The Fall

       There's no pleasing me, Snape realized as Violet sprang from her cell, flung wide her arms, and cried, "Good... morning... HOGWARTS!" before rushing to join her housemates queuing up for inspection September 1. The potions master shook his head. They vex me when they're happy, he decided, and they vex me when they're sad.
       "Hurry up, hurry up!" he snapped at the forty students who fell in before him. How proudly they stood in their freshly-ironed hand-me-down uniforms! If they drew their shoulders back any further, Snape suspected, they'd tip right over.
       "New rules," he announced, and not a single student grimaced. Apparently, only he and McGonagall found the return to 7am inspection irksome. "Wasting food is now a floggable offense. You are once again restricted to the castle unless accompanied by staff. And the quidditch season... " He paused, but his students just kept on smiling. " cancelled."
       They didn't even blink. Snape wasn't surprised. He and Lupin had a wager on how long it would take the little hellions to develop an indoor alternative.
       He clasped his hands behind his back and took an obligatory stroll up and down the ranks, barking a brief criticism here and there in lieu of his usual speech. His students wriggled with anticipation and Violet bounced on her toes. Finally, he whirled around and came to a stop, just as they expected, in front of Draco Malfoy.
       Head Boy.
       Snape indulged himself in a nice long inspection of the badge on Draco's robe, forcing a scowl as he pretended to examine it for adequate shininess. It was all he could do not to ruffle the boy's hair.
       How his heart had warmed when Dumbledore had announced his selections! Snape had found the tender feelings most annoying; Malfoy had earned this, after all. Finch-Fletchley had masterminded the prank against Potter and Ron Weasley made a poor excuse for a prefect. Neville Longbottom? He'd know he was being tossed a bone. Ernie MacMillan was dutiful enough but who, in the end, could balance the formidable Hermione Granger except Draco?
       Malfoy basked in his head of house's attention. The potions master had said nothing when Dumbledore had presented him with the badge; instead, he'd sent Dobby to the dungeon with a succinct note: 'I am very proud of you, Draco.' My greatest possessions, Malfoy marveled, are made of parchment!
       "This will be a difficult term," Snape reminded them after returning to the head of the queues. "You will hear distressing news from beyond these walls and our deprivations will only increase."
       Violet smiled, which Snape found odd. The child had such a sweet tooth! But there was no time to intimidate an explanation out of her. "I expect you to conduct yourselves with the magnificence that befits..." Finally, a tiny smile. "...this highly-honored house."
       His students grinned to split their silly faces as Snape whirled around and swept from the room.
       Since they were already dressed, the Slytherins decided to head upstairs and wait in the Great Hall for breakfast. They found Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger at the front door to the castle, waving good-bye to the departing aurors who were filing out the front gate even as their replacements marched up the carriage path. Mad-Eye Moody, Draco noticed, was among those leaving.
       Good, the Slytherin thought. No matter how many times he reminded himself that the auror had NOT bounced him around the Great Hall, he could not look at the man without experiencing a wave of heartache. Harry Potter followed his gaze.
       "Moody's going to join Bill," he told Malfoy, who frowned at the news.
       "Weasley's not an auror," the Slytherin reminded everybody.
       Harry shrugged and hitched his book bag more securely over his shoulder. "Maybe they're up to something," the Gryffindor suggested.
       A portion of his satchel swam in and out of sight and Malfoy narrowed his eyes. "Are you?" he demanded in his best Head Boy tone, pointing out the suspicious spectacle. Harry removed the bag and opened it, stuffing the flap of invisibility cloak that had spilled out the top more securely inside.
       "Professor Dumbledore's orders," he told Draco. "I carry it all the time now."
       Malfoy mulled this over. Even if one couldn't perform magic while invisible, one could certainly perform it from beneath an invisibility cloak. "That's brilliant," he had to admit.
       As Hermione was closing the door, a grasshopper jumped inside and began hopping towards the staircase. Violet whipped out her wand, took aim, and let out a mighty, "Petrificus totalis!" that froze the insect in mid-hop. It clattered to the floor and the young Slytherin scampered across the entryway to scoop it up, tucking it securely in her pocket as Hermione scolded, "No magic in the corridors!" Malfoy backed her up, adding, "Violet, if you do that again, I'll spank you!"
       "Sorry!" the girl smiled over her shoulder as she strolled into the Great Hall. Harry turned curiously to Malfoy. "
       "Why is she collecting bugs?" he wondered. Malfoy shook his head. "Maybe she puts them in her porridge," he guessed as the students filed into the hall for a meager but nourishing breakfast.
       He marched into Potions, the first class of his final year, with Crabbe and Goyle on either side of him, just like old times. "Together again!" he smiled as the rest of the Slytherins strolled in behind him. Per Dumbledore's orders, all students were taking Potions, Charms, Defense and Transfiguration this term, in classes that combined all four houses.
       Malfoy took his seat with a regal flourish of his robe, then sat quietly, smiling at the bare blackboard in front of him. The other students followed suit, sitting stiffly at attention, their hands clasped beside their cauldrons, their feet tucked neatly beneath their workstations. After a few moments, Malfoy began to chuckle.
       "A lot of memories," he shrugged as his schoolmates turned curious faces in his direction.
       "Yeah!" Harry nodded, snickering in spite of himself. Malfoy laughed harder, shaking his head. "I don't know what's so funny!" he insisted.
       "Me, neither!" Harry agreed as all around him, students began to giggle. Soon the room was filled with laughter. It grew more and more raucous until Snape stormed in and the room fell silent.
       "You are aware," the teacher began as the classroom door slammed shut behind him, "that muggle sanctions against the wizarding community in response to our war with the Dark Lord have left us short-supplied in many areas. This includes potion ingredients. Therefore..." He folded his arms across his chest. "Certain changes to the syllabus will be necessary. A substantial number of potions will be discussed rather than brewed and Miss Granger, this had better not be about your N.E.W.T.!"
       Hermione frowned and lowered the hand she had been waving frantically in the air.
       "Discussion," Snape continued, "will take considerably less time than brewing, so beginning Friday, I will entertain suggestions for non-syllabus potions you would like to explore."
       At that, Hermione brightened considerably. Malfoy gave her a lofty glance, then raised his own hand.
       "I don't understand the shortfalls, sir," he complained when called on. "Muggles don't control the planet. There are wizards all over the world!"
       Snape pursed his lips. He glanced aside while pondering his response. Then he leaned against the corner of his desk and addressed his oldest students in a surprisingly gentle tone.
       "You remember what I told you this morning, about distressing news?" he asked the Head Boy, and the Slytherins all nodded. "Not all wizards support our efforts to defeat Voldemort," he announced. Several students gasped. "They see our war as a threat to their economic well-being, and they are responding accordingly."
       Malfoy thought of oily Mr. Borgin, his father's associates, and the ignoble officials in the Ministry. He'd always assumed that the corrupt of the world were a powerful but limited entity, all but wiped out in the siege at the end of his fifth year. He'd had no idea that altruism and idealism were in such short supply, that decadence and selfishness characterized so much of the planet's population. I guess our little club wasn't as exclusive as I thought, he nodded ruefully to himself.
       For the rest of the lesson, he found himself glancing again and again at Harry Potter. All this, he realized as he studied the Gryffindor's face, and when it's over, people won't even appreciate what he'll have done for them. What WE'LL have done for them, he corrected himself. He wished he were back in summer Defense theory class so he could ask about it. Would the unfair anger continue after the tyrant was deposed? Would people never acknowledge what the citizens of Hogwarts and their allies had accomp...
       Malfoy gasped. A startling new thought tore through his brain. It's like it used to be for us! he realized. People see Hogwarts the way Hogwarts used to see Slytherin!
       He looked up sharply, stunned by this discovery, and found Snape and the entire class staring at him. Apparently, he'd gasped a bit too loudly.
       "Yes, Mr. Malfoy?" Snape queried. "Did you wish to describe the most effective way to grow American knotgrass in a British greenhouse?"
       Malfoy flushed and gave himself a little shake, breaking loose from his earlier train of thought. He smiled at Snape and made a magnanimous show of yielding to Neville Longbottom, who always excelled where Potions intersected with Herbology.
       The seventh years walked to Defense class together. They were surprised, upon arriving, to find Hagrid leaning over Lupin's desk, talking earnestly with the Defense teacher.
       "Your Care of Magical Creatures instructor and I have joined forces," Lupin explained after a brief greeting, "to bring you an exercise I think you're going to enjoy!"
       The students flinched. Lupin smiled reassuringly and rose.
       "Professor Dumbledore," he lectured, "is doing his best to ascertain whether or not Lord Voldemort has secured the support of the giant population."
       The students stiffened. Quite a few gasped. Pansy whimpered and beside her, Malfoy frowned. Where, he wondered, was Lupin going with this?
       "We've worked hard," the werewolf reminded them, "to master skills to defend ourselves against Death Eaters and dementors. Now we will practice dealing with other sentient beings which might, if allied with the dark forces, pose a formidable threat."
       Pansy whimpered again and Malfoy shook his head. "How?" he snorted. Sentient non-humans were either domesticated, like goblins and house-elves, or kept in remote, restricted locations, like the Forbidden Forest. How were the students of Hogwarts supposed to practice defending themselves against giants?
       A few seats away, Malfoy noticed Harry, Ron and Hermione shaking their heads. "What?" he demanded.
       Lupin led them outside and down the grounds. As they marched across the lawn, Malfoy gave Hermione a poke.
       "When did we acquire a new hill?" he asked, pointing to a mound behind Hagrid's hut.
       It was not a hill, of course, and after meeting Hagrid's half-brother, Malfoy could not decide what infuriated him more, that the gamekeeper had been hiding a giant in the forest, or that the Gryffindors had kept it a secret.
       "You don't suppose he's eaten any forest children, do you?" Tracey whispered.
       Oh, yeah, or that, Malfoy nodded to himself.
       "The game is keep-away," Lupin explained to the trembling students surrounding Grawp. "Use your leaping technique and anything else you can think of, but be forewarned. Casting spells at a giant will only annoy him and make him more determined to harm you. It would take a dozen of you casting simultaneously to stupefy a giant, and during the battle, we need you to stone. Leave the non-human opponents to our allies. Just concentrate on evading them.
       "Grawp is armed," Lupin continued, "with a club made of powdered spider webs. If he strikes you, there will be a blot on your robe and you will be eliminated."
       "Not unlike real life," Millicent couldn't help pointing out.
       "Last witch or wizard standing," Lupin smiled, "gets an extra roll at dinner. Go!"
       The children scattered, enervated by a mighty roar from Grawp. They ran and leapt as fast as they could but Grawp had no trouble out-stripping their straight-line flights. The first game ended quickly with Pansy winning after she stepped behind a tree to pull up her socks and tidy her hair.
       "You'll have to do better than that!" Lupin chided.
       During the next game, Harry Potter began employing some of the maneuvering strategies he used as a seeker, pretending to fall before suddenly leaping in the opposite direction. This thwarted Grawp, who could not turn quickly. The students mimicked Harry's efforts, but not as competently. Harry won the second game.
       "Potter out?" shouted Ernie MacMillan to Malfoy as the third round began. He was referring to a Slythedor dodgeball technique where students would gang up on Harry and eliminate him first thing to create a more equitable playing field.
       "Potter out!" Malfoy agreed.
       "Dammit!" Harry protested.
       He put up a spirited fight, bobbing and feigning to engineer several collisions that left Malfoy, Warrington and Ron nursing bloody noses. They finally managed to evict him after Millicent ran straight between Grawp's legs in an evasive move that made the giant leap into the air to avoid stepping on her. The subsequent shaking of the ground when he landed made Harry drop his wand at which point Malfoy stupefied him.
       Once Harry was out of the running, the students redoubled their efforts, teaming up to create distractions and diversions that left Lupin cheering ecstatically. Still, Pansy won again. This time she was just standing there, stamping her foot over a broken fingernail.
       "It's Beauty and the beast!" Millicent marveled.
       "Hey!" Malfoy shouted at Grawp, shaking an angry wand at the love-struck giant. "No favoritism!"
       He jumped behind Pansy just in time to save himself from a swat that would have knocked him halfway across the lake.
       "I won four times!" Violet bragged as her housemates gathered together in front of their common room fire Friday evening. "Do you think Grawp has a crush on me, too?"
       "He probably just couldn't see you, shrimp," Malfoy drawled, glancing up briefly from the parchment notes he was reviewing as he relaxed in the best chair. Violet scowled at him.
       "I'll bet I could beat you!"
       "Not if you don't start eating your brussel sprouts!"
       Violet flushed and looked away. Hagrid had produced a bumper crop of the vile spuds and the house elves were serving them far more frequently than Violet could stomach. Twice Malfoy had caught her evanescoing them off her plate but so far he hadn't punished her or told Snape. Now he gave her a wink instead.
       "Maybe you shouldn't have any dessert."
       That was an idle threat; they were Violet's crepes, after all. She'd gotten the idea from a book she'd read describing midnight feasts at boarding schools. Now she and Marybeth were frying up sweet savory cakes on griddles they'd borrowed from the kitchen. By Violet's estimate, she had enough ingredients to produce two pancakes per Slytherin.
       Her housemates' mouths watered at the scent of frying batter. The crepes would make a wonderfully satisfying addition to a diet that consisted primarily of porridge, wild game, and brussel sprouts.
       "You needn't look so pleased," Malfoy added to Marybeth, who was smiling at Violet's chagrin as she tossed a crepe into the air. "I understand your charms are still a disgrace."
       "Hmph!" Marybeth caught the pancake neatly. "You'd look incompetent, too," she insisted, "if you had to sit between Michael the Magnificent and Super Salazar."
       "Pseudo," Violet corrected.
       "Nice work keeping up with the third years," Draco praised Michael. "But isn't anyone showing a flare for Divination?" He shook his head as he consulted his notes again, then turned menacingly to a 4th year boy. "A 'T' on your Transfigurations cross-spieces switching paper?"
       "I....was..." The boy hesitated, then grinned. "I was purposely trying to think like a troll in case that's what we do next in Defense."
       Millicent waved her hand in the air. "I hear Lupin's going to let the house elves join Keep Away next week!" she joked.
       "No, no." Malfoy smirked as he folded up his notes and pocketed them before accepting the first crepe from Violet. "We're going to add Professor Flitwick to the Defense roster, conjure some rope, and lasso centaurs."
       The Slytherins laughed and Malfoy took a ravenous bite out of his sweet, warm cake. This is more like it, he thought, crossing his legs at the ankles as he chewed. Receiving the first crepe - that was what being Head Boy was about, not getting bent over Snape's desk for trying to filch Whomping Willy.
       His fellow students, eager to maintain their summer fitness, had asked him to lead twice-weekly calisthenics sessions in addition to their frequent jogs throughout the castle. Malfoy had only intended to brandish the switch menacingly while he paced up and down the rows drawling, 'ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four!'
       "I'm not going to get to have any fun!" he had protested after six vigorous strokes from his housemaster, who had responded simply, "Why should you be any different?"
       "All right," he nodded at Bletch as he licked his fingers. "Go get Snape." Michael hurried out of the room and Malfoy turned to Violet to ask, "Where did you get the money for this?"
       "From Neville," Violet told him. "He pays me to catch bugs."
       Malfoy and Millicent exchanged looks.
       "What's he doing with them?" Tracey asked.
       Violet grinned. "He's stoning them!""
       "He can't..." Malfoy began, but Millicent cut him off with, "What for?"
       "He knocks their heads off," Violet explained, "and uses them for marbles. Once I saw him line up eight spiders and knock all their heads off with a single flipendo."
       "Isn't he a little old for..." Malfoy began again. But then Michael returned with Snape and Malfoy dropped the subject, rising instead to offer Snape the best chair. The housemaster couldn't help smiling at the sight of Violet and Marybeth surrounded by spilled flour and bowls of batter, flipping away as his hungry Slytherins chewed on warm cake.
       "How in the world?" he asked.
       "The orphanage sir," Violet told him as she handed him a crepe. "I send money, the kids send flour and sugar and butter and eggs." She bent over her griddle and tried to sound unconcerned as she added, "You might be getting a note from Gringotts about Spellwad eating some knuts."
       "What do they do with the money?" Crabbe wondered, watching covetously as Snape took a satisfying bite out of his pancake.
       Violet shrugged. "They like to ring in a fry-up."
       Half-blood Millicent provided a brief description of ringing in fry-ups while Violet poured out the next crepe. "I think I can raise enough money to do this every Friday," she told Snape. "Will you join us, sir? Please?"
       The Slytherins turned eagerly to Snape for his answer. It was a pleasant prospect, gathering together in front of the fire on chilly autumn evenings to eat sweet pancakes.
       "Where, exactly, are you getting this money, Miss Guilford?" he felt obligated to ask.
       "She's selling bugs to Neville Longbottom," Malfoy told him. "Sir, can a wizard stone something by himself?"
       "Insects," Snape admitted, "and spiders. Why?"
       "Violet says Longbottom is stoning insects," Malfoy told him. Snape frowned and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his fingers. He was just about to ask Violet why on earth Longbottom would do such a thing when Goyle waved a hand to get his attention.
       "May we ask you something, sir?" the boy began when Snape nodded at him. "We wanted to ask during the summer, in class, but..."
       His voice trailed off and Crabbe picked up his thought.
       "The other houses were always there," he complained, and Goyle nodded.
       "What happens," Goyle began again, "when... when our... if our parents are part of the attack."
       Snape frowned. For once, he had no ready words of wisdom to offer his students. A hush fell over the room and for several seconds, nobody spoke. Then Snape gave a small nod and took a deep breath.
       "We'll have to think on that," he told his Slytherins. "Miss Montague, you're going to burn it."
       Millicent reached over to take the griddle from Marybeth, who had grown quite still. She flipped the crepe for the younger girl and handed the griddle back. The rest of the Slytherins crept a little closer to their housemaster.
       "Some of them," Snape said of their enemies, "were Professor Dumbledore's or Professor McGonagall's students. Some of them..." He hesitated, then continued more softly. "Some of them were my housemates. My housemates..." His voice trailed off to a whisper. "...were all I ever had."
       Violet thought about that for a while. For the first time, it occurred to her that she had no idea who Snape's head of house was. She wanted desperately to ask him, but she couldn't bring herself to break the silence. Then Millicent sighed and she nearly dropped the crepe she was frying.
       "After fifth year," the older Slytherin girl murmured, "I wondered if my folks might break up. The muggle could leave the death eater. But you know, I didn't really want that!" Her housemates gazed at her in confusion and she tried to explain. "I don't want to regain one parent through the vilification of the other," she insisted. "I'd rather think of them as misguided together than..." She shook her head and said no more.
       "Remember," Snape tried to reassure the troubled children surrounding him. "You're not going to hurt them. You're just going to stone them."
       "I'm more concerned," Tracey confessed, "with what they're going to do to us. Or what they're going to try to do to us. Or how I'll feel about what they're going to try to do to us."
       Marybeth dumped the crepe off her griddle into Goyle's waiting hands. Then she gave a sniff and wiped her face furiously with her sleeve.
       Time to change the subject, Snape decided. He asked Malfoy what progress the students were making with their plans for an indoor flying sport.
       "We thought about quidditch in the Great Hall," Malfoy confessed, and Snape shuddered. "We'd have to shrink the bludgers, slow them down a bit, and give the spectators their own small beater clubs. That way, everybody could play." He shrugged. "We might still do something with that. But then we thought about expanding the common room flying obstacle courses throughout the entire castle!"
       Violet's eyes lit up.
