Author's Note: So in browsing through the whole list of challenges recently, I realized that several of them just fall in perfectly with the direction I wanted this story to take. The primary impetus was, of course, "Teacher Attack!", but from now on each chapter will be a response to a separate challenge. Probably only four or five total, though. I'm not much for long stories. This chapter is in response to "Not Such a Protector, After All" by gershwhen, wherein "Snape finds out from Minerva about Umbridge's punishment of Harry (I will not tell lies) and realizes that he hasn't been protecting Harry as much as he thought."
Most children instinctively chafe against any and all restraints that the adults in their lives impose upon them. Children are freedom-seeking creatures, after all, and anyone — a teacher, a parent, or even the snarly man at the Muggle amusement park with his height-measurement stick clenched in his hand — anyone who attempts to thwart their independence is always going to be resented for their efforts, well-meaning or not. Severus Snape was no exception.
Like many of his peers, Severus often dreamt of the day when he would be in charge. If not a parent — seeing as how the very thought made him shudder — then, at the very least, a teacher. Severus had often longed for the day when he could hand out detentions like so many sweets and address the rest of the faculty by their first names. Coming on the rebound, as it were, of his Death Eater years, detentions were rather anticlimactic. Still, it was better than Azkaban.
But with privilege often comes responsibility, if only to adhere to certain traditions, and those responsibilities can be tedious. Eating at the staff table, for one example, was a royal pain in the arse. Facing the entire student body as he ate never did much for Severus's appetite or his humour. He could never truly enjoy a meal that had to be tucked into under such scrutiny.
Over his years of tenure, Severus had almost grown to tolerate the indignity of public meals. This year was different. Having to endure eating in such close proximity to one Dolores Umbridge made an already uncomfortable situation exponentially worse, and Severus found himself skipping more than one meal in the Great Hall so as to ensure he was able to keep his food down. However, today he found it to be worse not having her beside him — watching the pink-clad creature tap-dance between the long tables right in front of his eyes was just as sickening.
Severus sighed and tried to focus on his steak and potatoes. The sooner he ate them, the sooner he could escape to his dungeons and lose himself in his brewing. He was so close to a breakthrough on his new pet project, one that would ultimately provide a cure for a rare but serious phobia. One that the Potions master just happened to suffer from himself. Chewing mechanically, Severus began running through the formula in his head for the umpteenth time, trying to find the crucial point at which it always failed. While he was peripherally aware of Umbridge's pink form in his field of vision, he was too distracted to take much more notice of her.
"Looks like Potter's managed to incur Dolores's wrath once again," Minerva murmured from his right side. Severus's vision suddenly sharpened at the mention of Potter's name, and only then did he notice that the boy in question was standing up next to the Gryffindor table, slamming books and parchment willy-nilly into his school satchel. Out of the corner of his eye, Severus was just in time to spot the very edge of Umbridge's mauve-coloured cardigan as she swept out through the archway.
He snorted. "What do you suppose he said this time, in yet another fit of righteous indignation?" he asked.
"Well, I don't think it's something he said so much as did," the Transfiguration mistress answered, reaching down under her chair for her satchel and producing from it a folded newspaper. "Or, well, I suppose it was both. Here." She laid the paper on the table before Severus's plate, and he received quite a shock when he read, Harry Potter Speaks Out at Last: The Truth About You-Know-Who and the Night I Saw Him Return!
"Oh, sweet Merlin," Severus muttered, exasperated. "When is he ever going to learn?"
"I think it's the best thing Potter could have done, under the circumstances," McGonagall rejoined curtly. "No one has been willing to listen, and the Ministry certainly hasn't been closemouthed about their version of events."
"And I'm sure everyone will believe him now that the illustrious Quibbler has so spoken." Severus tentatively peeled back the cover, shuddering as a full-page brightly-coloured advertisement for Natty's Nargle Repellant assaulted his retinas. "I'm surprised, really, that Dolores is only now taking notice of it."
"This is an advance copy, sent to me directly from Xenophilius Lovegood," she replied, taking a sip from her goblet. "His wife was one of my favourite students, and for years I've enjoyed a complimentary subscription."
"No good deed goes unpunished," Severus murmured, his head cocked at an unnatural angle as he tried to read up the side of his plate.
