The Prefectship was making things rather hard, though. Slytherin was far from easy to manage, even with the help of the other Prefect, and Severus had taken advantage of his new privileges to address a very important matter: Potter and his gang.
Last year had been humiliating for Slytherin House, in terms of the Quidditch and House Cups. They'd had every advantage: the Qudditch team was the strongest in a decade -- the Seeker, Parfitt, was lightning on a broomstick -- but a series of suspicious misadventures, including a possible incident with broom-fiddling, had lost them the win to Gryffindor. And while the Slytherin students were, if anything, less apt to misbehave and look for trouble than usual (due largely to Ketteridge's mysterious accident, never satisfactorily explained), the ones who did -- including Severus who, thank you very much, was only trying to suss out and prevent Gryffindor mischief -- tended to get caught, in very mysterious circumstances. (Pringle had never been much of a caretaker, but he would suddenly pop up out of nowhere, as if he knew precisely where the Slytherins were, and what they were up to: and as he'd acquired an assistant this year, that problem was only getting worse.)
Then there had been the personal humiliation of the incident during the DADA OWL.... Severus still hadn't lived that down: every once in a while Black and and Potter would snigger in passing, and ask him if he'd changed his pants that month. (That was totally unjustified. He did, of course, though that was more than he could say for Potter and Black as they stank after every Quidditch practice. They seemd to think atheletes need not conform to basic standards of hygeine and decency.) Severus' pants were simply old, and he had no reason to worry over them as long as they were clean -- Florence Atwater was the only person who'd seen them prior to the incident, and she hadn't seemed to mind. There wasn't money for new, in any case -- and Nanny kept them mended at home, and the Scouts at Hogwarts.
The year had looked so promising, too. It had started quietly enough. Lupin hadn't been on the Express with his cohorts when it left King's Cross, and Potter and Black had seemed subdued and worried until he showed up, greenish and apparently recovering from his regular complaint, whatever that was. He still hadn't grown out of it, either -- Severus and Professor Burkett had been out to Greenhouse 2 quite late one night, gathering a particular herb, when he'd seen Pomfrey escorting Lupin across the Grounds. (Barrett had abruptly called him to the other end of the herb bed, so he hadn't seen where they were headed: it seemed peculiar, though. Lupin wasn't assisting Pomfrey in any way that Severus knew.) Lupin had been ill for some time afterward, right on schedule. It was marginally intriguing, really -- pity he didn't have time to suss out what was going on, but then Lupin was a minor player in Potter's favourite game of Hunt the Snape: he was rather low on Severus' priorities list.
But Severus knew Potter and his gang were up to something. He wasn't entirely certain what it was although he was certain they were responsible for damaging the Slytherin brooms last year, and possibly the cause of Ketteridge's "accident."
He just couldn't prove anything yet.
He determined when he'd got his Prefect's badge that he would find out precisely what is was. He would have preferred not to, actually; or rather, he'd prefer not to be arsed wasting time on them. But the situation -- their continued harassment of him, and of other Slytherins as well since Malfoy had Left, had not improved. It had, in fact, escalated, and the faculty seemed content to let them get away with it. It was time someone did something, and Severus decided that, as an Upper Former, it was his job.
Of course it was his job. No one else seemed interested in taking it on, or doing what was necessary to put a stop to it.
So he would.
"Because Stellamen's a nutter for the Astronomic angle," Severus retorted sullenly. "I don't mind the mathematical bits, but this is bloody idiotic. 'Stronger magical focus by direct observation,' my arse. It's busy-work, that's all."
Stellamen tended to make Severus very uncomfortable. At his worst, most intense moments he reminded Severus of his own father: had been one of his father's students, in fact, and had proudly announced the same to Severus on occasion, which had not been a terribly fine endorsement, in his opinion.
Should've cut my losses and taken the low marks.
"What are we supposed to look for tonight?"
"The relative brightness of Venus and its height above the horizon."
"At midnight. And its precise position in relation to Ursa Major."
"Manually, no charms."
"My thought exactly. Look, I'll do the observation this time, and you do the marking. Your writing's better than mine."
"Good," Gudgeon said, relieved.
They retrieved the observation equipment from the little room at the top of the Tower, set it up, and hunkered down in the chill air to wait for the quarter to the hour: Severus paced restlessly, and Gudgeon irritated him with several long-suffering sighs.
"Huh? Oh. Just worried about the match on Saturday," Gudgeon explained of the impending Hufflepuff-Gryffindor Quidditch match.
"What's there to worry about?" Severus said with more than the required amount of snark. "You put two people on that maniac Black, and you pray Potter falls off his bloody broom."
"That's pointless. I think he glues his arse to it," Gudgeon said glumly.
"Wouldn't put it past him."
"Say, did they ever catch the bloke who mucked with the brooms last year?"
"No, they didn't," Severus said, "though I don't know why you're moaning about it. Worked out well for you lot."
(Hufflepuff had come very close to winning, in fact.)
"I don't like it 'cos it wasn't fair," Gudgeon said patiently. "I don't mind losing if I know we've played our best. Or all right, I mind losing, but if it's fair and square, that's it."
Given that last, Severus bit back a derogatory comment. One Hufflepuff trait he admired (perhaps the only one) was their commitment to playing by the rules. It was admirable, really, at least for Hufflepuffs. Slytherins with the cunning to get away with breaking the rules were exempt, of course.
"It had to be Potter's crew," he murmured to himself.
"The brooms? Why? Merlin knows he wouldn't need to."
Severus heaved a sigh at the naivete of Hufflepuffs.
"That lot doesn't need a logical reason," he explained. "Sheer joy of getting away with it."
"Oh." Gudgeon looked doubtful. "I dunno, Severus. I mean, they can be prats, but I don't think they'd go that far."
Severus doubted that, and gave a disgusted snort.
"What? Oh, yeah, sorry, I'd forgot. Yeah, that was a bloody bad thing to do to a bloke, that pants thing."
