"How about a break?"
       Dobby, who was sitting in a chair beside Michael Bletchley's cot in the hospital wing Monday night, looked up from his copy of Bathilda Bagshot's History of Magic to give Snape the briefest of sullen glances before returning to his reading. Snape rolled his eyes, then folded his arms across his chest.
       "Dobby," he said impatiently, "I am NOT going to say this again. I am sorry no one came to find you after the treasure hunt was cancelled. Now do you want my peace offering or not?"
       The elf clung to his injured facade for a few more seconds, then bounded eagerly from the room. Watching him go, Snape wondered just what the creature got up to in his free time. "Thank God he's not a Slytherin," he muttered to himself as he took a seat beside the sleeping Michael.
       In truth, this gesture was more for Snape than for Dobby. The hospital wing was the only place a wizard could ponder uninterrupted these days, and Snape had a great deal to think about.
       So far, not a single family had sent for its children. The Bletchley Effect, Snape called it. They're afraid it's even more dangerous out there. Or maybe they just didn't want the death of a child to be anybody's fault but Dumbledore's. As a result, he'd had to face the full contingent of Gryffindors and Ravenclaws in his potions classes all day, and truth be told, he'd been nervous. Ridiculous, he know realized. He should have known the reasonable Ravenclaws would have rapidly reach the same conclusion held by Dumbledore and even Potter himself: that Snape had had no choice but to choose, that the results would have been the same whether he'd acted in anger or compassion, and that he'd atoned for his behavior a hundred times over and continued to do so daily.
       No. It was not Snape the Ravenclaws resented.
       It was Potter.
       During class, the boy had bumped his hot cauldron during washing up, letting out a painful hiss that prompted Terry Boot to sneer, "Careful, Potter! Mustn't burn! We don't want the Chosen One developing an infection."
       Even Malfoy had raised an eyebrow.
       "I didn't know what to do!" Snape told Michael. Gryffindors he could discipline with one whip hand tied behind his back. Slytherins were a piece of cake and so, now, were the Hufflepuffs. But Ravenclaws! "They've never been a problem before!" Snape protested to the bed-ridden child. "Besides, how could anyone think on his feet after that appalling incident with Longbottom?"
       Neville had entered potions class a changed young man. He'd stared sullenly at Snape throughout the lesson and then... "He intentionally sabotaged his own potion!" Snape confided to Michael. "No one has EVER done that in my class before!"
       Neville had been deliberately sloppy and heavy-handed the entire period but Snape had looked the other way, having no desire to confront a child possessed of a near psychotic level of righteous indignation. "He's not being fair, you know," Snape told Michael peevishly. "It's not my fault so many people think the Potters were stronger wizards than the Longbottoms. I've been entirely in the right to demand more from him given the burden I saved him from." Snape drew his robes more tightly around him despite the gentle spring air that was slowly penetrating the castle. "Only a complete nutter would resent not being in Potter's shoes!" he added in a rather disturbed tone.
       He sighed and rubbed his temples. "I have no idea what to do," he confessed to the sleeping child.
       He'd ignored Longbottom successfully until the time had come to add bezoars to the simmering brews. "Use extreme caution!" Snape had warned the students. "Even the tiniest splash can cause irreparable blindness for three days."
       The students had picked up their stones... and Neville had grinned and raised his fist high in the air.
       "Don't!" Snape had hissed as menacingly as possible. "Don't you dare!"
       But he had. Neville had thrown the stone into his cauldron as hard as he could. Those nearby had jumped clear and by some miracle, not even Neville had gotten any of the stuff in his eyes. He'd just stood there, grinning maniacally as the potent potion dripped from his robe. Snape had stormed furiously across the room, scourgifying him with a blast of green light before turning away to commit one of the wisest acts of his teaching career.
       He'd removed the tin of floo powder he'd been carrying faithfully since his dash to the Astronomy tower and summoned Minerva, who'd hurried to the dungeon to hustle Neville out of the room.
       He'd watched her shepherd the boy out the door, then had turned back to his students to find Harry Potter smiling gratefully at his restraint, which had flustered him almost as much as the incident itself. Then, he'd barked the order to clean up.
       I should say something, he thought. "But I can't scold them in front of Potter," he told an unresponsive Michael, "and that's the only time I see them!" Besides, Justin Finch-Fletchley had shaken his head at Terry Boot after the Ravenclaw had made the snide remark; he doubted anyone from either house would register indignation in his presence again, or in front of any teacher, for that matter. This thought made him shudder as a flood of bitter memories rushed back unbidden. The corridors of Hogwarts could be an ominous place for an unpopular student.
       He pushed the distasteful thoughts away and tried to think of a plan. Could he appeal to the 7th years, ask them to talk some sense into their classmates? No, he concluded, I don't imagine I'd receive a great deal of assistance from a group that includes Miss Cho Chang.
       At that moment, the door to the hospital wing burst open and the Slytherins trooped in. They were led by Malfoy who carried a small vase filled with the last of the flowers from the Hufflepuffs' bouquet. "Hello, sir," he greeted Snape with a smile, then added, "Here you go, Bletch," as he set the flowers down on Michael's nightstand.
       'Bletch?' Snape smiled to himself. I like it.
       They left a short while later and Snape watched them go through narrowed eyes. "I didn't teach them to hate Potter," he told Michael after they'd gone. "Or at least, I didn't teach them to want him dead." He could prove it, too. Sacrificing Potter had been Guilford's idea, and she liked the boy. It wasn't as if Malfoy had suggested it.
       Snape slumped in his chair with a sigh. "Maybe I should talk to Minerva," he whispered. But no, that wouldn't help. She'd be no better at solving this one than he; they were too much alike. What he needed was...
       "Oh!" Snape sat up with a start. "I know who to talk to!"
       "Me?" asked Dumbledore from a few feet away, and Snape nearly jumped out of his chair.
       "Come, Severus, don't give me that scowl," Dumbledore smiled. "It's not like I entered the room invisibly." He walked over to Michael's cot and leaned over the boy, resting his palm on the child's forehead. "He doesn't eat," he told Snape. "Madam Pomfrey is quite concerned."
       He straightened up and clasped his hands behind his back. "The Ministry has granted my request for additional security," he told Snape. "Kingsley Shacklebolt and some of his colleagues will arrive tomorrow."
       "No more guard duty, Headmaster?" Snape asked hopefully.
       "Yes, more guard duty," Dumbledore assured him. "They'll have to sleep some time!" He glanced worriedly at Michael, then sat down on the boy's cot. "Severus," he said quietly, "the child will die without help, so I've sent for someone who might be able to free him from the curse that imprisons him."
       He smiled gently at Snape. "Bill Weasley will be joining us tomorrow as well."
       The announcement made Snape completely forget his idea to speak to Lupin about Harry Potter.
       "Who's that?" Violet asked, tugging on Malfoy's sleeve and pointing to a handsome redhead sitting next to Professor McGonagall as they entered the Great Hall for breakfast Tuesday morning. "Is that a Weasley?"
       "That's Bill," Malfoy told her as they sat down. "He's the oldest."
       The Slytherins watched as various staff members leaned in close or got up and walked over to Bill's spot at the head table to converse with the pony-tailed guest. "Is he an auror?" Millicent wondered. Snape had promised them at inspection that morning that any Slytherin caught vexing an auror would most assuredly spend the night on his or her belly.
       Malfoy shook his head. "He breaks curses for Gringotts," he told his housemates.
       They watched as Harry, Ron and Hermione entered the hall and hurried forward to join the crowd of admirers surrounding Bill at the head table. The newcomer smiled easily as he chatted with those around him.
       "Do you suppose he's here for Michael?" Millicent speculated.
       Crabbe wrinkled his nose. "Couldn't they find a Slytherin curse breaker?"
       "Bletch isn't really a Slytherin," Malfoy pointed out. "Not yet, anyway."
       Their comments were interrupted by a loud laugh from Bill, which immediately set those around him to laughing as well.
       "Popular bloke, isn't he?" Goyle observed. Malfoy shrugged.
       "He was head boy," he reminded the group. "People remember head boys."
       Violet tore her eyes away from the staff table and turned to her older housemates. "Who do you think will be head boy next year?" she asked. They all wanted Malfoy, of course. The blonde teenager grinned and beckoned the Slytherins closer, then drawled for only them to hear, "Neville Longbottom?"
       The Slytherins burst out laughing, then glanced at the head table again where they found Bill Weasley glaring at them for their outburst.
       "What?" Millicent huffed. "He can laugh but we can't?"
       Malfoy shook his head, wondering why Snape was not at breakfast. This doesn't bode well, he thought, and he stared at Bill for a long time before turning his attention o his kippers.
       The visiting curse-breaker was perched on the teacher's desk that afternoon when Draco and his fellow Slytherins returned to the hall for Defense class. Malfoy grabbed a seat in the front row as the other three houses ambled in behind him, the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs giving a wide berth to Harry Potter. The aurors were there, too, and Lupin, standing next to Bill, looked a bit uncomfortable.
       "Professor Snape will be joining us shortly," he told the students once they were seated. "I've asked him to provide a brief demonstration of his new tracking techniques for our visiting aurors."
       Bill Weasley snorted and Lupin's discomfort seemed to increase a notch. Malfoy leaned over to Millicent and whispered rather loudly, "Why is Weasley here? Shouldn't he be helping Michael?"
       "Oh, rest assured, Malfoy," Bill called from the front of the room, "I wouldn't miss this for the world."
       Lupin cleared his throat. "I was astounded when I first leaned about Professor Snape's accomplishments," he told the aurors. "Very impressive, weren't they, students?"
       He turned rather desperately to them and, after a startled moment, they nodded and murmured their assent. Bill laughed out loud.
       "Lupin," he grinned, clapping Remus on the back, "Snape's a Slytherin!"
       "So?" called Millicent sharply, and Malfoy, glancing over his shoulder at her, found several non-Slytherins frowning as well.
       "So, Miss Bulstrode," Bill said smoothly, "Defense has never been a Slytherin strong suit. It requires real magic, you see. Slytherins are good at..." He smiled at Malfoy. "... potions."
       Draco willed himself not to flush. He searched his mind for a calm, cutting reply, but before he could think of one, Neville Longbottom thrust his hand into the air and waved it eagerly at the visiting aurors. "Are any of you Slytherins?" he asked innocently when called upon, and Bill rewarded him with a wink. But then a voice from the back of the room, where the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs were gathered, suggested, "Maybe they only let Gryffindors into the club," and a second voice added "Good for you, eh, Potter?"
