I confiscated three Quidditch fazines in one day -- all from Gryffindors. The Slytherins were better at hiding them from me.
The Mutilator (my unease eventually led me to capitalise the epithet, as one did 'Dark Lord') had been suspiciously quiet. I'd have liked to think the patrols were the reason, but I doubted it: as Snape was still in no condition to help, we were short on watchers -- and consequently all short of sleep and temper. Fewer faculty and staff were attending dinner and supper at the High Table, preferring to nap in their rooms at meals. (Vector had been called away on family business, so Sinistra was covering both subjects and fulfilling patrols: she practically hibernated when not in class. Still, to this day, I have no idea how she managed it -- she can't possibly have had enough free class periods to teach both subjects at once.)
The students, rebounding from the fears of the Death Eater attacks, were livlier than ever. There were in fact still attacks being made, but they seemed to have shifted focus from student families. I didn't dare ask Snape what it might mean: he probably had no idea, and it would open a still-painful wound. And he still wasn't talking to me in any case, although he did me the courtesy of not ignoring me outright.
It was, of course, the perfect time for something else to go wrong.
Incompetence on Grounds of Senility. Section 59 of the Wizarding Code of Conduct, to be precise, which was a judicial document governing the civil rights and responsibilities of wizarding citizens -- including their trial rights and the circumstances under which they could be stripped of their wands, their citizenship, and even their right to be treated as independent adults.
Wizards aren't exempt from senility, it seems, though for some reason it tends to affect more men than women, Alastor later explained to me (as someone who'd been unofficially accused of senility on more than one occasion, and who had successfully defended himself against Section 59 twice). It tended to happen once they were past 130; their normal quirks expanded to outright eccentricities. But what might be considered merely a harmless eccentricity in the Muggle World became a bit more alarming when there was a wizard with a wand and one hundred percent of his magical power involved.
And as everyone knew, Headmaster Dumbledore was not the least eccentric individual in the history of the Wizarding World (on the surface, at least: I'd noted that those quirks of his disappeared abruptly when serious matters came up, and I suspected he affected many of them to disarm people or to lead them to underestimate him).
It may have backfired on him, in this instance. The Board of Governors, by law, had no choice but to suspend him.
"They've issued an indictment," Albus told us grimly, "and I'm to report to the Ministry tomorrow for a preliminary hearing. If just cause is found, they'll proceed directly to trial. It could take several days."
"Albus, you can't go," Minerva protested. "Between the attack on Severus --" (which was now common knowledge, via the ever-helpful dark Slytherin contingent), "-- and the faculty shortage --"
"There's nothing for it, Minerva; I must go. I'm only out now on my own recognisance," he interrupted her. "I'm capable of protecting myself, I'm not yet that feeble."
Far from it. He was enraged with Fudge's latest tactic, and the power that his anger unleashed was going through the room in waves.
"Minerva, you of course will be Acting Headmistress. Filius has seniority and would normally be Deputy Head, but as he'd planned to retire at the end of term --"
That was news.
"-- he's asked to be passed over, in the event that this takes longer to sort out than I anticipate. That means you, Severus."
Snape's lips compressed in annoyance, but he nodded acceptance.
"Now, this is the situation. Fudge hopes to have me removed under Section 59 and the Incompetence Law of 1802, and his grounds are my insistence that Voldemort is alive. That's evidently not only senile, but a treasonous belief at this point," he said dryly, "and if he thought he could get away with it, presumably he'd charge me with treason as well. What he doesn't rememeber -- or thinks he can override -- is that I'm entitled to a jury of my peers. The International Confederation of Wizards qualifies, and luckily they've not been as nonchalant about the signs as Fudge has been. If I can persuade them that Voldemort is in fact alive and working to re-establish his network, they will overrule Fudge's lackeys in the Wizengamot." He rose and paced the floor behind his desk, and Fawkes' anxious eyes followed his every move.
"I meet with the Confederation members tonight in Edinburgh, and then I'll proceed to the Ministry in the morning. We may be quite a while, so I don't plan on returning here."
"What about the press, Albus?" Sinistra interjected. "Mightn't it be helpful to get the word out?"
Albus shook his head. "Premature, at this point. It's a Wizengamot matter, at any rate, so it's a closed hearing -- we can deal with press later if the worst happens. I'm not ready to antagonise Fudge any further than necessary, because if he feels his back's to the wall it will make him behave even more recklessly. There's the upcoming elections, you see. I think that's what motivated this to begin with."
That was a joke. There were elections, all right, but a sitting Prime Minister had never been voted out. That took a vote of no-confidence from the Wizengamot and the Ministry's Department Heads.
