The instant the door to Snape's quarters closed behind them, Harry burst into speech. "I swear I didn't mean to go into the Chamber. I just accidentally opened it and then I fell in. You can ask Myrtle. I swear it was an accident. I wasn't trying to go in alone. I promised Hermione and Ron I wouldn't. It just happened. I didn't mean –"

"All right. I believe you."

"You do?" Harry asked, amazed. He had assumed he'd have to beg for Veritaserum before Snape would accept his word about something like this.

"Yes." Snape didn't tell him that during those long, long minutes after he had reached the bathroom and realized Harry was in the Chamber alone and there was no way for anyone else to open the portal, he had reduced not only Ron and Hermione, but Myrtle as well, to terrified tears by demanding to know exactly what had happened up to that point.

"Oh," Harry breathed a little easier. "Okay. Well. Good. So, um, why do you still look mad?"

Snape removed his robe and rolled up his sleeves. Harry gulped and retreated a pace. "When did you first realize something was wrong?" Snape asked silkily.

Harry swallowed hard. "A couple of weeks ago."

"And when did you share your parselmouth talent with your friends?"

"Around the same time."

"And when did you plan to tell me about it?"

"Earlier today," Harry squeaked.

"THAT is why you are being punished," Snape said furiously, grabbing Harry by the ear and dragging him over to the nearest chair.

"Ouch!" Harry protested. "But – but – I would have told you eventually!"

"I have made it clear that you are not to keep relevant information to yourself, particularly when it pertains to your safety!" Snape retorted, pulling the boy across his knee. "Was I not very clear on this point?"

"Yes," Harry admitted miserably.

"Indeed," Snape replied and brought his hand down hard enough to make Harry howl.

Harry yelled blue murder as Snape proceeded to administer the hardest walloping Harry had yet received. The first half-dozen swats set up a fiery inferno over his entire bum, then the last few targeted the particularly sensitive area on which Harry normally sat.

In one small part of his brain, the only part that wasn't fully occupied with the blazing sting in his backside, Harry appreciated the irony that Snape was saying, through gritted teeth, "I am NOT the enemy, you arrogant, foolish, shortsighted child! I am here to HELP you!" while he whacked the daylights out of Harry's bum. Still, despite his loud protests, Harry knew Snape had a point. He had put himself and his friends at risk by not involving Snape until the last minute, and what was more, he had probably hurt the man's feelings as well. Snape was doing so much to help Harry, and yet when a problem presented itself, Harry insisted on tackling it alone, ignoring all the effort Snape had put into building their relationship and helping Harry learn to trust him.

When Snape finally set him back on his feet, Harry was bawling, almost as much out of the guilt he felt as from the incandescent glow in his behind. He hadn't known his bum could hurt so much. It felt like he was sitting on a hot stove while at the same time a swarm of fire hornets repeatedly stung him.

Snape marched him over to the nearest corner and stood him there. "Think about what could have happened because you were too idiotic to come to me," he ordered, giving Harry's behind one last smack and prompting a fresh flood of tears with his harsh tone.

Harry hated the corner. There was nothing to distract him from just how awful his bottom felt, and he shifted his weight from foot to foot in an awkward dance to ease some of the sting. He knew that the worst of it would soon fade, leaving only the heat and throbbing ache, but this time it was taking much longer than usual. Snape must have been really mad.

Harry sniffled. He was such an idiot. He should have trusted Snape. He should have told him and gotten his help right from the start. What if he hadn't been able to make Morgana like him? What would have happened to Ginny? What if Ron and Hermione had been with him when he fell into the Chamber? He wiped at the tears still coursing down his face. He could have gotten all of them killed.

His behind still stung and throbbed, but he was finally able to rest his hands on his sore cheeks. Rubbing still hurt too much. Harry's breath hitched in a hiccup as he wondered what he could do to make things right with Snape. How could he prove to the man that he did trust him, when his actions argued otherwise?

"Here, you horrible brat." A handkerchief appeared over his shoulder, and with a hiccupped "Th'k'y" Harry mopped up most of the tears and blew his nose.

"Are you composed enough to talk to me?" Snape asked, his voice still stern.

