51

Of Trains and Trees

A/N: Several years ago I put this story on hiatus, intending to pick it up in a month or two after my sister's funeral. Unfortunately that never happened, for various reasons, both medical and personal—I lost several family members, the last eight months ago, and in an effort to jumpstart my Muse I began writing for other fandoms. For a brief time I marked the story complete because I was going to continue it with a sequel. I have finally gotten my Muse back and am going to continue this fic where I left off—which was what I originally planned. Many thanks to all my loyal readers who kept asking me to do so over the years. You all deserve the Order of Merlin for your dedication and support.

As for any questions you might have about other of my Harry Potter series, just PM me and I will answer them.

If you need to I'd suggest skimming the earlier parts of this story and series to refresh your memory before you read this.

And now, without further ado, I present the next chapter of Common Interests.

The Ford Anglia shuddered as Dante attempted to land it atop the Hogwarts Express, its tires squealing. "Holy hells!" Dante yelled as he pressed down on the brake.

Ron and Harry screamed as they were thrown onto the dashboard.

"Merlin! We're gonna die!" Ron shrieked, his face paler than parchment.

"Brake! Brake!" Harry howled, while in the backseat Hedwig screeched in terror.

"I am! Blast it!" Dante swore.

The car halted suddenly a mere two inches from the edge of the train carriage.

Ron had shut his eyes, fearing he would never see thirteen, nevermind second term. Please please, God and Merlin help us all! I don't wanna die at twelve!

The sudden halt threw Harry forward and made him bang his head on the dashboard. "Ooff! Aww, damn!" he groaned. "I just broke my new glasses!"

Ron felt his head snap back abruptly as Dante threw the car into park. That was followed by a sudden crack! "Bloody hell! I broke . . . my wand!" He had opened his eyes to see how he had remained in one piece and saw to his horror that his wand had broken in two thanks to being smashed against the windshield.

Dante glanced at the two younger wizards. "Uh . . . other than that how are you guys?"

"Just peachy, can't you tell?" Harry remarked sarcastically. "Thought you could drive!"

Dante scowled. "I can . . . but I've never driven a flying car, kid! Toldja that before! Lemme see your glasses." He held out a hand for Harry's spectacles.

Harry took them off and reluctantly handed them over. They had a crack through the right lens and one of the side pieces was broken. "Can you fix them? They're new, and Dad's gonna kill me if they're broken."

"Relax," soothed the older boy. He waved a hand and muttered a Repairing Charm. "There! Good as new! Don't have a cow." He gave the glasses back to his cousin.

Ron stared at the older boy. "You can do magic without a wand?" he asked in awe.

Dante nodded. "That's the only kind we do back in America. We only use a wand to focus spells for maximum effect."

"Wow! That's really wicked!" Ron said, then he gazed unhappily at his broken wand. "Mum's gonna nail my arse when she finds out. We don't have money for me to get a new wand."

Dante gave him a slightly sympathetic look. "Sorry, Weasley. I can't fix wands."

The train chugged onwards towards Scotland, and the car atop it quaked slightly, but remained where it was. "I can't believe we did this!" Harry groaned. "I know we didn't have a choice but . . .Dad's going to have a hippogriff when he finds out . . ."

"How will he know? It's not like we're going to tell him, cuz," Dante pointed out.

Harry gave the older boy a Look. "You are kidding, right?"

"Mate, Snape knows everything that happens to Harry," Ron told the American wizard. "He can read minds or something. He'll take one look at us and that'll be that."

Harry gulped just imagining the reaction Severus would have once he discovered what his son, cousin, and student had done. "Bloody hell! We are so dead!"

"Tell me something I don't know, Harry!" Ron shivered.

"Aww, come on! You're acting like he's the wrath of God or something!" Dante snorted.

"He is!" whimpered Ron. "You've never seen Snape in a temper! He's like one of those avenging angels!"

Dante looked from one to the other, an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had never truly seen the elder wizard in a temper before. He wondered fearfully if he was anything like the late Sulla Prince, Dante's father. From the reactions of the other boys, he could only surmise one thing. "Looks like our asses are grass and he's the lawnmower," he muttered.

"You said it, mate!" Ron coughed. "What's a lawnmower?"

"What Muggles use to cut their grass," Harry informed him.

"But . . . it wasn't all our fault," Dante growled. "The damn vampire press were after us like ticks on a hound! Surely he'll understand there were extenuating circumstances . . ."

"I dunno." Ron moaned. "Harry?" He looked over at his friend.

"Maybe," Harry sighed. "He's never punished me without hearing my side before."

"Then there's hope," Dante said. He was usually good at persuading adults to see his side of things. Unless the adult happened to be his father. No one had ever persuaded Sulla to do anything he didn't wish to, not even his only son. A fact which Dante had regretted more than once growing up with the volatile man.

He glanced out the window, taking a deep gulp of air, trying to put the dark memories back inside the box in his head. Come on, get in there and quit making me remember those days! He's dead and in hell probably, no sense in dwelling on the past.

He took another breath and then another, locking down the fear and shame that always accompanied them, until he could think rationally again. "Nice view we've got here," he joked as the train sped up.

Swirls of cumulonimbus clouds surrounded the train and the car, wreathing them from view. The Express continued down the track, its wheels making a clickety-clack sound, and Dante glanced about, seeing rolling gray and green hills and pastures with sheep and goats grazing among purple heather. "Where are we?" he wondered.

Harry glanced up. "Uh, Hogwarts is in Scotland. By Inverness."

