Severus Snape, separated from the other two by an empty chair, snorted disbelievingly at James' words. Surely the headmaster would not be taken in by this stupid lie. Potter was making it sound like the whole thing was a surprise to him, as if he had nothing to do with it.
As if either one of those two ever did anything on his own. You got one, you got the other - part and parcel. Those two, and grubby little Pettigrew. And... Severus involuntarily shuddered. The Werewolf.
- - -
He had made his way to the Whomping Willow just after sunset.
Getting close enough had been a tricky feat. He still had a couple nasty welts as proof that the Willow hadn't given up easily.
Grabbing the longest stick he could find, he had darted back and forth, dashing forward, dodging the whipping branches that were out to get him. He jammed the stick again and again against the knots on the gnarly trunk of the massive tree. Finally, he hit the right one – in mid-movement, the willow froze. Cautiously, he crept up to the roots. He could see the entrance now – how he had never noticed it before, he didn't know. It seemed so obvious.
He stealthily moved down into the dark opening. There was a gate there, easily opened from the outside. He could make out a passageway, fading into pitch-black darkness.
"Lumos," he whispered, and watched as his wand tip lit up brightly. Too brightly. With another spell, he dimmed the light to a faint glow, just enough to illuminate the few feet of passage in front of him. Carefully placing one foot in front of the other, he noiselessly started walking forward.
More tunnel. More darkness. On and on it went. At first, there were steps, going down. Then the passage seemed to level out, but still it twisted and turned, snaking through the bedrock.
Every time he came to a bend, he stopped and listened. He could hear nothing but the dripping of water from the ceiling, running down the rock walls, hitting the floor with small splashing sounds.
For what seemed like an eternity, he crept forward, anxiety and curiosity increasing with each step. The winding tunnel was disorienting, robbing him of all sense of direction.
Finally, there were steps again, going up this time. Did this mean he was getting closer to the end? When he stopped the next time, he thought he could hear muffled noises, so low he couldn't be quite sure.
Gliding noiselessly forward, he saw a straight section of tunnel ahead. This time, there could be no doubt. A staircase was going straight up at the end of the passage, and he could see faint light coming through the crack beneath the door at the top - uneven light, like something was moving in front of the light source. He could clearly hear noises now. They sounded like animal. His heart pounding, he edged forward, inch by inch.
At that moment, a hand clamped down hard over his mouth. He fought panic as something knocked him down from behind, sprawling on the dusty floor. Whatever it was had landed on top of him, pushing him to the ground. Some sort of fabric covered both of them.
"Shut up. Don't make a sound," a voice hissed into his ear, a voice so quiet it was almost inaudible. A voice he recognized. James Potter.
Physically, the two boys were almost evenly matched, tall and thin, both of them, but James Potter had athleticism and the element of surprise on his side.
The Slytherin struggled unsuccessfully, trying to get his mouth free to hex the hated Gryffindor into oblivion. He couldn't believe he had been stupid enough to walk right into their trap. Thrashing about, he managed to dislodge the fabric from over his head– and with a shock realized that where his body was supposed to be, he saw only the tunnel wall. An invisibility cloak. Of course. That was why he hadn't seen him coming.
"Cut it out," James hissed, "Stop it, you idiot. We have to get back out before it's too late."
At that moment, Severus succeeded in knocking James' hand off for just a second. He barely got out half of a hex before the hand clamped down again. Not that it would have done much good anyways, as his wand hand was still solidly pinned beneath him. The noise had been enough though. The door at the top of the stairs slowly opened. James froze.
"Shut up." One last command, sharply whispered. He pulled the cloak back over Severus' head.
He wouldn't have needed to say anything. Severus lay stock still, looking up at the slowly opening door. A long snout pushed out through the opening, outlined black against the light. The rest of the beast followed. The figure looked in essence like a wolf. Yet there was a grotesqueness about it, something odd, something wrong about the proportions of its body, the angle of its limbs.
The creature slowly moved down the passage, turning its head left and right, sniffing the damp air. A musky stench filled the tunnel as the horrid thing looked around with dark red pupils, trying to locate the source of the noise it had heard.
"Although the werewolf displays many lupine characteristics, it retains traces of humanity, hunting more with its eyes than with its nose and ears, unlike the true wolf."
Why that bit of information from his Defense Against the Dark Arts book popped into his head at this moment, he could not say. The mind is a strange thing. His breath started coming shallowly and quickly, as he desperately tried to suppress even the slightest sound. Fear rose like a living thing, engulfing him completely. He could taste it, bitter and metallic, smell it, feel it. This was Death walking towards him.
The creature grunted as it moved forward a few feet, then paused again, its breath coming in puffs of steam, visible in the cold air of the tunnel. It reared up on its hind legs, and howled, a sound that send shafts of ice down Severus' spine. Again it stopped and listened. After what seemed like an eternity to the two boys, it seemed satisfied that nothing was there, turned around, and loped back up the stairs into its lair. They could hear it howling, scratching, moving, as they both let out the breaths they had been holding.
Severus started shaking uncontrollably. James put a finger to his lips, and pointed down the passage. Slowly they crawled backwards, back towards safety. Once they were out of immediate earshot of the creature, they got up. Severus' knees barely supported him, and James half dragged him down the tunnel.
It wasn't until they were almost back to the entrance that the puzzle pieces connected. That thing had been Remus. It all made sense now. The monthly absences. The sickly state he was in afterwards. The fact that Potter was so calm now while Severus was a wreck. Potter had known. Black had known.
Severus shoved James away with a force he didn't know he possessed, and stood still, panting, leaning against the rough rock wall. He had never hated anyone so much in his life. He pushed past James, out into the bright moonlight.
