A/N: Happy Holidays everyone - yes, OMG, I've uploaded a chapter. The world will end in 3... 2... 1... I did warn you all it might be Looooong breaks between chapters but even I did not expect this. I will just say that it has been a bad-ass year as far as artistic inspiration. Work, while wonderful, is sucking away all my brain power these days. But I'm forcing myself to persevere because I've got several projects on the burner, not just writing, and damn it, I need to get them completed for my own sanity.
I want to thank all of the wonderful reviews I've been getting, new people finding these stories and telling me how much they love them - I love you, my readers.
A big thanks, as always, to Les for reviewing this and letting me know it passed muster. After 6 months of staring at it, I was beginning to wonder!
And, as always: The great JKR owns all. I'm just playing.
Narcissa Malfoy née Black descended from her carriage at the front entrance of Hogwarts, accepting the hand of Sedby Stevens to help her down. Dressed all in black, with her white-gold tresses bound up in a coronet of braids under a black hat with veil, as befitted her position as the Malfoy Dowager, she joined the small group of School Governors as they awaited the last of their members to join them. Even though her position on the board was hereditary due to her husband's demise, she wielded great power on her own; today's emergency session being a case in point.
The last of the Thestral-drawn carriages deposited their distinguished cargo at the steps to the school and with a nod of her head and a gathering motion of her hands, she sent her eleven colleagues before her to the board room on the second floor.
A jovial, yet obviously harried, Dumbledore met them at the doors, a question in his eyes. "Gentlemen, Ladies – this is an unexpected surprise! I thought the quarterly Governors meeting wasn't until next week?"
"Emergency session, Dumbledore," Basil Tippet grumbled. "Have been getting some odd reports – have to check them out, you know." He patted the Headmaster on the shoulder as he passed by.
"Odd reports, you say? I have no idea what you're talking about. I'll grant you, the children have been a bit high-spirited lately –" he spluttered as the Governors filed past him, entering the school and stopping dead inside the front door. Narcissa, having been warned earlier that morning, was hard put to keep her composure as the School Board took in the wonder that was the Weasley Swamp. Flitwick had managed to cast a large bubble shield that kept the miasma contained to just that area, but the sounds and sights were still on full display. Hagrid waved cheerily at the group of stunned adults as he punted a group of children across the bayou, rapping a snapping alligator smartly on the nose with his pole when it came too close to the boat.
Meliflua Vindictus rapped her cane on the floor insistently. "Headmaster, what is the meaning of this?" she demanded.
"Just some Hallowe'en fun by some students, Madam. Absolutely harmless, I assure you," he hastened to add as he hurried past the group to show them the driest path to the staircase that had just swung down for their convenience.
Using her cane to gently push some snakes off the path, Meliflua grumbled darkly to Narcissa as they ascended the staircase, "I see what you mean."
Dumbledore tried to reassure the Governors as he led them to the board room that the swamp was only temporary; Professor Flitwick was working on a solution at that very minute. He unsealed the doors and after letting the Governors file past him, called some House-elves to bring refreshments for their honoured guests.
Unpinning her hat and veil, setting them aside on the table and fastidiously removing her black lace gloves, Narcissa addressed the hovering Headmaster. "We shall be calling several faculty members and students, Headmaster – please do not allow anyone to leave the grounds until we are finished with our investigation or with the called witnesses themselves – each will only have to speak with us once. I'm sure you understand. If you could please let the Snapes know that we will be ready for them in ten minutes? Thank you."
Clearly dismissed, Dumbledore left the chambers as a trio of House-elves decked out in Hogwarts' livery, popped in with a steaming tea service and plates of sandwiches and biscuits. As he closed the doors and turned he was shocked to find the Snapes, the other three heads of house, Poppy Pomfrey and a score of students ranged behind them, all apparently having received a summons to appear before the board.
"Severus, Minerva," he acknowledged. "Do you know what is going on?"
"I'm afraid we are not allowed to say, Headmaster," Snape stated, deceptively mild. "I was getting ready to take the boys home for the weekend when we received the board summons. I was assuming you knew why we were all called." His eyebrow quirked up in a questioning glance.
"I have no idea. Most likely the pranks? I tried to assure them it was all in good fun," his eyes twinkled as they caught the Weasley twins standing at the rear of the group of students.
"Yes, Headmaster, I'm sure that is all it is. In any case, we shall await the Board's pleasure, here." He stood ramrod straight, sighting down his nose at the shorter man.
"Yes, yes of course. Well, I guess I shall attempt to shrink that fine swamp below," he declared, turning and heading down the stairs.
Severus watched his employer depart, waiting until the man was out of sight. "Merlin save me from hexing that man," he grumbled to McGonagall.