       "Hey!" Ron Weasley spun around with fire in his eyes, but Harry gave his arm a nudge and whispered, "Never mind" just as Snape strode into the room. He stopped short at the sight of Bill Weasley and his jaw twitched, but Bill just smiled at him. Lupin spoke up quickly.
       "Thank you so much for coming, Professor Snape," he smiled as he stepped between Bill and the potions master. "We'll try not to take up too much of your time, but as you can imagine, our guests are most anxious for a demonstration of your new techniques."
       "Are you going to write them up, Snape?" asked Kingsley Shacklebolt not unpleasantly. "Get yourself published again?" Wizards throughout the Ministry were aware that an article on Lupin's Remedy was undergoing peer review at that very moment.
       "Not just... yet," Snape said carefully, and Shacklebolt nodded in agreement.
       The substitute Defense teacher provided a brief display, allowing the eager students to make tracks, spit on the floor, and even tear open a scab or two to contribute droplets of blood for the performance. The aurors applauded enthusiastically when he finished but Bill just shook his head. "Congratulations, Severus!" he announced when the ovations had ceased. "You've invented the wizarding equivalent of muggle glowsticks."
       A hush fell over the room as all eyes turned to Snape. Before he could respond, a loud "Ha!" rang out from the crowd of Gryffindors and everyone turned to see Neville Longbottom grinning triumphantly. The troubled Gryffindor's manic visage seemed to remind Snape of something. He thrust his hands into his pockets where Malfoy was sure he was concealing balled fists and stepped closer to Bill, whispering so quietly that Malfoy had to strain to hear him.
       "You must be making progress with young Bletchley," he murmured. "Surely you wouldn't waste time when Michael has so little."
       Bill paled, then flushed, and the two men glared at each other for several seconds before Snape suddenly turned and swept from the room. As Lupin bid a good-day to the guests and ushered them out the door, Malfoy leaned over to the Slytherins and whispered, "Snape didn't say anything about vexing curse-breakers, right?"
       That evening, the blonde teenager raised a fist to knock on Snape's office door only to see it swing open at his touch. His housemaster stood with his back to the door, facing his desk. "Professor Snape?" Malfoy called uncertainly, then froze when Snape drew his wand and spun on him in a fury.
       "Dobby!" the potions master shouted, "I told you NEVER...!" He stopped when he saw Malfoy, then let his wand drop. "It's you," he muttered as he turned back to his desk.
       Malfoy approached cautiously and drew up alongside Snape to discover that his desk was covered with an odd assortment of items, including a stone leaf, a stone spider, a caged mouse and a snake slithering in hungry circles around the cage. "Dobby has been sneaking up on me," Snape told the boy, "popping in unannounced to see what I'm up to."
       "Why is that, sir?" Malfoy asked, picking up the stone spider and turning it upside down to examine its underbelly.
       "Because," the potions master grumbled as he snatched the spider back and returned it carefully to the desktop, "he doesn't mind teaching me, or working with me, but he hates being left out."
       Malfoy nodded as if he understood, then came to the point of his visit. "Could you tell us how Michael is doing, sir?" he asked his housemaster. "We're not allowed to visit anymore."
       "Who says you're not?" Snape growled, whirling angrily on the boy.
       "Mr. Weasley, sir," Malfoy replied, dropping his eyes humbly to the floor. But he smiled to himself when this news sent Snape storming from the room.
       Malfoy followed him all the way to the hospital wing, taking care to stay a safe distance behind. He stopped a few feet from the door and waited for arguing to break out inside the infirmary. Instead, there was only the low murmuring of one voice.
       He crept cautiously to the open door and peeked inside. There was Snape, hiding behind a screen, spying on Bill. The curse-breaker was holding an open book in one hand and swishing his wand over Michael's head with the other. He would read an incantation from the book, then repeat it over and over, varying each word slightly as he waved his wand doggedly over Michael's head. Occasionally he lifted a foot to rest it for a few moments on the frame of Michael's cot.
       Snape watched Bill's efforts for a long time. Then he stepped from behind the screen and cleared his throat.
       "Perhaps you're not allowing enough time after each repetition," he suggested.
       Bill whirled in Snape's direction, then scowled and slammed his book shut.
       "I don't need assistance from a potions master, Snape," he assured the intruder.
       "I'm merely pointing out," Snape went on, stepping closer to the cot to check on Michael, "that you might do better to focus on the child rather than the incantation."
       At first Bill could only stare. Then he shook his head with disgust. "I do not believe," he whispered coolly, "that you are lecturing me on how to work with children."
       Ron, you blabbermouth, Malfoy thought.
       "But then," Bill went on, "perhaps you feel qualified to instruct me because I'm functioning in an atypical environment. I'm not accustomed to working within the confines of a safe, snug school."
       Safe? Malfoy thought furiously. Safe?!
       "Perhaps," Snape replied, his voice sharpening, "you're not accustomed... to helping a child with a surname you find distasteful."
       Oops, Malfoy winced even as Bill snorted with laughter. "Well, you'd know, Severus!" he jeered, and Malfoy had to admit, Snape should have seen that one coming.
       Snape glanced briefly at Michael, then stepped closer to Bill. "I didn't send for you, Weasley," he hissed. "Albus Dumbledore sent for you."
       "And here I am," Bill smiled, shoving his hands comfortably into his pockets, "back at Hogwarts, where I'm still admired, still welcome, still remembered fondly..." He glanced about and his smile grew nasty. "...still surrounded by pleasant memories," he finished with a veiled viciousness that made Malfoy shiver.
       The Slytherin teenager instantly regretted provoking this private confrontation. Leave! he begged Snape silently in his head. Just leave!
       But Snape stood his ground though his face paled and his jaw twitched. "Just help the child," he whispered through lips that barely moved.
       "I am helping the child, Severus!" Bill snarled. "But it's a waste of my time and ability! There's a war on, in case you didn't know! I should be out there..." He pointed out one of the windows. "...helping the innocent people who are being tortured and slaughtered every day instead of here, helping a..."
       He broke off and Snape took a menacing step closer to him. "Helping a what?" the head of Slytherin demanded. Bill folded his arms across his chest.
       "Helping one unschooled child," he finished calmly.
       The two men glared at each other for several seconds. Then Madam Pomfrey, standing unnoticed beside Malfoy, muttered an indignant "Nonsense!" and the teenager nearly jumped out of his robe. The stern matron marched angrily past him into her hospital wing and Malfoy, his heart still racing, hurried to catch up with her. Snape spun around at the sound of their entry, then drew himself up to his full height.
       "I want my students permitted to visit this child," he announced, and Madam Pomfrey nodded.
       "I think that's a good idea," she agreed.
       Snape marched out of the wing without another word. Malfoy hesitated just a moment, then hurried after him. "Please, sir!" he called as he sprang into the corridor, and Snape stopped, his shoulders tensed, before turning around to face his student. Malfoy hurried to close the gap between them.
       "Please, sir," he began again, "couldn't you help Michael?" He watched as Snape looked away, then turned defeatedly back to him.
       "I'm not a curse-breaker, Malfoy," he replied. "It's a difficult skill. It takes talent." He shook his head as he finished. "Michael would die long before I could master it."
       He turned and walked away without another word. Malfoy stared after him, Bill's voice replaying in his head as he watched the potions master grow smaller and smaller. "Hogwarts...where I'm admired... remembered fondly... surrounded by pleasant memories."
       The boy turned cool gray eyes towards the hospital wing where Bill Weasley's voice could once again be heard repeating incantations over Michael's head. His mind churned as he listened. "Focus on the child," he murmured softly as Bill tried spell after spell. Then he smiled. "Good idea," he nodded to himself, a light coming into his eyes. "There's got to be a Slytherin in there somewhere." He thrust his hands into his pockets and began to whistle as he spun about and strolled cheerfully back to his house.
       And so it went. Day after day, while the Slytherins took turns spelling him in the hospital wing, Bill held court at meals, keeping a gaggle of aurors, staff and Gryffindors spellbound as he related uproarious tales about the good old days when the marauders held sway at Hogwarts. Hagrid was among those enjoying the festivities but Dumbledore and the heads of house refused to participate and Malfoy noticed that, more than once, McGonagall bypassed the clump of admirers to take a seat near Snape instead.
       Not all of the Gryffindors appreciated Bill's charismatic entertainment and its effects on Snape. As the visit wore on, Harry and his cronies became weary of the curse-breaker's jovial behavior. His loud stories about James and Sirius often made Harry flinch and occasionally Malfoy saw genuine pain in the eyes of Ron and Ginny. But Neville Longbottom and the younger Gryffindors couldn't get enough.
       He continued to insert himself into Lupin's Defense classes, demonstrating his own prowess while assuring the students that most of them were vastly superior in character to the posers, wannabes, and Hogwarts-come-lately's in their midst. Lupin always tried to send him from the room as quickly as politeness allowed but it was never soon enough to suit the Slytherins.
       They measured the effectiveness of his campaign in the increasing paleness of Snape's skin which was second in anemia only to Harry Potter's. "They're as white as new milk!" Millicent breathed of the twosome's wretched, woebegone faces, and a day or two later, " white as fresh snow!"
       "No need to panic," Malfoy assured his housemate the following Monday afternoon as they waited together in the common room, "until they're as white as Goyle's butt." He didn't tell the Slytherins, but on more than one occasion, he'd spotted the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs listening surreptitiously to Bill at meal times. He shuddered to think what behaviors they might be learning from the Gryffindor's stories and marveled at how Harry Potter was looking far more miserable these days than Malfoy had ever been able to make him look when they were younger.
       "You spent a week with them," Millicent reminded him now. "Why do the Weasleys hate Snape?"
       Malfoy shook his head. "It's not all of them," he insisted.
       "That's right!" Violet agreed. "I met Mrs. Weasley in Diagon Alley. She didn't seem to hate Snape."
       "The parents..." Malfoy hunted for the right words. "It's like they wish nobody would be mean to Snape. But the kids..."
       He laced his fingers behind his head and stretched his legs towards the common room fire. "What you have to remember about Bill Weasley," he told his housemates, "is that he probably knew Snape as both a student and a master. He would have been, what, a first or second year? impressionable little Gryffindor swot...right about the time the marauders were reaching their zenith, painting Snape as the most contemptible student in school. Then..." He hugged his legs to his chest and rested his chin on his knees. "He would have been coming into his own glory, a Gryffindor prefect and Head Boy, just as Snape was returning to Hogwarts and beginning to teach under the blackest cloud of suspicion imaginable."
       He gave Millicent a shrewd lift of his eyebrows. "Bill Weasley must have the darkest opinion of Snape it's possible to hold," he concluded, "and he's the oldest, most influential sibling."
