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: Triple Exposure.
Band of Four
The Hogwarts Express was practically empty. Severus Snape was actually able to get a carriage to himself, a situation that suited him down to the ground.
A loner by design, and exceptionally intelligent, Sev had slotted naturally into House Slytherin. There he'd been in the perfect position to realise exactly how dangerous some of his fellow students truly were, and to infiltrate Lucius Malfoy's little hate group as he led them deeper and deeper into darkness.
Outwitting the plots of the organisation that called themselves the Death Eaters had been an intellectual exercise, but it had taken on a decidedly sinister turn of late. Several people had been killed, even inside Hogwarts itself; the latest as good as by Sev's own hand. He had been forced to reveal one of his teachers as a Ministry of Magic spy to protect Malfoy; for if Malfoy was busted too soon, Sev would lose any chance he had of reaching the heart of the conspiracy.
It wasn't any kind of ego or pride that told him that he was the only person who could do so; simply the icy cold logic that was very much the core of his personality. Of everybody at Hogwarts, staff and students alike, the only one he considered to be in his intellectual league was Albus Dumbledore. And the headmaster had, in Sev's eyes, one fatal flaw; he believed in trusting people.
Also, everybody who knew anything was well aware that Dumbledore would have nothing to do with a group like the Death Eaters. Nobody was half as sure about Severus Snape.
Very few people ever got a glimpse beneath the impassive exterior - and those that did saw a similarly impassive interior. Sev Snape was not completely immune to emotion or humanity, but he was a creature of logic down to the bone. Nothing he did was uncalculated.
Perhaps the closest thing to a friend he'd had was Lily, one of the only two people who had ever found out that Snape was anything other than the dark-hearted follower of Malfoy he appeared. But Lily was a Gryffindor, a mudblood, and very close to Malfoy's arch-enemy, James Potter. Someone else might try to find a way to continue their association without being caught, but Sev was able to view the idea dispassionately and see the stupidity of it. The kindest thing he could do for Lily was to openly detest her.
So he had no friends or confidantes, and wasn't unduly troubled by that fact. He wouldn't have traded a fraction of a percent of his intelligence for popularity; nor would he even for the chance to wipe out the Death Eaters. He was not naive enough to believe that prejudice and stupidity could actually be permanently stamped out; his work against them was a work of logic and pragmatism, not of noble intentions.
Logic dictated that if the Death Eaters had their way, the current order would be replaced with something far more inefficient and unbalanced. There was no way you could pursue a solitary life of gathering knowledge under such a system - and little hope of finding anyone to learn from when people were judged more on their pedigree than their abilities. And somebody as bright as he would sooner or later be a target; those who wanted power would never accept that others could be disinterested in it.
So clearly, the Death Eaters had to be stopped from gaining power. This was a problem; Severus Snape's brain was geared to finding the most efficient solution to problems. Stopping them would involve having the best possible pool of information about their activities; which meant the best possible spy.
Which meant, naturally, himself.
He had as much of Malfoy's trust as anybody; but that was not a lot. He was no less cynical than Sev himself, just less thorough. Sev could not afford to deviate a tiny fraction from his role for as long as it took - and that meant making strategic sacrifices.
Sev was not a chess player, but mainly because he knew he would never find a good enough opponent to match him. On the chess board, everybody knew you couldn't win without sacrificing pieces with lesser abilities for those in more useful positions. But when it came to reality, people didn't want to believe that the exact same rules applied. The James Potters of this world believed that you could dash in heroically and save the world without ever getting a dent in your nobility.
That was why the James Potters of this world did the heroic dashing-in at the end, and the Severus Snapes laid all the meticulous ground-work.
Others, however, were built neither for subterfuge nor for heroism. The vast majority of human beings, magical or otherwise, were timid and creatures of habit. When dark things started stirring, they either turned the other cheek or ran to ground.
It wasn't just the train that seemed near-empty; the Hogwarts Great Hall was a ghost of its usual bustling splendour. One teacher had been killed, another disappeared, a third had turned out to have murderous intentions; Hogwarts was no longer sacred ground, and people were scared to send their children there.
Even Sev's own year-group had suffered some losses this time around. The other three houses were all at least one student smaller than the same time last year, and Slytherin itself had lost Rebecca Whistley and Jack Brisingamen. The two remaining boys who weren't amongst Malfoy's followers, Stuart and Robert, were sat close together in a kind of apprehensive solidarity.
Even the staff had given up pretending all was normal. As Professor Dumbledore stood to make his tradition Post-Sorting Speech - much earlier than usual, given the shortened, subdued ceremony - his face was sad and grave.
"Welcome, students new and old. I am glad to see you here, and saddened by the faces that are absent this year."
His steely-blue eyes seemed to fix on every student simultaneously. "This is a dark time for the wizarding community, but as ever our strength is in solidarity. Hogwarts has been the core of our country's magical strength in times past, and so it will remain."
He nodded to the staff beside him. Sev noted that there were one less chairs than there had been last year; clearly, no one had been willing to replace the departed Cuero.
"Our staff have been working tirelessly to secure the safety of the grounds. I will not lie to you; no defences are truly foolproof. But I firmly believe that Hogwarts still remains one of the best protected magical locations on this planet."
Sev didn't doubt that such a claim was true. However, the fact that nobody could storm the castle meant little when the enemy were already well inside the gates and plotting treachery.
"I appreciate that many of you may be worried for your own safety, and for the safety of your families. And rightly so, for we are all wizards here; though you are young, none of you are too young to want to use your powers to protect yourself and others."