Severus glared at him.
"I mean, fun and games in the Common Room is one thing, but in front of the entire Fifth Form wasn't sporting."
Gudgeon, while he seemed a decent enough sort, had absolutely no sensitivity and no sense of when one wanted him to shut his gob, and continued to prattle on about the episode -- so upsetting that Severus misread the sextant and threw the calculation off by two full degrees.
"Why can't we just fudge it and say we did it?" Gudgeon whined.
"Because the bloody sextant's charmed," Severus said. "It logs who's using it and when. Stellamen caught a couple of Sevenths trying to cheat once, and the bloody thing's been charmed ever since."
Severus hadn't quite believed when he'd heard it -- he'd spent several hours perfecting a spell to detect the presence of charms just to check, and indeed, the bloody sextant was charmed with some strange combination of Dicta-Quill and a ward he later identified as a Sneakoscope technology.
"So if you can keep your mouth shut and let me concentrate," Severus continued grimly, "perhaps we can get the bloody thing right this time."
"All right," Gudgeon huffed. "Just trying to be polite."
They set the equipment up in silence and waited for quarter-till -- Severus staying as far away as possible from the Hufflepuff.
Bloody Potter and Company.
It was all their fault, of course. If they hadn't been harassing him last year, he should have been able to concentrate on his studies -- all of them. But Arimithmancy and Astrology had never come easy to him: he'd had to spend a great deal of time in the Library, trying to grasp the theory behind the whole bloody mess, and every trip to the Library was another opportunity for Potter and Black to catch him in the corridor, or back in the stacks when Pince wasn't looking. He'd spent much of his time in the Common Room instead, slogging through the same old texts, fighting a raging war with himself over his own density (his father had been bloody brilliant at this, according to most -- why should it be so hard for him?), and, in short, trying to avoid dealing with the situation sensibly.
He'd risk a confrontation for Potions or DADA, but he bloody well wasn't going to for bloody fucking Arithmancy.
"Oi," he heard Gudgeon whisper. "C'mere."
"Keep your voice down," Gudgeon hissed, and Severus crept over to the northeast corner of the tower, where Gudgeon was peering over the battlement.
"They came around the greenhouses," Gudgeon whispered, and stabbed a finger toward the edge of the Forest, where three murky figures were darting along the edge of the tree-line. "Wonder what they're up to?"
"Potter," Gudgeon whispered, eyes intently fixed on the tiny figures: his sight was better that Severus', honed by years of watching for the Snitch. "Pettigrew, I think -- yeah, he's the podgy one. Can't tell if the other's Black or --"
"Black," Severus muttered. "Lupin's ill again. Wasn't in class last period."
"What d'you think they're up to?"
"No idea, but I know what they've done in the past. I'd check your bloody broom before the next match," Severus said triumphantly.
"The broom shed, idiot," Severus hissed. "Other side of the greenhouses."
"Oh, bloody -- How are they getting out?"
"You going to bust them?"
"By the time I find Pringle they could be anywhere. And I can't cover the whole place -- no telling how they'll get back in.... Where did they go? I can't see them now."
Gidgeon squinted, and then shook his head in bewilderment.
"Don't see 'em now. I lost 'em on the other side of the Willow."
"Fuck," Severus said, quite savagely.
"Sorry," Gudgeon whined.
"Don't be stupid, I'm not blaming.... It's just that I want to know what they're up to."
"So do I. I mean, fiddling with the brooms...."
Gudgeon seemed incapable of understanding that there was a larger principle here, and Severus bit his tongue to avoid telling him so.
"They ought to show up soon...." Gudgeon murmured.
But they waited a whole ten minutes, and there was no sign of the trio.
"Blast," Severus said, and scrambled over to the sextant: they'd nearly missed the observation time. He took it -- correctly, this time -- and he determined to do something about it as he and Gudgeon put the equipment away.
"What would you think," he proposed, "to doing some more observations?"
"Oh, bloody hell, no," Gudgeon said. "What good will it do? Stellamen never gives extra credits."
"I'm not precisely talking about stellar observation," Severus said, smiling grimly.
"Oh. We'll still have to do the work, though, if the bloody thing's charmed."
"Might be worth it to find out what they're up to. Come on, Gudgeon -- fair play, and all that."
Appealing to a Hufflepuff's sense of fair play usually worked, and Gudgeon did not disappoint.
"Well, if you put it that way...."
"Bloody hell. What are they up to?" Severus fumed as he packed the sextant away in its case.
"Dunno. Do we have to go through this again?"
"All week. Maybe one of us should go out and stay by the greenhouses...."
"That would be you," Gudgeon said practically. "You're a Prefect, maybe you can get away with it. I can't afford another detention."
"This is worth getting a detention, you spineless -- Don't you want to know if they're mucking with the brooms? You've got a match on Saturday."
"Not enough to get a detention," Gudgeon said stubbornly, and Severus nearly spat in disgust.
Hufflepuffs seemed to think detentions were the end of the world.
Severus had determined to spend the last half of luncheon in the Library: he'd fallen behind on his DADA essay due to the observations, and knew he could count on a quiet half-hour while everyone else was dining. (As a Prefect he had access to the Library at times others were expected to be elsewhere.)
Black slipped out after him, however -- and caught him in the DADA stacks, near the Restricted Section.
Severus had reached up for A History of Dark Arts and the Wizards That Use Them -- a slim volume on the top shelf -- when the whole shelf began to tremble, and a rather thick book on the middle shelf shot out and caught him in the gut, forcing the breath out of him and sending him flying backward. He reached instictively for his wand and only barely managed to halt the entire shelf before it came down on him.
He caught, through desperate wheezes and the blurring of his teary eyes, a muffled snort from further down the stacks: he stilled his breath (deperate though he was for it) and crept on hands and knees down the further aisle -- and there was Black, leaning against the stacks, trying desperately not to laugh aloud.
