That night, Severus laid awake in bed longer than he should have, his head spinning as he tried to wrap his mind around what he had seen during Astronomy class. He was certain it had been Remus who had slipped into the hole under the Whomping Willow, but hadn't James told him Remus was ill? James was a liar, obviously, but there could have been a grain of truth to what he had said. Severus had seen Madam Pomfrey at the base of the Willow as well, after all.
In the end, Severus decided he would ask Lily her opinion. She was in Gryffindor; maybe she had some insight into Remus' behaviour that had escaped him. Satisfied, he closed his eyes and spent the night's few remaining hours in comfortable, dreamless sleep.
Meeting up with Lily the following day turned out to be more difficult than he had anticipated. It took some doing to ditch Mulciber, who wanted Severus to complete his Potions homework for him, and even after all that effort, he wasn't able to find Lily in any of their usual meeting spots. Evidently, she was no longer waiting for him to spend time with her, a fact which made his stomach twist uncomfortably.
Their afternoon free period was nearly over by the time he finally found her on the sixth floor, her robes rustling against her ankles as she strode down the corridor towards Professor Slughorn's office. Severus caught her by the arm and she turned, her green eyes widening in surprise.
"I've been looking everywhere for you," he said.
Lily's eyes widened even further. "Really?"
"And here I thought you'd forgotten about me again," she said. Her tone was light, but Severus could hear the hurt lingering beneath her words.
"Impossible," he said, pressing all the sincerity he could into his voice. "I understand if you're angry, though. I would be, too, if I was you."
Lily tilted her head, thoughtful. "I wouldn't say I'm angry, really. It's more… God, Sev, I'm worried about you. There're some nasty rumours about that group of Slytherins you've been hanging round with, did you know that? I mean, they say Mulciber -"
"That's not my choice," said Severus quickly. "Not Mulciber, at least. I told you, he's been making me do his homework for him, it's not like… we're not friends. I promise." He was staring intently at her, trying to convince her of his sincerity, but she wouldn't meet his eyes.
"I just don't want you ending up like them."
"Never," he said. "Though if I grow about three feet and begin to speak in grunts, you'll know Mulciber's rubbing off on me."
Lily smiled a little, the worried line between her brows relaxing. "You think the rumours are true that he's part troll?"
"It's hardly a rumour at this point," said Severus. "Editing the excrement he calls an essay has taught me that there really is no limit to human suffering."
Lily laughed, the sound clear and genuine. "Stop it, you're too much!"
"It's the truth. A part of me dies every time I come across another one of his hideously misspelt words. I think my lifespan's been shortened by half already."
Lily rolled her eyes. "Has anyone ever told you you're a drama queen?"
Severus shrugged. "I seem to remember a certain red-haired girl who'd say something similar whenever I'd make a particularly astute observation…"
"She sounds wise," said Lily. "You should listen to her." She winked at him and began to stride down the corridor, touching his arm to indicate that he should follow.
"Where are we going?" he asked, hurrying to keep up with her.
"Sluggy's office," said Lily. "I've got a question about my independent study."
Severus raised his eyebrows. "Does this mean I get to find out what you're brewing?"
"Maybe. If your Potions knowledge is good enough to read between the lines."
"I taught you everything you know about Potions."
She jostled him with her shoulder, pushing him into the wall. "You taught me everything I know about everything."
"Exactly. I'm sure I can figure out whatever it is you're brewing."
"I wouldn't be so confident," she said. "I believe, in this case, the student has surpassed the master."
"You wish. You stand on the shoulders of giants."
"You're calling yourself a giant now?" she asked. "They're only one degree removed from trolls, you know. You sure Mulciber hasn't rubbed off on you?"
Severus opened his mouth to respond, but her emerald eyes were sparkling with humour as she grinned at him.
They reached Professor Slughorn's office, and the door swung open without their having to knock; evidently, Slughorn had been expecting them. He was reclined comfortably in the chair behind his desk, a box of half-eaten bonbons wrapped in gold foil balanced on his considerable stomach.
"Lily Evans!" Professor Slughorn cried, popping a chocolate into his mouth. "To what do I owe the pleasure? Ah, and I see you've brought, er, Silverus along with you."
