Albus stood in the warmly appointed staffroom, slowly hanging up his outer robe. It had been a most troubling day, and he could imagine what poisonous rumors were already winding their way through the cool corridors of his great lady.

He could also imagine what explosive shouting was about to take place in this very room, and so he thought he had, perhaps, better assign seating himself. He didn't generally bother with this, as his senior faculty were all nominally adults, but at least two of them were likely to be tiresome today.

He therefore placed Minerva's restrained red and gold teacup between Pomona's, its twin except for being in Hufflepuff colors, and his own very snazzy purple and yellow one. Filius's fanciful blue and brown went next to Pomona's, and the serpent-and-dove mug he'd given Severus next to it, at Albus's left hand.

Each cup placed, an armchair sprang up behind it like a squashy, colorful mushroom. That is, most of them had armchairs, and Albus's and Filius's were colorful. It was sensible of Filius not to stick to House colors in everything, Albus felt. The cheery red suited him. Mona liked her colors earthy and Minerva liked hers severe, and, on the subject of severe, Severus's mug almost always manifested a backless bar-stool.

For instant mobility, Albus assumed, which made him sad. Then again, Severus not only used the mug Filius had given him but used it in semi-public. That was a far cry from the hollow-eyed shell of the early eighties, who had reliably out-jittered Alastor Moody and could only transfigure in black.

His deputy was the first to arrive, sweeping in and nearly stumbling as she stared at him.

He nodded at her gravely. "Minerva."

She eyed him, mouth thin. "If you're trying to distract us all, it won't work."

Albus frowned. "My dear Professor, I intend no such thing. Why would you think so?"

She pointed right at his heart and said distastefully, "That jumper."

He beamed. "Fetching, isn't it? A gift from Alastor. He's only just gotten the knack of cables again now his hand's mended."

"It's… it's neon peach."

"Brings out my eyes," he said airily.

"You've got feathers in your beard."

"Fawkes was shedding," he said, smiling. On a day like today, if he could distract any of them for five seconds together, he'd count it a win. "He's so territorial at this stage. And they do go rather well together, you have to admit."

"I do not."

"Odds Severus nicks them before the meeting's over?" a high tenor pondered idly from around Albus's thigh region.

"No bet," Albus and Minerva chorused, along with Pomona, just come in with Filius.

"Where is Severus?" Pomona went on, hanging up her cloak and taking the Charms Professor's (even now they didn't call him the Charms Master, as a rule, because it had sounded so disreputable when Horace said it).

Minerva checked her pocket watch. "He isn't late yet."

"No, but doesn't he usually get here early to whinge at the Headmaster about something or other?"

"Now, now," Albus said peaceably, smiling because once Severus was actually present it would have been Minerva twitting him for sluggishness (she would have used that word, too, to make his eye tic) and Pomona speaking up for him, if only for the sake of quiet. "The upkeep of Slytherin morale and the potions budget are both rather fraught. Ah, there you are, Sever…er."

This trailing off was because not only was Severus striding towards them in full-on thundercloud mode, long legs eating up the hallway like something he dared not show fear in front of was stalking him, but he whipped around twice on the way, first demanding, "Why are you still talking?!" and then pressing out between gritted teeth, "This is the senior faculty meeting."

It had no effect. Nothing ever did.

Gilderoy Lockhart bounced in, beaming affably at them all, and took his imperial purple and gold-monogrammed mug out of the rosewood cabinet, sliding it deftly between Severus and Filius's chairs. He settled himself in the imperial purple and gold thronelike affair, in his violet and gold suit, with his burnished golden waves of hair and lilac eyes. Beaming toothily at everyone.

No one either banged their head on the table or tore their hair out, even Severus. His stool, however, turned into a rocking chair and started sliding towards the door. He kicked it. It turned into a beanbag in gunmetal-grey camouflage, and started inching under the table. He kicked it again, looking quite ready to start snarling out loud, and it settled sulkily into one of those wingbacks that curls protectively around the head region. Black, of course.

Severus regarded it critically for a moment, and shrugged, predictably finding something that would let him hide his face acceptable. He shot one of his patented you can't actually laugh at me out loud, I work here now not-quite-glares around the table and sat, resigned. That look never worked. Obviously no one was going to pat his head in front of a DADA placeholder who wasn't even taking the school seriously, though, so Pomona was tucking her smile behind her hands and Filius his behind the Record Book.

Minerva, fetching the tea tray from the sideboard, had missed the whole thing. She scowled questioningly at Albus as she turned with it: wasn't he going to kick Lockhart out?

On balance, he decided, he wasn't, and not only because it would be more trouble than it was worth. The man had been a witness to yesterday's fracas, after all, the only other adult witness. He could rely on Severus to be meticulous and exact and even, with no students or parents around, as just as the boy could manage. If Severus's feelings were such that he couldn't bring himself to speak or even snarl justice, he would give it to Albus eye to eye. However, with Slytherin's legacy and Harry Potter both involved, he had skin in the game, and not shed skin. He might not see clearly in the first place. Lockhart was not reliable, but he was comparatively (Albus felt the underside of his eye twitch just thinking it) objective.

"Well," he said mildly, when everyone had the tea or coffee they wanted. "Ready, Filius?"

