The groundskeeper emerged from the forest, holding a block of wood that looked small in his arms, but which could have crushed Severus' head in. He smiled pleasantly. "What's yer name?"

"Severus Snape."

"Yeh lost then, Snape? Yeh know yeh can't go in the fores'."

"I wasn't in the forest," Severus objected. "I was just… looking."

"At what?"

Severus, drawing a blank, panicked and changed the subject abruptly. "What's that?" He pointed at the block of wood Hagrid was carrying.

"This? It's from the trunk of a big oak tree that got struck by lightnin' a couple o' months ago. I was cuttin' firewood, but there're these queer scratches on it I wanted ter look at."

A thrill of fear went down Severus' spine. "Scratches?"

"Look." Hagrid showed him: criss-crossing patterns of five parallel deep grooves incised in the tree trunk. "Like claws, see?"

"Yeah, just like claws. Pretty weird." Severus' knees felt weak.

"My guess is, summat were 'untin' in the forest and its prey got righ' up ter the top of the oak," Hagrid went on. "So this beast digs its claws inter the trunk, tryin' ter climb."

"Did it succeed?"

Hagrid shook his head. "The marks don't go too far up the trunk. Prey probably jumped out o' the tree when the 'unter weren't lookin'."

"That's incredible!" Severus said. "That's exactly right!"

Hagrid looked surprised. Severus said quickly, "That's, ah, that sounds exactly like what would happen."

The groundskeeper still looked mystified. "I, er, I live in the middle of a magical forest like the Dark Forest, and I know a bit about magical creatures' behaviour," Severus explained.

Hagrid cocked his head. "Snape, yeh said? Yeh'd live at Snape 'All, then. Yeah, that's a nice fores'. Well, good on yeh! Good for a boy ter take an interest in magical beasts. D'yeh want ter see summat else interestin'?"

He pulled a large burlap sack from one of the many pockets of his overcoat and opened it. "Take a look at this."

Severus stared. "My God," he said weakly.

It was Ned, or at least what was left of him: a little heap of cold white bones at the bottom of a sack.

"Where did you find this?"

"Close ter the clearin' with the oak. Must've been the prey. Could it a'been a cat d'yeh think?"

Severus suppressed a bitter laugh. "Oh yes, I definitely think it was a cat."

Hagrid snapped his fingers. "Professor Sprout lost 'er cat a couple months ago! Reckon it could be 'ers. Nate, wasn't it?"

"I believe his name was Ned."

"I'll give 'im back ter 'er." Hagrid looked closely at Severus. "All righ' there, Snape? Yeh're all white. Come in for a spot o' tea."

He hustled Severus into his hut by the edge of the forest. As soon as Severus walked in a huge black shape jumped up from the hearth and bounded straight at him. He didn't have time to scream before the wind was knocked out of him—then the beast was licking his face energetically.

"Ah, Fang, geroff 'im!" Hagrid pushed the big dog aside and helped Severus to his feet.

"Fang," Severus said faintly. The black mastiff barked and wagged his tail. "I- I almost thought-" He stopped short.

"Don' worry, Snape, 'e won' 'urt yeh, 'e's jus' frien'ly," Hagrid said brightly, having missed Severus' last remark.

"Of course." Severus gingerly patted Fang on the head. "Er… nice to meet you."

Hagrid was bustling about with a big kettle and a teapot the size of Severus' head. He emptied a package of biscuits onto a dish and set it on the table. "Help yourself!"

"Thanks." Severus hung his cloak over the back of a chair and sat down at the table, a crude slab of wood about as big as his bed, and looked round the cottage. He took in the massive bed in the corner that tried to look like it wasn't taking up half the room, the assortment of rusty pots, pans and various metal tools that hung chaotically from the rafters, the roaring fire in the fireplace, the queer knick-knacks and baubles jumbled on the mantel, the huge armchair covered in a mysterious leatherlike fabric that was definitely not leather.

