A Merry Little Christmas

       He stayed up until 1am, about the time the rest of the castle was finally settling down for the night. It had taken him until midnight to prepare the pewter vials. Then he'd returned to his quarters to pack a rucksack with the few items he wished to take with ... his silk dressing gown, Minerva's photo of the quidditch team, the cards the Slytherins had made him over the years. He dropped the lumpy canvas bag beside his writing desk and returned to his bedroom for a nap.
       At 4am he rose, picked up the rucksack, and slipped quietly into the passageway. There was something forlorn about strolling the hushed, dim-lit corridors of the school at this hour, he realized. It did not feel like staying up late or getting up early. Still, he moved steadily until he reached the front door of the castle where he found a morose, silvery specter waiting for him. Gazing at the Baron, Snape knew his only moment of regret.
       "Goodbye, Severus," the spirit murmured.
       "Goodbye, Baron."
       He slipped out the front doors and walked briskly across the lawn to disappear into the night.
       It took all day to reach Annabel's house, a few kilometers beyond Hogsmeade. He had no broom; he'd never been able to afford one as a child and he hadn't cared to acquire one as an adult. He might have apparated, but he preferred to walk, reveling in the crisp fresh air, sunshine and blue skies. Freedom made it all so sweet that his throat ached every time he raised his eyes to look about.
       He avoided the town itself, taking the long way round, slipping into invisibility whenever a fellow traveler approached from the opposite direction. If there were two or more, invariably they were discussing the previous day's events and bubbling with anticipation about the future. Overhead, owls bearing glad tidings soared across the sky.
       The sun had just begun to set when he raised a fist to knock on the door of Annabel's modest two-story abode. When she opened it, he saw she was glowing with happiness, as were so many of the people he had passed that day. "Severus!" she cried, throwing her arms around him. She gave him a fierce hug and he slipped his arms around her waist to squeeze her gently back, gazing over her shoulder at the comfortable domesticity within. Something meaty and delicious was roasting in the oven. A pile of notes, no doubt delivered by some of the owls he'd seen flying all day, littered the fireplace mantle. Her table was neatly set for one and a teapot was bubbling on the hearth. "I made a pie with the last of the rhubarb," she told him. "Bit of a celebration!" She beamed at him, then took him by the hand to lead him into the house. "I'm so proud of you, Severus," she praised after closing the door behind him and taking both of his hands in hers. "And I'm so pleased to see you!"
       "I need someplace to spend the night," Snape told her.
       Annabel smiled. "Would you like a bath before dinner?" Snape nodded and she led him upstairs to the lavatory.
       She opened the taps for him, smiling again as she added a generous quantity of sudsing syrup to the water filling the tub, then left him to go down and set another place at the table. When she returned, she found him reclining contentedly in a small sea of bubbles, his eyes shut, his face serene.
       "Shall I do your back?" she offered, and he opened one eye to glance at her before sitting up to hug his knees. She scrubbed his back and then filled her palm with soap to wash his hair, as she'd done so many times before. But this time, when she pressed her fingertips to his scalp, he flinched. Annabel frowned.
       "All right, Severus?" she inquired gently.
       His jaw twitched but after a moment, he nodded.
       She lathered his hair and rinsed it, then hugged him around the neck and kissed him on the cheek before departing. After a few more moments of luxurious soaking, he climbed out of the tub, dried himself off, and slipped into his Slytherin-green dressing gown. Then he stood before the steamy mirror, staring at himself.
       He could barely make out the shape of his body in the watery film that covered the reflective surface. So he reached out with one hand to wipe a space clean, staring at himself for a long time. Then he took his wand in hand and, after a brief hesitation, touched it gently to the tip of one black lock, drew a deep breath, and whispered the incantation to dry his hair.

