A/N: A chapter at last. I have had to travel a lot frequently, and have work commitments that have meant a lot of extra evening hours lately. I enjoyed writing this chapter. As you'll be able to discern, Severus taking a leave of absence from Hogwarts has opened up a loophole that Harry, Ron and Hermione are ready to exploit. Thank you all for your patience with this story. -SS


Chapter 13

They had put Hermione in one of the small private rooms in the hospital wing. It held a slightly larger and more comfortable cot than those out in the main ward, a small chest of drawers, a desk that was decidedly not Hermione-sized, and two chairs for visitors. A closed door led to a tiny private loo. There was a window in the room, too, enchanted to show the expansive grounds, as the room was often used for isolation and students – or professors – tended to go stir crazy when cooped up in the infirmary for long stays.

Poppy and the specialist from St. Mungo's had devised a regiment of potions for Hermione to repair the damage from the accident. She also had an exercise routine, and on Wednesday evening, Harry sat on top of the desk holding the parchment that spelled out the detailed exercise instructions while Ron helped her through the movements.

"Take your time," said Ron as Hermione slid her heel up until her knee was bent, then slid it back down until her leg was fully extended. It seemed such a small thing, but it must have hurt, for she kept biting her lower lip.

"Does it say how fast to do it?" she snapped.

Ron, accustomed already to these occasional frustrated outbursts, shrugged and kept his mouth shut.

"Actually, it does say 'slowly,'" said Harry.

"Well, we're never going to get around to discussing the important things if I have to get through all these exercises first," she complained. She looked pointedly at the copy of The Daily Prophet on the desk next to Harry.

"You're almost done, Hermione," said Ron.

"Finished," she corrected, tiredly. "Turkeys get done, Ron."

Ron and Harry both rolled their eyes but neither said a word.

"That's twenty," said Ron a few moments later. "What's next, Harry?"

"Feet," he said at the same time that Hermione said "Foot Rub."

Ron settled on the end of the cot and took one of Hermione's feet in his lap and began the already-familiar routine of flexing and extending her foot while rubbing her instep. Hermione sighed and seemed to settle into her pillows.

"Alright, we're talking about this thing now," she said. "All Madam Pomfrey would tell me is that Severus had a relapse and is taking time off to fully rest and recover this time. So spill, Harry."

"I just found out about it last night," said Harry. He looked at the newspaper with its prominent and surprisingly accurate headline. Snape Takes Medical Leave of Absence. Unfortunately, the headline was about the only accurate information in the article. He opened his mouth to continue, but snapped it shut. "Hold on a minute."

A few minutes later, he had put up the kind of charms and wards they'd used when they were moving from place to place on the Horcrux hunt.

"I don't think we needed the Muggle detection charms, mate," said Ron with a grin.

"Old habits," said Harry, settling back on the desk and leaning against the wall.

"Well, go on then," said Hermione. She adjusted herself as Ron moved to her other foot. She looked better than she had when they brought her to Hogwarts, but still pale, drawn and irritated. Harry brought up his feet to sit cross-legged on the desktop. He shifted and pushed a stack of Hermione's textbooks out of the way.

"He's convinced that Estelle – or whoever else is involved in this thing—was going to try to blackmail him and force him to resign as Headmaster. He didn't want to give them the chance to make any demands in return for not revealing the information, and he said he wanted Minerva in place as Headmistress before anyone could demand someone else. He's at Shell Cottage with Kreacher. I was there with him last night."

"He doesn't want them influencing what goes on at Hogwarts, whether he's here or not," mused Hermione.

"Right," said Harry. "He said that now, whatever they demand, it will have to be about him instead of about Hogwarts."

"He values Hogwarts more than he values himself," said Hermione softly. She was looking at the ceiling, studying it as she surely had studied it for many hours in the days since she'd been brought back to Hogwarts.

"Or he wants it to be a safe place for Harry," suggested Ron. "Even when he's not here."

Both Harry and Hermione stared at him.

"I think you're right, Ron," said Hermione.

"Yeah, don't sound so surprised," Ron said, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, but what he keeps forgetting is that home for me is where he is. It's not necessarily Hogwarts." Harry had picked up the newspaper and was reading it for the umpteenth time, shaking his head. Among the many ridiculous things the paper proposed was that Severus was slowly turning into a serpent as a result of the horrendous wounds he had received from Nagini. That his skin was turning dry and scaly, that his pupils were changing, his tongue beginning to fork. That he no longer ate meals in the Great Hall, most certainly because he preferred his food on four legs and still moving.

