Disclaimer: All characters and recognizable story elements belong to J. K. Rowling.
"So let me see whether I have understood this correctly," Amelia Bones began slowly, the volume of her voice rising steadily like the incipient and inevitable eruption of a volcano. Which made Minerva really appreciate the oppressive feeling of the privacy wards set up around them.
"You have suddenly decided you need to get rid of Albus Dumbledore, mostly because according to you, he plays god with people's lives. Yet nevertheless, you clearly do not hesitate to resort to his kind of methods?" She gestured angrily towards Susan's closed bed-curtains. "All for the 'Greater Good', too, I suppose, if apparently a slightly different one?" she added scathingly, her voice dripping with fury and sarcasm in equal measure.
"Oh, no, not at all," Minerva replied, forcing herself to speak calmly, though her gaze was steely and her expression probably betrayed her annoyance at being compared to Albus. The other witch had at first listened to Minerva's explanations with surprising patience … though apparently that had been mostly dumbfounded silence instead. Or maybe stunned surprise at the audacity of what she was hearing. Yet whatever it was that had initially kept Amelia from exploding, had clearly run out.
Which meant Minerva now faced a most irate badger indeed, and thus she had to keep her own cool if she wanted to get the woman to see reason. Because the witch was so very protective of her niece, and currently solely focusing on the admittedly somewhat underhanded way they'd used to get Amelia into Hogwarts. However, they desperately needed the head of the DMLE here, rather than Susan's aunt. And for that she had to direct the woman's ire towards the real target ...
Still, it was irksome that only a few days ago Minerva would actually have been pleased at being compared to her great and mighty mentor … but well, she had been compelled to think the sun shone out of his ar ... backside. She snorted at the very idea and speared the other witch with an uncompromisingly fierce glare.
"Most certainly not for any dubious 'Greater Good'. Merely for the sake of simple justice. In order to right Albus' wrongs, and incidentally take down Fudge and Umbridge and their corruption as well. Not to mention hopefully also to oppose You-know-who better. But yes, I am willing to resort to some dubious means in order to do so without them noticing and consequentially being able to cover up for themselves and escape the justice they richly deserve!" she finished on a rather strident note of her own.
Amelia still did not look convinced. Or particularly appeased. Minerva also couldn't help notice that the Hufflepuff's monocle gave her glare a most disconcerting aspect.
"I assure you, Susan really is absolutely fine, Amelia," she continued with an exasperated roll of her eyes. "At worst she got a bit of a shock, but if you can tell me of any other way I could have gotten you into the castle without our dear Under-secretary being instantly suspicious ..."
"But I was told ..."
"Of course you were. After all, Severus did a most impressive job with Susan's apparent symptoms," the Gryffindor witch conceded with a dismissive wave of her hand. "However, she suffered no pain or real negative effects, aside from a very short bout of asphyxiation. Which we were prepared to counter the very moment it happened," she added prudently. Best to downplay that aspect and not set the irate badger off again. "Aside from that, any symptoms remaining should disappear very shortly now," she concluded, praying the other witch would finally make the switch from being a worried aunt to the no-nonsense head of the DMLE.
"All right, Minerva, all right. But this had better be really worth it …"
Could the woman possibly sound more grudging? However, it seemed she might have won the first round in this surreal battle right in the middle of the hospital wing, with its all pervasive air of white sterility. A battle between prospective allies and conspirators, no less. Yet a battle nevertheless, one to convince an upstanding person to not only believe something pretty outrageous, but also to go along with their audacious plans and help them against people of high standing … one of which was her direct superior.
Right. The rest of the battle was probably going to be uphill all the way, too.
"It is. Truly. I am sorry for worrying you about Susan, but we will have only one good shot at this. Which will fail without your help, and will equally fail if we try to do this by the book, surely you can see this? The people we are up against are not only perfectly willing to lie, blackmail and mess with people's heads, but also abuse their office in the worst way! And that's not even taking You-know-who into account! If we want to clear out this veritable stable of Augeas, we will have to resort to … unusual methods! Frankly, if you decide you can't or won't do that … we may as well give up now and move to Timbuktu!"