"All ready," Filius said, dipping his quill again. They could have used a dictaquill and kept a transcript, of course, but Filius had pointed to one or fifty particularly painfully dull and repetative meetings as a good reasons to take the minutes instead. Since he was willing to do it himself, Albus had no objection. "Biannual Senior Faculty meeting, December 18, 1992. Headmaster Albus Dumbledore Presiding. Deputy Headmistress Head of Gryffindor House Minerva McGonagall, Head of Hufflepuff House Pomona Sprout, Head of Slytherin House Severus Snape, Head of Ravenclaw House Filius Flitwick secretary. Fawkes mascot in abstentia."

"Just burned," Albus beamed, in explanation, brushing the feathers he'd tucked into his beard-tie. Filius and Pomona smiled, and even Severus managed to defrost a little. Minerva, evidently still hung up on his jumper, massaged her temples. She'd be by with cinnamon sticks and chili seeds over the next week, of course, just like the rest of them.

"Gilderoy Lockhart…" Filius wrote and read on, and trailed off in an exquisitely polite question.

Anyone but Lockhart would have read the yes, what the hell is he doing here? in it. Lockhart himself looked terribly modest and said helpfully, "Order of Merlin Third Class, Honorary Member of the Dark Force Defense League—"

"Thank you, Professor Lockhart," Albus cut in, smiling gently at him, before he could get to the Witch Weekly award. Again. "For Professor Flitwick's purposes, 'witness to an incident on the agenda' will do for the moment."

"Which was bad enough," Minerva said, her pent-up steam finally bursting out, "but this is dreadful. Even the ghosts!" Pomona scowled at her, and she said, "Well, we know what we can do for Finch-Fletchley. He's not the only one who's been petrified, you know."

"You just spoke to the boy, I believe," Severus noted to Albus, heading off a round of Who Doesn't Care About Who Else's Students before it could get started. It was a magnificent piece of tragicomedy, how quick he was at that when his own students weren't involved. Ravenclaw, for example, had been in a two-front war against what they (still, privately) called the Jockstrap houses until '85, which was about when the post-Dementor syndrome had really started to dissipate. "I don't suppose he had anything useful to contribute."

"Severus, really," Minerva snapped, focusing in on his slight lip-curl on 'useful.' It was too bad, when he'd been so careful not to say 'brat,' but no one ought to be surprised that Minerva was spoiling for a fight.

Severus, evidently, wasn't, and asked Albus, "Well, did he?"

Thoughtfully, he said, "Harry has rather managed to entangle himself in this situation. He was shaken, as might be expected. He had nothing to tell me which could have helped explain the attacks." And knew nothing about them. Of that Albus was sure, after looking at him, speaking to him. But the instruments were just as sure he had the key to the answer, whatever he knew that he knew. And speaking to him had left Albus equally sure that he was holding back, and knew that what he was holding back was important, overwhelming, and might crush him.

"Of course that poor boy doesn't know anything at all about what happened," Lockhart said sympathetically. He went on thoughtfully, "What this reminds me of is a time that I was in Mongolia, doing a bit of research that you might remember from my book, Weekend with a Werewolf, a book in which I won utter acclaim and the Best Author award from Witch Weekly!"

"The second attack's effect on Sir Nicholas," Severus spoke over him, "increases the possibility of the writing's having been an accurate account, I should think."

"Of course," Lockhart went on, undeterred, "the award was also for my general appearance, for which I can hardly blame the readers! Just look at my sparkling smile."

Severus actually did turn and look at it, giving it the same assessing look he'd given the chair while Lockhart preened, taking the attention as his due. Pomona froze like a rabbit, and Filius leaned forward avidly. "We can't look at it properly," Severus decided eventually, with a critical frown, "if it's moving."

Albus coughed, and asked the table hastily, "What connections can we determine, now that we've witnessed two attacks?"

"Three," Pomona reminded him. "Mrs. Norris, poor thing."

Lockhart smiled brightly, as if to reassure Severus he was wrong. "Isn't Sir Nicholas dead?"

Minerva bristled at the implication that her House's spectral patron didn't matter. It was a sensitive point. People often got this idea about the genial Sir Nicholas, whose willingness to gripe about his botched decapitation in public rather lessened his mystery and awe factor. But he was kind and friendly and helpful whenever he could think how to be, and his loss wasn't only the loss of a friend but of a partner and helpmeet. Between her class work and her responsibilities as Deputy, she simply didn't have the time to be as hands-on a Head as Pomona was, and didn't have the nervous energy to sacrifice sleep for it the way Severus (who'd looked around and realized no one else was going to take partnering Filch on the nightly rounds seriously by his standards) did. Like Albus had, and did now on a larger scale, she'd come to rely on her House ghost and portraits to help her keep her finger on the pulse. "And now petrified as well, poor man. I'm not sure whether to hope he's as comatose as the boy or not."

"…Do," advised Severus. She turned to glare at him, but then didn't glare. He'd turned greenish pale, and it was clear to everyone that, far from being callous, his morbidly vivid imagination was telling him a nightmare story of conscious immortal paralysis (while, Albus added, those around you who'd you'd thought were friends lost interest and gave up hope of a cure. He could always follow Severus on that extra step of ghoulish empathy Severus called realism and everyone else called paranoid, maniacally-depressive misanthropy).