       "But Ron and Ginny don't seem to..."
       Millicent's response was cut short by the opening of the common room door. Pansy slipped eagerly into the room, clutching a bundle beneath her robe. "Got it!" she announced, and the Slytherins hurried to gather around her, admiring her acquisitions before they headed out the door to visit Michael.
       "Isn't he rather... cute?... for a Slytherin?" Violet asked a short while later as she and her housemates crowded around Michael's cot. It was almost 5:30. Hermione Granger was sitting on a bunk a few cots away, speaking earnestly to Bill, who would soon depart for dinner in the Great Hall, leaving the Slytherins to watch over Michael until Madam Pomfrey returned from her meal.
       "What the devil are you talking about?" Malfoy asked, his eyes on Hermione and Bill.
       "Bletch!" Violet insisted, gesturing at the sweet-faced, sleeping youngster. He was, indeed, quite appealing to look at, but that was hardly surprising; his older brother had been the handsomest Slytherin to grace the house in years. "He looks like Mark Lester!" Violet pointed out.
       "Who is Mark Lester?"
       The question disgusted Violet. "Oliver!" she cried to the peasants surrounding her. Her housemates, even half-muggle Millicent, could only stare blankly and Violet sighed with frustration. "It's a musical," she explained. "You know... 'Consider yourself... at home!'" she began to sing. Malfoy rolled his eyes and clamped a hand over her mouth.
       "You and your muggle cinema," he snorted. But Millicent looked surprised.
       "They showed you Oliver! in a London orphanage?"
       Violet gave her an impish grin. "Please, sir," she implored in a squeaky little voice, "I want some more!"
       Several feet away, Hermione Granger began to giggle. The Slytherins looked up suspiciously.
       "Looks can be deceiving," Malfoy muttered as the Gryffindors rose to leave. The Slytherins watched them go, listening hard to the sound of their retreating footsteps. They were so focused on the empty doorway and the diminishing sounds of Bill's and Hermione's progress down the corridor that they all jumped when a voice beside them murmured, "Please, sir, I want some more!"
       "Bletch!" Malfoy snapped, giving Michael a light cuff upside the head as his housemates giggled over the start he'd given them. "Never talk until we say it's safe!"
       Michael just reached for the food in Pansy's hands and began munching on it while Tracey attended to his bedpan.
       "Don't forget the impedementia odiferous charm," Malfoy reminded her.
       "Have I ever forgotten the impedementia odiferous charm?" Tracey demanded. "Do you have any reason to think I'd forget the impedementia odiferous charm?"
       The Slytherins considered it a sign that God was on their side when hours of whispering "Don't let Bill see you wake up!" had paid off and Michael had successfully hidden his return to consciousness from Bill. The impedimentia odiferous charm was working nicely, too; no smells emanated from Michael's bedpan whatsoever. How Michael managed to hide his use of the device or keep its contents from spilling, Malfoy didn't want to know. He decided to ignore Tracey's sullen inquiries, too.
       "Has Madam Pomfrey said anything about your condition?" he asked Michael instead. The boy shook his head and kept right on eating.
       "I suppose you should be dead by now," Malfoy admitted. They weren't feeding Michael much, but his failure to shrink was obvious nevertheless.
       "Not to mention," Millicent added, "the possibility that Bill might catch on."
       Malfoy shook his head. "We need more milking time," he insisted. "Besides, the timing isn't quite right." He took a piece of bread from Pansy and held it out for Michael. "Bletch will be fine," he assured the Slytherins as Michael snatched the bread from him with his teeth, giving the hand that was feeding him a good nip in the process.
       Violet was standing outside Snape's office when he returned from a late dinner that evening. Hoping he wouldn't scold her for waiting alone, she smiled sweetly and asked, "May I please speak with you, sir?" He nodded so willingly that she wondered if he was glad there was someone he could be of assistance to these days.
       When she was comfortably seated in her usual chair, she folded her hands in her lap and asked, "Did you teach my mother, sir?"
       The question surprised Snape. He furrowed his brow, but before he could respond, she added, "Malfoy said you probably taught Bill Weasley. Isn't he about my mother's age?"
       Snape hesitated, then nodded. Then he informed Violet, "Your mother did not attend Hogwarts."
       His answer did not please Violet. She scowled and folded her arms across her chest, muttering something to the effect that if families like the Weasleys wouldn't have so many children, maybe there'd be more room at Hogwarts for...
       "Miss Guilford," Snape interrupted her, "your mother would not have attended Hogwarts no matter how many children the Weasleys had. The Dark Lord had no body; he would not have dared to attack a Hogwarts alumnae in his condition. Your mother was destined to be..."
       He stopped, reminding Violet of their fight last year when he'd nearly said aloud that she had a great deal in common with her father. "Be what, sir?" she demanded indignantly. Snape frowned at her impertinence but finished tactfully,
       "...informally educated."
       Violet's temper was not appeased. She cast about for some other venue for her frustration, then asked abruptly, "You people don't have orphanages, do you?"
       "'You people'?" Snape quoted with a dubious lift of his eyebrows. Violet ignored the correction.
       "The wizarding world," she went on as if Snape had not understood. "Harry Potter was raised by the Dursleys, my father grew up in a muggle orphanage and so did I... How come you people don't have orphanages?" She cocked her head to one side and added, "You're going to need them, aren't you, sir?"
       It suddenly occurred to Snape that, if he recovered and got sorted into Slytherin, Michael Bletchley would make 22.
       "I've never given the matter much thought," he confessed before dismissing Violet and ordering her back to her common room.
       That night he dreamed he was back at the convent. But this time he was full-grown and helping Mother Superior care for scores of troublesome, dark-eyed, iron-willed little boys.
       On Wednesday, Bill dropped by Potions class unannounced to borrow a few ingredients commonly used in Mandrake restorative draft... and within moments of his departure, Neville's advanced boil cure potion (for treating infected or chronically oozing wounds) suddenly erupted, flying magically across the room to douse Snape from head to toe. Burning, blistering sores broke out across his face, hands and neck. Enraged and humiliated, an agonized Snape ordered the students out of the room, slamming the door behind them.
       Neville laughed all the way to the stairs but the Slytherins and Hermione Granger refused to leave the dungeon. Instead, Malfoy reached out slowly to take hold of the knob to the potions classroom door, warning Hermione in a whisper, "He'll cane us if he catches us." Hermione nodded and Malfoy opened the door just a crack. The others crowded around him to peek inside.
       Moaning with pain as he grasped bottles and measured out ingredients with blistered hands, Snape was nevertheless quickly brewing his own cauldron full of boil cure potion. As soon as it was ready he began dabbing it on his afflicted skin, wincing as he applied the still-hot potion with a sponge.
       Hermione took Malfoy's arm and pulled him away from the door. The rest of the Slytherins followed them further down the corridor. "I'm telling," she announced. "I'm telling Professor McGonagall about Bill and Neville."
       Malfoy shook his head. "I don't think Snape would want you to," he insisted. "I think he wants..." He hesitated. "I think he would prefer that McGonagall focus on... other concerns."
       Hermione frowned, then nodded. "Harry," she murmured, and Malfoy wanted to ask her just how bad things were for his Gryffindor peer, but his anger at Bill and Neville would not permit it. Instead, he just nodded.
       Hermione stamped her foot with frustration. "Isn't it stupid..." she began, then broke off with a sigh. Malfoy nodded again and together the sixth years turned and walked down the hallway, climbing the stairs to head for their next class.
       When they'd gone, Harry Potter slipped out from under the stairs and walked quietly back to the potions classroom. He hesitated at the door, peeking through the crack to watch Snape fumbling with the sponge as he tried to apply his boil cure potion to the back of his head and neck. After a few moments, Harry pushed the door open and walked into the room.
       Snape spun around and froze at the sight of him. But Harry just walked up to the teacher, took the sponge from his hand, and carefully applied the potion to the back of Snape's head and neck. The potions master sagged with relief as the pain subsided. When he was finished, Harry put the sponge down. Then he shook his head at Snape and whispered, "I can't think what to say to Bill."
       Snape stared at the boy for a long time. Then he nodded and replied, "I can't think what to say to the students."
       They stood side by side, Harry toying with the sponge, Snape resisting the urge to tell him to stop. Then the teacher walked to the nearest wall and slumped against it, sliding all the way down to sit dejectedly on the cold stone floor. Just as he expected, Harry soon joined him, and this time, Snape had no desire whatsoever to box the boy's ears. Instead, he just sat quietly beside him until a question crossed his mind. "Can you think what to say to Longbottom?" he asked the teenager with faint hope.
       Harry shook his head. Snape watched him for a long time and Harry wondered if the man was considering putting an arm around his shoulders. He was pretty sure he wouldn't mind if the teacher did. But instead, Snape just gave him a nudge and murmured, "You're too thin, Potter. Try to eat more."
       It was enough.
       At 5:30, Violet, Warrington, Crabbe and Goyle entered the hospital wing to visit Michael, allowing Bill to head to the Great Hall for dinner. "Would you ask Madam Pomfrey to hurry, please?" Violet called after him. "We're starving."
       Bill made no response and when the Slytherins were sure he was safely gone, Warrington lifted the covers on Michael's cot and hissed, "Let's go!" Crabbe and Goyle helped the wobbly youngster out of bed and supported him on either side as the Slytherins hustled him out of the room.
       Marybeth was sitting on a bench just outside the doors to the Great Hall when Bill approached but they paid each other no mind. The curse-breaker entered the dining room and strode purposefully to the head table, pausing at Madam Pomfrey's place long enough to inform her, "The Slytherins are waiting on you," before sitting down at his own place of honor. Dumbledore smiled graciously at him, then returned to his conversation with Professor McGonagall.
       Madam Pomfrey finished her dinner quickly and hurried from the hall, only to find Marybeth sitting outside with her head between her knees, whimpering.
       "Why, whatever is the matter, dear?"
       "I'm feeling a little faint, Madam Pomfrey," said Marybeth in her most fragile lisp. "Would you please walk me back to my cell and sit with me for a while?"
       From their seats on the Slytherin bench, Malfoy, Millicent, and Tracey leaned back and craned their necks just far enough to see Madam Pomfrey put a comforting arm around Marybeth before steering her across the entryway towards the staircase to the dungeon. Then they grinned at one another and returned to picking carefully at their suppers, keeping pace with Bill Weasley as he enjoyed his own meal.