       "We could have elimination races with different levels of difficulty," the Head Boy explained. "Start in the Great Hall, move on to the dungeon, and finally, head up to the towers."
       "That's brilliant!" Violet cried. Malfoy nodded.
       "We were even thinking of getting the ghosts involved," he told them, "to pop up as sudden barriers, test our reaction speed a bit. If you fly through one, you're out." He rolled his eyes in disgust and added, "Myrtle turned us down."
       The Slytherins giggled, except for Violet, who carefully poured the next crepe as she mulled over this last comment. Myrtle's bathroom contained the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets, and Violet was the only Slytherin who could open it. She could practice down there, in secret, and become really good! She'd surprise them all! Of course, it meant a righteous flogging from Snape if she got caught, but why would she? Myrtle might even be willing to stand...
       "Try it."
       Violet jumped. She looked up to see Snape smiling at her, one eyebrow perched above those piercing black eyes as he read the thoughts right off her face.
       "Don't DO that, sir!" she pouted, slamming down the batter bowl with a thump that caused several thick drops of pancake mix to splatter all over her jumper. The Slytherins laughed harder still.
       They chatted for an hour, munching pancakes until barely any batter remained. "If we scrape all the bowls," Violet said to Marybeth, "I think we can make one more good sized crepe."
       "I wonder," Snape began, and his students turned to him. Snape frowned and curled his lip. He rose to tower over them and hissed, "If you snicker, or comment, or even dare to smile, I will queue you up and flog you mercilessly!" He cleared his throat and began again. "I wonder if you would permit me to take the last crepe to Professor Lupin."
       The Slytherins froze. All over the common room, lips began to twitch. Millicent clamped a hand over her mouth and squealed from behind it, "That's so... sweet!" before springing to her feet to race to her cell in hopes of saving her backside from the wrath of Severus Snape. Several giggling housemates followed close behind but Malfoy remained where he was.
       "Is there anything wrong with Professor Lupin, sir?" he asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
       "Of course not!" Snape snapped. He accepted the final crepe from Violet and left without another word.
       Malfoy climbed thoughtfully to his feet, watching Snape depart. He stared at the common room door for several seconds after it shut, then turned his attention on the two young pastry chefs sitting at his feet. "You clean up, Marybeth," he drawled, bouncing his eyebrows at her roommate as he added, "Violet doesn't need any evanesco practice."
       Snape found Lupin in the staffroom sipping tea with Professor McGonagall as they reviewed the 'first day' attitudes of their students. "Feeling their oats," McGonagall was saying, and Lupin agreed eagerly, "That's exactly what they remind me of! Race horses! Thoroughbreds, chomping at the bit."
       "No," McGonagall told him, "that was last fall. Do you smell cake?"
       Snape smiled and stepped into the room, holding out the offering for Lupin. The Gryffindors swallowed hard at the sight of it. "Where did you get it, Severus?" Lupin breathed, accepting the pancake with eager fingers.
       "Miss Guilford has been procuring foodstuffs from her muggle orphan friends," Snape told him. "It would appear we have a scavenger among us."
       "Valuable asset in a time of war," Lupin nodded, tearing the crepe in two. He offered half to Minerva, who shook her head as Snape snarled, "No!" The werewolf jumped and Snape pursed his lips a moment before continuing.
       "We'll take turns," he suggested more evenly. "Miss Guilford intends to make crepes every Friday night. I'll give Minerva a crepe the Friday you're... indisposed."
       Lupin glanced from one head of house to the other. He sighed and rolled the crepe into a meticulous tube which he held up for all to admire. "It goes without saying," he lectured Snape and McGonagall as he brought the treat to his lips, "that I would be extremely disappointed in colleagues who kept something from me." He took a greedy bite of cake and smacked his lips over it, all the while regarding his peers through narrow, somewhat disapproving eyes.
       Minerva cleared her throat preparatory to a tart reply, but Snape stopped her with a raised hand. "I don't recall," he told Lupin smoothly, "your being too disappointed last time."
       Lupin scowled as Minerva laughed that high tinkling laugh of hers and poured Snape a cup of tea.
       "Still pouting over Potions, Granger?" Malfoy smirked as he strolled into the tiny office he shared with Hermione for the first of their weekly Friday night meetings. Hermione sat behind her side of the Head-Boy-and-Girl partners' desk with her arms folded atop a shiny pamphlet, clutching a piece of parchment in one hand.
       She had been woefully disappointed in class that morning when Snape had refused her request to brew an experimental potion rumored to alleviate the after-effects of crucio torture. "How were you going to test it?" Malfoy shook his head at her as he turned around to shut the door. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he found Potter and Weasley lurking on either side of it.
       "What are you doing here?" he snarled at Ron. Then he remembered that prefects sometimes had business with the Head Boy and Girl, so he shifted his surly gaze to Potter. "Or you, at any rate."
       The Gryffindor boys made no response but merely shut the door and took up positions on either side of the desk where they waited for Malfoy to take his seat. He opened his mouth to further protest their presence, but before he could speak, Hermione held out her piece of parchment.
       "Do you recognize any of these?" she asked him.
       Draco took the scrap from her and dropped sullenly into his chair. He read the list, then handed it back to her with a scowl.
       "I recognize all of them, Granger," he assured her.
       "They're ingredients for the potion I wanted to try this morning," Hermione told him, putting the list down in front of him. "The potion Professor Snape wouldn't let us make," she reminded him. "The potion Professor Snape wouldn't let us make even though we're all facing the possibility of crucio when Voldemort attacks."
       Malfoy raised an eyebrow and said nothing. Hermione tried again.
       "The potion Professor Snape wouldn't let us make in his class where we're currently facing a serious shortage of supplies."
       She stared somberly at him. Weasley and Potter did the same. Malfoy leaned forward to read the list again.
       There it was, near the bottom.
       Isatic tinctoria.
       It was the primary ingredient in Lupin's Remedy.
       "They don't sell isatic tinctoria," Hermione went on, shoving the pamphlet at him. It appeared to be some sort of muggle gardening catalog.
       "The sanctions..." Malfoy began, but Hermione cut him off.
       "I buy loads of stuff from them, for research, so I thought they might sell me some isatic tinctoria in spite of the sanctions, but they don't carry it."
       Ron and Harry leaned against the walls of the tiny office and slumped to the floor, sitting dejectedly on their rumps with their arms around their knees. Hermione rested her chin on her arms.
       There was no need, Malfoy knew, to order them not to do anything stupid. He wondered if they should try talking to Snape. Perhaps if they all put their heads together... Then again, maybe not. Perhaps the staff had already written Lupin off as a casualty of war. They had to stay focused on the big picture, after all.
       The Slytherin opened the catalog and began leafing through its pages, occasionally raising an eyebrow. Hermione, watching him, nodded. "They've got the best inventory in the muggle world," she told him.
       The pictures were nice, too. They were crystal-clear, impressive for a mail order catalog, even if the bugs weren't flying and the leaves weren't swaying in the breeze. Malfoy turned another page and froze. His eyes fixed on a picture of a plant that looked exactly like isatic tinctoria. How could Granger have missed it, he wondered.
       He squinted at the plant. It wasn't labeled isatic tinctoria. It wasn't labeled at all, in fact. It didn't seem to be for sale, either. It adorned a page devoted to hawking some sort of toxic muggle chemical.
       Just then, Violet sauntered into the office bearing a steaming cup and saucer. Malfoy had paid her two sickles to bring him tea in front of Granger. She stepped neatly up to the desk and set the cup down, throwing in a curtsy for good measure before glancing over his shoulder at the catalog on the desk. She smiled at her older schoolmates and asked brightly,
       "Are you inventing a new herbicide?"
       The seventh years frowned at her. "What are you babbling about?" Malfoy asked as he raised the teacup to his lips.
       Violet tapped the picture Malfoy had been staring at. "To kill Dyar's Woad," she replied.
       Ron and Harry hurried to their feet and drew closer to the desk. Hermione stood up and craned her neck to examine the upside-down catalog, gasping at the picture beneath Violet's fingertip. "Violet," Malfoy scowled, "that is an extremely hard-to-procure potion ingredient."
       "No," Violet shook her head. "It's a noxious weed."
       Hermione's eyes popped open wide. Malfoy could almost see her mind racing to process this information. "What in blazes," he demanded of Violet, "is a noxious weed?"
       Violet clasped her hands behind her back and slipped into the Snape-like speech pattern the Slytherins unconsciously assumed when discussing potion ingredients. "A noxious weed," she recited, "is an undesirable growth commonly found in the gardens of the poor and slovenly." She shrugged at the older students who stared so intently at her. "It's all over the orphanage."
       Malfoy sprang to his feet, digging into his pocket as he commanded his fellow seventh years, "Turn 'em out!" He handed his housemate two galleons and a few sickles. "Violet," he announced as the Gryffindors added their own contributions, "we've got a new order for your little orphan friends!"
       He explained their needs and sent her on her way with a pat on the bottom and a galleon to keep for herself. Violet beamed at his generosity but the Gryffindors rolled their eyes.
       "Spreading largess, Malfoy?" Hermione inquired rather acidly.
       Draco considered asking why neither her muggle parents nor Weasley's impoverished family were familiar with the contents of a slovenly garden. Instead, he resumed his seat, picking up his cup of tea and propping his feet on the desk to observe, "Headship is wasted on you, Granger." He gave the Gryffindor boys a lofty smile and added, "You may go."
       Snape had some hope, when Dumbledore summoned the heads of house to his office for a meeting Sunday night, that the headmaster might publicly congratulate the heads of Slytherin and Gryffindor for their students' botanical discovery. His hopes were dashed when Dumbledore, after inviting them to be seated, gave them one of those ridiculous twinkling smiles and clapped his hands together to inquire, "How is everyone?"
       His employees blinked.
       "Your students," Dumbledore added a bit impatiently. "But if you prefer..." He leaned across his desk in what could only be interpreted as an act of intimidation. " I would be more than happy to discuss your well-being."
       Snape tried not to wince. He thought of the Slytherins, worried about their parents. Then he glanced at Minerva, who looked uncomfortable, too. Longbottom? he wondered.
       "Our students are under enormous pressure," Dumbledore noted, rising to pace back and forth behind his desk as he lectured his staff. "They have the resilience of youth and our unfailing efforts on their behalf, plus a commonness of purpose that feeds their determination. Still, it is only reasonable to expect that they will know moments of extreme doubt and deep concern, concern for the imminent confrontation, and beyond that, concern for the future, a future that may or may not... Severus!"
       Snape jumped, snatching back the hand that had been reaching for an object beside him. Bored out of his mind by the old man's ramblings, he had become fixated on one of the silver instruments puffing away on the spindly-legged table beside his chair. Almost unconsciously, he had reached for it, slowly extending one long, slender finger towards a shiny metal orb, his fingertip coming closer, closer... until the headmaster had barked his name and startled him out of his wits. Now he clasped his hands in his lap and struggled to out-scowl the blush creeping up his cheeks. Minerva, sitting beside him, shook with mirth.
       "As I was saying," Dumbledore continued a bit more gruffly, "I believe we would do well to keep a close eye on our students' states of mind."
       Minerva sobered immediately. She turned a worried face to Snape, who sagged in his chair. An hour a night in the common rooms, he thought. Summer camp. Choir practice. What more can he possibly ask of us?
       "Weekly meetings," Dumbledore announced as he resumed his seat. "I'd like you to meet with each of your students for five minutes every week."
       He folded his hands on top of his desk and waited for their reaction. Sprout and Flitwick began their predictable enthusiastic chatter. Snape and McGonagall shut their eyes and gripped the arms of their chairs.
       "You may structure the conversation however you wish," the headmaster elaborated, "and ..."
       The heads of Slytherin and Gryffindor braced themselves.
       "I'd like you to touch them."
       Blink. Blink blink.
       "T...touch them?" McGonagall finally managed to stammer.
       "Touch can be very reassuring to a child," Dumbledore insisted, and Sprout nodded at his wisdom. He winked at the more crotchety members of his staff. "Use your imaginations," he suggested.
       So Snape imagined flogging the Slytherins within an inch of their lives if they arrived even one second late for one of these bloody interviews.
       Probably not what the headmaster had in mind, he had to admit.
       "Got any lumps?"
       Ron and Neville made the rounds of the house tables Monday morning, searching for an adequate-sized chunk of undissolved porridge meal. They found one in Justin Finch-Fletchley's bowl; the Hufflepuff scooped it out for them.
       "Gather 'round!" Ron called as Harry Potter climbed up to sit on top of the Gryffindor table. The students clustered about, anxious to see Harry's latest cloak trick, even as Hermione shook her head and begged, "Please, don't! It's disgusting and it's against the rules!"
       "Hermione, it's great!" Ron insisted.
       "But the cloak!" She tugged the watery fabric wadded in Harry's lap.
       "It washes fine," Harry assured her. "I promise!"
       He handed Ron his invisibility cloak and Ron handed him Justin's lump. Then the redhead wrapped Harry's cloak around Harry's head and neck, twisting the remainder into a tail that hung down Harry's back.
       "Ooh!" Violet winced at the site of the headless, neckless Gryffindor.
       "Wait, it gets better," Ron promised her. He took one last look around the hall to be sure no staff had arrived, then pulled out his wand and pointed it at the lump in Harry's hand. "Covertus impervious," he charmed. He stowed his wand in his pocket and grinned. "Now watch."
       Harry lifted the lump to where his wide-open mouth was concealed by the cloak. Then he shoved the lump through the fabric. The students leaned right or left to watch the gooey mess pass through the cloak, forming slimy strings that came to rest in a pile in mid-air, presumably lying on the surface of Harry's tongue. Ron's spell had rendered the mush impervious to invisibility.
       "Ew!" Violet squealed with delight. Malfoy gave Hermione a poke.
       "Did you teach him that?"
       "I most certainly did not!" the Gryffindor snorted.
       "I learned it from my Dad," Ron explained. "He used a variation of the charm to make a cloaking device for our Ford Anglia. Keep watching!"
       Harry began to chew, working the porridge into a revolting mess the students could see squirting through his invisible teeth or sticking to the roof of his mouth. The students groaned or grimaced or covered their faces with their hands, peeking between their fingers in nauseous delight.
       "And now," Ron proclaimed, "the grand finale."
       Poking into the corners and crevices of his mouth with his tongue, Harry gathered the porridge into a glutinous wad and gave a mighty gulp. The disgusting goo slid down his throat and disappeared where Harry's invisible neck connected to his still-visible shoulders.
       "I'm going to be sick!" Malfoy protested as a red-faced, smiling Harry emerged from beneath the cloak to thunderous applause.
       "Do it again!" Violet begged.
       Just then, the front door to the castle banged open and slammed shut. The students whirled around to see a red-haired man hurry past the entrance to the Great Hall on his way to the stairs. Several Slytherins gasped.
       "Was that..." Tracey began.
       "Yeah," Draco nodded, his pleasure at Potter's antics evaporating.
       Bill Weasley was heading straight for the headmaster's office.
       "Why do I think," Millicent speculated on the dramatic entrance, "that he didn't just hop off the Knight Bus?"
       "The Knight Bus is out of service," Pansy reminded them, completely missing the point. "Not enough customers, I guess. Too many people in hiding or afraid to move about, the Daily Prophet said."
       Harry, Ron and Hermione took off at a run, determined to catch up with Bill, but they were met at the door by Professor McGonagall, who commanded them sternly, "Take your seats!" She stood in the doorway, watching the corridors and staircases, and when Snape approached, she pulled him into the entryway for a consultation the students couldn't see. They entered the hall together a few minutes later, grim-faced, and McGonagall resumed her position by the door as Snape strode towards the head table. Malfoy tried to catch his eye but Snape refused to acknowledge him. Quietly, the students picked up their spoons and began eating their porridge.
       Before long, Professor Sprout arrived, followed by Lupin and Flitwick. McGonagall pulled each of them into the entryway for a briefing as well. Then she made her way to the head table, stopping long enough at the Gryffindor table to instruct Harry, "You may put your cloak away before class, Mr. Potter."
       The Slytherins put their heads together to whisper.
       "This can't be about Potter's jokes," Tracey insisted.
       Millicent frowned. "Maybe they really are harmful to the fabric."
       Malfoy shook his head. "James Potter was 10 times harder on it, I'm sure."
       "James Potter kept it a secret," Tracey reminded him. "I doubt he went around shoving porridge through it."
       They tried waiting for their fellow students outside of Potions class but no one had any idea why Harry Potter was no longer required to carry his invisibility cloak.
       "You're head boy," he reminded Malfoy as they shuffled into the classroom and took their seats. "Ask Snape."
       Malfoy hesitated and Millicent grinned. "He won't cane you for asking!" she insisted. But when Snape stormed into the room in an obviously foul temper, Draco lost his nerve.
       "Take out your parchment!" the potions master snapped. He commenced with a rapid-fire lecture on the potentially dangerous interactions of substitute potion ingredients, scrawling notes on the chalkboard in violent, staccato bursts of spidery handwriting.
       His frustrated students scratched away for more than 10 minutes, glancing up occasionally to scowl at one another as they scribbled. But when their teacher began pontificating on the volatile nature of gillyweed, several Slytherins and Gryffindors suddenly snorted.
       At the board, Snape paused. He twisted his head just far enough for the students to see his jaw twitch, but he did not turn around. When he began writing again, the snorters exchanged grins. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs looked to Hermione Granger for an explanation, but she just rolled her eyes and shook her head.
       "As any witch or wizard should be able to deduce," Snape called over his shoulder, "gillyweed interacts poorly with grasses..."
       At that, Millicent actually giggled. This set the lion and snake house students to snickering, save for one disgusted head girl. Snape whirled around but not quickly enough. He found himself surveying a room full of quiet, attentive children through narrowed black eyes.
       "The following," he whispered icily, "is an alphabetical list of grass family ingredients that should never be mixed with gillyweed." He looked them over twice to be sure of their submission before turning back to the board to note, "Annual quivering grass."
       Malfoy kept his eyes squarely on his parchment throughout the As, Bs, and Cs. But when Snape called out, "Dewy fescue," a grunt nearby made him look up. Weasley and Potter were both pressing their lips together to hold back laughs, as were Crabbe, Goyle and Warrington. Pansy, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed with glee, was biting hers.
       "Exono root," Snape pronounced, and several Slytherins and Gryffindors began to wimper with mirth.
       The Ravenclaws and Hufflefpuffs had had enough. They rose as one body and moved to the sides of the room, cradling their books on their arms to write against. After a moment, Hermione Granger joined them, unfurling her parchment with an angry flourish before placing it on top of her textbook.
       "F," Snape continued, and Malfoy's eyes began to smart. He glanced briefly at Hermione, scribbling dutifully on her parchment. Funny, that she was taking Snape's side. "Fairy dropseed," Snape listed as all around Malfoy, the hilarity threatented to burst its seams. "Feather mead..."
       Here it comes, Malfoy grinned.
       The guffaws broke forth in a storm of hoots and catcalls; a few daring students even clapped their hands. Snape, as expected, put his chalk down slowly and folded his arms across his chest before turning to face them.
       "You idiots!"
       The students jumped. The voice berating them came from the far side of the classroom. Hermione Granger slammed her books down on the nearest desk.
       "Maybe they're going to explain about the cloak in Defense class," she scolded the Slytherins and Gryffindors. "Did you ever think of that? Of course not!" She shook her head and her bushy hair flew. "You never think!" she insisted. "You just react! No wonder you never get anything right!"