"If this is what has Dolores taking . . . well, taking umbrage," Minerva offered speculatively, ignoring his interruption, "then I hardly expect Potter will be getting out of detention before dawn." The corners of her mouth quirked up in a rare smile, and Severus was rather surprised to see the wonders it did for her normally stern appearance. "I'll have to find some way to thank him."
"I don't imagine that an evening spent copying text or cleaning out the Defence room cupboard will do Potter any lasting harm," Severus said carelessly, waving her concerns away and forking another string bean.
McGonagall pursed her lips. "Dolores's detentions hardly fall into that category, Severus," she returned, her voice frosty. "Perhaps you should be sure of your information before you presume to dismiss me so easily."
"Does he just sit and stare around the room, then?" he asked. Recalling that simpering face of Umbridge's, however, Severus shuddered. I should think it would be punishment enough for anyone to stare at anything that hideous for any space of time, he thought.
"She's been having him write lines," Minerva admitted testily.
Severus gave an exaggerated gasp. "Oh, heavens, no!" he whispered loudly. "Lines, you say? After all the trouble he's gone to, convincing Miss Granger to do his homework for him, that audacious woman has him writing?" He sat back in his chair, shaking his head, though the corners of his mouth were twitching, closer now to a smile than he had been for ages.
McGonagall was not amused. "I don't find your sarcasm in the least bit funny," she hissed angrily. "It isn't the writing itself that I take issue with, Severus. Or, well, I suppose it is, in a way," she amended. "The quill she provides is the problem. As Potter writes, the words are cut into the back of his hand, over and over again. He's been favouring that hand for weeks now."
Severus frowned at this. He certainly wasn't opposed to the idea of Potter being punished, not even particularly caring whether the punishments were fair or deserved. But if what Minerva was telling him was true . . . and he had no reason to believe she was lying or even mistaken . . . well, then, the situation was quite different. The quill she described was too reminiscent of his Death Eater days, when such cursed items were readily for sale in Knockturn Alley — before the Ministry had begun to set regulations as to their exchange. "That sounds suspiciously like a Dark object," he replied speculatively. "I can't imagine that it's something approved for use."
Minerva rolled her eyes. "I must be wrong, then," she snapped. "My deepest apologies. Naturally, the High Inquisitor would never do anything . . . improper."
Severus sighed. "Minerva, ninety-nine students out of one hundred seem to feel that their punishments are unfair. I am not certain what you believe I can do about it, but in any case, I can hardly rush into action just because Potter came crying to you about his detentions with Dolores."
"Ah, but there's the rub," she replied in a maddeningly calm voice. "He didn't."
Severus frowned. "Then how exactly were you made aware of this? Not through Dolores herself, I would imagine."
"Miss Granger brought her concerns to me — clandestinely, I might add, over Potter's strict instructions to the contrary."
"Oh, but of course," he answered dubiously. When had Potter ever discouraged his friends from intervening on his behalf?
"Whether you believe my version of events or not is hardly important, Severus," the aged witch replied brusquely, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. "I was merely trying to cheer you up. We both know how much you enjoy watching James — beg your pardon, Harry — suffer." Finished with her parting shot, McGonagall turned to Filius and began an entirely new topic of conversation with the diminutive Charms professor, ignoring Severus for the remainder of the meal.
Minerva was not aware, of course, of his vow to Dumbledore to protect the Boy Who Lived. That had been a promise made behind closed doors many years ago, when Severus first realized that his espionage had caused the death of his dearest childhood friend. Hardly caring what happened to James Potter's spawn, Severus had been reluctant to agree. But . . . if the boy were to die after costing Lily her life . . . it would all be for naught. So he found himself unwilling protector to the tiny, helpless creature with the green eyes.
As before, those eyes were his Achilles' heel.
As Severus gnawed his way through the stringy steak and watery mashed potatoes, he contemplated the implications of what Minerva had told him. At first, he was inclined to dismiss her concerns as the product of too much injured pride over the loss of her star Quidditch player. He smirked to himself as he pictured the Gryffindor team slinking off the pitch with their heads bowed after Slytherin won the Quidditch Cup.