Severus cringed, resisting the impulse to hurl Slughorn's box of bonbons at the wall.
"I had a question about my independent study, Professor," said Lily brightly. Professor Slughorn's eyes immediately flickered to Severus, a gesture that was not missed by Lily. "He doesn't know anything about it, sir," she said. "I've kept it secret like you told me to."
"Very prudent of you, my dear girl," Professor Slughorn said, sitting up straighter, which caused the box of chocolates to tumble off his waistcoat and onto the desk. "Very Slytherin, I should say. Bonbon?"
"Ooh, yes, please," said Lily, taking the box from him and picking through the remaining chocolates. "Want one, Sev?"
Severus shook his head, feeling Professor Slughorn's eyes on him again. Despite Severus' obvious skill in Potions, Slughorn had never had much time for him, preferring students who were more boisterous or better-connected. Severus, having all the charisma of a dead toad, was well aware that he would never be a part of the Slug Club. Still, he couldn't deny that the professor's indifference stung a little.
Professor Slughorn's voice jolted Severus out of his thoughts. "I suppose no harm will come if your friend overhears a snippet of our conversation. Can you keep a secret, Sliverus?"
"Severus won't tell a soul," Lily corrected gently, the corners of her mouth twitching. "He's completely trustworthy."
"I'm glad to hear it," said Professor Slughorn, settling back into his chair. "Ask away, then, my dear girl — I would be glad to be of assistance."
"Well, sir," said Lily, "the potion keeps going off whenever I add the rue, and nothing seems to help. I really wanted to figure it out on my own, but I've tried every trick I know and I'm at a bit of a loss as to what I'm doing wrong."
Professor Slughorn scratched his chin. "What time of day do you add the rue?"
"High noon, sir."
"And in what phase of the lunar cycle?"
"Always within three days of the new moon."
Slughorn nodded approvingly. "Do you handle the rue with your bare hands?"
"Never, sir. I always use cloth or gloves."
Professor Slughorn raised his eyebrows. "Dragonhide gloves?"
Lily began to blush, and Severus suddenly realized what the problem was. "Actually, sir," she said, "I've been using gardening gloves that my mum lent me. They're made from cowhide, which is standard for Muggles…"
Professor Slughorn began to chuckle, his belly shaking. "Muggle gloves! From cowhide! Lily Evans, whatever are we going to do with you? Servelus, do you happen to know where Lily went wrong?"
Severus gritted his teeth, fighting the urge to curse Slughorn for both the mispronunciation of his name and the way he laughed at Lily's ignorance. "Rue is a non-magical ingredient, sir," he said flatly. "As such, it should always be handled with dragonhide gloves. The oils from the gloves infuse the rue with trace magical elements, allowing it to blend with the other ingredients in the potion."
Lily looked shocked. "But that's — that's not in any of our Potions texts! Why didn't I ever hear — why didn't anyone ever tell me about that?"
"But it's common knowledge, my dear!" said Professor Slughorn. "Why else do you suppose we require dragonhide gloves starting in fourth year?"
"I don't know," said Lily, putting her hands on her hips. "Because that's just what wizards use?"
Professor Slughorn threw his head back, his entire body jiggling with laughter. "Ah, Lily, you never cease to amaze me! Even after years at Hogwarts, there are still gaps in your knowledge, eh? Although I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, what with your heritage… it makes me wonder what you could achieve if you hadn't been raised by Muggles…"
Lily flushed crimson, the colour spreading down her neck. Severus wished he could sink into the plush carpet of Slughorn's office and disappear.
"Come on, Lily," muttered Severus, taking her arm as she opened her mouth to respond to Professor Slughorn. "You got your answer, let's just go…"
Lily managed to wait until they were out of Slughorn's office before exploding with anger. "What I could achieve if I hadn't been raised by MUGGLES? That's not — he has no right —"
"Well, he's not a complete waste of space," said Severus. "At least now you know —"
"— what everybody else knows except me, apparently!" she said, rounding on him. "You knew, too, don't deny it!"
Severus grimaced. "It's one of those things —"
"Why didn't you say something one of the hundreds of times we've had Potions together? When you saw me using those gloves?"
