cxxxiv. blood and ginger fur
January gave way to February in its usual, ailing way, the final, straggling bits of foliage and life succumbing to the harshest depths of winter's grasp. In Minerva's honest opinion, it was the worst time of year, and not one she thought anyone should have to suffer through in the bleeding wilds of the frozen highlands. In her thirty-seven years of teaching at Hogwarts, she must have submitted half a dozen petitions to the Board requesting the summer and winter terms be switched—but the stuffy toffs on the Board couldn't be bothered to give up their summer vacations to ease the burden of actually living in the blighted tundra from November to March.
This year proved particular in its brutality. The Dementors swarmed their borders in excess and drove sleet through the air, the blasted, malingering monsters coming up on the unawares in Hogsmeade or on the road whenever the fancy took them. Pomona had needed to spend an afternoon with Poppy after a run-in with the beasts on her way to get a pint at Rosmerta's, and Trelawney had come running back bawling her eyes out after trying to go to Puddifoot's for an order of tea leaves. Personally, Minerva thought it more likely the brainless fraud had seen a paper sack in the wind and panicked, but her incompetence didn't negate the inarguable horridness of the Dementors' presence.
Minerva sighed, watching the ice strike against the windows. She might not be terribly old for a witch, but she was by no means young, and the cold sank into her bones something fierce. Poppy had run out of the camphor potion she preferred, having to treat more than one spot of frostbite on the Quidditch players determined to practice in the abysmal weather. Frowning, Minerva side-eyed Severus, wondering if she could guilt him into making more.
The Potions Master sat more or less slumped in his chair, elbows propped on the armrests as he glared out across the hall of whispering students. Given it was a mixed group of Gryffindors and Slytherins of various years meant to be quietly studying, Minerva thought whispering was excellent behavior. She'd had to rise more than once from the High Table to chastise the Weasley twins and their classmates, but otherwise, the study hall had been simple enough to manage—boring even. Minerva almost wished someone would set off a Dungbomb to give her something to do besides grouse about the miserable weather.
Severus continued to sit still and solemn, deep shadows forming under his dark eyes. His glower remained on Remus for the most part, who made steady progress up and down the row, pausing every now and then to assist a student with a question. Several times Minerva witnessed him turning to look at the Slytherin table—at the trio of Slytherin witches who got into far too much trouble for their own good. Miss Weasley sat with them as well, and the four of them had their heads bent close in rapid conversation.
"Severus," Minerva said, squinting. "What is it that Miss Potter and Miss Granger are doing?"
He stirred and inclined his head toward her to indicate he was listening.
"They have some kind of glass lens. Do you know what it is?" Potter had the lens in hand, etching runes along the brass edge with a knife from her Potions kit, stopping to consult her friends and the book open in front of her.
"You're being intolerable, I hope you know."
"Minerva, if I bothered myself every time Potter and her little gang did, said, or picked up anything they shouldn't, I'd have died of an aneurysm before the end of her first year. If they're not in immediate danger of having their faces blown off, I do not care."
"Well, I see you're in a mood." Minerva crossed her arms, lips pursed, and Severus ignored her. Lyla Muldoon, one of the Slytherin prefects, came forward to ask him a question regarding a rather finicky potion, and though Minerva gave the conversation half of her attention, she couldn't follow the deeper complexities, having never been an exceptional potioneer herself. Her eye roved the hall and, once more, saw Remus lift his head and glance toward Harriet and her friends.
Why does he keep doing that?
One of the doors leading into the hall opened, and Slytherin came swanning in, his expression placid and rather bored as he came up the aisle. Severus stiffened next to her and sat up in his seat, dismissing Muldoon before the Defense instructor stepped onto the dais and approached the table. By all rights, it should have been Slytherin sitting with her minding his charges this afternoon, not that Minerva was complaining. His red eyes cut toward Severus with unmistakable menace, and rage prickled in Minerva's chest when Severus reacted by bowing his head. Oh, it was all very subtle; she doubted either wizard even noticed it, but Minerva did, the smallest of flinches tipping Snape's chin ever so slightly toward his chest.
Slytherin flicked a bit of folded parchment onto the table before Severus, and he snatched hold of it, declining to open it in the hall. "I require that potion by the morning."
A muscle flexed in Severus' jaw. "Of course."
