Thanks for the reviews, everyone. I'm not sure when I'll be able to get the next chapter posted, but here's hoping this will hold you for a little while!

Two: Enter the Trio

My second year of teaching, Harry Potter came to Hogwarts.

His arrival created quite a stir, as one might well imagine. Everyone knew the story of the Boy Who Lived, the one person to ever survive a direct attack by He Who Must Not Be Named. Truly, there had been a great deal of speculation over the years as to exactly where the Potter boy was hidden. He had lived, but where? And with whom?

Well, it seemed that Albus Dumbledore had secreted the child away with his Muggle relations, where he could grow up in relative obscurity. Certainly no one had known anything of him until he turned up at Hogwarts.

I will admit to a great deal of curiosity about the boy. After all, he had survived what so many others had not. My own brother was a victim of the Dark Lord's perfidy, although not directly. It was one of He Who Must Not Be Named's Death Eaters who had struck the killing blow, although we would never know who. They wore masks for a reason.

Harry was a thin child, with a mop of unruly black hair and bright green eyes that even his thick-lensed glasses couldn't obscure. The Sorting Hat took its time with him, but at length he was placed in Gryffindor. No great surprise; both his parents had been in that House.

During that welcoming feast, I had somehow been seated next to Severus Snape. Although at first the grouping of the teaching staff at the high table hadn't made much sense, Charity had explained to me that Dumbledore switched out the seating arrangements at the teachers' table from year to year so that we might become better acquainted with one another.

I couldn't say I was overly pleased with my current situation. My relations with Professor Snape had been strained ever since that chance encounter in the main corridor almost a year earlier. I had done what I could to be civil, but he seemed disinclined to return the favor. So be it. After all, we had very little opportunity to interact. I was safely ensconced at the top of my tower, and he was buried somewhere in the dungeons.

But now I was acutely aware of him sitting next to me, of the grim lines of his jaw as he stared down at the Potter boy. My mother had tasked me over the years for what she considered to be an overactive imagination, but I didn't believe I was imagining the baleful look Professor Snape shot at Harry. There was something different about that black glare, something quite apart from Snape's usually obvious disdain for the students in his charge.

Then I wondered if I had been imagining things, as Severus pointedly turned away from me and began speaking to Professor Quirrell, who sat on his other side. I thought it a bit odd that Snape somehow managed to be civil (well, his own peculiar approximation of civil) to the man who had the job he wanted. It was quite the open secret around Hogwarts that Severus wanted the Dark Arts position, a position Dumbledore steadfastly refused to give him. I could see the reasoning - I didn't think I'd want to be in the position of explaining to anxious parents that the man who was teaching their children to defend themselves from the Dark Lord was a man who had once been a follower of that same dark wizard.

If I were Quirrell, I didn't think I'd feel entirely comfortable sitting next to a man who would be all too happy if I were out of the way. Especially considering the fact that the covetous Severus Snape also happened to be a master of the subtle art of potions and poisons. The Dark Arts professor, however, seemed relatively unconcerned, although, given the man's overall nervous disposition and general twitchiness, "unconcern" was a relative term.

As I was seated at the very end of the table, I had no one else with whom I could occupy myself in conversation. So I sat there and tried to fix a pleasant expression on my face, when in fact what I really wanted to do was get up and leave - possibly getting in a good tromping on Severus Snape's foot during the process. But that, of course, wouldn't do. However rude he might be, he was my senior in both years and experience, and a favorite of Dumbledore's, for some unfathomable reason.

Instead I tried to occupy myself with studying the fresh crop of first years. Naturally my attention was drawn to the table where Harry Potter sat. The previous year I had been more occupied with the Ravenclaw first years, since my curiosity had of course been directed at the students of my own House. But now I found my gaze inexorably pulled toward the cluster of new Gryffindors, to the lanky red-haired boy who sat next to Harry Potter, the girl with the wild tangle of bushy brown hair, the round-faced youth who somehow looked terrified to be there. I knew none of their names of course, save Harry's. I wondered if they would become friends, or whether the spurious acquaintance they appeared to have formed during their trip on the Express would last throughout their school days. I had Housemates who were still dear friends even almost fifteen years after we had first met. Of course, that initial magical trip on the Express had been denied me, because of the death of my brother.