Harry nodded, too ashamed to look at the professor. Snape took him by the back of the neck and marched him, limping and wincing, back to the chair. He sat down and – putting Harry between his knees – forced the boy's chin up. "Now then, I believe I deserve an explanation."

Harry sniffled again. He wished he could sit on Snape's lap as he explained, babyish though that was, but even if Snape had been willing, he knew his battered backside wouldn't be up to sitting anytime soon. He took a deep breath and forced himself to speak. " 'M sorry. I should've told you earlier. I was just…" He blinked back tears. "… scared that you'd think I was crazy and wouldn't like me any more. That's all. I do trust you. Honest," he whimpered.

Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, Harry," he said, sounding more sad than angry. "You don't. If you trusted me, you wouldn't be so worried about my continuing regard for you."

"No, no," Harry tried tearfully to explain. "It's not you. It's me. I trust you. It's me I don't trust. I'm gonna do something to mess it up. Cuz I'm really just a worthless freak or crazy or something."

"Those --ing Muggles," Snape snarled, and Harry's eyes widened despite his tears. Snape had just sworn. And not just a nice normal swear word. He had used a really bad one.

"Do not let me hear you use that term until you are my age," Snape said quickly, and Harry almost smiled.

"All right, Mr Potter," Snape said, fixing Harry with a gimlet eye. "You listen to me and mark me well. I will not permit anyone – including you –" he said, tapping Harry on the nose "- to call my ward a worthless freak. It is insulting to both of us, it is unkind, and what is more, it is inaccurate. If you use that term again, you will be punished most severely."

Harry gulped. With his rear this sore, even the thought of another spanking was enough to turn him green with apprehension.

"Harry, would Draco be so jealous of you if you were truly a worthless freak?" Snape waited patiently until Harry reluctantly shook his head. "Would Granger and Weasley be so quick to follow your lead, risking their own lives in the process, if you were a worthless freak?" Harry shook his head again. "Would the Headmaster and Professor McGonagall care so much about you if you were a worthless freak?" Head shake. "Did you see Professor McGonagall earlier ? Do you think she cries like that over all her students?" Harry gave a tiny smile and shook his head. "Do you think I would care about you if you were truly a worthless freak?" This time the head shake was more tentative, and Snape scowled. "What about the Death Eaters, Harry? If you were a worthless freak, why would they care so much about the need for your capture or death? Why would the Dark Lord be so fixated on you if you were merely a worthless freak? Well? Can you come up with a reason?"

Harry took a deep shuddering breath. For the first time, he really started to believe what Snape was saying. "No," he admitted. "I can't."

"I would think not," Snape said with finality.

There was a moment of silence.

"I was really scared in the Chamber," Harry said very quietly, staring at the floor.

"I was really scared while you were in the Chamber," Snape admitted, equally quietly. "I wish I had been there with you."

"I don't!" Harry said, shocked. "I might have gotten you killed too!"

Snape stared at him. Too? What did the boy mean? "What are you talking about? You haven't ever 'gotten anyone killed'."

Harry dropped his gaze and nodded once. "Did so."

"Who?"

"M' parents," Harry's voice was almost inaudible, but Snape reeled back as if slapped. What! What absurd notions were torturing the boy? But then again, what did Harry actually know of that night? Hadn't someone said that the boy only learned about his parents' deaths by reading a history text? Those --ing Muggles. Snape was definitely going to leak their address to Lucius.

"What exactly do you mean by that?"

Harry sighed and looked at Snape with ineffable sadness in his eyes. "It was all my fault that they died. If Voldemort had just waited until we were all asleep, he could have come in and tried to kill me in my crib. Or spotted me through a window or something. Then the spell would've rebounded and he'd be gone and my parents would be alive. They only died because they were trying to protect me. That's why I'm a worthless freak. Because my parents died for nothing. Trying to save nothing."

Snape felt cold. Ice was running through his veins and his heart was cracking with the pain of it. He sat very, very still for a long moment then: "Accio healing potion."

Harry looked at him, puzzled. He had thought he might get whacked again for calling himself a worthless freak, but he needed to make Snape understand that it wasn't his fault that Harry was too stupid to tell him stuff. And right now, he just felt too sad and exhausted to really care all that much. Though that would probably change once Snape started walloping him again.