       In the dungeon, Pansy listened carefully through Snape's open office door for the sound of Marybeth returning to the common room. Once she heard the door close behind the second year and the nurse, she glanced surreptitiously at Snape's office clock and calculated approximately how much longer she would have to detain him to ensure his presence in the Great Hall for the grand finale.
       "I realize that Defense is the most pressing subject these days, sir," she nodded, "but I don't think you've considered all the benefits that an Iron Potions Chef club has to offer."
       Snape groaned and rubbed his temples.
       A few minutes later, Bill finished his dinner and headed back to the hospital wing, never noticing the three students from Salazar's house slithering along behind him. They gave him just enough time to enter the room, find it deserted, and rush to Michael's empty cot before sauntering in themselves. Then they froze in a well-rehearsed tableau.
       "WHERE'S BLETCH!?" Malfoy shouted furiously as Bill spun around to face them. He opened his mouth to reply but before he could speak Millicent snarled, "What have you DONE with him?!" Tracey glared menacingly at her side.
       They could see the wheels turning in Bill's mind as he looked frantically around the hospital wing. Careful not to give him too much time to think, Malfoy turned on his heel, announcing, "I'm going to tell Professor Snape!"
       "Wait!" Bill cried, taking a few desperate steps towards them. He stopped as a thought occurred to him, then began tentatively, "He must have come out of it. He must have finally come out of it... and gone looking for help!"
       Malfoy waited for the light of triumph to fill Bill's face so he could quash it. "In his weakened condition?" the boy jeered. "How could he possibly walk? Unless... unless..."
       "Unless he's still under someone else's control," Tracey finished neatly.
       Bill paled and Millicent took a furious step forward and shoved him in the stomach. "Why was he alone?" she demanded. "Where's Madam Pomfrey?"
       Before Bill could reprimand Millicent, Tracey spoke again, her face as cold as her voice. "Maybe they're together," she suggested. "Maybe he hurt her!"
       Bill paled even more at the thought and Malfoy nodded shrewdly. "You're responsible for him," he reminded the curse-breaker.
       The Slytherins kept their faces carefully stony while they waited for Bill to reach the only possible conclusion: If the boy had regained consciousness, Madam Pomfrey would not have left him except perhaps to bring him to the Great Hall where Bill and Dumbledore had just been eating dinner... and Bill had not passed her on his way back to the hospital wing. That left only one possibility.
       "Draw your wands!" Bill barked at the Slytherins.
       "You mean our glow sticks?" Malfoy drawled as the Slytherins reached insolently into their pockets. Bill flushed but recovered quickly.
       "Impress me," he hissed at Malfoy. "You two, be on guard," he added to the girls.
       "Piece of cake," Malfoy assured him as he illuminated his wand and tweaked it to orchid. "Michael's the only barefoot human in the castle."
       They clumped together, forcing Bill behind them as they tracked Michael's footprints. They made their way down to the second floor, then stopped short as if they'd just realized something horrible.
       "Oh, no!" Malfoy breathed.
       "What?" Bill asked frantically.
       "The trail," Tracey told him. "It's leading right to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom."
       Millicent nodded solemnly. "The Chamber of Secrets," she whispered.
       Bill didn't even hesitate. He took off at a sprint and the three Slytherins exchanged brief grins before hurrying after him. They burst into the lavatory just a few steps behind the curse breaker, who was leaning over the open pipe to the Chamber of Secrets. "Listen!" he hissed at them, and they drew near and strained their ears to catch the faint sound of Michael crying from below, "Help! Someone help me!"
       "Go get help!" Bill snarled at the Slytherins as he drew his own wand and jumped into the pipe. But instead of rushing into the corridor, Malfoy sauntered into a nearby stall and grabbed a spool of rope that was securely tied to one of the toilets where Myrtle sat morosely taking it all in. He gave her a wink, then began to uncoil the rope on his way back to the pipe. Tracey and Millicent were giggling with delight at the sound of a loud splash from below.
       "WHAT THE HELL?" came Bill's angry roar, followed by some sloshing sounds and a confused "Violet? Is that you? What do you think you're doing?" There was a scrunching noise, then Violet's sweet voice called out the fur spell incantation right before she shouted "Go, go, go!" up the pipe.
       Malfoy threw down the rope and Violet shouted again. Then the three Slytherins pulled her back into the bathroom as quickly as they could while Bill hollered repeatedly, "Get back here, you brat!" As soon as Violet's feet hit solid ground, she raced for the lavatory door, only to stop short when Malfoy hissed, "The evidence!"
       "Oh, yeah!" Violet reached into her pocket and withdrew a candle that held Michael's voice recorded in the wax like an old muggle phonograph record. She thrust it into the nearest torch holder and pointed her wand at it and the candle immediately began to spin, playing back Michael's frantic cries for help. "No, no, no!" Violet cried, shaking the wand violently as she scolded it. She pointed again, hissing the appropriate incantation, and the candle burst into flame, burning merrily as it began to melt the evidence.
       From the bottom of the pipe, the Slytherins could hear Bill shouting scourgify spells at himself. Malfoy folded his arms and leaned against the top of the pipe, drawling loudly, "Try it in three days!" Then he tossed the rope back down the pipe and the Slytherins hurried out of the bathroom and raced for the Great Hall as fast as they could go.
       They found Warrington, Crabbe and Goyle standing proudly beside Snape at the head table as all eyes watched Professor McGonagall lower the Sorting Hat over Michael Bletchley's head. She stopped when she saw the Slytherins in the doorway and smiled warmly at them, waiting for them to take their seats at their house table before proceeding. She had just started to lower the hat again when Bill Weasley burst into the hall, gasping and breathing heavily. He was covered in stinksap and a thick layer of fur. A wolf-like snout was jammed on his nose.
       A hush fell over the hall as the citizens of Hogwarts stared at the bizarre creature in the doorway. McGonagall's outstretched arm dangled the Sorting Hat in mid-air; eventually she snapped her mouth shut (it had unconsciously dropped open) and turned in confusion to the head table, noticing in the process that young Michael Bletchely had an odd little smile on his face.
       "Bill?" Dumbledore called uncertainly. But the enraged curse-breaker made no response. He was staring dumbfounded at the child on the sorting stool and Malfoy would have given a thousand galleons to be able to read his mind at that moment. Dumbledore leaned slightly closer to the nearest staff member and whispered, "What is he supposed to be, exactly?"
       "I believe," called Remus Lupin mildly, "that he is a werewolf."
       A shocked silence followed this observation. Then Severus Snape burst out laughing. He laughed so hard he choked and had to put his head down on the table, even as he pounded his fist with mirth against its solid surface. The rest of Hogwarts' citizens, even Ron and Ginny, soon joined him, pointing and clapping and laughing heartily. Only Neville Longbottom and the sweetly-smiling Michael remained silent.
       "Of course," Lupin added loudly, "I never smelled quite THAT gamey!" The crowd laughed even harder.
       Bill just stood there, saying nothing. "Come, come," Dumbledore cried, waving him into the room. "Tell us what you've been up to! We understand congratulations are in order! But please, if you wouldn't mind, scourgify yourself first!"
       "He can't, sir," said Michael, climbing off the stool, and everybody quieted down immediately. "He did it for me, you see." All eyes watched as the soft-spoken child walked around the head table and right up to Albus Dumbledore. "Professor Snape told Mr. Weasley to focus on the child," he explained as he gazed into the kindly wizard's face, "so Mr. Weasley decided to try and scare me out of the curse. And it worked!" he nodded happily. "But the only way he could make his appearance fearsome enough..." Michael turned adoring eyes towards Bill. "...was to strengthen the stinksap so it would hold more fur." He turned back to Dumbledore. "Mr. Weasley says it won't be removable for three days," he explained, "but he insists it was worth it in the end."
       Dumbledore beamed and put an arm around Michael, drawing him close. "And so it was!" he cried, and the hall burst into applause again for the selfless curse-breaker. Even Snape applauded, though his claps were somewhat slow, as if his thoughts were elsewhere, and he gazed at the Slytherins beside him and those seated at the house table through narrowed eyes. They just smiled and waved back.
       "Well, I think we can keep you comfortable for three days," Dumbledore promised Bill even as his eyes began to water from the stench of the stinksap. "You don't mind if we put you someplace a bit isolated, do you?"
       "How about the Shrieking Shack?" called Malfoy, and the crowd burst out laughing. Snape's eyes narrowed even more... until he spotted Minerva McGonagall looking at him with her own dawning suspicions. Quickly he wiped his own expression clean.
       "No, thank you, Headmaster," replied Bill in a voice that was oddly surly. "My work here is done. I'd just as soon find my own accommodations for my... confinement."
       He left to go pack his things and Professor McGonagall summoned Michael back to the sorting stool. She placed the hat on his head and stepped aside. The hat opened its rip and had just begun to pronounce, "Rav..." when a volley of spellwads blasted it right off Michael's head and knocked it to the floor, burning several small holes in its brim. "I'm hit!" the hat cried as Professor McGonagall rushed to gather the ancient garment in her arms and bring it to Dumbledore. No one saw where the volley had come from; they'd all been watching the hat and Michael at the time.
       "There, there," Dumbledore soothed. "Quickly mended, I'm sure." He turned to Snape and suggested, "Since your census is down a bit, Severus, why don't we just make the boy a Slytherin?"
       "Certainly, Headmaster," Snape agreed. And for a house so few in number, the Slytherins cheered more loudly at this decision than any group of students had cheered for a sorting in the history of Hogwarts.
       The weather continued to improve and soon Dumbledore was asking the heads of house to supervise 'play time,' as he cheerfully called it, in the afternoon sunshine. No flying was permitted but the students reveled in the opportunity to soak their bones in the sunshine that flooded the lawns outside the front door to the castle.
       Several Slytherins were sitting on the front steps playing the cup game one warm afternoon when an altercation broke out between a group of Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors several feet away. The Slytherins couldn't make out what was being said, but Ron Weasley looked ready to punch Justin Finch-Fletchley before Harry Potter stepped between them. He stood there until Professor Flitwick arrived, then turned to march angrily towards the castle. Ron and Hermione promptly followed him but Harry whirled on them and shouted, leaving the two Gryffindors standing helplessly as he hurried through the crowd of Slytherins and into the castle.
       Perfect, Violet thought to herself, scrambling to her feet to follow the wounded sixth year inside. Her recent visit to the Chamber of Secrets had given her an idea and she'd been waiting for a moment like this ever since. She caught Harry at the bottom of the staircase and pulled him to the corner where she'd hidden with Snape last June.
       "Listen," she whispered urgently, "you and I are the only two people at Hogwarts who can open the Chamber of Secrets, right?"