Slytherin smiled at him and at Minerva—more a baring of sharp, white teeth than anything, like a fox with a rabbit caught in his jaws. He departed in that same quiet and off-putting manner of his, gliding down along the row where his Slytherins sat—hesitating when passed Potter's back. The girl had her head down, nose in a book—but Minerva saw how the items in front of the trio had been hastily shuffled the moment Slytherin entered the Great Hall. The wizard stopped for only a second, not speaking, then vanished the way he'd come.
Snape slumped into his seat again, scowling.
Minerva couldn't fathom why Severus gave his allegiance to the Dark Lord when he appeared so unfathomably exhausted at times like this. No, that wasn't the truth; she did understand, after a fashion, because when she'd learned Severus Snape had become a Death Eater, Minerva…hadn't recognized the name.
She remembered the day, sitting alone with Albus in his office with the purple eaves of twilight settling on the grounds, and the Headmaster told her Severus Snape was a Death Eater—a Death Eater now under his thumb, working for the Order. Albus hadn't liked him then and neither had Minerva, because she couldn't even conjure up a face to pair with the name; years later, Minerva realized Albus hadn't trusted the boy, not as he did now, and it was only when he came to work at Hogwarts that she remembered who he was. Snape had been an odd, mistrustful child, shabby and as sour as a kicked Kneazle—and for all that he loomed dark and thunderous in the present, he'd left little impression during his school days. He'd been a background caricature in an overwhelming diorama of pure-blood sycophancy, a lackey who'd done little more than hex Minerva's Gryffindors bloody and try her patience with his condescending attitude.
Death Eaters were not as plentiful or as easy to spot as the Ministry propaganda in those days led the public to believe. Oh, it'd been utter bedlam, friends and neighbors and family members turning on one another, certain one or the other had knelt to You-Know-Who, and while Dark sympathizers and agents had been everywhere, Minerva understood that Death Eaters, specifically, were an inner-cadre chosen by Tom Riddle himself, and they weren't thick on the ground. The Order spent many nights formulating speculative lists on their identities—and not once had the name Severus Snape come up.
It was ironic, Minerva thought, how little they all knew of one another. Professors were human, fallible; they had favorites. Snape had been an intractable Slytherin boy quick to spit vitriol and retreat—a nobody. Minerva's favorites had been James and Lily—Remus, Peter, and…Sirius. They'd been so kind, so likable, and they'd used magic in such wondrous ways, whereas Severus and his ilk levered it like a bullwhip, every lesson with those future Dark followers like trudging uphill through the mud. Twenty years ago, Minerva had been so confident of her worldview, so sure those of her House were better, would know better than boys like Severus Snape. More the fool her.
After Black's betrayal, Minerva forced herself to look, to read the stories and the obituaries and the arrest logs—because Black hadn't been alone. He hadn't been a sole outlier in his deceit. She forced herself to learn and recognize the names of every Gryffindor who'd taken the same cowardly path and had been indicted as sympathizers or worse. She studied the names of those Slytherins who'd been murdered or forced from the country because they wouldn't bow to You-Know-Who. Her perception of the world shuddered and bent under the knowledge of her own partisan behavior as Minerva realized the children she'd loved best of all had betrayed them. Betrayed her.
She'd looked on in shock and horror as Severus Snape entered the Great Hall the morning after he lost his eye, sat down, and kept working. Minerva hadn't known him well then, hadn't trusted him, and still he'd shown more backbone and wherewithal than she herself could have mustered.
So, Minerva both did and didn't understand why Severus had fallen in with Tom Riddle. He'd been a rude, sharp-tongued youth, and only You-Know-Who had been smart enough to look beyond that and find something more in the young man. Minerva knew Severus would be furious if he discovered how she pitied him, because though she recognized he'd not been a child when he made his choice and so should reap the consequences, had he really had another option? Or had people like Minerva, with her inattention and disregard, taken that choice from him?
She didn't know. How many others had she failed over the years?
Minerva rose and left the table, descending among the students in a bid to quiet her unhelpful maundering. She cycled through her Gryffindors first, and most had the good sense to hide their Quidditch magazines and Witch Weekly rags before she passed them by. The majority of the Slytherins had actual classwork before them, making good use of the study period, and Potter pulled her book on runes over that glass lens when Minerva neared. The Transfiguration mistress snorted as she held out her hand, palm up.
