A/N: A big thank you to all the reviewers, especially those who asked for more! I may not update this story very often, but I hope I don't disappoint you in quality.
Harry groaned inwardly as Neville's potion turned a deep magenta, when it was supposed to be a brilliant lime green by now. He listened as Snape inflicted his bumbling classmate with a tirade of abuse, in addition to yet another detention.
Harry had gotten off to a bad start this school year with the whole fiasco of flying Mr. Weasley's car into the Whomping Willow, and although both he and Ron had explained that they could not get onto Platform 9¾, when Dumbledore sent an owl of inquiry to the platform manager, he reported back that all the barriers were working normally (for wizards and witches, anyway), so Snape seemed to have settled on the belief that it had been a lie, to cover for their inexcusable desire to arrive at school in the ancient Ford Anglia. Any chances Harry had of asking the Potions Master about his mother, at this point, seemed dim.
His chances grew dimmer still when Ron slipped in the Leola roots without slicing them, before Harry could stop him. They both groaned as their potion turned a muddy brown.
"You were supposed to cut them thin," Harry whispered furiously.
"Sorry, mate," Ron said, looking dejected. He knew how much it meant to Harry to do well in Potions, since Harry had told him and Hermione about his conversation with Snape at the end of last term, but there was no way to correct their mistake now.
Harry sighed as he remembered Snape's comment on his own lack of precision, and stared at the muddy mixture (which was now beginning to turn pink) and prepared for the professor's verbal onslaught. However, Snape was still praising Draco Malfoy on the beautiful condition of his potion, which was an almost fluorescent green, and had not yet seen the sorry state of Harry and Ron's.
"But of course, Professor," Malfoy was smirking. "I had to get this perfect, since it's my house color!"
Feeling sick to his stomach, Harry looked back at the muddy pink potion roiling in the cauldron in front of him. It was almost a dirty flesh tone, and just at that moment, two large bubbles formed on the surface and popped. It reminded him of Dobby, the crazed house-elf who had started the whole chain of events that had made Harry's miserable existence go from bad to worse.
"First he showed up and got me into trouble with the Dursleys. Then Ron had to come rescue me, and when we couldn't get onto the Platform, we had to take the flying car to school, and ended up in the stupid Whomping Willow, and almost got expelled!" Harry thought, trying to blame everything on Dobby. Suddenly, a new thought occurred to him -- since Dobby had not wanted him to go to Hogwarts this year, he must have blocked the way to the Platform!
"It was Dobby!!" Harry exclaimed, turning to Ron. He had forgotten all about being in Potions class.
"What?!?" Ron asked, confused.
Suddenly, before Harry could explain his outburst, they both noticed a tall, dark shadow looming over them, exuding ire.
"Ten points from Gryffindor, for not paying attention in class!" Snape hissed. "And ten more for this pathetic excuse for a Disgorging Potion!"
He made the potion vanish with a flick of his wand, and cast a scathing glance on Harry once more.
"Detention. My office. Tonight!" he barked, then turned on his heel.
Harry bit his lip, for he had been close to protesting that he hadn't put in the Leola roots, but had remembered in the nick of time that he could only blame his best friend, and held his tongue. He noticed, though, that Malfoy was staring at him in the strangest way, and not even taunting him for getting a simple potion wrong. Before he had a chance to mention it to Ron, however, class was over, and Malfoy made a beeline to Harry.
"What were you yelling in your pathetic, demented ravings?!?" he demanded, his face even paler than usual.
"What's it to you?!?" Ron snapped, already irritated by his own mistake and ready to pick a fight, with or without a reason.
"It's none of your business," Harry also retorted, noticing a vein in Malfoy's temple that stood out, throbbing, in contrast to his white skin, which reminded him of his uncle.
"We'll just see about that!" Malfoy seethed. "What were you saying about a 'Dobby'?!?"
In that instant, Harry remembered what the twins, Fred and George, had said about house-elves: that they usually belonged to wealthy wizarding families that lived in mansions or castles. It had occurred to him then that Dobby might belong to the Malfoys -- now, since Malfoy had just confronted him about the name, he had positively proven it!
"'Dobby'? What's a 'dobby'?" Harry asked, thinking quickly and feigning innocence. "I said 'Bobby,' as in a police officer."
Catching what Harry was doing, Hermione joined the fray.
"What's a 'dobby,' anyway?" she asked, looking for all the world like she didn't know, and was simply curious. "Is it some kind of potion ingredient?"