"Take this," Snape said, holding out the potion.

Harry pulled back a little. "But I'm not hurt. Morgana didn't hurt me and neither did Volde- "

"Not for the Chamber. For what I did to you."

Harry stared at him in shock. "But that was just a spanking! I mean, it still stings and all, but you weren't, y'know, abusive or anything."

Snape's lips twitched. "I know. But I don't want you distracted from what I am about to tell you by anything, even the after-effects of a well-deserved punishment."

Harry started to take the potion, then paused, looking at Snape warily. "Are you going to heal me and then whack me again later?"

Snape scowled. "When have I ever punished you twice for the same thing? Take the potion, brat!"

Harry hastily obeyed.

The smarting in his bum abruptly vanished, and he relaxed with a sigh of relief. He hadn't realized how much it still hurt until it no longer did.

"It's not as if you didn't feel the sting of the spanking," Snape pointed out, as much to himself as Harry. "It just didn't last as long as it might have. I trust you have nevertheless learned your lesson?"

Harry nodded quickly. "Yes, sir! No need for it to last any longer, sir!"

"All right. Then come here." To Harry's secret delight, Snape moved to the sofa and pulled Harry onto his lap. He paused, gathering his thoughts, then turned to face Harry. "I want you to listen to me very closely." Harry nodded, his face equally serious.

"As I told you before, when I was a child, I lived near your mother's family." Harry nodded. "I knew both your mother, Lily, and your Aunt Petunia, from the time Lily and I were about eight. I tell you this so that you know I speak the truth. I'm not telling you what someone told me. I'm telling you what I saw and know." He waited for Harry's nod of confirmation before continuing.

"Harry, when Lily's magic revealed itself, Petunia was wildly jealous." He caught the boy as Harry nearly toppled off his lap in astonishment. "She wanted to be able to do magic herself, and she tried and she tried to prove she was a witch like Lily. When it became clear that she was a Muggle, all that envy turned to anger and hatred. She decided if she couldn't be magic, then there must be something wrong with it. She deliberately married a man whose prejudices matched her own, who refused to see beyond the end of his nose and who hated and feared anything he didn't understand and couldn't control.

"The Dursleys were jealous and frightened of you, Harry. You had the magic that Petunia had always wanted. You would one day join the Wizarding society that was closed to her. You were, even as a child, more powerful than your uncle, and he knew that. That's why they tried so hard to control you, with words, with beatings, with anything they could. They accuse you of being the thing they know you're not, Harry, because it's how they feel around you.

"They are certain that they are the worthless freaks and so they turn it around and try to make you believe that it's true of you instead. They want you to believe it not because it is true, but because it is false. It is the lie that they want you to accept, as that would suit their wishes and their petty jealousy."

Harry stared at Snape, trying to process what he had said. Aunt Petunia was jealous of him? Uncle Vernon was scared of him? Harry's world had just been turned on its head.

"The next time you catch yourself thinking that you are not good enough or smart enough or brave enough – the next time you begin to feel like you are stupid or worthless or freakish or crazy – I want you to remind yourself of what I've said. That those feelings are lies, drummed into you by two weak, frightened, jealous Muggles who desperately want what you have. Do you understand?"

Harry swallowed. "I'll try," he promised, his voice still uncertain.

Snape studied him for a moment, then nodded in satisfaction. He would have to say these things again – many, many times – before Harry would be able to overcome the conditioning of his childhood, but they had made a good start here today.

"Now. On to the other misconception you hold." Snape took a deep breath. "Harry, no one truly understands how you came to be protected from Voldemort on the night your parents died. But knowing Lily as I do and her brilliant skill at Charms, I suspect she tied her own life force – and probably your father's as well – into a web of protection for you. Remember that she and your father were in hiding for some time – they knew the Dark Lord was looking for them – and so they had time to plan for the worst case scenario. They knew they might die, Harry, and I believe they made plans for that event. They knew you would not die before them, because they intended to protect you even at the cost of their own lives. It was a choice they made, Harry. It was not an accident or a mistake.