As always, it hurt to think of Augustus, hurt to remember his promise and his energy and all the things he might have been but could never be, thanks to the Dark Lord. And in that moment it seemed as if a shadow passed over my vision, and I wondered how many of those bright and merry faces I saw before me would have their own futures taken away.

That was ridiculous. He Who Must Not Be Named had been vanquished. The wizarding world had been free of his evil for many years. So why now did I suddenly envision a world filled with terrible possibilities?

Perhaps I made some small sound. I couldn't be certain. But next to me Severus Snape paused, then asked, "Are you quite well, Professor?"

The question, uttered in tones of cool unconcern, brought me back to myself. I lifted the goblet of elf-made wine from its place next to my plate. "Quite well, Severus. Thank you for inquiring."

A line appeared between his brows as his perpetual scowl deepened. No doubt he didn't much care for me calling him by his first name, but since we were on equal footing as fellow faculty members, there was little he could do about it.

He made a small, disapproving sound, then turned back to Quirrell. I sighed and took a larger swallow of wine than perhaps was wise. Then again, it did seem as if it was going to be a very long night.

Whatever hopes I might have had that the Boy Who Lived would be an exemplary student were fairly dashed over the next few weeks. His fame came from the circumstances of his survival and not, as far as I could tell, from any extraordinary personal attributes, although I did hear he had turned out to be quite the keen hand at Quidditch. Just what the wizarding world needed - another boy obsessed with Quidditch.

Goodness knows I had yet to find one obsessed with Astronomy.

They dragged themselves up to my tower every Wednesday at midnight, trying to stifle their yawns and not doing a very good job of it. All save the preternaturally alert and on-task Hermione Granger; she took furious notes, asked enough questions for at least three people, and generally gave every indication of being a raging over-achiever.

Not that I minded. Astronomy was a subject most students rather despised, since it veered a little too close to Muggle science for their taste. Also, it consisted mostly of hard facts and very little real magic. At times I wondered at the subject's inclusion in the curriculum, although, as I've stated before, the movements of the stars had their effects on magical flora and fauna. Still, it wasn't nearly as exciting and glamorous as Charms or Transfigurations, or even Potions. After all, none of my students were going to walk out of class with a shooting star in their pocket, although I hoped we would be able to get a good viewing of the Orionid meteor shower toward the end of the month. But that event, while it might get my pulse racing, probably wouldn't do much to excite my students. They would much rather be turning mice into snuffboxes or making incongruous objects float in mid-air. Even Hermione's dedication to Astronomy came more, I feared, from a desire to do well in all her subjects than any particular love of the science itself.

I tried to tell myself that it didn't matter. Teaching bored students a subject none of them gave a fig for was still better than writing (read: fabricating) Astrology columns for the Daily Prophet.

Wasn't it?

On a biting day in November, I dutifully trooped out with the rest of the faculty and students to the Quidditch pitch, even though in truth I cared very little for the game, and thought in general it caused so much disruption amongst the student body that it was a detriment more than anything else. However, I knew that if I were to voice such seditious sentiments I most certainly would claim Severus Snape's title of most hated professor, so I kept my thoughts to myself. Instead, I bundled up against the biting wind, put on my new smart hat, and hoped for the best.

One would never have guessed, from looking at the cheering crowds, that we'd had the annual Halloween feast interrupted by a troll a little more than a week earlier. I hadn't been at Hogwarts all that long, but even I knew that having a troll marauding through the halls of the school was highly unusual. Everyone else seemed to have recovered from that incident, although I wondered privately whether things were going to continue to be quite that interesting now that Harry Potter would be with us for the next seven years.

He waited now with the rest of his teammates at the edge of the pitch, waiting for the signal so they could take their positions. What the Gryffindors had been thinking, putting a boy that young in the position of Seeker, I was sure I didn't know. As I had been rather late arriving to the field, I was forced to take a seat at the edge of one box, only one row behind Professor Snape, who looked even more thundercloud-ish than usual. I didn't even bother with a greeting, but only pushed past him to perch on the rather uncomfortable wooden bench. Just as well; I wasn't sure he even noticed I was there. Instead, his attention appeared to be focused on the Gryffindor team rather more intensely than the situation seemed to warrant, and on Harry Potter in particular. No doubt he was sending whatever bad thoughts he could muster in the boy's direction so that Gryffindor would lose, and Slytherin march on toward yet another House cup.