Malfoy scowled and muttered something rude under his breath, which was inaudible to Harry and his friends, before stalking off with his Slytherin cronies in his wake. As Harry hurriedly gathered his things, Ron whispered in excitement.
"Harry! That house-elf must be Malfoy's house-elf! He might as well have come out and said it!"
"Yeah, and I think it was Dobby that blocked the barrier to the platform!" Harry added. They looked up as, for the second time that day, a shadow was cast over them.
"And just what are you two going on about?" Snape said, enunciating each word slowly and menacingly. Last term, it might have unnerved Harry completely, but having found out that his least favorite professor had saved his life, and had also been a friend of his mother's, made him pluck up enough courage to say what was on his mind.
"The platform barrier -- it was Dobby, the house-elf, that kept us from getting through!" Harry explained in a hurry. "He came to see me at the Dursleys, and told me not to go to Hogwarts this year -- something about mortal danger -- and got me into trouble so my uncle locked me up. If Ron hadn't come after me, I would still be stuck there! Then the platform barrier wouldn't let us through -- it had to be Dobby again!"
Seeing that Snape had actually listened to him without interrupting, Ron plunged in, too.
"And just now, Malfoy came up and asked Harry what he was saying about Dobby! He as good as admitted that the house-elf was his!"
Snape's forehead became creased with lines as he scowled and contemplated the three of them for a moment. When he spoke, it was in a low, almost conspiratorial tone, and he glanced once towards the doorway to make sure that nobody else was within earshot.
"If what you are saying is true -- and I'm not yet convinced that it is -- that would be a grave accusation to make of a... highly-regarded wizarding family. Or rather, of their house-elf, but of course house-elves cannot act of their own volition; they must obey their masters at all times. However," he continued, preventing Harry from interrupting, "if a house-elf had, indeed, blocked your way through the barrier, it is possible that the platform manager did not find traces of the magic, since house-elves use a different kind of magic than we. And, naturally, he would not be looking for it. I can ask the Headmaster to send another owl to confirm the matter, one way or another..."
He seemed to become lost in his thoughts for a moment, and Harry finally had the chance to tell him what he had tried to before.
"But Dobby said he wasn't doing it on his master's orders -- and he had to keep punishing himself every time he said something to me!"
"Did he, now?" Snape said, one eyebrow raised suspiciously.
"Yes, he kept banging his head on the furniture," Harry insisted.
"It makes perfect sense!" Hermione blurted out. "I can see how the Malfoys might try to do something nasty to Harry, but then, they could have made Dobby do something much worse, and he could have gotten away with it -- especially if nobody suspected a house-elf was involved! So then, why would he bother showing himself to Harry? He could have done all sorts of mischief and nobody would have been the wiser. It's more likely that he did come to prevent Harry from walking into a trap -- some other nasty thing that the Malfoys have plotted for him!"
Snape's expression was inscrutable as he regarded each anxiously upturned face.
"Miss Granger, that again is a very serious accusation to level at a long-standing wizarding family," he warned, with a slight hint of intimidation. "Ordinarily, I would give your ramblings and half-baked theories no consequence; however," he said, in a slightly different tone, "I happen to know, from personal experience, that the Malfoys do, in fact, own a house-elf by the name of 'Dobby.'"
As shocking as it had been to find out, for a fact, that Dobby was the Malfoys' house-elf, Harry found it even more amazing that Snape had confided that information with them. He had always assumed that as the head of Slytherin house, Snape would go to any lengths to protect Malfoy; thus he was having a hard time digesting that the man had divulged potentially damaging information on the Malfoys. However, Hermione pointed out that among the Malfoys' friends it might be common knowledge, to which Ron retorted that Harry was not one of their friends, and could hardly be expected to know it, let alone come up with that particular name by coincidence.
The upshot of it all was that Snape was now closer to believing Harry's story about being prevented from getting on the Hogwarts Express, and while it did nothing to negate the fact that he and Ron had acted rashly in taking the flying car, Harry was nonetheless relieved to get back into Snape's good graces -- or at least, out of his list of students he most wanted to poison.
He finished dinner and left early to go down to the dungeons, where Snape's office was. He wanted to show that he was trying to be a better student, and didn't want to blow his chances of hearing about his mother by being late and irking the particular professor.
"Hey, Harry! Wait up!"
He turned to find Neville trotting to catch up with him.
"I have detention with Snape, too," he said, somewhat out of breath.