"I think we might be halfway there," Ron mused. "The trip usually takes a few hours."

"How come you don't just Gate there?" Dante wanted to know.

"Say what?" Harry frowned.

"You know, open up a space warp Gate," Dante elaborated. "Don't you do that here?"

"Umm . . . not that I know of," his cousin said. "We use Floo powder or Apparate or fly on brooms. Don't you?"

"Sure, but when we need to get across the country, we use Gates," Dante told him. "It's quicker when you have a bunch of people needing to get somewhere in a hurry. The Gate Keeper opens up the terminus and then you just walk through it and there you are at your destination."

Ron whistled. "That's banging!"

"Quicker than riding a damn train, that's for sure!" Dante snorted.

"Yeah but is it safe?" Harry wanted to know.

"It is usually," Dante replied. His lip curled in a faint sneer. Yet another thing that felt backward to him. He wondered nervously if he would ever accustom himself to the way they did things in this country. He felt a sharp pang of longing for New York. But he squelched it down. There was no sense for wishing for what could never be again. This was his home now, he reminded himself. Provided cousin Severus still allowed him to live with him once he discovered this latest escapade.

I might not even have to worry about going to this dumb school if Severus kicks my ass out, the thirteen-year-old mused. And if that happens, I'm going to find a way back to New York quick as blinking or my name isn't Dante Prince.

Harry swallowed sharply, a lump the size of a bowling ball in his throat. Dread was slowly creeping through him, like frost upon a pond. He felt numb, like he was in the midst of a nightmare. Only there was no waking up from this awful reality. Dad's gonna tear me to shreds. Worse than the time with the Pendragon. He bit lip, worrying it back and forth. He could feel his stomach churn and he gulped. He didn't even want to think about how angry Severus was going to be. Still, what choice had they had? I hate being famous! It sucks royally! Stupid vampire press, always after me for an exclusive or whatever! Why can't they just leave me be? First dumb Lockhart and now this!

He scowled, his face reminiscent of his father's, if only he knew. He had never understood this all-consuming need of the press to pry into his life. It wasn't as though he led a particularly interesting one . . . well, not since Voldemort had died a second time. After his defeat of the revenant, his summer had been ordinary for once—except for the addition of Dante. What could they possibly find to write about?

He wished suddenly that Skull were there, he missed the snarky raven familiar the way he would have a missing limb. But the raven was off in America, helping his mate Shriek tend to their nestlings for a few weeks. Harry believed that if the raven had been there, this catastrophe wouldn't have occurred. The ebony bird possessed an almost supernatural ability to come out of the worse situations looking like a million Galleons.

Not to mention the fact that Skull could usually persuade his wizard to calm down before he blew a gasket. Only this time . . . Harry shivered slightly, and prayed that Severus would at least let him explain before he went postal. I wonder how long he's gonna ground me for? I hope not too long. Why does all this junk have to happen to me? The green-eyed wizard thought glumly. I promised him I'd behave and now . . . I'm royally screwed! He looked back at Hedwig, who seemed rather annoyed. Then he thought of a way that he might mitigate some of his father's wrath. "Ron, you got a spare bit of parchment and a quill?"

Ron quit bemoaning the loss of his wand and muttered, "Yeah, why? Plan on writing out your will?"

"Ha ha," Harry rolled his eyes. "No, I was thinking of writing a letter."

"To whom? Hermione? Draco?"

"No. My dad."

"Say what?"

"You heard me, Weasley. I thought maybe if I wrote and explained what happened—before he learned about it some other way—it might stop him from killing us."

"I'm already dead, Harry." Ron whimpered. "Mum and Dad are gonna kill me first. Then Bill and Charlie and Percy."

"Uh, you can only die once," Dante reminded.

"Not if they resurrect me to kill me repeatedly," Ron gulped.

Dante rolled his eyes. "Seriously, are your parents that strict that they won't understand why this happened?"

"Would your dad?" Harry asked curiously. Dante almost never mentioned his late father and he often wondered why.

The older boy swallowed sharply. "Hell, no!" He suppressed another shudder. He thanked God that Sulla Prince wasn't alive to see what his son was doing. "It was his way or the highway, the old bastard." Something flashed in the dark-haired boy's eyes then—almost like fear. But a second later it was gone and Harry thought he had imagined it.

"See? We're doomed!" the redhead groaned. He handed Harry a spare bit of parchment and an Everlast Quill.

Harry leaned against the dashboard and began to write quickly.

He completed the letter in about seven minutes. Then he turned to unlock Hedwig's cage. "Got some mail for you to deliver," he told his owl. "Bring this to Dad, okay?"

Hedwig took the letter in her beak and hooted softly. Then she flew away out the open window.

No sooner had Hedwig disappeared than the train sped up approaching a series of mountains that divided the Scottish Highlands from the Lowlands. Suddenly, another worrying thought occurred to Harry. "Uh, Dante?"

"Yeah, kid?" his cousin muttered.

"I just remembered something. The train . . . it goes through a tunnel soon."

Dante gaped at the younger boy. "Hot damn! You're kidding right?"

Ron shook his head. "No. Look—there it is!" He pointed to the arching spot of darkness ahead which was growing rapidly.

"Hell and damnation!" Dante swore. "We have to get off this thing!"

"What?" Ron gasped. "What for?"

"Otherwise we're going to be opened up like a can of sardines, airhead!" Dante cried. "Hang on!"

He started up the engine.

The train accelerated . . .

. . . Dante stepped on the gas . . .and nothing happened.

"Dante! Hurry your ass up!" Harry screamed.