With some effort I forced my gaze away from the Potions master and toward the crowd in general, and watched as a rangy youth with an impressive set of dreadlocks commenced with the game's commentary, overseen by a gimlet-eyed Professor McGonagall. I barely recognized him as the scrawny boy who sometimes drifted in the Weasley twins' orbit; some time between his last round of Astronomy lessons and now, he had gained several inches in height, as well as those eye-catching dreads.

But it wasn't his hair that had Minerva's attention, but rather his continuous observations as to the Slytherin team's underhanded behavior, once the game had set to. While we all knew that the Slytherins tended to be somewhat…creative…in their interpretations of the rules, still it was not the game commentator's role to remark upon it. On the other hand, Lee Jordan's comments enlivened what was — to me, at least — a fairly routine endeavor. At least no one had been disemboweled or Splinched yet.

I will admit that my attention wandered somewhat; I regarded the snow on the faraway peaks, along with the clouds that wreathed their crests, and pondered whether we would have snow the next day, or possibly the day after. I admired the banner the Gryffindor team had set up, with its letters in ever-changing colors, and wondered who had had the talent to cast that tricky spell. Most likely the ever-competent Ms. Granger, as I couldn't think who else amongst the Gryffindor cohorts might have that facility. A girl to watch, that one, even though I knew she probably would spend no more time in the Astronomy classroom than she had to. The place to advance oneself was in Transfigurations or Charms, or possibly even Potions, not in a discipline that veered just a little too close to Muggle science for most young wizards' and witches' tastes.

Then the crowd roared, and I jerked my attention back to the Quidditch pitch. There was a tremendous scrum, so that I couldn't quite make out exactly what was going on, but I did notice that the Potter boy was having a difficult time controlling his broom, which was more than a little odd. I will admit that I do not know all the intricacies of the game (nor do I wish to), but even I knew that a broom should not have been bucking like a horse in an old Hollywood Western. And then I saw the indomitable Miss Granger racing toward our section of the grandstand, only to fly at Severus Snape.

What followed was, of course, a muddle, but I did notice that she pushed Professor Quirrell out of the way like a determined little missile. He went flying, but even as he fell into the row of bystanders behind him, I saw him clutch the turban he wore to his head, as if concerned that it might be knocked awry. If I had been in his place, I would have been more concerned as to the condition of my knees, but he stumbled into the laps of several shocked Ravenclaw seventh years, who immediately reached out to catch him. As for Professor Snape, blue fire suddenly burned around his feet and calves, and he turned his attention to putting out the unexpected flames.

Without even realizing it, I jumped to my feet and began to move toward Snape, but before I could take more than a few steps, the flames were gone as suddenly as they had come, and the crowd erupted in a huge cheer. I looked up, and saw Harry Potter circling the field, holding the Snitch aloft triumphantly in one hand.

"Does that even count?" I heard one of the Ravenclaw girls say.

"Well, he did catch it," responded her friend with a shrug.

"But in his mouth?"

Another shrug, and then the girls began to giggle, and left their seats so they could join the triumphant Gryffindors on the field. They had no stake in this contest, of course, as it had been between Slytherin and Gryffindor, but even back in my day the Slytherins had tended to keep to themselves, and so the other Houses naturally tended to side with one another as long as no direct competition was involved.

I felt like shrugging myself, but instead I stepped over the last bench that separated us and asked Professor Snape, "Are you quite all right, Professor?"

"Of course I am all right!" he snapped, twitching his robes into place. "Stupid first year pranks. I will speak to Minerva about it."

"A first year cast that charm?" I inquired…quite disingenuously, I will admit, for of course I had already guessed that the accomplished Ms. Granger was the most likely culprit.

He made no direct response, but only sent me another one of those baleful black glares, fully as dark as the robes he wore. Without another word, he turned and stalked off, no doubt in search of Professor McGonagall.

I managed to repress a sigh and instead turned to Professor Quirrell, who stood a few paces away, nervously running his hands over the turban he wore. "And you, Professor? I fear your knees might have suffered a beating!"

"Oh — oh, no," he replied, and somehow managed to lower his hands and secret them within the folds of his robes. "Mere youthful exuberance, I have no doubt!"