"Do you think she'll go public with the accusation about the Muggle girl now?" asked Ron. He had become quite good at giving foot rubs and was now flexing Hermione's toes as the instructions dictated.

"Yes. Probably." Harry shook his head. "Honestly, I don't know. I can't figure her out."

"And that's our problem, isn't it?" asked Hermione, smoothly making Harry's problem all of their problem. "We haven't puzzled this whole thing out. I've been too busy with my parents to be of much help…."

"We couldn't," Harry reminded her. "Severus made me promise. He let me work with Reuben and the Aurors only if I agreed not to meddle in it and to let them do their work."

"Are you still working with them?" asked Hermione. "Even with Severus gone?"

Harry shook his head tersely. "No. He changed that all up last night too. No direct work with the Aurors when he's not here. We argued about that for at least fifteen minutes. But there was no changing his mind, and he'd already told Reuben, of course. I'm just another student, now."

"Just another student getting letters from a dead woman," said Ron. He began carefully flexing Hermione's foot at the ankle, shaking his head.

"Harry, I really hate to ask this…." Hermione seemed to be fighting with her conscience.

"What?" he said, meeting her eyes, the question in his. They stared at each other a long moment.

"When…when Severus told you that you couldn't work with the Aurors on this case anymore, did he forbid you from working on it on your own? Or with us?"

"Hermione!" Ron nearly dropped her foot. "Harry, stay here with her. I'm going to go get Pomfrey! She's lost her mind."

"Very funny, Ron," said Hermione dryly.

Harry was smiling.

"No. He didn't say a word about it," he said. "I still can't leave Hogwarts, except to visit him. But he didn't tell me not to try to figure this out on my own – or with my friends."

"I know it's exploiting a loophole," said Hermione. "We all know that he wouldn't want any of us to put ourselves in danger, or to interfere in an MLE case, but honestly, I'm bored to tears here and Madam Pomfrey hasn't even let me out of bed yet. It will be weeks before she lets me back in classes…"

Harry and Ron caught each other's eye. Something passed between them, a shared knowledge or realization. Hermione wasn't ready to go to classes – not by far. She got through the regiment of regenerative potions only with the help of pain potions and muscle relaxants. Her legs were still weak and stiff. She'd not yet been able to manage lifting her leg even an inch or two off the bed without the help of Ron or Madam Pomfrey. Magic was a wonderful thing, and it had sped up her healing exponentially from the Muggle methods, but she wasn't ready to rejoin life at Hogwarts yet. She wouldn't be able to walk down the corridor for at least another week or two, and there were still the 142 staircases to consider.

"I think it's a brilliant idea," said Harry, nodding at Ron. "We can bring you whatever you need from the library, and you'll figure this out in no time," he said.

"I don't think it will be that easy," she said. "We're dealing with criminals, Harry."

"We've dealt with criminals before," said Ron. "We were criminals. We broke into Gringott's, didn't we?"

All three of them looked at each other. Their smiles were contagious.

"We did, didn't we?" said Harry. He lowered his voice, still looking at his friends. "And we got that cup. If we hadn't…."

"We did, though," said Ron decisively. "We can figure this thing out too, and maybe even do it without having to make deals with goblins and set dragons free."

"You're going to visit Severus, aren't you?" asked Hermione.

"On Tuesdays," sighed Harry. "For dinner." They could tell that this schedule wasn't exactly enough for Harry.

"Then we'll have to meet on Monday nights," said Hermione. "So we can get Harry prepped to try to get any questions we have answered by Severus."

"He'll see right through me," said Harry, shaking his head. He didn't think that plan had a chance in hell of working.

"Maybe not," said Hermione. "Not if you work in a couple good questions here and there." She tried to push herself up with her elbows so she was sitting more upright in bed. Ron leaned over and helped settle her, then arranged pillows around her. "You're always asking questions, Harry. And arguing with him. You'll just have to work in a few questions that we all come up with together."

Harry grinned. Hermione was right. "Alright. I can try. But if I go too overboard he'll be all over contacting Minerva and Reuben. We won't get anywhere if they start watching us too closely."

"They'll think we're in here studying," said Hermione. "They know how I am. They'll think I have you two wrapped around my finger, bringing me materials so we can get ready for our N.E.W.T.s… which, by the way, we will be doing too."