       Malfoy stared at the girl, his mouth dropping open. Then he snapped it shut. That's the Gryffindors! he thought indignantly, and then, Oh, God, are we turning into Gryffindors? He glanced quickly at his housemates, all of whom were staring at Hermione, and then at Snape, who was regarding the girl with mild incredulity.
       Then Dennis Creevy burst into the room to announce, "Professor Dumbledore wants to see you in his office right away, sir," and Millicent blurted right out loud,
       "Oh, that's surreal."
       Malfoy could have sworn he saw Snape smile just a bit before nodding curtly at Dennis and turning to glare at the seated students.
       "Miss Granger!" he barked, never taking his eyes off the Slytherins and Gryffindors.
       "It appears I will be unable to finish my lecture," Snape said smoothly. "I make the following assignments which you may supervise. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs may practice transfiguring the classroom cauldrons into wooden tumblers, which are ideal for storing narcosepsis potion."
       "Yes!" cried Hannah Abbott under her breath. She was her house's cup game champion.
       "The Slytherins and Gryffindors, save yourself," Snape went on, smiling wickedly at the lions and snakes before him, "may begin work on a six foot essay describing the benefits and shortcomings of....?"
       The magical miscreants in the center of the room groaned. "Pero clippings," they sighed in unison, reaching into their bags for more parchment as Snape swept from the room.
       They were startled to see him again when they entered the Defense classroom later that morning. He was standing to the right of Lupin, who sat at his desk. Bill Weasley stood to the left. All three men looked sober and thoughtful.
       "Hurry, please," Lupin urged his students. "Take your seats."
       As soon as the students were settled, Lupin spoke again.
       "Late last night," he told them, "Professor Dumbledore received word that Alastor Moody, one of our strongest allies, has been killed."
       Several students gasped. Tears sprang to Hermione's eyes but Lupin made no acknowledgement of this or any of their reactions. "There is no doubt," he continued calmly, "that Auror Moody was killed for his magic eye, which will now allow Lord Voldemort to see through invisibility cloaks."
       Mystery solved, Malfoy thought. He imagined Voldemort, popping out Montague's eye, inserting Moody's, and grinning maniacally. He glanced at Potter, who looked wretched. Granger had a hand on his arm and Weasley was watching his friend with worried eyes.
       "You all remember Bill Weasley," Lupin went on, and Malfoy jerked his eyes back to the front of the room. Bill nodded at the students.
       "Mr. Weasley was working with Mr. Moody at the time of his death. Now..." Lupin took a deep breath and lifted his head. "He will work with us."
       Bill stepped forward to address the class.
       "Who can tell me the characteristics of the avada kedavra curse?" he asked. Every hand went up, of course. Bill chose Neville Longbottom.
       "It kills immediately, without leaving a mark," the Gryffindor reported. "It can't be blocked. There's no counter-curse."
       "Thanks, Neville." Bill hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his black jeans and leaned against the corner of the desk. "Moody and I were working on a theory when he died. We all know that, once cast, the killing curse can't be stopped. But we also know that it can be deflected... or at least, that it was deflected once."
       He stared mildly at the Boy Who Lived and everybody followed his gaze. "Imagine," Bill murmured, "if it were possible to deflect the AK curse in battle. Imagine if you could stone Death Eaters in relative safety!"
       An image filled Malfoy's head, of Hogwarts students twirling about the grounds like clumsy ballet dancers, stoning at leisure while harmless AK curses bounced off their robes. The picture was almost comical.
       "That..." Bill straightened up again, " how I got my idea. I don't believe it's possible..." He shook his head and his red pony-tail swayed back and forth. " harness the power of pure love and channel it through a wand. That would involve sacrifice, and what would be the point? On the battlefield, you don't gain anything by sacrificing one wizard to save another."
       Harry Potter flinched.
       "Then I thought about all of you." Bill nodded at them. "I thought about the work you were doing here, with stoning." He glanced at Snape and Lupin, then down at the floor. "I thought about it a lot," he confessed, and Malfoy suddenly found himself wondering if he should tell Snape what the Slytherins had done to rid themselves of the oldest Weasley offspring.
       Bill looked up again, his eyes blazing. "Perhaps it's possible to deflect the AK curse," he whispered, and they hung on his every word, "by casting... together."
       A thrill crawled up Malfoy's spine. Beside him, Millicent tugged at the too-short sleeve of her robe, trying to cover the gooseflesh that had just broken out on her forearm. If they could do that... If they could do that...!!
       Bill stepped back again, nodding his thanks to Lupin who stood up behind his desk. "From now on," the teacher informed them, "this class will be taught by myself, Mr. Weasley, and Professor Snape, who has graciously agreed to suspend Potions for the duration. Instead, we will work together on this theory, and you will work with us."
       Several students squeaked with excitement and Ron Weasley murmured, "Brilliant!"
       "We will decrease the frequency of your other courses," Lupin explained, "and use the time for additional Defense lessons."
       Hermione Granger thrust her hand into the air. Worried about her N.E.W.T. exams, Malfoy thought, but Hermione surprised him by asking,
       "How far have you gotten, Mr. Weasley?"
       "Not far at all," the red-head admitted. "At the time of Auror Moody's death, we were cataloging my inventory of curses, comparing them to the killing curse." He walked over to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk.
       "Could someone please describe the attributes of the AK curse?" He scrawled the word 'Attributes' on the board. "Harry?" He turned to look at the boy who, unlike most of them, had seen the curse used to kill other wizards. The students followed his gaze and found Harry staring dully in front of him. Instead of answering Bill's question, he whispered numbly,
       "Is that how he died? Moody?"
       Bill hesitated, then swallowed. He turned in embarrassment to Lupin, who was watching Harry with obvious concern. But it was Snape who spoke, in an even, bitter tone.
       "Words," he murmured, and Bill, realizing what he was doing, whirled back to the board to write down what the potions master was saying.
       "Light," Snape continued as Bill scrawled rapidly. "Wind."
       "That's correct," Bill nodded. "The AK curse consists of the incantation followed by a flash of green light and a rush of wind. So." He put the chalk down and clapped his hands against each other, brushing off the white dust. "If deflection is possible, how does it work? Does it have to be cast before the AK incantation is complete? During the light? During the wind?"
       He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops again and began strolling among them. "Does the deflection incantation have to be silent?" he wondered. "Is there any incantation at all? Will it always cause the AK curse to rebound on its caster? And what role..." He paused and stared thoughtfully out the window. "... does emotion or intention really play?"
       They spent the rest of the hour in a spirited discussion of these topics, trying to quantify the amount of time associated with each attribute of the AK curse from their experiments with flies over the summer. Snape assured them that the light and wind lasted longer with human beings and Malfoy wanted to ask Potter if it was shorter with younger wizards, like Cedric. But Harry was not participating in the discussion. He stared resolutely at the surface of his desk. When the subject changed to a spirited debate about whether love between friends or even strangers could rival the affections of a mother, he closed his eyes and kept them tightly shut.
       After class, the students chattered excitedly as they spilled into the corridor. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs hurried off to the Great Hall for lunch. But a strange melancholy tugged at Malfoy's heart and he paused near the door, trying to figure out what it was. The Slytherins stopped with him, eyeing his morose face. Seeing them clumped together like that made Malfoy realize what was bothering him.
       "Potions!" he cried. His housemates exchanged confused looks and their vexed leader raised his voice. "That may have been our last potions class! Ever!"
       This pronouncement brought a collective, regretful gasp from the Slytherins.
       "Brilliant," Goyle moaned. "If we'd known that, we wouldn't have spent the whole period behaving like..."
       "Jackasses?" Warrington filled in the blank. He and his housemates dropped their heads and shuffled slowly towards the Great Hall. They barely noticed the Gryffindors who were clumped around Harry Potter a few feet up the corridor.
       The door to the Defense classroom opened and Snape emerged. He called to Harry and sent the rest of the Gryffindors on their way with a terse dismissal. He waited until they were safely out of sight, then turned to Harry and demanded,
       "Potter, whose fault is it that Moody is dead?"
       Harry looked up, startled. His mouth dropped open. After a few moments, he shut again. He shook his head and dropped his eyes to the floor.
       Snape took a menacing step closer to him. "Whose fault is it," he seethed, "that Alastor Moody is dead?" He stood toe to toe with the boy, an insistent presence breathing down the Gryffindor's neck as Harry stared at the floor. Finally, he gave a little nod, took a deep breath, lifted his head and announced, "It's Voldemort's fault."
       "Again," Snape demanded.
       "It's Voldemort's fault!" Harry said more loudly.
       "IT'S VOLDEMORT'S FAULT!" the boy shouted. The door to the Defense classroom opened and Bill and Lupin stuck their faces into the corridor. Snape raised an eyebrow at them and they withdrew. He clasped his hands behind his back and turned back to Harry.
       "I'm not convinced," he decided. "Perhaps you'd best write it down for me. 500 times. 'It is Voldemort's fault that Moody is dead.' By the end of the week. Is that understood, Potter?"
       A small smile tugged at Harry's lips. He nodded at Snape and turned to go. He'd taken only a few steps when he whirled back around and called, "Professor Snape?"
       The teacher, who had been just about to re-enter the Defense classroom, let go of the knob and turned back to the boy.
       "Maybe I should only write it 250 times," Harry suggested. "Maybe..." He narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing Snape's face closely. "Maybe you should write the other 250, sir."
       Snape stared at the boy. The Gryffindor's face was calm, his eyes warm and clear. Snape nodded.
       "Good thinking," he praised, dismissing Harry with another nod. He watched the boy saunter off, and as he did, he thought, Did you see that, James? He thought about me. YOUR son had a thought for MY well-being!
       Harry disappeared around the nearest corner and Snape turned back to the Defense classroom, silencing any further internal dialog with the former head boy. It was just too hard, with all of Dumbledore's initiatives, to find two hours to spend with the Slytherins every damn time he had a resentful thought about James or Sirius.
       "Marybeth's not here."
       Malfoy didn't look up, so Violet gave him a poke. He sat surrounded by his fellow seventh years who were working together in front of the common room fire on what they hoped were the best essays on pero clippings ever written. Malfoy swatted her hand as if brushing away an insect and muttered,
       "So she's after me, and I'm almost up, and Snape said he'd flog anybody who was late!"
       The rest of the third years, sitting at a table a few feet away, nodded vigorously. They had gathered together on this Wednesday evening to watch Michael depart for the first of the weekly five-minute appointments with Snape. Then they'd taken seats together around a single table, nervously watching the clock to be sure no one kept Snape waiting. They'd already memorized their order: Violet was second, followed by Marybeth and then Jennifer Rosich, whose nerves suddenly got the better of her. She sprang to her feet and suggested, "Let's go sit outside Snape's door!"
       "You're too old for that nonsense," Malfoy responded before turning to Violet to insist, "Marybeth can take care of herself. Go sit down."
       "She's ruining my fun!" Violet grumbled as she marched away. Five minutes alone with Snape was a glorious thing to ponder... unless you were worried about your roommate not making it back from Gryffindor Tower in time.
       Violet couldn't imagine why Marybeth was spending so much time with Neville Longbottom these days. It was the other seventh month baby she'd always had a crush on. The frustrated Slytherin hurried over to the common room door and opened it, pressing her ear to the crack to listen for any sound of her roommate.
       "I'm going," Violet announced, and she slipped out the door and scooted down the hall to Snape's office. She arrived just as the door was opening. Michael emerged with a confused look on his face, studying his hands which he held up before him.
       "All right," Snape nodded to her. Violet hurried inside and took a seat that was still warm from Michael's interview.
       Snape sat down behind his desk. He stared at the child who smiled sweetly back at him. After a while, the housemaster began to drum his fingers on the desk. Violet smiled until she felt ridiculous. Then she cleared her throat and began looking nervously around the office, pondering the rows of bottles on Snape's shelves.
       "Tell me everything you did today," Snape demanded, and Violet jumped.
       "Oh," she stammered. "Well... I..." She thought it over. "I got up," she began, "and went to inspection. Then I went to the Great Hall for breakfast." She tried to think if anything significant had happened. "Millicent was telling us how porridge is so healthy we could live on it and I said that's what lots of under-developed muggle cultures do but in the movies it's always portrayed as really nasty food that poor people have to eat or that you feed to abused orphans and they even give it an awful-sounding name, gruel, which rhymes with 'cruel,' doesn't it? I bet that's on purpose. Anyway, I saw this one cartoon once where the kids were so oppressed, they couldn't even have real gruel, they had to eat imitation gruel..."
       "Enough!" Snape gave Violet a dismissive flick of one hand while he rubbed his temples with the others. "Do you have any questions," he asked, his eyes closed, his fingertips pressed to his forehead, "or concerns?"
       Violet grinned from ear to ear. "Yes!" she chirped, giving his desk an emphatic slap, and Snape groaned. Damn that Dumbledore. Damn him!
       Violet leaned closer and folded her arms atop the desk. "Why," she whispered conspiratorially, "can't I see thestrals?"
       Snape looked up, suddenly intrigued. Violet nodded. "I've seen death!" she reminded him. "You were there. I was holding Katie when she died! Why can't I see thestrals?"
       Snape frowned. He thought for a moment, then leaned forward on the desk himself.
       "It could be," he began carefully, "that the death must be traumatic. Your ill friend dying peacefully in your arms was the answer to a prayer. It did not scar you. It fulfilled you. But perhaps the real reason..."
       He broke off and thought some more. "Your father..." he went on. He stopped at the paternal reference but decided against correcting himself. "Your father," he began again, "is obsessed with death, with immortality. Maybe your inability to see thestrals is an indication of how strongly you differ with him in this area."
       The notion pleased Violet. Snape noted her smile, cleared his throat and said abruptly, "Come here." He pushed back from his desk and turned his chair sideways. When she was standing in front of him, he commanded, "Hold out your hands."
       Violet did as she was told. She watched, fascinated, as Snape took hold of her fingertips. He bent his head to carefully inspect her palms, then turned her hands over to give her fingernails the same close scrutiny.
       "Your nails could be a bit tidier," he announced when he had finished, "but overall, satisfactory." He released her hands and nodded at the door. "You may go."
       Violet bit back a giggle, thanked him, and headed for the door. Snape followed close behind. It wasn't until she had stepped into the hall and found it empty that she remembered Marybeth. She whirled around to face her housemaster, her mouth opening as her mind raced to come up with a believable excuse for her roommate's absence. But Snape raised an eyebrow and inquired icily,
       "Are you quite certain you want to do what you are about to do?"
       No, Violet decided, she was not. She shook her head. She'd rather go back to the house and discuss her meeting with the other kids then stand here and lie and earn herself six strokes on behalf of a Slytherin who had no good reason for being late in the first place.
       As if on cue, footfalls began to echo from far away, growing louder and louder as Marybeth raced through the halls on her way to Snape's office. She ran all the way to Snape's door, stopping short on the other side of Violet, where she stood panting and clutching a stitch in her side. Violet regarded her disapprovingly, then realized she was standing between Snape and a disobedient Slytherin. She jumped out from between them and, after tossing Snape a quick, "Good night, sir," hurried away down the corridor.
       "Enter," Snape snarled at Marybeth, who nodded and slipped into his office. She crossed to his desk, but before she could sit down, Snape hissed, "Remain standing."
       Marybeth gave a little sigh and turned to face her housemaster. Snape, still standing beside the door he had just closed, narrowed his eyes and demanded, "Where have you been?"
       "Gryffindor Tower, sir," Marybeth answered immediately. Snape waited but she said nothing else. Slowly, he walked towards her across the office, hands clasped behind his back.
       "Sir?" asked Marybeth calmly.
       Snape raised an eyebrow at her. " Whom were you visiting?"
       Marybeth did not move. "Neville Longbottom, sir," she replied quietly.
       "Am I mistaken," Snape was now just a few feet away, "or have you been visiting Mr. Longbottom every night this week?"
       Marybeth didn't hesitate. She looked Snape straight in the eye and nodded. "Yes, sir."
       Snape stopped. He had reached the youngster and now he stared down his hooked nose at the child.
       "I'm sorry I was late, sir," Marybeth assured her housemaster. "It won't happen again. We were concentrating very hard and I lost track of time. Please don't spank me."
       It was an effective plea and Snape was forced to turn away to hide its impact. Then he whirled back around, bringing his palms down on the desk on either side of Marybeth, imprisoning her between his arms.
       "You, Miss Montague," he hissed, his eyes boring into hers, "are not being entirely forthcoming with me."
       Marybeth didn't even flinch. "I'm concerned about something, sir," she told her housemaster, "and I've been working very hard on it. I give you my word I haven't broken any rules."
       Snape searched her face. He could find no trace of guilt or shame in it. He straightened up and gave the girl a curt nod. "Sit," he commanded as he walked around his desk, "while you can. We'll change the subject."
       Marybeth waited until he took his seat, then plopped gratefully into hers. "Thank you, sir," she smiled at him.
       Malfoy enjoyed his visit enormously, especially when Snape asked how it felt to be head boy, hinting that perhaps the position assuaged any lingering resentments Draco might have against the Chosen One. The boy told him about Rachel Dockman's letter and her description of the Dark Lord's previous self-destruction that left the planet to his powerful remainders. "When Voldemort is defeated, sir," he finished loftily, "the world will be my oyster. We both know Potter won't have any use for it."
       On Friday morning, the head boy plopped himself down on the lion house bench between Harry and Hermione to compare notes on the only aspect of the interview he found puzzling.
       "Did McGonagall inspect your fingernails?"
       "Fingernails?" Hermione blinked. Ron Weasley, sitting opposite, stifled a snort. Malfoy could just imagine why. Snape preoccupied with hygiene as an indicator of mental health was ironic. I suppose he learned it from the nuns, Draco theorized as he scowled at Ron.
       Hermione shook her head. After a moment, she blurted out, "Did Professor Snape measure you?"
       "Measure us?"
       Hermione nodded. "Professor McGonagall put us up against a wall in her office," she explained. "She put one hand on our shoulder, and used the other to burn a mark in the wall with her wand to record our height." The girl shook her head, completely flummoxed. "The younger students I can see," she admitted, "but people don't grow at our age!"
       Malfoy thought it over. After a while, he gave up. "Maybe she just wants to be sure you're not shrinking," he suggested, "from our limited diet."
       "Maybe," Ron had a different theory, "they're cracked!"
       Hermione reached for the milk pitcher and poured a modest amount over her porridge. "If their little protocols make them happy," she advised her fellow students, "let them do it." She set the pitcher down with an authoritative thump and added, "Protocol can be very reassuring to an adult."
       "You have to go," Draco told Pansy, pulling free from her embrace even as he helped himself to one more taste of her crepe-flavored lips. She was standing between his knees as he sat on the edge of the Head Boy desk, his arms wrapped loosely around her waist. She reached up to straighten his collar and tie for his Friday night meeting and he gave her a wink. Maybe he'd bring her back here next week. Or maybe he'd bring Millicent. Better yet, why not bring Millicent tomorrow night? Why limit himself to Fridays?
       Because shocking Granger is half the fun! he reminded himself as he climbed off the desk. Perhaps he could lure Ginny Weasley into this little den of iniquity.
       Hermione walked into the office just as Pansy was sashaying out the door. The Slytherin paused to give the Gryffindor a sly glance but Hermione paid no attention. Instead, she averted her eyes, but not before Malfoy saw that she was blinking back tears. Granger, you prissy butt, he fumed as he settled into his chair. You ruin everything.
       Hermione took her own seat and Malfoy noticed she was clutching a piece of paper again. This time, however, it not made of parchment. It was muggle stationery in a rather silly shade of pink.
       "Bad news from home?" he drawled without the slightest hint of sympathy. He leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on the desk.