       "I heard something funny today."
       Violet looked down from the high window ledge in the Slytherin common room where she'd been watching the snow fall on the last Friday evening in November. Malfoy's announcement came as something of a surprise; humor was rare in the stone cold corridors of the castle these days.
       In the four weeks since Snape had disappeared, an unshakable malaise had gripped the school. The citizens of Hogwarts were divided by his departure into three camps: those who ached, those who resented, and those who thought they understood. The resentful grumbled and occasionally lashed out with verbal potshots intended to pre-empt any consideration of culpability. The heartsick, loyal to the progress of recent months, refrained from developing new grudges and responded instead with quick, brutal sucker punches that cleared the air but did nothing to dispel the overall gloom.
       In an effort to reduce the corridor fisticuffs, Dumbledore cut short the week-long celebration of Voldemort's defeat and ordered everybody back to class, canceling Potions and Defense in favor of extra lessons in the subjects they'd been neglecting for so many months. But the instructors were unable to generate much enthusiasm for their lessons. McGonagall, especially, dragged about the castle as if she were still battling her head cold.
       The headmaster hid his reaction to Snape's departure behind the stone gargoyles that guarded his spiral staircase, retreating to his office to fill roll after roll of parchment with appeals for more supplies. The school's population would double when the absent children returned after Christmas and so far, he'd been unable to arrange for more food.
       "I thought things would ease up after Voldemort's defeat," Warrington had observed of the continuing shortages one Saturday morning in the common room.
       "Granger says the people behind the sanctions are mad about losing money," Malfoy had informed him. "They had deals with Voldemort's people on one level or another."
       "Oh, for crying out loud!" Millicent had exploded. "Where does the fact that he was a thousand times more villainous than we've ever been fit into their thinking?"
       "It doesn't," Malfoy had reminded her. "Remember what McGonagall said at choir practice last month? They lie to themselves about us."
       They weren't having choir practice anymore. Neville Longbottom had suggested making the group a capella but McGonagall had refused. For some reason, Hermione had glared at the Slytherins for that.
       No one was angrier with Snape for leaving than Granger. The Slytherins found this particularly difficult to stomach, seeing as how the Head Girl had benefited enormously from their housemaster's departure. A search of Snape's desk had revealed a letter to Hermione explaining that Snape had set up an account for her at Gringotts. He'd been depositing and would continue to deposit one third of the proceeds from Lupin's Remedy. Harry and Ron had peeked over her shoulder at the note, which she had read at breakfast in the Great Hall, and Ron had whistled at the account balance to date. "Who knew there were so many werewolves in the world!" he'd breathed.
       "I did," Hermione had replied. "There are about 2,000 werewolves taking a dose of Lupin's Remedy each month, and Snape earns half a galleon per dose. It's not enough to make a person rich, but it will certainly keep each of us afloat, and I suppose the number of werewolves will only increase."
       Violet shifted on the window ledge to draw her robe more tightly around her and sniffed at the memory of Hermione's ingratitude. That Gryffindor cow! She hadn't even told them about Peter Pettigrew; they'd had to hear about it from Ginny Weasley.
       "Executed," the red-head had breathed, showing them the copy of the DAILY PROPHET she'd smuggled out of Hermione's dormitory. "Someone tracked him down and destroyed him in his lair."
       There'd been a long silence, after which Ginny had suggested softly, "Maybe Snape will come back now."
       But Snape had not returned.
       Now Malfoy stood up so they could all see him. "Justin Finch-Fletchley was walking to the Great Hall with Hannah Abbott," he recounted for his housemates. "You know how gloomy he and most of the Hufflepuffs have been since Snape left."
       The Slytherins nodded. They'd found it endearing, actually, the number of times Malfoy had had to pull Justin off petulant students making snide remarks about guilt-mongering instructors.
       "He heaved a bit of a sigh," Malfoy went on, "and said to Hannah, 'Well, at least we don't have to worry about him flogging our entire house on Christmas Eve.'"
       The blonde Slytherin had captured Justin's somber, tragic style perfectly, but the Slytherins didn't even smirk. Malfoy rolled his eyes, then put his hands on his hips and thrust his pelvis to one side before assuming Hannah's earnest, feminine lilt.
       "'Do you think we were next, Justin?'" he quoted the Hufflepuff girl. Then he folded his arms across his chest in an approximation of Justin's pretentious seriousness and concluded,
       "'Oh, I'm sure of it.'"
       He dropped his arms to his sides with a grin and waited for his housemates' response. The Slytherins stared. Then, silently, they bent their heads and returned to the listless thumbing of their spellbooks or stared vacantly into space.
       "Oh, come on!" Malfoy scolded. "This has to stop." He climbed on top of the coffee table in front of the fire and clapped his hands twice.
       "You're out of line, you know," he lectured when all eyes had turned to him. "Instructors come and go all the time!"
       Michael stuck his hand in the air and Malfoy waved him off. "Yes, of course, except for Professor Binns," he nodded. "But use your heads. There are seven years at Hogwarts. Only one class can be first years when a teacher arrives, and only one class can be seventh years when a teacher leaves." He folded his arms across his chest. "No matter how much you like someone, it's not physically possible for him to be here the entire time for every class."
       Violet reached inside her robe to squeeze the pewter vial she wore on a chain around her neck. Easy for you to talk, Malfoy, she thought as she clutched the little container. Her housemaster had filled it with Instant External Pain Relief and Healing Potion, a fact that made Violet smile every time she thought of it. But now she gave the Head Boy what she hoped was a withering glare before returning her attention to the window.
       The sheets of snow coating the grounds reminded her of her first Christmas Eve at Hogwarts. How long ago that seemed! She clutched the vial tighter, enjoying the way it grew warm in her hand. That's what we're all doing, she realized as she stroked the smooth metal surface with her thumb. We're all clutching, hanging on until...
       Until what, Violet wondered. What were they waiting for, the morose occupants of this castle? A Christmas miracle?
       The child snorted. Yes, she realized. That's precisely what they were waiting for. They were hanging on until Christmas, hoping the holidays and their trips home would work some sort of magic to dispel the gloomy cloud that hung over their lives. No one wanted to acknowledge the truth brought home by Snape's departure: Voldemort's death hadn't changed a thing. So long as the sins of the past carried on, the darkness would continue.
       Besides, Violet thought, giving the hem of her robe a belligerent little kick, how would Christmas help the Slytherins? We've got the largest percentage of orphans at Hogwarts! We've got no homes and now no housemaster! What's to become of us?
       She ran the phrase through her mind a few times. What's to become of us? It reminded her of Rachel's letter, and that reminded her of Hermione Granger. She clutched her knees to her chest and scowled ferociously at the falling snow.
       "Isn't it awful?"
       Hermione walked up to Harry Potter who was sitting in a Gryffindor Tower window seat, staring out at the snowy night. Probably wishing he could be out flying, the girl realized. Harry did a lot of that these days. It was hard to pin him down for a good talk.
       In truth, Harry didn't want to talk to people. He especially did not want to talk to Hermione. He didn't want to fight with her about Snape.
       The man had tricked him into committing murder. But he'd also risked his life to save Harry's... again. And he'd killed Peter Pettigrew. Harry was sure of it. But more than that...
       'Thank you, Potter. For the rest of my life. '
       Harry had given those words a great deal of thought. Eventually, he'd come to realize that, for Snape, Hogwarts was a lot like the Dursleys'. He couldn't begrudge the man a chance to finally get away.
       But he didn't want to fight with his friend. So he shrugged.
       "I don't know, Hermione," he said softly. He nodded at the dark, snowy night. "I rather like thinking of him out there... free at last."
       He turned calm green eyes to his friend's troubled face. "Sometimes I imagine bumping into him," he confided. "He's fine..." The boy hesitated, then turned to the window again. "...and so am I," he finished quietly.
       Hermione was not moved by the fantasy. She squinted out the window as if trying to see the fictitious encounter for herself and asked, "How's Professor McGonagall?"
       Harry groaned and dropped his head backwards against the cold stones. Rumor had it this would be Dumbledore's last year at Hogwarts. The boy was sorry he and McGonagall were in pain, that Dumbledore's last months at Hogwarts might be marred by lingering regrets. But he couldn't blame Snape for leaving.
       Still, he did not want to fight with Hermione. So he climbed down from the window seat and headed for the portrait of the Fat Lady.
       Stubborn Hermione followed him out of the common room so he headed straight for Slytherin. Even that did not deter the Head Girl. She followed him right through the door that Michael opened in response to Harry's knock, in spite of the glares from several Slytherins. She even spoke first.
       "Did you know?" she demanded, marching right up to Malfoy, who was once again seated before the fire. "Did you know he would do this?"
       Malfoy did not stand or invite the Gryffindors to sit down. "I'd forgotten," he said off-handedly. "But yes. He told me the morning I learned about Lupin's Remedy."
       The Slytherins sat up in surprise. Hermione put her hands on her hips. "You didn't tell us," she accused. "You didn't give us a chance to talk him out of it!"
       "That would have been wrong," Malfoy drawled with a slight lift of one eyebrow.
       "Snape's leaving was wrong!" Hermione shouted back. "He only did it to punish us, to punish Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall!"
       Malfoy smiled coolly at the girl. "What makes you think so?" he murmured. Hermione fell back a step, as if Draco's question had caught her in some sort of trap, and the Head Boy snapped his fingers imperiously, as if to summon a servant. "Violet!" he called to his younger housemate. "Fetch Rachel's letter."
       The third year did as she was told, returning promptly with the parchment in hand. She climbed up to sit cross-legged on a table near the fire and read the missive aloud. When she'd finished, she turned to Malfoy and demanded, "Tell them about Snape's 4th year."
       Malfoy, who'd been listening with his hands clasped behind his head, shook it at the girl. "That's not what she was writing about, Violet," he insisted. "And Dumbledore and McGonagall are not the reasons Snape left." He started to say more but Violet interrupted, springing to her feet to jump up and down on the tabletop.
       "Tell them!" she demanded, waving clenched fists, "or I will!"
       Malfoy rolled his eyes and nodded at Crabbe, who hauled Violet down from the table. He invited the Gryffindors to take a seat, stretching his own long legs before him and crossing them comfortably at the ankles.
       "After my dad and his friends left Hogwarts," he began "life got pretty tough for Snape. It was four against one, after all, and the marauders were popular, so a lot of other students followed their example."
       He unclasped his hands from behind his head and rested them on the arms of his chair. "At the end of his third year," he went on, "Snape got an idea. He borrowed a broom from my dad and spent the summer developing the Severus Twist. His plan was to join the house quidditch team and surprise James with the twist during Slytherin's match against Gryffindor. If he could help the Slytherin quidditch team beat the great James Potter, he thought, maybe the other kids would leave him alone."
       Hermione broke in. "Then how come nobody ever..."
       "I'm coming to that, Granger." Malfoy waved away Hermione's interruption as if it were an irritating insect. "In those days," he explained, "quidditch try-outs were public. They were supervised by the flying instructor and everybody came to watch. When Snape mounted his broom, James Potter..."
       Harry winced. He seemed to know what was coming.
       "...hit it with a hex," Malfoy confirmed. "The broom began to buck and heave and Snape..." The teenager shook his head. "Snape didn't make the team," he finished simply.
       It was clear from the looks on the two Gryffindors' faces that they'd already guessed as much.
       "The instructor told him..." Malfoy assumed the gentle tone he imagined the teacher had used. "...that he just didn't fly well enough to play quidditch safely."
       Harry winced again. A few Slytherins moaned but Malfoy ignored them, turning instead to look at Potter. "No one suspected your father," he assured the Gryffindor, "not even the other Slytherins, because Snape had never been a strong flyer. You see..." He folded his arms across his chest. "He wasn't given the ability..." Malfoy put a particularly strong accent on the word, "...and he'd never owned a broom, so he couldn't practice."
       "Once a week," Violet muttered sadly. Marybeth jabbed her with an elbow to hush her.
       "Snape decided not to tell," Malfoy continued. "Instead, he bided his time until the match between our houses. Then..."
       Malfoy paused for effect, then shrugged and nodded at Harry.
       "He knocked your father off his broom."
       Hermione's mouth dropped open. Malfoy, still watching Harry, saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and smirked at her.
       "Not from a great height, mind you," he drawled. "That would have only added to James' reputation, had he survived, and somebody..." His smirk disappeared as suddenly as if he had swallowed it. "Somebody always seems to see to it that Gryffindor students survive."
       Hermione snapped her mouth shut.
       "He cursed him from a low height," Malfoy explained, "so James would be thoroughly humiliated. And he did it well. He was good at the dark arts, after all. Not even James knew the fall wasn't his fault. He'd have gotten away with it, if it weren't for...."
       Harry nodded. "McGonagall," he whispered. It suddenly occurred to him to wonder just exactly when his father had developed his much ballyhooed distaste for the dark arts.
       "You could hear her shrieking all over the pitch," Malfoy was saying. "'James Potter would never fall off his broom! Never! Never!' She shouted it over and over. She insisted Dumbledore perform a prior incantato on every wand in the school until he found the culprit."
       At this, Hermione leapt to her feet. "Why didn't Snape?" she demanded, incensed. "Why didn't Snape insist on a prior incantato after his try-out?"
       Draco shook his head at such foolishness. "Granger," he replied with an especially patronizing tone, "don't you know what happens to kids like Snape who tattle on kids like James?"
       Hermione sat back down.
       "Their punishment," Draco revealed, "was to forbid Snape to ever play quidditch at Hogwarts. People thought he got off easy, that he should have been expelled." The Slytherin broke off for a moment, and when he continued, he spoke so softly his audience had to strain to hear him. "The way Snape was treated after that," he murmured, "he would have been better off."
       There was a long silence. Then Malfoy bounced his eyebrows at Harry, who was looking more than a little nauseous. "Never mind, Potter," he drawled. "That's only one of a hundred stories. And..." He turned emphatically to Violet. "It is NOT what Rachel was writing about!"
       "What, then?" Hermione demanded.
       Malfoy hesitated. He sat up, leaning slowly towards Hermione.
       "You're a clever girl, Granger," he reminded her, resting his elbows on his knees. "You're good at speculation. That's why Snape chose you to help with Lupin's Remedy." He narrowed his eyes and asked the Head Girl, "Why do you think Snape joined the Death Eaters?"
       Hermione blinked, surprised. Then she frowned and turned away. "I have to admit," she replied softly, "it never made sense to me."
       Malfoy's eyebrows sprang up. "Good for you!" he nodded in a rare display of approval. "Most people are too thick to realize that individuals like Snape don't join the likes of Voldemort."
       Harry frowned. "Then why did he?" he asked, and Draco answered him as simply as Snape had answered Draco.
       "To kill him."
       Hermione gasped but Harry shook his head.
       "How do you know?" the Gryffindor wondered. Malfoy told him briefly about the conversation in Snape's parlor. Harry shook his head again.
       "You have only Snape's word for it," he pointed out.
       "Wrong," Draco countered. "I've got his conduct. So do you. So does Granger and everybody else. And so did Dumbledore and McGonagall. Of course..." He leaned back in his chair again. "You have to be honest about it."
       The Gryffindors made no response. Malfoy nodded.
       "Now," he said softly, and everybody leaned a little closer. "I want you to imagine something, all of you. I want you to imagine... what it was like to be Snape. Imagine that last year at Hogwarts, those years with the Death Eaters, and all those years after he returned to this school."
       The teenager stood up and walked to the fireplace, standing with his back to his audience while he stared into the flames.
       "Imagine watching Dumbledore and McGonagall grow to venerate James Potter," he whispered, "while they and everyone considered decent holds you in ever-increasing contempt. Imagine every harm he's ever inflicted disregarded... and all your hard work forgotten."
       He paused to let them think about that. An ember popped and several listeners jumped but Malfoy didn't even flinch. "Now you're gone," he went on. "You're with the Death Eaters, where every moment is lived in fear..."
       Marybeth whimpered. Violet jabbed her with an elbow to hush her.
       "You live in constant terror, tormented, tortured, never knowing a moment's peace, searching desperately for an opportunity to destroy a butchering madman who would kill you in a heartbeat. James, meanwhile, fights from a distance, surrounded by family and friends and allies. He isn't alone. But he's the one they herald. He's the one they call brave. And then..."
       The teenager turned to stare at them over his shoulder. "The realization comes," he told his audience. "You can't defeat him. You can't prevail." He shook his head, his grey eyes dimming as he tried to imagine living with the realization Snape had finally reached. "You've made a fatal mistake."
       He gazed at them without really seeing them. Nobody moved. Eventually, Malfoy took a deep breath and turned back to the fire.
       "There's no escape," he went on. "You're trapped. They..." His voice grew snide. "...will never pay for their bad choices. Only their right choices will be remembered. But you..." His voice dropped so low his listeners had to hold their breath. "You're doomed," he finished tonelessly. He shook his head and fell silent.
       He stared at the flames for so long that when he suddenly spoke again, his audience started. "Now you're back at Hogwarts," he announced, "and it just goes on and on. You've risked your life for the side of good, but no one credits you unless forced to do so. You've sacrificed your future to make amends for your past, but transgressions against you are minimalized or disregarded. Your life is threatened again and again. Your good deeds are ignored again and again. Your successes are villainized... again and again."
       "But Draco..."
       All eyes turned in surprise to Hermione Granger at her use of her nemesis' Christian name.
       "What about now?" she insisted. "What about... lately?"
       Malfoy shoved his hands in his pockets and took a few steps in her direction.
       "Did you know," he asked the perpetually well-informed Head Girl, "that if you obliviate a person's memory, his personality remains unchanged?"
       Hermione, remembering Lockhart, nodded vaguely.
       "That's because you can't undo the past and its effects," Malfoy explained. "You can only use tools like forgiveness to try and survive the future." His glanced about the room, including them all in the directive he was about to deliver.
       "Every step Snape takes through the corridors of this castle is agony," he insisted. "Let him go."
       Nobody said anything for a long time. Then Violet gave a loud sniff and Hermione leapt to her feet, scowling
       "I just figured something out," she announced with a toss of her bushy hair. "I just figured out why Snape spanks you." She folded her arms across her chest and waited for a Slytherin to ask why. When no one did, she let out an impatient breath.
       "He's sending a message to McGonagall and Dumbledore," she informed them. "Every time he spanks you, he's telling them..." She drew herself up to her full height and spat, "'I am not like you!'"
       She waited for an outcry, but the Slytherins made no response. They just sat there, mulling this over, and eventually they began to nod.
       "You may be right," Malfoy agreed, causing Hermione to whirl around and march to the door in a huff.
       "This isn't over!" she shouted as she jerked the door open. "It's not over for Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall, and it's not over for me!" She shoved her annoying hair out of her face and urged her housemate, "Come on, Harry."
       Harry stood up, but he didn't leave. He stared at Malfoy, a memory stirring in his head. It was something the blonde boy had said to him on Christmas night a year ago. If Snape didn't want to be like Dumbledore and McGonagall, did it follow that the Slytherins...
       "Is that why we'll never be friends?" he asked Malfoy. "Because you don't want to be like us?"
       Draco's eyebrows sprang up in surprise. Harry snorted. "Too bad, then," he pointed out, taking care to glance around the entire room so that every Slytherin would appreciate the repercussions of what he was about to say... "...that Snape's gone."
       He sauntered over to Hermione and held the door for her before exiting himself, leaving the children of Salazar's house thunderstruck. Several moments passed before Malfoy summed up their reaction to the idea of being raised by Albus Dumbledore in a single horrified word.
       "What's that?" Minerva asked upon entering the headmaster's office. Dumbledore was seated at his desk, studying a somewhat decrepit piece of parchment.
       "It's Severus' Defense OWL," he told her after inviting her to sit down. He held the exam paper across the desk for her to take.
       "How did you get it?" she breathed, eagerly scanning the contents.
       "Headmaster's privilege," Dumbledore twinkled. "He applied for the position."
       Minerva readjusted her glasses and squinted as she read the cramped, spidery writing. It was all there... Snape's concern about Voldemort and his influence over the children of Slytherin, a pledge to use the insights he'd gained from an infatuation with the dark arts to develop new defense techniques, a thorough demonstration of his knowledge of defense, some brilliant new theories, and finally, a plea for the Ministry to interfere on behalf of his friends, the children of prominent wizarding families who were falling under Voldemort's spell.
       By the time she reached the end of the paper, the deputy headmistress had sagged visibly. She held up the document and pointed silently to the mediocre grade. Dumbledore shrugged.
       "He named names," the headmaster reminded her. "You can't expect an examiner hired by the Ministry to give high marks to a paper that names names."
       Minerva snorted. She set the parchment down on the desk, resting her hand on top of it as if to shield it from further abuse. After a moment, she looked up and asked Dumbledore, "How did he do on his NEWT?"
       "He didn't take it."
       The Transfigurations teacher sat up sharply. "Severus didn't take a NEWT in Defense?" she repeated.
       Dumbledore shrugged again. "I suppose," the old man observed coyly, "he didn't see the point."
       "Oh, Albus." Minerva shook her head. She clasped her hands in her lap, took a deep breath, and said what she'd come to say.
       "I do not want to follow in your footsteps, Albus, without Severus by my side."
       Dumbledore shook his head. "I'm sure either Professor Flitwick or Professor Sprout..."
       "I want Severus!" Minerva shouted, slamming a palm down on his desk. Fawkes squawked in surprise and bolted from his perch to fly around the room.
       His eyes twinkling, Dumbledore rose and crossed the office to soothe his pet. "Be practical, Minerva," he beseeched as he coaxed Fawkes back onto his perch and stroked his flaming red feathers. "This isn't about forgiveness, after all. It's about awareness."
       He tilted his head to study the bird as it preened its ruffled feathers. "At Hogwarts," he mused, "Severus learned just how bad 'good' people can be. Once you show an idealistic person how..." He searched for a delicate term. "...inconsistent... most individuals are, you can never take that knowledge away."
       He reached in his pocket and produced a bit of biscuit which he offered Fawkes. The bird took it grudgingly, crumbling it in his beak while he turned a disdainful eye upon McGonagall. Dumbledore returned to his desk and sat down.
       "I never quite understood," he murmured as he picked up a quill and toyed with it, "how James Potter could pride himself on opposing the Dark Arts without realizing that hexing people who don't deserve it... is dark magic at its simplest."
       Minerva snorted. "He outgrew that!" she protested. But Dumbledore shook his head.
       "Did he?" the old man wondered. "James had so many gifts, Minerva, but he never used them for good unless there was something in it for him... my esteem, Lily's affections, the admiration of others..."
       "Perhaps we should dig up his corpse," Minerva interrupted tartly, "and whip him naked through the corridors of the dungeon."
       Dumbledore indulged himself in a brief chuckle. "The point I am making," he continued mildly, "is that Severus believes in altruism. He relishes nobility and will doubtless spend the rest of his life serving those in need. But I can't think of anything under the sun that would compel him to return to Hogwarts, because people like Severus..."
       He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "People like Severus," he whispered, tenting his fingertips above his long silver beard, "will never be happy unless they are allowed to be ...apart."
       For a long time there was no sound but the crunching of Fawkes' biscuit. When Dumbledore opened his eyes, he found McGonagall staring out a darkened window.
       "We can't win them all, Minerva," he reminded her gently. "We defeated Voldemort. That's the important thing. Severus..." He took a deep breath and turned once more to his bird. "Severus," he concluded, his half-moon glasses reflecting Fawkes' gentle gaze, "may simply have to go down in the loss column."