"You an' me both, laddie," she agreed. They both turned as the door to the chamber opened and Basil Tippet appeared.
"Professor Snape? We are ready for you and your sons now."
Placing a hand on their backs he guided his boys into the Board room arranging themselves to stand patiently at the end of the long polished table. Delicate white china cups with fragrant tea were placed in neat rows running down either side of the table, each corresponding to one of the twelve Governors. Harry and Draco stood proudly beside him, eyes forward, although he could detect Harry's nervousness twanging along the bond. He let his magic reach out and stroke his son's core and felt the child relax marginally as the boy took a deep breath and settled into his stance.
Meliflua Vindictus, sitting at the head of the table, was a formidable woman – well into her eleventh decade and still going strong. She'd headed the Board of Governors for nearly fifty years, ruling fairly – as much as was possible – when the situations arose. She rapped her gavel to bring order to the attendees and soon the only sound heard was the clinking of china.
"Professor Snape, you may begin. I believe you have a case of Dark Magic artefacts being used on students?"
"Yes, Madam, I do. As my missive indicated, the Headmaster let the Ministry place Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge here as an Observer, ostensibly to evaluate the school's compliance with the Ministry's educational decrees." A rustle of stiff fabrics followed this statement as embarrassed Governors shifted in their seats. The educational decrees were a sore point between them and the current administration of the Ministry – they felt they were an imposition from a government that had no business dictating to a private institution how they taught their students.
"In the last eight weeks she has instituted several changes including creating an 'Inquisitorial Squad' of students that was created solely to institute her interpretation of those original decrees as well as several more that she has already forced through the governing channels at the Ministry, bypassing this August panel." A flick of his wand and rolls of parchment appeared in front of each Governor outlining all the changes she'd added to the decrees. Grumbling could be heard as the rolls were opened and perused. "In addition, this squad has not only the same privileges as Prefects in taking points, but can also assign detentions – going above and beyond prefecture. All of these detentions were served with Madam Umbridge. When questioned initially, each of these students would only say they had been assigned lines."
"Excuse me, Professor Snape, but I see no problem with this?" intimated a stern, dark-haired witch seated mid-way along the right-hand side of the table.
Severus smirked, not kindly, at the Board member. "Ah, yes, you would think so, Madam Rabnott. But you see none of the students chosen for this squad qualify for prefecture – why they were passed over originally – and as for giving them more responsibility than Prefects, this undermines the entire system. However, where the main problem lies right now is in how the students were required to perform these lines and who was targeted."
"And I'm sure you will be telling us?" hinted Russel Urquhart, a half-blood solicitor who was comfortable working in both worlds, having earned his degrees in both the Muggle and Wizarding legal systems. A recent find of Dumbledore's, he'd been on the Board for nearly ten years.
"With the unrest occurring outside these hallowed walls, it was the determination of staff and parents that those students who showed an aptitude for defence be allowed to further their studies on an independent basis with adequate supervision by qualified staff. Professor Weasley, our DADA professor this year, and myself have been leading this study group and the only students who were targeted by Madam Umbridge for her particular brand of detention came from these participants." Scowls graced several members' faces at this announcement.
"Why would she do this?" A tiny woman asked. When she had sat down, she'd raised her chair so that she could see properly over the table. Her tea had been served in a demitasse cup, much easier for her tiny hands to handle. Her small size belied her magical strength, however. Like Flitwick, she was a famous dueller who had been undefeated upon her retirement from the circuit. Severus nodded in her direction.
"Why indeed, Madam Quigg. We feel that she is under Orders from the Ministry at least to undermine the children's' defence education, refusing to acknowledge the return of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Anyone who intimates that he has returned is branded a liar. Literally." His ominous tone filled the room and stilled the governors. A pin could have been heard dropping.
"Literally?" she finally asked sternly.
"Yes. Harry?" Severus motioned his son forward to stand before him. "My son, Harry, along with several of his classmates – fifteen in all – had been assigned detentions with Madam Umbridge. A checking of the detention logs revealed that Harry had spent the most time doing lines for her, for the only reason that he refused to back down in his belief and knowledge that the Dark Lord had regained a body and was operating at full capacity again, as well as his belief that he and his friends needed to be ready to handle anything that tried to attack them, having already been targeted many times by Death Eaters and sympathizers. The Dark Artefact comes into play with how these lines were performed. You may unwrap your hand, Harry."
Even before the wraps came off and the words revealed to the Governors, several had already guessed the true identity of the object. Seeing confirmation on the back of their purported saviour's hand just sealed it for them.