       Hermione folded her arms atop the blotter and dropped her head onto them. "My parents moved," she whispered.
       The Head Girl glared at Draco. "They lied to me!" she hissed, and the Slytherin's eyebrows flew up. He sat up with a jolt, slamming his chair legs down against the stone floor as he leaned forward on the desk.
       "Your parents moved," he marveled, "and they didn't tell you?"
       Hermione rolled her eyes in disgust. "No, you idiot!" she snarled, shoving the paper at him. "They lied about why they moved!"
       Draco picked up the note and gave it a cursory going-over. It appeared to be written by some half-wit muggle girl who was explaining in choppy sentences why she could no longer be friends with Hermione Granger. 'After your folks moved, my folks decided,' the girl wrote. 'If parents of a witch can get treated that way, friends could be next.'
       Malfoy shoved the note back at Hermione. "So the Grangers have been persecuted by muggles!" he drawled. Hermione gave him a dangerous look but Draco knew better. "This is why Hogwarts shouldn't admit mudbloods, Granger," he insisted. "It's not safe to reveal our world to muggles."
       Hermione narrowed her eyes at the Slytherin. "She never told a soul!" the Head Girl defended her friend. "And Draco, if you ever use that word again..."
       The Head Boy raised an eyebrow at her.
       "...I will tell Professor Snape," Hermione finished simply. She relished how Draco paled at the threat.
       12, Malfoy reckoned, in front of the entire school, Head Boy or not. He summoned the most menacing scowl he could manage and snarled, "If your friend didn't tell, then how did vengeful muggles find out about your parents?"
       Hermione groaned, burying her face in her hands and rubbing her temples with her index fingers as she rested her elbows on the desk. There were so many possibilities: betrayal by other wizards, betrayal by the Dursleys... Great Britain was full of muggles who knew about the wizarding world, even before the second war broke out. "I don't know," came the girl's muffled response.
       Malfoy watched her for a while. Then he picked up the note and began noisily folding it into a paper fortune teller. When Hermione peeked at him from between her fingers, he stuck three fingers and a thumb into the four corners and flapped the device like a talking mouth. "Your muggle friend is a git," he observed, moving his own lips as little as possible. "Was she the best you could do?"
       Hermione shook her head behind her hands. When she lowered them, she was smiling. She gave her bushy hair a toss and told him airily, "You wouldn't know this, Malfoy, but smart people have trouble finding friends."
       The Head Boy grinned back. That's more like it, he thought. He pasted a somber expression on his face and reached out to snap at her with the fortune teller. "Ate your nose," he announced, and Hermione giggled.
       Malfoy leaned back in his chair, fiddling absently with the toy in his hand. "Tell me, smart girl," he asked when Hermione had sobered. "How does it feel to know Salazar was right?"
       Hermione leapt to her feet. "Salazar was NOT right!" she cried, but Malfoy interrupted her before she could say anything else.
       "We're trying to discharge a murderous tyrant," he reminded her, "and they hate us for it. How do you explain that?"
       Hermione shook her head. "It's not about wizards and muggles," she insisted. "They're angry because they think our behavior is costing them money..."
       "...because they've set themselves up in opposition to us," Malfoy continued her sentence, "because they hate us... because we have power. What difference does it make..." He leaned forward again. "...if it's about money, or land, or anything else? In the end, they swear us as enemies because we have power. That's all."
       He gave the desktop a bang with his fist. Then he leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head, returning his feet to the desktop.
       Hermione thought for a while. Finally she sat down. "Salazar was NOT right, Malfoy," she insisted. "We're talking about a few muggles... just a few muggles..."
       "Who says?" Malfoy challenged. "Who says it's just a few?"
       "Arthur Weasley!" Hermione championed the Ministry official proudly. Draco nodded.
       "The Arthur Weasley who can't take care of himself?" he reminded her. "The Arthur Weasley who can't discipline his children?" Hermione's mouth popped open but Malfoy held up a hand.
       "Are you thinking?" he taunted, "or are you just going to react?"
       Hermione closed her mouth. She stared at Malfoy for several seconds, her face carefully composed. Then she lunged forward to shove Malfoy's feet off the desk, tipping him backwards in the process. He flailed madly to regain his balance and the fortune teller flew across the room.
       When the Slytherin had righted himself, he climbed to his feet and stormed angrily across the office, snatching up the note. He marched back to the desk and thrust it unceremoniously beneath Hermione's nose.
       "Cling to whatever delusion you want, Granger," he seethed, "but know this." He flung the note down in front of her. "The majority of muggles..." He gestured to the pink sheet of paper. "...are BAD."
       He waited for her response. She tilted her head, scrutinizing his face, and after thinking it over, gave a little nod. "So," she asserted, "are the majority of wizards."
       Draco blinked. He shook his head and raised an arm to point an accusing finger at her. But the digit hung between them for only a few moments before he dropped it again. He said nothing. Instead, he thought.
       He thought of Snape, explaining why they were short supplies in Potions class the first day of school. He thought of Karkaroff, of the behavior he'd witnessed at the World Cup. He thought of Knockturn Alley. He thought of the citizens of Hogwarts. He thought of seventeen years' worth of people and behaviors, and he shook his head.
       "You're right," he muttered. He thought some more and added, "Bugger."
       "What is the matter with you?"
       McGonagall rapped sharply on her podium, cutting short the warm-up scales her students had been singing at choir rehearsal Tuesday night. Malfoy, who knew, said nothing. "I suppose it's hard on them," he'd whispered to Violet as the gloomy Gryffindors had shuffled into the Transfiguration classroom, "discovering how many muggles hate us." The Weasleys, he'd noticed, were looking particularly subdued.
       "Sissies," Violet had scoffed.
       "They're not sissies," Malfoy had argued. "They're just not Slytherins. They're not used to the idea that..."
       But then Snape had come in, followed closely by Madam Director, and Violet had hurried off to scramble onto the harpsichord bench and open the keyboard for her housemaster.
       Hermione shrugged at her head of house. "We're behind in Potions," she complained. "We haven't made an ounce of progress with deflection..."
       "Or our quidditch alternative," Ron interjected. The students had given up on the game for the time being, preferring to spend their free time discussing Bill's defense theory.
       "We're behind in charms," Hermione continued, "and transfigurations and everything, and it's all for a bunch of muggles who don't even appreciate us!"
       Snape and McGonagall exchanged looks. "What's Potter," Violet whispered to her housemaster, "chopped liver?" Snape cuffed her. McGonagall turned back to her choir.
       "Sit," she commanded, and the students took seats on the risers. Violet leaned against Snape, who promptly pushed her off.
       "Muggles," McGonagall began, "compare wizards to vampires. They see us as higher on the food chain and therefore a threat."
       "That's ridiculous!" Hannah Abbott protested. "We don't prey on them!"
       "My advice, " McGonagall went on, "is to focus on the matter at hand. Once Voldemort is defeated, there will be plenty of time to further your education and address other concerns. In the meantime..." She turned sharply to Hermione Granger. "There is always another way."
       The Head Girl frowned, thinking hard. All around her, the children nodded. Ginny Weasley thrust her hand into the air and waved eagerly at her head of house.
       "Let's work on Christmas music!" she cried when McGonagall nodded at her. "Could we? We could put together..."
       "A show?" giggled Violet. Snape cuffed her.
       "A concert," Ginny corrected before turning back to McGonagall. "It would give us something to look forward to if we're all here at Christmas, and if we're not... I mean, if we've defeated Voldemort by then, we could invite our parents!"
       The notion cheered everyone enormously, though Violet suspected Hermione Granger had other reasons for perking up. She had to be prodded out of her reverie as the other students sprang to their feet. McGonagall turned to Snape.
       "Accompanist's choice," she declared. Snape thought it over and, to everyone's surprise and Violet's delight, suggested a showtune.
       "'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.'"
       As Violet turned pages on the first run-through, she caught Ginny giving Snape several pleased smiles. She couldn't be sure, but when the voices swelled on 'Through the years we all will be together' she thought she saw the students move a little closer together, and she was almost positive her housemaster gave the redheaded Gryffindor girl a wink.
       There is no obstacle we can't overcome, Snape told himself a week and a half later as he watched Hermione Granger and Michael Bletchley produce an illumination potion in record time. So why can't we crack the deflection nut?
       They'd been at it for three weeks now, with no success. True, Lupin had been indisposed part of the time. But with other lessons reduced, McGonagall had been contributing all she could. So had Dumbledore, and the students were no slouches. Why weren't they getting anywhere?
       Perhaps it was the weather. Brisk, fragrant days with clear blues skies and mellow autumn sun had buoyed everyone's spirits even as they'd exacerbated their sense of captivity. Lupin had caught Snape hauling Crabbe and Goyle to the dungeon for a flogging after aurors had protested their hanging too far out the windows and had promptly initiated a program of supervised sunbaths on the Astronomy Tower roof... fully clothed, of course. Lying back against the sun-warmed tiles, the students breathed deeply and talked about... deflection.
       Be patient, Snape scolded himself. Before Weasley arrived, no one even thought about deflection! Well, that was the trouble, wasn't it? Now that the idea had occurred to them, they couldn't get it out of their minds. It was hard to be patient. Voldemort could attack any day!
       Never mind, Snape thought with a shake of his head. Focus on the matter at hand! He joined the others in applauding Hermione and Michael.
       The Saturday morning potions seminars had been Granger's idea. They weren't as comprehensive as classroom lessons but they were better than nothing. They'd spent the previous Saturday morning discussing healing potions and the need for someone to remain indoors, brewing, throughout the battle.
       "Why can't we just make the potions in advance?" Violet had wondered, and Malfoy had explained that 1) some potions lost potency when stored, and 2) with ingredients in short supply, it wasn't practical to second-guess what they might need.
       To Ron Weasley Snape had addressed the question of who should do the brewing. "Well," the strategist had theorized, "if the attack comes at night, we'll need illumination potion cast from a tower to help us see the Death Eaters in their dark robes. That makes you the obvious choice, sir, since you'll be in Gryffindor Tower anyway."
       Harry Potter, they all knew, would spend the battle in Gryffindor if at all possible, since he and three of his protectors... Dumbledore, Lupin and McGonagall... knew the tower extremely well. Voldemort and the Death Eaters, it could be assumed, did not. Furthermore, the citizens of Hogwarts could leap to the ground from a tower's height if they needed a fast retreat; their enemies would not be able to follow.
       But illumination potion required four hands, and naming the second brewer had proven a bit more difficult. Malfoy wanted to be on the battlefield but hadn't wanted to say so. Hermione thought brewing was more important than stoning since so few of them could make the necessary potions... but hadn't wanted to say so. Then Tracey Davis, bless her heart, had thrust her hand into the air to remind everybody that Hermione had been the first to produce a convalescious potion and the question had been decided. Hermione would brew, and Michael would serve as back-up should Snape be needed elsewhere.
       Now Bill Weasley spoke up from the back of the crowded potions classroom which was brilliantly illuminated by Hermione's and Michael's potion. "I'll show you something, if you'd like," he called over the applause, and Snape yielded the floor.
       He marveled at the younger man's cheerfulness in light of how poorly Defense was going. What were they doing wrong, Snape wondered as Bill made his way to the front of the room. They were working so hard! The children were tireless in their analyses of curses, theorizing constantly in the corridors, at meals, and in their common rooms. Were they using the wrong test cases? Should they try a different defense? Perhaps a double-strength shield or finite incantum...
       Bill drew his wand, pointing it at the brilliant illumination overhead before shouting, "Relumoducio!" The light seemed to shiver. Then the curse-breaker wrapped his thumb and forefinger snugly around his wand and began slowly lowering the rod through his grip as if cleaning some sort of coating off its surface. It reminded Harry a bit of the time he'd wiped his own wand free of troll bogies. "Watch the light!" Bill commanded, and the students raised their eyes to the bright cloud above them. As Bill pulled, the cloud got smaller and smaller until it was no more than a mirror-sized pool, illuminating only the space before Snape's desk.
       "Oh!" Hermione cried as Ron Weasley shouted, "That's bloody brilliant!"
       "Thought it up after walking into my third blinding light curse," Bill told them. "So much more clever than impenetrable darkness."
       The students gave him a round of applause. When it died down, Snape asked Ron,
       "Invaluable!" Ron gushed. "You can light the Death Eaters and keep our side in the dark!" He nodded at his brother and asked, "You can go bigger again, right?"
       Bill slid his wand back up through his hand until the light from the cloud reached where Ron was sitting. The students started to clap again but Bill hushed them.
       "You try it," he called to Hermione. "I'll give my wand a sharp twist, like this..." He turned his wand 90 degrees, held it horizontal for a moment, then pocketed it. The light held steady at its current size. "Now recite the incantation," he instructed Hermione, "and take hold."
       It took her a few tries, but before long, Hermione was expanding and contracting the cloud as smoothly as Bill. She was just about to ask Snape if he'd like a turn when Michael stepped up to her elbow.
       "Hold it steady, please," he said softly. "I'd like to try something."
       "The light won't last much longer," Hermione told the younger student. "We should give Professor Snape a chance."
       But Snape nodded his assent and Michael fired up his lumos light, reaching cautiously towards the cloud.
       "Accio," he murmured, and the cloud reached down to connect with his wand.
       "I don't believe it!" Lupin gasped.
       Michael smiled and, never taking his eyes off the cloud, began to sweep his wand to the right, away from the wand Hermione held aloft. As he moved, the cloud thinned, stretching narrower and narrower until it formed a line instead of an oval. Then he wrapped his remaining fingers around his wand and bent it forward, nodding to Hermione to do the same. The line expanded into a rectangle. The students gasped and Lupin leapt to his feet.
       "Wait!" he cried, hurrying forward. When he'd reached the front of the room, he ordered, "Move your wands forward, very slowly. Stay together!" The children obeyed, arching their wands forward as if casting for trout in slow motion, and to everyone's amazement, the rectangle of light sailed slowly towards the back of the room. Ron went nearly apopletic with excitement.
       "Different shapes!" he cried. "Different sizes, and moveable! Do you realize what this means?" He folded his hands and threw his head back to gaze beseechingly at the ceiling. "Please, God," he begged, "let them attack at night!"
       "But it doesn't last very long," Hermione reminded him. "You'll only have the light for about ..."
       The students jumped as the cloud illuminating the room dimmed. "Soop," Michael said again, three more times, and each time the light decreased until it was the intensity of mere torchlight . "Now let's see how long it lasts," the youngest student smiled, giving his wand a sharp twist to disengage, and after a moment of stunned silence, the room exploded in cheering and applause. Ron Weasley grabbed Harry Potter and jumped up and down, beside himself with the strategic advantages of this new discovery. Even Snape came forward to clap Michael on both shoulders.
       He dismissed the students who hurried away to Dumbledore's office, driving the cloud of light before them, eager to show the headmaster their new trick. Lupin shook his head as the last of them hurried out the door, a broad smile on his face. "We are," he told Bill and Snape, "without a doubt, the finest group of wizards I've ever seen."
       Bill grinned but Snape turned away from these words and swept silently from the room. Bill shook his head as the tail of Snape's robes billowed through the door.
       "What's gotten into Snape, anyway?" he asked his fellow Gryffindor.
       Lupin frowned. "Don't be facetious, Bill!"
       "I'm not!" the redhead protested, his Weasley temper flaring. "I realize I was out of line last spring. I'm just wondering how long he's been like this."
       "Like what?"
       Bill turned impatiently to Lupin. "What do you mean, 'like what?' How long has he been so..."
       Lupin waited and Bill felt a slight chill at the werewolf's blank stare. Can I be the only one, he wondered, the only one who sees it? He thought it over and shook his head. I have more pressing things to worry about than Severus Snape, he decided, and he told his colleague, "Never mind."
       Lupin nodded and excused himself. He paused in the corridor, running Bill's words over in his mind. Then he walked briskly to his quarters where he retrieved a piece of parchment from his nightstand.
       He found the potions master lounging in a comfortable chair in the staff room, his legs stretched before him, staring out the nearest window.
       "I got another letter from Madeline this morning," Lupin announced as he entered, "and it occurred to me..." He took a seat opposite Snape. "I never really thanked you for introducing me to her... or for Lupin's remedy."
       Snape curled his lip. "I never thanked you for helping me with stoning," he pointed out, "but you don't see me wasting time on it now."
       Lupin grinned. "That's different," he insisted. "The things you've done for me have made me happy. In fact, the Dark Lord notwithstanding, I'd say these are the happiest days of my life."
       Snape tore his gaze from the window. "These," he quoted acidly, "are the happiest days of your life?"
       Ah, Lupin thought. Now he knew what had bothered Snape about his earlier observation concerning the finest wizards he'd ever known. "Yes, Severus," he assured the Slytherin housemaster. "Working with you and the others, watching the children grow in so many ways, corresponding with Madeline... all these things have made the past few months the happiest of my entire life. You, on the other hand..." Lupin shook his head, not with disapproval but regret. "You don't seem anywhere near as happy as you ought to be. Severus, don't you realize we've provided the best defense instruction in the history of Hogwarts? I would have thought..." Lupin broke off, suddenly embarrassed, and Snape regarded him coolly.
       "I wonder, Lupin," he murmured, "if you have any idea what has really been accomplished within the walls of this school."
       Lupin rose and crossed the room to crouch beside Snape's chair. "Severus!" he beseeched his colleague. "Everything will be all right once Voldemort is defeated! When I think about it..." He stood up and walked to the window, drinking in the site of Hogwarts' grounds on a beautiful fall day. "When I think about being alive and well, surrounded by friends and free of Voldemort..." He turned back to Snape like a grinning fool. "It makes me so happy I could just... just..."
       "Careful, Lupin," said Snape waspishly. "You'll sprout a patronus without even trying."
       Lupin went right on grinning. "Maybe I'll adopt a child!" he cried, his eyes bright. "There will be so much need, maybe it won't matter what I am. Maybe I'll adopt two, or even three! I won't care how troubled they are, how traumatized, embittered or angry..."
       He broke off suddenly and turned wondering eyes on Snape. "Severus," he appealed to his colleague, taking a step nearer his chair. "How is it... how is it you can have so much insight into troubled children and not realize that Sirius was never quite..."
       Snape's eyelids flickered. He lifted his head to return Lupin's gaze and the werewolf nodded. "Never quite sane," he finished softly.
       Snape gave the Gryffindor a lofty smile. "Who is?" he replied, rising from his chair to add, "Since you've brought the conversation full circle, I'll take my leave."
       "Stop it, Severus!" Lupin stepped in front of the potions master to block his departure. "Admit it," he demanded. "You were sane. I was sane. James was sane. Sirius was not sane."
       Snape glared at the Defense instructor and Lupin clenched his fists to keep from grabbing the potions master and shaking him. "How is it possible," he bellowed, "that you can do so many fine things, that you can take the first step to break down the enmity between the houses, that you can convince the children it will take a group effort to defeat Voldemort, but you can't..."
       He broke off at the sight of Snape's face. The potions master had gone rigid, his mouth open, his eyes wide with shock.
       "Severus?" Lupin whispered, wondering what he possibly could have said to cause such a reaction. He took hold of Snape's arm. "Severus?"
       Snape tore lose from the werewolf's grasp. "That's it!" he cried. He grabbed both of Remus' arms and gripped them tightly. "Lupin, that's it!" He let go and whirled around to hurry from the room.
       "What?" Lupin shouted, hurrying after him, and Snape almost banged into him as he spun back around.
       "All four houses!" he cried. "It will take all four houses to defeat Voldemort!" Lupin stared, utterly perplexed, and Snape rolled his eyes. "We're the wrong ones!" he shouted over his shoulder as he hurried away down the corridor. Lupin took a deep breath and raced after him.
