diggory, wanted to reach inside his chest and tear out his heart to stop the pain. He sprang to his feet and violently wiped away the dampness that was threatening to leak out of his eyes.
       "No one else dies!" he roared, startling his housemates. "Let that be our mandate! NO ONE ELSE DIES!"
       One by one, amid sniffles and nose-blowings, the Slytherins began to nod. A light came into their eyes. Malfoy could not know it, but their faces reflected a determination not seen in Salazar's house since the night they'd pledged their unspoken opposition to Voldemort by pounding out a rhythm on the stone floor of their common room with wooden cups.
       Violet and Marybeth lay awake in bed for a long time that night. A spring wind howled outside the windows and Violet nestled beneath her covers, wishing the comfort of being snug and secure in Slytherin House could lessen the ache in her heart.
       "Marybeth," she whispered in the dark, "do you think my dad would kill me if I just walked into a room where he was?"
       Marybeth smiled to herself. "Are you going to talk some sense into him?" she asked. She thought for a few moments, then added, "He never has before. He didn't kill you when you were born, or last October or May."
       "He didn't have a body when I was born," Violet reminded her. "He needed me alive in October, and I hadn't stuck a wand in his eye yet last May." She hesitated before continuing. "Do you think Bletchley's parents killed him? Do you think... do you think your parents would kill you?"
       "I think," said Marybeth slowly, "that Hogwarts is the only home I'll ever have."
       Violet wondered how many other students felt that way. Not Malfoy, surely. She imagined him striding cockily out the door at the end of his seventh year to assume a grand and debauched lifestyle at the ancestral family home. But what about Millicent or Pansy, or Jennifer Rosich? What about Harry Potter, who, Malfoy had recently pointed out, was the orphan with the longest standing at Hogwarts?
       "Bletchley said I'd be better off if I'd never come here," she told Marybeth.
       "Maybe," Marybeth replied, "but he also sold you a really good wand." Professor Flitwick had been unable to hide his delight in charms class as he'd worked to help Violet master the powerful new apparatus. Now she reached for it in the dark, clutching it in both hands to feel the sleek wood grow warm in her fists. She used it to ignite a candle on the nightstand and propped herself up on one elbow.
       "What if Professor Snape dies?" she asked, her face contorted with pain in the warm glow of the candlelight. "Or Malfoy, or Millicent, Crabbe or Goyle?" She couldn't imagine anything worse ever happening to her. The teachers and older students would surely give their lives to protect the younger ones, but a Slytherin with just her and Marybeth in it wasn't enough. "Our home is slipping away, Marybeth," she insisted. "It could be destroyed completely."
       Marybeth clutched her blanket more tightly and said nothing. Tears sprang to her eyes and Violet felt dampness trickling down her own cheeks as well. They cried silently for a while. Then Marybeth kicked back her covers and pounded her fists on her cot.
       "This is the first night I haven't been afraid to go to bed," she hissed bitterly, "and now I'm too miserable to sleep!"
       Violet grinned. "Should I go get some older kids?" she wondered. Marybeth turned a sour face to her roommate, then suddenly brightened.
       "No!" she cried as she sat up. "I have a better idea!"
       Malfoy was awake, too, sitting on his cot in the dark, staring at the warm glow of the candle-lit hallway outside his cell as he listened to the sounds of his house. He smiled just a bit as he remembered holding tight to Bletchley's hand while they swept the dungeon on their brooms. Then his smile gave way to astonishment as two mattresses floated down the corridor past his doorway. Behind them came Violet and Marybeth, their wands trained on their levitating mattresses, their bedclothes slung over their shoulders. Malfoy threw a hand over his mouth to stifle his chuckles, then climbed off his cot and hurried out to the corridor.
       "Hang on!" he called sharply, and Marybeth gave a squeak as both girls jumped and spun around.
       "Where do you think you're going?" the prefect demanded.
       "We're going to sleep on the floor outside Crabbe and Goyle's room," Violet explained. She gave Malfoy a curt nod and turned back around to proceed down the hall, her roomate following suit. Malfoy watched them go and waited until they'd dropped their mattresses to the floor outside Crabbe and Goye's door and plopped down on top of them. Then he marched down the hall and knocked firmly on the door.
       Goyle opened it and Malfoy merely pointed to the ground below him. Goyle took one look at the prone second years, turned briefly back into the room to call his roommate's name, then reached down to grab hold of Violet's mattress and drag it into the cell. He pulled her to a spot on the floor between the boys' two cots, then climbed back into bed without another word. Crabbe did the same for Marybeth.
       Malfoy leaned against the lentil and shook his head with a grin. "Good night," he called to the blanket-covered lumps.