The tunnel loomed before them like a dragon's maw, ready to swallow them whole.

"Blazes! Move, you bucket of bolts!" Dante swore and slammed his hand down on the dash.

Ron shut his eyes. "Tell me when it's over!"

The car lurched and flew off the train just as it entered the tunnel.

Dante whooped, adrenaline surging through him as he brought the Ford up and sent it soaring into the cobalt sky, climbing above the mountain peak.

"Whoo hoo!" Harry shrieked, grinning despite his stomach lurching into his throat. "That was insane! But wicked!"

Dante flashed him a daredevil smirk. "Toldja I could drive!"

Ron opened his eyes. "Is it over?"

"We're alive," Harry reassured him.

The redhead glanced about. "Now what?"

"Now we go and catch a train," Dante said, and punched down on the gas. "Come on, baby, let's see what you got!"

The car bucked slightly before streaking across the sky, leaving an odd sort of vapor trail.

Dante was concentrating hard on flying through the mountains towards the other side where the train would emerge, so he could follow it to school. With a brief sigh of relief he heard the whistle of the engine as the locomotive surged out of the tunnel.

He stepped on the gas.

"Uh, Dante?" Harry called, glancing over his shoulder at the odd sensation that he was being watched.

"Yeah?"

"We've got company."

Dante looked in the rearview mirror and nearly had a heart attack.

"Holy flaming hells! That's a Typhoon!" exclaimed the thirteen-year-old.

"A what?" Ron cried.

"Fighter jet," Harry replied, recalling a video game Dudley used to play where you were a fighter pilot. "Muggles use them to fly in." He frowned. "But how is it seeing us? We're invisible, right?"

"Uh . . ." Dante checked the sensors on the dash. Then he hissed a word that would have earned him a mouthwashing from Snape. "I forgot to engage it when we got off the train!" Furious at his oversight, he punched the glowing green button just as the jet's engine drew closer.

The car vanished, much to the shock of the pilot in the Typhoon who remained staring into the space where he had seen a flying car moments before. "Huh? Must have one too many at the pub last night," the pilot muttered, rubbing his eyes.

Unseen once more, Dante guided the car down close to the Hogwarts Express, figuring the train's ambient magical energy with its Notice Me Not and other concealment charms would also mask the Ford.

As the three wayward wizards made their way towards the school, a certain snowy owl was gliding through the halls of Hogwarts towards the dungeons, an envelope clutched securely in her beak.

Severus straightened from stirring his ninth cauldron of Pepper-Up potion. This was the last batch he needed to brew for the Hospital Wing and then he was going to take a break, drink some tea and await the arrival of the Hogwarts Express. He waved his wand and the finished potion was decanted into self-labeling beakers and placed into a cushioned crate. "Prissy!" he called.

His house elf appeared in the room. "Master Snape!" she said, bowing. The elf wore the livery of the Potter House, since she had been freed by Harry. "What does Master Snape wish?"

"Deliver these to the infirmary, Prissy," he instructed.

"At once Master Professor Snape sir!" Prissy said, bowing. Then she Apparated away with the crate.

Severus rubbed the small of his back, he was stiff after hours of bending over his cauldrons, but at last his task was accomplished. Now he only had the drafts for his own use simmering.

He looked up to see a familiar owl winging her way to him. "Hedwig!" he called, holding out his arm.

Harry's familiar landed on his arm, and he took the letter from her, recognizing his son's messy scrawl on the outside immediately. "Huh. What did he forget now?" the Potions Master sighed.

But the faint exasperation in his face suddenly shifted to shock and then fury as he read the missive. "Bloody Merlin's ghost!" Snape snarled. "What were they thinking!"

He felt a vein in his temple begin to throb as he considered the latest antics of his reckless son, his best friend, and newly acquired American cousin. Merlin give me strength! And let me keep my temper so I don't commit murder.

As he struggled to rein in his volatile temper, one of the cauldrons near the back of the lab began to slowly bubble and froth agitatedly, slopping over the sides as his magic surged about the room.

Severus looked up . . . and saw the reddish colored Pepper-Up potion slowly flowing on to the floor.

What the hell?

He walked swiftly to the back of the lab to see what was going on and snapped a spell to calm the gyrating cauldron down. Merlin's beard! I haven't had my magic react like that since . . . I saw Harry taunting that bloody Pendragon. He thought in chagrin. Get control of yourself, Snape! You're too old to be having a bloody tantrum! he scolded himself fiercely, and then he clamped down hard on his temper and by extension his magic as well.

He exhaled sharply, counting to ten over and over, until he could breathe normally without desiring to throttle the three young daredevils that Fate had graced him with. You should have expected something like this, Severus, he reminded himself. After all, this IS Harry you're raising, and Merlin knows the child is always involved in one insane scheme after another! And Weasley follows along with him. He rubbed his temples, trying to massage away the headache that had settled there. Though I had hoped Dante might have been a calming influence on him, but it would seem not. Blast and damn! He pulled a lock of his midnight hair forward to examine it.

No gray hairs yet. It's a damn miracle!

He finished up with the last of his drafts and bottled them for his own personal stores. Just as he had finished placing them on the shelf, he heard the Floo chime in his office. "Severus!" he heard Molly calling.

"One moment!" he replied, them came through the connecting door into his office to see Molly's head sticking out of the green flames.

"Severus, I'm so dreadfully sorry!" the frantic witch began. "But Ron, Harry, and Dante are missing! They never got on the train! And so is Arthur's car! What if they've been kidnapped?"

