The three of them made their way down to Dumbledore's office in absolute silence. Anyone who had seen the two fuming teenagers would never have been able to tell that the anger of one was considerably less genuine than that of the other.
Malachite kept giving them both suspicious looks, especially Snape, but had the sense not to try and break the silence. He led them down to the headmaster's office, and spoke the password, "Pumpkin Fizz", with as much gravity as he was able to give it. Neither of his young charges was particularly inclined to snigger at the incongruity.
Despite the lateness of the hour, Dumbledore was sitting at his desk, and he didn't seem particularly surprised to see them. He looked up at Professor Malachite. "Ah, Carnus. Trouble?"
"I caught these two out in the grounds by the Whomping Willow, making a racket. Prefects, no less." He sniffed disapprovingly, a gesture Sev suspected owed a lot to his thwarted attempts to raise the profile of house Slytherin. His favoured Prefect misbehaving after hours would hardly help his case.
Sev made his voice the iciest he could make it. "I was just doing my job; checking up on students out of bed after hours. Why don't you ask Potter what he was doing out?"
That shook James out of his self-imposed brooding. He gaped at Sev in disbelief. "What-? I saved your life, you arrogant little-"
"Potter!" snapped Professor Malachite.
"If it hadn't been for you and your little jokes, my life would never have been in danger," Sev said pointedly.
"Yeah? Well, if you hadn't been-"
"Gentlemen," said Professor Dumbledore calmly. James subsided, and the headmaster nodded to the Slytherin head of house. "Carnus? If you'd like to give us a minute?"
By the look on his face, Professor Malachite didn't like that idea much at all, but he nodded brusquely and left the office. As he left, however, his glare was directed at James, and Sev knew he had already made up his mind who was the guilty party. It never took much to convince Professor Malachite the Slytherins were being blamed unfairly.
Handling Malachite had never been the issue, however. It was from Dumbledore that he would have to take his cue on how to handle this.
The Hogwarts headmaster straightened his desk for a few moments, humming to himself and seemingly having forgotten that he had an audience. Then, abruptly, he looked up at the two of them with a sharp blue gaze. "The Whomping Willow, James?" he asked lightly.
James shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "He went down in the passage," he admitted. It was clear that those who knew Lupin's secret had been supposed to keep it that way.
Dumbledore steeped his hands thoughtfully. "And how did he know how to get in?" he asked, in that same calmly inquisitive tone. James's fidgeting grew more pronounced.
"Sirius told him," he admitted to the floor.
"A rather dangerous little prank, don't you think?"
"Yes, headmaster," James said to his feet. Sev decided this was round about his cue.
"I'd hardly call it a prank," he said sharply. "That seems a little... mild for something which nearly killed me. By all rights, they should both be expelled." He didn't for one moment expect that to happen, but nonetheless he should probably call for it.
Dumbledore turned his attention to Snape. His eyes were coolly blue and unreadable. "How did you find out about the tunnel under the tree, Severus?"
"I saw them going down there."
"'They' would be Remus and Ms. Pomfrey, I presume?" That gave him pause, though an observer wouldn't have noticed it.
Poppy Pomfrey was the young assistant to Madame Florence in the hospital wing, slated to take over when the old matron retired next year. Clearly she was the one supposed to be in charge of leading Lupin down to the Whomping Willow. Perhaps she did so, sometimes, but other nights it was no doubt easier to hand off the duty to Lupin's ever-so-helpful young friends.
Odd that Dumbledore wouldn't know that more often than not the Gryffindor boys were down there of a full moon. Unlikely, even; he might not know what they were doing down there, but he was far too observant not to notice that they went. It was almost as if he was trying to play down James and Sirius's involvement.
Interesting... A taste of pro-Gryffindor bias, or was he playing games as complicated as any of Sev's own?
Dumbledore's deceptively open face gave no readable clue. Sev gave a sullen shrug and shifted the conversation. "I saw Remus go down," he agreed. "And I saw what he turned into."
"I am aware of Remus Lupin's... condition," Dumbledore informed him. Sev hadn't for a moment supposed he hadn't been. "I know about the arrangement with the Whomping Willow, and I have every confidence in its safety."
James was nodding self-importantly, but Sev quickly shot him down. "With respect, headmaster," he said pointedly, "I would hardly call any venture safe that has one of these reckless idiots at the centre of it."