"What have you there, Miss Potter?"
"Er, nothing, ma'am?"
"Let me see it."
Shifting, the girl eventually removed the lens from under the book and placed it in Minerva's hand. It weighed less than a Galleon, but the magic in it had a palpable weight to it, Minerva's brow rising as she brought the lens nearer her eye and witnessed how the magic within glittered in blue fractals against the candlelight. Lovely. She'd thought it was perhaps a prank contraption from the village—not that Potter, Granger, or Black were much for pranking—or maybe a toy of some sort. A cursory inspection showed a considerable amount of Charms inlaid into the glass, anchored with runes carefully marked around the outside. Not a toy, then. Bathsheda and Filius would certainly be fascinated, if only because its purpose wasn't evident despite the magic humming against her skin.
"What is this?"
"It's nothing, professor."
Minerva gave the girl a withering look, red darkening Potter's cheeks.
"Well, not anything yet, I guess. It's just a trinket."
It wasn't, obviously, but Minerva could find nothing Dark, dangerous, or disruptive about the object, so she handed it back to Potter. "Interesting work, Miss Potter. I do hope to see that same kind of effort reflected in your Transfiguration homework, yes?"
Miss Potter stuttered, and Miss Black ducked her head to hide her grin. Minerva turned and straightened as she felt Remus approach, their History of Magic instructor smiling as he came over to see what had grabbed Minerva's interest. Minerva returned his smile—if tight tight-lipped and stiff, the motion not reaching her eyes. She'd always been fond of him, he was such a good, studious lad, and yet, though she trusted Albus with her life, she couldn't say the same for Remus. She had never and would never hold his lycanthropy against him, but it stood to reason the poor boy could be susceptible to the Dark Lord's silver tongue. Blind faith in her Gryffindors had killed Lily, James, and Peter, and it had doomed an entire House to Voldemort's tender mercies.
"Everything all right?" he asked.
"Perfectly fine, Remus."
"Actually, Professors," Miss Granger interrupted, shuffling through her parchment and books. "May I ask a question? Have either of you ever come across this spell?"
She held up a sheet of her careful handwriting for their inspection, Minerva adjusting her spectacles as she read. "Proteus Memoro? No, I can't say I've heard of that particular iteration of the Protean Charm."
Remus squinted at the page, then at the girls, an uncertain suspicion lurking in his eyes. "It's a very old version of the Charm, used by the magical philosophers of Greece. They were said to be just as verbose as their Muggle counterparts and prone to forgetting what they'd said. Proteus Memoro recalled memories into print." He handed the sheet back to Miss Granger. "If you're interested in learning more, I'm sure Madam Pince has a book on Grecian Charms somewhere in the library."
Miss Granger grinned. "Thanks, Professor!"
Now Minerva really wanted to know what mischief they meant to get into, poking about ancient magic practiced by old bampots, and she wondered if Severus had a point about worrying himself right into an early grave if he cared to take note of everything the children did.
"They always come up with the oddest questions," Remus commented as they walked back toward the staff table. "Filius was telling me just the other day how Miss Potter seemed rather insistent on him teaching her the circumdo incantation."
"Circumdo?" Minerva frowned. "That's just a baseline ward. A bit beyond a third-year perhaps, but simple enough."
"She was most interested in how it would interact with a tying of inguz and laguz."
Puzzled, Minerva paused, glancing at the girls again. Inguz and laguz represented seed and water, respectively, and if paired together, they formed an anchor and a conduit. Home and nourishment, intuition and flexibility—or, in a basic sense, stability and movement. It was an odd choice for circumdo, given one most often wanted protections affixed to the ward, not an inherent mobility that would allow the ward to yield to other magic and pop like a soap bubble. What on earth? "They're going to turn my hair gray, mark my words."
It was then that the door to the hall came open again, and Minerva half-expected to see Slytherin's smarmy mug rejoin them once more—but the boy coming inside was shorter and much redder, Ronald Weasley's face flushed enough to match his tousled hair. Longbottom had reported his absence at the beginning of the study period; Mr. Weasley had come down with a rather convenient stomachache he showed no sign of now as he marched into the room dragging…a bedsheet.