       They ran to Gryffindor Tower, then the Great Hall, the Defense classroom and the library before tracking Bill down in the corridor near the Headmaster's staircase. He was briefing Dumbledore on the morning's potions seminar. Snape and Lupin dashed up to him quite out of breath and Snape, dispensing with any pleasantries, blurted out, "We're the wrong ones!"
       The pronouncement baffled Bill, who turned to Dumbledore for enlightenment. The headmaster smiled at Snape and inquired politely, "Wrong for what, Severus?"
       "The deflection!" Snape insisted as Lupin panted beside him, massaging a stitch in his side. "If it will take all four houses to defeat Voldemort..." Snape sucked more air into his lungs and Bill took an eager step forward.
       "Yes?" cried the curse breaker. "What? WHAT?!"
       "Work with Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff," Snape finished, exhaling mightily. He looked expectantly at the two men before him as he sucked air in and out of his lungs. They stared back at him, their brows furrowed, and Snape rolled his eyes.
       "We," the Slytherin tried again, pointed at himself and the werewolf of Gryffindor, "invented stoning. We made our contribution. Lily Evans, the first deflector..." He paused for another deep breath, frustrating Bill almost to a frazzle. " ... was a nurturer and a charms expert. So..." He held out both hands to frame the obvious conclusion. "Work with Sprout and Flitwick," he finished as Lupin collapsed to the floor, gasping wretchedly, "I thought we were in better shape than this!"
       "Severus!" Dumbledore cried, taking hold of one of Snape's hands to shake it warmly. "How brilliant!"
       Snape extricated himself from the headmaster's grasp and bent down to haul Lupin to his feet. "You take charms," he suggested as he helped his colleague up. "I'll teach Herbology."
       "Sounds fun," Lupin panted between gasps for air. Bill whooped for joy and gave the werewolf a mighty clap on the back, accidentally knocking Lupin right back down again.
       That evening Minerva barged into Snape's office without knocking, his punishment, he supposed, for rearranging teaching assignments without consulting her. But she had the naughtiest twinkle in her eye so he decided to overlook it.
       "As we're switching things up," she called tartly, "shall we trade houses Wednesday night?"
       Longbottom! Snape thought. He grabbed so eagerly for the Slytherin schedule that he knocked over his cup of tea.
       "I should flog you," he scolded Ginny Weasley with a glint in his eye, "for putting temptation in my path." The redhead, his first appointment of the evening, had marched in and asked him point blank if he would consider marrying her mother should anything happen to her father. An intoxicating proposition, Snape had to admit, and one that would now dominate his idle thoughts for days. The woman was warm, strong, and robust. Her children were all but grown and she had always appreciated him. Ginny, who could not possibly have read Snape's mind, smiled and told him, "I think she'd like you, too, sir."
       "I believe the Slytherins have in mind someone who will bake cookies for them and sit beside their beds when they're sick."
       "Whatever keeps her out of my hair," Ginny nodded agreeably as she rose and walked around the desk to hold out her hands for Snape. When he took hold of them to inspect her fingernails, she grabbed his fingers. Snape looked up to see her face contorted with pain.
       "He'll come," the girl whispered, her lips trembling. "My father will come when the bell rings."
       "Of course," Snape nodded. "So will your mother and brothers."
       Ginny, still clutching Snape's cool fingers, looked away, then turned back to him with a defiant lift of her chin, her eyes bright. "I think I'll keep an eye on him," she announced. "Luna will help me."
       That's not your assignment, Snape thought. He didn't know what to say. Why safeguard a father who would have no future if Potter succumbed? But he nodded at Ginny and replied,
       "I see nothing wrong with that."
       Ginny beamed at him, giving his fingers a brief squeeze before releasing them and trotting happily to the door. I wish... he thought as he watched her go, but Harry Potter barged in right behind her and his thoughts scattered.
       The Chosen One swaggered insolently across the room and plopped down in the student chair, propping his feet up on Snape's desk. He turned expectantly to the potions master and announced, "Congratulations, Professor."
       Snape gaped at the boy. "I beg your pardon?" he managed to whisper.
       Harry jerked his head to indicate Snape's office. "You have me in your house," he pointed out. "For five minutes."
       Snape stared.
       Then he threw back his head and roared.
       Harry grinned at the success of his joke and removed his feet, sitting up politely in his chair. They reminisced about the siege and all that time they'd spent in the feral Ford Anglia, which reminded Snape of Harry's arrival second year, which reminded Harry of Dobby and the pudding, which made Snape laugh so hard he had to dry his eyes on his handkerchief.
       Neville Longbottom came last. As he entered, Snape steeled himself for the most important meeting of the evening.
       "Tell me, Mr. Longbottom," he asked as innocuously as possible. "Why are you stoning insects?"
       Neville didn't miss a beat. "I'm making checker sets," he told the potions master, "to sell to folks who aren't good at wizard chess."
       Snape raised one eyebrow and waited.
       "They can play grasshoppers against crickets," Neville explained, "or spiders against flies."
       The boy was lying, Snape knew. But why was he lying? The teacher decided to try a different tact.
       "I trust Miss Montague isn't making too much of a pest of herself," he murmured. "I don't believe Gryffindor has the tradition of inter-year interaction so prevalent in Slytherin."
       Neville didn't take the bait. Instead, he gave Snape a sly smile. "That's right!" he said softly. "You were close to Bellatrix Black and her crowd, weren't you, Professor?"
       Snape kept his face carefully composed even as his heart skipped a beat. This was a mistake, he told himself. You can't get through to this boy after what you've done. That makes whatever becomes of him your fault.
       He shook off the self-recriminations. "Come here!" he snarled at Neville, who rose and sauntered around the desk. He thrust his hands brazenly beneath Snape's nose and the housemaster gasped at the sight of them.
       "Why are they burned?" he cried, seizing them more painfully than he intended. "Longbottom, what have you done to your hands?"
       Neville gave him an unnerving smile. "Just flipendos, Professor. They're hot, after all." His expression was almost insolent and Snape narrowed his eyes at the boy.
       No, they're not, the potions master thought. Not mine, anyway.
       "Go to the hospital wing," he ordered, releasing Neville's hands. "Have Madam Pomfrey take a look."
       "That's all right." Neville inspected both sides of his hands, smiling proudly at the wounds. "I don't mind them," he assured Snape, who sat in rigid silence as the Gryffindor strolled out of his office.
       The teacher waited until he was sure Longbottom was safely out of the dungeon. Then he stormed out of his office and down the hall to the Slytherin common room.
       The Slytherins were lounging on their furniture as he entered, comparing notes on their meetings with McGonagall. They leapt to their feet and ran to their stone pillars, hurrying to form their queues even as Snape marched down the aisle between them. He halted abruptly when he came to Marybeth and stared menacingly down his nose at the child. Then he grabbed her by the ear and yanked her out of line, dragging her up the queues and across the common room to a spot nearer the furniture.
       "Hold out your hands!" he commanded. Marybeth held up her nails for Snape to see and he grabbed her fingers and flipped them over. The palms were burned, though not as badly as Neville's.
       "Show me your flipendo!" Snape demanded. He turned towards the queues and barked, "Crabbe! Goyle!" The boys raced across the room as Snape gestured brusquely for them to set up the same table and vase Marybeth's older brother had arranged for her so many months ago. Then they retreated to what they hoped was a safe distance.
       "Well?" Snape hissed menacingly as he glared at the child. The Slytherins craned their necks to peek over their shoulders or tiptoed to see over the opposite queue.
       Marybeth drew her wand. She took a deep breath and let it out, then turned briefly backwards so she could spin around, whipping her wand over her head in a 180 degree arc. Her fiery red flipendo shot out straight and powerful, obliterating the vase before burning a hole deep in the marble table. Awed, Violet tugged on Malfoy's sleeve.
       "What happened to the incantation?" she whispered.
       "What happened to our TABLE?" the head boy whispered back. The Slytherins gaped at the smoking hole, 3 inches deep and nearly two feet across. Snape whirled around to glare at them and they jumped back to attention. Then he turned back to Marybeth. He reached carefully for her wand, wrapping his fingers around it. It was extremely warm to the touch. Marybeth dropped her head.
       "Will there be anything else, sir?" she whispered respectfully, her humble demeanor a sharp contrast to the savagery with which she had cast her spell.
       Snape studied the child before him. "No," he finally told her. "You may go."
       He watched her walk to her cell. Then he turned and marched out of the house. When the Slytherins were sure he was gone, they broke ranks and gathered curiously around their injured table.
       "Shall we fill the hole with water," Violet suggested when Crabbe and Goyle had righted it again, "and make a bird bath for our owls?"
       "Sure," Malfoy drawled. "You can clean up after them, evanesco queen."
       "Never mind," Violet sighed.
       She was still in a sour mood two days later as she slouched into Defense class behind Michael and Marybeth. She'd missed not meeting with Snape Wednesday night. Herbology was little consolation as it met only once a week, and she hated sharing him with the entire school on Saturday mornings. But she missed him most in Defense class.
       Sprout and Flitwick were hopeless, she'd decided. They'd accomplished nothing all week and seemed woefully out of their element. They paid strict attention to the proceedings, Sprout twiddling her wand nervously, Flitwick constantly clearing his throat. They seemed desperate to contribute but nothing of value occurred to them. "We need Snape back," Violet whispered to Marybeth as they took their seats. "These people don't know a thing about Defense."
       "All right," Bill called the class to order. "Let's resume work with our diffendo charms."
       The students climbed to their feet and queued up, forming a one-sided gauntlet with Flitwick at the head. His job was to shoot a curse across the room which the students would try to split; the idea was, maybe an AK could be cut in half and rendered harmless or less effective. Flitwick did not fully support the theory but obliged nevertheless, casting curse after curse for class after class.
       "This is a waste of time," Violet complained to her roommate as Bill stood conferring with Sprout and Flitwick after the third volley. "We'd be better off learning to stone like the big kids. The best defense is a strong offense."
       "What did you say?" Bill Weasley spun around and fixed Violet with an intense stare. The Slytherin gulped. Had she been rude? Did Snape's policy about teachers apply to Bill?
       "I said," she stammered, "maybe we should just learn to stone like the big kids, because the best defense is a strong offense."
       Bill strolled slowly across the room, his brow furrowed. "Offense," he repeated to himself. "Offense." He whirled to face them all, a triumphant gleam in his eye. "That's it!" he cried. "That's what we've been doing wrong!" He gestured them closer.
       "Lily didn't defend Harry," he explained when they'd gathered round. "She offended Voldemort."
       "How?" Michael wondered. Bill snapped his fingers and pointed at the boy.
       "By loving him," he nodded, clearly pleased Michael had asked.
       "Oh!" Sprout spoke up. "I see! We shouldn't be focusing on the killing curse, or defending against it!"
       Flitwick nodded, picking up her train of thought. "We should concentrate on our students, our fighters, our allies. We should project onto them something like..." He mulled it over. "Well, it would take the form of something like a cheering charm, but you'd call it...what?" He turned to Professor Sprout, who produced the answer almost immediately.
       "A committed caring charm," she announced.
       Flitwick nodded emphatically. "Enveloping," he described the charm's necessary attributes. "Modified. Personal."
       "What's modified?" Jennifer Rosich asked at the same time Michael wondered, "What's personal?"
       "A modified charm is a stripped charm," Bill explained. "You take out the unnecessary components to purify and strengthen it." The children frowned. "Think of it like love," he tried again. "To make it unconditional, you have to strip away things like attraction or filial affection."
       "But personal," Sprout interjected, "that's even more complex. You study that in year seven as you prepare for your charms N.E.W.T."
       "Simply put," Flitwick told them, "a personal charm costs you something, something of yourself, something emotional. Unfortunately..." He gave a little shake of his head. "Not everybody is good at it."
       "Let's worry about that later," Bill suggested. "For now, shall we start with the characteristics of a cheering charm?"
       The three instructors lectured their students and gathered input for the rest of the day. Then they sequestered themselves in Bill's room, staying up until 2 in the morning and rising again at 6. They made no appearance in the Great Hall so Dumbledore sent Dobby with trays of refreshments at regular intervals.
       The students were hard-pressed to concentrate at Snape's Saturday morning seminar. He caught them constantly glancing at the door, waiting for a Defense instructor to appear with good news.
       At noon Dobby popped into the Great Hall after delivering a lunch tray and announced that Hagrid's presence was requested in Bill's quarters. An excited murmuring broke out among the students, but no word was received for the rest of the afternoon.
       Then, as the citizens of Hogwarts were finishing their supper, the trio marched into the Great Hall, proudly bearing a large plant and a sturdy niffler. They proceeded to the head table and asked Professor Dumbledore to yield that part of the room. He ordered his staff to stand along the walls beside the student tables and removed the head table, leaving only its platform. Then Bill handed him the niffler and the headmaster hurried away to stand beside Professor McGonagall.
       Sprout, Flitwick and Bill mounted the platform. Bill set the plant down at the very center. Then he turned around, marched 10 paces from it, and turned back again. Sprout and Flitwick took 10 steps upstage and turned around, too, so that they were facing their audience. Bill raised his wand, training it on the plant. His colleagues followed suit.
       "Nobody move!" Bill warned the spectators. Then he shouted, "Avada!" and as he yelled "Kedavra!" Sprout and Flitwick cried, "Carocka!" and a brown streak of light zoomed towards the plant. Bill dropped to the ground and rolled out of the way. The brown streak beat Bill's green light to the plant, covering it with a golden film. As the rush of wind swept over the platform, Bill's curse bounced off the golden film, flying backwards to knock a hole in the wall. Bill glanced over his shoulder at the hole, then climbed to his feet.
       "Now the niffler," he called, holding out his hands to Dumbledore, but his second demonstration was delayed as the hall burst into riotous cheers and applause. Harry and Ron hurried forward to pound Bill on the back as the rest of Hogwarts' citizens jumped up and down and hugged each other openly, all except for Snape, caught between Professor McGonagall hugging Dumbledore and Lupin hugging Trelawney. He contented himself with bending over to catch the niffler Dumbledore had released. He picked it up and gave it a few surreptitious strokes.
       "The niffler," Bill called again when everybody had settled down, and Snape brought it forward. It had to be immobilized for the demonstration, which came off just as perfectly as the first one.
       "Obviously," Bill explained when the second round of applause had died down, "we can't practice on elves or humans, but there is no doubt in our minds the principle is sound. Our advantages are clear; an AK is two words so we have a cue, and the killing curse involves a rush of wind that allows plenty of time to roll out of the way of the deflected curse. Remember! Don't stop rolling until the wind stops!"
       He smiled at the two holes now adorning the wall of the Great Hall. "All we need now," he grinned, "is practice!"
       Dumbledore insisted on supervising the sessions and cancelled all other classes so that staff as well as students could concentrate on the new discovery. "We'll work here in the hall," he suggested. "Rest up! I want you all at your best Monday morning!"
       "What the hell?"
       The Gryffindors waited until the Slytherins, Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs left the choir room Thursday night. Then Hermione marched up to Snape and McGonagall with her hands on her hips, her housemates close behind.
       "I beg your pardon?" McGonagall managed to choke.
       "I said..." Hermione took a deep breath. "What the bloody buggering HELL?"
       Several pieces of sheet music flew off the harpsichord and scattered about the room. For the first time in his life, Snape felt a bit intimidated by Miss Hermione Granger.
       "I think what Hermione wants to know," Harry jumped in before an equally frustrated Ginny Weasley could elaborate, "is how come only Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs can perform the carocka charm?"
       Mandy, Hannah, Terry and Stewart had mastered it Tuesday. Ernie, Luna and Justin had come through Wednesday. So far, not a single Slytherin or Gryffindor could perform the charm, not even Snape, McGonagall, Lupin... or Bill Weasley.
       Snape had given this a great deal of thought. But he kept his musings to himself and tried to placate Hermione by reminding her, "You won't be on the field anyway, Miss Granger."
       The little swot actually glared at him.
       "You would do well," Professor McGonagall intervened, "to keep the skill in perspective. It has limited applications and requires dual casting, after all. If it makes you feel any better..." She gave Hermione a smile that couldn't quite conceal her own bewilderment. "Professor Dumbledore can't do it, either."
       "You heard your head of house speak," Snape hissed, and the Head Girl fell silent.
       It surprised him that the Gryffindors would raise this issue in front of him. He would have imagined they would have taken it up with their head of house at their interviews the night before. Then again, it had always been the Slytherins and the Gryffindors at Hogwarts, ever since Salazar and Godric. The Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs were perpetually also-rans... until now.
       In truth, it didn't bother him, this inability to generate the carocka charm. As initial theorist, he would be mentioned in any scholarly article, educational tome, or fireside conversation on the topic. Beyond that, he agreed with Minerva. The skill had limited applications and required two people adept at working well together, so after the battle...
       "Don't the Slytherins care?"
       That was Ginny, thinking she could wriggle under his skin and persuade him to tell tales out of house. He doubted the Slytherins had given much thought to the implications of their inability. They took their tone from Malfoy, who insisted that any skill he couldn't perform must be servant stuff, like house elf food preparation or Hagrid's way with animals. "Can we go back to studying potions now, sir?" was all his students had wanted to know Wednesday night.
       Professor McGonagall interceded on his behalf, shooing her students out the door with a tart dismissal. Then she lingered behind to help Snape tidy up his music.
       They worked quietly for a while, murmuring nothing but "Accio" until they'd created a large pile of jumbled pages. Then Minerva cleared her throat. "Do you think..." she began tentatively. She paused, forcing Snape to look up from the carols he was sorting. "Do you think the headmaster will send our houses back to their regular classes next week? Perhaps we should change this room back to the Transfiguration classroom."
       "The elves can do it," Snape replied, neatly avoiding the conversation she sought. He had no desire to discuss the carocka charm or what Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs possessed that Slytherins and Gryffindors lacked. The end was so near he could taste it. After that, what would it matter?
       Let Minerva draw her own conclusions about her shortcomings, he decided as he stuffed the music back into the harpsichord bench.
       He was done with such thoughts.
       "Violet, get up! You can't miss inspection!"
       Marybeth gave her roommate's shoulder a shake on Monday morning but Violet refused to budge. October was nearly half gone and the lovely autumn weather had finally given way to a cold rainy spell. Marybeth suspected Violet was playing possum in the snug warmth of her cot; the castle fires were burning lower these days due to a fuel shortage.
       "If you're looking for heat, stay right there," she threatened her roommate. "Snape'll toast your tush!"
       "Don't care!" Violet insisted. That inspired Marybeth to fetch Malfoy who carried Violet to the hospital wing, grumbling all the way.
       At the end of the day, Madam Pomfrey sent for Professor Snape.
       "It's just a head cold," she told him quickly when he swept into the infirmary, a deep foreboding in his eyes. Before he could berate her for calling him from the dungeon for such a trifle, she jerked her head in the direction of Violet's cot. The child lay with her face to the wall.
       "She needs sleep to recover," the nurse explained, "but she won't stop weeping. She can't afford to lose all that fluid."
       "So give her a sleep..." Snape stopped. No, that wouldn't do. No child at Hogwarts could be giving a sleeping draft until Voldemort was defeated. She'd be defenseless... and useless.
       "You're her head of house," Madam Pomfrey reminded him. "Make her sleep."
       She led him to Violet's cot, the last in the row, and drew a curtain in front of the two Slytherins before departing. Snape pulled up a chair and sat down.