But if it were true — if the High Inquisitor had, in fact, been forcing Lily's son to write detention lines in his own blood — what kind of protector would allow something like this to occur?
"Not a protector," Severus whispered, eyes suspiciously bright as he imagined Lily's face, furious and betrayed, her own eyes hard and accusatory as they had been the day he called her 'Mudblood.' "A participant."
Severus was ready to walk straight into Umbridge's office without knocking, but it turned out to be unnecessary — she was in her classroom when he entered, nose buried in a thick ledger with the Ministry crest on the cover. Umbridge looked up as he entered and gave him a welcoming smile. "Severus! I'm so glad you're here," she simpered. Closing the ledger, she stood up and began to pace while Severus waited warily to hear what it was she wanted from him. "I have long suspected that there is a clandestine organization among the students," she explained, "and I will be questioning them individually until I uncover the truth. I will, of course, require any Veritaserum you have on hand to assist me in this endeavor."
"I will search my stores, Dolores, and see what I can find," Severus promised. He stood still for a moment, feeling inclined to fidget but realizing that would hardly make her likely to confide in him. "I . . . heard about the article, and witnessed Potter's . . . er, wrath. I wondered if you had scheduled him for detention this evening," he continued, searching his brain desperately for a viable excuse, "and if so, could it be rescheduled? You see, Potter has detention with me tonight, and I do really need help in my Potions lab."
"Oh, he will not be serving detention, not for this infraction," she purred, obviously quite pleased with herself. "No, detention worked for a short while, but obviously the fear has dissipated." Umbridge shook her head sadly. "Unfortunately, children become immune to certain punishments if they are overused, and we must then escalate the situation."
"Writing lines is not about to produce any effect on one as stubborn as Potter," Severus offered when the woman fell quiet. He immediately winced, remembering that he was supposed to be in the dark as to the way she punished Potter. But Umbridge seemed too happy to notice, and the Potions master relaxed, hoping she would rise to the bait.
"Oh, not with ink, it doesn't," she replied, right on cue. Severus actually found himself feeling sick at the eager light in her eyes. Umbridge was practically dancing on the balls of her feet, and he waited patiently for the excited woman to elaborate. "But I have quills specifically for detention that are a bit . . . sharper."
Severus had to refrain from tapping his foot impatiently. He wished she would just come to the point. "Truly, then, I will need to see this new quill, if it was able to strike fear into Potter's heart even once."
"Of course!" Umbridge trilled, turning and tripping eagerly up the stairs to her office. She returned in less than a minute, hands clasped around a bundle of feathers. As the witch fanned them out on the desk, Severus noted that the tips, indeed, looked razor-sharp. "Try one," she offered sweetly.
Severus moved forward reluctantly and hefted one of the pens in his hand. "Here," Umbridge said, shuffling through a stack of parchment until she found one with only some meaningless scribbles on it. "Try." She clasped her hands in front of her and watched him, an eerie smile on her face. Severus pressed the tip of the quill to the parchment and wrote his name, Severus Snape. He gasped as he saw the words forming on the back of his hand, and watched in horror as they blazed red before fading almost completely, leaving only a faintly-pink line of indistinct letters behind.
Severus laid down the quill, feeling sick to his stomach. He hadn't really thought Minerva was mistaken, but to see the stark proof of her improbable statements was another thing entirely. When he thought of all the detentions he'd heard of Potter serving — and realized that there were probably plenty more he hadn't heard about — Severus, for the first time, felt sympathy for the boy.
"As you can see," Umbridge purred, "I have my own ideas about discipline that work quite nicely."
"Ingenious," he murmured, staring at the row of quills with a horrid, sick fascination. They were hardly aesthetically pleasing to begin with, having a rather sterile and industrial appearance reminiscent of a Muggle dentist's sharp tools. Now that he knew their intended use — the use they had already been put to, and quite often, at that — Severus, for the first time, found himself feeling wary of the High Inquisitor. He had certainly never liked her . . . but now he was actually rather afraid. A woman who could take such obvious pleasure in mutilating a child could turn out to be very dangerous, indeed. "I . . . I will have to look into acquiring one, myself," he offered, not knowing how else to end the conversation.