"That web of protection – the power of not one but three wizards – turned back the Unforgivable and vanquished the Dark Lord. It would not have worked without your parents' deaths, Harry. It only worked because the Dark Lord had already freed their life forces and made them available to protect you – the one person they both prized above Life itself."

Tears were pouring down Harry's cheeks, but he hadn't said a word nor had his gaze faltered from where it remained locked on Snape's own eyes.

"Harry, if by some quirk of fate, the Dark Lord had managed to get to you first, he would have killed you. And knowing your mother as well as I did, I can tell you with absolute assurance that your death would have killed her. She could not have lived without you. And James would not have survived the loss of his wife and child. So if you had died, Harry, your parents would still have died. Perhaps not at the hand of the Dark Lord, but they would still be just as dead.

"They knew the prophecy, Harry. They knew that you were the Dark Lord's target. They knew they had a choice. They didn't have to go into hiding with you. They could have turned you over to the Ministry for protection. They could even have handed you over to the Dark Lord when he arrived at the house in Godric's Hollow. But they didn't choose to do any of those things, Harry. They chose to stay with you, to protect you with their own lives, to die rather than allow you to be killed. They made that choice to protect you, not because you are a worthless freak, but because you were their precious, precious child."

"And that is why you must never again take foolish risks with your life. That is why you must let me help to protect you. I chose to make you a part of my life, Harry, and that means I have made the same choices your parents did. I will protect you, Harry, with my life if necessary. But you must help me to do that. You must realize how much you are loved and treasured, and you must never do anything to risk yourself unnecessarily. If you are worried, if you are frightened, if you are upset – you come to me. Do you understand? So I can continue your parents' dying efforts and keep you safe.

"That is how you honor them, Harry. That is how you bring meaning to their deaths, and that is how you defeat the Dark Lord. You are your parents' legacy. Not you, the Boy Who Lived or the symbol of the Light, but you, their beloved baby boy. The child they adored and cherished above everything else. When you doubt your own worth, Harry, you denigrate their sacrifice. You call into question everything they lived and died for. If you wish to believe the Dursleys over me, that's one thing. But don't believe the Dursleys over your own parents." His gaze never wavering, Snape reached out and cupped Harry's face in his strong, potion-stained hands. "Do you understand what I am saying, child? Do you understand how very precious you are?"

Harry's face crumpled. He threw himself forward, collapsing into Snape's arms and crying harder than he had ever cried before. He mourned his parents, his childhood, and the life he might have had and would never know. He grieved for the life he could have had, had his relatives been able to set aside their hatred and envy. He cried all the tears he had never been able to shed before, because no one had ever cared enough to help him do so. He wept with heartbroken abandon, the sobs coming from deep within him, while Snape held him and rocked him as if he were a much younger child.

Harry didn't even notice when the floo roared to life and Dumbledore looked out. The Headmaster's eyebrows rose precipitously as he saw Harry sobbing so brokenheartedly, then fell into a thunderous scowl as he looked at Snape. The Potions Master glared back and made little shooing motions with his hand. Dumbledore looked like he wanted to argue, but finally mouthed, "My office. Soon as you can" and withdrew.

After several more minutes, Harry finally began to get control of himself, and his sobs slowly died away to quiet tears then to hiccups and sniffles. The whole time, he remained clasped securely in Snape's arms.

After he was certain from Harry's breathing that the emotional maelstrom had subsided, Snape cautiously Accio'd a handkerchief and offered it to the boy. Harry pushed himself upright and did his best to mop up the worst of the mess. "Thank you," he said quietly, too emotionally wrung out to feel any embarrassment at having cried himself to exhaustion on his professor's lap. He felt a warm, safe feeling of peace that he had never known before, as if an enormous burden had been lifted from him.

"You're welcome," Snape said, relieved to see the boy was calm. He wished he could deposit Harry on the couch and let him fall into the deep healing sleep that his body needed after such emotionally and physically grueling experiences, but that would really convince the Headmaster that he had beaten the boy to within an inch of his life. "I'm sure you are tired, but the Headmaster is waiting for us, and I'm certain your friends are convinced you are being tortured with hot coals."

Harry grinned, even through his fatigue. "My bum pretty much felt like you were for a while there."