       He took a freshly-laundered handkerchief from his pocket and held it out for Violet, who had tears streaming down her cheeks. "Child, what in heaven's name is the matter with you?" he scolded. "Stop this nonsense and go to sleep immediately!"
       Violet ignored him except to sniff. She certainly did look wretched, Snape had to admit. He squeezed the handkerchief in his hand.
       "Close your eyes, Miss Guilford," he tried again.
       "No," Violet replied.
       Snape blinked. Not even a "sir"? He leaned over to peek around the curtain at Madam Pomfrey who was disinfecting a cot nearby.
       "What have you given this child?" he wondered.
       "The strongest pain relievers I have," the nurse replied. She took a bottle from her pocket and held it out to Snape. It looked exactly like a jar of tiny Pepper Imps he'd once confiscated from a Weasley twin except it had a larger label that read "Poppy's Pain Reliever" in the nurse's own hand. It contained not little black pellets but round white...
       Sugar pills, Snape realized with a jolt. They must be low on medical supplies. Pomfrey would of course hoard the most vital items for the attack...
       The nurse gave him a curt nod and returned the bottle to her pocket. Snape turned back to Violet who whimpered and began to cry harder.
       "You mustn't cry, Miss Guilford," Snape insisted. "You need to drink more water and get some..."
       "Liar," Violet whispered.
       "I beg your pardon?" Snape leaned closer to be sure he'd heard correctly. Violet screwed up her face with what looked to be unspeakable pain and gasped,
       "I'm dying!"
       Snape knew he shouldn't, but he couldn't help himself. He threw his head back and roared. Madam Pomfrey jerked the drape open and glared at him but Snape just tugged it shut again, muffling his chuckles in the handkerchief in his other hand. He shook his head and coughed a few times to sober himself.
       "Child!" he berated, stuffing the silk wipe back into his pocket. "It's just a head cold! Have you never had a head cold?"
       Violet sat up, her face contorted with rage. "Yes!" she roared at her housemaster. "They're not this bad!" She fell back on the bed and sobbed with anguish.
       Snape pressed his lips together to keep from laughing again. He peeked around the drape and found Madam Pomfrey still glaring at him, her arms folded across her chest, her fingers drumming menacingly against her sleeve. Snape nodded and retreated behind the drape.
       He rose from his chair and sat down on the edge of Violet's cot, taking the child in his arms. He settled her head against his chest, adjusting her ear so it rested above his heart. "You are not going to die," he scolded softly. "It's just a head cold. You will feel better in a few days if you get some sleep."
       Violet clutched the fabric of his robe with her fingers. "Keep talking," she whispered. "Say anything."
       Snape hesitated. Madam Pomfrey jerked back the drape, making him jump, and nodded sharply at him. So he began.
       "To make a shrinking solution," he murmured, "you begin by chopping daisy roots into equal-sized pieces."
       Violet, dumb with suffering, clung to him until she fell asleep.
       The rain continued, turning the castle into a cold, clammy fortress, and students from every house poured into the hospital wing. They were braver than Violet, crawling into the infirmary under their own steam, though Snape supposed that might be because they were a shade less ill, perhaps owing to better nutrition during their formative years. The students were clearly in no danger and would be able to rise and fight if necessary, so the staff didn't worry. But oh, how the ill suffered. They whimpered and moaned and sobbed in silence.
       When only one empty hospital bed remained, Dumbledore cancelled classes and ordered his heads of house to care for their students in their dormitories. Snape moved all the sick Slytherins to one end of each corridor and made their healthy housemates fetch them water, tea and broth while he sat in a chair, first in the girls' corridor, then in the boys', reading aloud from Perilous Adventures of Potion Practitioners. When all were sleeping, he slipped off to the mixed audience of the hospital wing to recite from Dickens. The staff frequently dropped by to listen to his narration and Dumbledore showered him with approving smiles but in truth, Snape didn't mind. It didn't take long to ease the children off to sleep, and after that...
       His time was his own.
       With deflection discovered and classes cancelled, he had no obligations compelling him to linger in his office. He retreated instead to his quarters, a sanctuary the Slytherins would violate only in an emergency. He read the occasional book but spent most of his time bundled up before the fire, dozing or engaging in idle fantasy.
       Violet remained in the hospital wing long after her health had returned, unwilling to surrender her cot until Snape resolved the fate of Tiny Tim. She was still in the infirmary the morning Harry Potter was tucked into the last available bed; Madam Pomfrey had been saving it for him.
       The Chosen One suffered terribly from his illness. Convinced he would be letting the school down if he didn't remain alert, he slept as little as possible, which only prolonged his suffering.
       "I'm sure someone will wake you if the Dark Lord appears, Potter," his head of house scolded, but the Gryffindor would not be persuaded. He sat silently against the headboard of his iron cot, his lips sealed against any moaning or whimpering, and endured.
       "Talk to him," Professor McGonagall commanded Snape when, after watching her charge suffer for two days, she could stand it no longer. "You fought a siege together. He'll listen to you."
       Snape wasn't so sure. He watched the boy through narrowed eyes as he sat recounting Scrooge's childhood to a ward full of sniffling, coughing children. The Chosen One stared straight ahead, his jaw set. He would have endured a crucio without complaining, Snape suspected.
       When Fezziwig's Christmas Eve party had ended and the majority of the hospital wing's inhabitants were asleep, Snape rose and slipped quietly out the door. He returned a short while later to find Potter still sitting up in bed. Thrusting his hands in his pockets, he strolled leisurely across the infirmary, stopping beside Potter's cot to contemplate the boy for a moment or two before settling himself on the foot of Harry's bed.
       "When I was a fourth year," he told Harry, "your father was in hospital for a week."
       Harry's eyes barely flickered. "That must have been the best week of your life," he muttered, a remark Snape chose to overlook.
       "He fell off his broom," the teacher continued, "during a quidditch match." He waited for a reaction and sure enough, Harry's eyes popped open wide. Snape hurried to assure him, "It wasn't a great height, just a dozen feet or so. Knocked himself unconscious and broke his arm. But that's what made it so painful for him." He pursed his lips and nodded. "James was humiliated as well as injured," he recalled.
       Harry grimaced. His poor dad! He could just imagine his father's chagrin.
       "Madam Pomfrey set his arm to rights," Snape went on, "but there was some question as to whether he would regain full use of it, whether he would ever play quidditch again."
       Harry grunted. Snape nodded. "James," he insisted, "did not take the news well."
       The potions master removed his hands from his pockets and folded them across his chest. "Your father stayed in bed," he recounted, "and the House of Gryffindor despaired. What would become of their team without their star player?
       "His friends were particularly concerned," Snape remembered. "They tried everything they could think of to reach him. Black came first, insisting there were exercises James could do to strengthen the arm. When your father showed no interest, he began insulting and cajoling him, trying to goad him into action."
       Harry could just hear him.
       "He insinuated your father was afraid," Snape continued, "afraid of the pain the exercises might cause, afraid to fly again. Your father made no response and I think that frightened Black, rather badly. He beat a hasty retreat and called up the reserves."
       Harry smiled. In his mind's eye he saw Snape hiding behind a hospital screen, spying on all of this.
       "Lupin would not give up." Snape shook his head at the memory. "He made heartfelt speeches about tenacity and persistence, about rising above infirmity. He appealed to James for days, and I believe it was a great relief to your father when Madam Pomfrey finally hauled him away for the next full moon."
       Harry couldn't help chuckling. Snape gave him a brief smile, then sobered.
       "Next came Pettigrew," he murmured, and Harry's eyes narrowed. Snape took a deep breath. "Pettigrew said nothing," he remembered. "He just plopped down on your father's bed, reached in his pocket and pulled out... can you guess what?"
       Harry shook his head. So Snape reached into his own pocket and pulled out... a golden snitch. He held it up before the boy and the two men watched its delicate wings flutter.
       With a shrewd glance at Harry, Snape released the snitch. It traveled only an inch or so before Snape snatched it back. Harry smiled and Snape shrugged.
       "Pettigrew wasn't very good at it, either," he confessed. "But that didn't matter, did it?" He held up the snitch again and both wizards watched it struggle in his grasp. "It got James Potter back in the game," Snape whispered.
       He handed Harry the snitch. It felt warm and sleek in the boy's grasp, alive, like a frightened bird sheltering in his palm. "I think it misses you, Potter," Snape murmured.
       Harry gave the snitch a gentle squeeze. Then he handed it back to Snape. "That's a nice story," he admitted.
       "If I tell it again," Snape's voice grew stern, "will you go to sleep?"
       Harry smiled and slid beneath his covers. Snape tucked the snitch securely back in his pocket and settled against the footboard.
       "When I was a fourth year," he began again, "your father was in hospital for a week..."
       Several cots away, Violet lay wide awake. She hardly dared breathe for fear her housemaster would discover she was eavesdropping. She listened to every word of his second telling, then squeezed her eyes shut at the squeaking of Potter's bedsprings. Snape was rising to take his leave. As soon as the rustling of his robes faded away down the corridor, she threw back her covers, jumped out of bed, yanked on her robe and slippers, and scurried over to Madam Pomfrey's desk.
       "I'm better, I'm going now," the child announced. Madam Pomfrey barely gave her a glance.
       "It's about time," the matron muttered, and Violet hurried away. She trotted swiftly through the corridors, pausing only to whisper the password that let her into Slytherin before hurrying straight to Malfoy's cell. She found him sitting at his desk, resting his head against one hand while he read a spellbook. Outside, the rain splashed against his enchanted window.
       Malfoy barely looked up in response to her knock. "Welcome back, faker," he drawled as Violet marched up to his desk. She put both hands on her hips and announced, "'James Potter is the reason Snape could never play quidditch at Hogwarts.'"
       Malfoy froze. Then he closed his spellbook.
       "You told me that my first day here," Violet reminded him. Malfoy nodded but said nothing. So Violet took a deep breath and asked, "Did Snape knock Potter off his broom?"
       Malfoy narrowed his eyes at her. "Where did you hear that?" he demanded. Violet squinted right back at him and Draco stood up.
       "You're my first customer!" he called over his shoulder as he crossed his cell to close the door. Slytherin Head students were allowed to shut themselves in their cells with members of the opposite sex if it was for counseling purposes.
       Malfoy returned to his desk and lifted Violet up to set her down on top of it. "You came," he told the child as he stood nose to nose with her. "We beat them. We don't tell that story anymore."
       He picked up his textbook and carried it to the high window ledge where he stored his course books. He slid it in among the others, then turned around to find Violet scowling at him, her arms folded stubbornly across her chest. Draco snorted.
       "Suit yourself," he drawled. He leaned against the wall, shoved his hands in his pockets, and took a deep breath.
       When he opened the door a short while later, it was to send Violet out of the room with a sharp spank. "Pull yourself together," he warned, "before you let Snape see you!" Violet sniffed and nodded, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.
       She stumbled slowly down the boys' corridor to the common room, giving a little hiccup of disappointment when she found it empty. How she longed to climb into the arms of Crabbe or Goyle, Millicent or Tracey, and cry her little heart out. But most of the Slytherins were sick in bed. So she washed her face and let herself out of the common room, setting off hopefully down the hall to Snape's office.
       He was there, and murmured a silky "Enter, if you must," in response to her knock. It was cold in the office, which had no fire. Snape was at his workstation, chopping Dyar's Woad. "About time you got back," he snipped at the woebegone child who crept quietly across the room.
       She stood silently before him, her lip wobbling, until Snape scowled at her.
       "What in heaven's name is the matter with you?" he demanded.
       "I'm sorry," she whispered, "that I was so rude to you while I was sick."
       Snape gave her a particularly exaggerated roll of his eyes, "Miss Guilford," he chided the youngster, "I am not completely without understanding."
       He set down his chopping knife and picked up a small hand broom to sweep the shredded weeds into a pile. As he did, the child grabbed him around the waist and squeezed as hard as she could. She heaved a mighty sigh and buried her face in his robes. Snape stared at the top of her head in bewilderment.
       Then again, he was forced to conclude as he endured the fiercest of hugs, perhaps I am.
       "Professor Snape told you that story?"
       Harry nodded. He and Bill were visiting Lupin in his quarters. "While I was sick," the teenager explained. Lupin hadn't seemed to enjoy the tale very much, so Harry turned to Bill to ask, "Was Professor Snape a good flyer? He refereed a quidditch match my first year but it was so short..."
       Lupin grunted, or was it a groan, Harry wondered. Bill seemed to wince with the effort of answering him. "Snape didn't own a broom," he muttered before his voice trailed off.
       Harry waited a few seconds but neither wizard spoke again. "I guess I'll go check on Ron and Hermione," he suggested, rising to his feet.
       "Did Professor McGonagall move Hermione to the hospital wing?" Lupin's voice rose with concern.
       "No," Harry grinned. "I can jump the stairs to her dormitory. Shall I come back and tell you how they're doing?"
       Bill nodded. "Yeah," he muttered. Then he added, "Harry?"
       Bill gave a little groan. "Come tell me in the hospital wing," he grimaced.
       Lupin nodded. "Me, too."
       At the top of a flight of west tower stairs, Snape gave a happy little twirl as he paused to wait for Minerva. She was accompanying him to Flitwick's office to fetch a book for two Ravenclaw prefects recovering in the infirmary. Where the Ravenclaw head of house was this afternoon, Snape couldn't imagine. Probably off with Sprout, he mused, trying to increase their zap-back speed. He chuckled as he imagined Bill ducking a little too slowly during a practice session and losing a fang-bedecked earlobe to a rapidly rebounding AK curse.
       With so much time to himself, Snape was the cheeriest Hogwarts had ever seen him... when they got to see him. Violet had taken certain steps to maximize access. Forbidden to loiter alone in the halls, she'd tasked Spellwad to camp outside his door and hoot down the corridor whenever he emerged. Once she'd flown out of the common room just as he'd walked by to ask about the forest orphans.
       "They must be suffering in this weather, sir," she'd fretted. "What if they've got this cold?"
       "I'm sure they've moved into town, Miss Guilford," he'd told her. "They're probably sleeping snugly in haymows."
       Hogwarts, on the other hand, grew colder every day. Fuel continued to be rationed while Dumbledore negotiated for more supplies. Snape, unwilling to waste resources heating his office, flogged Slytherins in their cells if he caught them leaving glass jars of blue warming flames unattended.
       Now he danced a few jig steps on the landing before turning to check on Minerva. She was leaning against a railing, frowning at his euphoria. "I can't help it!" he smirked. "This is better than nap time!"
       Nap time had been his favorite part of the day during the summer. When the heat was particularly oppressive, after morning exercises and lunch, the citizens of Hogwarts would take a siesta. Snape would drowse in his office chair and dream of faraway places, one ear trained on the open door to listen for the Slytherins. His students would prop their door open, too, in case children from other houses wanted to nap on sofas in the cool air of the dungeon. They'd wake flushed and revived, eager for their afternoon lessons.
       On the stairs below him, Minerva was looking flushed, too. But she didn't seem eager. She seemed rather...
       "Oh, dear," Snape murmured. He climbed back down the stairs to where Professor McGonagall was propping herself against the wall. "Come on, old girl," he said softly as he lifted her into his arms. "Let's get you to the hospital wing."
       McGonagall tried to frown. "How dare you speak to me that way," she muttered before dropping her head onto his shoulder. "Do hurry, Severus," she whispered as she closed her eyes. "I don't feel at all well."
       Snape studied her face. She looked so weak, and it had come on so suddenly! What if the ailment wasn't harmless in adults? What if it seriously damaged their lungs, or their hearts?
       Professor McGonagall opened one eye to see why they weren't moving and Snape gave her a little squeeze. "You'll be fine," he insisted as he proceeded down the steps. "It's just a bit harder on adults, that's all. When I was at the convent, the other children would get all manner of muggle diseases, bumps..."
       "Mumps," Minerva muttered.
       "Right," Snape nodded. "The sisters would always say..." He thrust his hooked nose into the air and assumed a shrill, clipped tone. "'Be thankful to have it over,'" he quoted, "'it's a rougher go when you're big.'"
       Professor McGonagall sagged in his arms, her head lolling back. "Minerva?" Snape whispered. He gave her a little shake. "Minerva?" The dignified professor made no response and Snape began to run. He raced all the way to the hospital wing where he drew up sharply as Violet came flying out the door.
       "I was just on my way to find you, sir," she reported, but Snape cut her off with a sharp, "Silence!" and carried McGonagall past her into the ward.
       Bill Weasley was resting on the first cot. The one next to him was empty and Snape laid McGonagall down on it. "Skiving off, Wealsey?" he called over his shoulder with forced levity as he tucked a blanket around the elderly teacher. He turned around for a response, praying he would find Bill glaring at him. Instead, the redhead was gazing worriedly at the opposite cot where Remus Lupin lay.
       Violet crept quietly back into the hospital wing and stood by the door as Snape studied his sick colleague. Lupin's breathing was shallow and ragged. He turned to Bill, who could only stare at him. Then he turned back to Minerva. She was still unconscious.
       A few cots away, Madam Pomfrey bent over a patient, pressing a cool cloth to his forehead.
       "Sir?" Violet called.
       "Be still!" Snape hissed, not turning around. He leaned over to tuck the covers more securely around McGonagall's shoulders. Then he forced himself to walk calmly over to Madam Pomfrey and gaze down over her shoulder.
       Dumbledore's eyes were closed. He didn't look at all well.
       Neither did Sprout nor Flitwick, sleeping a few feet away.
       Pomfrey had tears in her eyes and Snape suspected he knew why. Now that Voldemort was aware of the prophecy, it would not be safe to send the headmaster to St. Mungo's. The Dark Lord would attack immediately. If the nurse's healing powers weren't up to task...
       "Can I help in any way?" Snape asked softly.
       The nurse made no response.
       Snape stood beside her, silently berating himself. Why? Why hadn't he spent the past few days developing a new strengthening solution or immunity potion from their limited supplies? Why had he spent so much time in idle fantasy? Now it was too late. There was nothing to do but...
       Snape turned and headed for the door where Violet stood ashen-faced, twisting the fabric of her already-frayed robe between her fingers.
       "Stop that!" Snape snarled. "Go to the staff room, the houses and the kitchens and tell every healthy being you can find what has happened. The ghosts will help you."
       "Yes, sir," Violet nodded. "Please, sir..." She raised imploring eyes to Snape. "Where will you be?" she whispered.
       "I'm going to the seventh floor," Snape replied, "to fetch a book." He couldn't think of anything else to do. Violet watched him sweep away down the corridor, heading for the steps to Ravenclaw Tower. She hurried away to Gryffindor.
       Snape climbed one flight after another, his heart racing. What if Voldemort attacked now? The children and their allies could hold off the Death Eaters and their collaborators, but Potter, he felt sure, could not defeat Voldemort without Dumbedore to encourage him plus Sprout and Flitwick to shield him. And what of Bill, McGonagall and Lupin, who were to protect Gryffindor Tower from any Death Eaters who breached the castle?
       I can do Dumbledore's part, Snape decided. Granger and I can help Potter. I'll tell Weasley to shift a quarter of the aurors inside, in case of breach, and to assign the best student deflectors to Potter...
       But what of the ill staff? Snape's heart sank. There would be no one left to protect the hospital wing; the sick would be defenseless. It was them or the children, Snape realized, unless he could think of something to do. What could he do? What could he possibly do?
       He was just about to mount the top step when the staircase leading to the seventh floor tore loose and sailed through the air. The movement caught Snape completely off-guard. He clutched the railing, crying out in surprise. The staircase came to a halt with a jerk, reconnecting next to a tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy.