"Some might call it that." I glanced past his shoulder to the rapidly disappearing form of Professor Snape, who bore down on Minerva McGonagall like some kind of avenging angel. "Still, that was a nasty knock you took. Are you sure you don't want Madam Pomfrey to take a look?"

"No!" he burst out, and then hesitated, looking somewhat abashed. Then again, he had rather rabbity features, and always appeared rather discomfited. "That is, you are t - too kind, Professor Sinistra. I am quite well."

There being nothing else I could do, I merely lifted my shoulders and smiled. "Very well, Professor Quirrell. Quite the match, don't you think?"

"Yes, quite," he agreed, obviously relieved that I had turned the subject to something less controversial. "Then again, I want to see what happens when Ravenclaw is matched against Gryffindor. It should be quite the game!"

I recalled then that he was a Ravenclaw as well, although he had been five years ahead of me. We had shared no classes — shared nothing at all, really, save an allegiance to our House.

But I also guessed he wanted nothing from me save a facile agreement, and so I nodded and said, "Yes, I am looking forward to that one."

He offered me his own quick, uneasy smile, and then took himself off at a pace that would have been unseemly if anyone else save me had been watching. The students had already swarmed out of the stands, and Snape, Quirrell, and I had been the only professors in this particular section of the audience. I waited there, quite alone, and watched as he disappeared into the crowd — but not before his hand crept up one last time to touch the turban, as if he were still not sure it had survived the encounter completely intact.

I frowned as I watched him, wondering why on earth he should be so obsessed with a foolish piece of purple fabric.

Christmas that year was an odd one. I was under no obligation to stay at Hogwarts, of course; most of the teachers went their separate ways during the winter hols, although there were some who always stayed on at the school, whether out of a sense of duty or because they simply had nowhere else to go. Professor Snape was one of the latter, I noticed. And although I had told my mother I would be home to spend Christmas Eve through Boxing Day with her, as the time approached I felt more and more loath to leave, although I could not have said exactly why I wished to stay at Hogwarts when I had family waiting for me.

At length I sent her an owl explaining that I was needed at the school, and that I would not be able to make it home after all. A surge of guilt struck me almost as soon as the owl winged its way forth from the tower through the snow-laden clouds, but it was too late to recall the bird. I tried to tell myself that she would not be alone — she had her sister to stay with, as well as my cousin Lilianne, who had just given birth to her first child. The baby would occupy my mother, I guessed, although it would also most likely cause her to send me at least two or three letters repining upon my childless state and expanding upon her worries that she would never be a grandmother.

But that I would deal with when the time came. After all, I was still very young, and witches tended to have their children later in life, although a trend had taken hold during the sway of the Dark Lord for wizarding couples to bear their children at an early age, as a sort of guarantee that their line would continue, even if He Who Should Not Be Named somehow managed to snuff the parents out.

All that was a foolish worry, though, as the Dark Lord had been vanquished, and we lived in a time of relative quiet and prosperity. At any rate, I felt no pangs over my current childless state; indeed, after a day spent handling bored first years, I sometimes wondered whether I would ever have the will to procreate. Not that I would ever admit such traitorous thoughts to my mother — I would never hear the end of it.

Charity Burbage at least had stayed on, and we had a few more cozy chats by the fireplace up in my chambers. By then, of course, it was far too cold to sit out of doors, and the steps up to the Astronomy Tower had to be treated with my best de-icing spell, but she did not seem to mind the trek.

"There's something about it, being so warm inside while the wind howls past the windows," she told me one night, as we sipped butterbeer and ruminated on all that had passed during the previous term.

I agreed that there was, and then said, "But eventually you will have to open the door and brave the outside."

"True, true," she laughed. "At least during the holidays you don't have a group of miserable first years out there waiting for you."

Perhaps that was why I had stayed on — to experience the novelty of a school for wizards almost utterly devoid of students. Of course there were always a few who stayed behind, the ones who also had no place to go, or who chose to stay for reasons of their own. Harry Potter was one of them; through the staff grapevine I had gleaned enough information so that I knew his aunt and uncle had been quite neglectful of him, and that he would rather stay here at school than go home to share their dubious company. His friend remained as well, although I knew that the one thing the Weasleys were rich in was children. I guessed that Ron had stayed so that his friend would not be alone.

