A fortnight passed with no word from Lucius, and Snape was beginning to get annoyed. In the meantime, Dumbledore and McGonagall had begun to make progress learning about Tom Riddle's quest to create horcruxes, though they still participated in several school-related meetings a week. At one of those, Dumbledore held up a parchment scroll and frowned at it.
"Filius, Severus – during the term you will have to be alert for requests such as this one," he advised. "It will take some… diplomacy… to refuse without causing lasting insult." He looked rather pointedly at Snape, then turned to Flitwick. "Perhaps as the, ah, more senior person, Filius, you should be the one to handle these matters."
Snape rolled his eyes. If having a trollish personality ensured he had less paperwork, that was hardly incentive to turn over a new leaf.
"What is it, Albus?" Filius squeaked, looking interested as he accepted the scroll.
"The Minister has requested permission to use Hogwarts' grounds for a press conference. The castle is of course a site of some renown in the Wizarding world, and we frequently are owled for permission to hold weddings, fundraisers, and various other events here. Normally, during the summer I am a bit more receptive to such requests, but given Cornelius' behavior this past term…"
Snape's mind had been busily working. "What exactly does the letter say?"
Flitwick scanned it. "It appears that Minister Fudge is planning a major announcement – likely something about his plans to seek yet another term – and he wants to speak here, by the lake, with the castle in the background. He writes with his usual diffidence," the small wizard said drily, "that since his announcement will have ramifications for all British wizards and witches, his advisors have suggested that he should make it at a place of great historic significance." Flitwick shook his head at Fudge's arrogance. "I assume Stonehenge was booked."
Fudge's advisors – that likely meant Lucius Malfoy… Snape pondered. Why would Malfoy choose Hogwarts? One possibility was that he wanted Snape to be front and center for whatever mayhem would ensue. Another was that Malfoy had something else up his sleeve, and rather than double crossing Fudge, he was about to triple cross Severus. Still, Snape decided, even if that were the case, better to have events occur on his home ground. "I suggest we permit it," he drawled, trying not to snicker at how every head immediately snapped around to stare at him.
"You are eager to help Fudge?" McGonagall demanded incredulously.
"Like it or not, he is our Minister – at least at the moment – and with the school on holiday, a refusal will be hard to couch as anything other than the snub it would be. I would prefer not to put Fudge in a position where he will be likely to demand an even greater favor during the school year."
Dumbledore looked impressed. "Well reasoned, my boy. You make an excellent point."
Flitwick nodded. "I agree with Severus, Headmaster. Better to throw Fudge a bone now than to start off the new year on bad terms."
And so it was that the following week the Minister and his entourage appeared at Hogwarts, with a noisy press corps in tow. The few faculty that were resident at the school had mostly chosen to boycott the event, but Snape, Lupin, Black, and Harry watched from the outskirts of the crowd as Fudge mounted a magically-erected platform and waved for silence.
"Da, why is he smiling and nodding like that? It's as if he thinks people are applauding," Harry observed doubtfully.
"It's because he's a wanker," Sirius replied before Snape could.
Harry snickered as both Remus and his da scolded his godfather for his language, and then Fudge began to address the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the press, I want to thank you for coming out here today for what is a momentous occasion. As you know, I am but a humble servant of the people, and if left to my own devices, I would have happily remained but one of the many unsung officials toiling at the Ministry."
"Like Uncle Arthur?" Harry asked skeptically, eyeing the pontificating man in the bowler hat. "I can't really see him doing that, can you?"
"Ssssh," his da scolded.
"However, when called to service, even the most humble amongst us must do his part, and it is with great pride and gratitude that I contemplate my years serving as your Minister."
"I'm gonna sick up pretty soon," Sirius whispered loudly.
"I had not even realized that some people have begun to speculate upon how long I might be willing to remain in this position, but when this matter was called to my attention, well," he spread his hands modestly, "what could I do?"
Sirius pretended to barf on Harry, much to the boy's delight, and was elbowed into silence by a stern-looking Remus (whose twitching lips betrayed his true opinions).
"As you know, I do not seek office for my own sake, and so I felt it incumbent upon me to turn to my most trusted advisor, Lucius Malfoy, for his opinion on the matter. It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you a man who needs no introduction, Lucius Malfoy!"
As Fudge loudly led the otherwise sporadic applause, Harry turned to Snape with a puzzled expression. "That didn't actually make any sense, did it, Da?"
"Fudge rarely does, Potter," Snape replied, not taking his eyes off the blond aristocrat.
