"Ah, Severus, come in, we were just talking about you."
As the eyes of everyone in the staff room turned towards him, Snape groaned inwardly and considered a tactical retreat. Unfortunately, in the centre of this gathering, he saw Albus Dumbledore, and the headmaster's amused gaze told him that whatever it was, he couldn't avoid it. So he grimaced, making a face that, with a bit of good will, could be considered as a greeting smile, and headed towards the opposite end of the room. He had no illusions that the others would respect his space. By the time he placed the pile of second-years' papers on the table and straightened up, he was almost surrounded by a group of colleagues.
"Severus, are you okay?" asked Pomona Sprout, the concern in her voice sounding more or less sincere.
Snape raised his eyebrows.
"Yes, are you sure you're alright?" echoed Minerva McGonagall, but in her eyes, he saw a mocking gleam.
He gritted his teeth and glared at Dumbledore, whose presence was the only thing that kept him from making an extremely clever and equally rude retort.
"Don't be angry, Severus, we were just curious about this," the headmaster spoke again, pointing to the leather-bound volume Minerva was holding.
Snape easily recognized the ledger where all the points awarded and subtracted by the Hogwarts teaching staff were magically entered. He groaned again, this time out loud.
"Fifty points to Gryffindor," Minerva mercilessly read out loud. "Not that I don't appreciate that generous gesture, Severus, but you'll admit that our curiosity is quite justified."
"Curiosity killed the cat," Snape sneered at her, then ostentatiously turned around and began to gather the parchments he had set aside a moment ago.
"But Severus, you owe us an explanation," Dumbledore insisted.
Snape sighed, closed his eyes and concentrated on a memory from the last night.
He didn't actually have to patrol the corridors, it wasn't his job, at least not now, when nothing more dangerous than usual was going on at Hogwarts. The evening, however, found him in a foul mood and, knowing that he would not fall asleep anyway, Snape decided to wander around the less frequented corners of the castle in the hope of stumbling across something that would provide him with some distraction. For example, a couple of students looking for a romantic hideout away from the common room, from whom he could take away a few points...or more. Even better if they happened to be Gryffindors—in that case, apart from lost points, he would give them a nice and long detention with Flich...
Driven by similar thoughts, he walked slowly and listened intently, and when at last he heard muffled voices, he smiled a predator's smile. He slowed even more, moving toward the sound like an ominous shadow. Soon after, he was disappointed to recognize one of the voices as belonging to Greg Pembroke, a fifth-year Ravenclaw. Taking points from Ravenclaw wasn't as satisfying as punishing Gryffindor, but it had to be enough to lift his spirits today, Snape decided, still inching towards the corner.
As he approached the spot where the corridor turned left, Snape began to distinguish individual words, and soon he froze in place.
"Wearing daddy's old robes, aren't you, stinker?" Pembroke taunted someone, while someone else nearby gave out a short, nasty laugh. "After all, they won't be of much use to him in Azkaban anyway."
It seemed to Snape that the victim tried to reply, but his or her voice was muffled, probably by some spell.
"Shut up, you Death Eater spawn!" growled Pembroke's companion, and a quiet squeal suggested that the words were accompanied by a flick of his wand.
"Wait, let's hear what that Slytherin maggot has to say."
Pembroke must have lifted the muffling spell, because Snape suddenly heard the high-pitched, quavering voice of Teddy Williams, one of Slytherin first years.
"My dad isn't a Death Eater! They put him in A-Az-" The boy's voice trailed off, and Snape finally got close enough to peek carefully around the corner.
Teddy was hanging at least four feet above the ground, held in the air by invisible ropes. His broken glasses were lying on the ground just below his feet, and the boy's big eyes were full of tears. The second Ravenclaw, Walker, was holding him in that position with his wand, while Pembroke circled the boy like a ravenous hyena.
"Yes, stinker? What did they lock him up for?" asked Pembroke, his voice filled with false sympathy.
Snape clenched his fists. You're a teacher, damn it, get it sorted, he scolded himself. He was shaking with barely contained rage and baring his teeth like a predator ready to pounce. And maybe that was why he still hadn't moved. Instead of Pembroke and Walker, he saw completely different faces, and little Williams's fear was now mixed with his own, from all those years ago. What little sense he had left told him that if he walked around that corner right now, both students would receive punishment much worse than lost points or detention. And Severus Snape was still a teacher after all, he could never hurt a student, no matter how much he wanted to. So he remained a shadow, frozen and hidden among other shadows.