"It's so…" He searched for a word that was true as well as polite. "Cozy," he finished, relieved to have found one. "It's nice and warm in here."

Fang came over, clearly eyeing the plate of biscuits. Severus fed him one when Hagrid wasn't looking. The dog drooled contentedly on his knee.

"One lump or two?" inquired Hagrid, waving a sugar cube clamped between tongs.

"One."

Hagrid carefully dropped one cube into Severus' teacup and dumped the rest of the sugar cubes into his own huge beaker. "Tea's ready!"

When Severus had finished his tea , he gently pushed Fang's head off his lap and went over to look at the collection of knick-knacks on the mantelpiece. "What's all this stuff?"

"Oh, things I 'aven't got round ter puttin' in order. Most o' it's jus' a bunch o' rubbish."

"Rubbish?" Severus exclaimed, poking through the curios. "A Sneakoscope, a set of Gobstones—ouch!—hey, cool, a biting teacup!"

"I'll- I'll take that," Hagrid said hurriedly, coming over and taking the teacup, looking embarrassed: tea sets were on the Ministry of Magic's Registry for Proscribed Charmable Objects.

Severus was still exploring. Now he was going through a stack of little boxes at one end of the mantelpiece. "Floo powder… Hey Hagrid, are these Chocolate Frog cards?"

"They're only about a tenth o' me old collection," Hagrid said proudly. "But Fang ate the rest of 'em."

Severus sifted through the cards. "Wow, an original Devlin Whitehorn! Hey, Hengist of Woodcroft—my friend Bellatrix's been looking for him for years!"

"Go a'ead, take 'im," Hagrid said.

Severus tore his eyes away from Hengist, who had his eyes crossed and was pulling faces. "What? I couldn't. Hengist is pretty rare."

"No, go on," beamed Hagrid, "take 'im fer yer frien'."

Severus smiled slowly. "Thanks, that's very nice. I'll tell her it's from you." As he pocketed Hengist, a long, wooden box caught his eye. "What's in this one?"

He took down the elaborately carved box. "Careful," cautioned Hagrid.

"Is it stolen jewels? Or a goblin's stash of gold?" Severus joked as he popped the hasp open. He lifted the lid and found himself staring at a broken wand.

"Much more valuable," Hagrid murmured.

"I can see that." The wand had been snapped several times, but the pieces had been carefully lined up and reassembled to the best of Hagrid's ability. Hagrid reached out and stroked his broken wand sadly.

"I miss it. There're times when I feel 'elpless, almos' lonely, withou' my wand."

"I know the feeling," Severus said, thinking of the period he had been unarmed after Potter broke his wand at the Quidditch match.

A very wicked and probably illegal idea struck him. "But…"

Hagrid knew immediately from his tone what he was going to say. "D'yeh know how ter fix it?" he asked, wide-eyed.

Severus shook his head. "Fixing a broken wand is impossible. No, I was thinking about something I read in a book once, that you could still use it if…"

He was hesitating because the suggestion he was about to make was from a book in his father's library, whose lawfulness was dubious.

"Well, it's almost definitely against the law, but for what it's worth, I read that if you line up the bits of wand in some kind of amplifying conductor it'll work again. Maybe not as well or as reliably as it used to, but at least it's something."

Hagrid's face lit up. "Yeah? What kind o' 'conductor'?"

Severus was getting excited too. He looked round the cottage and his gaze alit on a frilled pink umbrella hooked over a rafter. "That umbrella might work. Do you want to try-"

The door banged open, cutting him off mid-sentence, and in clattered Potter, Black, Pettigrew and Lupin. As they entered, Potter and Pettigrew were bellowing an off-key "Deck the Halls" and Black and Lupin cried, "Merry Chri-"

"Oh Christ!" Lupin said, noticing Severus standing with Hagrid.

The Gryffindors' Christmas cheer died immediatedly. "What the hell is he doing here?" Potter snarled, glowering at Severus.