For the first time, he cracked a hint of a smile. "However, I am also aware that when young wizards seek to use their powers in such ways, there can be... complications." His gaze flickered over one or two well-known living disaster areas. "Therefore, as of this year, Hogwarts will be establishing a duelling club."
A murmur of interest rippled through the tables. Most of the students probably had little more than disquieting guesses at exactly what was going on in the outside world, but all of them were interested in magical duelling. Beside him, Avery nudged Malfoy.
"Is it me," he muttered with a smirk, "or did Dumbledore just give us a free pass to totally trash Potter and his little gang?"
Perhaps Dumbledore was sharp enough to know exactly what certain of his students were thinking; perhaps there was some truth in the rumour that he heard everything. He levelled a stern look at the older students over his glasses. "Note the inclusion of the word 'club' in that statement. There will be meeting times arranged in the evenings and lunch hours for the different year groups, and members of staff will always be there to supervise. The prohibition against student duelling is still in effect at all other times. Now, more than ever, the last thing we need is childish student pranks. If the staff come upon cursing in progress, they may well Stun first and ask questions later. You have been warned."
No doubt there would be some screaming objections from parents if it ever came down to that. And no doubt the Governors or the Ministry of Magic would come along and attempt to give Dumbledore a slapped wrist for it. They were all idiots; unwilling to believe that 'children' could ever be any danger. Sev knew that this kind of darkly seductive organisation was perhaps twice as dangerous amongst adolescents as it would be anywhere else. Teenagers were looking for something to believe in; Malfoy had found the Death Eaters, and the others had found Malfoy.
Malfoy had slowly but surely drawn them in over the last few years, and by this point they would probably follow him everywhere. One of the hallmarks of house Slytherin was a thirst for power, and the Death Eaters provided a deadly way to slake it. Though they were only just reaching their middle year at the school, already Malfoy and his followers strode around as if they owned it. And Sev strode with them, impassive mask in place. Everybody would draw the conclusions he desired from that, because nobody else was smart enough to look deeper.
Malfoy, certainly, was by now well satisfied with the loyalties of his followers. He had a certain degree of support amongst the younger and even the older students in their house, but his four roommates were the core of his power structure. At midnight that first night, he rose from his bed and went about shaking them awake.
"I'm not asleep," said Sev quietly, opening his eyes as the blond boy approached his bed. Malfoy rolled his eyes, and smiled.
"Do you ever sleep?"
"I sleep as much as I need to," responded Snape shortly. He was an insomniac, but the lack of sleep never troubled him; in truth, he needed it. Two or three hours of quiet darkness to line his thoughts up was what kept his brain running like the well-oiled machine it was. In prior years he had roamed the halls of Hogwarts, observing, but that would be more difficult now. He had given his invisibility cloak to Lily, and the security precautions this year would be that much stronger.
Apparently such thoughts didn't trouble Malfoy. When Colin looked nervous, he smiled knowingly, and said "No one will see us. We have friends in all sorts of places."
Malfoy, of course, knew who the Death Eater on staff was; but he would never share that information with Sev if the situation didn't demand it. He was well aware that his closest confidante was brighter than he was, and he guarded what advantages he had jealously. Though Sev could line up suspects with the information he had, his need for precision prevented him from narrowing it down to one without sufficient evidence.
The little train of Slytherins made their way out of the dorms with a surprising lack of disturbance. They were all accustomed to moving about light-footed; even bulky Colin Crabbe had learned to move gracefully in his sideline as a petty thief.
Malfoy led them down out of the castle and towards the Forbidden Forest. There was nobody to mark their passage, not even old Pringle, the caretaker. He was getting far too old to chase after errant students in any case; no doubt he would soon draft a replacement.
"Where are we going, Lucius?" demanded Avery in a slightly whiny tone of voice. That sounded very much like Nick Avery; only too happy to cleanse the world of mudbloods, provided the holy mission didn't cut into his sleep patterns.
Malfoy, of course, was airing his enigmatic smile. "You'll see. We're meeting a friend."
Sev took that in. He doubted very much the friend would be the staff Death Eater; he got the impression that whoever it was, they had no intention of being as trusting of Malfoy's followers as the boy himself. It was conceivable that someone could have smuggled themselves into the depths of the forest, but given the reinforced defences it seemed an unnecessary risk.
There were powerful shields against Apparating on the Hogwarts grounds that the Death Eaters would be crazy to try and break. They had been there for several centuries, and built upon by every successive headmaster. Dumbledore would know in a heartbeat if anyone was trying to breach them. Nobody could get in that way.
It was doubtful anybody had come in; therefore, Lucius must be taking them out. Though the Apparating shield went both ways, and the boys were too young to be trained for it in any case, there were other ways to transport people magically.
With this chain of logic winding its way through his head, Sev was not near as surprised as the others when Lucius came to an abrupt halt by a seemingly innocent rock in the middle of a clearing.
"Why are we here?" asked Colin, frowning. Malfoy nodded down at the rock.
"It's a rock," observed Avery shortly. Malfoy rolled his eyes.
"Indeed it is. It's a blue rock with black veins, exactly as I was told to look out for. But it's not just a rock. What is it, Sev?"
Whether Malfoy was trying to outfox him or expecting him to know, Sev didn't disappoint. "It's a Portkey."
He grinned. "Exactly."
"A what?" frowned Colin.
"A Portkey, Crabbe, what are you, a Muggle? It's a magical transporter."
"Where are we going?" frowned Avery.
Malfoy smiled again. "You'll see, soon enough. Everybody, take hold of the rock. We'll travel together."
Sev stepped forwards alongside the others, and they grasped the enchanted rock together. There was an odd sensation in the pit of his stomach, like simultaneously moving and standing still, and suddenly they were... somewhere else.