"Yes," Gilderoy agreed, "but dead, still. This reminds me," he continued, increasingly brightly, "of when I was doing my research for Year with a Yeti. Only, it wasn't a ghost, it was a fox, and it wasn't petrified, but sleeping, but the moral to that story was that I once again saved the day!"

You could have heard a pin drop. You did, in fact, hear Minerva's teacup click onto her saucer. For a silver(-green) lining, Severus was staring at Lockhart in such dropped-jaw train-wreck fascination, presumably over his complete and unSlytherinly lack of social consciousness, that he was clearly no longer in a depressive spiral over Sir Nick.

Albus wondered if they'd hear his eyes roll onto the table in a moment. They'd gone that wide. Before the hysterical laughter could start, he asked, "Severus, Pomona, you two have consulted about the Mandrake crop?"

They exchanged a glance, and Severus turned a palm up. Pomona was trying not to laugh herself, but she was merely amused with Lockhart, and it seemed to be no effort. "Oh, yes," she said, "it's coming along quite nicely. There are a few precautions I'll need to take to make sure we get the best crop we can manage once the worst of the weather hits, but the progress has been excellent so far."

Albus felt a prickle of eyes on the side of his head, and turned in minor dread to meet Severus's gaze. "Pomona was saying, Headmaster," the boy said, rolling the words out slowly, as if tasting each one, "the mandrakes will be requiring scarves and mittens and the like, as this is turning into rather a cold winter."

They stared at each other. "Socks," Severus added, all gravity and businesslike checklists, and slid into Albus's mind the image of all his favorites, their gaiety stretched by mandrake roots and irretrievably stained by ground-in dirt, well watered. Albus narrowed his eyes. Clearly, it was on.

"You know," Lockhart said chattily, "back on my trip to Spain, we had our own greenhouse and we fitted our mandrakes with only the finest in cashmere mittens and scarves!"

Pomona had one of those I suppose that ought to be funny, but really it's just too odd looks. "I don't think cashmere mittens are entirely necessary."

Looking like he knew he'd regret asking, Filius asked, "In Spain, really? Mittens? You wintered in Spain?"

"Oh, yes," Lockhart confided, "between writing Travels with Trolls and Break with a Banshee, I was staying with a male companion in Spain. Juuust friends, mind you," he added with a huge wink and an elbow to Filius's ribs that spilled his oolong, "but he kept the most marvelous greenhouse there, which I helped him in improving. So really, Pomona, if you've anything to ask, I know all about Mandrakes."

"I'll keep that in mind, Gilderoy," Pomona told him sedately.

"Wintered, in Spain. Think he knows all about skiing?" Filius whispered to her.

"'I know all about Black Diamonds!'" she whispered back, grinning at him and rolling her eyes.

"Switch the signs," Severus suggested, sotto voice and lisping a little so the esses wouldn't hiss and carry. He stretched, and as his hands rose above his head his fingers wiggled in a quick suggestion of bunny ears. The other Heads stifled snickers in their teacups, even Minerva, who also shot what looked like mild stinging charm at his wrist. It must have been a very mild one, because he didn't even look chastised.

He really ought to be chastised, though. Albus decided to take Shot #759 at finding out whether the walking skeleton was, as one facet of speculation had it, padding his bones under his thousand buttons and crisp shirts with his thousand jumpers. People had used to give them to him because they assumed he must be freezing down in Slytherin and to coax him out of what they all assumed was perpetual mourning. You had to show people you were wearing their presents at least once, to be polite, right? Severus had apparently not heard of this rule.

He still got them when 'twas the season for gag gifts. Albus thought he was the only one who still gave him woolenwear that wasn't either twice his monthly salary (Severus mournfully insisted this was because Lucius Malfoy had no sense of proportion, Narcissa Malfoy just couldn't bring herself to buy things that weren't custom because if it wasn't made for someone it was thoughtless, obviously, and the stupidity of their gifts weren't actually intended to be an insult or to buy him) or meant to be entertainingly awful, although it had to be admitted that he and Severus were never going to understand each other's taste.

He therefore suggested, "Severus, I'm sure you have a muffler or two that you've yet to find use for?"

Sliding him amused eyes, Severus said, "Those are sized for people, though." Innocently, he went on, "In any case, I should simply hate to ruin anyone's fu—interfere with anyone's ability to tell the Board of their personal contributions towards the end of unstoning the castle's residents."

Click-click, click-click, went Albus's needles in the black depths of his eyes, while his paperwork piled up on Minerva's desk until she flayed him alive with her sharp little claws, and licked them clean.

"Severus," Albus said gravely. He put his hand on Severus's bony wrist and shot him back a Severus bundled up in so much wool he looked like a colorful snowman, cuddling a black, copper, and turquoise scarf Albus had made for him once, "if you wish to admit that you'd rather not part with your mittens, I don't believe anyone would think less of you."

To his astonishment, he caught a flicker of a caught-out feeling about the scarf before Severus jerked away from his hand and mind, scowling. Albus was actually grateful for Lockhart's babble, filling in the awkward moment.

"Oh, if the clothing needs resizing, I can do that, as well. In my autobiography, Magical Me, you'll not that I spent some time living with a tailor before writing Holidays with Hags."

