Conspiracy of Silence
Disclaimer: J.K. Rowling created and owns Hogwarts, Severus Snape, and almost everything else in this story - for which I will be forever jealous.
Author's Note: The sequel to CoS: Second Sight.
The crowd on platform nine and three-quarters was markedly smaller than usual. Those that were there tended to be older; there was a definite scarcity of first years around the place. Those that were there were as nervous and excited as could be expected, but many of the older students seemed subdued.
A marked contrast to the dark atmosphere was the feline grin on the face of Lucius Malfoy. But then, he had no reason to be touched by the general depression - not when he was the cause of at least part of it.
Things had slowly been going bad in the wizarding world for a while now. Disappearances, random attacks, a rise in anti-Muggle sentiments. But at the end of last year, the first signs had appeared that even Hogwarts itself was not totally immune.
The murder of astronomy teacher Auriga Cephus could not be tied to Malfoy - at least not directly, although he probably heartily approved of it. Or would, if he knew it was a murder. That was a fact that was currently known only to Dumbledore, Snape, the Ministry of Magic, and a twelve-year-old called Lewis Matthews.
Lewis Matthews, and his older brother Josh, were the other cause of the aura of darkness and distrust that had settled over school. And that, Malfoy could be held accountable for.
When Lewis had been sorted into Gryffindor house, his Slytherin brother Josh had borne the brunt of Malfoy's wrath. This had grown into a private vendetta, splitting the Slytherin house into those who favoured Malfoy, and those who were just too afraid to go against him.
Things had culminated with a magical attack that had put Josh in a coma for several days. His parents had taken him and his brother out of the school, but Josh had never named his attackers and only the other Slytherin boys from his year knew the truth.
Malfoy had been devious in diverting suspicion. Whilst all of them knew he was responsible, even those who knew couldn't have proved it. The only ones he'd let in on the secret were those he sent to actually perform the curse; Nick Avery and Simon Lestrange.
Even Sev, whom Malfoy trusted, had been cut out of the loop. Malfoy was quick enough assessing people to know that his cool attitude was better suited to deviousness than dirty-work. Further, by having Josh left unconscious in the library, he had practically guaranteed that the studious and solitary Snape would be the one to find him. He was the perfect choice; a Slytherin, for the sympathy value, but one who was cool and unreadable, and wouldn't crack under the headmaster's sharp gaze.
Yes, Malfoy was extremely devious. His fellow Slytherins might be split between fearing and worshipping him, but none of them underestimated him; the same could not be said for the rest of the school. The Gryffindors, in particular, regarded him as something like a pantomime baddie - sneering and snapping, but unable to do any real damage.
Sev, working on the inside, saw a rather different story.
Malfoy had the patronage of some mysterious but powerful figure, who could teach him curses no boy of his age should be able to master. Sev strongly suspected that this dark wizard had some sort of affiliation with the 'Death Eaters', the group who had claimed credit for Auriga Cephus's murder.
Sev believed he had as much of Malfoy's trust as anybody - but even that was not a lot. Malfoy was the kind of boy who greatly enjoyed having a secret, especially one that gave him power over others. He knew Sev was extremely smart, and would be wary about cutting him in - Lucius, no doubt, was worried about being eclipsed in his new master's eyes.
"Ah, Severus," said Malfoy pleasantly. "Looking forward to the new year?"
"I'm sure it's likely to be... exciting," he said, dryly. Malfoy barked a brief laugh - perhaps at the dark insinuations, or perhaps simply at the image of dry-as-dust Severus Snape getting excited over anything.
He put a casual arm over Sev's shoulder, which he avoided the urge to throw off. Sev was not at all a tactile person, and he certainly didn't like being touched by Lucius Malfoy. "I can guarantee it," Malfoy grinned, close to his ear, and then pulled away from him.
On the train-ride, they were joined by Nick, Simon, and Colin Crabbe. Over the last two years, they had become Malfoy's constant companions, although they couldn't be called 'friends'. No, they were more like a military escort; Crabbe as the dull-witted muscle-man, and Nick and Simon to do the dirty work so Malfoy kept his hands clean. For reasons of deniability only - Malfoy certainly didn't steer clear of nastiness because he didn't enjoy it. However, he was smart enough to farm out anything that brought with it a chance of being caught in the act.
Sev knew where he fit into this little gang; the extremely dangerous position of senior advisor. He had to tread the fine line between proving his brains valuable to Malfoy, and being so far in advance of him that Malfoy started to feel threatened.
Back at Hogwarts, they slid into their places at the by-now familiar house table. Malfoy seemed to be regarding the students to be sorted with more than his usual contemptuous disinterest.
Sev ran an assessing eye over the ragtag assortment in evidence. There were only perhaps forty new first years, making for a year-group half the size of his own. The tables also had some empty places; mostly in Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. Brave Gryffindors and ambitious Slytherins thrived on a more dangerous climate. Most of them, anyway.