       The deputy headmistress pressed her lips together, hard. Easy for you to say, old man, she fumed. Dumbledore was twice her age. He had more to look back on. He had not been of an age to... He didn't see how... She gave herself a little shake, wishing she could cast aside the pain that tugged mercilessly at her heart. After the death of Lupin, Snape had been all that remained of a generation that had seemed like...
       "The children," she spoke up sharply. She cleared her throat and pulled a handkerchief from her pocket, blowing her nose loudly. "We're making no headway with them," she insisted as she tucked the handkerchief away again, "and they've been away from their families for so long. Perhaps we could send them home for Christmas a bit early. Start fresh in the new year."
       Dumbledore, relieved by the change of subject, leaned forward to consider it.
       "Right now," Minerva reviewed, "we're scheduled to send them home on Wednesday, Christmas Eve. What if we cancelled classes Monday and Tuesday and sent them home Saturday instead?"
       The headmaster shook his head. "Several parents have made plans to be away that weekend on shopping expeditions," he told McGonagall. "Holiday gifts and food items are proving difficult to come by."
       "Surely they could arrange..." Minerva began, but Dumbledore cut her off.
       "With muggle-wizard relations so..." He chose the word carefully. "...strained... these days, I'd prefer not to send the children home to anyone but their parents. However..." He smiled at her, his eyes twinkling again. "We could certainly cancel classes on Monday and Tuesday and send the children home Monday."
       "Thank you." McGonagall rose and wished him a pleasant evening before heading for the door. As she opened it, Dumbledore called,
       "Yes, Albus?"
       The old man rose and crossed once more to his phoenix. "With so many orphans remaining at Hogwarts over Christmas," he began, offering Fawkes his arm. The large red bird stepped carefully aboard and both creatures turned lively eyes to the deputy headmistress. "I think it would be unwise, " Dumbledore nodded, "for both of us to go looking for Severus at the same time."
       The Transfigurations teacher froze. Then she tossed her head, despite the blush creeping up her cheeks. "Certainly," she agreed, hurrying out the door so she would not have to endure one of the headmaster's twinkly smiles at her predictability.
       She returned to her office to draw up the notices and delivered copies to Sprout and Flitwick yet that evening. The next morning, because the Slytherins had no head of house, she let herself into their common room before breakfast to post a copy on their notice board.
       The room was empty except for the Baron, who sat on a sofa near the fire. He gazed morosely at McGonagall, following her every move with those vacant, staring eyes. The deputy headmistress found his behavior most annoying. After tacking up the piece of parchment, she strode briskly over to him and announced,
       "We're sending the children home early. Until then, perhaps you would be good enough to meet with me each week, to keep me apprised of how the Slytherins are managing."
       The Baron just stared at her, his eyes blank yet menacing. The silence in Slytherin House went on and on, pressing in on McGonagall, who felt her face begin to flame. Too close to the fire, she decided, and she took a step to the left. Why do they build it up so in the morning? Of course, this was Saturday. The Slytherins would not be going to class.
       Then she noticed that the fire was not really large. It just seemed that way because the popping timbers echoed so loudly in the quiet room. To fill the silence, McGonagall told the Baron sternly, "I am waiting for your answer!"
       The Baron nodded. He glanced at the archway to the girls' corridor and then at the entrance to the boys' corridor. Then he told McGonagall,
       "I don't think that will be necessary."
       The deputy headmistress paled. Oh, no, she thought, unconsciously clenching her fists. Not now. Not after everything else!
       She dashed across the room and down the girls' corridor, flinging wide one cell door after another. Then she hurried to the boys' corridor and did the same to their rooms, banging each door against the stone wall as she rushed to the next cell. The Baron counted the bangs; when the last door had been wrenched open, he turned his vacant eyes to the boys' corridor entrance.
       It was a long time before McGonagall reentered the common room. When she did, her face was still and her gait halting. She staggered uncertainly across the room and reached up with one trembling hand to remove the parchment she'd just posted on the Slytherins' message board. As she did, her eyes fell on something shiny stuck in one corner.
       It was Draco Malfoy's head boy badge.
       McGonagall clenched the parchment notice, crumpling it into a ball as she slowly lowered her hand, never taking her eyes off the badge. Her breath heaved in and out of her chest and the color rose in her cheeks. She turned slowly back towards the fireplace, her eyes darting uncertainly around the room, her head bobbing slightly. When she spoke, it was in a whisper, and she stammered, as if experimenting with a word she felt certain was appropriate but didn't know how to pronounce.
       The Baron rose and hovered just above the sofa, unsure whether to approach the deputy headmistress or flee. When she spun around and suddenly wrenched the notice board from the wall, he made up his mind. He flew for the door as fast as he could go and sailed through it just as McGonagall flung the board across the room.
       "Dammit, dammit, DAMMIT!" she cried.
       Dammit, dammit, dammit, Malfoy thought as he surveyed the mess surrounding him. Would you look at this place?
       He cataloged the dilapidation that extended as far as the eye could see. Broken windows. Peeling stucco. Cracks in the foundation. A front door hanging crooked on rusty hinges. Overturned benches. Overgrown shrubs. Chipped statuary in the mossy water fountain. Dead grass sticking up through the snow. He glanced at the Slytherins who stood clumped behind him. They looked even more appalled than he. This, the boy realized with a shake of his head, may have been a huge mistake.
       It had been cold flying, all night through the snow. Even with the team equipment, there had not been enough brooms to go around, so the Slytherins had had to double up. As a result, they'd had to leave many of their possessions behind. "We'll go back for the rest at Christmas," Malfoy had promised, "when fewer people are around." Now he deeply regretted the cavalier way they had cast aside their Dumbledorian long underwear. Even beneath a blanket of new snow, the squire's house and surrounding grounds looked hopelessly decrepit, a woeful disappointment to the cold, weary Slytherins.
       "You didn't tell us it was this bad," he whispered fiercely to Goyle.
       "It wasn't this bad," his housemate hissed back. "Maybe his house elf died."
       The front door banged open and Pansy screamed.
       "About time!" shouted a scruffy looking wizard in tattered green robes. He shook a walking stick at them. "I've been writing that agency for months!" he complained before turning around to hobble grumpily back inside, his cane banging the floor with every step. The Slytherins exchanged confused looks.
       "Is it because half of us have matching cloaks?" Millicent wondered, bewildered as to how the old man could mistake a group of schoolchildren for employees from a cleaning agency. Malfoy shrugged.
       "Whatever gets us in the door," he replied, and he led his housemates inside.
       Twelve hours later, the Slytherins sat huddled in a ragged circle in the squire's parlor, cold and weary and now hungry and dirty to boot. They'd slaved all day in this room, where they planned to sleep until they could clean some bedrooms, but they'd barely made a dent in the filth. They hadn't even begun on the kitchen and their stomachs were gnawing in protest.
       Malfoy pointed his wand at his sleeve to scourgify his grimy cuff and wound up burning a hole in his shirt, stinging his wrist. "Ow!" he snarled, and Millicent reminded him,
       "You have to hold the wand farther away."
       "I know that!" he snapped back.
       Violet sighed. "Maybe the squire could help us," she murmured. The old man had retreated to his room and showed no signs of emerging. Given the current state of his residence, Malfoy doubted the senile wizard would be of much help.
       "We need an elf," Pansy insisted. "Can we afford an elf?"
       Malfoy scowled. "I don't even know how to get one," he confessed. Thanks to Dumbledore and Granger, he wasn't sure it was even possible anymore. Besides, his money had to last... well, who knew how long it had to last?
       He shook his head at their ignorance. If only they hadn't been assigned yard work last summer! Now none of them knew how to clean and manage a household using magic. The purebloods all came from homes that had boasted house-elves and the half-bloods, every last one of them, had grown up in homes where muggles had done the housework, using electrical appliances unheard of in the wizarding world.
       "I'm sure the nuns would help us, Malfoy," Millicent pointed out, but the boy shook his head.
       "Without magic," he reminded her, "it'll take 12 hours a day or more to keep this place running. When are we supposed to have time for a school?"
       Crabbe and Goyle returned with bad news from their exploratory trip to the kitchen. "The cupboards," Goyle announced, "are bare." The Slytherins groaned.
       Malfoy, fearing they would soon be reduced to eating the pet owls that had flown so valiantly alongside them through the night, glanced at the handful of children who had living, non-Death Eater parents. "Maybe you should go home," he murmured.
       His suggestion brought an immediately storm of protest. Go home? What for? To be sent back to Hogwarts and absorbed into other houses? No way! We're all in this together, his housemates insisted.
       That gave him an idea.
       No one thought much of it when, two and a half weeks later, Violet didn't queue up for a bath on Thursday night. She certainly needed one. They all did. But after twelve hours of hard labor, the Slytherin girls standing in a row outside the lavatory door were just too tired to care.
       Every day, the Slytherins had to hunt down, levitate, and diffendo enough wood to fuel fireplaces in their parlor, the kitchen stove, the squire's bedroom, and the four bedrooms they'd managed to reclaim so far. They'd tried accioing wood with horrendous results: windows had been broken, walls had been smashed, and the Slytherins had run screaming through the snow to escape the onslaught of flying wooden furniture. "Accio firewood" had proven even more disastrous without a school nurse on hand to heal their burns.
       Hauling the wood inside made the floors filthy. Their scourgify spells only cleaned a few inches of carpet at a time; they tracked up faster than they could clean. This, along with cooking their meager meals and keeping themselves tidy, took a solid twelve hours per day.
       They'd considered writing to the less affluent citizens of Hogsmeade for housekeeping instructions but had decided against it. If word got back to the families of the few Slytherins who still had parents that their children were living in impoverished filth, this little experiment, they knew, would come to a rapid halt. Correspondence between the non-orphans and their families had revealed that the only reason the parents were putting up with this was because they knew their children would simply run away again if dragged home or, worse, sent back to Hogwarts.
       They were still wearing their Hogwarts uniforms. They'd discussed it just before leaving and had decided that, Hogwarts or no Hogwarts, they were still Slytherins. Besides, the uniforms were the warmest clothes they had. But keeping them clean was their biggest chore of all.
       The garments were suffering mightily under current conditions, but scourgifying charms were too hard on the clothes; they thinned and weakened the fabric. So the Slytherins were forced to launder by hand, and while the squire had indoor plumbing, the water came out of the taps icy cold. No one could figure out why.
       Then one day, Violet had accidentally dropped her illuminated wand into a cauldron of water she was using to scrub the fireplace grate beneath the parlor chimney. She'd let out a squeal of delight when, upon fishing it out, she'd discovered that the light had warmed the cauldron water a few degrees. After that, they could heat water without burning up precious fuel or monopolizing one of the few bluebell flames they could find a home for among the squire's limited glassware. But it was a time-consuming process. At night, with so many people to bathe in just two tubs, baths had to be limited to a woefully unsatisfying three minutes in two inches of tepid water.
       That was why, on this particular Thursday night, Violet was foregoing her turn in the lavatory to conduct an experiment in the bedroom she shared with Marybeth, Jennifer, Millicent, Pansy and Tracey. She placed her cauldron in the center of the room between the two beds and the fainting couch, aimed her wand, and cried "Engorgio!" taking care not to be heard by her housemates down the hall. Malfoy had a rule about 'no underaged magic except for chores.' Her cauldron increased in size and Violet repeated the charm until it was large enough to meet her needs.
       Next she slid open the window and leaned out to levitate the buckets of snow waiting below. One by one, she dumped them into her cauldron, fired up her lumos light, thrust it into the cauldron, and hummed happily to herself as the snow melted and steamed. When Millicent entered the room a short while later, wrapped up in her Slytherin warming cloak after her lukewarm soak and chilly trip down the corridor, she found Violet up to her shoulders in toasty warm water, singing happily as she scrubbed. "I'd like to be... under the sea... in an octopus's garden... in the shade..."
       The youngster tossed the older girl a cheeky grin, confident her brilliant idea would make a big splash with her housemates. She lifted one foot to scrub between her toes, singing at the top of her lungs, "Mr. Bubble in the tub'll... getcha squeaky clean!"
       As she sang, a wave of water washed up her nose and Violet sat up sharply, coughing and sputtering. How had that happened? she wondered. She glanced down in confusion. "Millicent," she called, unable to believe the evidence of her eyes. "Is the water in this cauldron... rising?"
       Even as she spoke, the water inched up her neck and began spilling over the sides. Millicent flew across the room and yanked her out of the bath just in time; the cauldron shrank in violent spasms, sending gallons of soapy water sloshing across the floor as it reverted to its original size.
       Violet, goose-pimpled with horror, fumbled for her Slytherin cloak hanging on a chair nearby. "Millicent," she squeaked as she pulled the garment on. "Would it have eaten me?"
       Millicent shook her head with a snort. "Look at this mess!" she snarled. She pulled out her wand and was just about to evanesco the nearest puddle when a strange sound made her stop.
       "What's that?" she asked, listening hard. Violet pricked up her ears and the two girls stood very still. There was a trickling noise from the water cascading down through the floorboards to the kitchen below. But it was the strange sizzling sound which came after that puzzled them.
       Then Malfoy's voice rang out loud and clear.
       He stormed upstairs, cleaned up the mess with a drought charm, ordered Millicent out of the room, and hauled Violet across his knee to spank her soundly. Then he sent her to bed and returned to the first floor to inform the Slytherins that her impromptu flood had rained down on the stove, spoiling their supper.
       As his housemates filed miserably out of the kitchen, Malfoy sank into the nearest chair and dropped his head onto his arms to contemplate this latest disaster. "I didn't know the charm wouldn't hold!" Violet had protested as he'd reddened her bottom. Well, that was the trouble, wasn't it? They didn't seem to know much at all!
       They worked so hard, all of them. But they were so bloody ignorant, they had to slave all day just to keep body and soul together. Still, they were never really clean, never really warm, and never really full. When were they supposed to find time to organize a school, much less run it?
       Malfoy lifted his head to gaze at the mess splattered all over the stove. It hadn't been much of a meal Violet had ruined, just a large kettle of mash he'd made from the flakes Adrian Pucey had provided. His former teammate had sent several boxes after Malfoy had written for help his first night at the manor. Marcus Flint had sent a few packages of dried vegetables, tea, and copies of the Daily Prophet.
       They were lucky to have any food at all, but the Slytherins still complained about the carefully-rationed fare. And tomorrow, no doubt, Jennifer and Marybeth, who shared Violet's bed, would grumble that she'd tossed and turned all night from her sore rear end, and Violet would pout for two days because he'd spanked her, all of which annoyed the hell out of him. But the quarrelling was even worse.
       The last time he'd spanked Jennifer, there'd been a terrible row between the third year girls and the seventh years who shared their bedroom. The third years thought Millicent should give up her fainting couch and sleep with Pansy and Tracey whenever someone got spanked so the tossing and turning wouldn't keep the others awake; the older girls had insisted they were too big to sleep three in a bed. "If you little kids would stop messing about so much..." Millicent had snarled, and Malfoy had had to rush in before the hexes flew.
       They wouldn't accept his authority, he fumed. That was the problem. The little kids were cheerful enough, more tolerant of manor's squalor than their older counterparts. Malfoy had hoped that putting them into bedrooms with the seventh years (the 4th, 5th and 6th years shared the other two rooms) would keep them on their best behavior. But they got up to mischief nevertheless, making messes, breaking things, and worst of all, plaguing the poor, befuddled old squire. "You'd have gotten far worse from Snape," Malfoy had reminded them when they'd glowered at him for paddling them after they'd hidden their pet snakes in the squire's bed. "Now behave yourselves, or I'll turn those reptiles into a stew!"
       The teenager climbed to his feet, brushing splotches of mashed potato off his robe. He was so tired of these grimy Hogwarts uniforms! As the outfits grew shabbier and smellier, Draco found himself thinking constantly about his father's clothing, just waiting for him in the armoires of the Malfoy estate. How he would love to augment these weary rags with the occasional silk shirt or pair of linen trousers. But the Slytherins wouldn't let him leave.
       "You'd be gone too long," Millicent protested every time he brought it up. "This house isn't on the floo system, and it's not like you can apparate. We can't spare you for the amount of time it would take you to fly there and back."
       Malfoy had tried to persuade them with promises of the luxuries he could gather up and bring back. But Tracey had hooted, pointing out that the estate had probably been looted a dozen times by now, which had only increased his desperation to visit.
       The squire was no help whatsoever. He blundered into their presence occasionally to rant and rave but never backed Malfoy up. The teenager wasn't sure the old man even knew who they were.
       Christmas is a week away, he thought as he pulled out his wand to scourgify the stove, and it''ll probably be the worst one of our lives. He wondered if he should send the non-orphans home. He wondered how they were going to survive the winter.
       He wondered if anybody cared.
       Madam Rosmerta shook her head at the spectacle before her. Harry Potter sat alone in the otherwise empty pub, staring vacantly at the empty goblets littering his table, drunk for the first time in his life. I should have cut him off sooner, the sensible tavern-mistress lamented, knowing full well she'd have had no chance of that the way her eager customers had mobbed the boy all evening.
       They'd fought for the privilege of buying him one drink after another, never mind that 1) this was a Thursday night, not a Hogsmeade Weekend, and 2) the boy was obviously distressed. His unresponsiveness had been no deterrent; they'd filled the uneasy pauses with more claps on the back and cries of "Thatta boy!" and "Drink up, Potter, drink up!" Only when he'd grown tipsy and belligerent had they backed off, slipping out the door into the snowy December evening or creeping upstairs to bed.
       "Feeling better, Mr. Potter?" Rosie called to the miserable young man across the room as she wiped the last of the glasses and put them away. "Drowned your sorrows, have you?"
       Harry tried to lift his eyes and his head swam. Don't scold, he begged the barmaid silently. Please.
       Rosmerta put down her towel and walked over to Harry's table. There was no way, she realized, that she could send him back to Hogwarts in this condition. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders to help him to his feet.
       "Let's find you a bed," she murmured as she led him to the stairs. "You can creep back to Hogwarts at first light. You don't want anyone seeing you like this!"
       She helped him up the steps and through the nearest door into a dark, sparsely furnished room, the last one she had available. As she eased him onto the bed, he collapsed, falling deeply asleep. The experienced barmaid tugged off his shoes and placed them at the edge of the bed, then fished his wand out of his pocket and removed his glasses so he wouldn't roll on them in his sleep. She placed them in the top drawer of a bureau beneath the window opposite the bed and, taking one last look to be sure his robe was covering him adequately, slipped quietly from the room.
       Harry woke several hours later with a raging thirst and a mouth as dry as floo powder. The unfamiliar darkness startled him; for a moment he thought he was drowning. He thrashed about his bed, trying to figure out where he was. Then it came to him. He was at the Three Broomsticks. He'd left Hogwarts in a temper and had come to town to, well... to get drunk, he supposed.
       It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
       He'd marched right out the front door of the castle and across the lawn, daring anyone to try and stop him. "You found me sneaking out?" he'd wanted to snarl. "Why don't you try finding the Slytherins?! It's been nearly 3 weeks!" But no one had noticed his angry departure, so he'd proceeded into town... and apparently had proceeded to get quite tipsy as well.
       Someone must have put him to bed.
       He groped in the murk for a nightstand next to the bed but found none. Brilliant, he snarled to himself. How was he supposed to find a candle, or his wand or glasses for that matter? The first thing I'm going to do when I get back to Hogwarts, he decided as he slid his legs over the edge of the bed, is ask Professor Flitwick to teach me how to accio without a wand... so I can accio my damn wand!
       He sat quietly in the darkness for a moment, overcome by thirst. "Water," he croaked. Would it be too pathetic to call for help? He squinted at the faint light shining beneath the door, then climbed off the bed and stumbled towards it, tripping over his shoes in the process. The room lurched and his head swam. Why were his legs so wobbly? He banged into the door and cursed his clumsiness. His mouth was so dry he couldn't even "ssh" himself.
       He patted the door with his palms until he found the knob and opened it, stepping as quietly as possible into the veranda-like hallway overlooking the drinking area. He squinted to make out Madam Rosmerta sitting at a table below with her back to him. He was just about to call for assistance when she moved a bit to her right and he spied a child sitting across from her, silhouetted in the glow of the fire burning in the fireplace behind him. Quickly Harry dropped to a crouch, grabbing the banister to steady himself as he peeked through the spokes. It would not do to have a Hogwarts student see him like this.
       No. Wait. He shook his head and tried to swallow as he struggled to make sense of the situation. Why would a Hogwarts student be downstairs with Madam Rosmerta in the middle of the night? He squeezed the banister with both hands, intending to pulling himself up again, and that's when the street door opened and a man hurried inside.
       There was power in his stride and his dark cloak billowed around him as he shook the dampness from his black hair. Harry shoved his face between two spokes. My God, he thought as he struggled to make out the scene below. Could it be? He squinted as hard as he could. No, it couldn't be. The hair wasn't right, somehow.
       But then Madam Rosmerta climbed eagerly to her feet and hurried over to the man, slipping her arms around his waist. "Severus!" she beamed as she squeezed him.
       The man did not hug her back. He couldn't, because he carried two bundles, one a bit more carefully than the other, it seemed to Harry. Rosmerta released him and he set both bundles down on the table as he nodded at the boy.
       "Have you flown before?" he asked the child, and though the tone was not as curt as Harry was used to, he would have known the voice anywhere. It was Snape.
       "No, sir," the child replied.
       "The broom's a bit twitchy," Snape told him. "You'll have to hold on tight."
       Since when does Snape have a broom? Harry wondered. Perhaps he'd been spending his Remedy money. 'Twitchy' sounds used, the boy speculated. He wondered if new brooms were in short supply these days.
       Madam Rosmerta brushed some debris from Snape's cloak. "Loreli is bringing another youngster on Monday," she told him.
       Snape turned to her, apparently displeased by the news.
       "Damn muggles!" he hissed. "They're killing more of us than Voldemort ever did!"
       Rosmerta fetched him a cup of coffee, addressing Snape over her shoulder as she poured. "Don't exaggerate, Severus," she protested, and Harry couldn't tell if she was lecturing or pleading. "It's just the shallow ones who cause all the trouble."
       She brought him the cup and he accepted it with an appreciative sigh, savoring its aroma. "You don't have to tell me," he continued more quietly. He nodded at the larger bundle and Rosmerta turned to it, cutting off Harry's view. He leaned sideways, trying to see what Snape had brought.
       Rosmerta unwrapped the bundle and let out a loud gasp. The boy on the opposite side of the table rose and leaned over to look.
       "Just don't ask me what they did to the mother," was all Snape had to say.
       For a few moments they just stood there, gazing silently at the infant Snape had brought. Then Madam Rosmerta murmured, "There are rumors..."
       She stopped.
       "Yes?" Snape prompted her.
       Rosmerta shook her head. "There are rumors," she began again, so softly Harry had to strain to hear, "that muggles have located Hogsmeade, that they lurk in the woods outside of town and..."
       The baby whimpered and Madam Rosmerta gave herself a little shake. "It needs a nappie," she said briskly, removing the soiled newspaper Snape had made do with. "I'll fetch something." She hurried away and Harry got a clear view of the naked baby on the table. The infant continued to whimper, working up to a wail.