"No one is even slightly surprised, Lockhart," snapped Severus, worse than Minerva for using the nearest irritant as a scratching post when he felt vulnerable. Still sullen and aggressive, although reaching (ineptly) to regain the lightness now he'd gotten the first snarl out, he said, "And no, Headmaster, I'm sure no one who lives above ground-level would care to comment on dungeon-level winterwear in any capacity." His eyes glittered coldly for a moment, then went sardonic, his head tilting in a cool challenge. "Nor would anyone esteem you less were you forced to admit you had… misplaced? your needles."

Can you do it all? his eyes jibed. It would be a coup. Such good PR. All you'd have to do is not delegate, micromanage, overwork yourself and then, in the end, everyone else. As usual.

"Thank you, Professor Lockhart, for all your offers of assistance," Albus said loudly. Severus settled back in his chair, back relaxing. Albus wasn't entirely sure how he was scoring that. Was it Severus 1, Albus 0, or Hogwarts 1, Gryffindor 0? He really had to get Severus to understand that full-throttle damn-the-torpedos thinking was not the enemy one of these days. They certainly had a different enemy today. "Our recent attack victims have been delivered into Poppy's care?" he asked Minerva.

"Well, it's why you brought me here," Lockhart said before he'd finished, "I'm sure! You know, I think there's a chapter in Gadding with Ghouls that deals with the petrification of ghosts. Perhaps you should all buy a copy to read at your leisure to in order to help Sir Nicholas," he suggested piously.

Minerva filled his monogrammed mug with tea, and shoved it into his hands with the You Drink That Right Now Young Man air Albus so admired in her. "Mr. Finch-Fletchley has, Headmaster. Mr. MacMillan was still in the process of fanning Sir Nicholas up when I left him."

"Why, thank you, Minerva!" Lockhart sparkled at her, and winked. "There's nothing," he winked, "extra in here, is there?"

Severus stared at him levelly. "I've been sitting over here while she was pouring it."

"Doesn't mean she can't have desires of her own, Severus," Lockhart said with a much larger wink, wagging a finger at him like a wag. "But you've called bagsy on poisoning me, I know!"

Minerva had refilled Severus's mug, and was shoving it into his hands before he'd finished mouthing bagsy? He hmphed at her, and grumbled, "I'm not going to kill him in front of people." After taking a sip of coffee, he added, "Probably." Minerva rolled her eyes at him, and he grinned at her, just with his eyes. She gave him the Look that wasn't but meant a sort of cross between grinning back and smacking him upside the head.

Severus might have recovered enough to be able to whistle in the dark about the idea that he might (personally) kill anyone, but Albus couldn't take it so lightly. If this kept up, the Ministry was going to want at least one scapegoat, and might decide to take both the known Death Eater and the convicted manslaughterer into soul-destroying custody for safekeeping. And then there was the 'this' itself. Last time it hadn't ended until it had ended someone, and there was no one known today who could be influenced to stop it, certainly not by anything so petty as the prospect of a Christmas at home.

"Perhaps prudence is called for in this case, Mr. Lockhart," he said curtly. It was a slip, but the man had just, however innocently, accused his right hand of being a sexual predator and his left of plotting murder. He might have thought he was being playful, but just at the moment Albus couldn't feel he was part of the school. "The danger that we're facing," he couldn't quite hold himself back from adding, "has clearly proven itself to be real."

Settling down, Severus asked, "Are we crediting the writing, then?"

"I feel certain that the writing on the wall represents the truth of the matter," he said grimly.

"Oh, no," Lockhart protested earnestly, and when they looked at him in question, explained, "Severus would have me all to himself if we let him." And winked.

Severus made a little strangled noise Albus would have thought his voice was really too deep for, and the cords of his throat stood out. He settled for burning vicious holes in the table with his eyes (not literal ones, at least so far) and digging his nails into the arms of his chair.

Lockhart sailed on blithely, oblivious. "Any road, yes, the danger is quite real, but it's nothing we cannot face. I had a similar situation happen to me during the writing of Travels with Trolls, only then it turned out to be a possessed goat." He elbowed Severus jocularly. "Could've used Aberforth for that one!"

"I doubt he would have been of much help," Albus said dryly as the black velvet under Severus's nails started to rip. Pomona pressed her lips together, eyes sparkling, and refilled her cup.

"Dumbledore," Minerva spoke up, looking deeply uncomfortable.

"I thought he was a goat expert?" Lockhart blinked. Minerva had been rather quiet, so Albus gave him the benefit of the doubt. He waved Aberforth away. "Never mind that. So the heir of Slytherin is about? Perhaps he should report to his head of House!" he laughed heartily, and elbowed Severus again.

"Severus, you're leaking, I believe," Albus pointed out mildly, because Severus, a muscle standing out in his jaw, had moved his gaze to his coffee, and it was converting rapidly to steam. It made the room smell exquisite, but if Severus was actually losing control of his magic, that was not good. Everyone here, possibly including Lockhart, remembered Hallowe'en of '73. Albus liked this room. It had lovely engraved scrollwork on the teacup cabinet, and all manner of little touches like that.

"Yes," Severus agreed from between gritted teeth, "I think it best." Considering the way his hands were flexing in little spasms on the chair arms, Albus supposed he was probably right. And as long as he was doing it on purpose he could be allowed to get on with it.

Filius, however, either from natural talent or because his height had forced him to learn to work without the gross leverage that permitted the grand gesture, had an eye for detail and a gift for the delicate touch. He held his wand over Severus's coffee, and allowed a couple of conjured ice cubes to drop into it.