Somehow, Severus didn't think it would diffuse the situation to tell Lily that he thought it was cute she used her mum's old Muggle gloves to brew potions. "It never really mattered in class, but if you're making a N.E.W.T.-level potion —"
"Which I bet you still haven't figured out —"
"I have a guess." Slughorn's questioning had let enough slip that he actually had a decent idea as to what she was making.
Lily crossed her arms. "Let's hear it, then."
"Well, it's obviously a very sensitive potion if you have to take into account the phases of the moon," Severus said. "And judging from the way Slughorn wanted you to keep it a secret, it's probably something dangerous or valuable. Which leaves us with a few options." He began to tick them off on his fingers. "Amortentia. Polyjuice. Felix Felicis. Wyrmwine and the Drink of Despair are possibilities, but somehow I don't see you agreeing to brew Dark potions. None of these uses rue except Felix and Wyrmwine, and of the two, Felix seems to be more your style. It is Felix Felicis, isn't it?"
A glance at Lily's face told him that he had been right. "I can't believe you guessed," she said, her shoulders drooping. "Slughorn did want me to keep it a secret, but I also… I also wanted it to be a surprise. I thought maybe after our O.W.L.s, we could, you know, try a little…"
Severus couldn't keep his heart from racing at the thought of taking Felix Felicis with Lily. A lucky day, a perfect day… maybe that would be exactly the push they needed… maybe there was a chance she felt the same…
"Erm, I also had a question for you," he said, shaking his head a little to clear the images that were swirling around his mind. "You know Lupin? Remus Lupin?"
"Of course, he's in my year," said Lily, biting her lip and looking at him with sudden apprehension. "Is this about Potter and Black? What they did yesterday?"
Severus blinked. "You know what they did yesterday?"
Lily smiled sadly. "Sev. You've got a welt the size of a Galleon on your cheek."
Severus touched his face, frowning. He didn't make a habit of looking in the mirror. "Ah. Well, this is something separate. Sort of." He told her what James had said about Remus being sick, and what he had seen during Astronomy class.
By the time he had finished talking, Lily's brow was furrowed. "Well, whatever it is, I wouldn't worry about it," she said, shrugging.
Severus stared at her. "But don't you get it? They froze the Whomping Willow. Why would Lupin need to do that?" A bolt of inspiration struck him. "You do prefect rounds with him, don't you? Does he ever not show up?"
Lily shook her head, but she wouldn't meet his eye. "I mean, he misses once in a while, but —"
"Did you patrol last night? Did he miss then?"
"I… look, his mother's ill, alright?"
"So it's his mother, now? Does she live under the Whomping Willow?"
"I'm not going to talk to you if you're going to be like this," Lily said. "You don't need to be getting mixed up with Potter and his friends."
"Who said anything about Potter? Is he in on it, too?"
Lily stomped her foot in frustration. "Sev, you are being impossible!" She adjusted her bag on her shoulder and picked up her pace, not waiting for him to catch up.
Severus watched her dark red hair swinging behind her as she rounded a corner and disappeared from his sight. He was certain of one thing: whatever was wrong with Remus Lupin, Lily knew about it, and she didn't want him to find out.
"Ready, you lot?" asked James, standing on his bed and shaking his Invisibility Cloak impatiently.
"Born ready," replied Sirius, snatching the Cloak out of James' hands and throwing it around himself. "I've been practising, and I make a very good ghoul. You ought to hear me scream."
"That was you, then, in the boys' loo?" asked Remus, ducking under the Cloak. "Because the noises you were making reminded me of a lot of things, but a ghoul wasn't one of them."
"You put Moaning Myrtle to shame," agreed Peter, joining Remus and Sirius.
James drew the Cloak around the four of them, checking to make sure their feet weren't visible. "Alright, Operation: Haunted House is a go."
Hidden by the Cloak, they crept downstairs, through the Gryffindor dormitory — James spotted Lily in the corner with a group of students, playing some sort of Muggle board game that involved a lot of many-sided dice — and out the portrait hole. They descended the castle's many floors in silence, narrowly avoiding a pair of Hufflepuff prefects in the Entrance Hall before slipping through the great oak doors and out onto the grounds of Hogwarts.
Sirius let out a loud moan as soon as they were outside, the bitter night air whipping the cloak around their legs.