- - -
"...and when we got back to the Willow, Sirius had just arrived to check on me. Us, I mean. Severus lunged at him and started yelling, and pummeling him. I tried to pull him off, and he turned on me. He was like a crazy person. We had a hard time keeping him down between the two of us."
James finished his narrative, trying his best to keep his voice emotionless and factual.
Severus noticed bitterly that James conveniently left out that Sirius had thrown quite a few hefty punches himself, accompanied by any number of taunts and jeers.
It had been at that point that the shape of a cat, almost invisible in the shadows, had grown into the formidable figure of Professor McGonagall. She had grabbed Sirius and Severus by their collars and hauled them into the Headmaster's study, while James trailed gloomily behind. She had gotten quite an earful from the Slytherin boy along the way, who hadn't stopped until she had pushed him into the chair with a forceful "Compose yourself, Mr. Snape."
And so here they were.
- - -
Expelled. Say the word. Severus was willing the headmaster on. Say it. Surely there was no way for them to wiggle out of this one. Attempted murder should do it. Finally. Finally he would be rid of these two.
"Well, thank heavens that you got there in time," the Headmaster said heavily. "I shudder to think what could have happened. Good work, Mr. Potter."
"You don't believe him, do you? They were both in on it, I tell you. Both of them. You are not going to let them get away with this, are you?" Severus spluttered shrilly.
The Headmaster turned sharply to the Slytherin. "I see no reason to doubt Mr. Potter's word. I believe you owe him your life, or at least your health."
"What is going to happen now?" Sirius interrupted in a small voice. "What will happen to me?"
The Headmaster sighed heavily. "I don't know yet. I will meet with your Head of House tomorrow, and we will discuss what happened, and appropriate punishment."
He looked at Sirius, a look now filled with deep sadness. "I can tell you what one part of your punishment will be. You will go to the hospital wing with me tomorrow, and tell Remus Lupin in person how you were willing to betray his secret and turn him into a murderer all for a bit of 'fun'."
Sirius hung his head. For the first time that evening, he looked ashamed. "Alright," he whispered.
"And you will have to apologize to Mr. Snape."
Sirius looked at the Slytherin with dislike. The muscles in his face were working. "Severus, I am –"
"I would rather he didn't." Severus interrupted with a sneer. "He isn't going to mean a word of it, anyways." He fairly spat the words at Sirius.
"Fine." The Headmaster rose from his seat with a resigned expression. "Go now, and we will talk more tomorrow, Mr. Black"
The three boys rose, and started to file out the door.
- - -
"Oh, Mr. Snape. A word please." Dumbledore had sat down behind his desk again.
Severus turned around as the other two left the room. What now?
"There is still the small matter of your punishment."
The Slytherin sat back down with a stunned look on his face. "What do you mean? They tried to kill me! What did I do?"
"You do know about school rules, yes? About going out-of-bounds? Being out after dark?"
"Yes, but-" stuttered Severus, completely taken aback.
"Well, were you out after dark? Were you out-of-bounds?"
"Well, yes, but..."
"Mr. Snape, I am not trying make light of Mr. Black's behavior. What he did was inexcusable. Even so, how much damage would there have been done if you had obeyed school regulations, do you think?"
"They tried to kill me! They told me to go below the Willow." His voice was rising in pitch.
"Ah yes. The Willow. Tell me again, Mr. Snape, why exactly you wanted to go there in the first place?"
Severus Snape sat in sulky silence. Somehow, "Because I was snooping around after Remus Lupin" didn't sound all that good, even to him.
The tall old wizard got up and walked over to the gangly teenager. Placing a hand on his shoulders, he said gently, "Severus, I am not going to punish you, my boy. What happened tonight was punishment enough, I think. I do want you to consider well the part you played in this. And where it would have led if James had not shown up when he did. You owe him your life, you know. Go now, go to bed. It has been a long day for all us."
- - -
He stood still for a while after the resentful figure had gotten up and left. Then he walked over to the magnificent red and yellow bird, and gently scratched its neck.
"Did you hear all that, Fawkes? Sometimes things just turn out wrong no matter what you do. They both behaved badly, didn't they? Sirius did an awful thing. He will have to be punished, of course. Yet his idea would have remained nothing but words and bad intentions if he had not been able to count on the basest parts of Severus' personality to do exactly what he wanted him to do." The bird made a soft, gentle noise, and rubbed its head against Dumbledore's hand.
"And then there is Remus to consider. If I expel Sirius, there will be too many questions asked. The boy has a right to be 'Remus Lupin, Hogwarts student' for a few more years. Not 'Remus Lupin, Werewolf'. That will come soon enough."
Dumbledore sighed tiredly. "Those two still have so much growing up to do, don't they? I am still not sure Severus can see the responsibility he bears for his part of what happened. I am afraid he is rather upset with me, Fawkes. Nox." The lights went out. "Time to go to bed. I wonder how many of them will sleep well tonight."
- - -
Somewhere in the castle, a greasy-haired boy lay on his bed, with unseeing eyes looking up at the dark ceiling. So Dumbledore allowed a werewolf to attend the school, and didn't tell anyone. Wasn't the Headmaster supposed to look out for him? This could have all been avoided if Dumbledore hadn't kept the Dark Creature a secret. Hot tears ran down his face. He was thankful for the darkness. Those two Gryffindors would get away with almost killing him, he could just tell. Gryffindors got away with everything.
How had this become all his fault all of a sudden? He was a Slytherin, just an ugly, skinny Slytherin. That was how.
He felt bile rise in his throat. He could trust no one, believe no one, depend on no one, except for those in his own House. And from this day on, that is how it would be.