"Snape an' me were 'avin a cup o' tea," Hagrid interposed, looking confused by the hostility that suddenly filled the room. "D- d'yeh want ter join us?"

"I'm sorry, Hagrid," Severus said quietly into the appalled silence that followed the question, "but I've got to be going."

"You certainly do," Potter agreed, looking furious.

Hagrid was looking between Severus and the Gryffindors in bafflement. "Are yeh sure yeh won' stay?" he asked Severus.

"He's sure," Black sneered.

Severus smiled thinly. "I have things to do."

He held out the carved wooden box, and Hagrid took it after a moment's hesitation. "If you end up giving it a try," Severus said quietly, nodding toward the pink umbrella, "please do tell me later how it turns out."

" 'Course," Hagrid said, still a bit baffled and wary.

"Thanks for the tea," Severus said politely, though he was itching to grab the biting teacup and fling it in Potter's face. He remembered the card in his pocket. "And for Hengist."

"No problem," Hagrid said.

Severus went to the table and picked up his cloak from his chair. The Gryffindors' eyes followed his movements. The boys parted silently as he came towards the door.

" 'Bye, Hagrid," said Severus. "See you, Fang." The dog barked and wagged his tail.

" 'Bye, Snape…" Hagrid's voice trailed off questioningly.

"We never want to see you here again," Black whispered to Severus as he passed.

"Believe me, you won't," Severus hissed back.

Pettigrew stuck out his foot to trip Severus. Gritting his teeth, the Slytherin stepped over the outstretched leg with as much dignity and contempt as he could muster and strode out. Someone slammed the door behind him.

Once outside Severus halted and leaned against the closed door, trying to keep from bursting with rage.

"Ah, boys, what was that fer?" he heard Hagrid ask amid chairs scraping on the rough floorboards as the Gryffindors usurped Severus' place at the table. "Snape's a good bloke."

"Are you blind, Hagrid?" Potter exclaimed. "He's an arrogant prig! Didn't you hear about his reaction to the news that Amelia Bones' aunt was kidnapped by You-Know-Who?"

"Come on, James, I know yeh were be'ind it all!"

"Hagrid, I categorically deny any involvement in that incident—although if I did know who was the genius behind that prank, I would congratulate him—or her—on a job well done."

"Yeh're lyin' ter me!"

"Hagrid, I'm simply trying to help you. If you're going to make friends with Snape, you've got to be prepared for deceit and treachery, because that's all that that snake is capable of."

Severus bit his lower lip too hard and blood spurted down his chin. He clapped his hand over his mouth and ran for the castle.

"Severus," Rodolphus began as the pair were doing homework in the library, "there are only two weeks till Christmas holidays and I haven't bought any gifts yet."

"My mother will buy whatever I ask for and send it to me," Severus replied, scratching his forehead with the wrong end of his quill and dripping ink on his nose. "What's the difference between monkshood and aconite?" He opened One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi and started to look up aconite.

"I have a better idea," announced Rodolphus, ignoring the Herbology question. Something in his voice made Severus glance up sharply; sure enough, there was an all-too-familiar glint of mischief in his eye. "I want to go buy gifts myself. In Hogsmeade."

SLAM, went Severus' book as the approximately nine hundred and fifty magical herbs and fungi between B and Z came crashing down on his hand. "What?"

Rodolphus was looking at the hand crushed between the pages of the book. "Doesn't that hurt, Sev?"

"Yes it does. Very much. But first I want you to say that everything you just said was complete and utter bollocks."

"But it wasn't."

"No, Rodolphus," Severus said firmly. "We are never going back there again. Never, never, never. I'd shoot myself in the face with a Blasting Curse again before I'd let you drag me back to- to-"

"We're not going to the Hog's Head, Sev," Rodolphus said hastily, looking alarmed. "Bon Dieu, do you think I'm mad? No, I just want to go into the shops."