"Surely it cannot be that bad ..."
"One: You-know-who is back, but the Ministry is denying it and in doing so, allows him all the time he needs to prepare. Two: Both Umbridge and Fudge have violated the law they are supposed to uphold, and are using anything they can to cover up for themselves. Three: Albus Dumbledore, who should oppose You-know-who, instead seems set on turning students into a weapon against him, and actually has no other viable plan of fighting him. Not to forget Albus is awfully free with obliviates and coercions to steer people around like chess-pieces!"
Minerva took a deep breath, throwing up her hand when Amelia looked about to interrupt her, before continuing relentlessly: "Four: Albus is also sitting tight on information which might turn especially the pure-bloods away from You-know-who, and instead all but delivers Slytherin house into the monster's hands by forcing Severus Snape to keep his spy-cover. Five: ..."
"Yes, all right. I … agree," the other witch broke in, stopping Minerva's listing impatiently. "If what you say is true, something has to be done indeed. I can see that. But how can I be sure of what you tell me? I will not risk my position on some wild goose chase or an empty conspiracy theory!"
"Oh, but I am certain you know some of this already, don't you? I'm positive you have been spoiling to clean up the Ministry, at least. And I'm pretty sure you believe he is back, right?" she countered, watching the other witch through narrowed eyes.
The Hufflepuff glared back at her, but nevertheless nodded reluctantly. Good. They were starting to get somewhere.
"As for our part … Severus Snape will freely give you all he has on the Death Eaters and You-know-who's organisation. We have definite proof of something which will sink Umbridge, and frankly, it is highly likely she will have quite a bit of dirt on various people, including Fudge. And we will be most happy to show you our memories of Albus' meddling."
Amelia Bones had progressed to looking conflicted. "I will need all of that," she stated flatly. "You're right in so far that I have indeed been compiling stuff on the Minister and several key members of his staff for a while … and on the sly," she admitted with a wince. "So if you can offer me more, and most of all some concrete evidence, which I lack … "
"We have evidence, yes. Madame Pomfrey has by now substantial documentation of Umbridge forcing students to use an illegal blood-quill during detentions. And if you can use that to search her things, while the toad herself is out of the way ..."
"From the way accusations have been made against her in the past, only to be retracted under somewhat suspicious circumstances, I would be surprised if we didn't find evidence of blackmail. But Fudge ..."
"Has for some reason enabled and endorsed her all the way. What do you think the odds are she has a hold over him as well, hmm?"
"It is still … risky. Very risky."
Yet Amelia appeared quite torn. Obviously she was interested … but equally obviously she would require more convincing arguments to actually do so.
"You don't have to make any moves against the Minister until after we have found something damning," Minerva pointed out dryly. "And you should be able to keep your investigation of Umbridge under cover easily enough, if the b .. witch herself is out of the way, no?"
"True enough, hmm … well … I ..."
"What is it, Amelia?"
"You are aiming at setting me up as the interim Minister, aren't you? I mean, I do agree something has to be done, but I am not sure I'm the right person for that."
"But you are by far the most trustworthy and honest person in a position to do what needs done, my dear."
"Perhaps. Yet at the same time you are asking this supposedly honest person to do some not so very honest things!"
"I am asking you to help us bring light into the darkness, Amelia. You can only do that by walking through the darkness yourself at first, though. And truly, do you expect to have to do anything which is worse than any Auror has to do in order to infiltrate some Dark Wizards? Don't tell me you have never taken part in any covert operations?"
"Yes, but those were sanctioned ..."
"And this is sanctioned by justice itself! When the leadership itself is corrupt, doesn't it fall to anybody who can do to what they can to restore balance and justice? Wouldn't you commit a far worse crime if you sat back and did nothing?"