The split in their own year group was all the more apparent. He, Malfoy, and Malfoy's three hand-picked 'soldiers' sat on one side of the table; the other four boys, Jack, Stuart, Robert and John, sat on the other. They were all fairly quiet, and spent most of their time looking at their plates or at the ceiling.
The Sorting Hat sang its usual carefully-composed piece of doggerel, causing Malfoy to roll his eyes pointedly. But once it had finished, he leaned forward in his seat to watch the Sorting.
Sev watched with him, and also watched Malfoy's face for cues. A few minutes and a little knowledge of Malfoy made it crystal clear.
Malfoy was scanning the new intake for mudbloods. Technically, there should be no way to tell, but of course to them all magic was completely novel and astonishing. Any wizardborn kid might be intimidated by the sheer scale of Hogwarts, but those from Muggle families were similarly shocked by things like magically appearing feasts and the school ghosts.
When a slow smile began to curl over Malfoy's features towards the end of the Sorting, he knew why. "We seem to have been exceptionally... lucky, this year," he observed neutrally. There were as many Muggle-born students as ever... but not one of them had been Sorted into house Slytherin.
"Lucky?" Lucius smirked. "Hardly. Things are changing, Severus. It's so obvious, even a singing hat knows it." His smile darkened. "Of course, it figures that the lesser houses would be slower to take on the changes."
He glanced up and down the Slytherin table, and then turned back to Sev. "House Slytherin is as close as it's ever been to perfection. And by the end of this year, the last of these... impurities will have been cleansed." He smiled, and rubbed absently at the dark metal ring on his left hand. Sev had noticed it earlier; it was in the shape of a twisting snake, and had leapt out at him because Malfoy was not normally one for jewellery.
"Why do you have that?" he asked, automatically lowering his voice. It was clearly the right time for conspiratorial tones, for Malfoy replied just as quietly.
"It's a mark of favour," he said with a self-satisfied grin. "I'll tell you more when we get back to our rooms."
At the lead table, Professor Dumbledore stood up. "Ahem. Welcome back, all... and welcome for the first time to our new students. As I'm sure you're aware, things have been somewhat... tense in the wizarding world of late. However, I want to assure you that the grounds of Hogwarts are as well protected as ever." He nodded to the teachers on his right and left.
"Professors Malachite and Fractalis have been renewing the wards on the outer gates, and Professor Vitae has lent her assistance with some extremely powerful charms. In these troubled times, we are safest when we stick together; and at Hogwarts, we are all one family."
Sev looked at Malfoy and pointedly raised an eyebrow, causing the other boy to snicker. At least Dumbledore hadn't tried to say they were a 'happy' family.
"The staff, most of you will know by now," Dumbledore said. "Professor Salubrius here will now be taking over the first- and second-year Astronomy classes, and Professor Cuero will take up his old position as the Care of Magical Creatures tutor." There was polite applause as the older students craned their necks to see the new teacher.
He was a narrow-faced man with reddish hair, a moustache and a snooty expression. He was looking at most of the students with the kind of contempt Malfoy reserved for them, although his face seemed to soften a little when he glanced towards the Slytherins.
Care of Magical Creatures was one of the new subjects available in the third year. Sev had signed up for that, and Arithmancy with Fractalis. He had picked his lessons on the basis that Malfoy had also chosen them; it really mattered little which he chose, for he could excel at any without effort.
When the feasting was over, everybody stumbled back to their dorms. Hogwarts rooms were assigned on a rotating basis, so that a year-group kept the same places all through school, instead of shifting all the time. Sev returned to what was now Third Year Dorm B and took up his usual bed. When Stuart Flint tried to do the same, however, he was stopped.
"My bed now," said Simon Lestrange placidly. Simon was always very softly-spoken, and slow to speak or move. However, his was not a natural quietness like Snape's; his was the silence of a clock gently ticking down to zero. Simon Lestrange was the closest thing Hogwarts had to a psychopath, and they had all learned to tread around him very carefully.
"Okay..." Stuart slowly withdrew the suitcase he'd automatically thrown down. Something about the far-away look in Simon's eyes encouraged you not to use sudden movements. "Um... this used to be my bed." He was careful to make it sound half-questioning, and not in any way accusing.
"Mine now," repeated Simon with a vague smile.
"Fine." He retreated rapidly. "I'll, um, I'll go move in with Jack and Rob and Johnny, how about that?" Simon continued to smile at him in that slightly bemused way, as if he was undecided as to whether Stuart really existed or he was just imagining him. Stuart took the hint, and scuttled away.
Malfoy and Avery cackled in the wake of his departure. Sev smiled thinly, because it was wise to be amused by the same things as Lucius Malfoy. Slow-witted Colin didn't have time to work out the funny before the others had stopped laughing.