Snape rolled his eyes. Such hyperbole. He had only delivered about ten swats, though he had to admit they'd been good and hard. But ten smacks, however soundly applied, hardly constituted the roasting the brat had claimed – and deserved – to have gotten. Still, the boy had undoubtedly felt it, and Severus' point had been made. And accepted.

Even without the need to address Harry's misperceptions, it would have been inefficient to prolong the boy's discomfort once he had learned his lesson, Snape argued to himself. It wasn't that he was lenient with Harry; it was merely that he detested unnecessary effort. A lengthy period of soreness for Harry would lead to extra work for Snape in the form of deflecting disapproving glares from the faculty, ignoring reproachful looks from the rest of the Trio, and rebuffing pitiful sighs and demands for extra shortbread from the brat himself. Much better to make the lesson sharp and painful, but short. And if the boy needed a brief embrace afterwards, it wasn't that he was cuddling the brat, but merely acknowledging the reestablishment of normal relationships. "Go and wash your face," he ordered sternly, determined not to lose his reputation as a strict disciplinarian.

Harry obediently trotted down the hall, while Severus quickly changed into a fresh shirt – free of all the tears and snot that Harry had sobbed onto his chest – and donned his robes. When Harry reappeared, his fringe dripping but the tear tracks gone, Snape took him by the hand and floo'd to Albus' office.

No sooner had they arrived than Snape noticed Poppy, off to one side, surreptitiously performing a diagnostic spell on Harry. He scowled fiercely at the Headmaster. Did the old coot really think he would have injured the child? He pushed Harry towards the couch on which the other two Gryffindor students sat waiting and stalked over to where the medi-witch was reassuring the Headmaster.

"Albus! How dare you find it necessary to perform an illicit examination on my ward!" he hissed furiously.

"Now, Severus, you must admit that you have a temper," Albus began uncomfortably, "and Harry has a tendency to provoke you –"

"So after ignoring the abuse he suffered at the hands of those Muggles for a decade, you are now suddenly vigilant?" Snape sneered, pleased to find himself occupying the moral high ground in a dispute with Dumbledore.

"As I said, Harry is fine, Albus," Poppy said reassuringly. "Not a mark on him, nor any signs of distress. Looks like someone let him off without a bottom warming." She winked at Snape, much to his annoyance, and left.

"I apologize, my dear boy," Dumbledore said humbly. "I hope you can forgive me for my unfounded suspicions. I should have known you would never harm Harry, no matter how angry you might feel."

Snape sulked a little more, enjoying Dumbledore's increasingly remorseful expressions of contrition, until Minerva finally got fed up with the Potions Master and elbowed him in the side. "For Merlin's sake stop pouting, Severus!" the witch snapped. "Albus didn't make you grovel this much when you left Voldemort!"

"Minerva, I do not pout!" Snape denied hotly, but he grudgingly conceded her other point and let Albus off the hook. "I'm glad you are – finally – looking out for the boy," he sniffed, turning away from the older wizard and missing the impish look Dumbledore gave Minerva.

Meanwhile, Harry had immediately been hit with whispered questions as soon as he sat down with this friends. "Are you okay, Harry?" Hermione asked, worried.

"Need an extra pillow, mate?" Ron's eyes danced mischievously.

"No, thanks," Harry replied, grinning.

Ron's eyes widened. "You didn't get whacked? Blimey, how'd you escape that? I thought for sure Snape was going to –"

"I didn't exactly escape," Harry admitted. "I did get whacked – really hard too! – but then Snape, well, he needed to explain some stuff, so he let me have a healing potion."

"What? Why?" Ron demanded, incredulous.

"He said he didn't want anything to distract me from what he was saying," Harry explained.

"You lucky sod!" Ron breathed, envy writ large on his features. "My mum says that the sting makes me listen, so she gives me a couple of extra whacks before she gets to the lecturing part."

Harry squirmed a bit. "It wasn't that kind of talk. I mean, it wasn't exactly a lecture. He just explained some stuff about… stuff."

"I think it shows how much Professor Snape cares about you, Harry," Hermione said primly. "Although I still think that corporal punishment –"

"Yeah, yeah. We know," Ron interrupted her rudely. "Merlin, Harry, when Snape walloped you in the lav, I nearly fell over. He's totally into the dad thing now."