Severus knelt. "I'm aware of that, Molly," he said calmly. "I just received an owl from Harry a few minutes ago . . ." He told Molly what had happened.

"WHAT?!" Molly yelled, making Severus wince slightly. "Why those-those irresponsible little . . .why didn't they just wait by the car for me or Arthur to come back? We could have taken them to school instead of them taking the car!"

"I quite agree."

"Who's driving it?" she exclaimed.

"Harry said Dante is," Severus sighed.

"Merlin's purple hat! He doesn't even have a license!"

"None of them seem to have the sense God gave a hummingbird!" Severus coughed. He ran a hand through his hair. "Although my son at least thought to inform me about this before I realized they were not getting off the train."

"Hmm . . .Harry's always been a thoughtful boy, Severus," Molly conceded.

"Humph!" Snape snorted. "Thoughtful or not, he's still in serious trouble with me when I next see him."

"I can't blame you, Severus," the motherly witch sighed. "Ron knows better too! I swear, that boy is going to make my hair white!"

"I'm shocked mine isn't already," Severus commiserated.

"Severus, since I can't be there to punish my son directly . . . might I beg a favor from you, dear?"

The Potions Master winced at her address but refrained from commenting. "Go on."

"I'm giving you permission to punish Ron like you do Harry, Severus," Molly told him.

The Potions Master lofted an eyebrow. "Did Harry mention my normal consequences for risking his neck?"

"I overheard him tell Ron when he was over the Burrow last time," Molly answered.

"If you're sure . . .?"

"I trust you, Severus," Molly answered. "My sons all know the penalty for such misbehavior in my house . . . and it's similar to yours."

"All right then." The professor agreed. He heaved a sigh. "Those children are going to drive me to drink I swear!"

"Take a Calming Draught, dear!" Molly chuckled.

Severus' mouth quirked. "Maybe I will. Before my blood pressure goes through the roof." He scowled. "And just wait until I get my hands on those bloody reporters!" His eyes glowed with the promise of retribution.

"What were you thinking of doing?"

"Various things. Like hexing their tongues out for one," muttered the Potions Master balefully. Borrowing Filch's shackles and redecorating my dungeon for another. "They have no right to badger my son, even if he is the youngest celebrity in the wizarding world."

"I quite agree," Molly nodded. "Well, I'd best be going. Please contact me when the boys arrive at school, if you don't mind?"

"Not at all, Molly." Then Severus watched her withdraw from the flames, leaving him to pace and drink a Calming Draught in a cup of Oolong tea while he waited for his wayward boys to arrive.

"We're almost there!" Ron gasped. The expression on his face was one of relief and apprehension, mirroring the ones on the faces of his companions.

He pointed to the castle looming ahead.

"Gotta to find a place to land," Dante muttered and began to circle the grounds.

"How about there?" Harry called. "By that big tree?" He indicated a large willow tree with odd appendages standing a ways beyond the castle, beside the training grounds where Hooch held flying class and the older students came to duel training dummies.

"Okay. Hold on," Dante warned and flew the Ford around the tree.

Suddenly the tree began to sway and the branches to swipe at the incoming vehicle.

"Whoa! Flipping hell!" Dante yelped, spinning the wheel hard to the left to avoid a club-like branch that tried to smash through the windshield. "What kind of possessed tree is this?!"

Ron screamed as the car jerked and he collapsed against Harry. "Look out!"

A large branch thudded down on the boot of the car.

"Merlin's arse!" the redhead yelled.

Harry attempted to grab the side of the door to remain upright but by mistake pushed down on the handle. The next thing he knew he was falling out of the open door.

"Ahhh! Dante! Help!"

"Bloody hell, mate!" Ron shrieked and tried to grab Harry.

"Hey, Weasley! Why in Merlin's name doesn't this thing have seatbelts?" Dante snarled as the car suddenly dipped hard to the right.

Harry fell back inside the car and the door slammed shut.

"Damn, that was close!" he gasped, wiping sweat from his brow. "I was almost a Crash Test Dummy!"

The boys yelped as the tree redoubled its attacks, pounding the car with three sets of clubs.

"Merlin help us!" Ron begged, slightly green. "Dante, get us out of here!"

"What the hell do you think I'm trying to do?" the other shouted. He wriggled a hand and a brilliant bolt of mage fire shot from his fingers and slammed into the willow. "Take that, you reject from Yellowbrick Road!"

The willow shivered and swayed, momentarily pulling back.

Dante spun the wheel and stepped on the gas, trying to fly past the branches. "That'll teach you!"

"Uh, Dante?" Harry swallowed. "I think you just made it mad!"

Five branches arced towards the Anglia.

Harry waved his wand. "Protego!"

A glowing blue shield surrounded the car . . . just as five appendages slammed into it.

"Good thinking, kid!" Dante cried. "But how long is it gonna hold?"

"How am I supposed to know?" Harry snapped, sweat pouring down his face as he attempted to keep shield up despite the relentless pounding it was taking.

The car inched away from the willow's punishing branches, and the boys felt it shudder under the impact. They were all bounced about the car. Ron hit his head on the roof, Harry cut his eyebrow when his head slammed against the dash, and Dante banged his into the steering wheel, giving himself a black eye.

Harry began to pray that they would all come out of this alive and intact. Dad, where are you? You should have gotten my letter by now.

Suddenly a figure in black robes appeared near the Whomping Willow, as if conjured. Professor Snape took one look at the tree, the car being assaulted by it, and the children trapped inside and pointed his wand at the base of the tree. Unknown to the boys, there was a hidden knot at the tree's roots, which Snape pressed with magic.