       Harry nodded, struggling to be patient with the youngster when what he really wanted was to be alone.
       "Well, what if the two of us went down there and just... stayed until we died? Wouldn't that kill Voldemort?"
       Harry stared at her, his green eyes opening wide. His mouth opened, too, but no sound came out.
       "He has to defeat you or die, right?"
       Harry screwed his eyes shut and shook his head as if trying to shake water out of his ears. "Fawkes got in," was all he could think to say.
       "Because you sent for him," Violet reminded him, "by calling on Albus Dumbledore. I'd be down there to make sure you didn't do that this time."
       Harry just shook his head again, more slowly than before. "Why?" he finally asked. "Why would you be willing to do such a thing?"
       Violet smiled indulgently at him. "I have to go with you," she explained. "Otherwise Snape will figure out where you are and make me open the entrance. Besides, you should have company, don't you think?"
       Reasons why it wouldn't work flooded Harry's mind. If they disappeared together, everyone would know where they'd gone, and there were no doubt parseltongues beyond the grounds of Hogwarts who could be sent for. Besides, what if Voldemort invaded the castle in an attempt to reach him? How would that save lives? But he was spared having to argue with the child when Snape's head and shoulders suddenly appeared around the corner.
       "Professor Snape," he corrected Violet icily just before he grabbed her by the collar and yanked her off her feet. He paused long enough to ask Harry, "Do I need to bring you along as well?"
       "No, sir."
       "You're certain?"
       "Yes, sir!"
       Then he hauled Violet down to the dungeon and into his office. She didn't bother scrambling with her feet this time, and Snape didn't bother setting her down beside his desk. He bent her over it and held her there, summoning his cane as he snarled, "It was a stupid idea! Say it!"
       "It was a stupid idea," Violet sighed through gritted teeth, her cheek pressed tight against the desktop.
       "Mean it," Snape advised, "or I'll make you say it more than six more times." And he gave her a stinging lick with the switch.
       "Ow!" Violet gasped. "It was a stupid idea!" Five strokes later, she was shouting so loudly that Malfoy turned to Goyle on the front steps and asked, "What was a stupid idea?" But she still had a belligerent little frown on her face when Snape lifted her off the desk and set her down in front of him. He let her stand there a moment, rubbing her sore backside and thinking it over, before he leaned down and hissed, "Together, we can do better. Do you understand?"
       Violet paused in mid-rub. She furrowed her brow and thought hard. Then she smiled and folded her arms triumphantly across her chest as she nodded. "It's like Malfoy said," she told her housemaster. "'Nobody else dies.'"
       Snape considered the response, then nodded himself. "Close enough," he conceded. "You may go."
       She rubbed her backside all the way to the door and Snape, watching her go, couldn't help smiling to himself as he imagined her shut away in the Chamber of Secrets with Harry Potter, slowly driving the Gryffindor right back up the pipe with her chatter. But when she opened the door to let herself out of the office, there was Harry Potter, leaning against the frame, smiling rather insolently at Snape. "Thanks for thinking it was a stupid idea!" he called, and Snape stormed over to the door and slammed it shut, accidentally banging Violet in the butt in the process.
       "Ow!" she hissed, scowling at Harry.
       "Sorry!" he smiled, and then, "All right?"
       Violet nodded and set off to rejoin her housemates on the castle's front stoop. But Harry caught up to her and grabbed her by the arm. "You're not upset?" he asked the young Slytherin.
       The question confused Violet. She looked Harry up and down, trying to discern from his face and body language what he meant.
       "No!" she said defensively. "I'm twelve, Potter. It's not the end of the world to have a stupid idea occasionally when you're 12. I don't expect myself to be as smart as Sna..." She stopped, glancing nervously over her shoulder, then giggled at her cautiousness. "As Snape," she whispered with a smile.
       Harry shook his head. "I meant... aren't you upset that your head of house punished you when you were only trying to help?"
       The question reminded Violet of her conversation with Snape last fall about the difference between Slytherins and Gryffindors. 'Difficult,' he had said of Potter's situation, and he had recommended tolerance. But surely he hadn't meant that she had to put up with this kind of nonsense. "That's not why he spanked me and you know it," she chided, tilting her head to add, "You're never going to get anywhere, Potter, if you keep refusing to acknowledge..."
       She broke off abruptly, her eyes growing wide. Harry looked quickly behind him to see if something frightening was coming down the corridor. There was nothing there. He turned back to Violet to find she'd thrown a hand over her mouth and was now exclaiming excitedly, "Oh! OH!"
       "What's the matter with you?" Harry demanded as the youngster began to jump up up and down. She made no response but instead darted away down the corridor, pausing long enough at the door to her common room to call back, "Sometimes, I am as smart as Snape!" before whispering the password and hurrying inside.
       A short while later, she came barreling out the front door ("Hey!" Malfoy snarled as she crashed through the Slytherin cup game), a piece of parchment clutched in her hand. She ran straight for a group of Gryffindors, bursting into the center of them to stand huffing and puffing. "Neville!" she cried between gasps for breath. "Can I talk to you?"
       Without waiting for an answer, she took him by the sleeve and pulled him to an empty patch of lawn. Then she turned to face him only to find him frowning menacingly at her. On the steps to the front door, the Slytherins climbed to their feet and watched the proceedings warily. But Violet just smiled.
       "I have something for you," she told the older student. "Snape made it, and it's very important to me, but I want you to have it."
       She held out the piece of parchment and, after a brief hesitation, Neville took it.
       "He wrote it after Halloween my first year, when I found out about my dad."
       Neville nodded. "'Bastards do not bear their father's names,'" he recalled her punishment in the Great Hall.
       "After I finished writing the lines," Violet explained, "the Baron sent me to Snape's office, and he gave me that parchment. He wanted me to have a list of all the people Voldemort has hurt so I would remember to be more considerate about how I handled my own feelings."
       Neville snorted but Violet ignored him. She grabbed the parchment and unrolled it. "Look, Neville!" she cried, forcing the ends into his hands so she could point out his name. "You're at the top of the list! Ahead of Cedric Diggory... ahead of Harry Potter. You're the first person he thought of!"
       Neville stared at the spidery writing, an odd mix of emotions playing on his face. Violet watched him for a while, then patted one of his hands. "Take care of it for me, okay?" she asked. Then she turned smartly on her heel and marched across the lawn, up the steps past the Slytherins, and back into the castle.
       She was alone in her cell that evening, lying on her belly reading, when Snape suddenly appeared in the doorway with a torn piece of parchment in his hands. Violet sprang to her feet, gazing curiously at her housemaster's inscrutable face. It wasn't often that he visited the cells. "Good evening, sir," she greeted him politely.
       "Neville Longbottom sends his thanks," Snape informed her. He held out the torn piece of parchment and added, "He thought you might like this half back."
       Violet took the ripped list from Snape's hand and saw that Neville had returned the portion with her name on it... and Snape's. "Miss Guilford," her housemaster professed, nodding at the piece of parchment, "that... was a brilliant idea."
       He swept from the room without waiting for a response, which was just as well, because Violet was so pleased she couldn't speak. It was a fine thing, she decided, to be a part of the tradition of first steps.
       With Bill gone and Neville prepared to accept bygones, the Slytherins were free to focus on Michael, which they did with such devotion that they barely noticed the escalating suffering of Harry Potter. But Lupin noticed. On Sunday, May 18, the night before Snape's week of Defense lessons, his concern for the boy drove him to the dungeon; he was not going to retreat for a week without first putting his substitute on guard. He found the potions master casting ineffective spells on small animals caged on his desk.
       "What are you working on?" he asked politely as he stepped into the office.
       "None of your business, Lupin," Snape muttered over his shoulder. "What do you want?"
       "I wanted to talk to you about Harry Potter."
       Snape lowered his wand and turned to Lupin, a bemused expression on his face.
       "What is it?" Remus asked.
       Snape shook his head with a little smile. "There was a time," he confessed, "when I'd thought to talk you about Harry Potter, but..."
       Snape scowled. "Something came up."
       Lupin crossed to Snape's desk and hopped up to sit on it. The cat in the nearest cage stretched out its arm between the bars and took a few useless swipes at his robe. Snape raised an eyebrow and smiled unpleasantly at him.
       "You have experience in this area, Lupin," he reminded the former marauder. "What's your advice? From an aggressor's point of view?"
       Lupin scowled right back. "It's not his fault he's in this position!" he insisted.
       "It's not our fault," Snape retorted, taking the students' point of view, "that Gryffindors provoke Voldemorts."
       Lupin gasped. "Is that what they think?"
       "I'm not saying they're right," Snape responded with a noncommittal shrug.
       Lupin shook his head and tried again. "It's foolish to bite the hand that will defend you," he suggested.
       "His is the only life on the line," Snape retorted.
       "He's never done a thing to you!"
       "He's never done a thing for us."
       Lupin's mouth dropped open, and for a moment, Snape was reminded of Harry Potter, trying to think of good things Sirius Black had done. "The... the basilisk!" Lupin sputtered.
       "For Ginny Weasley," Snape reminded him.
       "His battle with..."
       "For Sirius," Snape interrupted, enjoying immensely the annoyance this caused. "Or did you mean the one to save me?"
       Lupin sighed with disgust. "I see you've given this some thought," he murmured, abandoning the exercise. He picked up a stone grasshopper perched on Snape's desk and began to toy with it, muttering, "Let's talk about something else." Snape nodded and took the grasshopper back, tucking it into his pocket. Lupin smiled at him.
       "Where did you get a stone grasshopper?" he asked.
       Snape hesitated before replying, "I made it."
       Lupin's mouth dropped open again. "You turned a grasshopper to stone?" he gasped. "Can you turn it back again?" Snape smiled archly and Lupin shook his head. "Show me," he demanded, his disbelief apparent in his tone. He pointed to the cat in the cage. "Show me," he said again.
       Snape sneered and turned away. "What's the matter?" Lupin asked, and Snape turned back to him with a sigh and confessed, "I can't transform the cat. I can't transform anything bigger than an insect or a spider. And I can't figure out why not!"
       "Show me," said Lupin for the third time as he climbed off the desk. "Maybe I can help."
       Snape sneered again. "No, thank you, Lupin," he hissed. "I'm sure I'll get it eventually."
       "Severus," Lupin reminded his colleague gently, "Voldemort has the prophecy."