"I'm going to have to present some of the evidence you acquired over the past two years, Severus --" Albus noted, heedless of the fact that most of the assembly didn't know of Snape's former role as double-agent -- or did they? Stupid me, they'd probably been protecting me and Snape all along --
"-- but under no circumstances do I want you to come to London unless I send for you, is that clear?"
Snape nodded again, grimly.
"Lemme go with you, Headmaster," Hagrid pleaded. "You shouldn't hafta go by yerself --"
"No, Hagrid," Albus said firmly. "Thank you, son," he added more gently, resting a hand on the big man's shoulder, "but you're needed here. We still need the patrols kept up. The students must see that everything's proceeding normally." He gave Hagrid's shoulder another squeeze, and then moved away to the window.
"I should have dealt with Fudge long ago," he muttered, surprisingly bitter: I'd never heard that tone from him before, and the anger was still roiling thickly from him. "This would have been much easier with a less bloody-minded man in office. It seems I'm still capable of Gryffindor na´vetÚ, as you no doubt long to point out, Severus."
Snape let out a small murmur of protest, and Moody interjected, "Bollocks. You gave him the benefit of the doubt, Albus. Fair play and honour -- you can't fault yourself for that."
"Fair play," Albus said heavily, "is that last thing we need to win a war. As I should know better than any of you." He turned his back to us and stared out at the lake.
None of us knew what to say: it wasn't like him to reject comfort, and silence lay thickly over the room. And then, prodded by some impulse, I stood -- surprising the others, as I hadn't said a word throughout, and they'd nearly forgot me -- and I crossed to him. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done: the anger and desperation he was feeling seemed to push against me, and it was like moving through knee-deep treacle. I boosted myself up to the high windowsill, and waited.
His eyes met mine, and the bitterness and anger abated ever so slightly: one frail, long-fingered hand groped for mine, and held them tightly. I could feel the magic coursing through him with every heartbeat.
He knew what I meant to say even before I did, and I fancy he smiled underneath the messy fall of his beard. His eyes flickered briefly back to the room, where the others waited -- including Minerva McGonagall -- and he remembered my worry, and bent his ear toward my lips to make it easier for me.
"I love you, Da. We all do," I whispered.
He turned his face and pressed his forehead against mine briefly (earning me the dreaded wordless exclamation from McGonagall) and I was enveloped in his unique scent -- sweet marjoram and rosemary, and the sharp tang of ozone (that must have been his magic) -- and then he straightened to his full height and turned to the others.
"Minerva, the school is yours. Severus, Alastor, Hagrid -- I don't need to warn you there may be trouble while I'm away. Stay on guard. The rest of you," (that would be Sinistra, Black, Flitwick, me, Hooch, and Trelawney -- who'd mercifully kept her predictions to herself), "help out as best you can. I have every confidence in all of you." He squeezed my hands a final time before releasing them and moving back behind his desk. "Now, I have a great deal to sort out before I go. Off with you all."
"What," McGonagall prodded me when we'd reached the corridor, "was that about?"
"Just something he'd asked me to remind him," I calmly replied.
"He's got enough on his mind, you know --" she said sharply, rushing to defend Headmaster from my perceived impertinance.
(All right, actual impertinance, but he'd literally asked for it once upon a time.)
"Minerva, perhaps we should discuss my new duties? I confess I've no idea what you do on a daily basis," Snape murmured in her ear.
"-- what? Oh, very well. Come along." Flustered, she forgot about me at once and spun on her heel to return to her office, Snape in tow.
He missed the grateful glance I threw his way: I suspect he knew more or less what I'd said to Albus, and was trying to save me a long and personal confession to Minerva.
Minerva McGonagall wasn't by any means jealous or spiteful, but she was extremely protective of Albus and she was often oblivious to the delicate undercurrents that existed between people: too forthright and practical to pick up on them, perhaps, and occasionally apt to misinterpret them when she did. I couldn't fault her for it -- I felt just as protectively toward certain people, myself.
She also mentioned, quite off-handedly, that there'd been a problem with the magical printing-press at the Prophet and that no one should expect to receive their paper for a few days.
Why, the sly old thing. She must be totally outraged, to resort to censoring the students' mail and their knowledge of the event.
I was willing to bet the daily mail delivery would be diverted to the owlery and all Daily Prophets confiscated: I don't know how she intended to deal with parental letters -- after all, Malfoy's father would certainly be crowing about it. I wasn't certain I agreed with her decision, but she was Acting Headmistress, not me.
The snow started falling again that evening, during supper -- not an uncommon shift in the weather, for the Highlands -- and I watched it from the French doors in my rooms later. Everything seemed calm and safe, the castle cocooned in a fresh, deep blanket.