"Shut it, Banshee Black," said Peter, laughing a little. "Do you want us to get caught?"
"I'm just giving Hogwarts a taste of how good a ghoul I am," said Sirius. "I'm waiting till we reach the Shack to really let loose."
"Merlin help the unsuspecting inhabitants of Hogsmeade," said Remus. "It's bad enough they have to listen to the howls of an actual monster every month…"
"You lot are so P.C.," said Remus. "That was a joke."
"You should try being funny next time," offered Peter. "It might help."
"The full was that bad, eh, Moony?" said James, guiding them towards the Whomping Willow.
Remus tried to shrug, a difficult feat considering he was sandwiched between Sirius and Peter. "Nothing too out of the ordinary. Got a scratch on my embarrassing bits. It wouldn't stop bleeding so I had to show Madam Pomfrey. Loads of fun, that was."
"I'll have to remember that one," said James. "Poppy is a ten."
Sirius snorted. "Poppy is a seven-point-five on a good day. I'm a ten."
"Yeah," said James, "But I'm not trying to get you to look at my embarrassing bits, am I?"
"So you agree I'm a ten."
"I agree you're a self-centred git —"
"Quiet!" Peter whispered suddenly, and the group froze. Peter gave orders rarely enough that when he did, it was cause to pay attention. "I heard something. Footsteps."
The four boys turned as one to look behind them. "Nobody there," said Sirius. "Probably Hagrid —"
"Well, there's an easy way to tell for sure," said Remus, drawing his wand. "Homenum revelio."
Immediately, a bolt of light shot out of his wand, streaking towards the Forbidden Forest. At the edge of the trees, the light unfolded like a blanket overtop of a small, skinny figure before rushing back into Remus' wand.
Sirius was out from under the Cloak before James could stop him, striding towards the figure with his wand out. James followed him, whipping off the Invisibility Cloak and flinging it to the ground.
"Stupefy!" cried Sirius, and a burst of red light struck the trees. "Where'd he go, that slimy sneak —"
"Sirius, don't," said Remus, jogging to keep up. "It's past curfew, don't draw attention —"
"He's gotta be Disillusioned or something," said Peter, looking around wildly. "Do that spell again, Remus…"
But James was way ahead of him. "Homenum revelio," he said, firing off one spell after another as quickly as he could. "Homenum revelio, Homenum revelio, Homenum revelio…"
"You really need to learn how to cast non-verbally, mate," said Sirius, breaking into a sprint as James' spells illuminated a dark shape running back up to the castle. Whoever it was had a large lead; the oak doors opened slightly and slammed shut again just as Sirius reached the bottom of the stone steps.
Panting, Sirius sat down on the steps, waiting for the others to join him. James reached him first and Sirius stood, letting James throw the Invisibility Cloak around their shoulders. Peter made it to the steps next and promptly disappeared under the Cloak, while Remus waited patiently by the Whomping Willow for the group to join him once more.
"I think that was Snape," said Remus seriously once James had draped the Cloak around him.
"You don't say," muttered Sirius, waving his wand at a stick laying on the ground. The stick hovered in the air for a moment before Sirius, with a flick of his wand, sent it through the branches of the Whomping Willow to touch a knot at the base of the tree. Immediately, the Willow's thrashing branches stilled, and the four boys crept towards the hole that lay hidden in the tree's roots.
"Was he following us?" asked Peter, sliding down into the tunnel.
"That's what it looked like," said Sirius as he followed Peter down the hole. Turning, he extended an arm towards Remus, who pretended not to notice as he lowered himself gingerly into the tunnel.
"D'you think he suspects…?" asked Peter, leaving the end of the question dangling in the air.
James folded the Invisibility Cloak over his arm and jumped into the tunnel, nearly knocking Sirius over as he did so. "Snivellus doesn't know anything. There's no way."
"But we just had a full moon," said Remus, his forehead creasing with worry. "He could have noticed I was missing — maybe Madam Pomfrey said something —"
"Poppy's not an idiot, she wouldn't do something like that," said James.
Sirius grunted his agreement as they began to make their way to the Shrieking Shack. The tunnel was so small that they had to bend nearly double as they walked to avoid scraping their backs.
"We should be more careful from now on," said Remus as they reached the end of the tunnel. "Especially if Snivellus has decided to play detective."