"Hey!" James, predictably, was more offended by the insult to his friends than to himself. "Remus isn't reckless-"
"Oh, nearly killing your schoolmates makes you the model of self-restraint, does it?"
"It was after moonrise! He didn't know anything about it and you know it!"
"Ah, I see. So you and Sirius cooked up this little plot without telling him that he was going to commit murder?"
James's mouth worked silently for a moment; he was caught in a self-made web of honour and loyalty - a far sticker web than any of deception. He knew that Sev had a point about the position that Sirius had put the innocent Lupin in. However, the only other argument he could make was to tell the truth - that he hadn't been involved - and drop Sirius in it.
"We didn't- It was just-"
"It wasn't just anything," Snape told him. "It was nearly murder. Your little last-minute change of heart doesn't change anything."
"Everything changes something," said the headmaster quietly. He looked at James. "James, what you did tonight was very brave... and also very ill-advised. I am pleased that you acted as promptly as you did - and very disappointed that the situation should have come to that. Do I make myself clear?"
James was back on studying the floor. "Yes, headmaster."
"So I should think. You may go."
Sev did his best to look disbelieving. "What? I-"
"I'll talk to you and Sirius in the morning," the headmaster continued. "I'd like Remus to be there as well." James flushed scarlet; that had cut like nothing else. Sev suspected Remus might not be best pleased about the position Sirius had put him in...
"Carnus!" From the speed at which the Slytherin head appeared when Dumbledore called, and the thundery look on his face, he had almost certainly been listening at the door. Dumbledore didn't seem to mind, and had probably expected it. "If you could escort Mr. Potter back to his dorm, please?"
"You're not deducting any points?" he asked tightly.
"No, and I will not be. From either house," he elaborated firmly. "This has been an unfortunate incident, but it could only get more unfortunate if Remus's secret is exposed before the school." He nodded at Snape. "Severus, if you'd like to stay behind for a moment."
They waited as the other two departed, and then Dumbledore turned that powerful gaze on the young Slytherin. "An interesting stunt," he observed neutrally, after a long pause.
"On whose part?" he asked carefully. He dialled down the spitting fury, sure that Dumbledore could see through it.
"You certainly won't have endeared yourself to Remus and Sirius," Dumbledore said lightly, not quite answering the question.
Sev smiled thinly. "Not one of my major goals in life."
"So I've noticed." He rested his bearded chin on his folded hands. "Indeed, those are some interesting goals you have."
"Everybody has a job to do."
"Hmm, yes. You seem to have assigned yours to yourself."
"Somebody had to do it," he countered.
"Indeed." Dumbledore leaned back in his chair. "There are people," he said heavily, "who would be horrified at the idea of a young man of your age setting himself the task you have. They would argue that nobody of your age has the wherewithal to accomplish it - and nor should they."
"People do love their illusions." He shrugged. "That's what makes them who they are. And what makes me what they're not."
"Not all illusions are bad," Dumbledore informed him. "After all, what is childhood but a happy time when the world is whatever you choose to make it?"
"I really wouldn't know," said Sev.
"No," said the headmaster quietly. "Perhaps you wouldn't." He rubbed his beard slowly. "By all rights, I should forbid you to do this."
"But you won't," said Snape pointedly.
Dumbledore sighed heavily. "Some illusions are only that. And fools walk away from golden opportunities."
"And you're not a fool."
"On the contrary." The headmaster's mood brightened as he pushed himself up from his desk. "I consider myself the biggest fool in the place; and that, I assure you, is no hollow victory. You'll find - indeed, no doubt you know already - that most people are fools, Mr. Snape."
"I'm not," he pointed out neutrally.
"Indeed you're not," Dumbledore agreed. "A great pity. Still, you're young yet, and perhaps you will learn to be a deal less wise in your old age."
"Most people do," Sev said dryly.
"Indeed!" The headmaster laughed heartily, and opened the door for him. "Come to me again, after the exams are over. I'd like to speak with you again before you leave for the summer."
The story of Snape and James's midnight exploits was a closely guarded secret - which meant, of course, that it was all over the school in record time. Nobody knew the true story, but everybody was well aware that there had been some kind of huge bust-up after hours.