More eye rolls. Ron settled back against the wall at the foot of Hermione's cot. "There's a piece of this whole thing I just can't sort out," he said. His head was back and he was staring at a spot on the ceiling. "Is that a spider?"

"It's just a spot," sighed Hermione. "It never moves. I stare at it all the time"

Ron looked relieved. He gave the spot once more critical look and continued. "Let's assume that Hilda Smith is Estelle Smith and that Estelle Smith was born Anastasia Snape. No matter what – she can't be working out there all on her own. She's pretending to warn Harry about stuff—heck, maybe she really is warning him. It just doesn't make sense without her being part of another group, does it?"

Harry frowned. Ron was right. He'd been through this scenario in his head already, and had gone over it a few times with Peace was well.

"I think the Aurors assume she's part of a group of Death Eaters," he said.

"Not Death Eaters, exactly," corrected Hermione. "Well, maybe a couple that somehow made it through the war and to this point without being caught or identified." She pulled on a lock of her curly hair and ran her fingers distractedly over it. "I'd say she's part of a group of family members of Death Eaters, perhaps Voldemort sympathizers. People affected by the Death Eater roundup after Voldemort tried to kill Harry when he was a baby. There's plenty of evidence for that. Estelle Smith was married to a Death Eater who died in Azkaban before we even started at Hogwarts. "

"Is she really trying to help Harry?" asked Ron. "And if she is, why?"

"I don't necessarily think this group is after Harry," said Hermione. "If they were, he would have been a fairly obvious target in Hogsmeade. They didn't have to create a complicated trap like rigging that tunnel to collapse."

"I'd say we're dealing with people who have suffered in one way or another because of the war," said Harry. Like Hermione on her bed, he shifted on the desk to settle himself, as if the topic was making his physical position even more uncomfortable. "They feel that they've paid a price – and that Severus hasn't. They can't believe he was really on Dumbledore's side all along because they remember things he did when he was a Death Eater – when he was still loyal to Voldemort, and even after he began spying. They see him here at Hogwarts as Headmaster and think he's come out of it all smelling like a rose."

Ron choked back a laugh. Hermione smiled.

"And don't forget that your letter writer is probably Severus' sister," said Hermione. "And we have no idea if she knows she was born a Snape."

"Remember that her sister died while she was at Hogwarts," Harry reminded them. "And that the boy she had been with the night she died turned up dead in that tunnel."

"I need a Muggle notebook," said Hermione. "And a regular ballpoint pen." She looked at Harry. "Owl George and have him send some. It's too difficult to use parchment and quill in bed." She looked at Ron. "We need someone on the outside to get us back issues of the Prophet and such. George seems like the best choice. It won't seem suspicious that you're corresponding with him, considering…."

Ron nodded and squeezed her foot. "Yeah. It will be good for him. We can trust him and it will give him something to do. Take his mind off of…things."

"Ginny is going to have to know too," said Harry. "But no one else."

"What about Neville and Luna?" asked Ron. "Seems off to leave them out."

"It's not been quite the same this year, has it?" said Harry, smiling fondly. "Not since last year when it was just us three."

"I don't think we should keep it from them, necessarily," said Hermione. "But while I'm cooped up in here, we can't have all of us holed up in here for hours at a time. That would be rather obvious."

Harry stood up. "Speaking of being cooped up… I'll leave you two alone for a while since Poppy will be back here to force us out any time now."

By the time he unwarded the room and closed the door behind him, Ron was already settling down on the bed beside Hermione.

Dear Severus:

It's Friday and classes are done for the day. Or is it finished? Hermione's going to make a proper English speaker out of me one of these days. Let's just say 'over' and be done with it. Finished with it. Whatever.

It's been an odd week without you here, Severus. Everyone is still stopping me in the corridors, asking me what's going on with you. Lots of people read the Prophet, but not too many believe you're actually turning into a serpent. Maybe a few of the first and second years who don't know you too well, and are small enough to be eaten whole by a man-sized python. But most people accept it. Most of the seventh and eighth year girls have confided in me now that they were worried about you because you were so pale and you acted so differently than you did last year, and in years before that. I think they all believe you were nicer than usual because you weren't feeling too well and didn't have the energy anymore to be a right bastard.

(Can you still take points for language? I'm hoping not.)