"Agreed," said James, hoisting himself out of the hole and into the Shrieking Shack. The others followed suit, dusting off their knees and surveying the decrepit room. "And Moony, if he gives you any trouble — if he even looks at you wrong — you tell us, and we'll take care of it."
"Banshee Black will lure him to an untimely demise," said Sirius, cupping his hands to his mouth and letting out a loud, suggestive moan that rose into a bloodcurdling scream.
"That's very kind of Banshee Black," replied Remus, tapping his wand against a chair. Immediately, thick black smoke began to pour out of his wand, filling the room and leaking through the boarded-up window into the air outside.
"I live to please," said Sirius. He touched his wand to his throat to amplify his voice and let out another long, vulgar moan. Peter whooped with laughter, banging his arms against the walls, and Sirius stopped moaning long enough to pull a bottle from his robes. He took several gulps before passing it to Remus.
"Excellent start," said James, his eyes gleaming as he pulled out his own wand. "Now, show me why they call this the most haunted house in Britain."
That night, the villagers of Hogsmeade were kept awake by the screams and wails coming from the Shrieking Shack, often accompanied by bangs and flashes of light. At one point, the house shook violently from top to bottom, knocking tiles off the roof and into the decrepit garden. By morning, though, the Shack stood still and silent; and if anyone noticed at breakfast that the fifth-year Gryffindor boys looked a little worse for the wear, nobody said anything.
Lily was entirely engrossed in Professor Walog's Arithmancy lecture when she felt something nudge at her leg. She jumped a little in surprise, her quill streaking ink across her parchment. Glancing down, she saw a tiny, origami dog pressing its paws against her ankle. It wagged its tail excitedly as she bent to pick it up, pretending that she had dropped her quill. She placed the origami dog carefully in her lap and unfolded it, trying not to let Professor Walog see.
She recognized Severus' cramped, spiky handwriting at once. Meet me in Dungeon Six after lunch, the parchment read. Overheard something important. Need your opinion.
She scribbled a quick response, keeping one eye on Professor Walog. Please tell me this isn't about Potter and his mates. She tapped the note with her wand, watching as it folded itself into a paper cat, which stretched lazily before jumping off her lap and strolling towards the back of the room.
A reply came in the form of a tiny eagle which beat its wings against her shins. Just come, will you? I'll be waiting.
After class, she ate lunch with Mary and Marlene, who was bemoaning the E she had gotten on her latest essay for Muggle Studies ("How was I supposed to know dirigibles aren't a common means of Muggle air transportation? Lily, you're sure you've never ridden in one?"). Across the hall, Severus was trying to catch Lily's eye from the Slytherin table, but she was determined not to look at him.
Against her better judgement, she excused herself from lunch early, leaving Mary and Marlene to debate whether a dirigible was the same thing as a hot air balloon. Severus had already left the Great Hall, and, true to his word, he was waiting for her in Dungeon Six when she arrived.
"Alright, spill it," said Lily, pulling the door shut behind her. Dungeon Six was covered from floor to ceiling in mirrors of varying shapes and sizes, reflecting light in all directions. As a result, the room was utterly dazzling, which always made her feel slightly off-balance.
"They snuck out last night," Severus said at once, almost bouncing with excitement. Whatever he had overheard, he was clearly dying to talk about it.
"Who's 'they'?" she asked, crossing her arms.
"Lupin! With Potter and his other mates. They've got an Invisibility Cloak, by the way. I'd bet you anything that's how they get away with what they do, you might want to tell McGonagall —"
She sighed. "Look, Sev —"
"Lily, would you please just listen?" he said. "Judge me later, if you must. But I really need to talk about this with someone."
Lily furrowed her brow. It wasn't like Severus to be so forthcoming. And it really wasn't like him to say 'please'.
"Fine," she said, and Severus' expression changed to one of relief. "So they snuck out, big deal."
"Right," he said, all of his words tumbling out of him at once. "And I heard Lupin talking about Hogsmeade, and the howls of a monster, and something that only happens once a month, and then Potter said something about a 'full' —"
Lily's eyebrows arched further and further up her forehead as he talked. "So?"