Harry colored as he recalled how Snape had smacked his bum in front of everybody when he'd first emerged from the Chamber. Usually Snape was scrupulous about punishing Harry in private, so Harry had taken that as a sign of how furious and fed up Snape was with him. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, right – you've never really had a dad that you can remember," Ron realized. "Well, mate, let me tell you that no one but a parent will go from hugging you to swatting you in under five seconds."

"He's right, Harry," Hermione chimed in. "Professor Snape was just frantic when he got there and realized you must be in the Chamber. The look of relief on his face when the opening appeared and you stepped out was amazing."

"Yeah, and the happiness when he saw you were okay – immediately followed by absolute fury – that sequence pretty much guarantees you a whack or two. I think it's like a rule or something."

"Even my father – " Hermione started, then blushed as both boys stared at her in shock.

"You said your folks didn't smack you," Ron accused.

"They don't," she replied. "But the one time – the only time – that I got a smack on the bum was the same sort of thing. We were at a family reunion when I was around six. A younger cousin and I were playing outside while everyone else was indoors, and we went over by the swimming pool and I fell in. I couldn't really swim and so my cousin ran for help. My dad came running out and jumped in with all his clothes on and rescued me. But as soon as he got me out and made sure I was okay, he hugged me until I couldn't breathe and then before I knew it, he had started yelling and that's when he smacked me." She tried to act nonchalant. "It really hurt, too. He apologized later, but he explained that he had been very upset at the thought that they might have lost me. Professor Snape had that same look on his face, Harry."

Harry studied his toes and tried not to let the idiotic grin spread all over his face. Smiling because he'd been whacked? How mental was that? He should be annoyed, right?

Above his bent head, Ron and Hermione exchanged a happy glance. Whatever challenges might still lie ahead for Harry, he would no longer have to face them alone, or with just the two of them at his side.

That was quite a relief, to be honest. And now that they had had some time to get used to it, both were happy – for different reasons – that it was Professor Snape who had befriended Harry. Ron was happy because Snape was the meanest, orneriest, most dangerous member of the faculty. No one was going to mess with Harry while he was around, and he'd be able to teach Harry to take on all comers, right up to the Dark Lord himself. He'd even challenge the Headmaster himself, like he was doing right now, though it seemed that that argument was over and – yep, Snape had won. Again.

Hermione was happy because Professor Snape knew what it was like to be a Death Eater and he would therefore be the best person to teach Harry how to defeat them. He was very stern but when he said something, you could count on it. And he didn't demand Harry take on unreasonable tasks, the way Professor Dumbledore sometimes seemed to do. It was as if the Headmaster thought that Harry was special and should be allowed to do things no other student was, but most of those things weren't very good for Harry, whether it was risking a cold and being tired in class after some late night corridor wandering or meeting up with the Dark Lord in yet another secret chamber. Hermione was very glad that Snape actively discouraged Harry – in a very hands-on way – from breaking school rules. He wanted Harry to be safe, and he wasn't shy about setting limits on Harry's behavior and then enforcing them. Dumbledore didn't appear to be very good at that, and Hermione felt strongly that consistency was critical in child-rearing. Her parents always said so.

Both Hermione and Ron were pleased that they no longer had to feel responsible for Harry. A formidable grownup had taken on that role, and they were glad to be relegated back to mere "friend" status. No more having to worry about whether his relatives were feeding him over the holidays or if his nocturnal wanderings were interfering with his studying. All that adult stuff could now be entrusted to Snape. They could go back to focusing on the fun stuff, like figuring out the best way to pass notes in History of Magic or cheering for the Quidditch team.

"So, children," Dumbledore and the other teachers finally came over and settled themselves in chairs near the students. "I am sure you have a fascinating story to tell us."

The Trio looked at each other, then both boys turned to Hermione. She looked at the teachers. "Well, it all started when Harry began hearing this voice…" It took a while, and the boys chimed in frequently, but in the end, the entire tale was shared.