"Well," the other witch said with a strangled laugh after a moment of stunned silence. "When did you learn to turn an argument like this, Minerva?"
"Needs must, Amelia. I had my own wake-up call, and my part in this is just as risky as yours would be. If we fail at this … I might as well have thrown away my whole life. You don't think Albus would let me walk away from open rebellion, do you?"
"Honestly? At the moment I have no idea what he would be willing to do."
The Gryffindor witch grimaced, letting all her bitterness and rage towards Albus blend into her features. "Certainly everything up to and including extensive memory modifications and complete personality overhauls, it seems," she said harshly. "He is definitely not inclined to have his will challenged by anybody."
"So you claim at least ..."
Damn. Amelia still sounded far too doubtful. Unfortunately, for all that the Hufflepuff wasn't Albus' greatest fan, she had still been indoctrinated all her life into the view of the headmaster as the ultimate personification of what was good and light. However, that was one misconception that should be shattered easily enough by seeing what the old wizard had been up to ...
"Why don't I show you our evidence then?"
"Yes," the head of the DMLE agreed, glancing one more at the white curtains around her niece's bed. Her expression then hardened. "Yes, I believe I should have a look at that. And afterwards, we can resume this discussion."
Minerva merely sighed and gestured for Amelia to follow her.
Uphill all the way, indeed.
"So we is to turn one floor into dorms for girls, and the other into the boy's place, Mistress Professor McGonagall?"
"That's exactly right, Peony. We need four rooms per floor for the children to sleep in, one for each house. As well as one room each for Professor Snape and me. Him with the boys and me with the girls, obviously," she added primly, to make sure to avoid any misunderstandings.
Because sometimes the elves had an odd sense of humour. Or maybe a streak of rebellion. At least Albus had at times complained about this kind of thing … ah. Rebellion then, for sure.
Peony the head house-elf nodded happily. "Yes, Mistress Professor Ma'am! Plenty of rooms for that, though there is not many bathrooms. Not as many as in the normal dorms," she explained, sounding a bit dismayed at the prospect.
"We'll make do, I'm sure," Minerva reassured her. "It is just for two weeks after all. Professor Snape and I will also both need some kind of office … as well as a place for us to meet with students together," she added after a moment's thought. "That one should be … cosy. And it would be better if there was no over-abundance of any particular house-colour in that room. Keep it neutral, if you can."
"We can be doing that, Mistress Professor McGonagall. No problem at all."
"Good. Also please remember you should only set up the ground-floor as a class-room after we have … sorted out everything. For tomorrow morning it should be clean, but empty. Aside from enough chairs for everyone," she added thoughtfully. They were likely to take some time with the resorting and explanations, after all. Quite aside from the possibility of emotional distress and even fainting, which was more manageable if the children were all sitting down.
The elf nodded again. "No problem. And a locked room for Miss Bad Teacher Umbridge, yes?"
"Exactly. And during breakfast tomorrow, you will have to pack up all the fifth year student's trunks. Do you think you can manage that?"
Peony snapped her tiny fingers absent-mindedly. "Easy, Mistress Professor Ma'am! Elves is good at packing. Yes, very good. All is easy."
"Well, in that case … I could also do with help later today to get some of my things prepared and packed. And one of you ought to assist Professor Snape with the same," she added quickly. "But please, you know how he is. Don't send him someone who is too … excitable."
She shuddered inwardly. Excitable elves and Severus did not mix well. Or rather at all. They didn't need an explosion because of something like that, not when everything else was already so very volatile. The poor wizard might end up overdosing on calming draughts.
"Oh, noes, Mistress Professor McGonagall. Peony knows just who to send to grim Master Professor Snape."
Did she want to ask why there was this slightly disturbing gleam in the elf's eyes? Did she really? Probably not, she decided.
"Just don't go upsetting the Professor, please," she pressed nevertheless.