"Why don't you ask your brother to buy the gifts for you? He's in sixth year, he can go into Hogsmeade legally."

"Rabastan's an idiot, he won't know what to get. Please? We can go one Saturday when it's not a Hogsmeade weekend, so that no one recognizes us even if the Invisibility Cloak slides off us again."

Severus was adamant. "No. Dumbledore will get wind of it and we'll be kicked out of Hogwarts."

"Come on, Sev, I'm begging you! Think of Honeydukes, Zonko's, think of the bookstores! Don't you want to see all the shops and everything properly, when we're not tearing through the village with a madman at our heels?"

"Rodolphus, in only four months I've already gotten more detentions than most fifth years have ever had. I bet the next time I get caught doing something stupid like sneaking out to Hogsmeade to buy Christmas gifts, it'll be expulsion, and I—do—not—want—to—go—home." He jabbed a finger in Rodolphus' chest to emphasize each word.

"I promise nothing bad will happen, Severus," Rodolphus pleaded.

"You can't promise that! And why are you so fixated on this idiotic notion?" Severus asked. The desperate gleam in Rodolphus' eyes gave him a clue.

"You want to get something for Bellatrix, don't you?" he said slowly.

Rodolphus blushed madly. "Maybe."

"You don't have to romance her or anything, you know," Severus said, starting to smirk. "Your mothers have been planning your wedding since you were a month old. There's a contract with drops of your blood on it."

Rodolphus had turned a deep eggplant hue. "I hate you," he mumbled.

Severus laughed. "All right, you idiot, I'm giving in. Come on, let's go."

"What, to Hogsmeade? Now?"

"No, to the hospital wing," Severus said, painfully lifting four hundred pages of herbs and fungi off his crushed fingers. "I think I've broken my hand."

"I can't believe I'm sneaking out," whispered Severus, "again."

"Shhh," Rodolphus whispered back. "Do you want to get caught?"

Safely concealed under the Invisibility Cloak, they slithered out of the alleyway. The setting sun painted the snow-topped thatched roofs of the cottages and shops a soft red-orange hue. Other Christmas customers bustled from shop to shop, causing the snow that was piled up in fluffy drifts to swirl up round their feet. Little children crowded at brightly lit windows, giggling at the displays inside. Severus had to admit, it was all tremendously charming.

"Aren't you glad I convinced you to do this?" Rodolphus whispered, grinning. "Look! Honeydukes!"

They negotiated the throngs of customers and grabbed armfuls of sweets, only removing the Invisibility Cloak briefly to toss money onto the counter and then conceal themselves again, much to the bewilderment of the shopkeepers. They did their shopping the same way at Zonko's Joke Shop. "Because stealing stuff would get us caught for certain," Severus explained. "And it's not like we don't have the money to pay for it. I only hope no one recognizes us."

They were skulking at the back of Scrivenshank's Quill Shop, examining a fancy eagle feather that Severus thought would please his mother, when the bell above the door tinkled and a gust of snowy wind billowed in with a tall, smiling wizard.

"Hello Broxtable, how's business?" he greeted the stooped old shopkeeper. His cheeks were pink from the cold but his gravelly voice was pleasant.

"Booming, Rookwood! Everyone's doing their Christmas shopping. Are you looking for something in particular?"

"Well, my friend Leo Bagman—you know Leofric Bagman, don't you, he's a colleague of mine at the Ministry—he got a Howler last week from the head of his department. He was afraid to open it and it incinerated his best quill. Money's no object, Broxtable, but I was thinking perhaps something along the lines of pheasant feather?"

"Sure, we got a new shipment of pheasant feather quills yesterday, let me show you a few," Broxtable said, brushing past the invisible boys to a display case at the back of the store. "Say, Rookwood, that Howler wasn't for that Floo mix-up my friend Hubert told me about, was it?"

"I'm not at liberty to say," Rookwood said stiffly.