I hoped Albus had made it to Edinburgh before the weather had turned.
"All students are to report immediately to their Common Rooms, and are to remain there or in their dormitories for the rest of the day," she said, and I noted a distinct strain in her voice. "Prefects will take roll call and send a report via Scout Elf to the staff room. Supper will be delivered to the Common Rooms. Leave your classes now, please -- teachers, accompany each group to the appropriate rooms and then report to the staff room."
There was no way this could be a good development.
I walked each group to their Common Room, the situation of my classroom making a circuitous route necessary: by the time I reached the staff room almost everyone else was assembled and waiting impatiently for McGonagall and Snape to tell us what was up. Several minutes later they entered: Minerva was pallid and jumpy, and Snape looked grim.
"I've had a very disturbing report from London," she began, taking Albus' accustomed chair near the fire. "Headmaster was attacked outside the Ministry this morning -- No," she held up a hand to still the outraged murmurs, "-- I don't know his condition or where he is now. The message merely stated that he'd been attacked."
One by one the Elves started popping into the room, and Snape motioned them over and took the reports from them.
"I think it best that we keep the students in their quarters until we determine what's going on," McGonagall continued. "It may have been a personal attack on Albus, or it might be directed at Hogwarts. Until we know more, we'd best sit tight and be watchful."
I'd been watching Snape's face throughout, and something was definitely wrong: the first two reports had seemed innocent enough, and then he'd stiffened and become alarmed when he'd read reports turned in by the Gryffindor and Slytherin scouts.
"It appears we have a slight problem," he interjected, with an apologetic look to McGonagall. "We're missing two students. Neville Longbottom and Delia Barrett."
"Oh, shut up, Myrtle," Hooch spat out irritably as the ghost swooped over us, moaning away. "We'll leave you alone in a bit. Have you seen one or two students skulking about?"
"That's all you Living ever want," wailed the unhappy ghost-girl (if I didn't know better I'd classify her as a beansidhe: her voice was piercing enough). "No one visits me to ask me how I am -- oh, no, it's always, 'Have you seen so-and-so, Myrtle? Shut your gob and let me concentrate on this potion, Myrtle. What did so-and-so do, Myr--'"
Hooch whipped out her wand and sent a blast of something at the ghost, and with a final wail it dove into a toilet and hid in the U-bend.
"Bloody ghosts," Hooch muttered. "Headmaster ought to banish 'em all. Peeves got into my broom closet last week and ripped apart three perfectly good Clean Sweeps."
Hooch didn't bother to observe niceties like the distinction between ghosts and poltergeists. If it wasn't solid and preferably a decent broom-rider, she wasn't interested. She tolerated Binns only due to his absolute blandness.
I started checking toilet stalls while Hooch moved across the room to check the tub-room. (Full baths in the dormitories were a relatively new innovation, circa the 1960s.)
"Nothing here," I noted, and shut Myrtle's stall door with a slam as the toilet burped alarmingly at me.
"Idiots," Hooch called over her shoulder. "If we had that indoor gymnasium I've been asking for, this wouldn't happen -- little buggers'd be too knackered to make mischief. I'm going to Minerva's office to tell her."
"All right. I'd better head down to Hufflepuff and make sure Sprout doesn't need a hand."
Myrtle gave a final waterlogged burble as we left the bathroom, and we started back downstairs, Hooch briskly out-pacing me.
I should have called her back when the thought hit me, but it took me a minute to work thorough it. Something Neville had said on one of our walks....
I'd asked him about the secret tunnels and passages the students knew, you see. Snape's offhand comment about them had piqued my interest, and knowing that Neville was a friend of Potter et al, I'd asked him on one of our walks. He'd told me of several, although there was only one he admitted to using -- one that the Gryffindors favoured to get down to the lake for late-night snogging, when the faculty and Head Boy and Girl were too conscientious about hall patrols.
And it was fairly close by, just at the entrance to the Ravenclaw corridor. I detoured to it.
Each Common Room corridor was graced with a statue of the House mascot, and I moved to the back of Ravenclaw's, looking for anything unusual. If the door was magically warded there was no way I could open it -- but if it was your standard, run-of-the-mill secret door, there might be a trigger.
There were no splits or seams in the stonework, and nothing I could feel with my hands that would serve as a trigger: the joinery was smooth and unmarred. I stepped back a few paces to get a better overall view, and bumped into the back of the statue, starting --
-- and noticed a little flash of color, just above eye level: a little tangle of crimson and gold yarn from a Gryffindor muffler, snagged on the edge of the eagle's wing. Neville'd had a growth spurt this winter and was now taller than I, but not that tall, so I pulled myself up on the base and looked more closely.