Suddenly, he heard footsteps from somewhere at the other end of the corridor. The two Ravenclaws, focused on their prey, heard them a second too late. Pushed by someone behind him, surprised Walker broke the spell. Teddy Williams slid to the ground and quickly, without getting up from his knees, retreated towards the nearest wall. Pembroke's wand flew out of his hand, and a moment later, the Ravenclaw grabbed his nose where Ginny Weasley's fist had hit him.
"What do you say now, stinker?" the girl sneered, stopping in front of the older and much taller Pembroke and pointing her wand at him. The Ravenclaw involuntarily took a step back, still trying to wipe the blood from his nose.
"You're so going to pay for this!" Walker hissed, moving towards Ginny, but to his surprise, Pembroke stopped him.
"Wait," he whispered. "She's Fred and George's sister. Believe me, it's not worth it."
Ginny sent him a menacing smile.
"Greg, isn't it? The one whose ass Fred glued to the toilet seat last year? I heard it took Professor Flitwick several hours to find the correct counter spell."
Pembroke didn't even try to talk back. He just grabbed his companion by the sleeve and unceremoniously pulled him in the direction Ginny had come from.
As the two Ravenclaws disappeared into the darkness, the girl immediately stopped smiling. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and walked over to Teddy. The boy cringed involuntarily.
"Here, wipe your nose," Ginny urged him with a mixture of concern and impatience. "Did they hurt you? Do you want me to take you to Madam Pomfrey? Or to Professor Snape?"
Teddy shook his head but began to sob even harder. Ginny sighed, knelt down next to the boy and put her arm around him.
"It's alright, kid. What is your name?"
"Don't worry, Teddy, these two are only so brave when they face someone smaller. Next time, just don't walk around Hogwarts at night alone. And if Pembroke and Walker want anything from you again, remind them about the toilet seat. My brothers will be very happy to show them other tricks from their repertoire."
Teddy blew his nose loudly, then looked up at the girl in fear.
"But you…" he began hesitantly. "You're from Gryffindor!"
Even from this distance, Snape could see Ginny roll her eyes. In fact, he could almost hear it, too.
"I am," Ginny confirmed. "And you're from Slytherin. Are you a Death Eater?" she asked suddenly.
Teddy was so shocked that for a moment, he forgot he was crying.
"I don't... I never... My dad only cheated on taxes…"
Ginny shook her head, signalling that she needed no further explanation.
"You see, kid, it's called stereotypes, and you've just learned a lesson about how much they suck. All right, Teddy." Seeing that the boy was already calming down, Ginny got up from the ground. "You better go back to your dormitory or you'll catch a cold."
Without a word, Teddy jumped to his feet and ran towards the dungeons. He didn't even notice the Potions Master lurking in the darkness, even when he almost brushed against him. At the same moment, as if someone had finally lifted a spell from him, Snape regained his ability to move and think logically.
"You're welcome!" Meanwhile, Ginny called after the boy. Then she bent down to pick up Teddy's broken glasses from the ground. This prevented her from noticing the teacher emerging from the shadows.
"I'll take that, Miss Weasley."
Hearing Snape's voice, the girl squealed and jumped back as if the glasses had burned her fingers. Snape snorted and reached for his wand.
"Accio," he muttered. Once the glasses were in his hand, he fixed them with a spell and slipped them into his pocket. Only then did he turn to the girl. "Miss Weasley, are students allowed to be outside the dormitory in the middle of the night?" he asked in his usual venomous tone.
"No, Professor," Ginny replied calmly, though Snape could clearly see a mixture of anxiety and anger in her gaze.
"Then what should I do with you?" he pressed on.
Ginny hesitated, clearly weighing what answer she dared to give.
"Take ten points from Gryffindor, sir," she finally replied in a resigned tone.
Snape smiled in satisfaction.
"Yes, Miss Weasley, that is precisely what I should do." He paused for a moment, enjoying the Gryffindor's tense expression. "Fifty points to Gryffindor, Miss Weasley." He didn't wait for her reaction, just walked away without a word.
Snape turned slowly, opened his eyes, and, still holding that one memory close to the surface, stared straight into Albus Dumbledore's eyes. The headmaster took a step back, no trace of his former amusement left. After a moment, he nodded slightly.
"I'm afraid we'll have to do without an explanation," he announced, and before anyone dared protest, he reached into one of the vast pockets of his robe. "Lemon drop, anyone?"