Minerva made an announcement on Wednesday morning at breakfast. I know you know this already, because you probably fire call with her about a dozen times a day because she's still trying to figure out your filing system (she told me so when we had tea together yesterday). Anyway, she told everyone that Nagini's venom had affected you more than they had realized and the constant activity had taken its toll. She said you'd likely be taking the rest of the term to recuperate, but that they'd let everyone know more about your return schedule as time went on.

No one seemed to think any of it the least bit odd, though there are the doom and gloomers who seem to think you're dying (or turning into a snake). I even heard about a group of third-year Ravenclaws who went to Flitwick (sorry…Professor Flitwick) to ask him if you'd still have your magic if you were a snake, and if so, how would you hold your wand? And where would you keep it? Leave it up to the Ravenclaws to waste time thinking about that kind of thing. No one knows I can't speak parseltongue anymore, so they were all joking with me that if you did turn into a snake, at least you'd have someone else to talk to.

Oh, I guess I should tell you that I proposed to Ginny and we're going to get married in August when she turns eighteen, or even at Christmas if her mum and dad allow it. Do you mind if we move into Shell Cottage? I figure it has room enough for four kids, but we'll have to find a bigger place or add on after that because the bedrooms are pretty small. Ron and Hermione might move in with us at first, though they aren't going to get married for a few more years. Only thing is that Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are pretty old-fashioned about all that so we're going to pretend it's only Ron living with us and Hermione is still living with her parents.

Yes, having you gone has sure opened up some interesting possibilities around here.

Alright, you know I'm having you on. I'm afraid that kids are pretty far in the future since Ginny wants to try to get picked up by one of the professional Quidditch teams, and if she gets on, she'll want to play for a few years before thinking about a family.

Well, you must have really made an impression on Reuben because he's been happy to talk with me about Quidditch and about how to best prepare at school to be an Auror (Defense, Charms, Potions, physical fitness) but not about the case. He won't let me inside the ready room anymore, of course, but I hung out in the corridor enough that he took pity on me and invited me to go running with him every morning. We started this morning. Ron went with us, too, like we used to in sixth year, and it about killed us but we couldn't let Reuben know that. Ginny is going to go with us tomorrow. She's actually pretty serious about this Quidditch thing.

Anyway, you'd know by now if I'd heard anything from Hilda/Estelle/Anastasia. I haven't, of course, but tomorrow is Saturday. I've already got instructions on when to come to breakfast and what to do if an owl comes. In fact, I have a shadow guard all day tomorrow. If Hilda was smart she'd send an owl today or Sunday and not be so damn predictable. Do you think I'll get to read the letter first this time? I doubt it. By the time I get to read it – if I even do – it will probably be full of holes where they'd censored it.

I mentioned that I had tea with Minerva yesterday. She seemed to want to really know how I was doing, if there was anything in particular that was bothering me (other than the obvious, I guess), how I was getting along with my friends, and in my classes. She's not quite as clever about getting information out of me as you are, but I know she's worried about me and about how I'm going to be with you out of the castle. I told her I was going to write to you, and she of course already knew that, and she asked me to bring the letters to her so she could send t hem through the secure Floo connection and not by owl. And she suggested I have a letter by tonight, as you were apparently anxious to hear from me. Well, I had already planned to write this before she reminded me, so there. Well, Minerva asked me last night if I would be willing to babysit Teddy tonight. She said she was going out to dinner with Andromeda and thought there was no reason that I couldn't look after my godson in the castle for a few hours. She's letting me use your quarters since I'm familiar with them and no where stuff is kept (like first aid supplies, which I assured her I wouldn't be needing) and she even suggested I ask Ginny to come and help out. I think she thinks Ginny must be more maternal than she is. She never had little brothers or sisters to take care of and really, she's always liked sports more than babies.

But of course I said I needed Ginny's help. I'd be foolish not to, wouldn't I?

Hermione is doing better. Poppy has her up and sitting in a reclined chair next to the bed a couple hours a day n now, but she won't let her walk or even put any weight on her legs at all. She's told Hermione's parents that she plans to keep her out of classes for at least a month. That about killed Hermione. That was yesterday, and by last night, Hermione had talked Minerva into letting her use the Pensieve. She then demanded that Ron give her his memory of Charms class. She can't bend enough yet to watch the memory from inside, but she swirled it up and tried to watch it but it ended up in a big row between she and Ron because he obviously wasn't paying attention and the focus kept leaving Flitwick…PROFESSOR Flickwick…and drifting over to me or Dean or Neville. Fortunately for Ron, he watched me a lot during the class and saw me performing the disillusionment charm on the turtles we were practicing on and making it totally disappear. I cancelled the spell so Professor Flitwick wouldn't notice but now Hermione is all over me about controlling my magic before people get any ideas that I'm too powerful. Anyway, we both have marching orders now to PAY ATTENTION during class as she plans to attend all of our classes using our memories. I pointed out that maybe we needed our memories ourselves if we planned to pass our N.E.W.T.s but she said that vague memories of a class where we actually paid attention are better than full memories of classes where we spent most of our time daydreaming or staring at Susan Bones' breasts.