"Upsetting? Never, Mistress Professor Ma'am," Peony assured her, all wide-eyed innocence.
Ah, well. Surely it couldn't be too bad, could it?
"Could you possibly have sent me a slower house-elf, Minerva? Or one harder of hearing?" Severus Snape grumbled, his voice dripping with sarcasm, as he slumped down into the chair next to her with a defeated air. She could tell the degree of his agitation from the way his knuckles whitened because he was gripping the table-edge so hard.
Apparently it could be too bad, after all.
"Don't you dare tell me you had nothing to do with this! You talked with them earlier!"
She sighed, and carefully put down her cutlery. "I may have asked Peony not to send you someone excitable," she confessed, giving him a carefully apologetic smile. "I had no idea she would take it to the other extreme, however."
"Is that so?"
She winced at the icy, cutting harshness of his tone of voice.
"I certainly had no desire to cause you aggravation, Severus. In fact, I was trying to prevent that very thing. Alas, I suspect the house-elves have long since elevated passive-aggressive rebellion into quite an art form ..."
"Hmpf. You could say that," he groused, though he let up on his death-grip on the table and relaxed back into his chair. "But why me? What have I done to deserve such treatment?"
"Well. You might not have noticed, but you were always quite as … short with them as with the students," she tried to point out diplomatically.
"But that wasn't my fault!"
"You and I know that. They don't."
Severus, who had clearly been poised to continue his tirade, stopped himself and passed a weary hand over his eyes instead. "Of course. How silly of me not to think of that," he said, sounding resigned and rather tired.
It was indeed unfortunate that while a lot of his past behaviour had not been Severus' fault at all, he would sadly still have to deal with the resulting consequences. Given how … acerbic he had been, he might never be able to recover most relationships. It was really a horrible example of how little Albus considered their personal worth … and how carelessly he ruined lives.
Or course the Slytherin, even left entirely to his own devices, was unlikely to have turned into a paragon of social interaction, but he was nowhere near as bad as he'd been forced to be. She could already see the difference in him, now that the compulsions were broken. Still, it would take time, in some cases a lot of time, to change his image in the eyes of others. The house-elves were probably the least of their worries, as the 'normal' Severus appeared to be a perfectly courteous person, which they would appreciate. Other people were far less likely to forget the treatment they had received from the wizard's cutting tongue.
"Yes, well. I am sure they will realise eventually you never were exactly … you, in your treatment of them."
"Hopefully sooner rather than later," he concluded wearily, finally sitting up straight and reaching for one of the serving dishes. "Maybe you could have another word with them? And perhaps point this little fact out to them?"
"Of course, dear. I should have done so earlier. I simply forgot it might be necessary ..."
"Yes, well indeed. We all tend to overlook them and their work, unless there is something at fault with it."
"Hmm. Very true. And since there rarely is, unless they feel offended ..."
"We put them out of mind. But … you know, how much do you think they dislike certain other people?"
Minerva much preferred the way his dark eyes suddenly came alive with a wicked gleam to his earlier defeated look. "Oh, a very great deal indeed, if I were to hazard a guess," she said with deliberate casualness, after dabbing daintily at her chin with her napkin. "You reckon we might utilize this fact?"
"We had already planned for them to keep an eye on ..." his eyes swept with disdain over a certain pink-clad witch sitting on the other end of the table. "And we will need their assistance to keep our impromptu fifth year house running, so ..."
"Why not involve them even more?"
"They, too, might appreciate a chance for revenge, no?"
"But it might also give them … ideas … you know, for the future? Do we really want that?" she objected, trying to appear all serious and stern.
"Oh well. And here I thought I would finally get some minions of my own …"
Dear Merlin, did the man just pout?
"Besides if I helped them come up with inventive ways to torment our toad, they would perhaps forgive me faster?" he continued to speculate, tilting his head thoughtfully. There was definitely a smile tugging on the corners of his mouth as he eyed her sideways.