Severus blinked, and blinked again, and a few more times as his face went all bemused and then, Albus would have sworn it, nearly laughed. Filius winked at him. Severus made a horrible face back, and then sedately sipped his coffee.

Either clueless or impervious, Lockhart rattled on, "But Severus had better beware! I don't think the Heir of Slytherin will be quite as generous as I was during dueling club and let him win!"

Filius seized his quill breathlessly, but Severus only said, quite softly, from behind the rim of his mug, "The Heir of Slytherin was not known for letting anyone win."

Albus was going to have to work out what exactly he'd meant by that later, possibly by asking with eye contact. It wasn't going to be now, because Lockhart was, clearly, rewriting the universe in an effort to save face. How odd. Did he think they couldn't see him doing it? "So you see my point, Severus! I think with just a bit of practice, you'll be a real threat! But until then, do feel free to consult with me on matters of technique."

Severus would have taken that as an honor coming from himself or Filius, so long as it was in private, Albus thought, wincing. Again, though, the expected explosion didn't come. Instead, Severus slid an inscrutable look at Lockhart and purred, "Ah, yes, I do remember a tradition of consultation on matters of… technique."

Every face around the table instantly mirrored Albus's fervent Oh dear Merlin, SLYTHERINS, I do NOT want to know!

"It doesn't seem," Severus continued, all black treacle and sorrow, "to have taken. Nonetheless," he added with a bland smile, "I shall be sure to practice, just as you suggest. Very, very hard."

Lockhart didn't seem to have the sense to be terrified, but he did at least have enough shame to look slightly embarrassed before turning his attention to toying with his hair.

"Professor Dumbledore," Minerva insisted, having by this point moved from uncomfortable to impatient.

The aforementioned Professor Dumbledore, similarly, had removed his spectacles and was pinching the bridge of his oft-broken nose. "Minerva?"

"Hagrid," she said simply.

And there it was. And while they'd long been co-workers and friends, she'd been there at the time, and he'd never yet had the proof to spoil her memories of a charming young man she'd admired for her. While she surely thought no malice of Hagrid, it didn't follow that she also thought him guiltless. Softly, he emphasized, "Do please consider before continuing, Minerva, that Hagrid remains in my trust, as he always has."

She didn't, he was cautiously pleased to see, appear to be inclined to argue with him. "And I am sure that everyone in this room," she began firmly.

"Oh, giants!" Lockhart interrupted, like a boy beginning a ghost story. "Well, there you're dealing with a fairly unsavory bunch." Sympathetically, he added, "I'd imagine being half giant gives him over to all manner of compulsions he must fight hard against!"

"Oh, yes," Severus drawled, catching Albus's eye, dry as dust, "being half-blooded definitely does that."

Albus instantly dug around in his pockets for his bag of lemon sherbets. It wasn't a compulsion (or whim) he felt particularly inclined to fight against, especially if it was going to make Severus groan at him. Any muggle-made sweet would do to straight-man the deadpan, of course, but they were his favorites... ah! He offered them around, but only Filius took one. He got the eye-roll he wanted from Severus and a pained did you really HAVE to look from Minerva, though, which fully recharged his twinkle.

Pomona looked around the room warily. She wasn't quite as good at telling when someone was being sarcastic as the rest of them, as it hadn't really been something she'd grown up with and she didn't teach her badgers to do it. She knew Minerva and Poppy quite well by now, and Severus tried to remember to ham it up for her, but her success rate still wasn't 100%. "I've never observed any sort of behavior that would lead me to believe anything of the sort about him."

Minerva sighed at everyone, not patiently. "I'm sure that no one who knows you or him would doubt your judgment in the matter, Professor," she told Albus briskly, "but rumor is spreading just as wildly now as it did fifty years ago. It may not be up to us."

"If the rumors were centered around him then," Severus pointed out, "they aren't, now." He sounded almost hopeful, and it sounded rather odd on him.

"As clever as this Heir fellow is," Lockhart put in, "I'm rather surprised the rumors aren't spreading about me!"

"Not within the school, perhaps," Minerva said, ignoring him. "Those rumors are patently absurd."

"Although," Severus mused, frowning, digging a knuckle into his lips, "not, perhaps, that absurd."

"Though," Lockhart mused, too, "I am far too young for that sort of speculation. Still. Clever!"

"Very nearly!" Minerva glared at Severus. He startled, seemed to review the last couple of seconds, and (Albus could see it happen, like the turning of a switch) turned from Intelligence Agent to Partisan Tease. His whole face changed, and he gave her wide, what-can-you-do eyes.

Wearily, Albus mentioned to them, "I'd prefer our meeting not to descend into speculation and finger-pointing."

While Lockhart babbled, "You know, I wonder if the Heir is attractive! Then I'd be a definite candidate. Well, other than being far too young," Severus, back on task, shook his head. "Not speculation, Headmaster. A related matter."

"Please explain, Severus," Albus invited, but had to warn him that Lockhart was enough chaos for one meeting and he didn't need Snakes v. Lions Round Eight Million. "Have you begun taking your students' gossip to heart?"

"While I admit it's tempting," Severus began in regretful confession.

Pomona, however, either thought he was of the resisting-everything-but-temptation school or was too upset to have processed that he had something real to say. "We have to stand by Hagrid," she said firmly. "We all know it couldn't possibly be him." Severus looked at her, gave a little shrug with mostly his eyebrows, and sat back in his chair.