       That gave Snape pause. He rolled his eyes but nodded nevertheless. "Last year," he told Lupin, "during the siege, I had to... I was forced to...' He broke off and Lupin waited patiently for him to continue. "If the battle takes place at Hogwarts..." he began again. Then he took a deep breath and reached into his pocket, withdrawing the stone grasshopper which he set down carefully on his desktop. "If I can turn a man to stone," he whispered, stroking the insect's wings, "he can't do magic, he can't escape, and he can't be carried away by his accomplices. He'd be too heavy for anyone but Dumbledore or Voldemort to levitate!"
       "It's brilliant," Lupin agreed.
       Snape took a step back and suddenly swished his wand in front of him, crying, "Deliquescious!" as he pointed the ebony tip at the grasshopper. There was a brief sucking sound and the grasshopper returned to its original state, hopping happily around the desk until the cat snatched it up and ate it. Snape reached absently through the bars of the cage to scratch the cat behind the ears, lost in thought. Lupin watched him for a while, then said quietly,
       "Let's see the spell for stoning."
       Snape nodded. He stepped back from the desk, raised his wand, pointed it straight at the cat and cried, "Adamantiate!"
       The cat blinked and swished its tail. Lupin climbed off the desk and came to stand beside Snape, staring intently at the cat.
       "What if you said it louder?" he suggested, never taking his eyes off the feline. Snape rolled his eyes again but repeated the incantation more loudly anyway. Nothing happened and Snape lowered his wand. Lupin drew his own and held it out before him. Then he rotated his wrist 180 degrees.
       "What about underhanded?" he wondered.
       "I've tried that," Snape replied curtly.
       "Well, how about both hands on the wand?"
       "I've tried that!" Snape shouted. "Don't you think I've tried that?!"
       "Don't yell at me!" Lupin shouted right back. He pointed his wand squarely at the cat and yelled, "Adamantiate!" Nothing. Snape snorted. "Adamantiate! Adamantiate!" Lupin hollered, making chopping motions with his wand.
       "Oh, stop, you look ridiculous," Snape chided.
       "Don't tell me what to do!" Lupin snarled.
       "Don't tell me how to cast a spell!" Snape snarled right back.
       "Adamantiate!" Lupin cried again.
       "Adamantiate!" Snape shouted, pointing his wand at the cat again.
       "ADAMANTIATE!" both wizards shouted in accidental unison, and at precisely that moment, Dobby popped into the room in front of them... and turned to stone.
       The wizards gasped. Lupin clamped a hand over his mouth and Snape's eyes flew open wide. Slowly they lowered their wands, then crept cautiously forward to examine the stone elf. They peered into his face. Lupin laid a hand on his chest as if to check for respiration while Snape knocked on his little round head. Dobby made no response. Convinced that they had indeed turned the elf to stone, the two wizards backed away and stood gazing at him in wonder. Then Lupin turned to Snape and whispered,
       Snape nodded. "It takes two," he whispered back.
       They stared solemnly at one another. Then Snape's lips began to twitch. "Centuries," he whispered. "The single... most important... incredible... fantastic... stupendous... advancement in Defense technique..." He threw his hands triumphantly over his head. "IN CENTURIES!" he shouted, and Lupin let out a mighty whoop. "YAHOO!" he hollered. "YAHOO, YAHOO, YAHOO!" Snape began to cackle with laughter and the two men threw their arms around each other and jumped up and down as they whooped and hollered for joy. "We're BRILLIANT!" Lupin shouted. "We're BRILLIANT, we're BRILLIANT, we're BRILLIANT!"
       Then they remembered who they were and pulled abruptly apart, Snape particularly abashed to have been carrying on so. They cleared their throats and tugged vigorously at their robes to straighten them until a voice from down the hall froze them as stiff as Dobby the stone house elf.
       It was Minerva, making her way down the corridor to the potions master's office. "You left the door open!" Snape hissed at Lupin, mortified to think she'd overheard their raucous behavior.
       "Never mind THAT!" Lupin hissed back. He pointed frantically at Dobby. "Tell me the counterspell again!"
       The thought of what the deputy headmistress would do to them if she found Dobby in this state made Snape flinch. "Deliquescious!" he squeaked to Lupin, glancing frantically at the still-empty doorway. "On three! One, two, three.."
       "DELIQUESCIOUS!" the wizards hissed together as loudly as they dared. Dobby returned to his normal state and stood blinking in confusion as Minerva appeared in the doorway. The two men whirled around to face her and Snape experienced a weird moment of deja vu as he stood side by side with Lupin trying to look innocent.
       "What have you two been doing?" Minerva asked as Dobby wobbled silently past her out of the room. "You look as if butter wouldn't melt!" She marched up to them with her hands on her hips but was cheated of an explanation by the immediate arrival of Albus Dumbledore.
       "Oh, good!" he cried, sticking his head into Snape's office. "You're all here!" He smiled warmly and stepped inside. "Do something about Potter," he suggested pleasantly as Minerva turned around to face him, "or I'll sack the lot of you." With that, he strolled right back out of the office, hands clasped behind his back, humming cheerfully to himself. Minerva stared at the empty doorway for a few moments, then turned sternly to Lupin and Snape.
       "Any ideas?" Snape asked her.
       Minerva nodded. "Beat them," she said without a moment's hesitation. "All of them."
       Snape couldn't help but grin. "Is that what you came down here to tell me?" he wondered.
       "Mercilessly," Minerva added, ignoring the question. Snape shook his head at her.
       "I can't do that, Minerva," he informed her.
       She frowned and folded her arms across her chest. "I'll hold Sprout and Flitwick back," she insisted. Lupin chuckled, but Snape just shook his head.
       "Spanking doesn't work," he explained, "on those who have no shame."
       By Friday afternoon, he was willing to try it anyway, or at least to bang the students' heads together. "Imbeciles!" he screamed at the sixth years. "What is the MATTER with you?!"
       For the first time, he had failed to achieve his goals during his week of Defense classes and the pain was unbearable, to say nothing of what he'd suffered to bring them the lessons in the first place.
       Lupin had insisted on an emergency meeting with Dumbledore Sunday night before agreeing to permit Snape to teach stoning and the headmaster had given Snape a severe talking-to. "I realize the incident with Dobby was an accident," Dumbledore had scolded, "but that does not excuse your efforts with the cat, Severus. You are well aware of the Ministry's regulations on experimentation."
       Stupid vertebrate mammal policy, Snape had thought. They could care less what you do to snakes. He'd considered reminding Dumbledore that Voldemort had the prophecy, but had thought better of it. In the end, the headmaster's affection for Harry Potter had won out and Dumbledore had agreed to the lessons, albeit only after Madam Pomfrey had conducted an extensive examination of Dobby and pronounced him entirely healthy.
       They had agreed that the younger students were not ready for the technique; Snape had spent the week polishing their tracking skills instead. They were advancing quite nicely and for a while, it seemed that the older students would do equally well with stoning.
       By Wednesday afternoon, the 5th, 6th, and 7th years could not only cast the tandem spells (cueing each other with two snaps of their fingers), they could do so silently, thanks to a visit from Professor Flitwick. Silent casting was vital for preventing dark wizards from picking up the technique. "A fortunate coincidence, this," Flitwick had praised Snape after class. "We're woefully behind on silent charms. Not that Defense isn't a valid priority," he'd added with a heartfelt nod.
       All that was left was to master randomization. Snape wanted every single stoning student to be able to cast effectively with any other equally competent student. On Friday afternoon, during double Defense, he'd divided the sixth years into two groups and placed them behind two screens he'd borrowed from Madam Pomfrey.
       "I will count to three," he'd explained loudly, "and one of you will jump forward from behind each screen. Snap twice and cast your spells." He'd given what was supposed to be an appreciative smile (it came across more like a grimace) to the obliging staff members and house elves who'd volunteered to be stoned; the process, while harmless, did cause a bit of a headache."
       At first things had gone well. Malfoy and Hannah Abbott had stoned Winky. Pansy and Terry Boot had stoned Professor Vector. Then Ron Weasley and Justin Finch-Fletchley had jumped from behind their screens at the same time to cast at Sybil Trelawney...and nothing had happened. There had been an embarrassing silence which had ended when Trelawney had called brightly, "I don't feel any different!"
       The pattern had continued. So long as two Gryffindors had come around the screens, or two students from any of the other three houses, the spell had worked fine. But if a Gryffindor and a non-Gryffindor jumped forward at the same time, the spell had failed miserably and it didn't take a divination teacher to figure out why. They were simply refusing to work together.
       "What is the MATTER with you?" Snape shouted again after curtly thanking the volunteer victims and excusing them from the class. "How completely idiotic can you be? Are you so mindless as to have no idea what an incredible opportunity you're being given?" He advanced on them menacingly, a vein throbbing in his temple as he snarled, "This is the greatest single advancement in Defense in CENTURIES and it's being wasted on a passel of cretins!"
       Hermione Granger flinched and Snape suspected her failure to produce the spell when paired with Susan Bones reflected the Hufflepuff's misconduct, not the Gryffindor's, but what did it matter? "This technique is more vital than jumping, more vital than leaping, more vital than tracking, and you're too stupid to appreciate it!" he roared, making Hermione's eyes fill with tears. "You are petty, pathetic, and worthless!"
       He stormed furiously from the room, unwilling to bestow further attention upon such undeserving pupils.
       Hermione sniffed and wiped her eyes on her sleeve as the students gathered silently in the middle of the hall. Ron Weasley shoved his way to the center of the group until he was toe to toe with Justin Finch-Fletchley. "The hell with you!" he growled at the Hufflepuff and all the non-Gryffindors surrounding him. "We don't need your help, at stoning or anything else! Gryffindors have always been the best at Defense!"
       His assertion brought to mind Bill's remarks about the Slytherins and Malfoy looked eagerly at the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs to see what they would make of Ron's boast. He didn't have long to wait.
       "If that's so," Terry Boot began coolly, "then why were you so desperate for our help to protect Potter?"
       "What are you talking about?" Dean Thomas demanded, and Hannah Abbott took a step forward.
       "Dumbledore's Army?" she reminded him. "That wasn't about defending ourselves or defeating Voldemort. That was about creating an army of foot soldiers to protect your precious Harry Potter."
       Malfoy and Millicent exchanged brief looks, as did the rest of the Slytherins. What the hell was Dumbledore's Army?
       Hermione burst forward and spoke up urgently. "That's not true!" she insisted. "Harry didn't even know about the prophecy when he started teaching Defense!"
       Susan Bones gave Hannah Abbott a sly glance. "Said the Gryffindor," she sneered at Hermione.
       Harry shook his head. "Let it go," he murmured to his housemates. "Just let it go."
       But Ron couldn't. "Fine!" he shouted. "FINE! We don't want you anymore!"