Malfoy got to his feet, and surveyed his troops approvingly. "At last; the company of real Slytherins." He smiled, and padded over to close the door. Then he stood with his back against it, and smiled again.
"You have all been loyal to me, and loyal to my cause. Don't think it has gone unnoticed. Those we work for reward loyalty... and brutally punish traitors." He shot a pointed glance behind him, as if he could see through the door to the place where he had once used a forbidden curse on Joshua Matthews.
Avery and Colin listened with puppy-dog devotion - Simon with a variant on his usual detached gaze. Sev's face was blank as ever, although behind it he was cynically amused by this classical cult brainwashing.
"Soon... soon, I will be admitted to the inner circles - and you will quickly follow." He reached into his pocket for something. "Until then, I would give you these tokens of allegiance." He opened his hand, and in it lay four more dark metal rings like his own.
Sev accepted one from Malfoy, and studied it carefully. The metal was almost black, and polished to a fine shine. The ring was in the shape of a coiled snake, with its jaws open in a wide hiss. Within the jaws of the snake was a miniature skull.
Skulls and snakes... the symbols of the Death Eaters.
Sev slipped the ring onto the fourth finger of his left hand, the way Malfoy wore his. To display it proudly could be very useful; if there were other groups of followers like the one Malfoy was building, they would see him as one of their own.
Malfoy smirked triumphantly at them. "Soon," he assured. "Very, very soon."
Sev's first new lesson this year was Care of Magical Creatures. They dutifully trooped out to the school field where Professor Cuero waited for them. Hogwarts, magical or not, was not immune to the English rain, and the ground was damp and soggy underfoot.
Malfoy protested loudly about what the mud was doing to his expensive new robes, but that was nothing on the way he cursed when he saw their partners for this subject. "Gryffindors!" He sounded disgusted. "Will we never be rid of them?"
"Unfortunately for us, doesn't look like it," snapped Sirius Black. He scowled at Malfoy, who gave him a mocking smile in return.
"Love your new hair, Black. What did you cut it with, a penknife?" Sirius just sneered, but a few moments later Sev caught him surreptitiously trying to smooth his unruly curls into place.
Sev's own hair was also black and shoulder-length, but it hung perfectly straight and had a tendency to appear greasy. There were few things in this world Sev could have cared less about than his own physical appearance. In his experience, people who spent a lot of time working on their surface appearance did so because there was nothing worth knowing about underneath.
Professor Cuero regarded his new students with a sneer to rival Malfoy's. "Third years. Yes." He pronounced it much the way he might have said 'flobberworms'.
For their first lesson, they were dealing with a herd of odd, crossbreed creatures called leucrocottas. About the size of a small donkey, they were vaguely feline but with cloven hooves. Their strangest feature was the fact that instead of separate teeth, they had one huge flat slab of bone. They were kept in an enclosure, which was as well - they moved extremely rapidly, and could be sparked to flee with little warning.
Working with an air of absolute disinterest, Cuero explained how the creatures could mimic human speech, and how they could be lured close without sparking them to flight. He was casually dismissive of most of the students, and to Malfoy's delight extra-nasty to the Gryffindors. He was especially biting towards Lily and Jade - perhaps because they were girls, but Sev thought it more likely to be because they were both 'mudbloods'. Interesting; a teacher who shared Malfoy's prejudices. He was intrigued - it didn't seem like Dumbledore to miss such open enmity in one of his chosen staff. But where Dumbledore was seemingly as sharp as Sev himself, he suffered from one fatal flaw... he wanted to trust people.
That was one mistake Sev wasn't intending to make.
Several times in the lesson, Lily tried to catch his eye. He studiously avoided her gaze. At the end of last year, he had secretly slipped her an invisibility cloak that had once been his. Of course she knew who the gift was from, but he didn't intend to speak with her about it. He had a suspicion that she would take his gesture as proof that he too could sometimes be moved by emotion or compassion, which of course it wasn't.
She was a mudblood, and therefore in more danger than him. She was also one of the only two people who knew his real mission in getting close to Malfoy. He couldn't afford for her to be placed in a position where she might accidentally reveal his secret. Therefore, it was logical to protect her.
Pure logic. But of course, people who saw the world through emotional eyes refused to accept that you could live without doing so.
Sev's ever-observant brain picked out another Gryffindor who was earning Cuero's disgust. Remus Lupin; a quiet, thoughtful boy whose robes were always ragged and threadbare. Since Lupin was neither a mudblood nor a girl, and not particularly objectionable, Sev watched with interest to see why Cuero had taken against him.
He soon saw that in Lupin's case, the teacher had a genuine beef. He appeared be trying in earnest, but he just couldn't make the leucrocottas obey him. No matter what he did, the beasts just wouldn't go near him.
Sev was intrigued. Animals, especially the magical kind, had senses at their disposal that humans did not. What was it about Remus Lupin that they were so afraid of?