Perpetua Quiqq floated down off her chair and came over to take a closer look at the back of the hand, her pince-nez frames held close to her aged eyes as she peered at the scars, turning the hand over and running a gentle, arthritic finger over the raised edges.
"How long, boy, were you forced to do this?" she asked quietly.
"Two weeks, Ma'am," he answered.
"Why wait so long to let people know?" she enquired, walking back to her chair and floating back into it. Harry looked up at his father, blushing.
Severus didn't believe in coddling too much. He felt that facing your fears helped you grow, so he only said, "Answer her, son."
Harry cleared his throat, obviously embarrassed. "I felt it was a personal fight between us. She worked on my insecurities the entire time I was in her office – made me feel as if I deserved the punishment." He gained confidence as he spoke, straightening up as he faced the Board. "Growing up, I didn't place any trust in adults – none had proven to me that they could be worthy of that trust, until Dad rescued me and we discovered our relationship." A strong hand on his shoulder bolstered him further and he relished its support. "So, you can understand that it is still hard for me to come to someone with something like this when it is an adult that is torturing you. I do have a lot of insecurities that are rooted in that time of my life and situations like this bring them to the fore so that it is hard for me to acknowledge I need to get help. If it hadn't been for my brother and our friend, Hermione Granger, I'd probably still be suffering in silence." He gave a weak smile to the diminutive Governor. "Or more likely in the Hospital wing by now as it had already gotten infected."
Perpetua snorted delicately at that and pointed a black gloved finger at him. "You are damn lucky, Mr Potter-Snape, damn lucky." He bobbed his head in acquiescence.
Basil Tippet cleared his throat at that point, gaining everyone's attention. "So we have sixteen students who have been tortured with a Dark Artefact, a Ministry official who is over-reaching her authority, and where was our Headmaster while this was happening?"
Narcissa's eyes gleamed predatorily. "Where indeed, Basil? Now we get to the main question as to the reason for this Emergency Session. We know that Madam Umbridge was requested for by Dumbledore himself. We have Pensieve evidence, if needed, of his participation in making sure Mr Potter-Snape was entered into the Tourney last term – against the stated rules, I might add. He has allowed several mediocre and outright dangerous teachers to fill the DADA position – one of which had the Dark Lord riding him as a soul-leech. He has turned a blind eye to all of Madam Umbridge's decrees and the inquisitorial squad, as well as allowing her to conduct detentions with a Dark Artefact, much less oversee detentions at all. She is not an academician; she should have no authority in this school or dictate how it should be operated. That authority rests with us, which we then delegate to the Headmaster. I feel his ability to make adequate decisions for this institution has been severely compromised by his numerous responsibilities outside of the school and his traumatic incarceration in the seven-chamber trunk for most of last year. Things need to change, gentlemen and ladies. I believe we have several more witnesses to hear this afternoon, shall we take a break so Professor Snape and his children can take their leave?" she proposed.
The group murmured their agreement and the Snapes took their cue to leave, Narcissa walking them to the chamber door. Letting the boys precede Severus through the doorway, she dropped her hand on Severus' arm, stalling him a moment.
"I should be home by six; I'll let you know what the decisions are then," she whispered. He nodded slightly in agreement and with a small smile in her direction, followed his sons through the door. As he walked down the stairway he heard her call for Granger and the Weasleys.
Harry heaved a sigh as he sank into the deep tub full of suds and hot water. He and his brother had spent what had been left of the afternoon racing on their brooms around the Prince Property, burning off some much needed energy. Prior to arriving at the Manor, the family had travelled back to Godric's Hollow and the small churchyard where Harry's mother and step-father were buried. The warm-hug spell on their graves was still active and Harry took the time to commune with their spirits while Severus and Draco kept silent watch. Before they left, Severus had conjured a wreath between their graves and Harry left, at peace.
Now Harry was attempting to let the hot water and bubbles wash away what had been, even for him, a bad two months. Unconsciously, he rubbed the back of his hand; his fingers ghosting and tracing over the now permanent scars. When he finally realized what he was doing, he snorted to himself and grabbed a flannel, attacking his skin and revelling in the feel of washing everything away. When the water began cooling, he pulled the stopper from the drain with his toes and, pulling the curtain closed, ran the water again – this time as a shower, unplaiting his queue and washing his hair with vigour. He let the water pound on his back, massaging muscles he didn't even know were stiff. When he was finally finished, he slung the thirsty terry-cloth around his hips and decided he needed a shave after gazing at his reflection in the steamed up mirror.
Twenty minutes later found him dressed for dinner, hair neatly plaited again and dry and in a decidedly better mood. He paced the hallways from the family wing, down the main stairs to the foyer and trekked past the library and music room to the main dining room. To his surprise he discovered that not only had Narcissa and Cassie joined them, but Whitney was there as well.