"Quite right," Minerva nodded sharply. "I'm concerned for hi—"

"Yes, powerful, clever, and good-looking. That would be me to a T. I wonder if I am the Heir of Slytherin and I just don't realize it?"

"As we all should be," Pomona agreed, looking around for everyone's agreement. "He may need our protection, in times like these."

"But will we be able to give it?" Minerva asked, grimly, in the way that meant I know the answer and so do you. "Some of the parents remember the last time. And the grandparents."

"Oh, but listen to me, on about myself when I'm far too young to have been there before! It would have to have been someone who was at the school back then. And attractive. I've heard you were once quite the looker, Albus."

Severus, finally caught, turned from Pomona to give Lockhart a look of unadulterated incredulity.

"You're not old enough, either, Severus," Lockhart said, not unkindly. "But yes," he added, generous, "you're very intelligent."

Severus turned again, and met Albus's eyes. He wasn't a good or disciplined Legilimens, but he had a natural flair both for improvisation and for mind-magic that didn't require him to convince himself he wanted mental intimacy. He had no more trouble with these shallow communications than he'd had with making his Patronus into a messenger (once they'd forced enough cocoa and Heartsease Potion into him that he could even start to try the base charm).

Can I, he begged, expel someone from my house post-graduate? PLEASE?

Better not, Albus returned, regretfully judicious. He always found it hard not to push too far in when they did this, but challenge was the spice of life, especially when it wasn't a spice that involved politicians and gave one wind.

Even after that 'once quite the looker' crack? Severus tempted him, full of carefully crafted nonsense horror at the offense to Albus's silver fox status and, below it, where Albus wasn't supposed to see, actual stony outrage that this feather-headed piece of flash in the pan fluff would swan in and call Severus's master by name, as if he had the right to flirt and try to bring Severus's master down to his distasteful and sequined and weaselly little level, as if they were on a level and intimate already, a feather boa with a dragon.

Oops. He really hadn't meant to go that far in. Also, and more importantly, oh, dear. Even though the sort of mastery Severus was associating with him was largely somewhere between a craftsmaster and a knight's lord, there was a definite flavor of samurai's daimyo floating around in there. Albus had really thought they'd all gotten Severus back to thinking of himself like a human being again, and thinking more or less like one. If 'back' was really the word.

And yet, even now, while he groaned and teased and whined and fumed and played, the cold devotion of that naked blade hovered in his still waters, standing fast, hilt ready for Albus's hand.

And Harry was at Hogwarts, the Prophecy creeping up on them. This was a terrible thing to learn, and Albus could fight it in Severus, as he had before. But Harry was at Hogwarts, so no, he couldn't.

Severus smirked at him as he pulled out of the dark eyes, an I felt you weakening there, we both know you want to let me, come on, it'd be so satisfying look. Albus smiled a little, managed a twinkle. He'd been managing his face for decades, was confident it didn't look rattled, or sad.

Thought was faster than sound, and Pomona was still insisting, "They would only need to meet Hagrid to see that he's completely incapable!"

"The current confusion surrounding that… person," Severus put in, making a little face and leaving it vague whether he meant the Heir or Harry or whoever had been painting the walls, "may at least buy Hagrid some time. Is there any way we can use it?"

"And that's another problem, Dumbledore," Minerva said, lips tight, while Albus stared at Severus. Fraught over Harry, yes, he knew Severus was that, but to even consider stirring the poison-pot around a twelve-year-old! "Half the school's been treating that poor boy like a pariah since yesterday, and now that he was the one to find Finch-Fletchley and Sir Nicholas…"

He nodded, but really, he'd scarcely heard her. "Severus," he said sternly, "regardless of your personal feelings, I find the accusation of one innocent person a less than admirable way of going about helping another."

Severus looked absolutely slapped, and as though the ringing in his ears matched Albus's. After a moment of really awful silence, face stiff, he said coolly, "I meant, Headmaster, that we might, perhaps, use the time."

Oh. Oh, well, that… made more sense. Clearly Albus was more rattled by the reminder that who they'd had to be once was still waiting for them than he'd thought.

"He was hearing voices," Lockhart prated, "but fame can be difficult for some to deal with. Perhaps if he spent a bit more time with me, I could show him the ropes! Get him used to that sort of life."

Far more gently, Albus said, "I don't think that will help, Severus. I've already heard from the Ministry: more than one enquiry about Hagrid."

"They'll take him back if they're not stopped," Severus said, jaw tight, not meeting Albus's eyes. "They'll want a scapegoat.

"And I will," he assured him, "exercise my considerable influence to keep that from happening." They were, of course, only partly discussing Hagrid. There had been owls about Severus, too. Albus wasn't terribly worried about him yet, not with Malfoy so firmly in power, but the specter of the island loomed.

Hagrid had come back shaken and cowed, cried buckets over his changed life, made friends (only some two-legged) ferociously, and been reasonably steady by September, even in the face of the crueler students. Severus had gone sweetly and gently insane by anyone's standards after half a week with the Dementors, earnestly droning muddled lists and verses and notes of things he'd never cared about at questioners, swaying, giving every indication he really was trying to answer, really thought he was. By the time Albus got him out, he was so stubbornly catatonic that Albus had had to ask Perenelle Flamel for help. Lily Potter had had to taunt and coax and stupid-question him into some truly inspired brewery before he'd invented himself something that broke through his own fog even a little, because chocolate and sunlight hadn't begun to do the job. It had been years before anything like the boy who'd gone in had started to show again in the indifferently willing tool they'd gotten back. The losses hadn't helped, of course, but Albus thought Severus might prefer to die than go back there even for a day. He only hoped he wouldn't be so hard-pressed, in the instance, that he'd have to tell him no.