"Let me see if I understand. You three uncovered a plot by Lord Voldemort to create chaos here at the school by draining Miss Weasley's life force in order to animate a shade of his former self and awaken the basilisk. You not only destroyed the Dark artifact that fueled that shade, but you discovered Salazar Slytherin's Chamber of Secrets and befriended his basilisk familiar before it harmed anyone here at the school. You correctly identified the creature based on very little evidence but a great deal of clever deduction (and the help of Charles Weasley), and you found the entrance to the Chamber. Concurrent with all this, Miss Granger taught herself how to cast an Imperius so as to be able to overcome the basilisk. When you discovered the diary and the Chamber entrance today, Miss Granger collected not only two roosters whose crow could dispatch the basilisk, but for good measure, she also brought along Harry's owl and my familiar, Fawkes, in case they might prove helpful. While she was doing this, Mr Weasley first summoned Professor Snape, then obtained his own chicken by cleverly using the school's floo network to dart home to where he knew a supply was readily available. While his friends were thus engaged, Mr Potter unfortunately fell victim to the slippery tiles in the lavatory but ended up destroying Voldemort's horcrux and making a new, powerful ally. Did I omit anything?"

McGonagall and her students sat there, beaming, and it was too much for Snape. "Allow me to correct your interpretation of events, Headmaster," he interjected coldly. "Mr Potter, Miss Granger, and Mr Weasley deliberately withheld information critical to school safety and/or their own well being. They engaged in a highly inappropriate investigation and lied to Mr Weasley's older brother in order to solicit his unwitting assistance in their madcap scheme. Mr Weasley also violated school policy by using my floo without my permission for an unauthorized visit to his home." Ron squirmed uncomfortably.

"Miss Granger has displayed an alarming talent for the Dark Arts by learning and repeatedly casting a highly illegal Unforgiveable, albeit only at barnyard fowl. She also kidnapped your familiar, Headmaster – I understand that she said something to the effect of "Come with me or I'll pluck you bald" when Fawkes initially declined to accompany a wild-eyed child who burst into the office. I am sure it is coincidence that your gargoyle is sporting several new and deep chips in its stone body, as would be consistent with someone bullying it into unblocking the staircase in the absence of the password." Hermione turned bright red and shrank back against the cushions.

"Despite being specifically told not to touch the Dark object, Mr Potter nevertheless stuffed said artifact into his pocket as if it were a stray quill that he had found in the corridors. His premature and potentially catastrophic tumble into the Chamber was due entirely to his impatient questioning of the snakes linked to the portal, when he knew perfectly well that he should wait quietly for a responsible adult to arrive. His ability to befriend the basilisk and destroy the horcrux – I will explain to you children what that is later, Mr Weasley; do not interrupt me again with your piercing whispers to Miss Granger seeking edification – was due more to sheer luck than to skill and planning. Despite all his training over these past few months, Mr Potter still is happy to rush in where angels fear to tread and his friends are only too happy to rush in alongside him." Now it was Harry's turn to look abashed, though he was still too happy at his friends' explanation of Snape's behavior as well as Snape's own words to him earlier, to be downcast by the scolding for long.

"I assume you will be deducting an appropriate number of points for such reckless behavior, Headmaster?" Snape said meaningfully.

All three children's heads jerked up in shock and alarm. Lose points? But they had fought off the Dark Lord and saved Ginny!

Their Head of House sailed to the rescue. "Your wits are wandering, Severus!" McGonagall scolded. "The children did what they had to do in order to rescue Miss Weasley and neutralize the threat of the basilisk. They should be rewarded, not punished, and I assume the House points will reflect that."

Ron frowned. He wasn't sure he was comfortable with "the ends justifying the means" argument, and he caught Snape's eye upon him and knew the Potions Master was thinking the same thing. To his astonishment, Snape's eyelid flickered in the briefest wink. Ron choked.

"Are you okay?" Hermione asked in concern.

"Minerva, only a muddleheaded Gryffindor could possibly advance such a flawed argument," Snape retorted. "Their repeated violations of school rules and policies require a stern response."

"The saving of the school calls for a generous reward!"