"Sure you are!" urged Broxtable as he returned with a handful of quills to the front of the shop, closely followed by Severus and Rodolphus. "Didn't Bagman connect the wrong grates by mistake, and accidentally send a family straight into a secret meeting of the followers of You-Know-Who..."

Severus and Rodolphus stared at each other with huge eyes. "They got out by the skin of their teeth, is what Hubert told me," Broxtable went on eagerly. "Obviously it was just a coincidence, an accident. He said the Ministry was in a tizzy, but by the time you was able to get some Aurors out to Perthshire, they were all gone without a trace, like they'd been tipped off, the whole lot, and with the family as well. Have you found them yet?"

"I'm sorry Broxtable, but it seems you were misinformed," Rookwood replied in his husky whisper. Something about him was oddly familiar, Severus thought. "There was no such incident. Now, would that be Hubert Pertscrew from the Portkey Office? I think I shall have to have a little chat with him. Spreading rumours about coworkers—preposterous, really!"

He gave a rumbling laugh, and Severus and Rodolphus froze.

"Mysticus," Severus breathed.

Rookwood jumped about three feet in the air. When he came down again his ruddy face had gone white as death. "What did you say, Broxtable?"

"I didn't say anything," said Broxtable, puzzled. "Er—are you all right, Augustus? You're looking dreadfully pale all of a sudden."

"It's n-nothing," muttered Rookwood, his eyes darting round the shop. "That black one will be fine."

"Have there been many disappearances in your department?" Broxtable enquired.

"No."

"I'm not worried about being kidnapped," the shopkeeper said confidently. "Not with old Albus Dumbledore up at Hogwarts. If there's anyone who can stand up to You-Know-Who, it's Dumbledore. He's the greatest wizard there is. There are rumours going round the village that You-Know-Who's planning a strike on Dumbledore—but even if they're true, I don't believe he'll succeed. Dumbledore's a much more powerful wizard. Don't you think so?"

"I really couldn't say," Rookwood murmured. "But I certainly do hope nothing dreadful happens to poor old Dumbledore. Wouldn't it be simply awful if the last line of defence was overpowered? Go on and ring up the sale, will you Broxtable? It's getting late and I've got a rather important engagement."

"Of course," agreed Broxtable. He was smiling wider now, presumably at the reassuring thought of Dumbledore protecting the little village. "I'm sure you needn't worry about You-Know-Who either, Augustus."

Rookwood gave a humourless laugh. "Believe me, Broxtable, I'm not worrying. And if I ever do have reason to be concerned about You-Know-Who it'll have been my own fault." He paid and left.

The moment the door closed on the cold wind, Severus threw off the Invisibility Cloak and stumbled up to the counter, surprising Broxtable.

"Merciful murtlaps! Where did you come from?" the old shopkeeper exclaimed, clutching his heart.

"Never mind that, just sell me this quill," Severus mumbled, thrusting a handful of silver across the counter. Broxtable peered at him.

"Say, aren't you from Hogwarts?"

"No," Severus said flatly, taking his purchase and storming out.

In the snowy street Rodolphus yanked him back under the Invisibility Cloak. "Get back under here, you madman! Are you trying to get us caught?"

Severus grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "What are we going to do?"

"About what?" Rodolphus asked blankly.

"About Dumbledore!" Severus cried. "Weren't you listening to Mysticus and the shopkeeper? You-Know-Who's arranging a strike on Dumbledore! He's going to try to kill him because Dumbledore's his only obstacle on the way to world domination!"

"Broxtable said they were only rumours," Rodolphus objected.

"But Mysticus as good as confirmed they were true! What are we going to do?"

"Why should we do anything?"

"Because the Headmaster could soon be brutally murdered and You-Know-Who would be in charge! Then the whole magical community would be in turmoil and the country would probably rise up in insurrection!"

"But our fathers are Dumbledore's enemies," Rodolphus said in surprise.

Severus stared. "And?"

"If we warned Dumbledore they might get captured and sent to Azkaban prison."