Would that my reasons were so simple. If asked, I supposed I would have come up with a facile excuse for my presence, but the truth was that no one did inquire. Perhaps we were all viewed as sad cases, the ones who lingered in Hogwarts' halls at a time when most were enjoying the company of family and other loved ones.

Severus Snape was, of course, one of those who stayed. Indeed, I would have been shocked to learn that he had family and friends who might take him in, so prickly and off-putting was his general mien. The previous year, my first at the school, I had dutifully trotted back to London, but now I had a chance to observe the good Professor at close hand, quite unencumbered by the presence of any students.

If I had hoped for any change in his aspect or personality once the students were gone, I would have been sorely disappointed. As it was, I had already surmised that Severus Snape would not be materially different, students or no, and so it was. He glowered at me in the halls, and ignored me at dinner. But since the formal seating arrangements were quite dispensed with during the holidays, this mattered little to me; Charity and I sat next to one another and chattered away about lesson plans and shopping trips to Hogsmeade, while he sat there, black-browed as always, and exchanged a few curt words with Professor Dumbledore.

While the rest of the student body might be enjoying a holiday, and a good portion of the faculty as well, my favorite poltergeist had not given himself a break simply because it was Christmas. Indeed, he had apparently decided to make even more of a nuisance of himself, flitting about the Great Hall and disturbing the ornaments on the trees Hagrid had so carefully set out. A sharp word from Dumbledore sent him packing, however, and I hoped we had seen the last of him for the evening.

It being Christmas Eve, we had all made ourselves a bit more merry than we should, due to a few bottles of elf-made wine that the Headmaster had produced to go with our goose. I was feeling more than a little elevated as I bade Charity a good evening and then walked with what I hoped were sedate steps toward the corridor that led toward the Astronomy Tower.

Professor Snape had disappeared some time earlier; I must confess that I had not seen him leave the table. So I was more than a little surprised when I almost collided with him when I reached the stairway that led up to my tower.

"Professor," I said, as that seemed the simplest thing to do. I wouldn't presume to inquire as to what he was doing there. The entrance to his dungeons lay in almost precisely the opposite direction.

"Professor," he acknowledged, with just the slightest jerk of his chin.

And perhaps that is where matters might have remained, if it had not been for Peeves materializing a scant foot above our heads. He cackled wildly and said, "Not so fast!"

We both looked up. His diminutive man-shaped form hovered in the air, brandishing a small bit of greenery. I squinted up at him, and then experienced a sudden sinking sensation in my midsection as I realized what he held was a piece of mistletoe. Oh, dear…

I saw Professor Snape's brow crease, and said quickly, "Peeves, this is not the time — "

"Oh, it is the time!" he cut in, his sharp features bright with anticipation. "'Tis the season, after all! Kiss her, Professor!"

"Don't be ridiculous," Snape replied, in tones that would have quelled even the Weasleys.

Peeves, however, appeared to be a different matter. "You can't fight the mistletoe, Professor. Kiss her! Kiss he — awk!"

Somehow Severus Snape's fist had shot out and caught the unfortunate poltergeist around the throat. How he managed such a thing, when I would have said Peeves wasn't even corporeal, I cannot say, but my eyes convinced me that the unruly spirit was now well and truly confined.

"Any second thoughts?" Professor Snape asked, his voice a silky drawl.

"I — ah — " Peeves coughed, and dropped the mistletoe. "I was just going!"

And he disappeared, dissolving from within Snape's fist like a potions experiment gone wrong. We were left alone in the corridor, as I suddenly found something very interesting on the toes of my boots.

"Good night, Professor Sinistra," Professor Snape said, as formally as if we'd just met for the first time.

I looked up then, at his cold black eyes, the compressed line of his mouth. My gaze lingered there, just for a second, as some perverse part of my brain wondered what it would have felt like to have those thin, firm lips touching mine. Insanity, of course. I decided to blame it on the elf-made wine.

"Good night, Professor," I replied evenly, and mounted the stairs with as much dignity as I could muster. Somehow I managed to keep myself from glancing back over my shoulder to see if he watched my progress. Somehow I made it all the way up without tripping, no thanks to the heady liquor Professor Dumbledore had poured so lavishly during the feast.

At that moment, I wondered if staying at Hogwarts for the holidays had been such a good idea after all…