Suddenly the willow froze, just as a huge branch would have slammed into the faltering blue shield and shattered the windshield into shards.

"Merciful Merlin!" Ron gasped in relief. "It stopped!"

"How?" Dante wondered. He threw the car into reverse and slowly backed up.

"Dad!" Harry cried, pointing to the tall figure of the potions professor standing on the lawn, his arms now crossed, giving them a glower that made them suddenly wish the willow had whomped them flat.

Dante swallowed sharply when he caught sight of his cousin's face and thought about gunning the engine and getting the hell away from here. But before he could do so, the car engine conked out. Next thing he knew, the doors had opened and some unseen magic tossed their trunks and them out onto the ground.

Once Severus was sure the three were out of danger, he used wandless magic to unfreeze the Willow. Then he turned to stare at his three disobedient students, his eyes narrowed. Until he saw how battered they were, then his protective instincts surged to the fore and he asked softly, "Are you all right, boys? You look like you've been through the wars."

Dante climbed to his feet, wincing as his eye throbbed. He glanced at his companions, both of whom seemed worse for wear but alive. Harry was holding a handkerchief to his eyebrow. "I think we're okay. Just bruised."

Severus approached Harry and gently took his chin in one long-fingered hand. "Let me see, son." He ordered, removing the handkerchief. The cut on his son's brow bled sluggishly. He drew his wand. "Episkey!" In moments the cut was healed.

"Thanks, Dad," Harry muttered.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?"

The boy shook his head. "No, sir."

Severus exhaled in relief, then turned to the other two. "Let me see your eye, Dante."

He moved over to his young cousin, his wand out. Though he noted in consternation that the child flinched when he drew his wand, as if he were afraid Snape might hex him or something. The reaction bothered Snape considerably. "Relax, child. I'm just going to heal you," he murmured and chanted the charm again.

Dante stiffened, though he admitted silently that he felt better once Snape had healed him.

After performing the same charm on Ron, the professor scowled and ordered, "My office. Immediately!"

Ron exchanged glances with Harry and Dante and muttered, "Oh, Merlin! Are we gonna be expelled?"

"If we were under a different Headmaster, you all would be on the next train home," Severus told them angrily. "However, Dumbledore has decided to be merciful and allow you a second chance. However, that does not mean you will escape consequences for this little escapade." He fixed them all with a finely honed glower that made them shiver all the way down to their toes.

They followed at his heels like chastened sheep, silently, until Ron groaned, "Oh no! We're going to miss Ginny's Sorting!"

"Something which you should have thought of before you took a flying car to school, Mr. Weasley!" Snape scolded.

"But sir, it wasn't our fault!" Dante objected. "The vampire press was after us!"

Severus shot him a Look and the boy swallowed and shut up. At last they reached the Potion's Master's office and he herded them inside, shutting the door firmly and engaging the Privacy Wards. That done he took a seat behind his desk, while the three miscreants stood before him. "Well?" he demanded coldly, his tone dripping with icy disapproval. "Would you three delinquents like to explain yourselves, or shall I just assume that your brains vanished when you stole Arthur Weasley's Ford?"

Harry gulped, feeling his stomach churn unpleasantly. "Dad, we didn't steal the car . . . we borrowed it to get to school."

"Don't split hairs with me, young man!" snapped his father. "Unless you asked permission beforehand, you taking the car is tantamount to stealing!"

"Professor, we would have asked . . . but there wasn't time!" Ron protested.

"Weasley's right, Severus," Dante interjected. "Harry was being harassed by these dumb reporters and we were going to miss the train since we couldn't get away from them to get onto the platform."

"And you thought an acceptable alternative, Mr. Prince, was to steal a car and drive it to school?" He fixed Dante with a look that should have shredded him, making the boy cringe. "Whose bright idea was it to do that, instead of waiting for Molly and Arthur to come back?"

"Well, you see—" Harry began.

"—it was mine," Dante interrupted, not willing to let Harry take the blame for his decision. "I convinced Harry and Ron to let me drive the car to school, since they were freaking out about missing the train."

"So you were the mastermind behind this?" demanded the professor.

"Yes," the other replied.

"No!" Harry objected.

Dante shot him a glare. "Shut up, kid!" he hissed.

Harry ignored him. He'd be damned if he let his cousin take all the blame for this. He pulled his gaze up from studying the green rug on the floor and met his father's obsidian gaze. "Dad, I can explain—"

"Really, Mr. Snape? Then explain to me how you forgot one of the most important rules we have and exposed our world to Muggles?" Severus' eyes flashed black fire.

"You know about the fighter jet?" Harry asked miserably.

"Me and anyone who reads The Daily Prophet!" his father growled, and shoved the copy of the paper at him.

Harry went pale as he read the following headline: Flying Ford Anglia Mystifies Muggle Fighter Pilot! Oh bloody hell! Now we're really dead!

"Don't blame Harry, Severus," Dante interceded. "It was my fault that pilot saw us—I forgot to put the car back in stealth mode when we flew off the train and over the tunnel."

Severus slammed his hand down on the desk, making the boys jump. "None of you would have been seen doing anything at all had you used the brains you were born with and waited by the car! At the least you could have sent Hedwig with a letter to me telling me you were stuck at King's Cross and I could have come for you. But no—you three geniuses decided to play grand theft auto instead!" He snapped sarcastically.

"Dad, it wasn't like that!" Harry protested, trying to do some damage control. "All we wanted to do was get away from the press and get to school. It wasn't like we planned to get in trouble!"