Are you bored to tears yet at Shell Cottage? Have you had Kreacher clean the place from top to bottom? What are you doing to pass the time? I hope you're at least getting some rest. You have been overdoing it and you did need some time off, so you'd better be spending some time on the porch in that hammock and breathing in some of that fresh sea air.

And I hope you're having sea dreams, too, Dad.

I miss you.

Regards,

Harry

/

Severus placed the letter from Harry on top of a letter from Minerva. They were both resting on top of The Daily Prophet.

It was Saturday afternoon.

Death Eater Snape Killed Muggle Child! screamed the headline. The entire front page, in fact, was covered in bold headlines, each with a short paragraph following with directions to "See Page 16" or "More on Page 4" following.

Mercy Killing or Barbaric Act?

Minister of Magic Reacts to Accusations

Hogwarts Board of Governors Stands Behind Snape

That article, though promising on the outside, had claimed that the entire Board of Governors was made up of pureblood Voldemort sympathizers.

The accuser, the one who had brought the story to The Daily Prophet, was not anonymous. The case was strengthened by that fact and the inclusion of not just a name, but a photograph – a recent photograph – of Prudence Carson and a photograph of the letter she had left with Rita Skeeter, along with her signature.

Prudence claimed that the information she revealed about Severus and the Muggle child was well known among the Dark Lord's followers. She cited that she had lived in Malfoy Manor as Draco Malfoy's nanny for a number of years, had been briefly married to one of those followers, and that any number of persons, including Lucius Malfoy himself, could corroborate her story.

But what had left Severus shaking – with rage, with disbelief—was her explanation of her motive.

"I did it for Lily," she had written.

He'd read it once, twice, three times.

"Not many people knew that Lily and I were friends. I was in Slytherin and she was in Gryffindor, of course, but we had a lot of classes together. I dated her boyfriend's best friend's brother – Regulus Black—and got to know her even more then…"

Rubbish. Regulus never dated Prudence Carson. And even if she had, Sirius and Regulus acted like the other didn't exist. There would never have been an occasion for Prudence and Lily to bond because of Sirius and Regulus.

" It's Lily's boy, see? Harry Potter. He's gone through so much and now he's nearly declared openly that he thinks of Severus Snape as his father. His father! Severus Snape doesn't have a paternal bone in his body. He's after something with that boy, and I wouldn't discount any possibility. Any. He was in love with Lily Potter. Everyone knew that. And she spurned him for Harry Potter's father. He'd do anything to get back at her, at James Potter, at Harry himself. If you ask me, he's got plans for that boy and the Ministry should be taking a good, close look at what he's up to."

Rubbish. All of it rubbish. He knew Harry wouldn't believe any of it, but it was plausible, wasn't it, to the Wizarding public? To the parents of the students at Hogwarts? To the students themselves?

Reuben had already been there to see him, at eight o'clock in the morning, just after Minerva had handed him the paper through the Floo along with her letter, and Harry's.

"We think the Prophet got the letter yesterday afternoon," he told Severus. "They had time to contact the Board of Governors, and they've started a search for you."

"They won't find me here," Severus had said. "Is Minerva's position secure?"

"So far," Reuben had answered. "They haven't yet publicly questioned the timing of your sabbatical and this news."

Severus refilled his tea then picked up Minerva's letter. She had written it the night before, so she didn't mention the news in the Prophet.

Dear Severus:

When you return, I will be sitting down with you in this office and helping you devise a logical filing system that does not rely on alpha-numeric coding derived from the Latin names of plants and animals used in medicinal potions.

But honestly, Severus, I do not know how you have managed to keep up with the demands of this school and with keeping track of Harry and this lunatic woman creating such havoc. You are younger than I, that is true, but I am definitely going to recommend that the Board add another full time administrative position to keep up with the filing alone.