       "Good night," the four responded in unison.
       By morning, a dozen more Slytherins had joined them.
       Violet winced as they marched into the Great Hall the following morning. The other houses were already present and lined up in exactly the same formation they'd used last November when Snape had flogged her in this room. Dumbledore was once again standing on the head table platform with the heads of house on either side of him, but this time, Snape was already standing there, too. There was another difference as well but Violet didn't notice it at first.
       "For the rest of the day," Dumbledore began, "Professor McGonagall will be visiting with you to see if you might have any memories which, when duplicated by Madam Pomfrey, might prove useful in restoring Professor Trelawney's memory. As you are aware, she had all of her thoughts removed by a Death Eater who infiltrated the castle Thursday night."
       Several students shifted uncomfortably where they stood.
       "We have written to your parents about this matter," Dumbledore continued, "and now I will explain to you what I have shared with them. Lord Voldemort stole Professor Trelawney's thoughts because he is seeking information about a prophecy she made seventeen years ago this spring. Please listen closely."
       He cleared his throat and took a small step forward, then began to recite. " The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches... born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies... and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will have power the Dark Lord knows not... and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives."
       Dumbledore folded his hands behind him and took a step back, making no attempt the quell the shocked murmuring that broke out among the students. They looked quickly around the room, their eyes darting this way and that as they did the math in their heads. A fifth, sixth or seventh year, I suppose, Violet thought as she joined the other students in searching the hall. That's when she noticed that Harry Potter was missing.
       She turned questioning eyes to Malfoy only to find him staring straight ahead. Does he know? she wondered. Did Potter say something last summer? She looked to the Gryffindors for some sort of confirmation and found Neville Longbottom staring straight ahead, too.
       Dumbledore held up a hand to silence the mutterings and spoke again. "This prophecy has been the gravest of secrets for many years," he told them. "Lord Voldemort has known only the initial phrases. I share the full extent of it with you now because you, along with your parents, must understand the extreme danger in which it places you should you choose to remain at Hogwarts. You must have all the facts before you decide what to do.
       "The child described in the prophecy is Harry Potter. The Dark Lord marked young Harry as his equal the night he killed Harry's parents, the night Harry became 'the boy who lived.'"
       Again, the room swelled with murmuring. Again, Dumbledore waited patiently for it to subside. "There is no telling how long it will take Lord Voldemort to find the thought he seeks," Dumbledore confessed. "Perhaps he has found it already. What you must understand is that it is only a matter of time before he finds it, and once he does, anyone in close physical proximity to Harry Potter will be in grave danger."
       This time, he did hold up a hand to prevent any verbal reactions. "Let me finish," he said firmly. "There is no wrong choice you can make at this point. Whether you stay or go, I wish you Godspeed and pray fervently that we will all meet what is coming with courage and fortitude so that freedom may prevail." He gazed upon them with those warm but intense blue eyes and inquired, "Are there any questions?"
       Malfoy sucked in his breath with a hiccupy little gasp. Then he swallowed and quickly plastered a calm expression on his face. When Dumbledore turned to glance in his direction, he stared back at the headmaster with a look of supreme indifference. But when the elderly wizard spoke, his heart almost stopped.
       "Yes, Miss Bulstrode?" Dumbledore nodded.
       Malfoy spun around in horror. Millicent was standing right behind him with her hand in the air.
       "Put your hand down!" Malfoy snarled. "Put your hand down!" He grabbed Millicent's hand and pulled it down to her side. She stared at him, open-mouthed with confusion as Dumbledore called again, "Yes, Miss Bulstrode?"
       Malfoy whirled around to face the front of the room. "She hasn't got a question!" he shouted. "She hasn't got one!" He turned back to Millicent with murder in his eyes and the girl clamped her mouth shut.
       But then Snape took a step forward and said, "Miss Bulstrode, ask your question."
       Malfoy whirled around to gaze in disbelief at Snape who repeated firmly, "Ask your question, Miss Bulstrode." With a small groan, Malfoy turned back to Millicent long enough to give her a brief nod, then lifted both hands to rub his temples as he turned his defeated gaze back to the front of the hall.
       "I was just wondering," Millicent began hesitantly, "whether Voldemort didn't mark the wrong baby. Wasn't Potter born in October?"
       "No," said Snape calmly. "Potter was born in July and attacked in October."
       Malfoy felt a glimmer of hope that that would be the end of it, but no, Millicent persisted. "Still," she pointed out, "Voldemort must not have known what he was doing or he wouldn't have waited so long to attack."
       "He waited," Snape explained, "until he could decide which baby to attack. There were two."