"Expelliarmus," he gasped, and Black's wand flew into his hand.
That shut Black up immediately -- he'd been careless, the idiot, and arrogant as well, trying to catch Severus without the Potter cohort to back him up -- and he straightened and prepared to run.
Severus was having none of that. Pain forgot, he dropped both wands and launched himself at Black, shoving him back up against the wall, arm across Black's throat and his knee connecting nicely with Black's groin.
"Thought you could get me by yourself, did you?" he snarled as Black's autonomic system tried to cope with the pain in his testicles and the diminished air flow, all at once.
"S -- swot," Black gasped. "Won't do any good anyway -- you're miles behind James and me --"
"Not enough that you're leaving anything to chance, are you?" Severus said, and bore down on Black's windpipe a bit more.
He was thrilled at the encounter, actually: he'd only begun to fill out this year, and while Black had always been the larger of the two, they were now nearly equal in height and weight. Severus had never before thought to master Black physically, and it was nearly as satisfying as hexing him in third year.
"Come off it, Snape," Black croaked. "Just a reminder. You're getting full of yourself, and we've been neglecting you."
Severus should have resisted the temptation: he should have kept his mouth shut. It violated every Slytherin rule of cunning and guile, not to mention tipping Black off about his knowledge of Black's extra-curricular activities.
On the other hand.... Anything that would make Black squirm seemed like a good idea.
"You think I don't know why?" he hissed softly. "Been too busy skulking about the broom sheds, haven't you?"
"Don't know what you're talking about --"
"Really? How about the little trips out to the Grounds after curfew? You really think someone wouldn't have noticed?"
"You don't know anything," Black spat out, and pushed against the restraining arm again.
"Bloody well do. I've had Astonomy observation all week. You and Potter and Pettigrew, running about the Grounds. No Lupin, though -- I wonder what your mate would think about the three of you having fun while he's stuck in the Infirmary?"
Black stopped struggling: something flitted through his eyes, something Severus failed to recognise until much later, in hindsight.
"All right, so what if we are?"
"How about mucking with the brooms?"
"Don't be stupid -- don't need to."
"Someone has been, and you've had the opportunity. Not so confident in Almighty Potter's prowess, are you?"
"No us. We're just having a bit of fun, nothing to do with the brooms."
"Running about the Forest, fun? That's forbidden."
Black laughed (as best he could).
"Not the Forest. Don't know as much as you think, do you?"
Severus tightened his chokehold a bit, and Black's eyes bulged.
"You've been seen," he hissed. "You've been seen breaking curfew, out on the Grounds near the Forest, from the Astronomy Tower. How much detention do you think that will get you if a Prefect reports it?"
Black wriggled, desperate for air, and Severus let up.
"Tell me what you're up to, now, or I tell."
"Dumbledore won't --" Black wheezed.
"I won't go to bloody Dumbledore, I'll go to Burkett. He'll wait out there and catch you himself -- Dumbledore won't ignore him. Which is it, Black? Do you tell me, or do I go to Burkett?"
"Geroff and I'll tell."
"Oh, bloody -- how stupid so you think I am?" Severus asked in disgust.
He did not get off, but he shifted his arm down slightly to keep Black against the wall.
"We've got a clubhouse," Black finally admitted after a few unrestricted breaths. "Just the four of us, out where the other Prefect can't find our stuff."
"What stuff? Dabbling in things you shouldn't be?"
"Oh, come on, you git, matey stuff. Butterbeer, girly magazines, stuff like that. 'Course you wouldn't get into anything like that, would you, you wanker."
Severus very nearly punched him.
"Can't tell you, James wouldn't --"
Severus' arm moved up to Black's throat again.
"-- all right, all right, it's in the Willow."
"In the --? How in bloody hell do you get in the Willow?"
"You push the knothole. James figured it out. Really, Snape, it's just a place to hang out," Black said plaintively.
Severus glared at him, eyes narrow.
"If you think I believe that --"
"Then go ahead and tell," Black said. "If we were up to something, you think I'd have told you that much? Go try it yourself. All you'll find down there is what I said."
He seems sincere, Severus thought doubtfully.
"Look, I'm -- I'm sorry about the shelving, that was a low blow. No harm done, right?"
"Not for lack of trying," Severus retorted.
"Well, you got what you wanted. Go on, hex me, and then go check out the Willow --"
"When are you going out again? Tonight?"
Black seemed surprised.
Severus considered Black very carefully -- and his options.
"Here's what we're going to do," he said very softly. "You're going to take your wand and get the Hades out of here. And I'm going to think about this. If I see one little thing amiss or have to put up with any more idiocy, I go straight to Burkett. Otherwise, this stays between the two of us, you understand?"
Severus Accio'd for his own wand and held it at the ready as he stepped back and let Black off the wall: Black limped over and retrieved his wand, eyeing Severus the entire time.
"I'm not lying about the brooms," Black offered as he backed away to the great doors of the Library.
"I don't bloody care about the sodding brooms at the moment," Severus said. "It's everything about you, you fucking bully. I know your secret now -- you're a coward when you don't have Potter to back you up. You've had it out for me since Day One, and it stops here, you understand?"
Black nodded -- and then smiled grimly.
"Check out the Willow, Snape," he said at the doorway. "You'll see."
He darted into the corridor -- never giving Severus his back -- and was gone.
Severus determined that he bloody well would check out the Willow -- but in his own time, and only after observing the gits some more.
He didn't think Black would tell Potter about this little contretemps: Potter would be enraged at having his little hidey-hole discovered. Conversely, Black might tell him, and the group would lie in wait for him and beat him to a bloody pulp. He was certain now that he could take Black on alone, in any circumstances: but four against one was more than any sane Slytherin would contemplate.
No, he would watch and wait, and pick his time well, he thought as he went back to A History of Dark Arts.
It would be quite a long time before he replayed Black's confession over in his mind, and when he did, 'I'm not lying about the brooms' would haunt him.