"They would quite literally be mini-ons in this case," she replied teasingly, finally allowing her own smile to show, which had been bubbling up inside her at having him engage her in such easy-going banter. It was altogether a huge change to his earlier icy demeanour. And much preferable.
"All the better to torment my enemies with, my dear," he said with a feral grin, showing his slightly crooked teeth. "Just think, there is hardly anywhere they cannot get into!"
Maybe people would be more willing to reconsider the dour wizard if she managed to get him to have his appearance straightened out? If he looked different on the outside, they might find it easier to see the inward differences, too? Especially if he let himself smile and joke around more …
But really, how much of his tormented fixation on the past and a certain witch had been caused by Albus? Severus was still quite young, and it would be a shame if his brilliance went to waste. Not that she ought to play matchmaker, but … anyway, it was an idea for later. After they had sorted out the current mess.
Always provided they actually did manage to sort out the current mess. The thought sobered her up again.
"May it come to bite them, in any case," she murmured, smiling back at him fondly, if a bit wistfully. "However, we should not forget this is not a fairy-tale with a guaranteed happy ending."
He sighed, and his expression settled back to the old, accustomed frown. "No indeed. For one, we have far more than just one big bad wolf in this story."
She put a comforting hand on his arm for a moment. "But neither are we alone, nor are we defenceless maidens, either."
That earned her another vicious grin. "Most definitely not, Minerva. Though I believe you still have to lure one of the monsters into its designated trap today ..."
"Ugh. Don't remind me. I was trying very hard not to let it spoil my dinner."
"And here I wanted to give you a few pointers ..."
"Oh, I'll take those," she said, leaning towards him eagerly.
After all, who would know better how to tempt and trick a Slytherin, especially a greedy one like Umbridge, than a fellow Slytherin. And who better to bait the trap than the straightforward and entirely inconspicuous Gryffindor, who could not possibly have any hidden motives whatsoever.
She allowed herself a predatory smile.
"Harry! Where have you been?" Hermione exclaimed, rising up halfway from her seat at the Gryffindor table and apparently also caught halfway between glaring at him in censure and frowning unhappily in concern. It combined to make her look altogether displeased with him.
"Uhm. You know, around," he said vaguely, sitting down across from his two friends with a murmur of thanks towards the second year who'd shifted down to give him more space.
"Around. Is that what you call hiding from your friends these days?"
Oh boy, Hermione sure wasn't in a good mood. She only sounded that shrill when she was seriously upset. But …
So what if he had kind of been hiding. Maybe. Perhaps he simply didn't want to face them after … after having to submit to a most uncomfortable session with Madame Pomfrey. So what if he had decided to ditch both classes and lunch after that, and found a need to vent some of his … frustration in the Room of Requirement? Because nobody was supposed to know. And he was pretty sure the Matron now knew far more than she should.
Not that she had reacted. Much. Though he couldn't help the impression she'd actually expected to find something ...
Which resonated with the oddly persistent, niggling feeling that he'd already gone through something similar in the past. But nothing had ever come of it, so why should it now? It was only a kind of deja vu, surely. That must be all it was, because nothing had ever happened in consequence. Certainly nothing positive ever came of telling anyone. They all promised to help, and then promptly forgot about it. Just as there seemed to be something he kept forgetting …
He frowned. But really, it was nothing. It was …
Nothing worth worrying about, was what it was. He just had to make sure nobody ever found out. Because they wouldn't understand, or worse, pity him and think him weak. Which would simply be unacceptable. He had to be strong. He wasn't a victim, or abused or any of that crap. Nope. He just didn't get on with his relatives, but so what. He could take it. He had always been fine in the end, and would continue to be fine. Right.
Unfortunately, neither of his friends seemed to see it that way. But then they didn't actually know what he didn't want to share with them, or why, for that matter. He really hated the look of hurt and uncertainty in Hermione's eyes, though. Or the frustration and concern in Ron's. But they wouldn't understand, what with their own great families and happy childhoods.