Lucius quirked an elegant eyebrow at the massed reporters. "Good afternoon. After lengthy research into this issue, not to mention careful review of the Minister's record, I am pleased to report that there is a clear and unambiguous conclusion to be drawn." He gestured and a large, furled banner rose into the sky behind him. Another wave of his wand and the banner unrolled with a fanfare of trumpets.
There was an instant of dead silence, then an explosion of sound. "Oh, Da!" Harry gasped.
Remus was gaping at his side. "Holy fu- erm, Fudge," he quickly amended.
The banner held a larger-than-lifesize photo of three wizards: Lucius Malfoy, Arthur Weasley, and Sirius Black, standing together before the Ministry building. Above their heads were the words: "On ONE Thing We All Agree". Below the men ran the flat statement: "FUDGE IS AN IDIOT".
The pose of the wizards deliberately evoked the Prophet's front page photo several months ago of Draco, Ron, and Harry. While the men didn't have their arms slung around each other's necks as the boys had, there was no mistaking the congenial solidarity of the heads of these three ancient, historically antagonistic pureblood houses.
"Sirius!" Remus choked, staring at the banner. "You – you - !"
Sirius was literally dancing with excitement at having been able to pull off such a stellar prank without his nearest and dearest finding out. "Isn't it brilliant, Moony?"
"I'm impressed with your ability to keep a secret," Snape commented coolly, though inwardly he was jubilant. This was a brilliant piece of politicking by Lucius.
"How could you!" Fudge's screaming at Lucius finally overrode the press corps' shouted questions to him. "I trusted you! You promised to get me elected again!"
"Minister!" Rita Skeeter had known that anything happening at Hogwarts would be good for her career. "Are you saying that Ministerial elections are controlled by a coterie of pureblood houses? Did Lucius Malfoy deliver your last victory? For what consideration did he do such a thing?"
Fudge went first purple then white. "I – I never said that," he backpedaled hastily, clutching his bowler hat in terror.
"Then what did you mean by alleging that Mr Malfoy 'promised' to get you elected? Are you suggesting that our elections do not in fact represent the will of the British wizarding society?"
Lucius watched happily as Fudge gobbled and blustered. Severus had been right; this was just as much fun as Crucio'ing Muggles. After all, where was the sport in that? It's not like the pathetic creatures could put up much of a fight. But today, watching the Minister of Magic twist and writhe in agony that he had caused, Lucius remembered why he had thought that following the Dark Lord was a good idea. He managed to suppress a shudder of pleasure.
Rita Skeeter didn't even bother to suppress the exquisite sensations that were running through her body just then. This was the sort of story that toppled regimes! She led the press corps' advance on the beleaguered Fudge, who began to back up and up before finally breaking and making a run for the border of the anti-Apparition wards. The pack of reporters followed in hot pursuit, baying questions.
"My, my, what a reaction to our little poster," Malfoy remarked, strolling up to the three men and Harry.
Sirius snorted. "You're a sadistic prick, Malfoy, but I have to admit that was great fun to watch."
Malfoy dabbed delicately at his upper lip with a silk handkerchief. "Well, you know what they say about those who would rather watch than do, Black."
"No, what?" Harry asked innocently.
Snape had the pleasure of watching Malfoy utterly disconcerted for once. Knowing that Harry was likely to share with Draco anything he said severely limited Lucius' ability to answer the question.
"Never mind, Mr Potter," Snape interrupted sternly. "I would like you to alert Hagrid that the press conference appears to be over and the grounds should be returned to their usual state."
Harry looked disappointed, but he knew better than to argue with that tone. He jogged away, leaving Black and Malfoy to glare at each other.
"Nice, Malfoy. Couldn't wait to bring up your sexual deviancy in front of my godson?"
"And who was it who began the name calling, Black?" Lucius hissed back.
"Well, dear cousin," Sirius snarled, knowing Lucius detested any reminder of their relationship by marriage, "perhaps if you weren't such a perv –"
"Enough! How did the two of you manage to get that banner made without hexing each other?" Remus demanded.
"Arthur stood between us and wouldn't let us talk to each other," Sirius grumbled.
Remus sighed. "What a smart man."
Malfoy looked over at Snape. "I trust today's events were satisfactory to you?"
Snape inclined his head. "Well played."
Malfoy smirked and sauntered away.
"This was your doing?" Sirus stared at him. "I just figured when Malfoy called me that he had finally realized what a wanker Fudge is, and after what Fudge tried to do to Harry, I was happy to help him bring down the idiot. But you mean you were behind all this?"
Remus smiled at Severus. "I think Severus has engineered a great many things on Harry's behalf that we don't know about, Padfoot. We just need to stand ready to help out however we can."
Sirius shrugged. "Yeah, okay. So, what next, oh great and sneaky one?"