"But what are they doing?" Gudgeon mused.
"Who knows?" Severus said.
"Aren't you going to tell?"
"May tell Burkett," Severus grunted, struggling with the tripod as they packed things away. "Have you got the sextant dissassembled yet?"
There was a silence, and he turned to find Gudgeon staring at a piece of parchment.
"Gudgeon?" he said sharply.
"Huh? Oh. No, I was -- gimme half a mo."
"What is it?
"Just a mash note," Gudgeon said with a nervous little giggle, and shoved the parchment into his pocket. "The Gryffs like to use the Tower for snogging, and stuff. Someone must have dropped it."
And Severus, having no interest in love letters or the amorous assignations of Gryffindors, was fool enough to believe him.
Sic semper tyrannis, he thought with considerable glee, and filed the tactic under "Dealing With Bullies" in his mental file-cabinet.
Lunch, however, brought a new concern. Goyle stopped shovelling food into his podgy face long enough to whisper to his neighbor, and Severus heard him laugh and say (through a mouth of mashed veg) "Well, that's it for Hufflepuff's chances. No Gudgeon, no chance."
He elbowed Goyle.
"What are you talking about?" he whispered.
"Gudgeon's in the Infirmary," Goyle said unconcernedly. "Some sort of accident, put an eye out. Won't be flying for the rest of the year."
"How?" he demanded.
"Dunno, don't care. Puts us in better shape, don't it?" He returned to his plate
Severus suddenly lost his appetite.
Pomfrey hovered alarmingly for several agonising minutes, and only when she was called away did Severus dare to ask.
"What happened?" he whispered.
"I... I had a tangle with the Willow."
"I went to.... It caught me in the face. Bloody thing."
Severus finally put two and two together.
"You went out there without me," he hissed, furious. "You went out to poke around after Potter and Black, and --"
"Well, you weren't going to do anything about it," Gudgeon said plaintively.
"I bloody well was, I just wasn't ready to do anything yet," Severus retorted, and fought a distinct sense of guilt. "Whatever put such an idiotic thought in your head?"
"There was.... That parchment I picked up in the Tower," Gudgeon admitted, shamefaced. "It wasn't a mash note, it was -- well, you can see it yourself. It's still in my jacket pocket, over in the wardrobe."
Severus glanced at Pomfrey -- still busy with a nasty-looking case of a Potions experiment gone bad -- and darted over to the wardrobe, fumbled in Gudgeon's jacket-pocket, pulled out the parchment, and brought it over.
"What the blazes is it?" he muttered when he'd unrolled it: it looked blank.
"Tap it with your wand," Gudgeon said quietly, and Severus did: letters blazed across the top.
Greetings, Guest, from Moony, Wormtail, Prongs and Padfoot!
A map of Hogwarts spread slowly downward from the letters, like a tongue of flame.
"I didn't figure it out until later that night," Gudgeon explained. "I could see Potter and the rest on the map -- Pringle and Filch, too, and the Prefects and teachers -- you were already in bed. Little dots, with everyone's name next to them."
"Where were they, Potter and the others, I mean?" Severus demanded.
"That's what's weird. They were practically in Hogsmeade. And then I saw the dots move across the Grounds -- but they weren't, I didn't actually see them -- and then all of a sudden they were in the Willow, and then they came out."
"And you decided to figure it out on your own," Severus said grimly.
"Yeah. I was just so excited...." Gudgeon said softly, staring out the window.
Severus' guilt increased. If only he had demanded that Gudgeon show him the parchment: if only he'd told him what Black had said about the knothole....
"I figured if they could get out without the Willow thrashing them, I could get in," Gudgeon muttered, making things immensely worse. "I was wrong."
"Look, it'll be all right -- Pomfrey's bloody good, and St. Mungo's can help if she can't --" Severus awkwardly offered.
"Specialist's been and gone. It's 50-50 whether I'll keep the eye, and I'll never have good sight again." Gudgeon gave a despairing little giggle. "Better hit the books more, hadn't I? A one-eyed Seeker isn't going to go far."
There was no possible comforting rejoinder to that, and Severus wasn't the kind to offer one in any case.
"Look, can I --"
"Sure, keep it. No use to me. Don't know how you're going to get past that bloody tree, though."
Fortunately, Severus did. And Gudgeon's mishap -- and the ruin of his aspirations to play professional Quidditch -- assured that Severus would get to the bottom of this if it was the last thing he did.
Poor stupid sod, he thought as he left the Infirmary. I owe it to him to get to the bottom of this. To make them pay.
It was the last time Severus Snape would feel pity for anyone, in a very, very long time.
The three are up to something, then, that they don't want their pet Prefect to know about, he thought gleefully.
The situation was getting better and better, as far as he was concerned. Much scope for mischief.
He made a point of checking the map while doing his rounds every evening, but nothing happened -- the odd curfew violation (sneaking to the kitchens, mostly), but nothing like running about the Grounds. He was rather disappointed. Black had apparently told, and the bloody cowards had called off their midnight raids.
Until late November.
Severus was doing his rounds late that night -- no observations, he'd given that up with Gudgeon's accident, much to Stellamen's disappointment -- and just as he was ready to turn in, it occurred to him that Lupin was ill again.
Might Potter, Black, and Pettigrew be up to something, with Lupin out of the way?
He hurried back to the dorm, scrabbled in his trunk for the map, and tapped it with his wand.
Greetings, Guest, from Moony, Wormtail, Prongs and Padfoot!
The ink leached down the parchment slowly, revealing the plan of the castle and grounds -- and the location of the motley crew: Potter and Pettigew in Potions (they'd a detention, he knew), Black hurrying down the Potions corridor, away from them.
Rather handy, this. I'm glad Gudgeon found it.
He checked the Infirmary.
Lupin wasn't there. Nor was he in Gryffindor Tower.
What the bloody --?