Malfoy was the only one Sev gave any detail to, although he didn't offer much. "They tried to kill me," he said tightly. "The teachers can call it a prank all they like, but I know better."
Malfoy nodded knowingly, and gave just a little flash of a smirk. "Soon enough," he assured him. "They've been lucky so far, but soon enough their luck will run out. They'll get what's coming to them."
"We all will," Sev agreed.
With the OWLs suddenly upon them, there was little time for any kind of socialising. James Potter scowled at him in passing a few times, and Sirius Black's looks were particularly venomous - partly, Sev was sure, because he was feeling at least a little ashamed of himself, and was willing to die before he admitted it.
The exams themselves gave him as little trouble as he would have expected. What was remembering an incantation against the intricacies of the stories within stories he was weaving?
The library was full of panicking students as the exams approached, but they emptied out as late revision became too late, and the summer weather beckoned. The place was all but deserted on the last week of term when Remus Lupin approached him.
Sev regarded him with his flattest expression - he'd expected this to come sooner or later. "Yes."
Remus hesitated, almost shyly, but he was a Gryffindor, with the courage that came with it. "I'm sorry," he said simply. "For what nearly happened. I wanted to say I'm sorry."
Of course, the only sensible reply was that it couldn't in any way have been his fault - but that wasn't the game he was playing. "Your apology means nothing to me. You want to do something about it, I suggest you find yourself some better friends."
"Sirius is... Sirius," Remus shrugged helplessly.
"Well, that was certainly... profound," he said sarcastically. "The boy tried to kill me, and at your expense. Anyone who tries to kill will kill again. Maybe you should be a little more... selective about who you hang around with."
"It was an accident," said Remus, a little too stubbornly. He changed the subject. "And... thank you. For not telling anyone."
"What do I care?" he shrugged. "You want to keep your little secret, go ahead. You don't really think you can hide forever, do you?"
Lupin's eyes were troubled for a moment, but he quickly shook it off. "I'll survive," he said, shrugging back.
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, it's nothing to me." He turned back to his books, and after a moment's hesitation Remus moved away.
He returned to Dumbledore's office on the last day of term. The headmaster was sitting waiting for him. "Ah, Severus. You came."
"Of course I did." He sat down opposite the headmaster.
"Yes. I'm sure there are some who would disagree, but I think that in truth you are... very reliable."
"That depends who's relying on me," Sev shrugged.
"Indeed." Dumbledore laughed, and then abruptly turned serious. "There will come a day, you know, when nobody trusts a word you say."
"That's not today?" he asked wryly.
"What is your knowledge worth, if nobody will listen?" asked the headmaster rhetorically. He looked over the top of his glasses at Snape. "Come to me. When the day comes that you find that nobody trusts you, come to me. Because I think I know you, better than anyone else here could claim to. And I'll know whether or not to trust you."
Sev raised a single eyebrow. "With all due respect, headmaster... if you know me that well, then you should know that I don't need to turn to anybody."
"People change," Dumbledore shrugged.
"Perhaps not. Who knows what the future will hold?"
"People who look forward?"
The headmaster laughed. "Oh yes, indeed." He nodded. "That's why I called you here today. I need you to look forward for me, and find me a foolproof solution."
"You know you have a Death Eater on your staff," Sev surmised. Dumbledore nodded.
"I know. But they don't know I know. Or perhaps they do know, but I don't know that they know. Perhaps."
"Perhaps a lot of things," Sev agreed. "Do you know who it is?"
"I have my suspicions." He peered over his glasses. "And so do you. There's no fool like an old fool, and I'd rather hear you work it out yourself than tell you and be wrong."
Sev shrugged. "I wouldn't have believed it anyway. I have to see things for myself."
Dumbledore nodded. "Perhaps you're right, and I trust too much... and perhaps you trust too little. Between us, mayhaps, we may end up pointed in the right direction."
"Is that what you're doing? Pointing me in the right direction?"
"I doubt very much that anybody points Severus Snape anywhere he doesn't plan to go. No, I am just a teacher; I guide, but never lead. And," he added with a smile, "sometimes I give homework. And this is yours; bring me a way to catch the spy on my staff. Do you think you can do that?"
Severus quirked an eyebrow. "Have I ever failed a homework assignment yet?"
Dumbledore gave him a slight nod of acknowledgement. He turned, and left the office to go and catch the train.