       Again, an outbreak of murmuring, but Snape glared it away.
       "Who was the other baby?" Millicent wondered.
       "I was," Neville replied, making those around him jump. He stared dully at the shoulders of the Gryffindor in front of him.
       It came as no surprise to Malfoy when Millicent asked one last question.
       "Then why Potter?" she wondered.
       "Shit," Malfoy whispered.
       Snape said nothing for several seconds. Malfoy followed his gaze and discovered he was staring at Neville. Finally, he responded simply, "Because I chose him."
       There was no murmuring this time, though more than a few mouths dropped open. After several seconds of shocked silence, Dumbledore stepped forward and put a hand on Snape's arm. "It is one of the greatest regrets of my life," he insisted, "that making Professor Snape my spy among the Death Eaters led to one of the darkest moments of his life. I pray that soon we will be free forever from the unceasing cruelty of Lord Voldemort." He smiled kindly at Snape who nodded curtly and stepped back to his original spot.
       "If there are no more questions," Dumbledore concluded, "then you are dismissed with a reminder to please try and produce as many thoughts that will be helpful to Professor Trelawney as possible."
       With one last helpless look at Snape and Malfoy, Violet turned slowly around to depart the hall with the rest of her housemates. Bletchley, you bastard, she thought miserably as her wobbly legs carried her out of the room, you should have taken us with you.
       It took Snape more than an hour to return to the dungeon and when he did, he found Violet and Marybeth leaning against the wall outside the door to Slytherin. "What did I tell you about loitering in the halls?" he demanded.
       Not to do it alone! Violet thought indignantly. But she held her tongue and let Marybeth explain instead, "We've been waiting for you, sir. Will you come in and sit with us, please?"
       Snape hesitated, then nodded. He followed the two girls into the common room where all the Slytherins were assembled. They gathered round and before he took a seat, he focused steely eyes on Crabbe and demanded, "Promise remembered?"
       Crabbe started, then grinned despite the gloom that surrounded him. "Oh, yes, sir!" he nodded.
       The housemaster turned sternly Marybeth. "Night terrors concluded?"
       "Wouldn't that be sweet?" the child sighed, inspiring several housemates to respond in unison, "You said it!" Snape smiled to himself and dropped into one of their chairs, prompting the students to sit down, too. Violet and Marybeth crowded in on either side of him while Pansy flopped on the floor, resting her head on his knee.
       He looked round expectantly but the Slytherins could only exchange sheepish looks. Finally, Millicent took a deep breath and blurted out what was on their minds.
       "We're confused," she confessed from the other side of the coffee table. "Are we disappointed in you?"
       There was no condemnation in her tone, only regret. "I suppose," Snape muttered wearily. Pansy hugged his leg but Malfoy spoke up belligerently from his spot beside Millicent.
       "That's bullshit!" he insisted, making Violet look up eagerly to see if a bubble-mouth charm would be forthcoming. "Dumbledore was right," Malfoy went on, adding petulantly, "for once."
       Snape shook his head. "There is no point," he assured his students, "in playing 'What if?' My sin was in hating James Potter and Sirius Black so completely... as I did for years..." He glanced at Malfoy and nodded. "As I still do," he confessed.
       The Slytherins sighed and looked away. Several moments passed in uncomfortable silence. Then Millicent sprang defiantly to her feet, giving Snape a triumphant grin as she declared, "We'll have to punish you."
       Several Slytherins giggled nervously and Violet waved both hands in the air.
       "Two hours a night in the common room!" she blurted with delight before anyone else could speak. "For a month."
       "Two months!" Marybeth squeaked.
       "Two years!" Pansy corrected.
       "Twenty years!" Goyle upped the stakes. Then Malfoy held up a hand and all anteing ceased as the Slytherins waited to hear what he had to contribute. The teenager smiled a slow, satisfied smile and drawled,
       "Until he stops hating James and Sirius."
       The Slytherins stared at him. Then they turned silent, hopeful faces to Snape.
       "What do you say?" Millicent asked.
       He said nothing.
       Instead, he snatched Violet into his arms and hugged her so fiercely she gasped. "Oh!" she cried, clutching the folds of his robe between her fingers as she pressed her cheek against its prickly fabric, and every child in the room suddenly felt warmed, as if he or she had just put on a self-hugging cloak that squeezed for many more than three seconds.
       Then someone knocked on the door and Snape released Violet abruptly, pulling at his robe to straighten it as he shooed her and Marybeth out of his chair.
       "It's the Hufflepuffs," Malfoy suggested, making his housemates chuckle. He updated Snape briefly about the bouquet on the table as Violet hurried to answer the knock.