Severus bit his lip. "I know, but... Well, it just doesn't seem fair to let Dumbledore wander round without knowing his life's in danger, particularly when he's been very kind about letting up on my punishments recently."

"So, what, now it's come to a choice between our fathers' lives and Dumbledore's? I must be missing something, because to me it's not a difficult decision. I'll choose Dad any day."

"But..."

"But what?" Rodolphus sighed. "Look, Sev… Maybe we've going about this the wrong way."

"What are you talking about?"

"Well, all this time we've been assuming Dumbledore is the greatest wizard on the planet, and You-Know-Who is an upstart. But what if You-Know-Who isn't just some rebel—what if Dumbledore's the crackpot, and You-Know-Who's the genuine article? What if he really can do something about blood purity in the wizarding world?" Severus stared, openmouthed.

"Sev, you know the cardinal common-sense rule of ambition: if you haven't got power, go along with whoever does in order to get some. Right now Dumbledore and the Ministry of Magic have got the power. But when You-Know-Who takes over-"

"If," Severus interrupted.

"Fine, if he does, then we ought to be with him. I don't know about Septimus, but I'm sure my father isn't mad. It's clear which side they've chosen—mustn't they have had their reasons?"

"You don't know that," Severus said. "They could have been brainwashed."

"But suppose they weren't. We trusted their judgment on other things, why not now?"

Severus threw his hands in the air. "Rodolphus, this isn't some stupid decision like which colour jumper to wear in the morning, or how short you should cut your hair—this is potentially a life-changing decision!"

"I know-"

"No you don't," Severus said furiously, "you've completely swallowed all of You-Know-Who's propaganda."

"It's not propaganda," Rodolphus said. "I just think we should be going along with what our fathers have chosen to do."

"You don't have to be exactly like your father, you know!" Severus snapped.

"You're one to talk! You're just like old Septimus in every way!" retorted Rodolphus.

"I AM NOT!"

Everyone in the street stopped and turned to find the source of the shouting. Bewildered at seeing no one there, they carried on with their business. Severus turned and stalked off, with Rodolphus hurrying after him, holding up the Invisibility Cloak.

"Sev… Sev, look, I'm sorry, it was a stupid thing to say, I just said it to rile you. Stop walking so fast, we'll lose the Cloak! I'm sorry, Sev. Please stop."

Severus halted brusquely and Rodolphus quickly rearranged the Cloak over their heads. "There, see, it's-"

Severus clapped a hand over his mouth. With the other hand he pointed mutely through the window of the Three Broomsticks. They stared through the frosted windowpanes at Augustus Rookwood, the Death Eater from the quill shop, slipping into a private room at the back of the busy pub. He had a furtive, nervous manner, as though he knew he shouldn't be going in.

Severus and Rodolphus looked at each other. Then they moved quickly towards the entrance of the pub.

It was warm and cozy inside. Music and laughter filled their ears. A pretty young woman stood behind the bar, giggling coyly as she served the drinks to a group of leering wizards. Every table was full, but no one seemed to have noticed Rookwood disappearing into the private room. Severus saw the door had been left ajar. He pulled Rodolphus towards it.

Rookwood was sitting alone at a table illuminated by a low-burning candle. He was sipping nervously from a tall mug. He pulled out a pocketwatch and scowled.

"You don't think he's meeting—them again, do you?" Rodolphus whispered.

Severus didn't know. He only knew he wanted to be in that room when Rookwood's guest, or guests, arrived.

He turned his head and watched the front door. It wasn't long before a group of witches burst in, bringing with them a gust of wintry air. Pretending the door had been disturbed by the wind, Severus pushed open the door and scuttled in, dragging Rodolphus after him.

"What the-?" Rookwood got up to close the door.

But a thin hand reached out and pushed it open again, and a familiar voice said, "Sorry I'm late."

It wasn't Septimus Snape, or Alphonse Lestrange.

It was Professor Astaroth.