       "Hush, child!" Snape scolded. "People are sleeping!"
       "She's cold, Severus," Rosmerta called from the bar where she was dampening a soft cloth.
       "Oh." Snape unbuttoned his cloak and the shirt beneath it. He picked up the infant and tucked her inside his shirt, pressing her against his skin. The baby quieted immediately.
       Rosmerta returned with the damp rag and a scrap of cloth to clean and diaper the baby. "You may open the other bundle," she told the boy across the table as she tended to the infant, once again obscuring Harry's view of the table. The boy opened the smaller parcel and Rosmerta gasped again, this time with delight.
       "Oh, Severus!" she cried as she cradled the infant. "How wonderful!"
       Snape finished his coffee and set down the cup. "Send some of it to the castle, would you?" he requested, and Rosmerta frowned.
       "Severus," she murmured, laying a hand on his arm. "You know about the Slytherins, don't you?"
       Harry couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw Snape's back-lit profile smile.
       "Yes," the man replied silkily. "I know about the Slytherins."
       His attitude perplexed the barmaid. "What's so funny?" she demanded, but Snape shook his head.
       "We need to leave," he said instead. "It's best to arrive in the dark. Can you fashion some sort of satchel? I'll take the infant on my back and the boy in front."
       "Will the sisters take a child so young?" Madam Rosmerta wondered, handing Snape the baby.
       "This will be the youngest yet," the man admitted. Then it was Madam Rosmerta's turn to chuckle, and Snape's to ask, "What's so funny?" as if the sight of him holding an infant weren't explanation enough.
       The barmaid shook her head, smiling a bit as she did. "I rather miss the little beggars," she confessed. "How are they getting on?"
       Harry nearly gasped out loud. In that instant, he knew where Snape had gotten the broom.
       Snape shrugged. "They're hard-working, the sisters tell me. And bright. The older ones know charms I've never seen."
       "And the little ones?" Rosmerta teased, patting the baby on the back. The dark-haired wizard frowned at her.
       "What about them?"
       "I'm told they cry whenever you leave!" Madam Rosmerta giggled, and the boy across the table quickly ducked his head. Snape gave Rosmerta's backside a sharp swat with his free hand.
       Harry watched, his eyes smarting, as Rosmerta fetched a shawl and strapped the baby to Snape's back beneath his cloak. Then she accompanied the three travelers outside. Harry imagined her fastening Snape's cloak more snuggly around the trio after they mounted Snape's used broom. Eventually she came back inside, extinguished the candles in the drinking area, and headed for the stairs.
       Harry rose and slipped quickly back into his room before she could spot him. He stood next to the door, listening to her footsteps, which seemed to pause briefly outside his room before continuing down the hall. A door opened and closed. Then... quiet.
       The boy leaned against the door, sighing without realizing it. He slid to the floor, landing on his rump with a soft thud.
       Snape was helping the forest orphans. That's how he'd gotten a broom. He'd taken them to shelter, was visiting them regularly, and continued to bring other children to them.
       For some reason, this knowledge made Harry's chest hurt. He reached up to massage it to no avail. Why had Snape left Hogwarts, he wondered, just to be of service to other children?
       He forgot what he knew about painful places and yielded to the belligerent thoughts filling his mind. Hogwarts has orphans, he nodded to himself. Hogwarts has children damaged by war. What makes them more worthy? He clenched his teeth against another stab of heartache. Snape didn't even seem to be worried about the Slytherins!
       As he seethed, a plan began to form in his mind. He would return to Hogwarts immediately, he decided. He would wake Professor McGonagall and tell her everything he'd heard. She could apparate to wherever Snape was flying and confront him, maybe drag him bodily back to Hogwarts and make him account for his behavior before the entire school. Maybe she'd even box his ears! That would be brilliant! Harry grinned to himself.
       But where was Snape going? Where had he taken the forest orphans? His plan was useless, Harry knew, unless he could figure that out. He pressed his fingertips to his throbbing temples and tried to think.
       'Will the sisters take a child so young?' Madam Rosmerta had asked. What had she meant by that? Nuns? Did Harry know anything about Snape that connected him to cloistered females in matching black outfits?
       Pansy's pretty face flitted across his mind, followed closely by images of Tracey Davis and Millicent Bulstrode. Not them! he scolded his mind, pushing aside the thoughts of Slytherin girls in matching black school robes. But Pansy persisted, smiling, winking, pursing her silly lips...
       Oh! Harry raised his head so suddenly he banged it against the door. Furious with himself for making a noise, he froze, listening for any sound of movement from the corridor. No one came to investigate the thump. Greatly relieved, he reached up to rub the sore spot as he grinned in the darkness. He had it.
       Goyle had written Malfoy at the Dursleys while Pansy had been visiting the summer before last. He and Crabbe had been staying at a country estate in Ely bordering a convent where Snape had stashed Millicent and Tracey. That must be where Snape had taken the forest orphans! And if he wasn't too worried about the Slytherins, it must be because he knew where they were... at the country estate right next door!
       Harry wondered if the Slytherins knew about Snape. He would owl them, he decided, right after he talked to Professor McGonagall. But first he had to get out of here, as unobtrusively as possible. If Madam Rosmerta discovered he was leaving, she would no doubt try to stop him. 'There are rumors,' she'd told Snape...
       He climbed to his feet and took a few eager steps to the right, stubbing his toe on a small table in the process. "Dammit!" he hissed, even as he explored the table's top. It held a pitcher of water and a tumbler. Harry poured himself one glassful after another until his thirst was thoroughly quenched. Then he made his way to the bed where he put on his shoes to avoid any more toe-stubbing. He felt his way around the room in the dark until he discovered the dresser by the window.
       He jerked open the top drawer and reached in with both hands, quickly finding a smooth shaft of wood to the right and his glasses to the left. His fingers closed gratefully over the slender rod, which he stowed in his pocket before reaching up to shove his glasses onto his face. Then he hurried towards the light coming from beneath the door.
       The faint, warm glow of the fire below was perfect for creeping downstairs. Harry paused just long enough to retrieve his warm, dry cloak from the hook nearest the fire, then let himself out the door into the cold December night.
       He considered firing up his lumos light and decided against it. Someone might be peeping out a window. He hurried through the village and onto the path to Hogwarts, his mind on nothing but a possible confrontation between McGonagall and Snape. What would she say to him, he wondered. Then another thought occurred to him.
       What if she decided not to go? What if she thought the orphans needed him more than the students of Hogwarts did?
       What about that package, the one that had made Madam Rosmerta so happy? What was in it? Had Snape become some sort of smuggler? Was he of more use to the wizarding world away from Hogwarts?
       Harry decided not to tell Professor McGonagall about the package.
       He looked up and discovered he was far enough from town to ignite his lumos light, so he reached into his pocket and...
       Snap! A sound from a nearby stand of trees made him stop in his tracks. An animal, he wondered as he squinted over his shoulder, stepping on a twig? He listened hard but could hear nothing apart from his own breathing.
       'There are rumors that muggles have located Hogsmeade....'
       Harry looked quickly in every direction. He was alone, approximately halfway between Hogsmeade and Hogwarts. But it didn't matter, he realized. He was not afraid. He'd grown up in the home of Dudley Dursley, after all, and he had defeated the darkest wizard known to mankind! He was NOT afraid of some bullying muggle gits. So he pulled out his wand, thrust it sharply in the direction of the snapping sound, and barked, "Lumos!"
       Nothing happened.
       "What in blazes are you doing?"
       Violet ignored the threatening tone in Malfoy's voice and gave the 'garland' she was hanging in the entryway a slight twist. "Another box of broccoli arrived from Marcus," she informed the former head boy, "so we're decorating for Christmas."
       She climbed down from the chair she'd been standing on and stood back with Jennifer, Michael and Marybeth to admire her work. The strung broccoli was a bit limp but at least it was green. She smiled at the effect as the front door opened and closed behind her; the Slytherins, well-used to housemates bringing in wood all day, ignored it.
       Malfoy walked over to Violet and shook his head, staring up at the garland. "I can't believe you'd waste food the morning after you ruined dinner," he observed, and Violet was just about to move her backside out of reach when a smooth voice called,
       "Are you being difficult, Miss Guilford?"
       The Slytherins spun around. There stood Snape, leaning against the doorframe, a satisfied little smile on his face. "Professor Snape!" Violet shrieked, and as she flew across the room to leap into his arms, voices behind her shouted to the rest of the house, "It's Professor Snape! Professor Snape is here!"
       Footsteps thundered down corridors and staircases as the Slytherins poured downstairs and surrounded their housemaster. Violet, her legs wrapped in a death grip around his waist, hugged his neck and covered his cheek with kisses. Then she pulled back for a good look at him and frowned. She turned to her housemates who could only stare in bewilderment. Turning back to Snape, she voiced the question on all their minds.
       "What's wrong with your hair, sir?"
       Snape looked wonderful. He really did. Gone were the billowing black robes of his teaching days. Instead, he wore a dashing cloak over a white shirt and dark trousers. His hair was soft, shiny, and as silky as his voice; it bounced whenever he moved. There were blooms in his cheeks and a light in his eyes.
       He looked ten years younger.
       Suddenly, the Slytherins weren't so sure they were glad to see him.
       Violet took in her housemates' dimming faces and released Snape's neck to fold her arms across her chest.
       "You left us!" she accused.
       "So I did," Snape nodded. "But I'm here now..." He put Violet down and glanced about the room, his eyes coming to rest on Malfoy's face, "...and I will help you. If you wish."
       He stepped around Violet and made his way to the parlor, taking in the filthy carpets, the piles of wood, and the slovenly uniforms and pinched faces of the Slytherins who followed close behind. "Having a bit of difficulty, Malfoy?" he asked the blonde teenager. Malfoy scowled and Snape chuckled.
       "Never mind, Draco," he said softly. He gave the boy a shrewd nod and added, "Think what a mess the four founders made of things."
       That made Draco smile. The Slytherins crowded around Snape and began bombarding him with questions. Where had he been? What had he been doing? How long could he stay? Snape shook his head and held up one hand. "Aren't you going to offer me a cup of tea?" he wondered.
       The children exchanged sheepish looks.
       "Right," Snape nodded. "We'll begin in the kitchen."
       Before anyone could move, the squire wandered into the room. He thrust his hands on his hips at the sight of Snape, nearly poking Crabbe in the eye with his walking stick, and demanded, "Who in blazes are you?"
       Snape gave the man a small bow. "I'm Severus Snape, sir," he replied politely. "Do you remember me?"
       At that moment, the Slytherins realized who their senile host must be.
       The squire looked Snape up and down. "Show off!" he muttered. Then he turned on his heel and marched right back out of the room. As Snape watched him go, Violet shoved her way to the front of the crowd surrounding him and tugged on his sleeve.
       "Did he ever cane you?" she asked breathlessly.
       Snape raised an eyebrow. "I assure you, Miss Guilford, my conduct was above reproach."
       "Or at least your discretion," Malfoy corrected, and as the Slytherins laughed, Snape jerked his head in the direction of the kitchen and set off. His students followed eagerly. Only Violet lagged behind, watching them go, her brow furrowed with a new thought. She stood even as laughter and happy shouts began to ring from the kitchen. Then she nodded to herself and hurried away to join her housemates.
       Snape knew exactly how to make the most of the meager ingredients in the pantry and soon a tummy-filling meal was bubbling on the stove. While it cooked, he showed them how to organize the cupboards, dishware and cooking supplies for the fastest meal preparation and how to maintain sanitary conditions in a less than opulent cooking environment. He enlarged their table so they could all sit around it at once, then ordered the girls to bring him the withered remains of the neglected window boxes so he could show them which dried leaves, when ground up and added to batter or mash, would enhanced the flavor of their meals.
       "I'll write down a recipe for a vitamin potion you can add to your drinking water," he promised as they sat down to a savory repast of spicy broth and potato flake pancakes. "The ingredients are fairly inexpensive."
       "Malfoy has money," Millicent piped up, "but we've been afraid to order anything for fear of giving away our location."
       Snape smiled as he helped himself to a single pancake and passed the chipped platter to Goyle. "A substantial number of you are underaged wizards performing magic away from Hogwarts," he reminded them. "As soon as the Ministry finds the time, they'll be on you like owls on a field mouse. Perhaps you should focus on security."
       The mention of Dumbledore's school brought an awkward pause to the conversation. Marybeth looked up timidly from her bowl of soup and voiced the question that was on many of their minds.
       "Are you here to send us back, sir?"
       Snape, who'd been raising a glass of water to his lips, put it down again without drinking. He thought for a few moments. Then he told his former students, "I want what is best for you... for all of you." He nodded and added, "That may include returning to Hogwarts. But I don't see how I can send you, Miss Montague, as I...." He picked up the glass again. "...am not going back."
       "Well, neither are we," Malfoy declared, raising a glass to join Snape, "because we hate Hogwarts as much as you do!" The Slytherins drank heartily to that, smacking their glasses back down on the table with authoritative bangs that made several of the younger kids giggle. Their giddiness reminded Malfoy of the half dozen former first year Slytherins scheduled to return to Hogwarts after the holidays. What would happen to them, he wondered. He was just about to ask Snape when Violet piped up.
       "He wasn't a very good one, was he?"
       All conversation stopped as the Slytherins turned curiously to her. Snape frowned. "Who wasn't a very good what, Miss Guilford?" he demanded.
       "The squire!" Violet reminded them. "He wasn't a very good head of house, was he?"
       The Slytherins stared at her, then turned with one motion to Snape, who narrowed his eyes at Violet. "No," he finally admitted, a coolness creeping into his voice. "He wasn't."
       He focused steely eyes upon the girl who smiled sweetly back at him before bowing her head over her bowl.
       "A good head of house is important," she told her soup.
       Malfoy bit back a smile. He turned to Snape, who glowered for several seconds at Violet's coyly-bowed head before admitting with a curl of his lip,
       He stayed for three days, teaching them everything they needed to know to manage the house properly. "Your heating charm needs to be renewed once a year," he explained after hunting down the spot where the plumbing split into hot and cold pipes.
       Most of the carpets, he pointed out, were cheap or worthless. "You should keep the expensive ones," he advised, "but evanesco the others. Hardwood is easier to scourgify."
       He showed them how to construct and set traps to catch small wildlife for stews and encouraged Malfoy to visit neighboring farms posing as the squire's agent to contract for fuel. "It shouldn't be hard to find someone who makes his living cutting wood," Snape assured them.
       On Sunday afternoon, he went looking for Malfoy among the upstairs bedrooms. The door was open to Violet's room where he found the girl standing near a wall, staring at Marybeth's drawings of himself and Lupin that she'd hung near the window.
       "Who sleeps in the middle?" he asked, nodding at the bed she shared with Jennifer and Marybeth.
       "We take turns," Violet told him. She glanced at him briefly before returning her attention to the drawings. "It's the warmest spot but it's not easy if you have to get up in the night."
       Snape came to stand beside the child and joined her in studying the sketches. Lupin's showed the warm-hearted young werewolf smiling with joy, his head tilted to one side, his hair blowing in the breeze, as if Marybeth had caught him assisting with Jump School or participating in calisthenics on the lawn. "It's a fine likeness," Snape had to admit.
       Violet followed his gaze to Lupin's image. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized that this was the perfect moment to ask Snape if he'd killed Peter Pettigrew. She took a deep breath... and chickened out.
       "So's yours," she blurted instead, and Snape, who was scowling sternly at the viewer in his drawing, turned a sour face to the nitwit beside him and inquired icily,
       "Have you any idea where I might find Malfoy?"
       Violet gasped. "The wood!" she cried. She snatched up her cloak and hurried from the room without a backwards glance.
       Snape found Malfoy on his hands and knees in a dusty little room near the back of the house, casting reparo charms at a burn hole in the floorboards. "Did someone leave a bluebell flame unattended?" he inquired from the doorway.
       Malfoy climbed to his feet with a scowl. He'd ordered some younger kids to clean up in here so he could use the room as a study. What they'd actually gotten up to, he couldn't imagine. "If I keep a list," he asked Snape, "will you come back once a week and cane everybody on it?"
       Snape chuckled. He pulled out his wand and scourgified a section of the floor for the two of them to sit on. "I must tell you, Malfoy," he confessed as he eased himself to the floor, "I suspect your chances of one day heading Slytherin House have all but evaporated in light of recent events."
       Malfoy threw back his head and raised his hands to heaven. "Hallelujah!" he cried. Then he dropped to a sitting position opposite his former teacher.
       "Do you remember," he asked Snape, "the time you told me certain honors weren't worth having anymore?"
       Snape nodded.
       "I learned from Voldemort," the boy went on, "that power doesn't last without good leadership. Now I'm starting to wonder..." He glanced out the window, where a handful of younger kids he'd told to gather wood were actively engaged in a snowball fight instead. "I'm starting to wonder," he repeated with a sigh, "if power is worth having at all."
       Snape climbed to his feet. "You mustn't confuse power with notoriety," he told the boy. "A truly powerful person can make enormous differences from the most obscure of positions or locations." He opened the window and shouted at the youngsters battling in the snow, "Get back to work this instant or I'll flog the lot of you!"
       The Slytherins dropped their snowballs and ran for the woods as fast as they could go. Snape closed the window and sat back down.
       "The night I interviewed the Gryffindors," he went on as he arranged his cloak more comfortably about him, "Miss Granger asked me a question. Can you guess what it was?"
       Malfoy snorted. "She requested help with her NEWTs, no doubt."
       Snape shook his head. "She asked me how the Slytherins and I managed to avoid romantic entanglements."
       Malfoy's eyebrows flew up in surprise. "Poor old Weasley! " he grinned. "What did you tell her?"
       "I told her," Snape replied archly, "not to make assumptions about 'poor old Weasley.' After all..." He shooed away a spider that had descended from the ceiling to land on his shoulder. "None of the older brothers has chosen marriage yet."
       He glanced out the window where the younger Slytherins were emerging from the woods levitating bundles of fuel. "I think," he mused, "that your generation may be deciding there are a number of things that aren't really..." He turned back to Malfoy. "... worth it."
       "Maybe we're like you," Malfoy suggested. "Maybe we'd rather be free. Except..." He shook his head with disgust. "I'm not like you," he confessed to his teacher. "Not enough, anyway." He jerked his head at the formerly disobedient children now trudging dutifully past the window. "That's the problem, I think. I need to be more like you."
       "Maybe the problem..." Snape began gently. He paused, casting about for the right words. "Malfoy, are you sure you know why you're here? Because when people do things for the wrong reasons..."
       "We're here because of you!" Malfoy interrupted. "We couldn't stay in that godawful school another minute! Not if we want to turn out like you!" He turned away, embarrassment staining his cheeks a blotchy red. Snape studied the boy a moment, then lowered his gaze to stare at the spider who was now making his way down Snape's dark trouser leg towards his shoe.
       Malfoy climbed to his feet and opened the window. He thrust his upper body outside to feel the cool air against his burning cheeks. To his right, the last of the young Slytherins were making their way around the corner of the house, heading for the front door. He studied them for a moment, then leaned back inside and closed the window.
       "They know me too well," the teenager murmured as he watched the last of the Slytherins disappear around the corner. "That's why they don't want to mind me. They know all the rotten stuff I've done and how I've only looked out for them to get more power in the house. But you, on the other hand..."
       He turned back to his housemaster, folding his arms across his chest. "You told us not to be jealous of Potter for being the Chosen One of the prophecy," he reminded Snape, "because God often picks bums to do His bidding. Well, that may be true for tasks, but it's not true for people." He nodded, a sour certainty filling his face. "Only good people can make more good people," he informed his housemaster.
       He unfolded his arms and thrust his hands into his pockets to warm them. "You have to be better than other people before you can judge or discipline them successfully," he went on. "You have to have a cleaner slate. Only good people can turn bums...
       "Excuse me." He broke off and smiled broadly at Snape as he prepared to quote his teacher. "Only good people can turn pleasant people into more good people... and there aren't very many good people!"
       Snape shook his head. You have no idea, he thought as he pulled himself to his feet. "Malfoy," he said firmly, dusting himself off as he sidestepped the spider that had just fallen off his shoe, "...it is never too late to start cleaning your slate."
       The Slytherins crowded around him in the vestibule that evening as he prepared to take his leave. "Will you come back for Christmas Eve, sir?" they begged. "Please?"
       Snape hesitated. "I have important business," he told them, "but perhaps...." He looked around at the faces staring up at him. "Perhaps I can finish up sooner," he nodded before disapparating with a pop.
       After he'd gone, the Slytherins gathered in the squire's parlor. They made a rather dispirited bunch, Malfoy thought, despite their full bellies and warm fire.
       "I'll start visiting farms tomorrow morning," he promised, "and find a supplier of wood."
       "I'll go with you," called Goyle, who was sitting near the fire with Violet at his feet.
       Malfoy nodded his thanks. "I think, tomorrow morning," he added carefully, "the non-orphans should head for home. We can manage without you for a few days and your parents will worry if you don't visit soon."
       Millicent waved at him from across the room.
       "We'll have barely half our brooms here if they all go at once," she warned Malfoy. The boy shrugged.
       "We'll be fine," he insisted. "We'll just settle in for a quiet, cozy Christmas."
       He surveyed the gloomy faces around him. "We'll see Snape again," he reminded them. "If not Christmas Eve, then after that, and often. It's almost as if he came with us!"
       His housemates were not convinced. Malfoy nodded at Jennifer Rosich, who slid over on the couch to make room for him. "Violet," he called as he propped his feet up on an ottoman, "why don't you tell us a story?"
       The girl frowned. "What sort of story?"
       "Tell us about that song we sang in choir," Crabbe suggested. "What was the movie about?"
       Violet grinned. "It takes place in St. Louis," she began, "about a hundred years ago."
       "Where's St. Louis?" Marybeth asked, and Violet explained how it was roughly in the middle of America.
       "It's autumn," she set the scene, "and this family is very excited because the World Fair is coming to their town."
       "When do they sing the song?" Pansy asked, rising and walking across the room to plop down in Malfoy's lap. The boy put his arms around her waist.
       "It's Christmastime," Violet remembered, "and the family is getting ready to move to New York City."
       "Cool!" Crabbe exclaimed.
       Violet shook her head. "No," she corrected him. "That's what the father thought, too. But the kids are upset, because they love their home. It really matters to them. They feel like... like..." She hunted for the words. "They feel like they've made something wonderful out of it, and they don't want to give it up."
       A long silence followed this bit of exposition. Marybeth, sitting next to Violet, raised one hand surreptitiously to wipe away a tear. Her housemates noticed the gesture, however, and Violet pointed to her in surprise as Goyle reached down to draw the girl into his chair.
       "That's what happens in the movie!" Violet exclaimed. "The little girl cries, and her big sister sings the song to her on Christmas Eve."
       Almost unconsciously, Millicent began to hum.
       Uh oh, Malfoy thought. Better put a stop to this. He gave Pansy a pat on the bottom to shoo her out of his lap but the girl refused to take the hint. Instead, she joined humming. Violet stood up, putting an arm around Marybeth's shoulder as she added her wobbly treble to Crabbe's and Goyle's rumbling baritones.
       Doo doo doo doo, doo-doo-doo-doo doo doo...
       "That's enough!" Malfoy stood up, dumping Pansy unceremoniously to the floor. "Go to bed," he insisted. "We have a big day tomorrow."
       The Slytherins dispersed. But a short while later, as Malfoy was crawling beneath his covers, he heard low voices resonating throughout the house.