"Granger!" he shouted.
Minerva heard herself groan. "What now?"
Heads swiveled to stare at Weasley as he strode right over to Miss Granger, who blinked at him in apparent confusion, her work forgotten. "…yes?"
He brandished the sheet at her, seeming oblivious to Minerva and Remus' approach. She couldn't hear him, but Minerva knew Severus would have left the table as well. "Look! Look at this!"
"It—it's a sheet?"
"Blood! There's blood on it! And hair!" He brandished a handful of short, ginger fluff, practically spitting in his fury. "Scabbers is gone, and there's blood on my sheets and hair from your bloody familiar, Granger!"
"He's DEAD! Dead because of you!"
Potter had quite enough of the youngest Weasley boy screaming at her friend and decided to speak up. "Fuck off, Weasley."
The profanity shook Minerva from her surprise. "Detention," she said on reflex, and when the girl gaped at her in shock, Minerva forced steel into her tone. "I have warned you again and again about your foul language, Miss Potter, and I am tired of hearing it. Now, Mr. Weasley, what is the meaning of this?"
He jabbed a shaking hand at Miss Granger. "She lets her mangy cat into the tower and he has it out for Scabbers! He killed Scabbers!"
"I don't let Crookshanks do anything, Ronald!"
"Your stupid animal killed my familiar!"
By now, Fred and George Weasley had made their way over, and the latter placed a hand on Mr. Weasley's shoulder. "Ron, mate, you should probably calm down a bit."
"You're causin' a scene."
"Scabbers was old as dust, and Granger isn't the only one with a ginger cat…."
"Indeed," Severus sneered, sweeping forward, arms crossed against his broad chest. "I believe Mr. Weasley has earned himself a detention as well, don't you agree, Professor McGonagall?"
Ronald balked. "That's—that's not fair! Sir!"
"Oh? Then perhaps you should think twice before throwing a fit and dragging your sheet about the castle like an insolent child who's wet the bed." Snickering echoed through the hall. "Quiet! Your study period has not ended." When no one moved, Severus' temper snapped, and he whirled on the ogling students. "Get back to work!"
Heads lowered toward the tables.
Pinching the bridge of her nose in frustration, Minerva turned from the fuming Potions Master and addressed the youngest male Weasley. "He is correct, Mr. Weasley. Throwing needless accusations at another student and causing such a ruckus deserves detention, not to mention skipping your lessons when you're perfectly well enough to come stomping down here in a strop. I will see what we can do about searching for your—Scabbers, was it?"
The boy sniffled. "Yes, Professor. He's my rat."
Privately, Minerva considered it a miracle the creature hadn't died earlier; smaller prey animals, toads and mice and such, usually didn't last long in a castle full of cats and owls. Or—and now her attention slid to Potter, the girl pouting as she scribbled with her quill—snakes. She said none of this to the poor lad, of course, and decided to send him off with his brothers to Poppy for a Calming Draught. Miss Granger looked close to tears, mortified by Weasley screaming in such a public venue, so Minerva dismissed her and her friends as well, if only to rid herself of the headache.
Merlin have mercy and spare me the migraine this evening.
She nearly ran into Remus as she returned to her seat, the wizard watching the doors with a contemplative expression she didn't much care to consider at the moment. Whatever it was, it would have to wait. She should not have wished something more eventful to happen.
After a time spent silent and stewing, the hall more subdued after the Potions Master's outburst, Minerva glanced again at Severus, at the sharp lines of his profile and the curtain of his untidy hair. He glared at the back of Remus' head. "Hypothetically speaking," she proposed. "Why would you tie inguz and laguz to a plain circumdo?"
Severus scoffed. "I wouldn't. The ward would collapse like wet tissue paper."
"Yes, that's my assumption as well. But if you were to do it anyway?"
Irritated, Snape's glare move to her—and then his black eyes shifted, sharp and flat in the candlelight, something unfathomable stirring in that thick skull of his. Then, he smiled—a snide twist of his mouth Minerva knew always meant bad things for her—and he settled into his chair, a hand on his chin.
She was not pleased. "You know the answer, don't you?"
"You're not not going to tell me, are you? You bastard."
"Information, Minerva. It's all about information."
Minerva: "Why did I dislike you so much as a student?"
Minerva: "Oh. That's why."