He focussed his attention on the Grounds, and the map obligingly enlarged, showing him a tiny dot on the edge of Hogsmeade, labeled "Lupin."
Merlin's balls. The prat's supposed to be ill, but he's hared off.... That's it, then, it's all a big scam.
Professors Burkett, Pringle and Filch were going to be very pleased with this. When he eventually told them.
He returned his attention to the dot labeled "Black" and watched as it crept along toward Gryffindor Tower -- and then swerved into a niche, disappeared, and, after four minutes' time, emerged on the exterior of the castle.
Bloody.... They've got a secret passage too, blast it. That's how they've got out.
Black's dot was headed straight for the Willow, now -- and after a brief pause and some aimless-looking wanderings, it snuggled close to the Willow and then disappeared again, and eventually re-appeared, travelling toward Hogsmeade.
It was too much to resist.
Bloody ingenious, have to hand it to them.
He squeezed through and wriggled down past the roots, and found the tunnel.
It was roomy enough -- Severus didn't have to crouch as he made his way along the rough earthen floor -- and once or twice the walls were broken by side-tunnels, and he had to pause and decide which way to go, unwilling to charm Lumos and consult the map he'd shoved in his pocket. (If he had, he'd have seen a tiny dot labelled "Snape" shuffling along a fairly straight tunnel toward Hogsmeade and another dot labelled "Lupin" waiting for him at the end. He might also have seen another labeled "Black," and been forewarned....) He took a few steps into each turn-off, instead, and sniffed at the air: it was invariably stale and unmoving while that in the main tunnel was fresher, so he rightly assumed the main outlet continued straight onward.
After nearly a half-hour of slow progress he bumped against a door at the tunnel's end and fumbled for the latch.
It wouldn't open.
He cursed under his breath and drew out his wand, whispered "Alohamora," and it swung open with a squeal of rusty hinges (he cursed again), and he cautiously stepped inside, wand at the ready, and charmed Lumos.
He was in a cellar, he decided -- thick stone walls with no windows; a rickety stair leading upstairs, a closed door at the top; two piles of discarded, decaying furniture; a battered table in one corner, one broken leg propped up with a greengrocer's crate, with four equally decrepit chairs pulled around it and several butterbeer bottles on its surface -- and a parchment.
He silently sidled over to the table and prodded the parchment with his wand, and words popped onto the surface.
A shrill little alarm began to blare in the room.
Gods damn them --
Severus started and nearly dropped his wand; he heard a sudden scrabbling on the floorboards above him as something bounded into the room above, and the snuffling of an animal trying to scent him through the cracks in the boards. It stoppped sniffing abruptly and then howled, and every hair on Severus' body prickled.
Bloody fucking -- Get out.
The animal howled again -- Severus had the distinct impression it was canine, and and damned big one at that --
--and then something knocked him to the ground from behind.
His wand landed several feet away, and in the beam from his Lumos he saw his attacker: a huge black dog, teeth bared and growling -- and obviously not that from the floor above, because the howling there continued unabated.
Severus lunged for his wand and then pulled back as the dog snapped at his fingers, and scrambled backward as it began to advance on him.
He grabbed the leg of chair in desperation.
"Get away, you bloody beast!"
He swung for it: the animal dodged and snapped again, and then howled to compatriot upstairs.
It howled in return and began throwing itself at door at top of stairs. The door shivered on its hinges, punctuated by howls from the creature above. The dog backed off two paces and sat, grinning at Severus.
Mild panic turned to outright fear.
He lunged for the tunnel door, swinging at the dog -- he was willing to abandon his wand, at this point: the dog darted out of way and snapped again, catching him on the leg and sending him back up to the top of the rubbish heap.
The animal above hit the door again, and Severus heard the sickening splinter of wood as its hinges begin to tear loose from the frame.
He fixed his attention on the door, and through the absolute terror flooding his brain managed to recognise One or two more good shoves....
He was trembling so that the chair leg dropped from his hand, but the dog merely sat again, still blocking the escape route to the tunnel, panting happily -- and then it lifted its snout in one last, curiously victorious howl as the door above them shuddered again --
-- and its howl was abruptly cut off as someone yelled "Stupefy!" from the tunnel door. It was Potter, looking terrified and angry as he stepped into the cellar and over to the prone body of the dog.
"Gods damn it all, Snape, what --"
Severus leapt for his wand.
The door above them gave out one last, protesting groan as the frame splintered irrevocably.
"Get out, now!" Potter screamed at him, instantly taking in the situation.
There was nothing Severus would like to do better -- but he was frozen as effectively as if he'd been hit with Petrficus Totalis.
Potter sprinted over to him, grabbed him by the arm and back of neck, and flung him out the tunnel door, returning to pull the dog after them by its scruff.
Severus heard the scrape of the other door as it was shoved aside, and saw a huge ball of fur barrelling down the stairs behind Potter as he turned to close the outer door: Potter slammed it closed and managed to throw a heavy bolt home just before the door shuddered as the thing hit it.
The hinges groaned, but held -- for the time being.
"Damn you, go on, Snape!" Potter yelled, giving him a shove.
"But you --"
"I'll be safe -- just get back to the Willow and twist the left-hand root to open the trunk. And close the bloody knothole when you do get out, or he'll be loose on the Grounds!"
Snape turned and ran a good ten yards, and then skidded to a halt.
Can't leave him with that thing -- maybe we can ward the door together, maybe it'll hold then --
It was the hardest thing he'd ever done, but he turned back -- and heard snorting and scraping from his end of the tunnel, and the creature pounding at the door from inside the cellar.
He turned tail and ran as if the hounds of hell were after him (as best he could, limping on the wounded leg), intent on bringing back Pringle and Filch.
Fuck getting help. Potter said he'd be safe, anyway.
He pulled himself to his knees, shakily wiping the bile from his face, and pulled his sodden trousers from his legs, the damp stains of piss and blood and the trembling of his hands clear in the moonlight.
Clear moonlight, unclouded, bright, from a full moon.