       A package arrived the next morning as they were eating breakfast. Violet scurried past the brooms lined up neatly in the vestibule for the non-orphans' trips home to open the door and admit Malfoy's eagle owl and Spellwad carrying a wicker basket between them. It was from Marcus Flint and contained dried figs, for a change, and Saturday's issue of the Daily Prophet. Violet popped a fig into her mouth and unfolded the paper as she walked back to the kitchen. When she saw the headline, she stopped dead, spitting out the fig to scream, "Malfoy!"
       The Slytherins came running. They took one look at Violet's face and gathered quickly around her, reading over her shoulder.

Harry Potter Missing

       "What could have happened?" Millicent cried when the Slytherins had finished the article.
       "He's got money," Violet piped up. "Maybe somebody kidnapped him."
       Malfoy thought of the stories they'd heard at Hogwarts about muggle and even wizard opposition to the fight against Voldemort. He shook his head. "There are richer people," he insisted, "easier to kidnap. How could they have known he'd accidentally leave his wand in a drawer?"
       "Could he have run away?" Tracey suggested, but again, Malfoy didn't think so.
       "If he had his invisibility cloak with him," the boy pointed out, "he'd have gone back for his wand, and why would he run away without his cloak?"
       "Why would he run away at all?" Millicent agreed. "He's not a baby. He could just leave, like we did."
       The Slytherins fell silent. Then Malfoy nodded.
       "We have to go back," he decided. "This is Monday. The students go home Wednesday. They'll be making plans to look for him. We have to help them." He nodded again. "Get your cloaks," he ordered.
       Before they could disperse, Crabbe stuck his hand into the air. "Do we have to fly?" he wondered, eyeing the row of brooms warily. "It's so cold!"
       The Slytherins nodded, remembering their miserable flight to the manor. Millicent glanced out the nearest window and added, "It looks like it could snow."
       "What else are we going to do?" Malfoy snapped. "We're not on the floo system and we can't apparate!"
       "We could fly to London," Jennifer suggested. Malfoy turned to her in disgust.
       "That's the wrong direction!"
       "Yes," Jennifer admitted, "but it's much closer, and..." She gave him a sly little grin. "That's where the Hogwarts Express is."
       The former head boy froze. Jennifer nodded.
       "They'll be preparing it for the trip," she reminded her housemates. She gave them all the patented Malfoy eyebrow bounce and asserted, "I'm sure I can drive it."
       "How cool would that be!" Crabbe breathed, nudging Goyle in the ribs, "to arrive on the Hogwarts Express!"
       It couldn't hurt to try, Malfoy thought. If we have to, we can make our way to Diagon Alley and floo from there. He didn't like the idea of splitting up through the floo system, but it was so quick...
       "I hate to burst your bubble," Millicent spoke up, "but we can't just fly to London in broad daylight. There are rules, remember? How are we supposed to get to King's Cross without being seen?"
       She had a point, the Slytherins realized. Malfoy looked out the window she'd checked a moment ago. "Can anybody perform a disillusionment charm?" he asked. The Slytherins shook their heads and Malfoy shrugged. "We can fly above the clouds," he pointed out. "We'll wait a few hours so that it will be dark when we arrive. That way it won't be so difficult to land without being seen."
       Jennifer nodded happily. "Better that way," she agreed. "There'll be fewer people at Platform 9 3/4 we'll have to stun to hijack the train."
       Oy, Malfoy thought.
       They landed one at a time in an area rich with trees a few blocks east of King's Cross. "Hide your brooms!" Malfoy hissed, and the Slytherins who were carrying them quickly tucked them beneath their cloaks. Still, Malfoy feared, it would be painfully obviously, in their cloaks and school robes, that they were wizards. "Stick together," he ordered. "Hands on your wands."
       They made their way to the nearest large thoroughfare. "Where are we?" Crabbe wondered.
       Tracey consulted the signs. "Pentonville and Cumming," she reported. People on the street and in passing cars stared at them. Many looked wary. Some looked hostile.
       "All right." Malfoy squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. "If we get separated, meet back..." He stopped. No, that wouldn't do. If things between wizards and muggles were really that bad, it would not be safe to have Slytherins wandering London alone or in small groups. Should he tell them to return to the manor? He shuddered at the thought of the younger ones on their own for hours or even days. "Meet back at Hogwarts," he decided, and the Slytherins nodded. Pansy stuck her wand in the air.
       "What are you doing?" Malfoy hissed. "Put that away before someone sees it!"
       "I wanted to see if the Knight Bus was back in business."
       The Slytherins looked up and down the street but no triple-decker bus appeared.
       "Come on," Malfoy muttered. He turned west towards the station. The Slytherins followed close behind.
       As they passed Caledonia, he paused and looked over his shoulder at the group. "Break up a bit," he suggested. "Maybe it won't be so obvious what we are."
       By the time they reached the station, they were divided into about a dozen groups of 3 or 4 students. It took a couple of minutes for all of them to make their way inside. Malfoy, who was standing the farthest from the doors with Crabbe and Goyle, waited until all 40 Slytherins were accounted for before turning to head down the concrete walkway.
       He walked briskly towards Platform 9 3/4, stopping short about 20 yards from the barrier. The Slytherins stopped with him, unconsciously clumping up again. Malfoy frowned at the sight before him.
       About fifty young men were loitering in front of the barrier between platforms 9 and 10. They were thuggish-looking, dressed in shades and accessories clearly intended to intimidate. Some were leaning against the wall smoking, despite the signs forbidding this activity. Some were talking together in low voices. Their pockets bulged with blunt instruments which they occasionally squeezed or stroked as if verifying their solidness.
       "Who are they?" Malfoy whispered warily to Goyle. Millicent slipped away from Violet and Marybeth to draw closer to the three boys.
       "They look like they're waiting to thump someone," Goyle observed with an expert's eye. Crabbe nodded.
       Malfoy took a quick look around the area and leaned over to Millicent.
       "Where are the muggle...?" He tried to remember the word Rita Skeeter had used in her article about Moody and the trash bins. Millicent seemed to know what he meant. She shook her head.
       "What are they waiting for?" she wondered as she eyed the thugs. "Even if they know about Platform 9 3/4, this isn't the right day for the Hogwarts students to return."
       Millicent's words made Malfoy's heart beat faster. Was she right? Were these people waiting to attack Hogwarts children returning home for the holiday?
       "What do they do," he whispered to Crabbe and Goyle, "wait here 24 hours a day hoping someone will walk through?" He palmed his wand inside his pocket.
       "Maybe they're coming home early," Crabbe suggested.
       The Slytherins turned to him with a jolt. That was so brilliant they couldn't believe Crabbe had suggested it With the shortages and all that had happened, Dumbledore might very well have sent the Hogwarts students home early! "The kids who still have parents haven't seen them in nearly a year and a half," Crabbe reminded everybody.
       Malfoy snapped his fingers. "Their folks!" he realized, turning around to face his housemates. "They can't be coming home today or we'd have seen their folks heading for the barrier to pick them up!"
       The Slytherins took a quick look around the station. There was no sign of the Weasleys, the Boneses, the Browns, or any other wizarding adults they knew. They had just breathed a collective sigh of relief when...
       "There's one!"
       The Slytherins whirled around to see one of the thugs pointing a truncheon he'd pulled from his pocket at Hannah Abbott. She was dressed in muggle clothes and seemed to be wearing 2 or 3 jumpers in place of her school cloak. Almost immediately, Hermione Granger came through the barrier with Ron and Ginny Weasley. The Weasleys, too, had on several layers of jumpers or sweatshirts, and Granger was wearing a muggle coat. There was something else odd about them, Malfoy thought. In an instant he realized what it was.
       They had no luggage.
       "Get them!" cried another thug. "Don't let anyone back through!" And as the unsuspecting Hogwarts students poured through the barrier, the well-armed thugs jumped them before they could even draw their wands.
       Malfoy hesitated just long enough to notice that the spectators and innocent by-standers did nothing but move out of the way. Then he drew his wand and charged the Slytherins, "Attack!"
       It took less than 30 seconds to discover that wands were useless in hand-to-hand combat; the spells hit wizards as often as muggles. But they made great poking and whacking sticks. Brooms were even better... until the thugs snatched them away and started bludgeoning back or worse, snapped them in two.
       "Should we stone?" cried Crabbe as all around them, the melee grew more violent.
       "No!" Hermione shrieked, genuine terror in her voice, and Malfoy, imagining the consequences of such action, could understand why. There was no telling what muggles, panicked by seeing their fellows turned to stone, might do.
       Muggles had ways of killing, too.
       We'll win, Malfoy insisted to himself as he threw a curved punch into the jaw of the thug who'd snatched his broom and stomped on it, splitting it in half. At least seventy Hogwarts students, all the kids who still had parents, had poured through the barrier, and there were 40 Slytherins besides. They outnumbered their assailants more than 2 to 1. He kicked the thug he'd knocked out in the ribs before whirling on the man who was trying to throttle Violet while Marybeth whacked him repeatedly with her broom.
       A shrill whistle split the air and everyone looked up to see a contingent of uniformed muggle... Oh, yeah! Malfoy remembered, police! ... approaching fast, truncheons held high over their heads, determination in their eyes.
       Thank God, Malfoy breathed as the man strangling Violet let her go. But when the thug folded his arms across his chest and grinned confidently, Malfoy's heart sank.
       "Scatter!" he screamed as the first officer reached Ron Weasley and grabbed him by the arm, raising his nightstick to club the young wizard into submission. Malfoy leapt across the room in a single bound, landing on the officer's back and grabbing his arm before he could bash Ron. Ron tore loose, Malfoy jumped down, and the two long-legged teenagers raced for the doors as all across the station, witches and wizards leapt and bound away from their tormentors and spilled out into the cold, dark night.
       Ron and Malfoy found Violet a short distance from the station, huddled beside a parked car, glancing frantically in every direction.
       "Did you see where the others went?" Malfoy demanded.
       "Which others?"
       "Anybody!" Ron snapped, and Violet shook her head.
       "How are we going to get to Hogwarts?" she asked Malfoy. "Marybeth's gone and she had the broom."
       Ron turned curiously to Malfoy at this, but the blonde teenager ignored him.
       "We're not going to Hogwarts," he told Violet shortly.
       "But you said if we got separated..."
       "We were going back to help the others look for Potter," Malfoy reminded her. "Well, they're here now, and they've come to look for Potter..." He turned to Ron. "...isn't that right? That's why you're all wearing muggle clothes and you've got no luggage. You left it on the platform so you could search for Potter."
       Before Ron could reply, a shout rang out from the other side of Euston Road. "There's some!" a rough voice cried. The trio looked up to see a group of thugs sprinting towards them from the opposite side of the street.
       "Get ready to stone," Malfoy hissed, reaching into his pocket for his wand.
       "We can't!" Ron shot back. "It's defense against the dark arts, not defense against muggles! We'll be up before the Ministry!"
       He grabbed Violet by the hand. The thugs were gaining on them. "Run!" he shouted.
       Malfoy took Violet's other hand and the three of them raced around the east side of the station, heading north as fast as they could go.
       Marybeth fled south, running steadily until she'd crossed St. Chad's and found herself on a sort of footpath between two avenues of trees. Here she slowed, glancing constantly over her shoulder as she wheezed to catch her breath. She was lucky, she realized. She still had a broom. She could take flight from this park, provided no one had followed her.
       At that, she snorted. Why should she care if anyone saw her take off, she thought. It was obvious a large number of muggles now knew about wizards. Why should the Ministry punish wizards for using magic in front of them anymore?
       Of course, there was the question of her age.
       "And it's dark," she murmured to herself as she pulled her cloak more tightly around her. She'd made the trip from King's Cross to Hogwarts by broom before, even in bad weather. But could she find the school flying through the dark? Maybe she should find a spot to hunker down for the night and leave in the...
       "What have we here?"
       Marybeth jumped. A lanky boy had just stepped in front of her, emerging from behind one of the trees further up the path. Immediately, several more people did likewise, stepping out from behind trees to surround Marybeth. They were teenagers, she saw, around sixteen or seventeen, boys and girls, dressed in similar clothing. Their outfits and the skin on their cheeks and the backs of their hands were decorated with strange symbols, circles and stars and peering eyes. The young Slytherin palmed her wand in the pocket of her robe.
       "None of that, now!" the lanky boy jeered, and he reached out to yank the cloak from Marybeth's shoulders so his gang could see what she was doing.
       "My cloak!" Marybeth shrieked as the lanky boy tossed it to the girl nearest him. It was the young Slytherin's most prized possession. Snape had given it to her. But before she could make a move to retrieve it, another boy grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms to her sides.
       The girl who'd caught the cloak, a pale creature with a sour face, gave a nasty snicker and pulled it on, luxuriating in the feel of the material. She reached up to fasten the top clasp and froze with a gasp.
       "What is it?" the lanky boy demanded, glancing briefly in the girl's direction before returning his ugly, narrow-eyed gaze to Marybeth. He looked ready to destroy her if the cloak had somehow harmed his friend. But the girl just laughed, rather maniacally, Marybeth thought.
       "Warm!" she cried, snuggling herself deeper into the cloak's embrace. "It's warm!"
       Marybeth jerked one arm free and held out the broom she was still clutching to the crazy girl. "Here!" she cried, hoping the girl wouldn't know brooms didn't fly for muggles. "You can have this! But please, give me back my cloak."
       The lanky boy chuckled and the rest of the gang joined in. The cloaked girl fixed Marybeth with a stare that was supposed to be penetrating and hissed dramatically, "The magic is strong with you."
       At that, Marybeth almost giggled. Who were these twits, she wondered. But when the girl whirled around, making the green cloak billow, her throat tightened painfully. My cloak! she thought, fighting back tears. Professor Snape gave me that cloak!
       "The wand!" the sour girl hissed to the lanky boy, and he reached out carefully to retrieve the item from Marybeth's pocket. He seemed afraid of it, holding it gingerly by the handle as he carried it to the girl. The gang surrounding Marybeth backed away a few feet. But the girl snatched the wand, giving it a vicious swipe through the air as she glared at her cowardly comrades. Then she thrust the wand into the air and threw back her head back to exhort the darkened skies:
       "Hear me, great and powerful Dark Lord! Show favor to your servant. Bless us, o master, our eternal Lord Voldermort!"
       Marybeth's knees buckled. The boy holding her nearly dropped her as she went limp.
       "You can make me worthy!" the girl in the green cloak beseeched the night sky. "Hear me, Dark Lord! Change me from this wretched state into what I would be for you!"
       A wave of nausea broke over Marybeth and she feared she might be sick. It can't be! she thought as she struggled against the dizzying sense of unreality threatening to overwhelm her. They're muggles! It can't be. It can't be!
       The muggles waited, their faces turned to the sky, their breath steaming out of their mouths as they watched for a sign. None came. The girl in the green cloak lowered Marybeth's wand and gazed contemptuously from the wooden rod to its rightful owner.
       "It's contaminated," she spat. "It must have been used to oppose our lord and master." She grasped the wand by both ends and raised it above her head before bringing it down to snap in two across her knee. Then she tossed the pieces aside and reached out to snatch Marybeth's broom.
       "Hold her steady," she ordered the unseen boy still pinning Marybeth's arms to her sides. The cloaked girl drew back the broom and swung it around full force to bash Marybeth across the head. The Slytherin slumped to the ground, unconscious.
       "Hide her," the girl ordered. "Over there."
       The lanky boy scooped Marybeth up and carried her to the far row of trees where he dumped her. The gang regrouped around their green-cloaked leader who led them out of the park, swinging her new broom like a club.
       In the darkness beneath the far row of trees, Marybeth lay motionless. The heavy clouds hanging low over the darkened city opened at last and snow began to fall, enshrouding the park and all within it beneath a gentle layer of white.
       Millicent grinned at Crabbe's praise. It was brilliant, she had to admit. They were standing, along with Pansy and Goyle, in the Early Medieval Gallery on the upper level of the British Museum, having alohamora'd their way in through a window near the Montague entrance after hours, bypassing the motion detectors with their leaping technique.
       "Are you sure nobody will notice?" Goyle asked of the brooms they'd just stashed in one of the exhibits displaying everyday items used by Brits of that period.
       Millicent shrugged. "What if they do? They'll probably just hold them while they make inquiries. We can relocate them with a summoning charm on Christmas Eve if we have to." But she was betting, with only one more day before the facility closed for the hols, that its staff had better things to do than scrutinize the exhibits. "Let's go!" she exhorted her housemates, turning back the way they'd come.
       "Wait!" Goyle grabbed her by the arm, his face puckered with another concern. "They can recognize us from what we're wearing, too."
       That was true enough. Millicent shook her head. "I can't transfigure the cloaks into another type of outer wear," she confessed, "but I could change the color."
       "Not pink!" Crabbe insisted, remembering what she'd done to their snakes last year. His housemates chuckled but their amusement faded quickly as they remembered that cozy Christmas Eve, so different from the situation in which they now found themselves. Then Crabbe's eyes lit up.
       "Let's go to Diagon Alley and floo to Hogwarts on Wednesday!" he suggested. The four of them had come to the conclusion that everybody would probably return to Hogwarts Christmas Eve to check in. "Even if we get our brooms back, we can floo to save time and make them let us spend the night in our house!"
       "Yeah!" Goyle agreed, and the girls smiled at the idea. But then Pansy sobered.
       "Malfoy..." she murmured, and the group fell silent. The former head boy would probably object. Goyle shrugged.
       "I didn't bring any floo powder anyway."
       "The Leaky Cauldron is within walking distance," half-blood Millicent pointed out. "We could go to Diagon Alley and buy some. Does anybody have any money?"
       Goyle shook his head. "Not on me," he informed her, "and not at Gringotts." The dejected faces of his housemates confirmed that this was true all around.
       "Come on," Millicent spoke again, reaching up to unbutton her cloak. "Let's get ready to go look for Potter."
       Crabbe tugged at the clasp of his cloak. "I'm hungry!" the burly boy objected. "Can't we eat first?"
       Goyle nodded. "There's a restaurant on this floor," he said, pointing in the general direction of the eatery. "Where there's a restaurant, there's a kitchen."
       It had been a long time since breakfast and they were all hungry. But Millicent shook her head.
       "There could be muggles in there, baking or something," she pointed out. "I don't think we better stay here any longer than necessary. And I don't think we better break any muggle laws while we're in London."
       "We could stone them," Goyle insisted. "They'd never know! We could stone them, get something to eat, put everything back the way we found it, and unstone them!"
       "Brilliant!" Crabbe cried. But Millicent did not agree.
       "What will happen to us," she wondered, "if we break the decree about magic around muggles?"
       "Millicent's right," Pansy nodded. "We're not Hogwarts students anymore. We're of-age wizards."
       Crabbe's stomach gave a loud rumble.
       "Come on," Millicent said again. "We'll find a way to get some food without using magic."
       She drew her wand and quickly turned their cloaks an unobtrusive shade of gray. Then she thought of something else. "Take off your robes," she commanded. The Slytherins dropped them to the floor and Millicent transfigured them into neat coils of rope.
       "Remember how Potter mouthed off to McGonagall in class that day..." Crabbe began, but Millicent, bending over to grab a coil, cut him off with a terse, "Help me!"
       They tugged the coils into the neighboring medieval exhibit ("No way these go unnoticed, Millicent!" Crabbe protested). Then Crabbe and Millicent threw away their jumpers. "Give me your tie, Pansy," Millicent commanded. "You, too, Goyle." She used them to fashion herself a pair of criss-crossing suspenders. She turned Pansy's jumper and skirt a festive Slytherin green. Then she queued up her housemates for inspection.
       Crabbe was now wearing a white shirt, tie and trousers. Goyle had on a grey jumper but no tie. Pansy looked very Christmassy in her rich green ensemble while Millicent wore only a skirt, shirt and suspenders. "We look different from each other," she decided. "Nobody would think we're wearing matching school uniforms. Now let's go find Potter."
       The four of them pulled on their cloaks and headed out into the chilly night. "Too bad Malfoy's not with us," Crabbe grumbled as they trudged along the sidewalk. "He's got plenty of money at Gringotts. He's probably settling into a cozy room at the Leaky Cauldron right now!"
       "What happened?" Malfoy hissed in response to the grunt, crash and curse that filtered out the window above him. He and Ron stood below it, shivering in the snow.
       He hoped this hadn't been yet another mistake, boosting Violet through a window into St. Michael's Church in Camden Town. He joined Ron in looking nervously around to see if anybody on the street had heard the noise and debated whether or not he should abandon his comrades and take off at a run if they were discovered. The people they'd encountered so far, like the people outside King's Cross, didn't seem too... friendly.
       The trio had fled north to escape their pursuers, doubling back down Camden Road after finally shaking off the thugs. They'd argued furiously as they'd walked, Malfoy threatening to take Violet and strike out on his own if Ron didn't abandon his 'no magic' policy.
       "So go!" Ron had growled. "You wouldn't be much help anyway. Not the way you feel!"
       Malfoy had grabbed Ron by the collar and hauled him into the nearest alley to have it out, no small trick given the redhead's height advantage. But before he could challenge Ron's peevish insinuation, Violet had piped up.
       "We were coming back, Ron," she'd reminded the Gryffindor earnestly. "We were coming to help you look."
       "Why?" Ron had responded with a derogatory sneer. "Why leave and then come back?"
       For a moment, Malfoy had looked confused. Then a group of teenage muggles had wandered by, pausing to stare suspiciously at Violet's and Malfoy's snow-covered cloaks. The trio had tensed, but the muggles had moved on without a word.
       "We need to get off the street for the night," Ron had suggested when the muggles had moved out of earshot, and Malfoy, still chilled from the several-hour flight from Ely, had agreed.
       It had been Violet's idea to spend the night in a church. Sanctuary, she had called it; it would be warm inside and most likely deserted at this time of night. But the first one they'd come to had been locked and Weasley had objected to using magic to break in. Malfoy had pushed him aside and pointed his wand confidently at the backdoor knob, but alas, his alohamora had done nothing to stop the alarm that had blared forth to wake the dead the moment the door had sprung open. They'd run for their lives and, after putting a safe distance between them and the scene of their crime, had agreed to try a more primitive approach at the next structure.
       Now Violet stood frozen in the darkened narthex of St. Michael's, her nerves jangling, too frightened to move. "I knocked over the holy water!" she wailed just loudly enough for Ron and Malfoy to hear. Her eyes darted this way and that as the candles burning on alters in various nooks and crannies cast eerie shadows all around her.
       "We're freezing!" Malfoy hissed through the open window behind her. "Fire up your lumos light and get the damned door open!" Violet hurried to obey, sloshing across the vestibule to pry open a door for the boys.
       When they were all safely inside, Malfoy turned to Ron. "Where to?" he inquired.
       "Up," Ron decided, "to whatever room has that high window overlooking the road. We'll want a good view in the morning."
       Malfoy jerked his head at one of the alters. "Grab some candles," he told Violet, picking up a couple of the nearest little glass cups, and together, the three of them began to climb.
       The air grew warmer as they rose and when they finally settled on a secluded spot in which to spend the night, Malfoy shed his cloak and spread it on the floor. He placed the two candles in strategic spots a few feet away and settled down on top of his cloak. Ron did the same with his many jumpers, leaving Violet standing between the two boys.
       "I have to go to the bathroom," she announced.
       "So go," Malfoy snapped at her. "And bring me back a glass of water."
       Violet put down her candles and turned around with a sigh. She did not relish the idea of making her way through a dimly lit church alone. "Lumos," she whispered to her wand, and, climbing carefully over Ron's nest of jumpers, she slipped away into the dark.
       She tiptoed all the way to the lavatory and, once inside, pawed eagerly at the light switch. "Electricity!" she murmured appreciatively as illumination flooded the room. She made quick use of the toilet but couldn't resist lingering a few moments in the well-lit room to tidy up, relishing the soap, the warm water, the paper towels... and that's when it hit her.
       This place could have all kinds of goodies!
       She tried the kitchen area first but there was no food save for a jar of pickle slices in the icebox. She filled a large glass with water for Malfoy, then made her way carefully out of the kitchen and back towards the sanctuary to the sacristy where she found several loaves of bread and large bottles of grape juice. She hesitated just a moment. Then...
       In for a penny, in for a pound, she decided, remembering the spilled holy water. She helped herself to all the Eucharist ingredients she could carry and headed back towards the area where the three wizards had chosen to sleep.
       On her way back to the boys, she discovered a large cardboard box in the narthex full of used jackets. 'Coats for Kids!' read the collecting sign, and Violet immediately put down the water, bread and juice and reached for the box. I'm a kid! she thought as she pawed through the contents. The coats would make perfect cover for her and Malfoy; they could shrink their cloaks and carry them in their pockets, tuck in their robes, and walk around looking just like muggles.
       There were several in her size to choose from and she settled on a puffy pink coat she was sure just matched the roses in her cheeks. But all that was available for Malfoy was a tattered brown polyester windcheater. Ron laughed his arse off when he saw it.
       "Try it on, Malfoy!" he urged, tearing a large hunk out of one of the loaves of bread as Violet took off her cloak and spread it on the floor, bundling her borrowed coat for a pillow. Draco pulled on the jacket with a scowl. But then an idea came to him and he turned this way and that, showing off the coat from all sides.
       "Look at me," he drawled as the modeled the shabby garment. "I'm a Weasley."
       That shut Ron up. "I wouldn't talk," the redhead shot back, sitting up on top of his jumpers to point to Violet's bedraggled uniform. "Those rags you're wearing would make a house-elf look good. I guess that'll teach you not to take Hogwarts for granted."
       Malfoy took off the jacket and flung it down on top of his cloak. He was not about to take lessons in appreciation from a moron who got jealous of his best friend at the drop of a hat. "Look who's talking!" he jeered. "Potter would give anything for the home you take for granted!"
       "Yeah!" Violet chimed in, abandoning her efforts to tug her tie into some semblance of order. "You have two homes and we don't have any!"
       "You left!" Ron shouted at the Slytherins. "Nobody made you go!"
       Malfoy shook his head. "Weasley," he snarled across the secluded niche, "you have no idea what it's like to be a Slytherin at Hogwarts."
       Ron put down his bread and climbed to his feet, missing completely the consternation filling Violet's features. Something wasn't right, the girl thought as she watched the two boys square off. There was something missing in Malfoy's accusation. He didn't sound the same, arguing with Ron, as he had that last night in the common room, confronting Hermione and Harry about Snape.
       Ron shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "Okay," he challenged Malfoy, his voice cool and controlled. "Tell me. What's so awful about being a Slytherin at Hogwarts?" His eyes flickered in the candlelight. "I understand about Snape," he nodded, "about why he left. Tell me why you left."
       Malfoy made no response. Violet looked up and found his eyes had narrowed to slits. When her older housemate didn't speak, she began, "Our last night at Hogwarts, Potter said that with Snape gone..."
       Malfoy cut her off with a wave of his hand. "He knows about that," he told the girl softly, never taking his eyes off Ron. "Potter told him, or Granger." He stared at the redhead a moment. Then he turned around abruptly, snatched up his glass of water, drank it, and refilled it with juice. "Eat," he ordered Violet, setting the juice and a loaf of bread down beside her. The girl nodded, picking up the loaf to tear loose a small bite, never taking her eyes off the boys. Malfoy straightened up and turned back to Ron, staring at him a few more moments before whispering,
       "It's not Potter's fault we left."
       He thrust his pointed chin out and added in a much cooler voice, "It's Dumbledore's."
       Ron didn't protest. He didn't shake his head or scowl in disgust or turn away. He just nodded and muttered,
       "That's my point."
       Then he settled down on top of his nest of jumpers. He picked up his loaf of bread, broke it in two, and offered half to Malfoy. The blonde boy took it, settling down on top of his cloak.
       The three wizards ate in silence. Then they curled up in tight balls and fell asleep.
       Violet woke briefly in the night and, just for a moment, thought she was safely in her small, candle-lit cell at Hogwarts. Then she spied Malfoy sleeping a few feet away and remembered all that had happened over the past few weeks. She sighed and felt her eyes grow damp. Where is Snape right now? she wondered. She thought about the kids from Hogwarts, scattered throughout the city. Had any of them met up with Slytherins? Where were they sleeping? What had become of Marybeth? Was she flying back to Hogwarts at this very moment?
       She studied Malfoy's face in the candlelight. He looked different asleep. Sweeter. She supposed it was the soft, silky-lashed eyelids concealing his chilly gray eyes. "You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth," she sang softly, taking care not to wake either boy. "And there's that upturned chin and that grin of impetuous youth.."
       She sighed again and rolled over to face the wall. "Fix this, Malfoy," she whispered to herself. She wasn't quite sure what was wrong, but whatever it was, it was hurting her heart. "I believe in you," she whispered more softly still before closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep.
       She woke the next morning to find Malfoy sitting beside the window, staring down at the street below.
       "Has anybody come in?" she asked in a whisper. According to the sign they'd seen outside, there were no early services on Tuesdays.
       Malfoy shook his head, never taking his eyes off the window. There was a grimness about him, as if he were berating himself or thinking himself a...
       Violet crawled across the floor to sit beside the older Slytherin. "Malfoy," she whispered so as to not wake Ron, "do you remember that day in choir when Ginny sang 'Wondrous Love?'"
       Malfoy gave her the curtest of nods.
       "Professor McGonagall was sitting on the bench by Professor Snape, and I heard her whisper, 'Maybe we're not such failures after all.' What did she mean by that?"
       Malfoy turned to the girl, intrigued. He thought for a long time. Then he said softly, "Every time a generation repeats the mistakes of the four founders, it fails. Maybe she thinks she and Snape have finally managed to produce a generation that rises above the previous ones..."
       Violet nodded. "How come..." She hesitated, pulling unconsciously on her fingers. "How come the squire's house never felt like a home?"
       Malfoy turned away with a scowl and Violet hurried to add, "It wasn't your fault. You did a really good job with... everything."
       Malfoy rolled his eyes.
       "But it seems like, no matter what we did..." She shook her head. "The night we found out about Bletchley," she went on, more softly than before, "Marybeth said Hogwarts would be the only home she'd ever have. Why do you think..."
       "I don't know!" Malfoy snapped, making Violet jump. "Shut up or you'll wake Weasley!" But it was his snarling that woke Ron. Almost immediately, the Gryffindor sat up and stretched.
       "What time is it?" he asked the Slytherins. Before Violet could answer him, Malfoy did a double take at something he'd seen out the window.
       "Michael!" he cried, craning his neck as if trying to watch someone outside go around a corner. "I thought I just saw Michael with Eloise Midgen!" He turned to Ron who nodded and began pulling on his jumpers.
       "That could be," the redhead admitted. "The orphans took off on brooms a short while after we left for Hogsmeade."
       Malfoy blinked at this news. "You mean everybody's here?" he gaped. "None of the students are left at Hogwarts?"