He should have expected it. His father's raised eyebrow at his defeated sigh indicated that as well. He plastered a smile on his face and went to greet their guests. He truly was glad that Narcissa and Cassie were there; he especially wanted to hear about what happened after they left the castle. Whitney – he liked his therapist, really he did. He just didn't feel as if he needed his help. His father apparently did.
He picked up his little sister and gave her a quick hug before releasing her again, kissed Narcissa's cheek and turned to shake Whitney's hand, submitting himself to the balding man's laser eyes. Whitney reached over to take Harry's left hand, inspecting the marks for a moment before letting Harry take it back.
"We're talking after dinner, Harry," he pronounced. "Just you and me – and perhaps with your father afterwards."
"Yes, sir," Harry agreed, with a deep sigh. He felt his father come up behind him and lay his hands on his shoulders.
"You need the help Whitney offers, son. It will help."
"Yes, sir. But let's eat first? I'm starving!" The growl from his stomach punctuated his statement, making everyone laugh. Cassie looked up at him with wide, grey eyes.
"Hawwy, there's a lion in your tummy!"
"And he's hungry enough to eat a little girl!" he said with a grin, bending down to chase her to her seat, the little girl squealing in mock terror. Draco caught her, spinning her in the air before depositing her in her raised seat and sitting down next to her. Everyone took their cues and found their seats, Narcissa between Cassie and Severus and Harry on Severus' other side in the heir's seat with Whitney next to him.
Runeskin and his staff brought in the meal and the family began their repast. Over the pudding course, Severus finally asked the question that everyone had been waiting on, "So, my dear, how did your meeting go today?"
Dabbing the corners of her mouth with her serviette, Narcissa let the corners of her mouth flow up in anticipation. "Umbridge, of course will be leaving – she will get her official walking papers tomorrow. Dumbledore is being given a choice: he may continue as Headmaster if he restricts his other extra-curricular activities, or he may choose to devote himself fulltime to politics and leave the running of the school in McGonagall's efficient hands without any censure on his part, just a well-earned retirement with acknowledgement of a job well-done. If he goes gracefully. I honestly, at this point, don't care which he chooses. But, if he decides to keep the school, it will be with several stricter rules in place."
"I agree," Severus concurred. "I'm beginning to regret my decision to let you boys go back this year, but I do think that without us being there the students would be at even more danger."
Harry worried at his lip a bit before he looked over at his father. "Are you sure, Dad? Because it is starting to look to me as if I'm bringing more danger to them just by being there!"
"Harry!" Draco exclaimed from his seat next to Cassie.
"No, hear me out! All last year – blimey, every year – anytime there has been danger at the school, it was more than likely aimed at me! He wants me dead and will use any means to get to me; Dumbledore wants to use me as a sacrificial lamb – testing me constantly to see if I measure up to his ideal of a saviour and it puts everyone I love and care about at risk!" By this point he'd pushed his chair back from the table and had begun pacing back and forth behind his father's seat as he thought out loud.
Sensing a blow-up was due, Narcissa called one of the nurse-maid elves to take Cassie up to the nursery.
Severus was calm as he carefully folded his serviette and placed it next to his place-setting. "Do you want to leave the school? Go to a different institution or be home-schooled?"
Harry sighed deeply, the gale strong enough to lift his fringe up. "Does it matter at this point? You are all damned just by being related to me, my friends are branded as targets just because I'm friendly with them – I can't see that going it alone would change any of that at this point, do you? He'd still come after everyone just to draw me out of hiding – and it would definitely work."
"Therefore..." Severus prompted.
Harry slumped back into his seat, and leaned on the edge of the table, resting his head in his hands. "Therefore, I might as well stay and get as much training as I can," he said resignedly.
Whitney reached over and squeezed Harry's shoulder. "Well done, Harry. I'm proud of you for not letting your anger take control. You let your head guide your heart. Progress, my boy."
Harry let a smirk grace his lips as he gazed at his counsellor. "I learnt from the best! How about some pudding before we head into the Library?"
A/N: There are a number of great writers out there in FF land; I'm currently enjoying quite a number of good stories out there. To the detriment of my own writing... We are not going to discuss the 99 chapter alerts that once invaded my inbox... To those that despair about good Severitus, or just good FF HP fiction at all, I will direct you once again to my C2, Zarathustra's reading nook. There is also the Potions and Snitches web site (Just google it) that is always full of great Severitus writing. No new pranks to acknowledge in this chapter, the last of them should appear in Chapter 11. Again, Happy Holidays to everyone!