The steps seemed to stretch into infinity, spiraling up past the gargoyled entrance, and her heart was stammering so hard that she thought for certain that it could break her ribs, but outwardly, she kept calm. She'd been to the Headmaster's office once before, bringing a gift for Cedric's parents, but that had been a lifetime ago. Now, she wiped her palms on her skirt, squared her shoulders, and touched the rings on their chain under her shirt, closing her eyes for one deep breath before she pushed the door open. "You wanted to see me, sir?"

There was a long, deliberate pause before Snape looked up from the scattered papers on the surface of his desk, and she knew she was supposed to feel all the more awkward, subdued by her own irrelevance in the face of this very important and busy man. Her eye, however, had been caught by one of the portraits on the circular wall, and she had to bite back a smile instead at Dumbledore's little wink and what she was quite sure was a slight thumbs up gesture from the painted hand. He knew, somehow, and he was with them.

At last, however, Snape did deign to notice her presence, and he took a long sip from the cup of tea at his elbow before leaning back to fix her with those hard, bottomless eyes. "That was quite a little display in the Great Hall this afternoon, Miss Bones."

She dipped her head slightly, choosing to misunderstand it as a compliment. "Thank you, sir. I'm quite proud of my Patronus."

"Nonetheless, you deliberately undermined my authority at this school, along with your...companion." He took another deep draught from the cup, setting it down empty and waving his wand lackadaisically to fill it again. "There have been rumors, Miss Bones. Rumors about yourself and Mr. Macmillan which your actions would have appeared to confirm today."

The air seemed to have been sucked from the office, and it was only at the last instant that she caught her traitorous hand before it went to her stomach, adjusting her skirt instead. "Mr. Macmillan was injured. I was not merely going to stand there and let him bleed."

"Of course not." There was no compassion in the tone that surrounded the words. "However, your family is on perilous ground as it is. Your aunt...your parents. Need I remind you that choosing to attach yourself to someone who has already received the strongest rebuke of the current administration might not be wise?"

"I...could see that," Susan replied carefully. "If one chose to believe rumors."

"Rumors of, for example," Snape continued, his eyes never releasing hers, "a runaway marriage."

How she held herself from reacting, she didn't know. Perhaps it was that place where panic gives way to perfect clarity, but even her heartbeat had calmed, and she heard a voice very like her aunt's give a short, derisive laugh. "Forgive me, sir, but someone has quite the imagination."

"You deny, then, any feelings for Mr. Macmillan?"

"Of course I have feelings for him." She raised her chin, flicking her head to toss the long, heavy braid back over one shoulder as she regarded him with the look she usually would have reserved for a young boy caught rifling her underwear. "I am, sir, a Hufflepuff, and not unashamed to say that our House holds a sense of family within our members which is unique to this school. We share a best friend in Miss Abbot, and I did everything I could within my limited power to help him after the...incident earlier this year. However, your rumor mill appears to have a very short memory regarding Miss MacDougal among other things."

Snape snorted softly in derision, then lifted another of the papers from his desk, swiveling in the chair with a lax wave of one skeletal hand towards her. "Very well then, Miss Bones, you would clearly have no vested interest in what the outcome of today's adventures will be for him."

"Oh, but I do, sir."

He raised his head again, cocking one eyebrow. "Indeed?"

Now the smile was hers. "As I said, I'm a Hufflepuff. What you do to one, you do to all. Or you'd best do to all, because as you may have noticed earlier, the rest of us will not stand by."

She could see the stormcloud gathering in his eyes, and she closed hers. Whatever was coming, it didn't matter, but she couldn't fight back. For all of them: her family and her House-family, but moreover, for the family he didn't even know she had. As if gathering the folds of a cloak against a blizzard's bite, she took her own magic into herself, deeper, brighter, wrapping her child in every protection she was capable, and when it came, there was a calm at the center of it all that she had never understood before.

Whatever happened, it would be all right. She didn't believe many promises, but she did believe the one given to her by another young mother in a lightning scar on the forehead of a boy who'd lived.