"Don't you see?" said Severus. "The howls of a monster? Interesting word choice, right? And 'full', I think that's short for 'full moon', which is something that happens once a month —"
"We should probably head to Potions," interrupted Lily, checking her watch.
"Why don't you want to talk about this with me?" said Severus, catching her wrist. She startled, jerking her arm away.
"I just don't think this is good for you, this new obsession with Potter and his mates —"
"Lupin is a werewolf!" he hissed.
"Right," she said slowly, drawing out the word to give herself time to think. "First off, I think that's really unlikely."
"But it makes sense!" protested Severus. "What other monster do you know that's associated with the full moon? That howls?"
"Are you sure it wasn't just some weird inside joke between Potter and his mates?"
"It wasn't a joke," said Severus. "I'm certain of it. I checked my Astronomy charts and it was a full moon the night I saw him at the Whomping Willow."
"You mean you saw someone you thought might be him —"
Severus was frowning at her now. "Why won't you acknowledge what I'm saying? Have you known?"
"Known what?" she snapped. "That he gets ill frequently? Sure. But I highly doubt it's because he's secretly a werewolf, Sev. Aren't they supposed to be really dangerous? How would Dumbledore allow him near Hogwarts? Near children?"
"I don't know," said Severus, tucking a lank strand of hair behind his ears. "But you have to admit what I heard was suspicious."
"Sure, but Potter and his mates say mad stuff all the time," she said. "You'd have to be mad yourself to take any of it seriously."
"I guess," said Severus, unconvinced.
"Besides," said Lily, feeling suddenly inspired, "This is Remus Lupin we're talking about. He's a prefect, for God's sake. I always thought werewolves were a little more, I dunno, savage?"
Severus frowned at that. "You might have a point," he said. "You'll let me know if you hear anything else suspicious? Since he's in your House…"
"I'll do no such thing," she said, opening the door to the dungeon to indicate that their conversation was over. "I'm not about to go snooping in the business of other people, and I suggest you do the same. I mean, he's friends with Potter and Black, Sev. Do you really want to give them a reason to target you?"
Severus grunted in response, but he followed her out of Dungeon Six and towards the Potions classroom. She breathed a sigh of relief when he took a seat beside Mulciber, who was evidently still forcing Severus to do his work for him. When Remus walked into the classroom a few minutes later, flanked by his mates, Lily had to will herself not to stare, not to wonder if perhaps Severus had figured out something he shouldn't have.
On Saturday evening, Severus met with the other Intents in Dungeon Thirteen for their first — he cringed inwardly — bonding activity. The past week had gone more smoothly than he had anticipated, but even so, he wasn't looking forward to getting to know Avery and Mulciber on a deeper level.
As soon as he stepped into Dungeon Thirteen, however, he realized he needn't have worried. The posh, circular drawing room had been transformed. The white armchairs and the gold embroidered rugs had been relegated to the edges of the room, and Bella stood in the middle, twirling her wand between her fingers.
"Sit," she ordered, pointing at the floor, and Severus took his place next to Evan Rosier and Wilfred Wilkes, the two sixth year Intents. He noticed Rabastan Lestrange, the seventh year Slytherin beater, sitting comfortably close to Bella, as if he wasn't intimidated by her at all.
"I hope you all have had a pleasant first week as Intents," Bella began, her focus on the wand between her fingers. "Spending time together and performing acts of service for Slytherin House builds bonds and improves character. Tonight, we will be doing something entirely different. Who among you has performed an Unforgivable Curse?"
Severus glanced at the others. Nobody moved.
Bella shook her head, but she didn't seem surprised. "And how, exactly, do you expect to serve the Dark Lord if you have not mastered the most important tools in a Death Eater's arsenal?"
Severus raised his eyebrows a little at that. He was no duelling expert, but even he knew it wasn't good to rely too much on a particular spell — or set of spells — when fighting. Any enemy with a modicum of intelligence would learn to see it coming and prepare accordingly. Still, he reasoned, the three Unforgivables were a good a way as any to fill Mulciber's limited brain space, so he couldn't fault Bella for teaching them those curses first.
Wilkes raised a hand. "Who will we be cursing, Bella? Because I can think a few people I'd like to put in their place —"
Bella barked a laugh, startling Severus. "Oh, no," she tutted, giggling a little. "No, Wilfred, you misunderstand. I'm not giving you free reign to terrorize the castle. No, you will learn to perform these curses by practising on one another."