"Oh, yeah," Harry remembered.
As they made their way down a narrow staircase, Neville sighed in utter gloom.
"I hope Professor Snape doesn't hang around watching us, whatever he makes us do!"
It was no secret that Neville was frightened out of his wits -- quite literally -- whenever he was in the forbidding Potions Master's presence, and Harry had even suggested to the man himself that if he took on a less intimidating demeanor, Neville's grades as well as his own might improve.
"Neville, you can't be scared of him forever!" Harry said, trying to hide his exasperation. "Besides, you're a Gryffindor, and Gryffindors are brave, right? And you were brave enough to stand up to us -- to Hermione even -- last year! If you forget about being scared, and just do what you have to, I'm sure you'll be all right!"
Neville paused in the dark hallway.
"You really think so?"
"I know so!" Harry declared, with a certainty he did not feel. However, his words seemed to have their desired effect, as Neville straightened his shoulders and walked with less trepidation through the dungeon corridors.
"I guess, for you, after seeing... You-Know-Who," Neville began hesitantly, "Professor Snape must not seem scary at all, huh?"
"I wouldn't say that," he answered truthfully, "but I found out from Quirrell that he'd kept me alive, chanting the counter curse to Quirrell's curse, during that Quidditch game. And he was a friend of my mum, back when they were students here."
Neville looked at him in surprise.
"Yeah. I talked to him, last term, just before we had to leave for the holidays," Harry told him. "He said he might tell me about my mum... what she was like, you know -- if I did better in Potions. But I guess I made a mess of it today..."
"Gee, Harry," Neville said slowly, "I'm sorry I messed up today, too, and got him in such a bad mood... I guess you're right -- I have to stop being afraid of him, and just concentrate on what I have to do! Maybe if I do better in class, he won't be so mad at me all the time..."
"Yeah, probably," Harry answered, hoping to encourage his dorm mate. "If we all try to do better, he might not scowl so often."
Neville nodded, his mouth set in determination.
"I'm sure gonna try! It'd be worth it, if he'd stop scowling at me!"
Harry knocked on the office door when they arrived, and after Snape said "Enter," they went in together. There was a small mountain of boxes, each filled with phials.
"These need to be taken to the Potions classroom and emptied, washed, and dried to be ready for use," Snape began without preamble. "Since their contents have expired, some may have... unpleasant effects," he added, with a smug look. "Also, some of them have become more powerful and dangerous as time has passed, so I will be overseeing your work to ensure that they are removed safely. Your task is to wash each of the phials thoroughly, so that no traces of their previous contents are remaining to taint the new potions placed in them."
Although this was bad news for Neville, as Snape would be with them the entire time, Harry had to respect the brave front he was presenting as he replied, with almost no trembling, "Yes, sir," in time with Harry.
As expected, the work was dirty, nasty, and exhausting, but Harry felt they had gotten through the evening relatively well. Neville had broken one of the phials, when he spilled a drop of its contents onto his finger and it swelled and turned a putrid brown, but Snape was able to repair both the glass and Neville's finger after only a muttered remonstrance about dunderheads.
"I'm glad I only broke one of them," Neville sighed to Harry, while Snape was putting the boxes away in the storage cupboard. Harry nodded, wanting nothing so much as to escape the dungeons and go to bed, but not daring to leave before Snape formally dismissed them.
"You were right, you know," Neville continued. "I just tried to focus on what I was doing, and not look at him, and I was okay. Well, better than I usually am, anyway..." Neville looked at Harry shyly. "I tried to think about your parents, too, because... I know what it's like to... to not know your mum and dad," he slowly confessed. "So I really wanted to... not mess up, for your sake."
"For me?" Harry asked, surprised and touched.
"Well, yeah!" Neville blushed. "You've been a good friend, Harry, and I'm proud you're in my house! Or rather, I'm glad I managed to get into Gryffindor -- it must've been a sure bet for you!"
Harry paused a moment, then decided to tell Neville something he had been too ashamed to tell even Ron, his best friend -- not just to encourage Neville, but also as a way of thanking him for putting forth extra effort on his behalf.
"Actually, I almost didn't make it," he admitted. "The Sorting Hat wanted to put me in Slytherin, but I begged it to put me somewhere else."
They heard a sharp intake of breath, and looked up in time to see the most peculiar expression on Snape's face. It was quickly replaced by his customary scowl.
"What did you just say, Potter?!?" he demanded, as though accusing him of a falsehood.