       Snape took several deep breaths before stepping off the staircase. He looked this way and that, trying to determine the shortest path to his original destination. He couldn't decide which way to go. Instead he leaned against the wall next to the tapestry, covered his face with his hands, and sank to the floor.
       Barnabas and his trolls nudged each other and pointed silently at the distraught professor.
       How long Snape sat that way he couldn't say. When he finally lifted his head, it was to discover that the overcast daylight had faded and the corridor was now dim, lit with half the usual number of night torches.
       He was cold and stiff and hungry. He should visit the houses, he thought, and check on the children before returning to the hospital wing. But the students would have questions he wouldn't be able to answer. And the hospital wing... That would be even worse. His colleagues would be brave, and that would be more than he could bear. He buried his face in his arms.
       A scratching noise nearby made him look up with a start. What was it, he wondered, reaching for his wand. It had sounded like a match. Had some unobtrusive house elf struck a match to light another torch? No, that didn't make sense. House elves didn't use matches.
       Across the hall from the tapestry beside him, a door swung slowly open. Snape had never noticed the room before, but now he saw that something was glowing inside. "What in the world?" he whispered as he climbed carefully to his feet. Had a house elf lit a fire in an unused room? He would speak to Dobby; such waste was entirely unacceptable.
       He crossed the hall and peeked cautiously into the room where he saw not a fire but an alter that held several small candles burning in blue cups. Behind one stood a crucifix roughly eighteen inches tall. In front of the alter were rows of padded boards only a few inches high.
       "Kneelers," Snape whispered, awed. He didn't even hesitate. He marched straight to the front of the room and dropped to his knees on the row closest to the alter.
       Please not now, he prayed, bending his hooked nose and greasy hair over his folded hands. Please not now, please not now, please not now. Have mercy on my colleagues. Have mercy on these children. Have mercy... He looked up at the crucifix. "On me," he whispered. Then he shut his eyes and bent his head again. Watch over us, he prayed. Protect us. Deliver us. Have mercy on us. Please not now. Please not now.
       Pop! A noise from the alter made Snape jump. He opened his eyes to discover a plain, unadorned cross standing next to the crucifix. "I didn't know Hogwarts had a chapel!" said a young voice from the doorway, and the next thing he knew, Violet Guilford was kneeling on his right, her hands clasped in prayer. He studied her bent form for a few moments. The child moved her lips when she prayed. Snape smiled in spite of himself, then returned to his own devotions.
       Pop! A statue of Vishnu appeared. The Patil twins knelt on Snape's left. A few minutes later, pop! Buddha. Pop! The Star of David. Soon the alter was crammed with spiritual icons and Snape was surrounded by praying children who crowded close to him as they beseeched the Almighty to bless and watch over the citizens of Hogwarts.
       Snape prayed with them for an hour. Then he hurried to the kitchens, where he ordered Dobby to relight and maintain the fire in his office. From then on, when he wasn't surrounded by children praying in the chapel or refilling cauldrons of boiling water steaming throughout the hospital wing, he spent every spare moment in his office, at the disposal of all who chose to pass through his open door.
       In three days, the citizens of Hogwarts were well again.
       So much for making it through an entire term without a whipping, Violet thought as she braced herself for the bite of Snape's cane. The first stroke landed and she piped up as ordered, "I will not waste brussel sprouts."
       It's the excitement of Halloween being on a Friday, she excused her careless behavior at lunch. That, plus Dumbledore had promised them a Halloween feast which, if not as elaborate as previous affairs, would certainly feature all the bangers and mash they could eat.
       Swish! Thud. "I will not waste brussel sprouts!"
       This is Malfoy's fault, Violet grumbled to herself as she squeezed the edge of Snape's desk tighter. If he'd keep his stupid feast prank plans to himself and not distract people who should be concentrating on their evanesco spells...
       Swish! Thud. "Ow! I will NOT waste brussel sprouts!"
       I wonder if Potter's helping him... Violet grabbed for a quill that was about to fall off the desk. ...or if he's just using Potter's invisibility cloak?
       Swish! Thud. The fourth stroke brought a wince and a glare at Snape over her shoulder. Ease up, buster, the Slytherin protested silently, these clothes aren't as thick as they used to be! "I will NOT WASTE brussel sprouts!"
       Swish! Thud. Ow, ow, ow, ow! I should have just eaten them and gotten sick, then he'd be sorry. "I WILL NOT WASTE brussel sprouts!"
       "All right," Snape signaled the end of her punishment and Violet sighed with relief as she climbed off the desk. Snape returned Whomping Willy to the corner, then turned back to his finicky little snake. "I find your behavior inexcusably childish in light of recent events," he scolded. "Brussel sprouts are rich in Vitamin C."
       Now he's an herbology expert, Violet snorted to herself, but she nodded and assured Snape, "You're absolutely right, sir."
       Snape narrowed his eyes at the placating remark. He crooked a finger at the recalcitrant little Slytherin and, when she was within silky murmuring distance, counseled, "Next time, try an impedimentia odiferous charm."
       Violet wanted to kick herself... or him. Of course the vile spuds wouldn't taste so bad if she couldn't smell them! Why hadn't she thought of that weeks ago? Why hadn't he mentioned it weeks ago? She smiled just a tad insolently as she wondered aloud, "What would I do without you, sir?" and Snape followed his usual "You may go" with a cuff to the back of her head.
       She hurried to her cell to fetch her books for afternoon classes, her spirits soaring. This would be the last time she'd have to watch the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs improve their deflections. Beginning Monday, Dumbledore had promised, the Slytherins and Gryffindors, still uniformly unable to perform the carocka charm, could return to potions and transfiguration classes. Lupin would once again teach charms and herbology would become the subject of the Saturday morning seminars.
       In her cell, Violet found a parcel waiting for her on her cot. Marybeth was buttoning up her robe; torn paper on the floor indicated that she had received a parcel, too. "New long underwear!" she cried, pointing at the package on Violet's bed. "Dumbledore got some for all of us!"
       Violet snatched up the parcel and ripped it open. Out tumbled a set of undergarments so warm and soft that she gasped with delight. "Just think!" she breathed as she hurried out of her uniform. "Tonight we're going to be warm and well-fed!"
       She was doubly glad of the new warm clothing as she hurried into the Great Hall with Marybeth that evening. The parade of floating jack-o-lanterns was missing due to candle shortages and the weather outside looked cold and gloomy as Violet gazed through the enchanted ceiling to the overcast skies above.
       "I can't get over what a small gathering we are!" Marybeth murmured as they climbed onto the Slytherin bench. Violet, the happiest she'd been since her illness, looked round the half-filled hall, then winked at Marybeth and began to sing.

       Marybeth giggled and Violet nodded. "Remember the story I told you? Here, I'll teach you the song." She sang the first verse and chorus, then started over again, nodding at Marybeth to join in. "Now you sing the melody," she instructed her roommate when they'd finished, "and I'll do the alto part."
       It took a few tries but soon they were harmonizing nicely:

       "We need something to turn the water opaque and gooey," Malfoy told Warrington after tossing a brief scowl in the general direction of the distracting singing. He twitched violently and reached around to the small of his back. "Potter's invisibility cloak," he reminded his neighbors as he scratched. "It's tucked into my trousers under my robe."
       He resumed his explanation of a possible component of the flying obstacle course game which the students were eager to proceed with now that deflection had been mastered. "We take four pebbles and paint them with house colors. Then we fill that hole Marybeth made in our table with gooey liquid and hide the pebbles in there. You have to fly into the common room, zoom over to the table, retrieve the pebble with your house color WITHOUT dismounting your broom..."
       "... and we can have guards at the table to make sure you don't do anything nefarious with the other houses' pebbles!" Warrington nodded. One goal of the new game was to involve as many people as possible.
       "The guards can even be part of the obstacle!" Malfoy cried. "They can swing clubs like Grawp had in defense class." He turned to the Slytherin house beaters sitting beside him. "Crabbe, are you listening?"
       "Yeah," Crabbe nodded, his eyes on Violet. "I think I remember the bass part." He cleared his throat and began to sing.

       "You're flat!" Millicent protested as she and every Slytherin choir member except Malfoy jumped in.

       BANG BANG BANG! Ron Weasley gave the Gryffindor house table three rousing slaps with the palm of his hand and his housemates came in lustily on the next chorus.

       Bill, sitting between Snape and Lupin, shook his head in wonder. "That's incredible!" he praised the singing, and when Lupin, unable to resist the music, began improvising a walking baseline, Bill joined in.

       "It's in D, you nitwits!" Snape scowled. He rose and swept haughtily across the room to sit beside Minerva, who greeted him with a snort.
       "Would you listen to them?" she grumbled. By now even Malfoy was singing. The choir members were turning to non-members and singing into their ears, teaching them the parts. Neville Longbottom and Ron Weasley picked up their plates and rattled their forks against them to simulate tamborines. "They hated it when I suggested it," McGonagall reminded Snape. "Now they sing it like they're the Roman Tabernacle Choir!"
       "Mormon," Snape muttered.
       "What an infectious tune!" Dumbledore beamed down the table at them. "You have delightful taste, Minerva!"

       The voices reached a joyous pitch as the singers launched once more into the chorus. Ron Weasley, mimicking some of those holy rollers Percy had written about in a Ministry report on charmed snake sales to Charismatics, threw back his head and raised his plate high into the air.

       The redhead froze in horror and for just a moment, the world stopped as a new thought clanged through his brain. That's what we forgot, he realized as he watched the heavenly bodies descend towards him. They could crash through the ceiling of the Great Hall.
       And as the world resumed its dizzying pace, that's just what three dozen Death Eaters did.
       "Battle stations!" Ron screamed as flying debris and cries of terror filled the hall. He sprang to his feet to shout above the noise of the Death Eater attack. "Leave them to Dumbledore! Battle stations! Battle stations!"
       The students nearest the windows jumped out as they'd been trained to avoid congestion at the door. Snape grabbed Violet and Marybeth from the Slytherin table and shouted, "The bell!" before racing away to follow Lupin, McGonagall, Hermione, Michael, Bill, Sprout, Flitwick and Harry Potter out of the hall. The two girls grabbed hands and took off for the North Tower.
       The younger children scattered while the older children spilled onto the lawn to discover waves of Death Eaters landing from above. "Shields up!" Malfoy cried, and amid a wave of "Protego!"s, the students of Hogwarts sallied forth.
       Violet and Marybeth raced to the North Tower.
       "We should have carried floo powder!" Marybeth panted.
       "Hush!" Violet snarled. "They could be following us!"
       They scrambled up the rickety steps and Violet flung open the trap door. "I'll hold it!" she cried. "You ring!
       She wedged herself against the trap door as Marybeth lunged past and grabbed the rope. She tugged mightily, again and again, and the bell peeled forth. A red light shot past her head and Violet screamed, "Get down! They're shooting at you!"
       The two girls fell to their bellies and the trap door fell shut. Suddenly, the floor beneath them shook. It rattled so violently that the girls rolled to the far side of the belfry.
       "What was that?" Marybeth cried. "Did they hit the belfry?"
       Violet shook her head. "I think it was the school," she whispered. "I think the castle just... just... vibrated!"
       Something burned her hip beneath her robe and she let out a yelp. She reached in her pocket and withdrew her wand. The tip was pulsating with the most intense green light she'd ever seen.
       Suddenly it jumped from her hand and clattered across the floor to the trap door. It tapped frantically on the wooden hatch like a drumstick beating double time on a snare.
       "Pseudo?" Violet called tentatively. She crawled across the floor and cautiously took hold of her wand. It tugged in her grasp, pulling her towards the trap door.
       Violet opened the hatch and the wand pulled her down the stairs. Marybeth followed close behind. At the bottom of the spiral staircase, Marybeth stopped.
       "What is it?" Violet asked, adding a terse, "Wait!" to her wand, which twisted frantically in her grasp.
       "Where are you going?" Marybeth wondered.
       Violet shrugged. "That way," she insisted, pointing in the direction her wand was tugging. The castle shook again and both girls tumbled to the floor. Violet dropped Pseudo-Salazar and the wand clattered away down the corridor.
       The Slytherin sprang to her feet and took off after her wand. As she ran, Marybeth stood up and called after her, "I'm not going with you." Violet stopped. She turned to her roommate and opened her mouth to protest but Pseudo continued to rattle away down the hall. She shrugged helplessly at Marybeth and took off again, bending to scoop up her wand before racing away down the passage.
       Marybeth turned in a different direction. She fired up her lumos light, summoned a rich orchid for tracking footprints, and took off in the direction of Gryffindor Tower.
       Pseudo led Violet to the empty second floor corridor containing the stone gargoyles that guarded the staircase to Dumbledore's office. Violet hurried up to the mammoth structures even as she told her wand, "I don't know the password!" But the wand tugged her hand to the stone and beat out a soft cadence that sounded a bit like Morse Code. The gargoyles slid back to reveal the rising spiral staircase.
       Violet approached the stairs cautiously, crouching low as she stepped on. When she reached the top, she crawled off and cowered just outside the office.
       A Death Eater was standing a few feet from her, his hand on the door, apparently intending to fire or slam it shut should anyone approach. In his other hand he held three brooms. What for? Violet wondered.
       She risked a closer peek and discovered two more Death Eaters inside. One held a wand to the throat of Professor Trelawney. The witch looked even loopier than usual. Imperio! Violet nodded to herself. That's how they got the password! But why did they need a wand to her throat if she was under their control? Was Fawkes in the room, or someone who might try to interfere?
       The portraits! Violet remembered. They don't want the portraits going for help!
       The third Death Eater was hovering over one of the odd silver instrument puffing away near Dumbledore's desk. He held a piece of parchment in his hand. He read from it and tapped the instrument a certain number of times with his wand. He repeated this twice and the castle shook again, harder than before. Violet clung to Pseudo who kept her from rolling into view by adhering to a spot on the wall.
       "It won't work," called a snide voice when the castle was still again. Violet nearly jumped out of her skin. She peeked into the office to see a wizard with a pointed beard dressed in beautiful Slytherin colors jeering at the Death Eaters from his portrait. They ignored him and, when the wizard was sure they weren't looking, he winked at Violet.
       "I'm not saying the castle won't crumble," the wizard went on, "or that Potter won't be driven out into the open. But you'll never be able to fly away unscathed as Hogwarts crashes down around you." He smiled a nasty little smile that reminded Violet of Snape and added, "I do hope Voldemort didn't promise you otherwise."
       The Death Eater at the silver instrument paused and that's when Pseudo made his move. The wand jumped from Violet's hand and sailed across the room to lodge in the man's eye. There was a flash of green light and he fell to the floor, dead. The wand dropped free and rolled a few feet away.
       The Death Eater in the doorway whirled around to fire a shot at whomever had hurled the wand into the room. Unarmed, Violet could only leap out of the way. "Pseudo!" she screamed as she sailed into the air. "Accio Pseudo!" Her wand didn't move, but that wasn't surprising. Michael was the only Slytherin under 4th year who could summon. She dropped right down on top of the Death Eater in the doorway, banging his head against the frame, and he fell to the floor, unconscious.
       The Death Eater with his wand to Trelawney's throat lowered it to shoot at Violet as she scrambled across the floor towards Pseudo. "Try a reductor on her wand instead," said the snide wizard in the portrait. "You don't seem to have much luck with a moving target." His jibe distracted the Death Eater just long enough for Violet to grab her wand and topple him with a mighty "Petrificus totalis!" She performed the finite incantum to free Trelawney from the imperio curse and collapsed against Dumbledore's desk.
       The pointy-bearded wizard ordered Trelawney to fetch some older students to stone the unconscious Death Eaters. Then he fell silent, watching Violet, who sat quietly on the floor clutching her wand.
       "Pseudo?" she whispered to the stick of ebony. She watched hopefully for a spark of green light. "Pseudo?"
       Nothing happened. The wand stood motionless in her hand, black and shiny. Violet smiled at it. "That's okay," she nodded. "You saved Hogwarts. That's enough." She hugged the wand to her chest and closed her eyes. Then she opened them again with a gasp.
       "You saved Hogwarts!" she cried again. She held her wand up proudly and gushed, "Good for you, Salazar!"
       The wand tip gave her the briefest flash of green light, as if to wink at her, and Violet laughed with joy.
       The snide portrait sighed, rather dismissively, Violet thought. She turned to grin at him. "Love your outfit!" she called. Then she settled back against the desk to wait for help to arrive.
       From his spot behind a bush near the base of the castle, Malfoy watched the circle of light scan the perimeter, seeking out hidden enemies. Eight students, two from each house, flew behind it in close formation, keeping a safe distance from the illumination.
       Snape and Hermione had flooded the grounds with light initially, allowing the students of Hogwarts to stone a majority of their attackers from the safety of their shields and deflections while Grawp, the aurors and the battlefield staff contended with the non-humans. Their allies and the citizens of Hogsmeade had arrived with amazing speed in response to the ringing of the bell and Malfoy had been surprised to see the forest orphans with them. Some of them died in the initial skirmish, as did some of the adults, but he wouldn't let himself think about that. His stomach growled and he wondered what time it was.
       He didn't dare illuminate his wand to check his watch. The grounds were quiet; some of the enemies were inside, but most had retreated to the edge of the forest. Still, it didn't pay to take chances. A stray Death Eater could be lurking anywhere.
       He was pretty sure it was around midnight, anyway.
       Millicent had been working with him until she'd joined the flying defense reconnaissance group trailing the circle of light. Now he needed to find another stoning partner. Warrington and Goyle were on the other side of the entryway. He could leap to the top of the stairs, roll across the stoop, and drop down to join them. He'd just say good-bye to auntie first...
       He blew on his fingers to warm them, grateful for the new underwear that was keeping the rest of him nice and toasty on this chilly autumn night. Then he reached up to give the sharp cheek of Bellatrix Lestrange a pinch. He and Millicent had stoned her shortly before Millicent had taken to the air on one of the brooms the Death Eaters had left on the lawn. "Auntie," he grinned at his rock of a relative, "you never looked better."
       A flash of red light streaked past his ear and Bellatrix's head snapped clean off. It fell to the ground, barely missing Malfoy's toes. He spun around just in time to see Neville Longbottom, barely visible in the light spilling out the castle windows, jump to the ground from the curtain wall and stroll leisurely across the grass, one hand in his pocket, a small smile on his face.
       Malfoy's heart pounded; the smile on Neville's face did nothing to calm his nerves. The Gryffindor must have been spying from the curtain wall, just waiting for someone to...
       "Did you... are you... have you lost your mind?" he sputtered at his classmate.
       "Actually, Malfoy..." Neville stopped beside the Slytherin to gaze serenely at the headless statue. "I think I just saved it."
       He gave Bellatrix's head a little kick but it was too heavy to move. "Ow!" Neville chuckled ruefully as he lifted his foot to massage his sore toe.
       "Ssh!" Malfoy looked quickly in every direction. Nobody was near but that could change in a heartbeat. Then, for the first time since the siege began, he remembered Potter's invisibility cloak hanging from the back of his trousers. He yanked it loose and threw it over himself, Neville, and the remains of Bellatrix Lestrange.
       "Longbottom," he whispered when they were safely concealed, "that was murder. She was defenseless."
       Neville said nothing.
       Malfoy fired up his lumos light. "You killed her in cold blood!" he insisted, watching Neville's face closely. The Gryffindor shrugged.
       "The system doesn't cope effectively with evil, Malfoy," he reminded the blonde teenager. "My flipendo spell was the best choice."
       Oy, Malfoy groaned to himself. "Well, how does a spell in Akzaban sound," he hissed, "because that's what you're facing!"