Severus felt his heartbeat quicken. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Mulciber was so excited he was practically wiggling. Perform the Unforgivables? On each other?
"But Bella," said Lestrange, "we've spent all week together. I can't — I mean, how could we curse — we know each other now!"
Bella's grin grew wider, and her square, white teeth sparkled in the light of the chandelier above them. "Rabastan, my darling," she said, "that is the entire point."
She then began to pair them off, putting Severus with Mulciber, much to his displeasure. He was certain Mulciber would have no problem cursing him, however much time they'd spent together over the past few days.
"Imperius first," ordered Bella, surveying the room haughtily. "It's the easiest one to master. As with all the Unforgivables, simply point your wand, say the words, and mean it."
Mulciber went first, his wand levelled at Severus's chest. Severus took a deep breath, hoping Mulciber wouldn't force him to do anything too embarrassing —
"Imperio," said Mulciber. Nothing happened.
Severus blinked, and Bella laughed.
"Augustus Mulciber the Third!" she cried. "You've been making friends with little Severus! Who would have thought? You'll have to try harder than that, Augustus! Severus, show him how it's done."
She spoke as if she had complete confidence in him, which meant Severus needed to pull off his Imperius curse on the first try or risk her displeasure, which came in many forms, and none of them was good. Luckily, he still found the idea of cursing Mulciber downright enjoyable. Mulciber may have been kinder to him this past week, but Severus knew that a Wampus didn't change its spots.
Severus could feel his heart pounding against his ribcage as he drew his wand and pointed it at Mulciber. He imagined Mulciber handing over his wand. "Imperio."
He felt a sort of warmth flow down his arm and out his wand, and Mulciber's expression changed to a look of stupor before he stepped forward and offered Severus his wand.
"Thanks," said Severus, pocketing it. Now give me your robes.
Immediately, Mulciber pulled his robes over his head and handed them to Severus, a dazed look still on his face. Bella shrieked with laughter at the sight of Mulciber standing there in an undershirt and pants, which caused the other Intents to look over at them.
"Very good, Severus!" said Bella, clapping her hands together. "Very, very good! His expression is a little unnatural, of course, but there will be plenty of opportunity to fine-tune that later. I'm proud of you!"
Severus turned towards her, and he felt the connection between himself and Mulciber dissipate. Mulciber frowned as he looked down at himself, standing in his pants.
"My apologies," said Severus, not sounding apologetic at all as he offered Mulciber his robes. "It was the only thing I could think of."
Mulciber shrugged. To Severus' relief, he didn't seem overly embarrassed to have been made to take his robes off. "Honestly, I probably would have done the same," said Mulciber. "My turn, then. Imperio."
Severus found himself seized with the urge to do a handstand, but he was able to resist the impulse. Dimly, he heard Bella telling Mulciber that mere revenge was not a strong enough emotion to drive an Unforgivable Curse. She then dropped her voice, whispering something in his ear. Mulciber's eyes narrowed, and a voice floated through Severus' head.
Cut your hair off… cut your hair off…
But he didn't have a knife to cut with. Severus patted the pockets of his robes frantically, looking for something sharp he could use. He heard Bella laugh, as if from a distance, and he suddenly snapped back to reality.
"Nice try, Mulciber! But your own thoughts influenced him too much. You were picturing him using a knife, were you not? The Imperius needs a lighter touch. Severus would have used his wand to curse his hair off, had you refrained from filling his mind with images from your own."
And with that, the training continued until they could all cast at least a rudimentary Imperius curse. Avery made Wilkes kiss Bella on the cheek, and Lestrange forced Rosier to loudly confess an embarrassing fantasy.
Bella had them switch partners for the Cruciatus curse, which proved to be substantially more difficult than the Imperius. None of the Intents were able to harm the others for more than a few seconds at a time, and even then Severus found the pain to be rather underwhelming.
After fifteen minutes of watching them struggle to curse one another, Bella shook her head and raised her hand for them to stop. "I am disappointed," she said. "You must not let the bonds of brotherhood impede you from doing what needs to be done. Sentimentality is weakness."