       Ron, pulling his head through the neck of his third sweater, could only nod.
       "McGonagall's going to be really mad," Malfoy breathed, nearly shuddering at the thought. He climbed to his feet and performed the spells to shrink his and Violet's cloaks.
       "Let's use the lavatories and get out of here," he suggested, and in no time, the trio were out and about in Camden Town, searching for the missing Harry Potter.
       "Food," Crabbe groaned as he, Millicent, Goye and Pansy slogged down a slushy sidewalk . "Must have food!"
       "Must find Potter," Millicent reminded him.
       "Food first!"
       "Crabbe's right, Millicent," Goyle insisted, thrusting his elbows behind his back to stretch his aching muscles. "We'll work better if we're fed."
       They'd spent the night in a shed behind a garden shop, slipping in one by one to hide behind sacks of soil as the shopkeeper had traveled back and forth from the sidewalk in front of his store, putting away the wheelbarrows he kept on display during the day. "We need to be up and away through a window before he arrives in the morning," Millicent had counseled her housemates as they'd climbed on top the sacks to spend the night. But they'd overslept and the shopkeeper had discovered them at first light.
       "More of you damn kids!" he'd fumed. "Get out, get out!" The Slytherins had scrambled up and out the door, counting themselves lucky he hadn't hit them with the rake he'd been holding.
       "Who do you think he meant?" Millicent wondered as they made their way along a row of shops.
       "Can't think," Crabbe responded. "Need food."
       "There's some!" cried Goyle, pointing out a fruit barrow up the street. Its owner was bent beneath the wagon, cutting open boxes with a sharp blade. The Slytherins drew back against the nearest store, letting the traffic go by as they scoped out the food stand. "We'll just slip up," Goyle suggested, "pilfer a few items as we walk by, and keep on going. The key is not to break stride..."
       The barrow owner gave a mighty cry and lashed out suddenly with his knife, nearly cutting the limb off a scrawny, filthy child who snatched back a hand clutching an apple and took off at a run. He passed an alley a few feet up the street and three or four more urchins emerged from it at a gallop, hurrying away with the little thief.
       Immediately, all the shopkeepers and barrow owners in the area straightened up or popped outside or looked about, now on full alert.
       "Bugger," Crabbe muttered.
       The Slytherins moved on.
       By noon, several inches of snow had fallen. "Maybe we could earn some money shoveling," Goyle suggested.
       "Too much competition," Pansy replied, nodding at the several scrawny people already knocking on doors or clearing walkways. She stopped abruptly upon seeing what she thought was a swish and flick movement from a young man cleaning snow off a set of steps. He spotted Pansy staring at him, scowled, pulled his right hand out of his pocket, and added it to the left hand already gripping a shovel. Must have imagined it, Pansy decided as she hurried to catch up with Millicent, who was telling Goyle,
       "We've got no shovels, anyway...unless you've learned how to transfigure something I haven't."
       They passed a couple of girls leaning against a wall, a redhead and a blonde, neither of whom looked any older than a Hogwarts fourth year. "Polish your wand, big boy?" one of them called to Crabbe, and the wizard gasped.
       "How did she know..." he started to ask Goyle. His friend elbowed him in the ribs.
       "Figure of speech," Goyle hissed. "Keep moving."
       The girls laughed as the Slytherins made their way up the sidewalk and Crabbe, having finally figured out who, or rather what, they were, turned around to grin at them. But the girls had already found a customer and were leading him into the alley. Crabbe gave a tug on Goyle's cloak.
       "We'll be right back!" he told Pansy and Millicent, and before they could protest, he pulled the other boy quickly towards the alley.
       They peeked around the corner only to discover there was no sign of the two girls or their customer, only a couple of enormous square trash bins halfway down the alley. With a wink at Goyle, Crabbe began tiptoeing along a brick wall, pausing to wait for his friend at the far side of the trash bin so they could peek around the corner together.
       The girls were there, and so was their customer. He was lying on the snow-covered ground, dead. The redhead had a wand in her hand; the blonde was emptying the man's pockets. When she'd finished, she stepped aside and the redhead levitated the man's lifeless form into the trash bin.
       Goyle put a hand on Crabbe's shoulder. He pulled his friend silently back from the grisly scene. When they were several steps up the alley, they turned tail and ran.
       "What's this about?" Malfoy feigned interest in a flyer taped to a light pole so he could lean against the pole and rest for a moment. The white pieces of muggle paper had been popping up all morning; they showed a pair of green eyes, the letters 'RPZ' and the number '22.00.'
       "Probably a concert," Violet told him. "Bands put up flyers to publicize their gigs. We used to talk about which ones we'd like to go to at the orphanage." She shook her head at the figure on the notice. "Imagine spending nearly 5 galleons just to listen to some music."
       Malfoy frowned at the flyer. "Where do you see galleons?" he demanded, and Violet pointed to the number.
       "Twenty-two pounds is about 5 galleons."
       Malfoy nodded and jerked his head at the street. "Shall we?"
       They'd been wandering up and down Camden Road and the neighboring streets for hours, watching and listening for any word or sign of Potter. What they'd seen, for the most part, were modest muggles hurrying about their last minute Christmas shopping in the snow, toting puddings and bottles and a small roast or goose apiece. "Muggles must have small families," Ron had mused, and Malfoy had been surprised the redhead had not recognized poverty when he'd seen it. This was clearly not the ritzy part of muggle London.
       Violet gave a happy little sigh as the trio set off again. She didn't seem bothered by the meagerness that surrounded them; instead, she feasted her eyes on the parents and families hurrying in and out of their humble accommodations with their sparse loads, no doubt imagining them to be like that Cratchit family Snape had read about during her illness. Occasionally she grabbed Malfoy by the arm to stop their progress down the sidewalk, pausing to watch through a picture window as loved ones hugged each other or hung decorations or set up the family cr Ęche.
       The bread and juice that had seemed so providential last night began to sour in their stomachs and they turned once more in the direction of a large supermarket near some flats and a lock on the river. Delicious smells were emanating from the store's bakery and deli. It seemed ludicrous to the three young students of magic that they could be so hungry with so much food so near.
       "Do you suppose..." Ron began, but Malfoy grabbed him by the arm and Violet by the shoulder, stopping them abruptly as he stared up the sidewalk. A girl about his age, bundled against the cold in a shabby coat and thin wool cap, was gathering carts left on the sidewalk by patrons. As they watched, a shifty-eyed little boy scampered up to her, holding out a flyer like the one they'd seen on the light pole. He seemed to be asking permission to attach the flyer to a cement piling near the carts. The girl shook her head and pointed to a red-faced muggle man just inside the store, but the boy didn't seem to want to talk to him. He hurried away, and as soon as he was out of earshot, Malfoy called out tentatively,
       The girl spun around, a look of horror on her features, as though the sound of her own name terrified her. But when she spotted Malfoy, the horror gave way to a joyful smile.
       "Draco!" she cried, abandoning her carts to take several running steps towards him. She stopped awkwardly a few feet away, apparently not sure it would be appropriate to embrace her former housemate, and closed the remaining distance between herself and the trio with shuffling steps, thrusting her gloveless hands into her coat pockets.
       "Hello, Violet," she smiled. The younger girl stood speechless at the sight of her. Queenie turned to Ron and opened her mouth but nothing came out. She looked as if she'd forgotten his name, but Malfoy suspected she was simply surprised by the grouping. She turned back to Draco and smiled again, a little less certainly than before.
       "You look different!" she suggested.
       "Do I?"
       Does he? Violet wondered. It seemed to her that Queenie was the one who looked different. She was pale and gaunt and there was a darkness to her eyes that made her look much older. But of course, she hadn't seen Malfoy since the spring of their fifth year, whereas Violet had been living with him night and day for...
       "Gee," Violet muttered. The others turned curiously to her but she didn't notice. It had been a long time, she thought as she reflected on the experiences of Hogwarts' students over the past several months. We've been living like family for ages!
       An awkward silence dragged on as four young wizards pondered the water under the bridge. Then...
       "What are you doing here?" Queenie and Malfoy asked at the same time. Queenie laughed and pointed at the carts.
       "I've got a job!" she declared, and it sounded to Violet like she was actually proud of wrangling shopping carts.
       "A... a muggle job?" Malfoy stammered. Queenie shrugged.
       "There are no wizarding jobs, Malfoy," she insisted. "Not in Great Britain, anyway. A girl has to eat!"
       But not shop, I guess, Violet noted, taking in Queenie's worn-out boots and tattered coat. Not too many reparos left in those items! She nodded at the supermarket. "Do they pay well, Queenie?" she asked, noticing again how thin her former housemate was.
       "Well, employees get a percentage off if they shop here," the older girl nodded. "That helps."
       Her smile dimmed as she took in the concern on Ron's and Malfoy's faces. She turned away a bit, her eyes growing bright... but perhaps it was just the snowflakes melting on her cheeks.
       "I can't leave," she whispered as she watched the supermarket's customers pass to and fro. "Mum and Dad got stoned at Hogwarts. They'll wind up in prison for sure. There'll be no one to watch the house if I leave!"
       Malfoy tried to think of something helpful to say. It sickened him to imagine the other six missing Slytherin girls in equally desperate straits. "Why don't you apparate?" he demanded of his former housemate, praying Queenie wasn't foolish enough to indulge some moronic loyalty to an economy that would treat her like this. "Work in another country and apparate home at night!"
       Queenie nodded, brushing dampness from her cheeks with one hand. "I'm saving up," she told them, "for lessons." She gave a half-hearted chuckle as she nodded at the store behind her. "It might take a while."
       Ron took a step closer to the one-time Slytherin. "Listen, Queenie," he whispered, "we're looking for Harry Potter. He's gone missing. Have you heard anything about him?"
       Queenie blinked and that horrified look came back into her eyes. "Don't tell!" she warned her former schoolmates, grabbing Ron by the sleeve. "Don't tell anyone you're wizards! There are people... gangs, I guess you'd call them... groups of people, pockets of people..."
       "We know," Malfoy assured her. "We ran into some at King's Cross."
       "Some of them dress alike," Queenie warned them. "Some of them don't."
       "Do you know any of these people?" Ron demanded, squeezing Queenie's hand hard with his own. "Did they take Harry? What would they do to him?"
       Queenie shook her head. "I don't know," she confessed. "I haven't heard anything. But it's not safe. It's not safe to let anyone know you're magic."
       That would explain why she's not accioing the carts, Violet decided. She was just about to offer to help her former housemate round them up when a voice shouted,
       Queenie jumped and spun around. The red-faced muggle man had stuck his head out the nearest store door.
       "Get back to work!" he ordered, and Queenie nodded, then turned back to her friends for a quick good-bye.
       "I thought it would be a good idea to change my name," she explained as she hugged them in turn, "in case Mum and Dad wind up in the papers." She took one last longing look at them, gave a hard sniff, and hurried away, pushing a trainload of carts towards the store.
       The trio set off again, more morosely this time. No one wanted to discuss the interview with Queenie. But after a while, Violet looked up and announced,
       "We should go back to Hogwarts."
       "We can't go yet!" Ron contradicted her, "we..."
       "No," Violet explained. "I mean, after we find Potter, we shouldn't just go back to meet up with the others. We should go back to stay."
       "Hell, no!" Malfoy protested.
       "And we should ask Dumbledore to bring Queenie and the other six girls back," Violet went on, ignoring Malfoy's objection.
       "He could at least look into it," Ron agreed, and Malfoy gave a hearty snort.
       "What makes you think they'd want to come?" he jeered at Violet and Ron as if they were imbeciles. "Why would they? They know how they'd be treated!"
       Ron rolled his eyes. "Here we go again," he muttered. But Violet preferred a more direct approach. She shoved Malfoy in the stomach with both hands and shouted,
       "You're an idiot! You're an idiot and I don't want to search with you anymore! I want... I want....!"
       She wasn't sure what she wanted. Her lower lip wobbled, and her face colored, and before the boys knew what she was about, she turned sharply to the right and leapt across the street and up an alley.
       "Violet!" Malfoy shrieked, Queenie's warning clamoring in his head. "Don't jump! Don't jump!" But the child had already disappeared. Malfoy and Ron had no choice but to take off after her.
       They were still searching for her an hour later when Ron suddenly shouted,
       A block and a half away, Eloise and Michael were making their way happily up the street. Ron was just about to call out their names when Malfoy grabbed his arm and pointed at the picture window of a nearby house. There sat Violet, snug inside, spooning something into her mouth from a white soup bowl while she perched on a chair next to the window.
       Malfoy reddened at the sight of her, clearly incensed. "Come on!" he hissed to Ron. He bent over, crouching low to the ground, and made a bee line across several front lawns to some shrubs beside the window inside of which Violet sat. Ron followed close behind. They grabbed the window ledge with numb fingertips and slowly raised their heads to peek inside.
       Violet appeared to be having the time of her life. In between greedy bites of a hearty stew, she was barraging a motherly-looking muggle woman with chatter. She would pick up a piece of the woman's mail from the table, read the contents of a Christmas card out loud, and then ask questions which the woman would answer over her shoulder while she worked. Or Violet would toy with the table decorations and point at others, asking questions about them. The woman, clearly trying to finish her holiday chores, answered all queries patiently, albeit with the occasional visible sigh. Every now and then, something Violet said made her laugh and reach over to give the girl's shoulder a little squeeze. Violet basked in the attention and the physical contact.
       "Wait 'til I get my hands on that little git!" Malfoy fumed to Ron over a loud rumble from his stomach. "She'd better not be..."
       "What's this, then?"
       A gruff voice barked at them from behind as two pairs of powerful arms grabbed Malfoy and Ron and yanked them out of the shrubs. The next thing they knew, they were being hauled towards the house by two burly young men about Marcus Flint's age who bore a strong resemblance to the motherly muggle inside. "You lot should learn to pick on folks your own size!" the man holding Ron growled as the wizards were dragged inside.
       "We weren't laying for her!" Ron protested. The boys holding him and Malfoy hustled them into the parlor. When Violet came into view, Ron nodded at her. "We know her!" he insisted to the burly youth pinning his arms behind his back. "She's with us! She just ran off!"
       The muggle woman looked up in surprise as the boy holding Malfoy reported, "We found 'em in the bushes, Mum." He turned to Violet and added, "Do these blokes know you?"
       Malfoy struggled furiously to free himself, oblivious to the arm that was tightening around his neck or the precarious situation in which he now found himself. "Violet!" he snarled, his gray eyes flashing, "I'm gonna paddle you 'til my PALMS ITCH!"
       Violet winced but the muggle mother burst out laughing. "Let them go," she counseled her sons as she smiled sympathetically at Malfoy and Ron. "They know her."
       She ushered the two wizards to seats across the table from Violet and brought them large, steaming bowls of stew. Ron commenced eating immediately but Malfoy was too angry to do anything but glower at Violet. "Why don't you tuck in," the mother urged him. "You look as though you could use it."
       Malfoy just glared. The mother shook her head, then turned to Violet and demanded, "What have you got to say for yourself?"
       Violet, who'd been eyeing Malfoy warily, looked up at her in surprise. The girl began to wobble her lower lip in a bid for sympathy but the mother would have none of it.
       "You said you were alone!" she scolded. "What were you thinking, running off like that? You're not a monkey in a zoo!"
       Violet gulped and Malfoy smiled in spite of himself. He picked up a spoon and tried a bite of the stew. It was delicious.
       "They... I...". Violet sputtered for a moment or two, then gave up and dropped her head in shame. "I'm sorry," she muttered.
       The taller of the Flint-like brothers shook his head at her. "We've got a woodshed," he offered Malfoy as he tore hunks off a baguette and set one down beside each boy's bowl. His brother shoved the butter across the table and added,
       "Sorry about outside. But there's been so many attacks on folks like you..."
       Ron's spoon froze halfway to his mouth. He and Malfoy exchanged looks and the mother, eager to change the uncomfortable subject, picked up a glass which she filled with milk as she asked the wizards,
       "What were you quarreling about?"
       Malfoy's eyebrows jumped. How did she know... he wondered. But Ron just nodded and advised him,
       "They always know."
       "I want to go back to school!" Violet piped up. "But Malfoy won't let us."
       The muggle woman didn't have to be told which one was Malfoy. "What's wrong with the school?" she asked Draco quite sincerely, as if his were the point of view that mattered most to her. Her attitude achieved the desired effect; Draco took a long drink of milk, put down his glass, and told her,
       "There's not a lot I can tell you about it, ma'am, but... it's not a good place for all people."
       "That's not true!" Ron interjected. "Malfoy just doesn't want to admit ..."
       The muggle mother put a hand on his shoulder and he fell silent. She walked around the table to sit down beside Violet. She folded her hands and nodded at Malfoy. "Who decides," she asked him, "which people it's good for?"
       A long silence followed her question. The mother waited, intensely focused on Malfoy's face as she anticipated his response. When none came, her taller son cleared his throat and said,
       "I'll tell you what's not a good place for all people these days. London. Or just about anywhere, for that matter." He gave Violet another frown before informing Ron and Malfoy, "We've been telling your lot all day. It's not safe for youngsters to be out there, not even in groups."
       "You can't tell who they are," the mother added. "The ones who want to harm you, I mean. They live among decent folk and lash out without warning or reason."
       Malfoy frowned. "'Without reason,'" he quoted under his breath. He thought back to what Snape had said about people who do wrong in the world, often without admitting it. "They indulge their feelings instead of subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny," he murmured. The muggle mother was impressed.
       "Did you learn that in that school of yours?" she asked. But Ron spoke up before Malfoy could reply.
       "Who've you been telling?" he asked. The muggles looked confused. "All day," Ron reminded them. "You've been telling our lot all day..."
       The taller son nodded and grinned. "You're the sixth bunch we've had in here today. The first group came knocking on the door, bold as brass. Diversion, it was. They chatted us up in front while the others sneaked in the back and searched for this Potteby..."
       "Potter," Malfoy muttered absently. He was glancing as unobtrusively as possible around the room, taking in the modest furnishings, the well-worn muggle clothes his hosts were wearing, the high proportion of potatoes in his stew. These people were clearly putting themselves out feeding multiple groups of stray wizarding children. He wondered if they were endangering themselves as well.
       "After that," the other son finished, "it became each group telling the next one where they could get a hot meal on a cold day."
       "Eloise and Michael just left a while ago," Violet added, and Malfoy returned his attention to the table, scowling at her.
       "Why didn't you go with them?" he scolded.
       "I just got here!" Violet protested. "Eloise has a broom, so I said I'd meet them tonight to fly back to school if I can't find Marybeth."
       "You'd best get a move on, if you're... flying..." The muggle mother shook her head and chuckled over the word. "...anywhere tonight. The wind's supposed to kick up to a right blizzard."
       She helped Violet into her cloak and then ordered her taller son to fetch one of her scarves. "That's better," she murmured as she wrapped the scarf snuggly around the neck of Violet's hood. "You'll be all right," she assured the three wizards, "if you stick together."
       They thanked her for her hospitality and hurried out the door. Malfoy took Violet's hand when they reached the sidewalk and nodded at Ron to take the other. They made their way to a corner by a vacant lot and stopped to cross the street, but when Malfoy stepped off the curb, Violet didn't move. He turned around and was surprised to find tears streaming down her face.
       "I'm sorry," she whispered so softly he had to step back onto the curb and put his head near her face to hear her. "I'm sorry, Malfoy," she said again, but there was no sound at all this time, just lips forming silent words.
       "Oh, God," Malfoy muttered.
       "What?" Ron asked.
       "I've seen this before," Malfoy told him, wrapping an arm around Violet's shoulders to lead her beneath a large tree in the center of the vacant lot. "The night Snape tried to kick her out of Slytherin... she's about to go on a crying jag."
       He sat down with her beneath the tree and sure enough, Violet threw her arms around his shoulders and sobbed as if her heart would break. "I want to go home!" she wept, violent sobs wracking her little body as ragged moans heaved in and out of her chest. "I want to go home! I want to go home!"
       Her hysterics horrified the lanky redhead but Malfoy just held onto Violet and waited for the crisis to pass. He glanced up at Ron, who was clearly distressed, and seeing such concern on the Gryffindor's face filled Malfoy with a realization so startling he blurted it out loud.
       "So do I!"
       Violet hiccuped against his chest and Malfoy gave her a little shake. "How can that be?" he demanded, as if it were her fault. "How can we feel differently about Hogwarts than Snape?"
       "Because you're not Snape?" Ron offered, trying to be helpful. Malfoy scowled and was just about to tell him to sod off when a voice in his head stopped him.
       It was his voice. He was talking to Snape, two days ago. He was telling Snape... 'I'm not like you.'
       "Why not?" Malfoy whispered to himself, trying to puzzle it out. He let his mind wander and faces popped into it... Ron's, peering worriedly down at him and Violet... Justin's, scowling at one of Snape's critics... Granger's, berating Montague for stealing Snape's letter... Mandy's, smiling up at him from a sickbed cot. He'd had some mighty good times at Hogwarts, he realized, especially since... since...
       'Perhaps it is time to invite the other houses to visit your obstacle course.'
       Malfoy laughed, a snorting derisive laugh. "What?" Ron demanded, unnerved by the Slytherin theatrics. Malfoy shook his head.
       "It's ironic," he explained. "Snape hates Hogwarts because he suffered so much, but I had a great time ..." He laughed that snorting laugh again. "...because of Snape!"
       Ron frowned. "Among others," he reminded the Slytherin, and Malfoy nodded.
       "Among others," he agreed good-naturedly, "...from all four houses." He gave Violet a little squeeze. "That's why the manor never seemed like a home," he told the girl. "We miss the people from the other houses."
       "But Snape's gone!" Violet reminded him.
       "And Dumbledore's still there," Malfoy nodded. "But why should that make a difference?" He thought of how bad things had been under the policies and practices that had set the houses against each other, and how much more satisfying they'd become once those practices were set aside. "What were we thinking," he asked, "letting that man undercut our house and drive us away?" He gave Violet a shake and the girl nodded and wiped her face on her sleeve. Malfoy grinned at her, then turned to grin at Ron as well.
       "Slytherins don't hate Hogwarts!" he announced. "We just hate Dumbledore! And who is that old man, anyway? A headmaster!" He sniffed at the notion of running away from a mere hired hand. "Headmasters serve at the pleasure of the board!" he reminded the young Slytherin sheltering in his arms. "Headmasters come and go!"
       "Onto the board?"
       "Shut up, Violet!"
       Ron laughed out loud and reached out with both hands to help the Slytherins to their feet.
       "I can't believe I'm admitting this," he told his fellow seventh year, "but we really missed you."
       Malfoy held out a hand for Ron to shake. Then his eyes lit up as an absolutely brilliant idea popped into his head. "When we get back," he promised Ron, "I'm going to put in a good word with Dumbledore to make you head boy for the rest of the year."
       "Me?" Ron looked amazed by the offer. "Thanks!"
       "Don't mention it," Malfoy drawled as he sauntered off, and Ron couldn't imagine why he was smirking so as he nodded over his shoulder for Violet and the Gryffindor to catch up.
       "Can you accio a person's wand if you don't know her name?"
       "Expelliarmus!" Goyle whacked his forehead with the palm of his hand in response to Crabbe's suggestion. "Why didn't I just expelliarmus her wand?"
       Millicent folded her arms across her chest and leaned against a streetlight. Pansy, her hands clasped around the same pole, was swinging back and forth, first to the right, then to the left. "Goyle," Millicent told the taller of the two wizards who sat dejectedly on a curb outside a sweetshop, "let it go. There was nothing you could do!"
       Goyle and Crabbe looked thoroughly unconvinced, so Millicent tried again.
       "We're in London," she reminded the boys. "There are muggles around every corner. You couldn't just pull out your wand and start casting. We have no training for a situation like this!"
       The boys nodded. Goyle lifted his head and asked Millicent, "How come the Ministry doesn't catch all these under-aged street wizards?"
       Street wizards. Pansy stopped swinging as the group considered the term. Leftovers, these people were. Disregarded by Hogwarts and any society that really counted, or so it would seem. Millicent decided the term was a fitting one.
       "Maybe they do," she countered. "Maybe they've caught a bunch of them."
       Pansy returned to her swinging. "Maybe that's why they've been too busy to bother with us," she said as she swooped from side to side, her head bobbing along with her body. "Maybe that's why we never heard from them at the squire's."
       Crabbe shook his head. "We should have done something," he moaned, causing Goyle to bury his face in his hands. "We should have talked to them. We should have tried to help them."
       Millicent sighed at the two wizards. She peeked around the pole at Pansy and nodded at the boys, demanding, "What's wrong with this picture?"
       "Maybe Snape could help them!" Goyle looked up suddenly, his eyes bright. But Millicent snorted.
       "She's a street witch, Goyle," the girl reminded him, remembering Violet's description of such people after her trip to Diagon Alley to replace her wand. "She's not going to take help from a Hogwarts master."
       "He's not a master anymore," Pansy reminded them. Her housemates turned sullen faces in her direction and she shrugged and swooped to the left.
       "Maybe that's why he left," the pretty girl suggested. "Maybe he went to help the people Hogwarts doesn't want." She swung to the right as she added, "...people like him."
       Millicent stared at her roommate. She opened her mouth to protest her friend's characterization of Snape... then shut it again. Pansy was right, of course. Snape had always been an outsider, a misfit, a reject, even as the watchful little boy his parents had sent away for a year to free themselves of his scrutiny. She thought of the forest orphans, watching from the woods. "Maybe he just doesn't think we need him anymore," she whispered.
       Goyle snorted so hard he blew snot out his nose and Millicent had to grin. It was hard to say which made them feel less competent, their time at the squire's or this trip to London. Ever since their encounter with the 'working girls' they'd noticed one example after another of folks in trouble; violence, destitution, and animosity were running rampant through the post-war streets of London.
       Crabbe climbed to his feet and offered a hand to Goyle. "Do you think it's always been this bad?" he asked as he pulled the other wizard up, "or just since Voldemort?"
       "I don't know," Millicent admitted, "and I don't know what do do about it, except..." She shrugged at her friends. "We need to know more."
       Crabbe furrowed his brow. He seemed to be devising a plan in his mind, and working right hard on it. "When we get back to Hogwarts," he said slowly, "I think... we should find Tracey and Warrington... and tell Malfoy all together that we're staying."
       His housemates thought it over. Then...
       "Me, too," Millicent nodded.
       "And me," Pansy chimed in.
       "Yo." Goyle stuck one hand in the air briefly to signal his support. Millicent wrapped an approving arm around Crabbe's shoulders.
       "For right now," she suggested, "let's forget about what we can't do. I want to find Potter, and I want to find something to eat." Her stomach gave a loud rumble and she rubbed it soothingly. "There's got to be something we can do to get some food."
       "How do you imagine they learned to kill?" Pansy let go of the pole and came to stand beside Goyle. "Those girls were a good three years younger," she pointed out, "and we can't kill."
       "Not people, anyway," Crabbe nodded, smiling to himself at the memory of how many insects he'd AK'd last summer. Ummmmm. Grasshoppers.
       "How can they kill?" Pansy demanded again, and Millicent frowned at her, exasperation showing plainly on her face.
       "I don't want to think about the things we can't do!" she repeated. "I don't want to think about transfiguring, charms, muggle defense..."
       "Carocka," Pansy put in.
       "Right," Millicent nodded, "or housekeeping or..."
       "No!" Pansy stamped her foot. "They can do carocka!" Her housemates gawked at her and she gestured to a sign outside a pub across the street. "They can't spell it," she pointed out, "but they can do it. How can they do carocka?"
       Millicent squinted to make out the sign and suddenly grinned from ear to ear. "Brilliant!" she cried, giving Crabbe an excited hug. "That's not carocka!" She beamed at her housemates, pulling them close so they could put their arms around each other's shoulders. "That," she boasted, nodding at the sign, "is something we... can DO!"
       "All right, monkey." Ron hoisted Violet into the air and handed her the muggle crayon she'd found near a trash bin. "Here you go."
       Violet took the crayon and used it to add a pair of red eyes to the green ones already decorating another of those RPZ flyers tacked to a light pole. When she was finished, Ron put her down and she dusted off her hands triumphantly.
       "Very festive!" she declared, grinning at the now red and green flyer.
       Malfoy rolled his eyes but Ron nodded. "Slytherin and Gryffindor," he said approvingly. "Except in real life they're switched."
       "What?" Violet asked.
       He pointed at the flyer on which she'd impishly drawn her father's eyes. "Voldemort had the red ones," he reminded the Slytherins. "Harry has the green eyes. So in real life, the Slytherin and Gryffindor eye colors are switched."
       "The irony never ends," Malfoy drawled. He took Violet by the hand and turned to go... then spun back around so forcefully he nearly flung her into the street. Ron did the same thing and they gaped at each other, thrusting out their arms to point at the flyer at the same time, the same startled look in their eyes.
       "Potter's eyes!" Malfoy cried, and Ron nodded, adding frantically,
       "Regents Park Zoo!" He gestured wildly at Violet the monkey girl. "'RPZ' is Regents Park Zoo!"
       Malfoy groaned and shook his head at their denseness. "Violet, you nitwit!" he snarled, giving her head a cuff, "22.00 isn't a price. It's a time!"
       Ron checked his watch. "Let's go!" he cried, and the boys grabbed Violet's hands and took off, racing south along Camden Road as fast as they could go. br>      
       "Thank you! Thank you very much!"
       The sweaty, red-faced emcee stepped onto the stage, shouting into his mike to be heard over the applause. "That was Sherrie Bulloch singing 'Georgia on my Mind.' Let's give her another big hand!"
       Crabbe, Pansy and Goyle glanced nervously around the hot, dark pub, crowded with flushed, enthusiastic patrons.
       "What if they found out we're..." Goyle began.
       Millicent looked up briefly from a list she was scanning as quickly as possible. "They won't find out!" she hissed before returning to her frantic perusal.
       "There's a lot at stake tonight in our weekly Big Money contest..." The emcee was talking again. "...so let's give a warm welcome to our next entrants, the..."
       He nodded at the four Slytherins who were standing by the steps to the stage. "What do you call yourselves?" he demanded, and Millicent, caught off-guard, gave a nervous squeak. But Crabbe grinned confidently at the emcee and shouted,
       "Salazar's Orphans!"
       and the next thing they knew, the emcee was calling them onstage as he exhorted the audience,
       "Put your hands together for Salazar's Orphans!"
       "That one!" Millicent cried, pointing frantically to a number on the list as she handed it back to a sound machine operator before scrambling onstage behind her housemates.
       The Slytherins clumped together in front of two mikes. The lights dimmed, but not enough to hide the crowd of expectant faces staring up at them. For an uncomfortably long moment, there was no sound at all. Then...
       "Dum, dum, dum.... dum, dum de dum!" came the repetitive baseline of three half steps followed by three half steps and a jump over a catchy 4/4 rhythm.
       "Dum, dum, dum... dum, dum de dum!" chimed in Crabbe and Goyle without missing a beat. Their rich, deep voices reassured Millicent, who took a deep breath and sang:

       Already, the crowd was loving it. There were whoops and scattered claps and Pansy beamed as someone focused a spotlight on them. She jumped in right on cue with the soprano harmony, pressing her cheek close to Millicent's to share the mike:

       Goyle grabbed the mike he shared with Crabbe to pull it closer to their faces as they joined in on the words, then pushed it away again after, "It happened down in Birdland." He struck up an aloof pose as he pointed at Millicent before her next solo, inspiring someone in the audience to shout, "Stylin'!"

       They tweaked the words where appropriate ("I remember one jazz PUB..."), grinning with delight at the audience's reaction. Their choir experience made the close harmonies a piece of cake and Crabbe's thuggish delivery of "'N turn me on" nearly reduced his housemates to stitches. This wasn't scary! This was fun! They were good at this! They spun, one at a time, in four neat circles and launched enthusiastically into the chorus.

       The audience loved pretty Pansy's soloing...

       But it was their dancing that sewed up the prize, those smooth Slytherin jazz steps, augmented by hours of speed dueling, that let them bob and weave on every refrain, finishing with four perfectly synchronized spins...

       Pansy led them off the stage at the end of their performance, improvising over repetitions of the chorus. The crowd leapt to their feet, cheering, whistling, and stamping as they applauded. The only thing that would have made it better, Millicent thought, would have been if they could have revealed their plight to these cheery people and asked them for assistance. But that would have been too much to expect, that someone in this crowd might be willing to help wizards. She settled for basking in the enthusiastic response of the emcee.
       "Let's hear it for Salazar's Orphans!" he shouted, and the crowd roared again. "I think we have a winner!" He called them back onstage and handed over the prize money.
       "Any plans for all that loot?" he asked the flushed, happy children. Crabbe's stomach gave a mighty rumble and Millicent replied,
       "Have you got a special?"
       The audience laughed. The emcee shouted to the fry cook to start on four all-you-can-eat fish and chips, then he turned to the Slytherins and asked, "How about an encore while you're waiting for your meal?"
       "Yes, yes, encore!" shouted various members of the crowd over still more applause. The Slytherins smiled and nodded and the emcee made his way offstage. But when the machine operator called out, "What's your pleasure?", Millicent shook her head at him and pushed one of the mikes away. She gathered the Slytherins around the single remaining microphone and as the machine operator dimmed the lights to a soft glow, she began to sing.

       Crabbe, Goyle and Pansy began to hum softly beneath the words. The audience listened, enthralled. Even the sizzling of the grill seemed quieter than usual as the patrons basked in the comforting lyrics of the song.

       As they broke into harmony on the next set of words, a man at the bar glanced at his watch. He rose, slipping as quietly as possible across the room, and stuck his head out the back door.
       He stepped down with one foot to stand in the crack of the open door and looked up and down the alley. There was a gentleman waiting for him, a man in a dashing cloak whose hands were thrust inside the pockets of his dark trousers as he stood with his back to the door, staring down the alley.
       "Evening, mate," the pub patron called, and the gentleman turned around and nodded at him. He sauntered casually to the door, snowflakes falling on his shiny black hair as he came. Inside, the quartet of voices swelled to a crescendo, drifting through the partially opened door.

       The man with the dashing cloak paused. He frowned, his brow furrowing, and leaned a bit to one side as if trying to see beyond the man into the pub.
       "Anything wrong, mate?" the pub patron asked. He stepped into the alley and let the door fall shut behind him, silencing the four voices. The man with the shiny hair shook his head, whether to clear it or answer no, the pub patron couldn't tell.
       "Good of you," he replied instead, "to come a day early."
       "No worries," the patron assured him. "Gives me an extra day to do some Christmas shopping, doesn't it?"
       The cloaked man held out a sum of money and the patron took it. Then he knocked on the backdoor of the pub and someone inside opened it for him. As he stepped inside, the pub patron looked back over his shoulder. The man in the cloak was still there, staring at the crack of the partially open door, his head tilted slightly as if listening for something. But the singing had stopped.
       "Happy Christmas," the patron called, and with a polite nod, the man in the cloak whirled around and swept away.
       Back at the bar, the four Slytherins had been served their meals and were tucking in gratefully. "There's enough left over for one room for the night and four handfuls of floo powder," Millicent reported. "We can have a lie-in in the morning before we fetch our brooms. Maybe it'll warm up a bit before we have to make the trek to the Leaky Cauldron."
       "What if they haven't got a room with two beds?" Crabbe wondered, pouring a generous supply of ketchup on his chips.
       "We'll have to sleep head to foot," Millicent shrugged. "Maybe they'll throw in a port-a-bed."
       Pansy sighed. "I wish I could conjure," she complained before remembering that Millicent didn't want to hear anymore about what they couldn't do.
       "I wish I'd invented Lupin's Remedy," Crabbe countered, helping himself to a second bottle of ketchup. "Then we could all sleep in suites."
       "We're closing up, hon," the waitress told Hermione, giving the tabletop surrounding the witch's mug of tea a perfunctory swipe with a rag that reeked of disinfectant.
       The head girl pulled her cup safely out of the way and tried not to frown. It didn't matter, she supposed, that she was being shooed away; the kids she'd been eavesdropping on had just departed the cafe.
       Hermione had gone straight to the Leaky Cauldron from King's Cross Monday evening and had spent a cozy night in the very same room Harry had enjoyed the summer before his third year. In the morning, the she'd made a trip to Gringotts to remove some of the largess Snape had deposited for her. After returning to the Leaky Cauldron to pay her tab, she'd ventured into London, spending the day at various eating establishments listening for word of a kidnapped young wizard. She'd finally hit paydirt just a few minutes earlier in this rundown eatery south of the station.
       A group of kids about her own age had entered, arguing loudly about a cloak. Hermione had sneaked a quick peek at them as they'd made their way down the aisle. "You could have asked her where she got it!" a petulant, pink-haired girl had been telling the boy beside her. "Nothing wrong in that!"
       "I'm not havin' anything to do with that lot I don't have to!" the boy had replied as the group had dropped into the booth behind Hermione. The pink-haired girl had laughed as the boy had ordered coffees all around.
       "Whatchoo think, then? They've got powers? Don't they wish!" She'd snorted derisively before ripping open what sounded like 10 sugar packets at a time.
       "They're more dangerous without them, " another member of their group had insisted, a mousy-looking girl with glasses who'd seemed strangely out of place among her more outlandishly decorated circle of friends. The boy had agreed with her, nodding at her to pass the cream as he'd declared,
       "They're berks."
       "I'd still like to go, though," the pink-haired girl had mused. "I'd like to see a real one. When did they say it was?"
       "They didn't," the boy had barked, "and you're not going anywhere!"
       The pink-haired girl had risen with a laugh. "I'm off to the park!" she'd called airily, bursting into a fit of giggles when the boy had grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back down.
       "We've spent enough time in the park today," he'd growled, and the group had quieted down to drink their coffee.
       Hermione gathered up her things, her mind racing. A real one with powers, they'd said. That had to be Harry! Or maybe one of the searching Hogwarts students had been discovered!
       "Excuse me," Hermione called to the waitress, dropping a generous tip onto the table as she beckoned the girl closer. "Where's the nearest park, please?"
       In no time, she was back on the street, hurrying along towards Argyle Square. A sense of urgency propelled her along the snowy sidewalks; she had a terrible feeling time was running out.
       "Malfoy, you're cutting off my circulation."
       The ever-increasing crowd milling about the zoo grounds was making Draco nervous; as a result, he was gripping Ron's arm much tighter than necessary. The two of them, along with Violet, were perched precariously on the back of a bench next to a tree. It offered them a fine vantage point for watching the throng but required Ron to cling to the tree with one arm to keep his balance. Malfoy held onto Ron's other arm and Violet held onto Malfoy. The balancing act helped conceal their identity as wizards; passers-by smiled at the way they were clinging to each other for a better view, over-looking the hands shoved into pockets and wrapped securely around wands.
       It didn't help that Malfoy recognized some of the people from King's Cross.
       "Relax," Ron whispered, taking care not to be overheard. "They don't recognize you. You were watching them and they were watching the barrier. Besides, your cloak is gone."
       The atmosphere inside the zoo was cheery and festive as packs of openly-armed people roamed the grounds. Staff and security were nowhere to be seen; the spectators congregating to see a real live wizard had met no opposition breaking into the facility, either. Malfoy shook his head. "It's like Wizard Bashing Night at a theme park," he hissed, inspiring one of the 4 girls sitting on the bench to smile up at him over her shoulder.
       Ron surveyed the growing population of hate-mongers tensely. There seemed to be several hundred people present, with more arriving every minute. 'Plan?' Malfoy mouthed silently at the strategist, who shook his head. The sheer number of people present suggested that, if violence broke out, their only choices would be, watch Potter die or die with him.
       A cry went up from several nearby groups and people began stepping off the snowy paths to make way for a small procession. Others pushed closer to the wizarding trio's bench to see what was happening.
       A group of people were leading Harry down the path. His hands were tied in front of him; an occasional breeze, harbingers of the approaching blizzard, stirred his robe, making it flap behind him. Two young men marched on either size of the Chosen One, jerking him along the path by loops around his neck. These loops were attached to long poles, devices were normally used to snare and lead dangerous animals. Harry's face and hands were covered with nicks and cuts.
       Murmuring and applause broke out as the procession approached a wide area near the trio's bench and Malfoy took advantage of the noise to whisper to Ron,
       "Why are they herding him?"
       "Maybe they can't touch him," Ron whispered back. "Quirrell couldn't, first year."
       "Then how..."
       Malfoy had intended to ask how Potter's face and hands had become injured if no one could strike him. But even as he spoke, a young boy in the crowd bent over and picked up a stone, which he hurled at Harry. The sharp rock slammed into Harry's cheek, carving a small hole that leaked blood down his face. Ron jerked the arm Malfoy was holding, the one that ended in his hand clutching his wand, and Malfoy squeezed it tight again. "Don't do anything!" he warned Ron in a whisper. "Not now!"
       "My friends," cried the man on Harry's right, a curly-haired individual with a scar on his nose. "Behold, the green-eyed wizard of the north!"
       A roar went up from the crowd. Several people boo'd and jeered. The girls sitting on the bench rose and hurried forward to join those pressing close to Harry and his captors. "Let's go lower," Ron hissed to Malfoy and Violet. "We stand out too much this way." They stepped carefully down from the bench's back to its seat where they could still see easily over the crowd.
       "You all know his crimes," the man was continuing, "and those of his kind. They torture, murder, and exploit those who do not have their power..."
       A cry of agreement rose from the crowd.
       "They steal our resources and pollute our lands to produce the vile devices that perpetuate their power..."
       Actually, Malfoy thought, we're helping you put your noxious weeds to good use... But his thoughts were drowned by the roar of the crowd.
       "And this one!..." The curly-haired man gave Harry a particularly vicious jerk with the pole. The Gryffindor stumbled but kept his feet.
       "We caught this one in the act of bewitching and overpowering a defenseless woman!"
       The crowd screamed in fury; Malfoy thought he could actually feel the heat of their anger against this face. He longed to thrust his wand in the air and cry out to Salazar to smite them all...
       "There must be justice!" the curly-haired man bellowed. The crowd roared its agreement.
       "There must be punishment!" Again, a roar.
       "We must make an example of this green-eyed wizard who proclaims himself the mightiest of the mighty, king of man and beast, defeater of..."
       Malfoy sucked in a sharp breath. Had they tortured Potter? How much had they found out?
       ".... THE LION!" the man screamed. He grabbed the Gryffindor crest on the front of Harry's robe and jerked it into the air, displaying it to the crowd that screamed for blood. Malfoy relaxed just a bit. "They don't know!" he hissed to Ron and Violet, pulling their heads close. "They don't know he's Harry Potter!"
       "Of course not!" Violet sniffed, her eyes shooting daggers at the curly-haired man. "Hate-mongers never really know what they're talking about."
       The trio straightened up again and Malfoy could see Ron's mind racing to process this advantage.
       "What more fitting death, therefore," the man continued, "than to feed him, wandless... TO THE LIONS!"
       The crowd roared its approval, but Malfoy thought he saw a few faces pale.
       "Bloody lucifer!" Ron was panicking beside him. "How many lions are there? Can we stun them? But then what? If only we could transfigure into something that would distract them!"
       His eyes darted frantically about the grounds, searching for a solution. "We don't know enough!" he lamented to the two Slytherins. "We don't know enough! We don't know enough."
       Violet snatched her wand from her jacket pocket and hid it just inside her front zipper, gazing desperately down at Pseudo-Salazar as if he might hold the answer. Watching her, Malfoy suddenly realized...
       "Oh, yes we do!"
       He pulled his fellow wizards into a huddle and whispered urgently; when Ron straightened up again, he was grinning.
       He jumped down from the bench and hurried to a spot behind a gang of short boys. Then he waved both arms in the air.
       "What if he can communicate with lions?" he shouted, and Harry jerked his head in the direction of Ron's voice. The shock that filled his face was quickly replaced by terror, though Malfoy couldn't tell if he was acting... or frightened for Ron. Ron shouted again.
       "What if he turns the lions on us?"
       A worried murmuring broke out among the crowd. Before the curly-haired man could respond, Malfoy shouted his line.
       "Throw him to the snakes!" he cried, pointing to the nearby reptile house. Immediately, the cry went up among the spectators...
       "Snake! Snake! Snake! Snake!" Malfoy nearly grinned to see the people who had paled at the thought of lions were shouting the loudest. Apparently, they preferred squeeze and swallow to the bloody spectacle of seeing someone torn limb from limb.
       Harry's captors led him quickly to the reptile house, the crowd following close behind. Ron raced over to the bench and sprang back up on it, grabbing Malfoy by the arm before he could jump down.
       "We have to stay here," he insisted. "It'll give us a clear shot inside and a head start when it's over."
       The crowd was too big for the snake facility; several people had to hold open the doors for the masses that tiptoed and craned their necks behind them. They were cramming as close as possible, confident in the safety afforded them by the glass windows. Violet bounced on her toes in anticipation and Malfoy gave her a little nudge. "Wands at the ready," he whispered.
       He didn't know how the captors were going to get Harry into the snake tanks. "Do you suppose..." he whispered to Ron. Then he nearly jumped out of his skin as a crash rang out through the night, louder than the wind that was beginning to howl, louder than the thunder of the death eaters breaking through the ceiling of the Great Hall. There was a silence... then screams, followed by a raging stampede.
       Harry had broken every snake exhibit window in the reptile house simultaneously.
       As the crowd fled in terror, Malfoy and Ron trained their wands on the humans still surrounding Harry, the captors who refused to flee. "Stupefy!" they cried again and again while Violet hurled hexes at anyone who so much as paused to look at what they were doing. They had clear shots from their height and in a matter of moments, Harry came barreling out of the reptile house.
       "This way!" Ron shouted, leaping down from the bench with Malfoy and Violet. They set off at a run, attempting to lose themselves in the panicky, fleeing crowd. But several of their first stupefy victims had recovered and were now following close behind.
       "Get them!" they shouted, trying to marshal the wild crowd that was thundering out of the zoo as the snow swirled around them. "Stop them!" But the four wizards joined hands, Ron grabbing Harry by the elbow, and, in a mighty leap, they cleared a body of water bordering the zoo and landed safely on the far side of Prince Albert Road.
       "This way!" Ron shouted again, leading them in the direction of Camden Lock Market. Their pursuers thundered down the pavement behind them; they would not be able to leap anymore unless they split up and Violet was too short to outrun the villains. "In here!" Ron cried, breaking open a padlock on a rickety wooden garage's sliding door with his wand, and the four of them rushed inside the dilapidated building. "Silencio!" Ron hissed at the door before sliding it shut. They crouched low and held their breath. Feet rushed past but none slowed down. Then...
       The four wizards collapsed to sitting positions against the wooden door.
       "Get him out of that robe," was the first thing Ron said when he dared to speak again. He looked exhausted beyond words, tired enough to cry. Malfoy pulled Harry to his feet and diffendo'd the ropes binding Harry's hands, then took off his jacket and handed it to him after Harry had removed his robe.
       "What happened to your cloak?" he asked the Gryffindor as he engorgio'd his own.
       "It fell apart," was all Harry would say, but the way he said it made Violet shudder. She climbed to her feet and started to slip out of her pink coat.
       "You stay in your jacket," Malfoy told her as he pulled on his cloak. Violet wrinkled her nose and gave a nearby tarp a petulant kick in reply. It slid to the floor with a loud shuffling noise and Violet had to clamp a hand over her mouth to keep from shrieking.
       "Blimey!" Ron exclaimed, climbing to his feet.
       "Wicked!" Harry grinned.
       "It's a hearse!" Violet squeaked. She rushed over to Malfoy and clutched his hand. Draco pulled loose and demanded to know,
       "What's a hearse?"
       "It's just a car, Violet," Harry chided, and Ron grinned and shook his head.
       "It's more than that!" he exclaimed. "It's our ride home!"
       Violet backed away, her arms folded across her chest. "Oh, no," she insisted. "I'm not riding anywhere in a coffin carrier."
       "Oh," Malfoy murmured, but Ron walked over to Violet and put a hand on her shoulder.
       "We've got no brooms," he reminded her.
       "We can floo!" the girl pleaded. "Let's just go to the Leaky Cauldron..."
       Ron shook his head. "Do you really want to ask Harry to go back out on those streets, with all those monsters searching for him?"
       "To say nothing of the rest of us," Malfoy added.
       "We shouldn't even stay here very long," Ron reminded the girl. "They could come back at any moment."
       Violet glanced at the hearse, her face puckering, then made a last attempt to talk Ron out of it. "You'll get in trouble," she suggested. "You'll get in big trouble with the Ministry for stealing a car."
       Ron hesitated and Malfoy smirked. "Come on, Weasley," he drawled. "If I can admit it's not a home without all four houses..."
       Harry looked confused at that but Ron just grinned. "You know what?" the redhead decided, turning emphatically to his friends. "WE defeated Voldemort. As far as I'm concerned... WE'RE in charge now!"
       "Whoo hoo!" Harry yelled, racing over to the car to try the doors. They were locked of course. Ron alohamora'd them open and Harry scrambled into the backseat, pulling Violet along with him.
       "Is there a key?" Ron asked. Harry shook his head. Ron and Malfoy made their way to the front of the car, staring studiously at the hood. "The engine's under there," Ron told him. "But how are we supposed to start it?"
       Malfoy wondered why he was saying 'We.' I'm not the son of the muggle artifacts expert, he snorted to himself. He reached up to scratch a spot on his forehead that had itched regularly ever since Snape had bashed him with a book fifth year... and then grinned like a cheshire cat.
       "Stand back," he ordered Ron. He popped open the hood with an alohamora, pointed his wand at the engine, and shouted, "Enervate!"
       The engine roared to life.
       "Brilliant!" praised Ron, throwing open the door to the shed. The two wizards scrambled into the front seat.
       "Where to?" Harry asked when they'd slammed their doors. "The Burrow?"
       Malfoy and Ron exchanged looks.
       "I need to go to Hogwarts," Malfoy insisted. "I have to check on the Slytherins."
       "You could floo from Ron's house," Harry reminded him. Ron colored a bit.
       "I'd rather go to Hogwarts myself," he admitted. "Mum and Dad are gonna be awfully mad..."
       Malfoy smirked. "And you should check on Granger," he suggested in a most business-like way, and Ron nodded, blushing harder still. Harry grinned.
       "Home it is!" he cried, inspiring Ron to step on the petrol pedal a little too hard. The car jerked violently forward. When they were safely underway, he asked, "Can we stop at the Leaky Cauldron? I need a new wand. There must be someplace in Diagon Alley still..."
       Ron cut him off with a shake of his head. "Dumbledore's got your wand," he told Harry. "Madam Rosmerta gave it to him. Can you get us to King's Cross from here? I can get us to Hogwarts if you can get us to King's Cross."
       "Are you sure?" Malfoy asked him. "You went by air last time, after all."
       "And it's supposed to blizzard," Violet added, dabbing spots of Instant External Pain Relief and Healing potion on Harry's face from the vial around her neck.
       "We'll manage," Ron assured them as he eased the car down the snow-covered roads.
       Hermione pulled her muggle coat more snugly around her shoulders preparatory to sitting down on a snow-covered log to think. It was getting quite late; she should probably leave the park. She'd been here for hours and there'd been no sign of a gang that included a girl with a cloak or the teenagers she'd overheard in the cafe. The later it got, the more dangerous it would be to wander the streets alone, she knew, and besides, the wind was picking up. She feared if she tarried much longer, she might be ensconced in a full-scale blizzard.
       "If only I could apparate," she grumbled as she settled onto the nicely secluded log. "I could keep looking for Harry and then pop back to the Leaky Cauldron any time."
       The log gave way as she sat on it and Hermione leapt to her feet, stifling a scream. It wasn't a log at all, she realized with horror. It was a person, a snow-covered corpse... most likely the victim of some park crime. She looked frantically in every direction for a policeman, wondering as she did how she could report the crime without getting involved in a lengthy interview; she had Harry to think about, after all. Then the corpse groaned.
       Hermione gasped and bent over the snowy lump, pawing frantically at the snow covering the head. When she saw Marybeth's face, she cried out in anguish.
       There was a gash on Marybeth's forehead, clotted with blood. Hermione brushed away the snow covering the girl and squatted beside her, unbuttoning her coat. She pulled Marybeth close and wrapped the folds of her coat around the young Slytherin. "What happened?" she cried as she pressed Marybeth tightly against the warmth of her own body.
       Marybeth moaned. "My cloak!" she finally managed to whimper. "They took my cloak!"
       Hermione remembered the pink-haired girl in the cafe, berating her friend for not inquiring about a cloak. "Who, Marybeth?" she asked, giving the Slytherin a little shake.
       "Snape gave it to me!" Marybeth was shivering uncontrollably. She began to cry, whimpering, "I want my cloak! I want my cloak!"
       Hermione eyed the ground where Marybeth had been lying. Already, it was filling with blowing snow; the wind was getting stronger every second. But it had been dry beneath the girl's body, which meant the attack must have taken place Monday night, before the snow had begun to fall. Hermione supposed the thick, white blanket of snow that had fallen on top of Marybeth had saved her life, insulating her against the cold and slowing the bleeding of her head wound. Nevertheless, it was clear the girl was sick with chill.
       "Marybeth!" Hermione lifted the girl's head to look into her eyes, wincing at the way the girl's chin shivered against her fingers. "We'll get you another cloak," she promised, "the same kind Professor Snape got you."
       Marybeth continued to whimper but Hermione forged ahead, insisting, "Right now, it's very important that you tell me. Who took your cloak?"
       Marybeth grew still. Her eyes, focused on Hermione's face, widened, and when she spoke, her voice was nearly swallowed by the wind. "They worship Voldemort," she whispered, trembling with horror. She buried her face in Hermione's neck and shuddered at her own words. "The muggles," she finished simply. "They worship Voldemort."
       Hermione's stomach did a flip-flop. It couldn't be true. It couldn't be! But in her head, she heard a pink-haired girl laughing derisively.
       'They've got powers? Don't they wish! '
       We're in danger,
Hermione realized as she climbed to her feet, pulling a wobbly Marybeth up with her, even more than I thought. How are we supposed to know who to trust? She hugged Marybeth tight, wrapping her coat more snuggly around them both. The younger girl clung to her, shaking uncontrollably, and Hermione cursed her ignorance. If only she could conjure a cloak, or transfigure one from something in a trash bin! The wind whipped around them and Hermione felt a wave of panic. Marybeth couldn't last long in this weather; if she didn't get the young Slytherin to shelter, the girl would die. But the sickly young witch couldn't possibly walk all the way to the Leaky Cauldron.
       "Come on," Hermione urged, leading Marybeth out of the park and towards the nearest block of shops. Could she find a taxi in this weather? Maybe could they maybe shelter in the Underground for the night. No, Hermione realized as Marybeth trembled against her, that won't be warm enough. Marybeth needs to rest someplace warm. If only it weren't so late! But the shops were closed, and they had alarms. Even when silencio'd, the alarms would still blink at police stations. Hermione frowned, remembering how the police at King's Cross hadn't been too friendly to wizards.
       She wondered if Marybeth could make it to the nearest residential neighborhood. What would happen if they knocked on a muggle's door? Would they encounter sympathy or hostility? Perhaps if they threw away Marybeth's robe they could pass themselves off as muggles. But could Marybeth survive without it? How would they explain their situation to whomever answered the door?
       They entered the first alley they came to, which afforded them some shelter from the wind and snow. There were shouts ahead of them and almost immediately, several people came barreling around the corner where this alley intersected with another. Hermione pulled Marybeth behind a large trash bin and huddled with her in the corner it made against the wall, her hand on her wand. She would defend the two of them as best she could, but she was certain she'd seen half a dozen rampaging teenagers round the corner, if not more.
       There was a grunt and a thud followed by a cry of "Let go!" so near that Marybeth, snuggled tight against Hermione beneath her coat, flinched. Hermione peeked through the crack between the trash bin and the wall. Three people were slammed up against the wall on the other side of the bin, two boys about her age and a girl about Marybeth's. One boy had blonde hair, the other red. They were being held in place by a gang of about 8 or 9 young men and women.
       "Give it!" the boy holding the blonde growled. "We know you've got one!"
       "It's not worth dying over, now, it is?" a second boy asked as he leered menacingly at the blonde. His crude smile revealed a mouthful of scummy teeth. He pulled a knife from his pocket and toyed with the tip of the blade. The redhead struggled to free himself and the boy holding him cuffed him upside the head.
       "We haven't got one!" the blonde boy protested. "We haven't got any cloak! We're not wizards!"
       "They are!" shouted one of the girls in the attackers' party. "I saw them there tonight! It was their idea about the snakes!"
       Hermione gripped her wand more tightly. If she creeped around the bin, she could stun... how many?... before they rushed her. Of course, it would mean leaving Marybeth uncovered, or removing her coat... She began to wiggle out of it, keeping one hand clenched around her wand as a series of metal clicks rang out, signaling the opening of several more blades. There was a cry for help from a young girl, presumably the one up against the wall, and then...
       Several blasts of red light ricocheted through the alley.
       Hermione fell back against the wall with a gasp, clutching Marybeth tightly. She peeked through the crack and saw a man walking calmly up the alley, his cloak billowing behind him, a wand in one hand.
       It was Severus Snape.
       The three children standing against the wall slumped with relief. There was no sight or sound of their oppressors.
       "You're early," said the blonde boy, trying to sound off-hand but clearly still a little shaky. Snape made no reply. The trash bin vibrated as someone heaved open the lid and then there was the crunchy thudding of heavy items being dumped inside, 8 or 9 of them. The lid was slammed shut and there was a splintery sound as something wooden was broken in half and jammed into an opening too small for it.
       "That should hold them for a while," said Snape, and Hermione realized he'd dumped the bodies of the attackers into the bin and jammed a stick into the latch to hold it temporarily shut. Marybeth, her face buried in Hermione's chest, started at the sound of Snape's voice and Hermione clamped a hand over her mouth.
       "Be still!" she whispered to the younger witch. "They haven't said his name." If Snape hadn't told these young muggles who he was, it might be because he preferred they not know.
       "Your money," said the wizard in that smooth tone Hermione remembered so well, and when she peeked through the crack again, she saw his pale hand holding out a large sum of Muggle cash which the blonde quickly took.
       "Good of you," the redhead muttered. "You could have let them kill us. Then you'd have had your money AND your birds."
       "But what if I wanted more next year?" Snape inquired silkily, and Hermione could just see his cool smile in her mind's eyes. "Where else could I find such accommodating service?"
       "He could have had the farm, for that matter," the girl told the blonde, and Hermione guessed that the three must be siblings.
       "I have no interest," Snape assured them, "in running a dead man's poultry business. Shall I see you to the street?"
       The blonde boy shook his head. "The truck's a ways," he told Snape, and he and the other two young muggles took off up the alley. Hermione listened to the crunch of their footsteps on the snow. Had Voldemort killed their parents, she wondered? Was that how Snape knew about them? How could three children run a business on their own? The footsteps paused, and a boy's voice, she couldn't tell which, called, "Happy Christmas."
       "Happy Christmas," Snape replied, and as the children set off again, he leaned against the wall where they'd just been standing just a moment ago. Hermione, getting her first really good look at him since he'd left Hogwarts, gasped.
       "His hair!" she squeaked, making Snape and Marybeth jump. Snape raced around the bin, wand drawn, and his mouth fell open at the sight of the two young witches.
       "What are you doing here?" he cried, clearly horrified. Marybeth gave a sniff and Hermione looked down to see that her eyes had filled with tears. She sprang from beneath Hermione's coat and flung herself at Snape, collapsing against him from the effort. "They took my cloak!" she sobbed through trembling lips. A spasm shook her all over.
       Hermione climbed awkwardly to her feet and watched as Snape waved his wand to silently conjure a plain wool cloak. He pulled Marybeth loose so he could fasten the garment around her neck and that's when he discovered the gash on her forehead.
       "She was attacked," Hermione explained as Snape wrapped the cloak around Marybeth. "I think she's been unconscious in the snow since last night."
       Snape opened his own cloak and pulled the shivering Slytherin against him, wrapping the folds around her to envelope her in another layer of warmth. "What are you doing here?" he demanded of Hermione, snarling the question this time. The wind rose with a shriek and Hermione hugged her coat more tightly against her body.
       "Don't you know?" she asked, forcing herself to keep eye contact with Snape so she wouldn't stare at his silky, snow-flecked hair. "Haven't you heard about Harry?"
       Snape paled as told him about the disappearance and the melee at King's Cross. She spoke quickly, glancing frequently at the sickly Marybeth as she did.
       "All of you?" Snape growled when she'd finished. "All of you came to look?"
       Hermione nodded. "The orphans flew and the rest of us took the train."
       Snape didn't seem to know what to make of this information; he appeared to be having trouble making up his mind what to do. Then Marybeth shuddered violently against him, deciding the situation.
       "Shelter," he declared. "Miss Montague needs shelter, immediately."
       "She's too weak to walk far," Hermione told him. "Could we get a taxi..."
       "Not in this storm," Snape insisted, furrowing his brow. "Not fast enough, anyway," He seemed to be running other options through his mind but he didn't share them with Hermione.
       "If only we had a broom!" the girl hinted, hoping Snape might have one stashed somewhere. He could apparate and return with it in moments. "We could fly her to the Leaky Cauldron... or St. Mungo's, or maybe a muggle hospital..."
       Snape snorted. "Fly about London," he informed the witch, "and you'll get shot. I keep my broom at the Leaky Cauldron and take off from Diagon Alley. As for St. Mungo's..."
       He hesitated and Hermione wondered if the wizarding hospital had been breached. It didn't occur to her that Snape was trying to solve two problems at once... how to save Marybeth and how to keep Hermione Granger safely in his custody until he could turn her over to Professor McGonagall or her parents. What could they have been thinking, letting her roam the streets of London by herself these days...
       He shook his head. "Shelter," he said again, heaving Marybeth into his arms as he set off down the alley. "I know of a house nearby. It has a shed. No alarm."
       They hurried down a few streets, Hermione keeping close to Snape as the wind and snow whirled about them. She was relieved, upon reaching their destination, to see a tall hedge running the length of the property, sheltering one side from the weather. Snape led them to that side of the house, pausing by a window to peek inside and find out what the muggles who lived here were doing. They were apparently suitably preoccupied, because he hissed, "Stay here!" to Hermione and Marybeth, whom he shoved into Hermione's arms, and took off for the back of the house. Marybeth slumped against Hermione, who wrapped her arms around the younger girl.
       As she waited for Snape to return, Hermione noticed silvery lights reflecting against the window. The muggles inside were watching television, she realized. She risked a peek in the window and saw a parlor full of people in warm pajamas and robes, enjoying a Christmas film. The window sash was somewhat warped and Hermione could just hear the movie through the glass; women in red outfits and men in green tuxedos were singing to a woman in a white leotard about, "Mandy, there's a minister handy." The woman in white was quite a dancer, Hermione thought.
       Snape returned and Marybeth immediately clutched him as he told Hermione, "It's no good. There's a man in the shed assembling a scooter."
       Marybeth gave a whimper in response to this news and Snape hushed her sharply, causing Hermione to bristle. Snape caught her glare.
       "You would do well, Miss Granger," he hissed in a carefully controlled whisper, "to assume a more civil expression."
       "We're not at Hogwarts ... Mister Snape," Hermione hissed right back.
       "That's right!" Snape nodded. "That means I can thrash you if I wish!"
       At this, Marybeth peeked up at him from beneath the hood of her cloak. She mustered all her strength and reported,
       "Hermione's been taking awfully good care of me, sir."
       Snape frowned and looked away, a sour sort of chagrin on his face. Hermione followed his gaze to the parlor window.
       In the movie, a man and a woman were carrying a plate of sandwiches to an open-hearth fire in a pleasant-looking country inn. They were talking earnestly together; they seemed to be trying to help each other. Before long, the man began to sing.