"It's true!" Harry replied defensively. "The Hat said I could do great things in Slytherin, but I kept asking it to put me anywhere but there--" He gulped, realising too late that Snape would probably take that as an insult. "And it finally put me in Gryffindor," he ended weakly.
There was an odd, faraway look in Snape's eyes, which were fixed on Harry yet seemed to be turned inward, searching the depths of his mind -- for what, neither boy would have hazarded to guess.
"Well, then, I suppose you are wanting to return to your precious Gryffindor Tower," Snape said after a moment, with a sneer. "However, I must have a word with you on another matter. Longbottom, you may go."
After casting an apologetic glance at Harry, Neville left as quickly as if he were being chased by the Bloody Baron.
"Now, Potter," Snape began, leaning back against a desk and crossing his arms. "I was asked by the Headmaster to inform you that he has contacted the platform manager again, and that there were, indeed, traces of house-elf magic. In fact, all of the barriers seem to have been tampered with."
It did not matter that Snape bit out those words with obvious distaste, or that his large nose curled as though there were something particularly odious nearby. Harry grinned in relief.
"I thought so! I mean, it just couldn't have been a coincidence that Dobby warned me to stay home, then the barrier wouldn't let me through to the train!"
"For once, your deduction seems to be... accurate," Snape begrudgingly granted. "However, it does not shed any light on the cause -- that is, to what purpose the house-elf was trying to prevent your presence here at Hogwarts." He looked directly into Harry's green eyes, as though he could read the answer there. "What, exactly, did it tell you?"
Harry tried to recount the whole incident with Dobby, but being tired, he soon became bogged down in the details of the Dursleys and the violet pudding, backtracking to explain certain Muggle customs and muddying the main thrust of Dobby's message.
"Enough!" Snape interrupted after a minute or two. "There is a much quicker way to get to the bottom of this than to have you bore me with minutiae! If you agree to it, I will use Legilimency to see what you have seen, and sift through the rubble of your mind for the pertinent facts."
Startled, Harry stared at him a moment; then, feeling extremely foolish (and wishing that Hermione were there), asked, "What is 'Li-jelly-mency'?"
Snape stood up abruptly in annoyance. "Legilimency," he pronounced clearly, "is the art of delving into another's mind to see the images of their memories. If you do not resist me, it will be a quick and painless way to show me exactly what happened -- in fact, since I will be viewing the events with my own mind, I may even notice things that you have overlooked. I will most certainly be able to interpret them with better acuity."
"So you can read minds!" Harry blurted out.
"Potter," Snape sighed in exasperation, "A mind is a complex thing -- at least in most cases. One does not simply 'read' another's mind as though it were a book. It takes years of practise, and... far too much training to explain to you now," he gave up with another sigh. "Suffice it to say, I am accomplished in the art, and will not harm you in viewing your memories. However, it will facilitate the process if you try to focus on what you saw and heard when the house-elf visited you."
Harry stared at him for a long moment, dubiously, then finally nodded, persuading himself that it would be worth it to have Snape convinced that he was telling the truth.
"Very well, then. Sit there, and look at me. Try to think back to your first encounter with the house-elf," Snape said, then pointed his wand and murmured, "Legilimens!"
Harry thought that the process was very similar to the VCR his cousin Dudley used to record his favorite shows. He replayed the events involving Dobby, and Snape seemed to mentally nudge him to go through the dull parts quickly, just like Dudley fast forwarded through commercials. Snape did not leave off with just Dobby, though, and went through their ride in the flying car, as well as the harrowing landing in the Whomping Willow. He finally ended it at the point where he himself had greeted Harry and Ron.
Harry rubbed his forehead, feeling a dullness permeating his brain.
"The after-effects will wear off shortly," Snape said, carefully watching his reaction. "You should turn in for the night as soon as you return to your room. I will report what I have seen to the Headmaster. If the house-elf's information is accurate, there may be some cause for concern..." He stood, waiting for Harry to get up also. "I will walk you to your dorm. You should avoid being alone, at least until we find out what threat the house-elf was referring to."
Harry nodded, feeling the dullness gradually dissipating. They didn't speak during their walk to Gryffindor Tower, since Snape seemed deep in thought, but in front of the portrait of the Fat Lady, Harry looked up at him and uttered two simple words:
With a curt nod and a swirl of his robes, Snape left to go to Dumbledore's office. Exhausted, Harry gratefully went straight up to bed.