Suddenly all the puzzle pieces fell into place.
Potter didn't say it would get loose -- he said he.
Severus slipped back into the castle through the Slytherin secret passage, cleaned himself up, and set to work.
September 1st: full moon. Lupin does not arrive on the Express.
September 2nd: night after the full moon. Lupin still missing from Hogwarts.
September 3rd, day: Lupin in class, apparently recovering from "illness."
September 30th: night before full moon. Lupin again "ill," supposedly confined to the Private Ward; was seen crossing Grounds with Pomfrey, in general direction of the Willow.
October 1st/2nd: full moon and night after. No Lupin in class until October 3rd.
October 29th: night before full moon. Lupin "ill." Potter, Black and Pettigrew seen on Grounds after curfew.
October 31st: full moon. Lupin "ill." Potter and others seen on Grounds after curfew. Gudgeon investigates on own, is injured by Willow.
Nov 1st: night after full moon. Lupin "ill." Potter and others not seen, but may have been missed/changed plans.
November 28th: night before full moon. Lupin "ill." Black seen on attached map on Grounds after curfew. Investigation reveals the Willow is being used to hide Lupin at an undetermined location near Hogsmeade while in his wolf form.
Violations and possible charges:
Three clear charges of curfew violation for Potter, Black, Lupin, Pettigrew -- potentially more, unwitnessed.
Conspiracy to Murder or Commital of Greivous Bodily Harm (Black, possibly Potter and Pettigrew).
Attempted Muder or Assault on a student by a Dark Magical Creature (Lupin.)
This will do it, Severus thought with considerable glee as he limped up to the ground floor. This will finally get rid of the bastards. A werewolf, concealed; an attempt to kill me, or at best make me what that monster Lupin is; Gudgeon's eye and the end of his Qudditch playing....
He couldn't quite explain the dog, but that was a minor point. Probably some homeless cur they'd set to guard the cellar when they were away. And Black had to have known about it: he'd set Severus up, the bastard. The parchment proved it -- pity he hadn't held on to it.
There was no possible way Headmaster could overlook this: the students' parents would demand his resignation when the news came out, if he tried to weasel out of it.
I could be generous and not bother to point out the myriad violations of curfew, I suppose, he mused as he gave the gargoyle the password and rode the stair up toward the office. After all, it pales in comparison....
No, I think not. In for a penny, in for a pound.
He got a nasty surprise when he entered Headmaster's office, though. Potter was already there with some rather fabulous bruises beginning to blossom across his face, along with Pringle and Filch: they'd apparently got Headmaster out of bed, for he was still in a paisley nightshirt (which clashed quite violently with his lime-green dressing-gown), stockinged feet, and nightcap.
"-- caught 'im skulking around the greenhouses, I did, coming from the direction of the Willow. Looks like he got a good thumpin'," Filch was saying, preening at his accomplishment.
"Good friend you have there, Potter," Severus crowed. "Did he do that before or after he reverted?"
"Mr Snape," Headmaster said gravely, acknowleging Severus. "I take it you know something of this?"
"Oh, yes, I do, Headmaster," Severus said, and smirked at Potter when the idiot dared glare at him. "I've sussed it out. You've a very dangerous creature on the Grounds, and Potter here has been concealing it and putting everyone in dan--"
Potter turned to Headmaster and interrupted.
"I'll tell you everything, Sir, but not -- I mean, it concerns Moony, Sir, and I know you don't want that spread about," he said with a sidelong glance at Pringle and Filch.
Headmaster's eyebrows shot up and he raised a hand to still Severus, who was ready to launch into his recital.
"I see," he said slowly. "Gentlemen, thank you for your diligence -- I shall handle it from here."
Filch snorted and Pringle let out an offended "Very well, then," and they left in high dudgeon.
"Sir, he's bound to lie to you -- it's far worse than he'll make out --"
"I understand, Mr Snape, but if you would, please --"
"LUPIN'S A WEREWOLF!" Severus finally shouted. "He's a bloody werewolf, and they tried to kill me tonight," he added, stabbing a finger in Potter's direction.
"Well, of course he is, Mr Snape," Headmaster said mildly. "I'm well aware of that. Who do you think arranged for him to stay at the Shrieking Shack during his, ah, indispositions?"
Severus gaped at the old man.
No. He can't mean -- bloody hell, he's serious. He knows? What kind of --
"Mr Potter, have a seat, here. And Mr Snape, if you'd please take the chair there, along the wall -- I'll hear you out in a moment, when Mr Potter has explained his part of the incident."
Severus sat, eyes blazing, and crumpled his lunar table between sweaty palms as Potter began to talk.
"We've been -- Sirius and Peter and I, we've been keeping Remus company when we can."
"I was unaware of that," Headmaster said gravely. "I thought I made it clear to Mr Lupin that it was of utmost importance that no one know. Kettleburn and Hagrid have noticed some visitors to the Forest, however, and some alarming reports of a wolf sighting from the village. Precisely what I wished to avoid, as well as potential harm to yourselves. He can't possibly recognise you, you know."
Potter flushed in embarrassment.
"Remus didn't want to tell us, sir -- we figured it out, you see, and we didn't really tell him until... well, until we'd tried it a few times. And we started using the cellar as a hangout, just to be close to him in case something went wrong, you know."
"Tell him about Black," Severus demanded.
"I'm getting to that," Potter said sharply, and gave Severus an odd, cautious look before he took a deep breath and turned again to Dumbledore. "Sirius found out... he found out that Snape had seen us and was suspicious about the Willow. He didn't tell me about it until tonight, though, after this all happened."
"Anyway," Potter said as he threw a dirty look Severus' way, "Peter and I had detention last night. Peter was too tired to come out so he went to bed, and Sirius had gone -- I didn't know where. As soon as I opened the knothole I heard howling coming down the tunnel, so I ran all the way. Snape was there, backed into a corner...."