Snape pinched the bridge of his nose to stave off the headache that was developing behind his eyes. "You are trouble's shadow, boy and I shudder to think what sort of a disaster would occur were you actually planning out these insane stunts, Harry James!"

Harry flinched, Severus' disappointment hurt worse than a slap. "I'm sorry, Dad. It just . . . seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Does my mum and dad know?" Ron whimpered.

"Yes. Did you think they wouldn't notice?" Snape demanded.

Ron shuddered. "N-No, sir . . . I just . . ." He hung his head. "I'm dead. Not even Fred and George ended up in the paper for any of the pranks they pulled." He glanced about fearfully, as if expecting Molly or Arthur to appear out of thin air.

"Your mother called me frantically looking for you," Snape told him sternly. "She feared, as did I, that you had all been kidnapped! Have you any idea of the anguish you caused all of us?"

"But Dad, didn't you get my letter?" Harry whispered to his shoes.

"I did," Severus replied. "I almost had heart failure reading it! Of all the foolish, reckless, idiotic stunts!" The master wizard didn't raise his voice, but his displeasure crackled through the air like a whip. "I thought you, Mr. Snape and Mr. Weasley, had learned your lesson after the Pendragon incident! But I suppose almost getting roasted by an angry mother dragon was not enough to impress upon you the necessity of thinking before you acted! Perhaps someone needs to die next time for you to learn your lesson!"

Both younger boys cringed. Snape looked angrier than a Hungarian Horntail whose lair had been invaded.

"Sir, I told you it was my idea—" Dante began, fearing that if he didn't draw some of the volatile man's ire, the two younger boys were libel to end up cursed to oblivion.

"Did I ask your opinion, Mr. Prince?" Severus spun on Dante.

"I'm volunteering," Dante replied impudently.

Harry and Ron gaped at his audacity.

Is he mental? Ron wondered.

Does he have a death wish? Harry thought. He went to kick the other's ankle, in a not-so-subtle hint to shut up before he ended up grounded for life.

Severus felt his temper start to rise again at the teen's attitude. "Mind your mouth, Mr. Prince! When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it! Now be silent!" The little brat is really pushing it, the former spy thought angrily. It's clear he's been allowed to run wild. Well, that's going to stop.

Dante's mouth, which was open for another retort, suddenly clicked shut as his sense of self-preservation kicked in. He had learned long ago that silence often turned away wrath . . . except those times when Sulla needed someone to blame for something. Sorry, kid. I tried. But at least if he curses us, he might go easier on you than me.

Severus continued with his lecture. "In addition to your reckless decision, which could have resulted in your deaths, and did result in breaking the Statute of Secrecy as well damaging a very old guardian willow tree—"

"I think the tree did more damage to us, sir," Ron muttered.

"Would you care to repeat that, Weasley?" Snape demanded.

"Uh, no, sir, just talking to myself," Ron babbled, regretting ever opening his mouth.

"How much trouble are we in, sir?" Harry queried, still looking at the carpet. He squared his shoulders, determined to take whatever punishment his father gave bravely.

"A great deal, Mr. Snape," his father replied gravely.

Ron gulped. In the Weasley house that always had meant one thing. He wondered when his mother was going to show up with her spoon.

Snape's eyes met his, and he flinched slightly at the anger there. "Mr. Weasley, your mother and I had a long conversation about your behavior, and she has given me permission to punish you the way I do Harry."

"She did?" Ron squeaked.

Severus nodded.

"How about the vampire press?" Dante queried. "Are they just gonna get off with harassing kids?"

"No, Mr. Prince. I will be dealing with them tomorrow morning, and they will regret everything they did to you," his cousin said darkly. "However, that does not absolve you of all responsibility. For your disregard of Ministry law, you will all do an essay of no less than three feet on why the Statute of Secrecy exists and what you could have done to avoid breaking it. Furthermore, you will also write note of apology to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley apologizing for your stealing their enchanted car. For your disregard of the rules of this school, you are now on restriction for two weeks—meaning you are to go to class and then study in your rooms, no extra-curricular activities, including playing Quidditch, Mr. Snape, or flying, for you two. You will also clean the Hogwarts Express, inside and help me repair the damage the car did on the outside. . . ."

Harry groaned at being banned from Quidditch, but at least it was only for two weeks, and he would only be missing practice since the first House match was not till October. Though he knew that wasn't the only thing he'd be getting.

He sniffed for he hated disappointing his father even worse than he did the spanking he'd be getting for risking his neck.

"Lastly, for putting yourselves in danger, which is something I have told my son repeatedly to never do—" Harry felt shame and guilt sweep through him, for he knew he had broken his word yet again and wished a hole would open up and swallow him. "—you will each receive an additional punishment from me. You had better hope this is the last time you ever find yourself in this situation again, gentlemen!"

Merlin's bones but he really means to curse us! Dante thought, feeling dread creep through him. But before he could protest, Snape ordered him and Ron from the room.

Harry watched the other two boys leave, grateful that his father had at least spared him the humiliation of being spanked with them watching. He forced himself to meet his father's disapproving gaze. "Dad, I really am sorry," he apologized. "I really did try and behave, honest! But . . . things just happen around me . . ."

"Things may happen, son, but you have a choice how you'll react. And this time—you made the wrong choice, and now you will have to take the consequences," Severus said unhappily. "Come here."

Harry did, biting his lip. "Dad, are you really gonna . . .wallop Ron too?"

"He will be given the same punishment," was all Severus said.