"Professors, professors," Dumbledore said genially. "Please, think of the example you are setting for the young people." Minerva and Severus broke off their argument with glowers of mutual hostility. "I propose that a general amnesty is declared upon most of today's events. Miss Granger's use of an Unforgiveable is concerning, although I do not believe that Imperiusing poultry is technically illegal. She has displayed unexpected prowess at the Dark Arts, however, and I agree that she will require careful tutelage to ensure her proficiency advances in a safe and legal manner. I must concur with Professor Snape in one thing, though; we cannot ignore the unsupervised study and practice of Unforgiveables. Miss Granger, I'm afraid you will have to be punished."

Hermione wrung her hands together anxiously. Surely they wouldn't expel her, would they? She could feel the boys stiffening protectively at her sides. "Yes, Professor," she said, her voice trembling.

His blue eyes twinkled. "I know how highly you students prize your free time, but I have no choice but to order you to attend special Dark Arts training with Professor Snape. I am quite certain this will also provide you with all the oversight you require to develop your skills to their utmost." Hermione's eyes grew huge with delight - extra classes! - and Harry perked up too. Now he'd have someone at his own level to duel with!

Ron grinned. If the two of them were getting extra DADA lessons, he was pretty sure he'd be included eventually, if only because Snape would go spare at the thought of the other two teaching him the stuff on the sly.

Snape's eyes narrowed at this blatant confiscation of his spare time, but he didn't dare argue lest Albus decide to trust Hermione's training to Lockhart. On the other hand, that might ensure the idiot's rapid departure from Hogwarts, if not his demise. Providing poor quality Dark Arts training to a student with a high level of innate ability tended to be a self-correcting action. Terminally self-correcting.

"In terms of Mr Weasley's unauthorized use of the floo," continued the Headmaster, "since he merely went home – as his mother can attest – I do not believe any disciplinary action is required. I would suggest that you owl your brother with a full explanation and apology, however." Ron nodded obediently. He knew perfectly well Charlie would be tickled pink at the adventure; he wouldn't be at all upset at their fib but rather delighted to have participated.

"As for Mr Potter's imprudent actions, I suspect he has already received appropriate chastisement," Dumbledore twinkled at Harry's blush, "so we need not assign further punishment. But even you must admit, Severus, that his actions in the Chamber, while happily blessed with a large degree of good luck, also demonstrated initiative, courage, and ingenuity."

"I never stated otherwise," Snape retorted haughtily. Harry beamed. Coming from Snape – well, sort of – that was a real compliment!

"Then having gotten the various punishments out of the way, we can move on to the rewards," Dumbledore continued happily. "I believe eighty points each for their bravery and cleverness will acknowledge both the Slytherin and Gryffindor qualities that these young people displayed today. And we will have to find a way to award young Mr Malfoy his share as well – though perhaps we should wait a few days rather than risk any connections being made. I think twenty points is an appropriate reward for placing the rescue of an innocent above family loyalty, don't you?"

Snape spun to stare at the children, but their gobsmacked expressions told him that none of them had told Dumbledore. So how had the old man known? The old coot twinkled maddeningly at Snape. "Don't you agree, my boy?"

"That would be… acceptable," he agreed grudgingly.

"Then, having recognized and honored the children's actions, I suggest we all sit back and relax. This has been a very stressful day, after all. Severus – would you not agree that some tea and biscuits are in order?"

Snape glared at him. So the irritating old nitwit knew about that as well? "Oh, very well, Headmaster. I will inform the house elves. Will shortbread, peanut butter, and chocolate chip biscuits for the children be sufficient, or do you and Professor McGonagall insist on having your own favorites as well? Surely you ingest enough sugar through those disgusting lemon drops and do not require anything more."

"Now, Severus, the house elves know to bring lemon squares for me. Minerva? Still enjoying sugar cookies? Sweets to the sweet, eh, my dear?"

The students stared as McGonagall actually giggled. "Oh, Albus!"

Snape looked as if he were going to be ill. "Good grief."

Harry grinned. Yep, this was his family all right. Complete with squabbles, grudges, and lots of food. He looked over to where Snape was instructing a house elf and the professor, perhaps feeling Harry's eye upon him, glanced up. He didn't actually smile, but the stern expression lightened just a little. Harry sank back against the couch cushions and relaxed in the happy company of his new family. All this and shortbread too!

FIN