       "It IS the Hufflepuffs!" she cried, holding open the door to admit the entire badger house, minus their fearless leader.
       "Hope you don't mind the intrusion!" Ernie MacMillan called as the Hufflepuffs settled in among the Slytherins. "The professor wasn't in his office and we have some questions."
       The Slytherins turned uncertainly to their housemaster but he appeared to be even more confused than they were. He looked the Hufflepuffs over carefully before murmuring, "Proceed."
       "Does Professor Dumbledore expect us to leave?" Susan Bones wanted to know.
       Ernie waved a finger in the air and added, "It seems to us that, even if Harry defeats Lord Voldemort, there could be another Voldemort in twenty or thirty years. How are we to defend ourselves if we haven't finished our education?"
       Snape frowned; this was not the question he'd been anticipating. "The headmaster does not expect you to leave," he assured them after a few moments' thought. "Professor Dumbledore hopes you will stay and help Harry Potter. As I believe I've told you before..." He glanced pointedly at Eleanor and Owen. " will take a group effort to defeat the Dark Lord."
       "Wait a minute!" cried Justin Finch-Fletchley. "Are you saying Professor Dumbledore expects us to stay and give our lives for his favorite Gryffindor?"
       Snape's eyebrows sprang up before he could stop them. He hadn't even begun to formulate a reply when Violet jumped into the discussion. "I thought the prophecy said neither can live while the other survives," she reminded them. "Why don't we just lock Potter in a room and wait for them both to die?" She turned innocently to Snape and added, "Wouldn't that be the safest plan?"
       Snape stared at the youngster in disbelief. It occurred to him that, if he'd still had her in the chair beside him, he could have turned her neatly over his knee.
       "You're not serious," he pleaded.
       Violet shrugged. "I'm just thinking of the greater good, sir," she explained. "Isn't that why you help Potter in the first place? For the good of the many?"
       Snape shifted his stern gaze from her sweet little face to those of the students surrounding her and was startled to find every single one of them staring calmly back at him. When he reached Ernie MacMillan, the boy nodded. "The idea crossed our minds," he admitted.
       You've flogged an entire house, Severus, Snape thought to himself. How much harder can it be to flog two? "All right," he nodded agreeably at the students. "You wish to be practical? Let's be practical." He crossed his legs at the ankles and folded his hands across his belly. "Albus Dumbledore is the most powerful wizard on earth," he reminded them, "and he loves Harry Potter. How are you going to get Harry Potter into this room with Albus Dumbledore in the world?" The students' brows furrowed, but before they could respond, Snape continued, "Tom Riddle is the second most powerful wizard on earth. How are you going to keep Harry Potter in this room with Tom Riddle in the world?"
       Slowly the students began to nod at their stupidity as they realized that, all other considerations aside, no one was likely to take on the job of putting Harry Potter into such a room or guarding him once he was in there.
       "But why should we believe in this prophecy?" Hannah Abbott wondered.
       Snape nodded at the first sensible question to be raised. "How many of you believe in a supreme being?" he inquired, pausing for a show of hands. "Prophecies from the Almighty always come true," he assured them. "Consider the sources and draw your own conclusions. But remember... 'neither can live while the other survives.' So don't take too much time thinking it over."
       Justin folded his arms indignantly across his chest and asked, "Why would the Almighty choose Harry Potter?"
       Again, Snape was confused. He'd already told them who'd chosen Harry Potter. What had led them to move beyond that revelation so quickly? "Don't feel devalued by the selection," he counseled. "The Almighty often chooses the lowliest of men to carry out His plans."
       They chewed on that for a long time. Then Crabbe called out suddenly, "Hey!" and everybody jumped. "Why don't you and Professor Dumbledore teach Potter how to become invisible?" he asked. "Then Potter could sneak up on Voldemort..." He pantomimed the action with two fingers and couldn't understand why Eleanor and Owen found it so funny. "... and wipe him out just like that!" he finished with a decisive snap.
       Snape shook his head. "You can't perform magic while invisible," he told them. "Professor Flitwick has made a thorough study of it."
       Susan Bones stuck her hand in the air for a final question. "What if our parents insist we come home, even if we want to stay?" she asked. "How can we be sure..." She glanced around the room at the Slytherins sitting among the Hufflepuffs, then turned a determined face back to Snape. "How can we be sure they haven't become Death Eaters?"
       The wonders never cease, Snape thought. He spoke very carefully to them and they hung on every word. "What's going to happen is going to happen," he promised. "Make a choice you can live with..." He stood up to go, adding one last thought before he departed. "... or die with."

An Obedient House