Snape rolled his eyes. Idiot Gryffindors. Still, at least they appear moderately trainable. "Since you have asked," he replied, deciding that this was as good a time as any to launch the next phase of his plan, "I would like you to approach Amelia Bones and encourage her to run against Fudge in the upcoming election."
"Me?" Sirius was simultaneously surprised and flattered. "Why me?"
"She is more likely to trust the advice of an ex-Auror than a former Death Eater," Snape pointed out drily. "You are also the head of an ancient pureblood House and have just gone on record as wishing to see Fudge removed. You can offer her financial and political support, and so long as you bring the werewolf with you to the meeting, you should be able to remember your lines adequately."
"It was, technically, her investigation that cleared you," Remus pointed out, "so she'd likely believe that, whatever grudge you might hold against the government, you bear her personally no ill will."
"Okay," Sirius said agreeably. "But once she's in office, she's not likely to be a patsy like Fudge. She wasn't even a member of the Order, you know."
"I am counting on her independence from any forms of influence," Snape said firmly. "From all accounts Madame Bones owes allegiance to no one and is a fair-minded, if somewhat abrasive, witch. Furthermore, as the head of the MLE, she will be unlikely to underestimate the threat posed by You Know Who's return and will therefore help to support and protect Potter."
As he had known it would, this last argument won the day, and both Black and Lupin agreed to see Bones at her earliest convenience.
In the days that followed, several other influential families, including the Longbottoms and the Parkinsons, endorsed Bones and repudiated Fudge. While Malfoy wasn't stupid enough to offer Bones his support – knowing that the MLE head still considered him a Death Eater – the lack of any opposition from him also sent a message, particularly to those who looked to Lucius Malfoy for guidance during Voldemort's absence. The Dark Lord's other supporters might have been confused by Lucius' apparent approval of such a witch as Amelia Bones for Minister, but they were used to his Byzantine plots and had been well trained to obedience by their absent master.
The eventual election, which was called rather quickly following the Prophet's explosive headlines, was anti-climactic, and Amelia Bones was sworn in as Minister of Magic, with Kingsley Shacklebolt becoming head of the MLE. Dumbledore was both stunned and ecstatic, while Snape was privately toasted – much to his external grumpiness and internal exultation – by the Marauders.
By the end of the summer, Harry had acquired a healthy tan from spending a great deal of time outdoors, walking the grounds (but not the Forbidden Forest) with Hagrid or flying with Hooch, who had returned early from her holidays for the chance to coach Harry. She had visions of the boy going on to play professional Quidditch and was eager to be known as the one who had first encouraged him.
Harry also completed all of his summer assignments and, thanks to his tutoring, advanced dramatically in most subjects, particularly DADA, Potions, and Transfiguration. He helped Sprout in the greenhouses as well because he liked both the work and the kind Hufflepuff, but it was clear that he would still require Neville's assistance with Herbology homework.
He spent the last few days of the holidays back at the Burrow, accompanying the Weasleys on their annual school shopping expedition to Diagon Alley and even wresting permission to ride back to Hogwarts with the rest of the student body on the Express. There he spent most of the ride reassuring Ginny and her friend Luna that – contrary to the twins' claims – troll wrestling was not used to determine House assignment. Ginny was relieved, while Luna was sadly disappointed.
Draco had at first scorned the girls as firsties, and when Luna had come up with a particularly incoherent comment about crumple horned snorkacks, he had been ready to quit the compartment entirely. Then he learned that her father was the editor of the Quibbler, and he had reseated himself, sending an admiring glance over to Harry. "Clever, Potter!" he whispered. "Very Slytherin of you! Ingratiating yourself with the Press – not bad."
Harry had frowned in confusion, but then dismissed the comment as one of Draco's not infrequent incomprehensible pronouncements. At that point Ron took out a portable chess set, Ginny produced a deck of cards for Exploding Snap, and the rest of the trip passed very companionably for all the children. Crabbe and Goyle contentedly munched on the rock cakes that Hagrid had sent to Harry via Hedwig "for th' train ride" and it was a tribute to their digestion that emergency medical (or dental) care was not required.
Upon their arrival, the new second years felt quite superior watching the firsties shepherded to the boats by Hagrid while they and the rest of the school climbed into the thestral-drawn carriages. The Welcoming Feast was notable by the absence of Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall, but any speculation about Dumbledore's condition was quickly supplanted by the horrifying announcement that Professor Snape was now Acting Deputy Headmaster in charge of discipline. Shudders ran through most of the student body, and the Weasley twins miserably weighed the boredom of a prank-free year against incurring the wrath of their formidable "Uncle Sev". By contrast, the appearance of two new professors was relatively understated, although many of the female students squabbled over the "dreamy" new teacher, who also happened to be a celebrity, rich, and single.