He threw another sidelong glance at Severus.
"Remus was trying to get down to the cellar, and there was a... a dog there, that had him backed into a corner and wouldn't let him leave."
Potter trailed off.
"And what did you do, James?" Headmaster prodded gently.
"The... dog seemed unresponsive so I Stupefied it and told Snape to get out, before Remus broke through the cellar door, but he didn't move, so I pushed him out and dragged the dog into the tunnel. I barely got the outer door closed before Remus got to us."
"Then I told Snape to get outside and close the knothole, and I stayed behind to guard the door in case Remus got through."
"Is that how you acquired the bruises, James?" Headmaster asked, faintly alarmed.
"No, that -- that came later. I -- ah, the outer door held. When I got out I, I tracked down Sirius, and I tried to get him to explain what happened, but all he'd say was that he'd known Snape would be snooping about --"
"That's a lie," Severus retorted.
"I know it is, you bloody --"
"That's enough, you two. If you'll control yourselves for just a bit longer, I think we can get through this sooner," Headmaster said. "Why didn't you believe him, James?"
"It didn't make sense. I mean, ah, the dog. We haven't kept one in there, someone put it there, and it wasn't me. And I don't think Snape would have gone upstairs, he's not thick. He wasn't anywhere near them -- he was backed in the far corner. I was pretty sure the dog was intended to keep him in until Remus broke through the door."
"Are you quite certain of that, James?" Headmaster said quietly. "That's a very grave accusation."
"Sirius finally admitted that was the intention. I told Sirius I didn't like the way he'd handled things, and that's when we --" Potter gestured to his face.
"Where is he now?"
"He took off toward the Forest. Might be back in the dorm by now, though, or Hogsmeade. I don't think he's at the Shack -- I wouldn't stay in the tunnel, not with Remus that close, and upset."
"Is that what happened, Mr Snape?" Headmaster asked.
"More of less," Severus said bitterly. "Someone had left a -- something distracting -- on the table, and when I went over to look at it an alarm went off. That's when that thing upstairs discovered I was there, and the dog came up behind me and wouldn't let me leave."
"He's not a thing, he's Remus," Potter said, growing pale.
"I don't care if it's the Prime Minister, it's a monster," Severus shot back. "And it and your good friend Black tried to kill me."
"Remus wouldn't do that -- not -- he wouldn't have had a choice," Potter amended desperately. "It's not like being an Animagus -- he doesn't have much human awareness left at all. If he had, he wouldn't have harmed you."
"But Black had a choice, didn't he?" Severus noted viciously. "He'd have let it and that bloody dog rip me to shreds --"
"If you hadn't been snooping to begin with, it never would have hap--"
"GENTLEMEN!" Headmaster roared, rising from his chair, and both boys shut up in shock.
Headmaster sat, and rubbed at his eyes. "Perhaps," he continued more calmly, "you might tell us why you did choose to explore the tunnel, Mr Snape. The last I heard, Prefects are not required to patrol the Grounds -- only the corridors."
"Gudgeon and I saw that lot violating curfew," Severus said, ignoring the implicit criticism, "from the Astronomy Tower, several times over the last two months. We knew we couldn't get down fast enough to catch them or to let Mr Pringle know, and we didn't even know it was them. But last night -- night before, now, I suppose -- we found a map someone had left there."
The remaining blood drained from Potter's face.
"It shows any secret tunnels and doors in the vicinity," Severus said, voice growing more confident, "and it shows who's in the area as well. Gudgeon found it in the Tower, after I'd told Black I knew he was up to something, and he figured it out, and gave it to me afterward."
He drew it forth, approached Headmaster's desk, spread it out, and tapped it with his wand.
It remained blank.
"I don't understand," Severus muttered. "All we had to do was --"
"Let me," Potter said quietly, and tapped the parchment with his own wand, muttering so low under his breath that Severus couldn't catch the words.
The image blossomed on the map, showing Headmaster's office and the three little dots that represented them: Filch was lurking at the bottom of the stairs, and Pringle was in his office.
"And where are Mr Lupin and Mr Black, now?" Dumbledore asked.
Potter tapped the map and again muttered under his breath, and it displayed the Shrieking Shack, Lupin's dot now quiet: Black's was in the cellar of Honeydukes, in Hogsmeade.
"This went missing last month," Potter admitted of the map. "We only use it to... well, to get past Pringle and Filch, when we want to keep Remus company."
"That is quite ingenious, and very handy," Headmaster said mildly. "Your own work?"
Potter blushed in pleasure and nodded, and Severus snorted in disgust. Headmaster would get off on something allowing illicit activity, particularly Gryffindor activity.
Bet he'd think it a bloody horror if a Slytherin had made it.
"But why could Mr Snape and Mr Gudgeon observe it?"
"It can be charmed to... well, to tick others off," P said. "People we didn't want seeing it," he added with a sidelong look at Severus. "When it went missing I figured one of us had mislaid it."
"Who had it last, James?" Headmaster asked.
Potter was silent for a moment and then admitted in a soft voice "Sirius."
"I'm going to ask you once more, James," Headmaster said, very quietly, "because this is an incredibly serious matter. You're certain Mr Black had it last?"
"Yes, sir," Potter admitted, voice unsteady. "I asked him particularly about it, a couple of days ago, because we always check it before we go out to join Remus, to be sure we aren't watched. He admitted he'd had it, but said he'd misplaced it."
"Could he have lost it in the Tower?"
Potter shrugged. "He'd not taking Arithmancy this year, and as far as I know he'd have no reason to be up there."
"And you had nothing to do with this... scheme tonight -- not the luring, nor the planting of the map?"
"No, sir," Potter said more strongly. "I.... It's true that I don't like Snape, and if he hadn't been poking about.... But there are limits, I understand that, and I wouldn't have put Remus into that situation, either."