Shaking off that looming shadow, perhaps, Severus turned to Lockhart, mouth tight. "These voices."

"Oh, yes, the voices." Lockhart was, Albus thought, not flattered but pleased at his expertise finally being acknowledged. "Well, I expect that growing up as he did, being around a real celebrity left him a bit overcharged, don't you think?"

Severus stared at him again, this time flat-eyed. "Try to make sense."

"I am making sense!" Lockhart protested. "The boy was overexcited! Thought he was hearing things!"

"It is possible that Harry was overexcited, of course," Albus allowed, "but I find, in light of recent revelations, that Harry may truly have been hearing something that others were not."

Pomona gasped, but Lockhart waved his hand dismissively. "Well, of course he was! He was seeing me! That kind of contact is likely to make any young man a bit batty, no matter how heroic he might otherwise be!"

Severus looked sourly at the table, but didn't speak. Or gag. In appreciation of his restraint, Albus cautioned, "We should not, however, jump hastily to conclusions."

"Regardless of how popular the activity is among the students," Minerva said, with a pointed emphasis that was mostly for Severus, but a little bit for Pomona.

"But if he's hearing things…" Pomona wrung her hands. "Oh, that poor boy…"

"I'm hearing things as we speak," Severus pointed out reasonably. "Namely, you lot. Voices. Hearing them. An indication of what? Functioning ears. That boy doesn't need coddling."

He needs listening to, Albus filled in for him, which Severus was never ever going to say out loud. Or rather, Severus might say it, in the form of he needs to be exhaustively interrogated with thumbscrews and red-hot pokers… no, that was more a Filch daydream. Albus was, perhaps, a little frustrated by Harry's refusal to talk to him.

"How can that boy not need coddling?" Pomona was asking hotly. She was a little frustrated by her Hufflepuffs having supported Justin in a way that identified a little boy as an enemy. Especially when she didn't think the evidence was there and even Severus had told her that (because Christmas was a filthy lie or at least had it in for Severus) the timeline said it wasn't. Albus had found her after breakfast, during her cancelled class period, already planning what she was going to say to them after the holiday, if they'd still been at it. And that had been before the poor boy had been found... by the other poor boy.

Thinking it best not to give Severus a chance to answer that one (for only the fifty ninth time or so that term), Albus said, "I'm afraid there is little we can do to stop Harry from hearing things when we don't yet know the source."

"And if there is a source," Severus asked, his dispassionate Intelligence Agent face back on, "is it wise to try and stop him from hearing it?"

"Are you asking me to leave the castle?" Lockhart gasped.

Severus turned to Albus at once. "Oh," he uttered, in dead earnest. "Please." Minerva reached over to smack his hand with the sugar tongs, and he smirked.

Filius, who'd been scribbling like a madman and occasionally giggling under his breath (Severus staunchly maintained he was writing erotica when he did that, despite the strong correlation with his own bouts of sociopolitical ranting and shouting matches with Minerva) looked up and asked, "What leads you to think he's hearing something real, Albus?"

"I wondered myself, at first," Albus said cautiously, "whether the voices that Professor Lockhart heard Harry complaining of were real. Now, this revelation of Harry's Parseltongue ability strikes me as no coincidence."

Filius's bushy eyebrows shot up, and then farther up as Lockhart's eyes widened. He eyed Lockhart cautiously as the boy clutched at his cravat and went pale. "That story wasn't made of pure overexcitement, then?"

"Then what could he be hearing?" Pomona frowned.

Albus gestured to Severus. "Professor Snape?"

Severus opened his mouth to explain, looking rather sour, but then he stopped. He looked at Lockhart, whose thronelike chair had grown wheels and who was inching closer to him, and raised his eyebrows inquiringly. Lockhart took this as an invitation to very nearly huddle. It rather looked like he was hiding behind Severus, who leveled a what the HELL do you think you're doing glare at him.

Albus, across his Potions Master from Lockhart, very-nearly-accidentally caught a flicker of That kid might be crazy and who's going to save me?! in the lilac-slate eyes. He caught up his tea and coughed into it. Sweet little Harry who saw his mother in the Mirror, the Frothing Rabid Menace, complete with fangs and claws. Lockhart was thoroughly ridiculous. Even without considering what he'd been hired for.

Severus rolled his eyes and shoved Lockhart's chair back into position with his foot. "During the first meeting of the dueling club yesterday," he quirked a cynical eyebrow, the emphasis on 'first' suggesting he suspected it would also be the last. Lockhart, wide-eyed, had gotten back up and was sneaking back over behind him. He went on, "following a disastrously precipitate first exercise, Professor Lockhart deemed it—don't even THINK about it—wise to—"

Lockhart froze, but was clearly thinking about it.

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Pomona expostulated.