"Oh, you are quite welcome to these," Umbridge giggled. The quills rattled as she swept them into a pile and grasped the pile in her fist, holding the bundle out eagerly toward Severus. "I won't be needing them anymore, it seems."
Severus reached out reluctantly and relieved her of the quills, wincing as one of the sharp points dug into his thumb, drawing a tiny drop of blood. "Thank you, Dolores," he drawled, trying to sound as if he were rather bored with the whole affair. "I'm sure I will find these useful."
"Indeed," she said with a short little laugh. "We seem to be on the same side, you and I, particularly when it comes to young Harry Potter." Severus was taken aback to see how her eyes glinted with an almost animal-like shine. He murmured an excuse about needing to check on a potion and turned to leave. Feeling the High Inquisitor's eyes boring into the back of his head, Severus had to refrain from breaking into a run for the door.
Severus wasn't sure what he planned to do with this new — and completely unwelcome — information. He was taking the familiar route to the dungeons, thinking that he would just sit in his office and meditate on the situation a bit. But first, he ought to visit the lavatory; his hand was bleeding where it had been stuck by the quill. Not heavily, but enough that he really ought to rinse it off or at least get a paper towel to blot the excess. Severus quickly changed direction and headed for the boys' bathroom near the hippogriff statue at the end of the hall, pushing open the door with his elbow and wondering what he was supposed to do with the ridiculous quills while he washed up.
Severus, expecting to be allowed a few moments to himself and fully planning to lock the door behind him, was aggravated to see a student skulking in the corner beyond the row of taps. He was about to snap at the little bugger to make himself scarce . . . when he realised that there was something a little too familiar about that messy hair.
"Potter?" he called, uncertainly. There was a muffled groan from the hunched figure, but he gave no other acknowledgement to the Potions master. Severus crossed the room in three strides and touched the boy's shoulder. "Potter, look at me when I'm speaking to you," he snapped.
Slowly, Harry turned around to face him, wiping surreptitiously at his eyes first. Severus, expecting Potter to be sulking, was taken aback by the tear tracks and suspiciously bright eyes he saw before him. Lily? Lily, what's wrong? Why have you been crying? Severus shook his head vigorously to clear his head of past memories. "Explain yourself, Potter," he ordered the distraught teenager.
The brat muttered something under his breath, and Severus, irritated, growled, "Care to repeat that for a deaf old man?"
"I just wanted to be alone for a while," Potter told him in a subdued voice.
"Well, that's ironic, isn't it, seeing as how I came in here for the same reason?" Severus asked. Not knowing what else to do with them and rather tired of the burden, he dumped the quills in the bin next to the furthest tap, then crossed his unburdened arms across his chest as he glared at his least-favourite student.
"I was here first!" the little beast cried indignantly, looking abashed when he had to sniffle in order to keep his nose from dripping.
Severus sighed. "I'm not going to argue such a ridiculous point," he replied with exaggerated patience. "But as I was going to speak to you later in any case, I suppose this works out perfectly." He never thought he'd live to see the day when bumping into Potter was either desirable or convenient — but life did have way of surprising him like that, Severus reflected. "Professor Umbridge seemed rather . . . well, incensed by that article," he continued, "and I have to admit that this concerned me, especially considering what I've just heard from Minerva about the High Inquisitor's preferred method of correction."
"Yeah, so?" Potter snapped.
Severus narrowed his eyes. "I would be very careful of my tone if I were you, young man," he threatened.
Potter gave a frustrated sigh and reached angrily for his school satchel. He had barely even begun to lift it off the floor, however, when he gave a whimper of pain and dropped the strap, snatched his hand away as if he'd been burned, and curled it protectively to his chest.
"What is it?" Severus demanded. "What happened?"
"Nothing," Potter panted. "I — I just sliced my fingers on the edge there, that's all."
Severus's gaze zeroed in on the boy's hand, which was now clenched in a fist against his stomach. Umbridge had said she had no more use for the quills; could it be that they had damaged his hands permanently? Severus began to feel very apprehensive, indeed. Reaching out, he took hold of Potter's arm, pulling it away from his body and prying the fingers loose one by one. He did not miss the laboured breathing and wince of pain as the hand was manipulated, though the Potions master was using a far gentler touch than he had ever before employed. With anyone.