       "Ron!" Hermione pleaded, but he ignored her. He stepped even closer to Justin until he was nose to nose with the Hufflepuff and hissed,
       "Who needs help from a house that wouldn't even have a quidditch cup if we hadn't given it to them!"
       "Oy," Malfoy muttered to himself. Shocked gasps and angry profanity filled the hall, but he left the chore of holding the Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs apart to his housemates and the Ravenclaws so he could use his own hands to rub his throbbing temples instead.
       It came as no surprise when Justin and Hannah knocked on the Slytherin common room door after breakfast the next morning.
       "We think the school would benefit enormously," Justin told Malfoy in his cell, "if the Gryffindors were taken down a peg or two."
       "And we think Potter is the key to doing that," Hannah added.
       It suddenly occurred to Malfoy that he had forgotten to speak to Snape last fall about spending the summer with Crabbe and Goyle. "I don't know..." he began, but Justin cut him off.
       "It was their idea, you know," he asserted. "The Gryffindors were the ones who wanted to leave the Slytherins out of Dumbledore's Army."
       That could be a lie, Malfoy realized. And it didn't matter anyway. Last year had been the beginning of better relations between the houses, not the perfection of them. Besides, who wanted to take Defense lessons from Harry Potter?
       "We'll pass," he decided. But Justin shook his head.
       "We need you, Malfoy," he insisted. "We can't do it without you."
       Malfoy opened his mouth to refuse again, but before he could speak, Justin stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a photograph he handed to the Slytherin. It showed Crabbe and Malfoy up to no good in the greenhouse.
       "Rather foolish of you," Justin suggested, "to think we wouldn't notice someone had been milking the brand new Mimbulus Mimbletonia cuttings Longbottom gave to Professor Sprout."
       Oh, shit, Malfoy thought.
       "It's not good for them," Hannah added, "to be milked so young. Think how displeased she'll be."
       Justin nodded. "To say nothing of Professor Dumbledore's reaction," he reminded the Slytherin. "He's rather fond of the Weasleys, isn't he?"
       In his mind's eye, Malfoy saw himself and Violet scheming together in the Great Hall antechamber last October. I swear, the frustrated Slytherin thought, if one more misdeed comes back to bite me on the arse...
       It would be gut-wrenching to forfeit his house's triumph over Bill. It had been so magnificent, how they'd not only managed to make him look stupid, they'd made it look like he himself had made him look stupid: the great curse-breaker couldn't come up with anything better to save a child than self-humiliation. On the other hand, Malfoy realized, Potter had not been the one to spill the beans about the quidditch cup. There was something about that which truly bothered him.
       "What are you going to do to him?" he asked the Hufflepuffs.
       "Never mind," Justin sniffed. "All we need from you is the potion."
       They won't hurt him, Malfoy told himself. Not really. It boiled down to a choice, he realized, between Potter... and Snape. And he wasn't a head of house, after all.
       "I'll help," he decided.
       The next month passed with dizzying alacrity and soon the last days of the year were upon them. Violet came within a hearbeat of earning herself another whipping from Snape by beseeching him unceasingly to allow her to accompany Millicent, Tracey, Pansy, Jennifer and Marybeth to the convent. Crabbe and Goyle spent long hours making plans for their summer in the country. And Harry Potter began to show signs of improvement. No one knew whether it was the time outdoors or the sudden cessation of harassment from the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, but his return to good spirits was a great relief...except for Malfoy.
       "Just tell me," he pleaded on Wednesday, six days before the end of the term, when he handed the potion over to Justin after Defense class. He was convinced that a combination of anxiety and dread would soon begin to eat holes in his stomach.
       "Don't worry about it, Malfoy," the Hufflepuff responded. "It's going to be great!"
       As he accompanied his housemates to dinner that night, Malfoy wondered if he might be lucky enough that the prank would not come to pass. Perhaps the Hufflepuffs would run out of time; there was only one weekend left, after all. He sat down beside Millicent and filled his plate with mashed potatoes. He had just reached over to spear a few sausages when a loud squawk startled everybody in the room.
       It came from the direction of the Gryffindor table and Malfoy's heart began to pound. He whipped his head around just in time to see Harry Potter transform into a bird, his face covered with green feathers, his glasses resting on a sharp beak, bright red tail feathers protruding from beneath his robe. His lanky trunk was still in place but wings had replaced his hands and arms and he was hopping helplessly atop his house table on taloned feet that scrambled for purchase against the flat surface. He squawked as he struggled and every time he opened his beak, parrot-voiced words rang out loud and clear.
       "The chosen one is a pretty bird!" he croaked for everyone to hear. "The chosen one is a pretty bird!"
       At first Malfoy couldn't believe it. Roars of laughter from the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws filled his ears as he blinked hard and shook his head violently, trying to convince himself he was not seeing what he was seeing. Not an animal! he thought desperately. It's dangerous to use an animal! Everyone knows that! Who doesn't know that?
       At the head table, Dumbledore, Lupin, Snape and McGonagall sprang to their feet. Harry clamped a wing over his beak, trying to stop the squawking, but then a spellwad hit him in the tail feathers and he instinctively squawked again. More words popped out, even louder than before.
       "The OLD MAN'S PET will save the world!!" Harry cackled. "Nobody fear, the FAVORITE is here. DUMBLEDORE'S PET will save the world!"
       No, Malfoy thought. Oh, no! At the head table, Dumbledore froze at the sound of these words. Millicent turned to her housemate in horror and confusion. "Malfoy," she began, but he snarled viciously, "Shut up! Shut up!" even as the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs howled louder.
       Malfoy buried his face in his hands, afraid he might be sick. Not Dumbledore! he thought miserably. Not about Dumbledore!
       McGonagall, Lupin, Snape and several Gryffindors rushed to Harry's aid, trying to help him down from the table, but they were beaten back by the violent flapping of Harry's wings as he flailed helplessly around the tabletop. "Nobody fear, the FAVORITE is here. The OLD MAN'S PET will save the world!" he croaked over and over as the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws shot one spellwad after another into his feathers.
       Malfoy clenched his fists, pounding helplessly on the table. He would kill them, he decided. He would kill every last Hufflepuff and every last Ravenclaw. Never mind that they hadn't spent a summer with Harry Potter, that they didn't know how he felt about Dumbledore, that they didn't know what it was like to lose a father. Never mind that he, himself, hated the headmaster. Never mind his decree no one else should die. "NOT ABOUT DUMBLEDORE!" he suddenly shrieked, and the hall fell silent save for the clicking of Harry's talons on the tabletop as all eyes turned in the direction of the screaming Slytherin. He leapt to his feet and shouted at the top of his lungs. "NOT ABOUT DUMBLEDORE, YOU MORONS! NOT ABOUT DUMBLEDORE!"
       It ended as suddenly as it began. There was a crackling sound and Harry's beak, feathers and talons disappeared, leaving him standing atop the Gryffindor table with shaky knees and clenched fists. His green eyes flashed in his pale face.
       "What happened?" Crabbe whispered to Goyle. "I thought it lasted an hour!"
       "They must have diluted it," Goyle whispered back, "so they could slip it into his pumpkin juice."
       Malfoy stared at the Gryffindor table, watching with dread as Harry Potter turned to face the only student at Hogwarts besides Hermione Granger who could produce a polyjuice potion. He slipped his hand slowly into his pocket and Malfoy shut his eyes, bracing himself for the crucio he surely deserved.
       But no curse came. He opened one eye to see Harry staring dully at him, and if he'd looked a few feet to the Gryffindor's right, he would have seen Snape watching the dark-haired teenager closely. But he couldn't take his eyes off that still, lifeless face.
       "Harry," he whispered helplessly.
       Professor McGonagall extended a hand to help Harry down but he pulled away from her. He climbed down from the Gryffindor table without a word and walked silently out of the hall.
       Malfoy watched him go, never noticing the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw heads that were hanging throughout the hall. "Potter!" he suddenly shouted, scrambling over the bench to rush from the hall. He chased Harry into the entryway and grabbed him by the arm.
       "I didn't know!" he insisted. "I swear to God, Potter, I didn't know what they were going to do!"
       Harry made no response. He stared at Malfoy until the Slytherin released his arm, then headed silently for the stairs. Malfoy could only watch him go.
       Then he turned around and found himself facing the only person at Hogwarts more disappointed in him than Harry Potter.
       "Let me understand," said Snape so softly that Malfoy trembled. He stood beside Crabbe and Goyle, who'd distracted Snape a month earlier so Malfoy could steal the necessary ingredients, and Violet, who was shooting furious glances at Malfoy every chance she got. He'd made her open the Chamber of Secrets for him so he could brew the potion in private.
       Beyond her were Justin and Hannah, whom Malfoy had given up in a heartbeat. A search of their dorms had immediately produced the offending parrot who was even now undergoing rehabilitative therapy in the custody of Rubeus Hagrid.
       "I want to be certain," Snape continued. He was standing so close to Malfoy that the boy could feel body heat emanating from beneath his robes. He placed one finger beneath Malfoy's chin and lifted his head to look him straight in the eye.
       "You tortured Harry Potter... for the conduct of his housemates."
       There it was, the bothersome thing he'd been unable to put his finger on. Now Malfoy could stand it no longer. He bolted for the rubbish bin beside Snape's desk and got sick into it, Violet shooting him filthy looks all the while. When he was done, he scourgified the mess and fell into Snape's chair, wiping his face on his sleeve.
       "Please, sir," he begged his housemaster. "Violet didn't know. I told her I needed a private place to practice my own defense innovations."
       Snape turned briefly to the youngest Slytherin in the room. "We will discuss your on-going relationship with the Chamber of Secrets later," he told her. "You may go."
       "Thank you, sir," Violet whispered, hurrying to the door. But she tarried just inside. Snape did not notice.
       "Come back here," he said quietly to Malfoy. The boy returned to the queue, joining his classmates in their concentrated contemplation of the tips of their shoes.
       The potions master watched them for a long time. How he missed the good old days when there were no dragons to slay and the Slytherins' mistakes consisted of petty indulgences quickly caned and forgotten. "Sick," he murmured, and Malfoy looked up to see his face tense, jaw twitching. "You think you're sick?" he seethed at the boy. Malfoy winced. "I don't know what to do about you," Snape whispered in a tone Violet hadn't heard since the night he'd tried to remove her from Slytherin. "I don't ...know ... what to do."
       An unbearable silence followed during which Malfoy felt like he'd been orphaned all over again. Then Violet piped up from inside the door.
       "I do," she called, and the Slytherins and Hufflepuffs jumped. Snape whirled on her but before he could speak, Malfoy hissed, "Shut up, Violet!"