There is was. A little nick in the granite on the bird's wing, as though a feather'd been chipped: you likely wouldn't have noticed from the floor. I pressed it and heard the wall behind me slide open with only a faint rasp of the stones.
There was a tunnel, and it was pitch-black: all I had was my pen-light, which of course didn't work outside my rooms. But there was nothing for it -- I'd just have to go slowly and feel my way, and hope it was eaay to find the release mechanism on the other end.
Neville's going to get a spectacular lecture for this. If I catch him snogging Barrett...
Well, he is growing up -- can you blame him? It's just that, in typical Neville fashion, he picked a bloody bad night to do it --
Oh, sod the excuses. The beggar should be in his Common Room, cramming for the OWLs.
I stepped in the narrow passageway and plastered myself against the wall, hoping the light from the corridor would give me some sense of what lay immediately ahead: I made out a flight of stairs, heading downward, before the door slid closed.
Bloody wonderful. Never mind what Minerva does to him, he's mine for detention for the rest of the year.
As my eyes adjusted to the blackness, though, a faint, blue light filtered up the stair, and I cautiously started to descend. The steps curled downward like a turret stair, and every few metres there was another little blue fairy light, shedding just enough illumination for one to keep ones' footing. It went well below what I thought was ground level -- possibly down to dungeon level, as the air was noticeably cooler and more damp -- and then flattened out and stretched before me.
I shuffled my slow way down it: God help me if I fell and badly hurt myself, because I doubted any students would use it for a while with the new, heavy snowfall. I was concentrating so hard that I bumped into the wall at the end, nearly squashing my nose.
The blue light didn't throw enough illunimation for me to examine the wall.
Well, shite. This was one of my more stupid moves.
I was stuck. I pushed back against the wall at my side in self-disgust and thrust my hands into my jacket pockets, and my fingers closed around a little cylinder -- a lighter.
It was a miracle it was still there: I'd taken the others out of my coat pockets when I'd decided to go cold turkey on the cigarettes, but I hadn't worn this for a while -- thank God. I pulled the lighter out and flicked it on, scanning the walls for the handle or trigger, located it, and pressed. The wall slid open with a protest and a blast of cold air hit me in the face.
I could see the lake glimmering below me in the early moonlight, and a trail of footprints -- two sets. Both Neville and Barrett, then, and together, as I'd anticipated. I still couldn't get my bearings as to exactly where I was along the lake, but at least I had a trail, so I followed it.
Thank God it's cold. I'm less likely to catch them in flagrante toto, but I hope all that snogging chaps their lips.
I stomped through the snow, bits of it working into the tops of my trainers, and grimly worked on the lecture those two were going to get.
The ground evened out eventually and I saw a glimmer of sickly light further off to the right; I could make out the outlines of the folly.
I am not a voyeur, unlike some people (Flicka Hooch) I could name. But this little stunt of Neville's had got up my nose to the point that I wasn't above a little spying so I could give him a hell of a shock, despite the cold -- I'd only my jacket, not the thick winter coat I would normally wear outside. I diverted from the path he and Barrett had made and moved through the trees and brush to approach the folly from another, more sheltered angle, going slowly to minimise the crunch of snow beneath my feet, and crept up toward the folly, moving behind the trees.
They were talking by the light of several candles that flickered fitfully in the breeze off the lake.
Didn't expect that.
"-- so I have to do it, you see? I don't have any choice," a female -- Barrett -- said reasonably.
"There's always a choice, Delia," Neville's high, strained voice reached me. "You don't have to do this, really. Professor Dumbledore could help you --"
Oh, shite. What had I walked into, a suicide attempt? It made sense, and I was sickened that Barrett might have got to this point without our noticing.
"Dumbledore?" Barrett laughed unpleasantly. "He's the last I want to know. It's no use, Longbottom, I have to do it -- and you're going to help me."
"No, I'm not," Neville said firmly.
"Want to bet?" she sneered. "I don't need your permission, you know, I can make you do it. Here's what's going to happen -- you're going to wait here quietly while I finish the runes, and then I'm going to start the incantation. And then, Longbottom, I'm going to kill you."
Jaysus, Mary and Joseph.
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'beansidhe': commonly spelled banshee.
'your standard, run-of-the-mill secret door': don't ask me -- I can't tell if Miranda's being blase or sarcastic at this point.
'in flagrante toto': from Latin in flagrante delicto, lit., 'in blazing crime,' which is why it's sometimes used to describe more, ah, erotic misdemeanors. Miranda means she might otherwise have caught them 'in full blaze,' i.e., doing something more than a little snogging.