       From the looks on their faces, it appeared the man and woman in the movie thought very highly of each other. Eventually the woman reprised the song and when the the scene came to an end, Snape turned to Hermione and positively shocked her by asking,
       "How is Professor McGonagall?"
       Hermione sputtered with fury. All the resentment that had been simmering inside her for the past few weeks came bubbling to the surface, urged on by her fury at how good Snape looked now that he was away from Hogwarts. "I have NEVER," she shouted at the top of her lungs, completely forgetting their precarious situation, "been so angry with you IN MY LIFE!"
       Inside the house, several startled faces turned towards the window. Snape snatched up Marybeth, grabbed Hermione's arm and took off at a run.
       They ran for several minutes, down one slushy alley after another. When they finally stopped to catch their breath, Snape turned menacingly to Hermione, who braced herself for a stinging criticism. But all he said was, "I know a place."
       Without another word, he led her down several more alleys to a ramshackle building with all broken windows. He ushered her inside through a crooked door held shut with wire.
       Once inside, Hermione saw that it was some sort of abandoned warehouse or storage shed, filled with piles of trash... broken glass, shattered crates, the remains of small fires. It was clearly a hang-out for indigents, but none were present tonight. Too cold, Hermione thought as the wind whipped through the cracks in the plank walls. Snape handed Marybeth, now deteriorated to a state of dumb suffering, to Hermione, who could barely make out her whimpers. If they didn't warm her up soon...
       "I don't know that we're any better off here than outside," she told Snape somewhat peevishly. They couldn't even start a fire... the wind would just blow it about and burn the building down.
       Snape ignored her. He was busy in the center of the room, clearing away a spot on the dirt floor. He pulled out his wand and conjured a dozen large wool blankets which he spread on the ground, one on top of the other. Then he beckoned to Hermione to bring Marybeth. As they set off across the floor, Marybeth's cloak disappeared with a pop. Snape scowled and conjured her another one.
       "How long will the blankets last?" Hermione asked as she fastened the new cloak around Marybeth's neck and led her to the center of the nest Snape had made. The former potions master made no reply and Hermione couldn't resist adding, "Professor Dumbledore can conjure furniture," as Snape began conjuring more blankets to spread on top of Marybeth. He paused after the first one to raise an eyebrow at Hermione, then returned to his work when Marybeth whimpered piteously.
       When he'd covered Marybeth with blankets a foot high, he lay down and climbed beneath the covers on her right. He signaled Hermione to do the same on her left. The three of them pulled the blankets over their heads and huddled close together.
       Marybeth shivered so hard her teeth chattered. "I wish there were a faster way to warm her," Hermione murmured, wrapping her arms protectively around Marybeth. The girl burrowed close to her and, to Hermione's surprise, muttered,
       "Professor Snape is a poo poo head."
       "Wha...what?" Hermione gasped, while Snape inquired more smoothly, "I beg your pardon?"
       "Give me a hundred galleons," Marybeth demanded weakly, "or I'll hold my breath until I turn blue."
       Hermione propped herself on one elbow. "Is she delirious?" she asked Snape, firing up her lumos light to examine Marybeth's pale, still face. But Snape chuckled, completely unruffled.
       "Give it up, Miss Montague," he counseled. "A spanked bottom will not warm the rest of you sufficiently to make it worth your trouble... or mine." Marybeth sighed and Hermione, rolling her eyes, settled back down beside her.
       "If we had containers," she murmured a few moments later, "we could make bluebell flames. Couldn't we transfigure some of this trash into tumblers..."
       "It's garbage, Miss Granger," Snape reminded her. "Transfigure a broken table leg or smashed crate and you'll wind up with a cracked glass or a wobbly goblet."
       Marybeth signed. "Rats," she muttered.
       Snape and Hermione sat up abruptly, spilling back the covers. The same idea had just occurred to them both. Snape thrust his wand into the air first, and before Hermione could utter a word of caution, he shouted confidently,
       "Accio rat!"
       The hail of vermin that rained down upon them made Marybeth scream.
       "Brilliant idea, Professor," smirked Hermione as the unexpected plethora of rodents raced this way and that. She pulled out her wand and began stunning rats as quickly as possible. In no time, they were surrounded by toasty ring of bluebell flames held in tumblers made of transfigured vermin.
       The storm and the bluebell flames were still going strong when the blankets disappeared a few hours later. Snape rose quickly to replace them, settling Marybeth, who seemed no better, beside him when he was done. "You smell wrong," she observed as she wrinkled the nose she had pressed against his chest.
       "Is that so?" Snape wondered mildly.
       "Not potiony," Marybeth complained. "Not dungeony."
       Snape smiled as he closed his eyes. "How unfortunate," he agreed, and Hermione was struck by his indulgence. He was clearly fond of this child. He'd always seemed devoted to the Slytherins. He'd made no end of sacrifices for the people of Hogwarts and he'd just inquired after Professor McGonagall. How could he have walked away from them? And what in heaven's name had happened to his hair?
       "Why didn't you tell us?" she whispered, more petulantly than she'd intended, and Snape opened one eye.
       "What are you talking about, Miss Granger?" he whispered above Marybeth's head, which was tucked beneath his chin.
       "How bad things have gotten," Hermione replied. "You knew. You hinted in potions class."
       Snape arched an eyebrow at her, which looked a little funny from a reclining position. "You'll recall," he murmured silkily, "that we had more pressing concerns. But..." He rolled onto his back and placed his hands beneath his head. "You raise an interesting point," he admitted as he stared at the ceiling.
       "What's that?" Hermione inquired when he said no more, and Snape shrugged.
       "Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall have apparently chosen not to address the situation since my departure," the dark-haired wizard began.
       Hermione bit her tongue. If it killed her, she would not admit to Snape how devastating his departure had been, how thoroughly it had quashed all interest in learning.
       "I would be concerned," Snape continued carefully, "if they chose to go looking for Potter themselves, should they not be fully aware of current... conditions."
       Hermoine snorted. "They're far more powerful wizards than you are," she snapped. It seemed important, somehow, to cause Snape as much irritation as possible. So far, she felt, she was failing miserably. All he said in reply was,
       "It won't do them any good if they don't know what they're up against."
       Hermione thought of how poorly the students' defense techniques had served them at King's Cross. "Why don't you come back to Hogwarts," she demanded of Snape, "if you're so concerned?" But Snape merely shook his head.
       "I have a different calling," he insisted. He gave her a brief sideways glance and added, "I told your head of house that."
       Hermione didn't miss a beat. "Did she agree?" she shot back. To her delight, Snape drew his arms back beneath the covers and scowled at the ceiling.
       Marybeth sneezed in her sleep and Hermione frowned. When she spoke again, her voice trembled despite her best efforts to control it. "Marybeth says muggles have begun to worship Voldemort," she told Snape. "That can't be true, can it?"
       Snape did not seem surprised by the news. He turned his head to consider Hermione, then rolled onto his side, propped himself up on one elbow, and rested his head on his hand, taking care to keep Marybeth well-covered.
       "I think you and I have a great deal in common, Miss Granger," he murmured. "Nothing pains us more than shallow people who think they're honorable and the damage they do with their poorly-conceived opinions."
       "But what can be done about them?" Hermione persisted. "How can we change them?" She shuddered at the thought of a world full of Voldemort-worshippers.
       By the dim light of the flickering bluebell candles, Hermione saw Snape's face cool several degrees. "I've given up on changing them," he said softly, and the menace in his tone made Hermione shiver. Snape gave her the smallest of smiles.
       "Take comfort, Miss Granger," he counseled the head girl. "God is not mocked. Those whose self-proclaimed morality merely veils self-interest suffer for their deception. Watch and see." He settled back down beneath the covers, drawing Marybeth close.
       Hermione wiggled closer as well. "But the innocent," she protested, pushing some of Marybeth's hair out from under her nose. "They suffer, too."
       "The innocent get rescued," Snape countered, "just as you rescued Miss Montague."
       Hermione grinned. "I meant Harry," she insisted, blushing nevertheless. Snape rolled his eyes.
       "I never found Mr. Potter altogether innocent," he observed, "but I assure you, he will be rescued."
       "And Professor McGonagall?" Hermione couldn't resist adding. Snape groaned and shut his eyes.
       "Miss Granger," he grumbled, "I have always found you extremely irksome." He opened one eye. "I thought you should know," he added before rolling over and admonishing her, "Get some sleep."
       They woke the next morning when the blankets disappeared again. Marybeth was still quite weak and had to be supported when she walked, but the weather had moderated enough to permit Snape to hail a taxi just a block from the warehouse. He gave the driver the address of the Leaky Cauldron on Charing Cross Road.
       "Better get your business done," the driver advised the three passengers in the backseat. "Storm's supposed to kick back up tonight." For the moment, it was just snowing again. Snape nodded his thanks but said nothing and Hermione, following his lead, kept quiet as well.
       He bought them all breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron and watched anxiously as Marybeth attempted to eat. "If she doesn't revive," he murmured to Hermione, "she won't be strong enough to floo."
       "Then what?" Hermione wondered.
       "We'll have to fly her to Hogwarts," Snape replied. He didn't seem to relish the idea; "Please, Miss Montague, just a few bites," he urged. But it was no good. Marybeth was too weak.
       "Very well, " said Snape, retrieving his broom from Tom the innkeeper. "We'll take turns. Would you like to hold Miss Montague first, or fly?"
       It was a difficult trip. It snowed all day and, it seemed to Hermione, got steadily colder to boot. The snow made the broom handle slippery, so it was vital to keep the broom as steady as possible, which was difficult for Hermione, who was not a strong flyer. But holding onto Marybeth and the broom at the same time was difficult, too. They landed several times to rest their arms; by the time they'd reached the mountains outside of Hogsmeade, it was already dark. The closer they got to Hogwarts, Hermione noticed, the quieter Snape became.
       Months later, it would occur to Harry that having twice as many schoolmates in the car made the trip back to Hogwarts 10 more fun than the flight before his second year. Violet had warmed to the hearse, literally, when she'd discovered they could put bluebell flames in the cut glass vases on the doors. Aso, Malfoy allowed her to wear her cloak in the car; they had the roads virtually to themselves since the blizzard kept other drivers inside.
       A few times, they got lost. But, just as they had during the tracking exercise in Defense class, they put their heads together and found another route. When they got stuck in the snow, Malfoy and Harry levitated the car over of the drift or evanesco'd the offending ice crystals out of the way.
       Food and petrol were no problem after they stupefied a bell-ringer and robbed his collecting pot, leaving a note promising double restitution. They had a great deal of fun browsing the shelves of roadside stores for juice, sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks. Afterwards, as they snacked in the car, they talked about all that had happened over the past few weeks.
       "Why didn't you use your leaping technique to get away when you realized your wand was a dowel rod?" Violet asked Harry, and Malfoy bit back a snort. He wanted to reply, 'Because Gryffindor courage is seldom accompanied by Ravenclaw intelligence. That's why they don't know the value of a Slytherin retreat.'
       But he didn't.
       Instead, he said, "It's hard for Harry Potter to run from a worthless pack of Dudleys, Violet."
       They stopped for a kip in the middle of the night and again just before noon. By the time they reached the outskirts of Hogsmeade, the daylight was gone.
       "We're fine on petrol," Ron reported as he turned onto a road that would intersect with the carriage route from the train station. "But we're going to miss supper." That was a shame; the snacks had given out mid-morning and their stomachs were crying out for a decent meal.
       About a quarter of a mile from the castle, the car ground to a halt. "I thought you said we had petrol!" Malfoy complained, but Ron shook his head.
       "It's the magic in the air," the redhead explained. "Hermione says electrical and mechanical things don't work near Hogwarts. We're going to have to walk."
       They buttoned up their coats and cloaks before abandoning the car and setting off on foot. After trudging several yards through the snow, they rounded a curve that afforded a view of the castle in the distance.
       "Look!" Violet cried, pointing excitedly at the lovely spectacle. The fortress was, for the most part, dark, save for the light blazing from the Great Hall. But in every window of the mammoth structure burned a single candle... the traditional symbol of welcome home.
       "I wonder who did it?" Harry murmured.
       "My money's on McGonagall," Malfoy declared, making Ron wince.
       "She's going to kill us," the redhead predicted. "She's going to skin us alive and then boil us in oil for good measure."
       Malfoy laughed and clapped him on the back. "It's Christmas Eve, Weasley!" he reminded the Gryffindor as they set off again. "What's the worst that could happen on Christmas Eve?"
       "Someone's just landed on the lawn!"
       Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall sprang to their feet and hurried across the Great Hall in response to the shout from Justin Finch Fletchley, who was peering out a small section of window he kept defrosting. The headmaster and deputy headmistress, along with the returning searchers who'd been filtering into the castle all day, were among the only humans occupying the castle this evening. Filch was rattling around the dungeon somewhere, Hagrid was plucking geese in his hut, and Madam Pomfrey was standing by in the hospital wing, but most of the staff had left to visit family.
       "Stay here!" McGonagall shouted at the returned children as she hurried out of the hall behind Dumbledore. The students, who had visited their cold, dark houses just long enough to clean up before returning to the warm Great Hall and its platefuls of stale bread and cheese, bent quickly over their pieces of parchment, letters of explanation and apology McGonagall was making them write to their parents or heads of house. Justin, the first one to produce a document contrite enough to suit McGonagall, had been ordered to keep watch at the window and announce the arrival of all returnees.
       No one dared display the slightest hint of disobedience given the deputy headmistress's infuriated state. Adding to her outrage over the students' dangerous escapades in London was the fact that the orphans had waited until after Professors Sprout and Flitwick had taken off for a well-deserved holiday Monday morning to flee Hogwarts on their brooms. As a result, Dumbledore and McGonagall had been forced to remain at the skeletally staffed castle instead of going looking for Potter themselves. Dumbledore had owled his vacationing heads of house the moment the orphans' absence had been discovered (at Monday lunch) but had yet to receive a reply, perhaps due to the weather. So when McGonagall said, "Stay!" the students stayed... until Justin cried out,
       "It's Snape!"
       Parchment flew and quills rattled across tables as the students scrambled off the benches and raced down the aisles to join Justin, who had jumped down from his perch and was leading the charge out of the hall.
       Dumbledore and McGonagall had the front door open and Justin and Hannah Abbott pushed into the doorway on McGonagall's left as Crabbe, Tracey and Warrington led the contingent of Slytherins crowding Dumbledore on the right. The karaoke quartet were without their robes; museum personnel had indeed confiscated the coils of rope, leaving the brooms untouched. "He's not got Malfoy with him," Crabbe called over his shoulder to Millicent and the rest of the students spilling out of the Great Hall to fill the entryway.
       Snape, newly arrived at the top of the stoop with Marybeth in his arms and Hermione at his side, heard the remark. He handed Marybeth to Warrington, ordering him, "Take her to Madam Pomfrey." Then he turned a tight, worried face to Dumbledore.
       The headmaster shook his head.
       "Nor Weasley, nor Miss Guilford." That wasn't Dumbledore but McGonagall, who reached out for Hermione and pulled her close, brushing snow from her hair and jacket with furious sweeps of her hand before grabbing the girl by both shoulders to shake her. She stopped almost immediately and pulled Hermione to her, holding her tightly as Snape spun around on his heel to sweep back down the steps.
       "Severus!" Dumbledore cried as the snow whirled into the entrance hall over the heads of those crowding the doorway. The wind gave a howl, gathering strength as it prepared to whip the snow into another all-night blizzard "Wait!"
       Snape turned back.
       "You're freezing," Dumbledore pointed out gently. "You've been out in this storm all day and now it's picking up again. Stay here." He gestured to the Great Hall and the crowd of children behind him. "Warm yourself. Look after the children. Minerva and I will go."
       Snape shook his head. Those in the doorway heard something like a wounded growl rise from McGonagall's throat; the deputy headmistress pressed her fingers painfully into Hermione's shoulders. Then...
       "Professor Snape!"
       The voice came from several yards down the carriage path. Snape spun around and there were Violet, Ron, Harry and Draco who, having spotted Snape at the top of the stoop, were running for the castle as fast as they could go. Violet's little legs churned until she actually outstripped the boys, charging up the steps to spring into Snape's arms. She wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck and squeezed as hard as she could, overjoyed to see him back at Hogwarts.
       "We're staying," Crabbe announced to Malfoy as the three boys arrived, panting, at the top of the steps. Malfoy stared pop-eyed at his housemate.
       "How did you know?" he wondered. But Crabbe had no chance to answer, for Pansy and Millicent pushed past him to draw Malfoy close. Dumbledore reached out for Harry and Hermione, who could not escape McGonagall's grasp, grabbed Ron and pulled him next to Justin, squeezing both of his hands in hers.
       Snape put Violet down. "Good," he pronounced of the Slytherins' decision to stay, giving Violet a little shove towards her housemates. He turned around again and again came that strange, strangled growl from McGonagall. Violet, who'd been about to ask Millicent where Marybeth was, turned to the Head of Gryffindor at the painful sound, just in time to see...
       A spell shot out of McGonagall's wand and hit Snape full in the back. It must have been some form of petrificus totalus, the onlookers realized, for Snape froze where he was, halfway between the front door and the stoop's top step. McGonagall released Hermione and marched out the door, walking around Snape and turning to face him just as the effects of her spell were wearing off. The former potions master found himself confronting a haughty deputy headmistress with her arms folded indignantly across her chest. He glared at her, his voice rising to a shout as he snarled accusingly,
       "You shot me in the BACK?!?"
       McGonagall didn't even flinch. She unfolded her arms to place her hands on her hips. Then, with no warning, she lashed out with both palms and boxed Snape's ears.
       The students gasped and Hermione threw a hand over her mouth. Violet could have sworn she heard Harry Potter mutter, "Brilliant!" But it was drowned out by Dumbledore, who called mournfully, "Minerva! You promised!"
       Professor McGonagall ignored him. "How could you?" she shrieked at Snape, her fists clenched in fury. "How COULD you?" Snape stared at her, the snow melting in his hair, his cheeks staining with color. Minerva's eyes filled with tears. "You were all we had left!" she cried in anguish as Dumbledore stepped out of the doorway, crossed the stoop, and took her by the arm to lead her gently back.
       Snape stayed where he was, cupping his hands to his ears and shaking his head in an attempt to clear the ringing. As Dumbledore led Minerva back to the doorway, his eyes fell on the lonely headstone of Remus Lupin, sticking up through the snow beneath the tree by the lake. He turned around with Professor McGonagall just in time to see Snape, his faculties recovered, set off down the steps. Violet clutched Millicent with a whimper. Malfoy swallowed hard.
       Dumbledore cleared his throat.
       "Severus," he called lightly. There was a calm authority in his tone and Snape stopped, though his black shoulders twitched as he did. He did not turn around.
       "If you will agree to stay," Dumbledore continued smoothly, and all heads in the doorway and the entrance hall turned to him or craned closer in a single motion, "... just for the remainder of the year, mind you... give us a chance to sort things out around here..."
       He paused and the students drew a collective breath. McGonagall clutched Hermione again, tightly enough to make her wince, and Malfoy narrowed his eyes.
       What, he wondered as he scrutinized Dumbledore's face. What could this old man possibly offer Severus Snape that would compel him to return to Hogwarts? Dumbledore, feeling the intensity of his gaze, gave the one-time head boy a brief smile before announcing to Snape,
       "I'll make you a portrait of Remus Lupin from the sketch Miss Montague drew."
       Later, it would occur to Malfoy the old man was lucky he didn't give several people heart attacks on the spot. As it was, McGonagall screamed, Crabbe blurted "Holy shit!" and Tracey Davis fainted dead away. But Malfoy could only shake his head in wonder.
       "That," he whispered to Millicent, his eyes glued to Dumbledore's face, "is the single greatest act of atonement I've ever seen."
       Millicent nodded, stunned. Then she frowned and shook off her shock long enough to remind him, "Except for one."
       "Uh uh," Malfoy insisted, shaking his head again. "That guy only went to hell for three days."
       On the stoop several steps below them, Severus Snape turned around.
       "Albus," Minerva began timidly, but Dumbledore held up his hand. "Leave this between us, please," he murmured, his eyes on Snape's face.
       "What's wrong?" Violet hissed to Millicent. "What does it mean?" The older girl hushed her sharply, then whispered briefly to Goyle to pick up Tracey before returning her attention to the stoop.
       Snape took a step up. Then he took another. Then he climbed the rest of the stairs, one at a time, and crossed the landing to stand eyeball to eyeball with Albus Dumbledore.
       "Of course I can't guarantee," Dumbledore smiled, "that he'll inhabit it."
       Snape's jaw twitched. His black eyes glittered and his hair glowed in the light spilling out the open door. He glanced at the Slytherins to Dumbledore's right, and at McGonagall, tenaciously clutching Hermione Granger. But it was Harry Potter upon whom his eyes came to rest. He stared at the Gryffindor for so long that Malfoy leaned forward to regard Potter, too. The green-eyed wizard was turning blue. Was he that cold, Malfoy wondered, despite his coat? He certainly seemed frozen in place; Dumbledore's arm rested on his shoulder as if on a statue. Then Malfoy recognized what accounted for Potter's stillness and his dusky shade.
       He was waiting so hopefully for Snape's response, he had forgotten to breathe.
       At long last, Snape turned to Dumbledore and nodded, once.
       "Hurray!" Crabbe cried, shouting in Malfoy's ear and making the blonde teenager jump several inches. Violet rushed to her newly-restored housemaster and Snape put a hand on her shoulder to keep her from jumping into his arms.
       "I don't see Marybeth," the child fretted, and Snape reassured her,
       "She took a chill. She'll be all right."
       "Well!" Dumbledore clapped his hands together and beamed all around. "What else do we need to sort out?"
       At that, Malfoy remembered a question that had been plaguing him since Monday night. He leaned forward again to speak across Dumbledore and McGonagall to Ron. "How come your parents weren't at the station to pick you up?"
       Ron and Hermione exchanged guilty looks. Professor McGonagall, who'd been watching the proceedings with suspiciously bright eyes, suddenly cleared her throat and put both hands on her hips. The students flinched in the face of her returning anger and Justin had to swallow hard before he could speak up.
       "It was my idea," he confessed. "After Harry disappeared, the kids with parents wrote their folks that Professor Dumbledore had changed his mind about sending them home early."
       "And whose idea was it," Snape inquired silkily, "for the orphans to take flight?"
       McGonagall gave an angry snort, her eyes snapping.
       "That was me," said Hannah falteringly. She winced at the glare Professor McGonagall shot her.
       Snape shook his head before offering the administrators a very phony smile of sympathy. "So half of them lied to their parents," he observed, "and the other half..." He raised an eyebrow at several students, including the Slytherins. "...took leave without permission." He clicked his tongue several times before asking Dumbledore and McGonagall, "What sort of place are you two running?"
       By now, McGonagall was so angry the color had risen in her cheeks, despite the cold wind swirling past her into the castle. Hermione and Ron shuffled a bit to the left, crowding Justin and Hannah in their effort to distance themselves from the infuriated deputy headmistress. But Dumbledore just smiled.
       "I have quite a few parents to owl," he pointed out, "so I believe I'll refer that question to our soon-to-be headmistress. I would remind her, however..." He twinkled briefly at his assistant. "... that the common rooms and dormitories will be quite chilly until tomorrow morning. We stopped heating them, you see..." He returned his attention to Snape. "...when we discovered that the children had...ahem... flown."
       The pun only served to increase McGonagall's ire; she shot a haughty glare at Dumbledore as he took his leave. But Hannah gave a sigh of relief. "I'm glad he mentioned that," she whispered to Justin. "I'd hate to be grounded on Christmas Eve."
       Justin, grinning, nodded in agreement, as did several students nearby. He leaned forward, anxious to hear how McGonagall intended to punish the entire student body. But the deputy head-mistress was not looking at the guilty students surrounding her.
       She was staring at Snape... in a very self-satisfied way.
       Justin's smile disappeared.
       "Uh oh," he muttered.
       "Two apiece!" the deputy decreed. She thought it over, and just as the students were beginning to think she might change her mind, she added tartly, "Make 'em count!"
       "Count on it," Snape promised with a smirk and a bow. Justin turned to Hannah with a shrug.
       "More than fair, really," he had to admit, and Hannah agreed,
       "Piece of cake."
       "All right!" Snape called. "Downstairs!"
       The students at the back of the crowd turned towards the steps to the dungeon. But Crabbe headed the opposite direction, crowding next to Malfoy in the doorway to ask urgently, "Can I borrow your robe?" Immediately, Millicent, Pansy and Goyle chimed in,
       "Me, too!"
       "And me!"
       "Downstairs!" Snape commanded again. "Queue up outside my door."
       "Oh!" Malfoy, who'd started to head inside, nearly banged into McGonagall as he turned back towards the stoop. "About your door, sir..." he muttered sheepishly. But Harry Potter, who was still standing just beyond the threshold, cut him off as he waved his hand in the air and said loudly,
       "May I ask a question before I go inside?"
       McGonagall and the students inside stopped and turned back towards the door. Snape raised an eyebrow at Harry, who put down his hand and, smirking, demanded to know,
       "What happened to your hair, sir?"
       Several students, mostly girls, gasped and giggled, and McGonagall took an eager step towards the door. She stopped abruptly when she saw the Slytherins doing the same thing; the two parties exchanged sheepish looks. On the stoop, Snape narrowed his eyes to slits, raising his head to peer imperiously down his nose at the impudent Harry Potter. Then, with no warning, he took two giants steps through the doorway and into the castle.
       The moment he crossed the threshold, his hair returned to its usual greasy state.
       McGonagall's eyes popped, Hermione and Ginny and several Slytherins gasped, and Harry's mouth dropped open. But Snape just smiled that icy little smile they knew so well and murmured, "Whatever do you mean, Potter?" Then he swept across the entrance hall and down the corridor towards the dungeon. After a startled moment, the students hurried after him.
       His office was still without a door, and after raising an eyebrow at the bare frame, Snape nodded to the students queuing up against the wall and decreed, "Good. We'll make quick work of this."
       He ushered Justin into his office first. The Hufflepuff bent dutifully over Snape's desk as the newly restored potions master retrieved his cane from the corner and drew it back the appropriate distance. Then he hesitated. He lowered the switch and Justin looked over his shoulder to see Snape frowning at his backside. In the corridor, the next few children in line, surprised not to hear an immediate swish and thud , peeked through the doorless entrance.
       "Is something wrong, sir?" Justin asked Snape. The teacher jerked his head in the general direction of Justin's backside and inquired,
       "What in blazes are you wearing, Finch Fletchley?"
       Justin glanced down at his trousers. "Parachute pants, sir," he told Snape. "They're vintage!"
       Snape rolled his eyes at the response. "How thick are they?" he demanded, clearly restraining himself from pointing out how thick Justin was for not realizing he was trying to ascertain the protective level of the garment and the corresponding firmness with which he should apply his hand. A month away from Hogwarts had not been sufficient to acquaint him with every style of muggle trouser.
       Justin turned his face quickly to the desktop to hide his smile. Could he possibly get away, he wondered, with...
       "Don't lie to Professor Snape!" called a helpful Slytherin voice from the corridor.
       Justin sighed.
       "Thicker than cotton but thinner than denim, sir," he confessed.
       Two strokes later, he climbed off the desk and stood quietly before the Head of Slytherin. "Go on, then," snapped Snape, nodding impatiently at the door, and from the corridor, Terry Boot called, "Are you gonna be all night in there, Justin? Give somebody else a chance!" Still, Justin hesitated.
       "I feel... he began, his eyes on the floor. He looked up at Snape and said earnestly, "I feel like I should apologize."
       Snape nodded. "That would be appropriate."
       "I'm really sorry, Professor," Justin began. "We shouldn't have...."
       Snape cut him off with an exasperated scowl.
       "Not me!" he told the boy. "Professor McGonagall, you..."
       He stopped. He had intended to say, "... you halfwit!" But as he stared at the brave, dedicated young man before him, he found himself saying instead, "...you remind me of Bletchley... Finch Fletchley."
       He rolled his eyes a bit at the silliness of the juxtaposed names, but Justin beamed. "Thank you, sir!" he exclaimed before marching out of the office to begin the parade of students who would make their way to the deputy headmistress'' office to express their regrets.
       Aside from the occasional fabric inquiry, the lickings went fairly quickly, the students chatting amongst themselves as they progressed bit by bit up the corridor.
       "Welcome to the club, Bletch!" Violet grinned at the youngest Slytherin, who was standing a few places beyond her. The boy just sighed and shook his head. Pansy put a sympathetic arm around his shoulders.
       "Michael," she assured him with a little squeeze, "I know exactly how you feel."
       There was a slight delay after Hermione's turn when the witch climbed off Snape's desk, marched over to his workbench, grabbed a pair of scissors, and lopped off a lock of his hair before departing the office. Malfoy, the last in line, watched her stride away down the corridor, the hair clutched tightly in her first, before sauntering into Snape's office.
       "This is a fine how do you do," he pretended to complain as he bent over the desk. "You were supposed to buy me a drink!" The housemaster made no response to the boy's reminder about the post-siege hospital bed promise, save to raise one eyebrow and smile slightly. But after he'd given Malfoy his fair share of abuse and the boy was once more standing nonchalantly before him, Snape reached inside his cloak and withdrew...
       "A shirt!" Malfoy snatched the item Snape held up before him, running the white silk through his hands. "One of my father's shirts!" he cried, carefully fingering the monogram. He held the garment up to admire its sleek tailoring, its magnificent condition. It was all he could do not to press the shimmering fabric to his nose and breathe deeply his father's scent. "You went to my house!" he exhorted Snape as he hugged the shirt to his tall, lean frame, already imagining how well it would fit. "How was everything?"
       His head of house made no reply and when Malfoy looked up, he found Snape staring somberly at him.
       "I didn't go to your house, Malfoy," he whispered.
       It was the closest he would ever come to confessing to the murder of Peter Pettigrew.
       "I can't believe you did it again."
       Minerva looked up from her desk to find Snape leaning against the doorframe of her office, his hands in his pockets, one eyebrow nicely arched. She ducked her head quickly to hide a naughty smile.
       "After the spellwad incident," she confessed, "I promised Albus I wouldn't."
       Snape sauntered into the room and took up a position before her desk. "You could deafen a person, you know," he informed her, to which she gave a derisive snort.
       "I'm sure my hands were never more than a foot apart."
       She scratched 'Post reward notices for information about the Slytherins' off her to-do list and wrote instead, 'Ascertain and compensate for recent Slytherin dietary insufficiencies.'
       "Good idea," Snape agreed, leaning over her desk to read the piece of parchment. Looking up at him, Minerva wondered how long it would take for his bright eyes and rosy cheeks to return to their customary dim and sallow state.
       "Miss Granger told me about King's Cross and what happened to Miss Montague," she said softly. She nodded at Snape to sit. "Have you any idea, Severus, what... what Potter may have endured?"
       Snape gave a jerk of his chin that might have been a nod. "Some," he murmured.
       Minerva put down her quill and rested her head in her hands. "Lately," she told Snape, "I have come to the conclusion that James..." She shook her at the burden they faced. "... had the easier fight."
       Snape smiled. "As did Albus," he agreed, and McGonagall groaned.
       "I had no idea," she confessed, burying her face in her hands, "that someone like Voldemort could create such lasting and complex damage." She looked up at Snape and told him, "We've discussed you a great deal over the past year or so, Albus and I."
       Snape looked surprised. Minerva nodded. "There's an undeniable parallel," she insisted, "between your efforts in uniting the houses and the work we now face." Her voice warmed several degrees as she added, "You're very good, Severus, at promoting ethical development, and that's the only thing that will save us now."
       She leaned forward on her desk. "Stay," she beseeched him. "Be my deputy. What could be more important?"
       Snape made no reply. Instead, he glanced down at the robe he'd thrown on over his shirt and trousers. A splinter from his demolished door was sticking out of the dark fabric. He pinched the offending item between his fingers and disposed of it with a flick.
       "I will need some time to visit the forest orphans at the convent throughout the term," he told McGonagall.
       The deputy headmistress was so surprised by this news that she let the issue of his long-term plans drop. "The Slytherins are going to be angry with you," she reminded Snape. The potions master shook his head.
       "The Slytherins are more honest than the Gryffindors," he insisted. "They'll tell themselves the truth about why I needed to leave."
       McGonagall stiffened. She sat up straight in her chair, her eyes snapping, and demanded in a tart voice,
       "Tell me the truth, Severus. Can I honestly be expected to separate how you feel about this place from how you feel about me?"
       Snape did not back down. Instead, his eyes flashed as he leaned across the desk and seethed, "I separated how I felt from what I had to do for eighteen years! "
       "Not," McGonagall reminded him, leaning forward herself so that their noses were mere inches apart, "altogether successfully."
       Snape glowered at her a moment or two. Then he suddenly leaned back in his chair. "Touche," he pronounced. He took her quill and a piece of parchment, wrote something on it, and handed it to her. McGonagall picked it up and saw a two-digit number.
       "What's this?" she asked.
       "A Christmas present," he told her. "That's the number of hours I spent on my knees in the Room of Requirement praying for you when you were sick."
       He rose and took his leave without another word except to murmur, "Nice door!" before shutting hers behind him. When he'd gone, McGonagall folded the piece of parchment into a small square and tucked it inside her robe, somewhere in the vicinity of her heart.
       The common rooms, after two day with no heat, were stone cold, so the students gathered in the Great Hall to hear of one another's adventures in London. But first the Slytherins treated themselves to long, luxurious baths, lounging afterwards in the steamy lavatories in their Dumbledorian long underwear while the house elves tidied up their clothes. It would be a hot day in the dungeon, Malfoy thought as he slipped into his father's silk shirt, before he took the skills and services of others for granted again.
       In the Great Hall, the students pushed the four house tables together before climbing on top of them to recline or budging close on the benches. They'd been chatting for about half an hour when Dobby appeared, followed by several elves bearing plates of thick sandwiches stuffed with roast goose still warm from the oven. "A preview of tomorrow''s feast!" Dobby boasted. "Somebody sent 40 geese to Hogwarts!"
       Hermione smiled but said nothing.
       There were cookies, too, platters full, and pitchers of ice cold milk; whenever a student picked one up, a goblet materialized in his hand. When he drained it, the goblet disappeared. As the food was passed back and forth, Malfoy nodded at his former house elf and said, "Happy Christmas, Dobby."
       The tiny creature squeaked in surprise. Then he grinned from ear to ear and made a little bow. "I think it will be, Draco Malfoy," he enthused, his bat ears flapping joyously. "I think it will be."
       When the food had been consumed and the elves had taken the platters and pitchers back to the kitchen, Justin nodded at Malfoy.
       "Tell us what's so shocking about Dumbledore making a portrait."
       The Slytherins grew very still. Hermione scowled, clearly annoyed to be ignorant on the topic. "I'm sure it's not worth screaming over," she insisted, remember McGonagall's response, "and why do you..." She nodded at the Slytherins. "... know more about it than the rest of us?"
       The Slytherins exchanged looks. Then they turned expectantly to Malfoy, who groaned inwardly at their silent designation of himself as spokesperson. He decided to answer Hermione's question first.
       "Voldemort was extremely interest in portraits," he told her.
       Several students gasped. Then they budged tighter together or leaned closer to Malfoy to better hear the rest of his explanation. The blonde boy grimaced.
       "I probably shouldn't say anything else," he muttered. "I don't think... you're not..." He took a deep breath and let it out again. "I don't think you're supposed to talk about them," he told the children from the other houses, and the Slytherins nodded. "Even people who know for sure won't tell the whole truth about portraits."
       "Why not?" Hermione demanded indignantly. Malfoy winced at her strident tone.
       "Because," he hissed, his face growing pinched. "Portraits are... well, some people think they're proof..."
       The torches in the Great Hall suddenly dimmed to half strength, plunging the room into shadows. Violet shrieked and the Slytherins drew back from Malfoy, who had paled noticeably. But Justin just chuckled.
       "That happens every night," he told the Slytherins. "Dumbledore's cutting back where he can to save up for when more students arrive in January."
       The Slytherins relaxed and Malfoy rolled his eyes at his own display of nerves. Then he lifted his head and told the others simply,
       "Some people think portraits are proof of the afterlife."
       Several students gasped, but Hermione snorted. "Ghosts are proof of the afterlife," she reminded everybody.
       Malfoy shook his head. "Ghosts haven't been anywhere," he pointed out. "They don't leave earth and come back after they die. They stay right here the whole time."
       Hermione frowned. "Are you telling me..." She spoke slowly, thinking it through as she did. "Voldemort wanted to find out from the portraits if there's a heaven?" She shook her head so hard her bushy hair flew. "That doesn't make sense," she insisted. "Voldemort wouldn't have been obsessed with immortality if he'd confirmed from the portraits that there's a heaven."
       Malfoy smiled at her just a bit. "No," he agreed. "He wouldn't." Behind his back, the Slytherins exchanged looks and some of them gulped. Malfoy ignored their rustlings. He took a deep breath before informing the others in a casual drawl,
       "He would have been obsessed with immortality if he'd confirmed from the portraits that there's a hell."
       A long silence followed this observation. It was broken when Neville let out a snort that made them all jump.
       "The portraits babble their heads off," he reminded his schoolmates, reflecting sadly on his own experiences with Sir Cadogan, "and there's thousands of them. How could they possibly keep a thing like this secret? And why would any of them leave heaven in the first place?"
       Malfoy turned towards the Gryffindor before replying. "I think you'd keep a secret, Longbottom, if God told you to." He bounced his eyebrows at the boy and added, "Some people manage to do so without divine inspiration, after all."
       He turned back towards the others before continuing. "It's the same with inhabiting, I suppose," he speculated. "Remember what Dumbledore told Snape on the stoop? 'I can't guarantee he'll inhabit it.'" The blonde teenager shrugged. "It sounds like fun to me, coming back to keep an eye on things on earth, flitting from portrait to portrait or popping back up to heaven whenever you want. But in the end..." He shrugged again. "I suppose, if God tells you to go... you go."
       "I think they want to," Millicent interjected timidly. "I think, once you get to heaven..." She hesitated, blushing a bit. "I think there's all this love, and joy, and ecstasy at being in the presence of the Lord that makes angels want to do...any good thing."
       "Which brings us back to Dumbledore," Malfoy nodded. He turned to Justin again. "This is all Death Eater gossip, mind you," he prefaced his next remarks. "But some people think that wizards who make portraits are playing God, and people who play God go to hell."
       This pronouncement brought another long silence. Then Harry Potter shook his head. "Albus Dumbledore is not going to hell," he insisted. "No way. Never."
       Malfoy hesitated. He was inclined to agree with Potter. For all the old man's coyness, this was not, Malfoy knew, another attempt by Dumbledore to publicize his righteousness. This was an act of atonement, an attempt to do something truly loving for people who deserved it. But Draco was loathe to say so. He considered making a joke instead, about that Catholic place... what did they call it?... Purge-atory? But then Hermione asked,
       "Who makes portraits, if not wizards?"
       Tracey gave her the one-word answer.
       "Clergy?" Hermione's head jerked up in surprise. "Any clergy? Muggle clergy?"
       The Slytherins shrugged. "Any clergy close enough to God, I suppose," Tracey replied. "Wizard clergy make them for wizards, and muggle clergy make them for muggles."
       "In fact," Malfoy interjected, "they say muggle clergy are even better at it. Their portraits can be inhabited by people other than the subject, and they can even put blessings on portraits painted by other people and make them inhabitable." He shook his head at the praise he'd just heaped on a group of non-wizards. As if wishing Dobby a happy Christmas weren't enough...
       Hermione shook her head. "If muggle clergy make inhabitable portraits for muggle angels to dwell in," she pointed out, "how come muggle portraits never move?" Several muggle-borns nodded and Malfoy frowned at them.
       "They do!" he insisted. "Can't you tell? The eyes follow you wherever you go."
       Several mouths dropped open and Malfoy nodded. "The muggles even made a movie, my dad told me, about the portraits punishing evil-doers. Dark Gallery... Black Gallery..." He tried to remember the name.
       "Night Gallery!" Violet shouted, making several people jump. "It was a tv show!"
       Malfoy nodded, then turned to Ginny, who was announcing indignantly, "I'll bet Voldemort tried to make portraits and fill them with demons to do his evil bidding."
       Several students shuddered, but Malfoy hooted. "I wouldn't put two knuts on his having succeeded," the Slytherin grinned, and Pansy sat up with a jolt.
       "Hey!" she shouted. "Do you want to hear about how we won a carocka contest?"
       "Karaoke!" Millicent corrected while all around her, the children of Hogwarts' four houses crowded closer together than ever and cried, "Yes! Yes! Tell us!"
       As Millicent launched into the tale, Violet leaned against her with a happy little sigh. The Great Hall Christmas trees glowed in the semi-darkness and the young girl closed her eyes, a wave of sleepiness washing over her. She should probably drag herself down to the dungeon, she realized, and creep into her cell so as not to wake Marybeth. Madam Pomfrey had put her to bed with a nourishment potion, to be followed in the morning by a dose of pepper-up. What a wonderful thing it was, Violet thought, to know she would sleep snug in the dungeon of Hogwarts, surrounded by schoolmates, with Professor Snape just down the hall and a warm green glow shining from the corridor torches all night long. But she couldn't bring herself to leave this gathering of houses, even as Millicent's voice grew dim in her ears.
       Never mind, she decided as she wrapped her arms around the older girl's waist. Goyle would surely carry her downstairs if she fell asleep, and Millicent would put her to bed. It would be rude, after all, to leave before hearing their story.
       So, as the Slytherin quartet told of their prize-winning performance, Ginny and the other choir members joined their singing and Violet drifted off to the sound of Hogwarts voices lifted in song:

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Salazar's Orphans