The one thing Harry was glad about right then was that Severus' spankings were swift, stinging sharply for a brief time, and his father always hugged him after, letting Harry cry into his robes for a bit.

Harry took the handkerchief Severus handed him and mopped his eyes, sniffling. "Do you forgive me?"

"Always, little raven," his father murmured. "Now behave and quit risking your neck before you make me have a stroke, young man!"

"Okay, Dad." He pulled away from the professor and sighed ruefully.

"Go and tell Ronald to come in here," Snape ordered, wishing like hell he had never agreed to Molly's request. Just do it, Snape, he ordered himself wearily. He hardly ever punished a student this way—unless a parent specifically told him to do so—and he used it more for shock value than to truly hurt a child. It was also a punishment he only reserved for first and second years, after that he felt the child was too old for it to be effective.

The door opened and shut and an apprehensive and remorseful redhead came to stand before him. "Professor?" the boy's lower lip quivered. "Are you gonna use a paddle?"

"No. I will punish you the same as I do Harry. Three swats with my hand."

"Err . . . yes, sir," Ron swallowed hard and thought, thank Merlin for that!

The youngest Weasley son was astonished to discover that his professor hugged him afterwards, gave him a handkerchief and said, not unkindly, "Next time behave, Weasley, before you turn your mother's hair white."

"I'll try, sir." Ron promised, rubbing his bottom and wincing. Oww! Snape's hand hurts almost as much as Mum's spoon.

"Tell Dante to come in," Snape sighed. He surreptitiously rubbed his hand on the chair cushion.

When Ron came out of the office, sniffling and red eyed, Dante stared at him sympathetically. "It's your turn, Prince," Ron muttered.

"What'd he curse you with?" the thirteen-year-old asked.

"Curse me?" Ron repeated. "Are you barmy?"

"Dante, my dad doesn't use magic to punish us," Harry began, horrified.

His cousin snorted. "Right. You think I was born yesterday?"

Before the other two boys could correct his assumption, Dante gathered what shreds of courage he had left and entered the office. Whatever curse Severus used, Dante would endure it stoically, like a true Prince. As much as he could anyhow. He just hoped it didn't leave marks. And that he could explain his reservations about the Sorting Hat before he was hexed.

Obsidian eyes met hazel ones, and Severus noted that unlike Harry and Ron, Dante seemed defiant, thought he could swear that beneath the defiance lurked fear. Severus felt his intuition stir and for a moment he was reminded of himself at that age facing his abusive father. Skullduggery, I wish you were here now. The boy might act like every other rebellious adolescent I've taught, but my instincts are telling me there's something off about that impression.

"Sit down, Mr. Prince," the professor ordered.

Dante slouched in the chair, outwardly nonchalant, but inside he was a mess of nerves. Play it cool, Prince. I doubt if Severus knows as many curses as Dad did. Then he shifted slightly, for the look his cousin was giving him was not pleasant.

"So . . .it was your foolish idea to steal an enchanted car and fly to school," Severus scowled. "Where was your head, young man? Out to lunch? I thought I could trust you to act responsibly, Mr. Prince, and instead I find you behave as recklessly as my son and his best friend." The Potions Master shook his head in disgust.

For some odd reason Dante could not meet those censorious eyes and looked away. They made him feel guilty and ashamed, and the teenager had not felt either of those things since Blue Sparrow used to scold him for skiving out on his chores and going riding on the Golden Prince. To cover his sudden rush of shame, the boy became defensive.

"I was trying to escape those leeches from the press, sir! Not taking a joyride for the hell of it!" Dante forced himself to look at the older wizard, his hazel eyes snapping with indignation. "Can't you understand that?"

"Mind your tone, young man!" reproved his cousin. "I understand more than you think, but some nosy reporters are not an excuse to go haring off into the sunset like some cinema cowboy! It's not worth risking your life over, Dante Prince, do you hear me?"

"I hear you, Severus. I'm not deaf," the other responded cheekily. An instant later he could have kicked himself.

The elder wizard's eyes flashed. "Lose the attitude, Mr. Prince, or by Merlin, you will regret it! Did you speak to your father that way?"

Dante flinched as Severus' hand came up to brush a lock of hair back from his forehead. "Not if I wanted to keep breathing," he murmured.

"I told you when we first met that I do not tolerate disrespect," Severus began in an even tone. "You would do well to remember it."

"Or else you'll curse me?" the boy cried, feeling his heart speed up. "Go ahead then! You're going to anyhow." His magic flared suddenly, making the jars in the cabinet behind the Potions Master rattle and rock to and fro.

"Excuse me?" Severus stared at his ward, shocked. "I have never hexed or cursed a child and I do not intend to start now." Now all the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. The way Dante flinched when Severus drew his wand earlier, and again a few moments ago when the professor had lifted a hand to brush hair from his eyes. Damn it all, Snape, someone's been abusing the boy! All the signs are there, like they were with Harry.

Before he could speak again, Dante did, his nerves shot from waiting for the older wizard to punish him. His father had never lectured him this way, Sulla had just gone straight to hexing him. "Sure you haven't," Dante sneered. "And Ron and Harry were crying crocodile tears."

"Quit jumping to conclusions," the professor ordered. "Yes, they were crying. But not because I used magic on them. Most children cry after being spanked."

Dante blinked. "You beat them?"

"Absolutely not," Severus refuted. "I am not a monster, to abuse my authority in that fashion. I give discipline, nothing more and nothing less."

"My old man called it that too," the boy hissed, hunching away from the professor.