       "I do!" the child insisted.
       "You do not!" her housemate snarled more loudly.
       "I do, too!"
       "You do NOT!"
       "I DO TOO!"
       She did, too.
       Harry entered the office a short while later, unsure of what to expect... until he saw five students lined up before the desk and Snape standing in front of them with a cane in his hand.
       "Oh, no, Professor," he said immediately, backing away towards the door as he shook his head vigorously. "I don't want to watch you beat them."
       Snape gave him the tiniest of smiles.
       "You're not going to watch, Potter," he replied smoothly. Then he held out the cane for Harry to take. "Six apiece," he instructed. "Not one stroke more. And don't brutalize them, Potter. Just teach them a lesson."
       Harry's ears began to burn and he felt his face flame. There was no doubt in his mind that he could not, should not do this. His palms grew sweaty and he opened his mouth to protest... and that's when he saw Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle smirking at him.
       What? he wondered. What's so funny? Did they think he couldn't do it, that he didn't have it in him? Did they think they were going to get off easy for what they'd done because he wouldn't hit them as hard as Snape would? Or did they think... did they think if would be worth it... if it bothered him more than it hurt them?
       "Give it!" he snarled, snatching the cane from Snape as the housemaster ordered the five miscreants to "Turn," and "Bend."
       He'd moved the Slytherins to the top of the queue and Crabbe was now bent over the far side of the desk. Already imagining how much fun it was going to be to tell Ron and Neville he'd spanked the Slytherins, Harry drew the cane back high above his head.
       "Whoa!" Snape cried, reaching out quickly to grab the tip. He scowled at Harry and guided the cane down to a much more reasonable distance. Harry grinned sheepishly at him, pressing his lips together to hide his embarrassment. Then he gave Crabbe a good swish across the rear end.
       He waited a bit after the stroke as if expecting some instant and awful repercussion for his actions, but nothing happened, so Harry took a breath and hit the Slytherin again. "DAMMIT!" Crabbe screamed, jerking upright to plaster his hands protectively over his backside, and Harry jumped back several inches. He turned horrified eyes to Snape who merely advised him,
       "Try not to hit the same spot twice."
       Harry blushed with embarrassment. "Sorry, Crabbe," he grinned at the burly classmate who tossed him a disgusted scowl before bending back over the desk. Malfoy and Goyle snickered helplessly into the desktop.
       He pulled his punches a bit with Hannah, which made Snape smirk. When he'd punished all five of his oppressors, Harry handed the cane back to Snape with a grin.
       "That was brilliant!" he admitted, and Snape nodded.
       "More than you know," he murmured, but before Harry could even wonder what he meant, he commanded the pranksters to rise and turn around again. "Have the good grace to shake their hands, Potter," he ordered, and as Harry did, they each apologized. "Sorry, Potter," "Sorry, Potter," "Sorry, Potter," "Sorry, Potter," "Sorry, Potter," came the same words delivered with five different inflections. By the last handshake, Harry was chuckling in spite of himself. Snape just shook his head.
       "You may go, you passel of cretins," he said as he held the door for them. He sent them out of the office together... and that was brilliant, too.
       "Do you want to come in?" Malfoy asked when the half dozen had reached the door to the Slytherin common room. They hesitated, glancing at each other, then nodded.
       "What did he mean?" Harry asked Malfoy. "'More brilliant than you know.'"
       Malfoy shrugged. "I don't know, Potter," he murmured as he leaned close to the wall to whisper the password. "Do you have a problem with handing out punishment?"
       He ushered them inside where they discovered the Slytherins, Hermione Granger, Neville Longbottom, the Weasley siblings, Terry Boot and several Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs clustered around Violet in the common room. It was clear from the smirks on their faces that she'd told everyone what was happening in Snape's office.
       "Congratulations, Potter!" Warrington called. "You can die a happy man."
       "Turn," was all Harry said in response.
       The miscreants and their punisher settled in among the others and there was an awkward silence. Then Terry Boot murmured, "Sorry, Potter," and the visiting Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws nodded and muttered similar sentiments.
       "Us, too," said Ron on behalf of the Gryffindors.
       Malfoy looked up to find Millicent frowning at him. He knew what she wanted to ask, but also that she would not ask it in mixed company. So he told her anyway.
       "They blackmailed me."
       "Who?" Millicent wondered.
       "Us," said Justin, sticking his hand in the air, "to make him brew the polyjuice potion."
       There was a pause, and then Violet started to giggle. Malfoy nodded ruefully at her and she laughed so hard she fell off her chair.
       "What's so funny?" asked Eleanor Branstone of all people.
       "Never mind," Malfoy insisted. But Harry just had to know.
       "What did they have on you?" Malfoy shook his head. "Bill," was all he said, but it was enough.
       "I knew it!" Ginny shouted. Malfoy smiled at her.
       "Has he said anything?" he asked, wisely refraining from calling her sugar lips. It was Ron who responded.
       "He wrote to ask me if you're coming to the house again this summer," he grinned, and Malfoy winced.
       The group grew quiet again as the subject of Bill hung uncomfortably between them. Eager to change the subject, Violet turned to Harry and asked abruptly,
       "Are you scared?"
       Harry didn't even hesitate. "Of course I'm scared!" he told her, hoping that fact might make them a bit sorrier for the way they'd treated him. Then a brand new thought occurred to him.
       "Are you scared?" he asked the classmates surrounding him. Millicent was the first to speak up.
       "I'm not scared of the fight," she confessed, "but I'm scared of what happens if you lose." Several students began to nod. Others grew wide-eyed, as if considering this possibility for the first time. Crabbe buried his face in his hands.
       "What a mess," he groaned, and the students nodded again.
       "It was so strange," Malfoy said, thinking about Bill again, "to see what they were like..." Nobody needed to be told who he was talking about. "... especially since..." He paused, frowning hard.
       "Bill's not a bad guy!" Ginny spoke up sharply. "He's a wonderful person. He'd..."
       "I know," Malfoy cut her off peevishly. "He'd give his life to help someone else. He'd die for what's right."
       Ron folded his arms across his chest. "I could talk the same way about Snape," he reminded Malfoy sourly, and Draco nodded.
       "It's just that they're older," he pointed out, "and they act like... they've always acted like... while we've..." He broke off helplessly and Millicent jumped in.
       "What stinks about this," she pointed out, "is that we have to clean up the mess they made."
       Hermione nodded. "It's always been like that," she reminded the group. "It's always the younger generations that are willing to let hatreds go."
       "Then let's not do this again," Malfoy sat up suddenly. "We don't have to like each other, and we don't have to get along. But let's not do this..." He reached out to tap Harry on the scar. "...again."
       Violet shook her head at him. "Professor Snape says dark times come more than once in a lifetime," she insisted.
       "Maybe so," Malfoy conceded. "But all we have to do..." He paused to think it over. "We don't have to be angels," he insisted. "We don't have to be..." He grinned to himself. "...pleasant," he went on. "All we have to do... is rise above the hatemongers."
       There was a long silence as they thought it over.
       "Hatemongering is an important part of the Hogwarts experience," Millicent pointed out, and even Hermione laughed.
       "It's just a slight tweak," Malfoy insisted. "Tick tick soop."
       They laughed again, shifting themselves as they settled in to visit a while longer, and Malfoy watched with fascination as Harry Potter hung on every syllable uttered, pleased beyond words just to be accepted again. The Slytherin shook his head. Inclusion wasn't much, he realized, but it was a step in the right direction. Still, he couldn't help wondering if they would ever unite behind Harry Potter.
       "Attention!" Dumbledore barked at dinner the next evening. The students flinched and even the staff recoiled at his unusually harsh manner. Millicent leaned over to Malfoy with a giggle.
       "I guess he's still angry," she whispered.
       "Watch how much sleep I lose," Malfoy replied.
       Dumbledore glared sternly around the hall to be sure all eyes were upon him before speaking again. "Several of your parents have written me," he announced, "to request that they be permitted to meet you outside the gate at the end of the term so they might bring you home themselves rather than have you travel by carriage to Hogsmeade to ride home on the train. They are concerned, perhaps justifiably, that you will be in danger traveling in the company of Harry Potter."
       Here Dumbledore paused and Malfoy wondered if the old fool could possibly be expecting the students to apologize for their parents' attitudes. Instead, he merely went on, "You may now write your parents and inform them that Harry Potter will remain at Hogwarts this summer for further study, so no travel rearrangements will be necessary for the rest of you."
       'The rest of you?' Malfoy thought belligerently to himself. Then a far more important realization dawned on him. Before he knew what he was about, his hand shot up in the air and when Dumbledore acknowledged him, he jumped to his feet.
       "Please, sir," he said more sincerely than he'd ever addressed Albus Dumbledore in his life. "May I stay, too?"
       Dumbledore hesitated, but as he peered at Malfoy, another hand shot up, and then another and another. In a matter of moments, every student in the room had thrust his or her hand high into the air. They all waved eagerly at the headmaster, some of them stretching their hands so high they were whimpering with the effort.
       Dumbledore's frown began to fade. It righted itself, then spread into a smile that grew and grew until he was positively beaming. If he'd glanced aside for a moment, he would have seen Snape and McGonagall looking positively ill by contrast. But instead he turned that radiant smile upon Harry Potter.
       "What do you think, Harry?" he asked the boy.
       Harry climbed to his feet so Dumbledore could see him above the ocean of raised hands that surrounded him. He looked all around the hall, then he turned to Dumbledore with a smile he just couldn't conceal and nodded. Dumbledore turned happily to McGonagall.
       "Let's train them all!" he cried and the students let out a mighty cheer.
       Snape and McGonagall rose immediately to attack the headmaster from both sides as a wave of excited chatter broke out among the students. Malfoy watched through narrowed eyes as Potter resumed his seat, still smiling that goofy smile. Finally the Slytherin could stand it no longer. He climbed over the bench and strode quickly to the Gryffindor table where he poked Harry sharply in the back.
       "It's not about you, Potter," he insisted when Harry turned around. "I just want to learn the stuff, too."
       "Sure, Malfoy," Harry nodded, still grinning.
       "It's true!" Malfoy cried.
       "I believe you!" Harry assured him before turning contentedly back to his meal.
       Malfoy rolled his eyes and returned to the Slytherin table. One thing was certain, he realized. He could not put up with being smiled at by Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore all summer. I guess I'll have to convince him, he thought with a backwards glance at the Gryffindor. Then, as he sat back down on the Slytherin bench, his eyes fell on Violet and he knew just what to do.

An Obedient House