However, he could tell them something after all, he remembered after a moment of enduring the emotions in their gazes. Something which had nothing to do with his dear relatives and their abysmal relationship. Something totally different, which had caused Madame Pomfrey's eyes to narrow dangerously and her lips to compress in obvious anger.
"I was … upset," he finally confessed in a whisper, leaning forward under the pretence of reaching for something. He moulded his expression into one of distress, flicking his eyes to both sides as if to check who was listening in. The other two leaned forward automatically in response. He held up his bandaged hand and flexed it rather conspicuously. Their eyes tracked towards it in reflex.
"They found out about this, I think," he continued lowly. "Madame Pomfrey was asking me all kinds of questions and doing scans and whatnot."
"Oh," Hermione gasped, her eyes going round. "And after you tried to hide it for so long … though I told you before you should have told someone!"
"Yes, well. That's half the reason I was upset, I guess," he admitted grudgingly. "I dunno how to feel about this. Part of me is angry it took them so long to notice, and the other half is upset because I kept quiet about it for so long and now it's possible come out anyway."
"You reckon they are going to do something about it, mate?" Ron said, peering worriedly over Harry's shoulder towards the teacher's table, presumably to where the pink toad was sitting.
"No idea, honestly," Harry replied, leaning back again and putting on a face of resignation. "Which is the next thing worrying me. Cause it was McGonagall who dragged me there, remember? And if those two go head to head with the toad, and she wins ..."
The three of them winced in unison, and Harry half turned to look over his shoulder at the head table.
Umbridge certainly didn't appear aware of anything so far, as she sat delicately picking at her meal with her usual fake smile plastered all over her face. The Matron was absent, but their head of house was once again sitting next to Snape, apparently listening to whatever the wizard was saying with rapt attention.
As he watched them for several long moments, he observed both of them look towards the toad with matching malicious smirks. In that moment he suddenly felt oddly sure they knew what Umbitch had done. And that they intended to take her down.
Seeing those two possibly plot against the toad gave him the most peculiar feeling. One which oscillated wildly between dread and strangely, hope. The feeling continued to coil uncomfortably in his stomach even after he turned back towards his friends. Fortunately it seemed his explanation had satisfied their concerns about his earlier vagrancy, and the topic was mercifully dropped after they all exchanged some long, uneasy glances. Instead Harry loaded up his plate, and then pretended to listen meekly to Hermione go on and on about the lessons he'd missed today, while he picked at his dinner.
Unfortunately, all this had once again robbed him of what little appetite he'd had. But he was an old hand at pretending to eat while he wasn't really. Or pretend to smile when he didn't feel like it. Or pretend to be fine, when he wasn't actually.
But it didn't matter. And the Matron would hopefully stay quiet about whatever she may have found aside from the scar, and then everything would be fine. Just like always.
Yet as he eventually followed his friends from the Hall, on their way back to Gryffindor tower, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was walking on ice which was slowly cracking up.
And that something was about to happen ...
AN: Dear readers, I really have to apologize for the horribly long delay in updating. There were various problems plaguing me, medical and otherwise, that afford me some feeble excuses, and I honestly kept trying to finish this day after day, but …
It is currently simply a struggle for me to write. If I am lucky, it will get better. I will be honest though, it could get worse instead. However, be assured I want to write more. I like to write. I enjoy it. When I can get past the laziness, and my reading addiction, and assorted distractions, or just not feeling up to it, and … I will keep trying. In theory the next chapter is mostly written, which is still no guarantee it will be posted soon. But I will try. Because you are amazing. And there is so many of you! Really, it is almost scary. I mean, five chapters and over five-hundred favourites? Not to forget the 76 reviews I got for the last chapter? That is totally amazing. And slightly scary, that so many of you think this is a good story. And also wonderful. And … I will shut up now and finally post this chapter!