"Mr. Prince—Dante—" Severus reverted to the more familiar address, abandoning the role of stern patriarch for the moment. "—using a belt or a whip upon a child as a means of correction leaves marks and is what I consider abuse, not discipline. You can ask Harry or Ronald and they will tell you I spanked them only, with my hand over clothes. Within ten minutes they won't even feel the sting any longer. No permanent damage was done, except to their pride."

Severus met the boy's gaze squarely, and Dante realized then that the older wizard was not lying. "You really mean that," Dante coughed.

"I do. Your father hexed you as punishment, yes?" Severus queried, though it was more a statement than a question.

Dante concealed a shiver and nodded once. "Mostly. Other times he used a riding crop. It depended on his mood."

Severus muttered something uncomplimentary about the late Prince. "His methods will never be mine. Ever. I promise you that and I am a man of my word always."

Dante gave him a wary look. "But you're angry with me."

"Yes, for risking your life, along with Harry's and Ron's. Your life is a gift, child, and I want you to live to grow up, not waste it in insane stunts like flying a car to school. Even so, you need never fear my temper will cause me to beat or hex you. I discipline to teach you a lesson, not scar you for life. Clear?"

Slowly Dante nodded. Snape's words relieved him somewhat, and some of the old fear left him. "Then what will you do to me?"

Severus paused, thinking. Minutes ticked by endlessly before he replied.

"You are too old for me to take over my knee, so instead I shall revoke your Hogsmeade trip for the first month. I'm assuming Harry or one of the Weasley boys mentioned that third-years are allowed to go into the village near Hogwarts for a weekend a month."

"But Severus!" Dante protested. It had been the one thing that Dante had actually wished to do after listening to Fred and George talk about it. "I'll clean your whole lab with a toothbrush instead or—"

"This is not up for negotiation, Mr. Prince," Severus intoned firmly. "Maybe next time you will think twice before doing anything so foolish."

"This sucks!" Dante sulked. "I'd rather you spanked me."

"Too bad. While your classmates are enjoying themselves, you will be doing chores for me and maybe this will serve a deterrent to you. You are an intelligent boy, I trust you will learn your lesson."

"Damn straight!" the teen huffed.

"Language!"

"Sorry," Dante sighed. "I feel like I'm in boot camp or something," he grumbled.

Severus' mouth twitched. "Occasionally, Skull has compared me to a drill sergeant. Learn from your mistakes and you won't need to worry about being forbidden to visit Hogsmeade, mister. Also, once you serve your punishment, it's over and won't be brought up again."

"Okay, sir."

Dante had to admit that his guardian might be a strict old bat, but Snape's punishment was way better than any he'd endured from Sulla. The way Severus had put it, it almost seemed as though he cared for his young cousin, like a family member, instead of the orphaned stranger he'd been forced to assume responsibility for.

"Severus? Can I ask you something?"

"Yes, you may." The professor corrected automatically. "What did you wish to know?"

"Well . . . do I have to be Sorted right away? I mean, I get that you have traditions here but . . . I'd like some time to get used to how you do things before you try to tell me where I ought to belong. Harry said that the Hat sometimes lets you choose the House you feel is best for you, but how can I make a choice when I don't know anything about one House versus another?" Dante told him. "You were all raised knowing all this, but all I know are tutors and lessons from my father."

Severus noticed how the boy had bitten his nails to the quick, and realized that the young wizard was anxious and uncertain. Hmmm. Perhaps this is rather abrupt. He's barely settled in with me and Harry and now he's in a totally new environment. He knew that Skull would recommend to allow the child to adjust gradually. "Dante, every student who attends Hogwarts is Sorted."

"Yeah, I get it. But can't it be, I don't know, delayed for a month so I have time to learn about each house before the Hat chooses one?"

Severus considered. "What you suggest is not unreasonable. I shall need to speak to the Headmaster, but if Albus agrees you can spend a week with students from each House, and learn about the different qualities their members display. It can also give you an opportunity to make friends without worrying about House rivalries. But at the end of the month, you will be Sorted like any other Hogwarts student. Is that agreeable to you?"

Dante nodded rapidly. "Yeah, that would be great, Severus."

"Then I shall speak to Professor Dumbledore at the earliest opportunity I have." Severus told him. "In the meantime, I shall have the house elves add on another room to my quarters for you, and you can sleep there until you are Sorted. I shall make up a schedule of classes for you and give you a few tests to see where you need improvement. Now, go and call Harry and Ronald in here. Since you three missed the Welcome Feast, and I don't want to be accused of starving you, you may eat here in my quarters."

Then the master wizard waved his wand and a table popped up full of food, drinks, and sweets that had been served twenty minutes ago in the Great Hall.

Dante licked his lips, then went to fetch his cousin and Ron, glad that his initial impression of the snarky professor had been dead wrong.

While the boys were eating, Severus firecalled Minerva and Albus to inform them of the whereabouts of Harry and Ron as well as introduce his new relative Dante. It was then that he sorely missed his impudent raven, for Skull could have kept an eye on his boys for him, but Severus supposed he would simply have to make do until Skull returned in three weeks. He just hoped everything would go smoothly until then, despite the rocky start the new term had gotten off to.

Afterwards, he busied himself writing a letter to Molly telling her that Ron had arrived at school safe and sound, as well as the punishment he had meted out to the boy.

A/N: I intent to update this story regularly, but not as frequently as I used to do years ago because my current job as an essential worker tires me out and I also have to get my house ready to sell. So my updates might be once a week, more if I can manage.

Thanks to all my loyal readers who have asked me to continue this story. Happy reading!