The sight of the raw, wealed flesh nearly made Severus sick. This was Potter's right hand, his writing hand, yet it was crossed with three distinct red cuts. The palm was puffy and swollen, and the fingers trembled as if their owner had little control over their movements. It had been many years since Severus had felt the sting of the cane, but in an instant he knew exactly what had caused such horrific damage.
"Potter — " Severus stopped. She hadn't . . . had she? "Potter, explain this. And don't feed me any more nonsense about slicing your hand on your satchel."
Potter's eyes were starting to brim again, and this appeared to infuriate the boy even further. He tried to yank his hand out of Severus's grip, but the professor held tight to the slender wrist and refused to let go. "What do you care, anyway? You'd do the same thing if she let you!" Harry cried furiously.
"If you think that I would inflict this kind of pain on a fifteen-year-old student, for something as trivial as that ridiculous article in the Quibbler, then you obviously know nothing about me," Severus shot back through clenched teeth. "The definition of an idiot, Potter, is one who talks the most about what he understands the least."
"So, I'm an idiot. There. Smashing. Now just let me go so I can soak my hand in Murtlap essence and think of more stupid things to say," the little brat retorted.
Severus sighed. "You just did, Potter," he said patiently. "Murtlap essence is about as effective as rosewater on damage like this." He relinquished his grip on Potter's wrist and watched as the boy pressed his palm against the leg of his trousers. Severus took in the disheveled appearance, Potter's red-rimmed eyes glaring at him hatefully but wet with tears he was too proud to shed, and most of all those hands. Slim hands for even such a young man, curled up like birds' claws against the pain. He suddenly felt such pity for Potter — not for being Lily's son, but for his own sake.
"Come downstairs to my office," he ordered, but in a much gentler tone than he had ever used before on the boy. "I have better cures than Murtlap for those cuts on your hands."
Potter, who had been looking at his schoolbag as if trying to figure out how he could pick it up again, was now staring at him with his mouth hanging open. Severus found himself becoming incredibly, even irrationally, annoyed at this. Perhaps even the small gesture of kindness he'd shown the boy had left him feeling rather vulnerable. Whatever the reason, he acted quickly to redeem himself. "Close your mouth, Potter, you'll let the flies in," he snapped. "I am not open all night, so unless you want to spend the next week or so writing with your feet, you had best obey me at once."
For a moment, it looked as if Potter was going to argue, but then his shoulders slumped and he heaved a tired sigh. Once more, he reached for the bag of schoolbooks, but this time Severus beat him to it. "Wait, Potter," he said, yanking the bag towards him by its strap. "Stand up." Harry stood slowly and watched him warily. If he thinks I'm going to carry it for him, he has another think coming, Severus thought wryly before lifting the bag so it hung crosswise over Potter's chest. "Wait for me downstairs, so I can get the bag back down," he ordered the surprised boy.
Potter slowly headed for the door, but turned back right before leaving. His eyes bored into Severus's, and once again there was that unsettling feeling that Lily was watching him through the medium of this James-creature. Harry hesitated a moment, then muttered something before gingerly easing the door open and disappearing into the hall. The Potions master felt a surge of anger at more backchat . . . until he realized that Potter had thanked him.
Severus rubbed at his forehead tiredly, reflecting on the irony of the situation. When he promised Albus to protect this boy, for Lily's sake, he had imagined thwarting extant Death Eaters and making sure those in Azkaban stayed there, along with that traitor Black. None of it frightened Severus in the least, or even took up much of his attention; it was as if, after losing Lily, nothing could ever really surprise him again. Even watching his Dark Mark grow ever more distinct until it finally came to life last summer had barely caused a hairline fracture in his composure.
But it turned out Black was innocent, after all. Barty Crouch, Jr. had posed all last year as the famous Auror Mad-Eye Moody with none the wiser, least of all Severus. And of all ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, who could have guessed that he would one day need to protect Potter from one Dolores Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister?
But you didn't protect him, did you? that little voice nagged at him as he followed Lily's son down the staircase toward the Potions classroom. In fact, the boy has actually effected most of his victories with little or no outside help at all. You didn't bother to find out about the quills, and now, the one time he needed someone, you were nowhere to be found.
With a protector like that, who needed enemies like Voldemort?