"I'm very glad to hear that, James," Headmaster said. "Now, I will suggest --" he added delicately, suggest being, in no uncertain terms, a command, "-- that you go back to your dormitory and get some sleep. I will have to discuss this matter with your Heads of House, and we will decide what to do about it later."
"But, sir, will Remus --"
"I have no intention of punishing Mr Lupin for events beyond his control, if he can satisfy me that he had no knowledge of it, James. Now, go to bed."
Potter turned and, without another look at Severus, left the room.
"That's it?" Severus said, disbelievingly. "Go to bed?"
"No, Mr Snape, it's far from over -- but what would you have me do at the moment? Toddle off to the Shack and interview Mr Lupin now?" Headmaster said with a wearly nod at the map. "If Mr Lupin is indeed innocent, I shouldn't like to put him through what it takes to immobilse him and force him into his own form. He could be badly hurt. And I can't demand that Honeydukes open their doors at four in the morning so I can track down a runaway."
Severus laughed bitterly.
"Show it to me," Headmaster demanded.
"The leg, boy, do you think I'm too old to see properly? I suppose you didn't have the sense to go to Madam Pomfrey immediately, did you?"
Severus plopped down in the chair, sullenly rolled up his trouser-leg, and unwrapped the blood-stained handkerchief.
"Merlin's -- Idiot."
Headmaster compressed his lips and moved swiftly to the console-table, poured a half-glass of wine and soaked a clean handkerchief in it, brought it over, and dabbed at the punctures and gash.
"Hold still, you foolish boy," he muttered. "It was only the dog, I hope?"
"When we're done here you're to see Pomfrey. Immediately. Now," he said as he tied the handkerchief off around Severus' calf, "show me this evidence of yours."
Severus handed over his table, and rolled down the trouser-leg as Headmaster paced the room, reading.
"Very thorough and cogent, Severus," he said softly when he'd finished. "Yes, it's compelling evidence, indeed."
"Hardly needed now, is it?" Severus said.
"No. No, it's not," Headmaster said, charmed his fireplace into being, and calmly dropped the parchment into the flames.
"I need to make this very clear to you, Severus," Headmaster said as he returned to his desk. "You are to keep this matter to yourself. Tell absolutely no one. I cannot stress how disappointed I will be if you disobey me in this."
"No buts, Severus," Headmaster said, eyes blazing. "I know about Mr Lupin's infirmity, and he is here at my discretion and with my approval. I've known from the very first -- Lupin's parents were quite forthcoming, immediately he'd got his letter, and I asked him to come anyway. Until now the security measures have worked admirably. They failed tonight," he said heavily, "due to Mr Black's terrible judgement, and your decision to meddle in affairs which do not concern you."
"And what about Gudgeon?" Severus said desperately. "He may never fly again, not if he loses his eye --"
"He will most certainly fly again," Headmaster said quietly. "He may be unable to play Quidditch, but he will fly, with care. It will be a hard lesson for him, but I'm afraid that's what it takes for some."
There was no doubt, given the mixed look of sadness and reprimand on Headmaster's face, that he meant Severus, too.
"Go see Madam Pomfrey, now," he said softly, "and then go to bed. I shall probably speak with you more about this later this evening."
Severus couldn't even manage to acknowledge that, or wish the old man good-night -- he felt far more likely to damn him to Hades -- so he simply turned and left.
It's the whole bloody story of the gods-damned school, Severus thought bitterly as he limped his way to the Infirmary. The bloody, fucking, bullying Gryffindors -- lords of the manor -- getting away with murder.... Headmaster's one of the same damned lot -- even the bloody Deputy Head....
And when Pomfrey dared to scold him, he pointedly told her to ask the bloody headmaster what had happened, and she boxed his ears in outrage as she couldn't take points.
"Madam Pomfrey's seen the leg, Mr Snape?" Headmaster asked gravely.
"Good. Please see her immediately, next time -- if there is one -- because I should hate for you to have complications from neglect.
"Now, we three have discussed the matter," he continued calmly, "and I can assure you that steps have been taken to prevent something like it happening again. The matter has been investigated and Mr Lupin has been cleared of any complicity. Mr Black will be punished, though I am not at liberty to discuss specifics. I must impress upon you once more, however, that word of the matter must go no further, because it could have very serious consequences for Mr Lupin's well-being. Understood?"
Severus managed a jerky nod.
"Good. There is... one other matter which isn't pleasant, and which I deeply regret having to require of you. We must ask you to relinquish your Prefect's badge, please."
He'd expected another ticking-off; he'd expected points, possibly, although he would have been disgusted with the injustice of it (though not surprised). But this....
"Why am I being --"
"Don't be thick, Snape," Burkett growled impatiently. "You should have come to me, not gone haring off by yourself. It was not only idiotic, it was an abuse of your position, and it can't be excused. The badge. Now."
Severus fumbled with it -- pricking his finger badly in his humiliated clumsiness -- and handed it to Burkett, and stepped back, hands fisted at his sides.
"It's not fair," he said through gritted teeth. "I suppose Lupin gets to keep --"
"I'm afraid it's not your place to judge, Mr Snape," McGonagall said tartly. "Nor is it your business to worry over others' situations."
"That is all, Mr Snape," Dumbledore said softly. "Thank you."
Severus spun on his heel and stalked from the room, fuming.
I'll get them for this, I don't care how long it takes. I will make Black and Potter pay for this, if it's the last thing I do.
He was so enraged that it didn't occur to him for several days to worry over Lord Snape's reaction. It finally dawned on him that it was likely Burkett would write His Lordship to explain Severus' disgrace and the revocation of the Prefectship, and he shuddered to think of the consequences: bad enough that he had to deal with questions from the Common Room, and endure the sight of Lupin, Prefect's badge intact, going about his business as if nothing had happened.
But no letter came from Snape Hall: and when he went home for Yule, His Lordship merely glanced at the spot where the badge should have been, shook his head, and gruffly told Severus not to be such an idiot, next time.
Severus had the sense to thank the gods for small favours.