Severus narrowed his eyes warningly at Lockhart. "Deemed it wise," he repeated, each word a silky but unsubtle threat, "to stop the proceedings and demonstrate a blocking spell." Heavily sarcastic, he explained, "No doubt the, er, spell he chose to demonstrate was some tremendously complex procedure learned from some high muckety-muck of the this-that's. But if so, it was considerably too complex for even," this even more heavily sarcastic, "so advanced a second-year as Potter to replicate on one demonstration. His partner for the exercise, Malfoy, cast a Serpensortia. Potter spoke to the resultant snake in Parseltongue, with effect."

"He seemed capable!" Lockhart protested, defending his tremendously complex procedure.

"No doubt he failed to grasp the delicate way dropping his wand was meant to be integrated into the swish and flick," Severus suggested smoothly.

Even Lockhart couldn't ignore that one, although the way Minerva had suddenly started snorting bubbles into her tea might have had something to do with it. Tilting his head up, Lockhart declared, "Clearly the boy was showboating for me."

"Clearly, Gilderoy," Filius patted his arm.

"Regardless," Severus said, inclining his head, seeming to consider honor satisfied as long as Lockhart at least noticed. Which was quite understandable. Severus could give Sisyphus a run for his money any day, or any Hufflepuff, but when he wasn't completely off his head he could also prioritize. Back in his normal voice, only more resigned and tired, he went on, "Potter used Parseltongue instead, with predictable results: drivel-brained panic." He sighed.

"The kids are saying he was egging the snake on," Filius noted. "That's not true as well, of course?" Severus snorted. He did expressive contempt so well, Albus thought—fondly, although he had enough self-awareness to realize he wouldn't have felt that way if Severus had meant something else by it.

"Oh, I really couldn't say what was going on in the boy's mind," Lockhart sparkled, seeming not to realize the question had already been answered. "Perhaps he thought it would impress me if the snake attacked the boy. Boys of that age can be quite brutal, as you know."

"I highly doubt it, Miste—Professor Lockhart!" Minerva rapped out, her mouth barely more than a thin line.

"Indeed," Albus agreed. Mostly but not entirely for the record, he stressed, "The stigma surrounding the use of Parseltongue has no doubt fueled rumors, but I doubt that Harry's intentions were harmful."

"Boys of that or any other age," the serpent at his left hand murmured, quiet and silky cold, his voice pitched to carry and his eyes very carefully nowhere near Minerva, "can be extremely brutal." He let that hang, and then said, with a shrug and an ironic little twist of a smile, "But he seemed to expect to be lauded—all surprised parties, hands up—so in this case, I deeply regret to say that I," he made quite a production of struggling to choke out, "I… I doubt it as well."

Minerva threw a sugar cube at him. He blocked with a spoon so that it riccoched and dropped neatly into his coffee. He looked down with an annoyed now I'm going to have to drink this? expression. Minerva smirked. Albus didn't see how one little sugar cube could possibly make a difference to coffee the way Severus took it. Quite possibly it didn't and he was evening the scales with her after what he'd just said, or complaining for the fun of it, but it was hard to tell with Severus.

"Oh, I think boys of that can be quite thoughtless," Lockhart said seriously. "Perhaps he hadn't thought the situation through?" It was the first thing he'd said all day that sounded like he was in contact with reality, so Albus was willing to listen. Then, though, he went on cheerfully, "But then Severus saved the day! I, of course, allowed him to. I didn't wish to embarrass Harry any further."

Severus looked shocked and dizzy for a moment, and then his genius for finding the insult in an Order of Merlin came to his rescue. "The day didn't need saving," he protested indignantly. "Headmaster, you don't think I would have let Malfoy use a spell in school whose effects I couldn't manage?"

"Of course not, Severus," Albus patted his hand, amused. Severus subsided with the indignantly grouchy look of the vindicated falsely accused.

"Oh you can't control a Malfoy, not really," Lockhart said, and won a sour, agreeing little huff from Severus. He grinned impishly. "In any case, I'm sure Harry was just a boy being a boy—a powerful boy being a boy, but still just being boyish. I should take him under my wing, perhaps…"

Looking rather jittery, Minerva pressed, "You said 'no coincidence,' Professor?"

He had, and if he was right, they faced a terrible prospect indeed. A creature that petrified, that had killed, that could live at least fifty years, that could be heard only by a Parseltongue... Gravely, he nodded. "Indeed. We now have a highly plausible explanation for why a student—namely, why Harry—would hear voices that would go unnoticed by most everyone else."

"Yes well," Lockhart said, equally grave, "I don't think Harry is the only student bearing a confused crush. I believe his friend Miss Granger bears watching as well!"

Albus would not have imagined it possible for this particular meeting to devolve.

I absolutely do not answer for Albus's thoughts being anything like what Danny meant when she wrote what he was saying. This chapter, starting from Minerva's 'this is dreadful,' is true to the chatlog we wrote together in, what was it, '06? with a very few edits for clarity and flow and Spain actually having quite cold winters. The prose, however, grew from the dialogue overnight in '14. By which I mean, over the course of an all-nighter. So, just to be clear: credit for Albus's speech to dannybailey, Gildy's and Pomona's to charlotteschaos. Everything else, as far as I can I recall, is my fault.

I haven't decided whether this is going to be part of my Subjectiverse arc yet, but the Hallowe'en '73 Albus is referring to can be found in A Key Called Promise. Or you can fill one in for yourselves. :D