       Neville shook his head. "There's no time to think about that now," he reminded Draco. He climbed out from beneath the cloak and set off for the back of the castle.
       Malfoy watched him go. Then he glanced down at the head of his aunt who stared blindly back at him. "Pardon me," he drawled politely at her stone face. Then he turned around and tipped over her torso, plopping down on her belly to sit and ponder his dilemma.
       It was not his fault that Neville Longbottom had just destroyed his future. It was not his fault that so many people in power were shallow, ineffective, or flat out harmful.
       You're the best levitator in the house, his conscience reminded him.
       He should just leave this to Dumbledore and the staff to sort out, he nodded to himself.
       Across the lawn, the waves on the surface of the lake lapped at the shore.
       You're the best levitator in the house.
       No. Leaving it to others was no good. Just as Neville had known the most effective way to deal with Bellatrix, so Malfoy knew the most effective way to deal with this situation. It had to be kept a secret. Forever.
       You're the best levitator in the house.
       It couldn't hurt to try, the head boy decided. He stood up, picking up Bella's head (Dear God, it's heavy!) and balancing it on his left hip. Then he pointed his wand at the prone torso and concentrated with all his might.
       "Wingardium leviosa!" he whispered.
       It didn't budge.
       "Dammit!" Malfoy snarled. He put down the head and grasped his wand firmly in both hands.
       "WINGARDIUM LEVIOSA!" he hissed as loudly as he dared.
       The torso quivered, then vibrated, then rose just a bit on one end. Malfoy shook with the effort of holding it up. But he held firm and eventually the other end rose, too, until the entire stone slab hung an inch above the ground. Draco pulled on his wand with all his might and the torso moved a few inches towards the lake before dropping back to earth with a thud.
       Bloody hell, Malfoy thought as he massaged his aching arms. This is going to take all night! He glanced across the grounds towards the lake, which now seemed miles away. The most important battle in the history of Hogwarts was underway and he was going to spend the majority of it levitating a stone corpse into a lake to secure a future for Neville Longbottom. "Where's the justice in that?" he growled as he wiped his hands on his trousers. Then he wrapped both hands around his wand and charmed again as above him, Snape's light sailed overhead on its way to the other side of the grounds.
       "Help! Somebody please help me!"
       "That was Harry!" Hermione shrieked, pulling back from the window she was leaning out to guide the illumination cloud with Snape. The potions master disengaged and tore across the common room, pausing at the portrait hole long enough to turn invisible before springing into the corridor.
       He raced in the direction of the shout. Should he call to the boy? Would the child yell again? He should try, if possible, to keep his approach a secret...
       A voice rang out, desperate, but it wasn't Harry's. It was Lupin's. He was in a chamber just up ahead. Had the werewolf come to the boy's aid? Should Snape revisibilize now or wait? He slowed to a walk and pressed himself against the wall, moving carefully towards the open door.
       "Don't do it, Peter!" Lupin cried. "It's not too late! I'll help you! Think about the rest of your life!"
       Keep your paws off him, you filthy rat! Snape thought as he sprang to the doorway, his wand drawn, prepared to revisibilize and blast Pettigrew to a thousand pieces if necessary. But what he saw sickened him so badly he nearly passed out.
       Pettigrew was pulling his silver paw out of Lupin's chest. He jumped onto his broom, the heart's blood still dripping from his right hand, and flew out the window into the night. As Snape reappeared, Lupin collapsed to the stone floor.
       "Remus!" Snape cried. He rushed to the werewolf's side, kneeling on the floor to take the injured man in his arms. "I'll summon Fawkes," he soothed, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to press against the wound oozing blood through Lupin's robes. But it was pointless, both men knew. The werewolf was doomed.
       "Severus," Lupin whispered through trembling lips as he reached out to grip Snape's robes. "Promise me. Promise me you'll always be there for Harry if he needs you."
       Before Snape could reply, Lupin died in his arms.
       The head of Slytherin fell back against the nearest wall, the werewolf's head still cradled in his lap. How, he mourned. How was this possible? How could a miserable little worm like Peter Pettigrew defeat such a strong, brave, powerful, good-hearted...
       Snape sat up sharply. "Good-hearted..." he whispered. His pulse quickened. Good-hearted...
       He leapt to his feet with a gasp. "I have to find Potter," he realized. "I have to help Potter!"
       With one last glance at the fallen warrior, he hurried to the door and peered out into the corridor.
       He would not become invisible this time, he decided. The split second it would take to revisiblize so he could do magic might make the difference between life and death. The castle was dark and he knew it well. Besides, there was only one wizard on their side stronger than he. He gripped his wand tightly and set off in search of Harry Potter.
       Where IS that cursed child? he wondered hours later as he continued to search. It would be dawn soon. He'd be forced to resort to invisibility again.
       He'd come across the occasional dead Death Eater, each one a testimonial to the efforts of his staff colleagues. But there was no sign or sound of a final confrontation anywhere.
       Perhaps Dumbledore was invisible and hiding Potter, Sprout and Flitwick beneath Potter's invisibility cloak. Perhaps they'd seen him pass and wondered why he wasn't with Hermione and Michael. Did they know about Lupin? Had they seen any sign of Voldemort?
       At the thought of the dark lord, Snape's heart began to race. He nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice from a room nearby hissed, "In here! Professor Snape! In here!"
       "Potter," he snarled softly as he stalked through the open door. There was a bang and the next thing he knew, thin, snake-like cords were ensnaring his ankles and wrists. A full-grown wizard grabbed him and shoved him against the far wall.
       It was Montague senior.
       He looked quite pleased to see Snape.
       "What a simpleton you are, Severus," he murmured as he pointed his wand at the potions master, "falling for the same trick as your friend, Lupin."
       Snape's heart banged in his chest. No, he begged silently. No, please. Not now. Not now!!!
       "You think you're so clever, all of you, turning people to rock, even dodging killing curses!" He aimed his wand squarely at Snape's throat. "You've been working hard, haven't you? But what difference did it make? In the end, we'll have defeated you with nothing more than an imitation of a child's voice."
       How many of the others? Snape wondered. How many have they lured into traps pretending to be Potter?
       "Speaking of children," Montague gave him a maniacal smile. "Let me put your mind at ease you before we conclude our business. I don't mind your stealing the worthless one. But you will pay with your life for killing my son." And with that, he thrust his wand to Snape's neck and shouted, "Avada..."
       Snape forced himself not to look away.
       He saw a flash of red light and then a hot sticky mass of wood and pulp exploded all over his face. He shook his head free of the mess, clearing his eyes just in time to see the lifeless torso of Montague senior slump to the floor. Behind him in the doorway stood a child.
       It was Marybeth.
       She'd blown her father's head off with a flipendo spell. The hot sticky mass that had struck his face and splattered the walls around him was in fact a mixture of flesh, blood and bone.
       Snape stared at the horrific sight before him, his chest rising and falling as he dragged air in and out of his lungs. His student marched calmly across the room, stepping neatly over her father, and raised her wand to free him from his bonds.
       "Professor Snape," she announced as she sliced the cords that bound his ankles and wrists, "I love you with all my heart."
       She stood quietly before him with her hands behind her back as if waiting for dismissal. My God, Snape thought as he surveyed the carnage that surrounded them. My God.
       He bent down and took Marybeth by the arms to study her face. The child gazed back at him, clear-eyed and sure. Snape pulled her to him and hugged her fiercely.
       Then he let go and gripped her by the arms again. "Run," he whispered, turning her around to give her a shove towards the door. "Run and hide!"
       The child took off and Snape stood up. He turned invisible, stepped over the corpse of the deceased Montague, and set off to find Harry Potter.
       How long has this been going on?
       It was exhausting to watch. Harry leapt out of the way of each killing curse Voldemort hurdled, reminding Snape for all the world of Slythedor dodgeball. The curses slammed into the walls or ceiling, knocking loose stones which sometimes fell on the boy. His hands and face were covered with lacerations. Other than that, he seemed unharmed, shielding himself easily from all other curses with his powerful protego charm.
       Kill him! Snape thought desperately. Kill him!
       Where were Sprout and Flitwick, he wondered as he crouched unseen in the doorway, trying to decide what to do. Where were Dumbledore and McGonagall? Were they dead? Did Potter know Lupin was dead?
       He watched the boy's curses bounce harmlessly off the dark lord's robes. There was no help in his wand, Snape realized. Kill him! he implored the teenager silently. Why won't you kill him?
       Voldemort laughed, that high-pitched, insane cackle. It was just a matter of time, he knew. He was like a cat toying with a mouse. Sooner or later, Potter's leaps or shields would fail and darkness would prevail.
       Sprout and Flitwick were not dead, Snape decided. Neither were McGonagall nor Dumbledore. And Harry Potter did not know about Lupin. He was sure of it. And he was sure of one more thing.
       He was sure of what he had to do.
       I have to do everything around here, he snarled belligerently to himself.
       Then he visibilized in the doorway and leapt between the two wizards. "Kill him!" he cried to Harry just before Voldemort fired a killing curse at the man he'd wanted to kill for so long.
       The room filled with green light and wind and Severus Snape fell to the ground.
       There was a gasp, but Harry couldn't be sure whether it came from himself or Voldemort. Their eyes locked over the fallen teacher and Voldemort, observing the anguish in the boy's eyes, was struck by the irony that his were the red eyes while Potter's were green. Then the boy screamed, "Nooooo!!!!!" and the killing curse rang out again.
       After that, Hogwarts was silent.
       For a long time, Harry just stood there, surrounded by smoke and debris and the bodies of two men. Then he dropped to his knees and crawled across the floor to where Snape lay face down on the stones. The boy took the potions master gently by the shoulders and rolled him over, determined to close the lids over his empty black eyes before anyone else saw him.
       But Snape's eyes were already closed, and when Harry let go of him, he didn't stop moving. He rolled right over onto his side, propped himself up on one elbow, and announced in that sneering, silky voice of his,
       "You are SO predictable, Potter."
       At first Harry could only gape at him, his mouth open in shock. Snape reached out with one finger to push the mouth closed.
       Then he smiled.
       At that, Harry lunged at him, hugging him so hard he knocked Snape over backwards. He scrambled to his feet, pulling the potions master up with him, and they hugged again, clapping each other several times on the back. When they let go, they kept one arm around each other's shoulders and turned to look at the carcass of Tom Riddle.
       "What shall we do with that?" Snape wondered, giving the body a nudge with his foot.
       "Actually," Harry nodded, "we gave it some thought."
       Together, they set off for the front doors of the castle.
       The sun was rising on All Saints morning as they stepped outside and paused on the front stoop. The few remaining unstoned Death Eaters, who had been rallying near the edge of the forest for a daybreak assault, took one look at the quiet teenager and the triumphantly sneering teacher beside him and fled, their supporters close behind.
       The citizens of Hogwarts and their allies emerged from their nooks and crannies and spilled out of the castle to gather on the lawn. They gazed about the charred, smoldering grounds strewn with spell-blast holes, small fires, the dead, the wounded, and statues of stoned Death Eaters. There were no happy shouts of triumph, no cavorting for joy. There was only relief that it was over and the realization that there were dead to tend to, wounded to nurse, and damages to repair. Snape called them together and told them about Lupin.
       They buried Remus first, on a grassy knoll beneath a sheltering tree near the lake. Madeline stepped resolutely beside the grave marker during Dumbledore's eulogy so it would not look as if Remus had had no family, an act that almost made Snape cry.
       Dumbledore offered to bury the fallen forest children beside Lupin but their teenaged leader shook his head. The orphans carried their dead comrades away on their shoulders to bury them in the dark earth of the forest. Malfoy couldn't help noticing they took a significant number of the Death Eaters' brooms with them.
       The students, staff and allies toiled for hours in the warm sun and crisp autumn air. The younger children ran back and forth between the kitchen, the hospital wing and the lawn, fetching sandwiches and pumpkin juice for their guest allies as the workers patched up the wounded and hauled them to the hospital wing or shipped them off to St. Mungo's. The dead were prepared for transport to their final resting places.
       The citizens of Hogsmeade left around noon and the students, staff and Order members spent the afternoon repairing the castle and its grounds. Groups of aurors traveled back and forth to Hogsmeade levitating stoned Death Eaters to the train station for transport to Azkaban. The sun was just beginning to set as the last group made their way back to Hogwarts where the repair workers were putting the final touches on the castle and grounds. When the work was completed, Dumbledore called them together and did a brilliant, brilliant thing.
       He led the entire contingent to the open front gates. Then he gestured to the wide world beyond and told the aurors and Order members, "Thank you. Thank you for all you've done, and Godspeed."
       At first the visitors stared blankly back at him. Then they began to nod. Yes, they realized. There was nothing to do now but go home... go home and live the lives of freedom they had just won. So they smiled and hugged and waved goodbye, and those with children kissed them and reminded them that they would see them at Christmas. Then they marched out the gate and flew away or apparated out of sight or strolled in groups down the road to Hogsmeade.
       The citizens of Hogwarts watched until their allies disappeared from view. Then Dumbledore slammed the gate shut and as the lock clicked in the latch, Malfoy let out a mighty, "Hurrah!"
       Like a tidal wave, the joy of victory washed over them and suddenly they were all shouting and cavorting and jumping up and down. There were hugs all around and repeated pounding on Harry Potter's back. Dumbledore sonorized himself to be heard over the din.
       "This calls for a feast!" he announced, and a mighty roar went up from the ravenous crowd. "Let us gather in the Great Hall in one hour!" The inhabitants of the castle hurried inside to get ready.
       As Harry made his way to Gryffindor Tower, he suddenly felt alone despite the swarm of people rushing back and forth around him. He was separated from them by the joy that blazed in their eyes, a joy he did not feel. Instead, he was consumed with woe for the loss of his friend. But worse, by far, was the haunting realization that he had killed another human being. Had any of them killed, he wondered of the classmates who streamed happily up and down the stairs on their way to their houses.
       The worst of it was, there was no one he could talk to. He had to hide his feelings, even from Hermione who hugged him over and over and Ron who kept pounding him on the back. They were all in this together; that had been the message for months and months. If he showed any unhappiness now, he would be sending the citizens of Hogwarts a message that this had NOT been a team effort but had been his battle alone, to win and to suffer over.
       So he forced a smile and congratulated those who congratulated him and escaped to the lavatory as soon as possible, hoping to soak away some of his grief before the feast in the Great Hall. But everyone was filthy after the all-night battle and soon the bathroom was full of happy, shouting, cavorting boys who splashed and hollered and cheered without stopping. Harry played along for a while. Then he lathered his hair and dove beneath the surface of the water, where he held his breath for as long as he could.
       When his fingertips started to pucker, he climbed out of the tub, dried himself off, pulled on his robe, and slipped out of the lavatory into the corridor.
       Snape was waiting for him.
       They were alone, and for a while, Snape just stood there, studying the teenager's face. Then he held out his hand. After a startled moment, Harry took it.
       "Thank you, Potter," Snape told the boy as they shook, "for the rest ... of my life."
       Then he swept away down the hall. Harry Potter, watching him go, began to feel better.
       In addition to bangers and mash, the feast boasted roasted chicken, yorkshire pudding, peas and carrots and rolls. There were pumpkin pasties for dessert and, in a refreshing change from pumpkin juice, which had been plentiful following Hagrid's harvest, ice cold milk to drink.
       Then Dumbledore stood up to make a series of announcements that pleased them even more. "All security precautions," he declared, "are at an end. There will be no more guard duty..."
       Several staff cheered.
       " more morning inspections..."
       "Hurray!" cried the students and all four heads of house.
       "... and no more confinement to the castle."
       "HURRAY!" cheered every single person in the room.
       "In addition," Dumbledore went on, "I am canceling classes for a week." He held up a hand to quell the excitement at this news. "For the next seven days," he suggested, "let's just enjoy ourselves, each other, and this place."
       Despite having been up for over 36 hours, the children stayed awake past midnight, racing back and forth between each other's houses to visit and celebrate. They slept late the next morning, then wandered in and out of the Great Hall to nibble on a modest buffet of fruit and porridge.
       Several staff left the castle to visit family. The Slytherins smirked over Snape's absence at breakfast and lunch, and when he did not show up for supper, Malfoy began to torment Millicent with lewd remarks about their housemaster's stamina.
       The beautiful fall weather continued and the students sent owl after owl to their friends in hiding who were now anxiously making plans to return to Hogwarts after the holidays. There was much talk about the future and the Slytherins found themselves wondering if they still wanted to create their own school.
       They spent a great deal of time outdoors playing quidditch and Slythedor dodgeball or practicing flying defense. But after a few days, Malfoy grew bored. Odd, he thought, how much less stimulating their activities were when there wasn't a pressing purpose connected with them. Perhaps Granger had the right idea. She spent most of her time in the library, catching up on her studies. Draco found himself wishing it would rain.
       "Hey!" he called one night as his housemates settled in for a cozy evening in the common room. "Let's ask Dumbledore for a Hogsmeade visit!"
       "Yes, wonderful, let's do that!" the Slytherins chorused. Violet bounced up and down with excitement. "My first legitimate Hogsmeade trip!" she crowed.
       The town, Malfoy suspected, would be depleted by the sanctions, but surely it would still have a great deal to offer. He winked at Millicent. "We can drop by the Three Broomsticks," he smirked, "and say hello to Snape."
       "Not funny!" Millicent insisted. But the head boy was already on his way out the door to visit the headmaster.
       Dumbledore consented and the next morning the students set off merrily right after breakfast. "Where shall we go first?" Marybeth wondered as children from the others houses streamed past or clumped up in groups behind the Slytherins. Malfoy smiled at her.
       "Do you want to come with me and Millicent to the Three Broomsticks?"
       "Malfoy!" his classmate protested, giving him a shove.
       But as they drew near the town, it was Malfoy who grabbed Millicent and started pulling her towards the tavern. "No!" she insisted. "I'll faint, I know it!" She was, in fact, already turning quite red. But Malfoy pulled her down the street and into the tavern anyway.
       They squinted in the darkness of the serving room, which was quite dim compared to the sunny day outside. There was no sign of Snape anywhere, but that was hardly surprising. Malfoy, maintaining his deathgrip on Millicent's wrist, tilted his head to gaze at the ceiling as if listening for the creak of bedsprings from above. Millicent wanted to sob with mortification.
       Madam Rosmerta saw them standing near the door and sashayed over with a warm smile.
       "Well, you two," she beamed, and Malfoy grinned back. "Did you bring Professor Snape with you?"
       Malfoy froze, the smile still on his face. In that instant, he knew. Slowly, his smile began to fade.
       Without a word of response to Madam Rosmerta he whirled around and bolted from the tavern. Millicent tossed one brief, confused look at the barmaid, then hurried out the door after him.
       She watched Malfoy tear down the road, racing back to Hogwarts as fast as he could go. Then she set off after him. The other Slytherins saw them running for the castle and quickly took off to follow them, shouting to each other as they wondered what could be wrong.
       Malfoy never stopped running. He burst onto the grounds, raced across the lawn and into the castle, rushed down the dungeon stairs and flew along the corridors to Snape's office. But once he'd reached it, he stopped in his tracks, breathing hard and staring at the office door.
       He stood panting for so long that eventually the rest of the Slytherins caught up with him. They surrounded him and gazed curiously at the teenager, completely befuddled as to why he would stand there staring at a closed door. Then he lifted his wand and, though he could have easily broken into the office, he blasted the door to a thousand pieces.
       When the dust and debris settled, the Slytherins peered inside. There, in a neat row at the edge of Snape's desk, stood 40 pewter vials.
       Snape was gone.
Snape taking last look at office

Salazar's Orphans