Remus settled into his faculty role with ease, though he did tend to be a more "hands on" Head of House than Professor McGonagall had been. While he didn't go so far as Professor Snape in setting bedtimes for the first years, he did make a point of spending time in the Common Room several nights a week and meeting with every student individually. And he established draconic punishments for bullying, whether intra- or inter-House.
The new Transfiguration professor was a bit harder for the students to classify. He had begun his classes with the earthshaking revelation that he would not give detention, but those students who eagerly (and foolishly) sought to take advantage of this bewildering largesse quickly found themselves the victims of pranks that were so stunning in their novelty and humiliation value that the Weasley twins approached Sirius on bended knee to beg to become his apprentices. The rest of the students quickly decided that public embarrassment was infinitely worse than private detention, and Sirius was rather disappointed with how well-behaved his classes became.
At least until the sixth-year class decided to prank him back.
For ten days the rest of the school watched breathlessly to see who would win the ensuing war, while Flitwick enjoyed the show and Snape downed multiple Calming Potions, but in the end (and surreptitiously aided by the DADA professor and a very useful map that had been bartered back from the Weasley twins), Sirius emerged as undisputed victor. The sixth years abjectly surrendered to the greater foe, and the school went back to… mostly normal.
Meanwhile Harry was enjoying the start of a year where none of the professors seemed likely to kill him, Dobby confined his devoted attentions to his laundry, and his da made sure to check his homework at least twice a week.
About six weeks into the first term, Dumbledore and McGonagall returned – under cover of darkness – to report on their progress thus far. "From what Horace has told us, and the other information we've been able to find, it seems that as a Hogwarts student, Tom became obsessed with his lineage and the fact that his maternal family was descended from Slytherin," Minerva explained, while an unusually quiet Albus sat beside her. "This seems to have led to his idealizing the Founders and coveting any artifacts which had ties to them.
"So you think that he might have used objects that once belonged to the other Founders as horcruxes?" Pomona Sprout asked. "My goodness!"
"It seems likely," McGonagall agreed. "And so we have spent the last several weeks trying to track down any possessions of the Founders that we could find. Of course, we immediately discounted Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem, as that has been lost for longer than You Know Who has been alive, but that still left a few possibilities. Albus had the clever idea of going to the Gaunt's last known home, as it seemed likely that someone as obsessed with family as You Know Who would have at least visited there."
"And we found a horcrux and destroyed it," Albus' recounting of the tale was uncharacteristically terse. The other faculty exchanged surprised glances.
"That's it?" Sirius demanded. "What did you find?"
"Oh, Albus, stop sulking already!" Minerva scolded crossly.
To everyone's surprise, Dumbledore did not respond with his usual twinkle, but rather folded his arms and looked away.
"Good heavens. What is going on?" Poppy finally broke the silence.
McGonagall rolled her eyes. "In the Gaunt Home – which is really nothing more than a shack – we found a ring, which Albus quickly determined was indeed a horcrux. I was looking for a spot where we could safely incinerate it with fiendfyre, when to my horror, I saw that he was about to place the ring on his finger!"
The other faculty started. "Good grief, old man!" Snape snarled. "Are you mad? A Dark object like that? Crafted by the Dark Lord? Do you have any idea what kinds of hideous curses must be on it? Even a wizard of your caliber could hardly –"
"Yes, yes, my boy," Dumbledore shot back testily. "You are quite correct, but I still maintain that you need not have used such a painful stinging hex, Minerva!"
"I was too far away to slap your hand," the witch retorted, unrepentant, "and I needed to make you drop it smartly!"
The Headmaster looked sulky and rubbed the back of his hand as if it still hurt him. "It was the Resurrection Stone," he explained in a near-whine to the other professors. "Naturally I was curious."
Minerva rolled her eyes. "Once he dropped it, I accio'd the ring and destroyed it." At Dumbledore's poorly hidden mutter, she sighed. "Yes, I realize it was a priceless artifact, Albus, but what would you have had me do? We cannot permit any of You Know Who's soul fragments to survive, and basilisk venom is hardly a readily available item!"
Dumbledore nodded sadly. "You are correct, my dear," he admitted, his usual good nature once again reasserting itself. "And I am quite certain that, as Severus was saying, you saved me from a most painful death. It was simply a momentary madness – or longing."
McGonagall gave him a compassionate look. "You will see her again, Albus, on the other side of the Veil. I just didn't want that ring to speed your reunion."
Albus reached over and squeezed Minerva's hand. "Thank you, my dear."