"I thought you wanted us to care for one another," said Lestrange. Severus wondered if Lestrange was the most willing to challenge Bella because he was the oldest Intent, or because the rumours that Bella was involved with his older brother were true. Probably both.
Bella tilted her head to look at him. When she spoke, her words were icy. "I want to form Intents who are committed to one another and to the cause. Commitment is different than care. It is different than love. A brother who allows his emotions to impede his commitment is a useless brother and a waste of my time. Do I make myself clear?"
"Good," said Bella, her eyes narrowing. "Severus. Show the others what it means to be committed."
Severus drew his wand and turned towards Wilkes, who he had been partnered with, but Bella stopped him.
"No, Severus," she said, laying her hand on his arm. "I want you to curse me."
The other Intents looked at each other, and Severus took a breath. He didn't like being singled out like this — and if he couldn't torture Wilkes, who he hardly knew, how could he perform the Cruciatus on Bella, who had always been kind to him?
Bella smiled sweetly at him, as if she knew exactly what was going through his mind. Severus shook his head to clear his thoughts. Surely she had picked him because she knew he held her in high regard. She expected him to overcome his emotions. To demonstrate commitment.
Severus raised his wand, not daring to think of what would happen if he failed to meet her expectations. He pictured her writhing on the floor, how good it would feel to do what the others couldn't. How good it would feel to hurt her.
"Crucio," he said, and a jolt of electricity ran down his arm.
Bella screamed; the curse lifted her off her feet and she twisted helplessly in the air, her back bending at unnatural angles. She hit the floor and her body continued to contort itself as she gagged, inhuman noises coming from her throat.
After ten seconds, Severus lowered his wand. He stared down at Bella, who lay in a heap on the ground. A low noise came from her throat, growing louder as she pulled herself to her feet. His heart thumped in his chest. She was laughing.
"You see?" said Bella, throwing her arms out as she spun to face the other Intents. "Severus follows my commands. He trusts I know what is good for him. He will be rewarded beyond his wildest dreams!"
Mulciber was next to cast the Cruciatus curse to Bella's satisfaction, followed by Lestrange. After that, they moved on to the Killing Curse, which they practised first on cockroaches, then on rats, and then on six handsome owls that Bella brought down from the Owlry. Mulciber, in particular, seemed disappointed that they wouldn't practice the Killing Curse on actual humans, but Bella assured him that it was no different than using animals. Severus felt a pang of shame as he killed his owl, a great tawny bird with intelligent yellow eyes. It had to be done, of course, but it was such a waste.
After they Vanished the remains of the animals, Bella dismissed them for the night. Severus hung back, however, under the guise of helping her return the armchairs and tables to their proper places.
"I told you to leave, you know," said Bella lightly, moving one particularly large sofa across the room with a wave of her wand.
"I had a question," said Severus, flicking his wand at the tapestries on the walls, which straightened themselves. "About what I should do for my pledge."
Bella raised an eyebrow. "I was assuming you would create a new spell for us."
"I thought about it," admitted Severus. "But then I discovered something else. What if I told you there was a werewolf at Hogwarts? Could I capture it and deliver it to you and Lucius as a pledge?"
Bella laughed. "You must be joking! There's no way a werewolf could live at Hogwarts. Have you ever met one? The Dark Lord keeps a few as Secondaries, and they are —" she shuddered. "They're awful creatures. They're not human. If there was a werewolf at Hogwarts, we'd know."
"I think this one's different," Severus said. "I think it passes for human better than most."
Bella turned to look at him, her lips pursed thoughtfully. "I believe you, Severus," she said at last. "And I think catching a werewolf at Hogwarts would be a spectacular pledge. It would showcase your talent while damaging Dumbledore's reputation. Imagine, if it got out that the old dotard was sheltering a beast among children! You would certainly capture the Dark Lord's favour with such a pledge."
Excitement swelled in Severus' chest. "I can do it," he said. "You know I have the ability."
Bella smiled and put an arm around him, drawing him close. "Out of all the Intents, you have the most potential," she said, resting her head on his shoulder. "That's why I used you as an example tonight. You make me proud."
Severus merely nodded, his mouth dry. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had this much physical contact with another human being. To his surprise, he found that he didn't mind her touch.