I am including Harry's letter. He handed it to me last night when Andromeda and I left young Teddy with him while we went to London for a well-deserved girls' night out. I am quite sure that his letter would contain much more regarding his experience watching a six-month old child for four hours had he not turned over the letter to me before the experience. It was my idea, actually, to give Harry and Miss Weasley a taste of child rearing lest they think of babies as bundles of love and not bundles of …well, other things.

Teddy Lupin is six months old now, and has learned both to crawl and to pull himself up to a standing position. He is also not accustomed to being left with anyone, and while he has met Harry on several occasions, he is only six months old and does not remember him in any significant way. I had Poppy on call, of course, and monitoring charms on your quarters just in case things got out of hand. Oh yes, Severus, Harry and Ginny watched young Teddy in your quarters. I believe the stain from the mashed beets will come out of the sofa, so no worries.

They were both all smiles and laughs when we left. Harry was entertaining Teddy with a biscuit and a plush lion. When we returned, Teddy was asleep on Harry's shoulder, naked save a nappy. He had beets in his hair. Harry did, I mean. And everywhere else. I expect he found them in his ear when he showered. They had, at least, taken care to clean up Teddy before we got there. He'd obviously had a bath. I didn't check your bath, Severus, but will make sure the house elves sop it up this weekend. Surprisingly, Teddy's nappy was clean, but according to Harry, it was the fourth he had worn that evening. According to Ginny, Teddy had spent the first hour cooing and playing, crawling and being followed around by Harry, also on his knees. The next three hours were filled with pooping and crying. The young lad had fallen asleep only twenty minutes before our return. According to Poppy, Miss Weasley did try to Floo call her mother, but I had the Floo locked down to the infirmary, so she reached Poppy and had to describe Teddy's diaper rash, in detail, to Poppy instead of to her mother, including the application method and the importance of rubbing it in under his scrotum.

It was rather cruel, I know, to engineer a baby-sitting experience that was designed to fail, but I'm game for doing whatever I can to convince our young lovebirds to wait a few years before they procreate.

The letter had continued, of course, and Minerva had assured Severus that Harry was doing well in his studies, was attending all of his classes, and had, at least in Transfiguration, been gaining control of his growing magical abilities.

Severus stood up and walked to the windows that overlooked the ocean below. The ocean was rough today, and waves crashed against the rocks below and flooded the small circle of beach. He had expected to be bored here, to pace before the windows, or down at the Oceanside. He hadn't imagined that he would sleep eight hours every night instead of his customary six. That he would spend hours reading in the hammock, hours more reading the documents Albus had left him, notes about Hogwarts, about Voldemort, about Harry, and the Horcruxes. That he could find so much pleasure walking along the gravel lane, or along the seashore, picking up rocks and shells.

It would get old, he knew. He would grow tired of the solitude.

But for now, he could tolerate it. He hadn't known how very tired he was, how deeply the exhaustion of the past few years had seeped into his bones.

And Harry would be here again on Tuesday. By then…by then there would be fall-out from the tripe in the Prophet. Perhaps, by then, the Aurors would have found this woman, and they could figure out who was behind her.

"Potter."

Harry was sitting on the floor in front of the sofa in the eighth year common area, working on his Charms essay. It was Saturday evening, the end of a miserable day where the Prophet had printed a load of shite and a letter had come for him from Hilda – a letter he had yet to see. Minerva had been no help when he had barged into her office. "All in good time, Harry. Patience," she had said.

"Hey, Malfoy."

Draco Malfoy walked over toward him and settled on a chair facing him.

"What's really going on with Snape?" asked Malfoy. He managed to sound almost polite, but his voice was more tired than haughty.

Harry looked around the common area. They were the only ones there. Ron was down with Hermione and it wasn't curfew yet, so most everyone else was still out.

"Pretty much what the Prophet said," Harry tried.

Draco gazed at him. It was clear he didn't believe Harry.

"Try again, Potter. Who do you think I'm going to tell, anyway?"

Harry shrugged. "He doesn't want me talking about it," he said, keeping his voice down. "He didn't say to make an exception for you."

"You might want to anyway," said Malfoy. He spread out a copy of The Prophet on his lap. "It's pretty clear—to me, anyway—that Severus knew this might be coming out."

Harry carefully placed his quill on the table beside his essay and textbook. He took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt, thinking. He looked around the common area again and made a decision, glad that Ron and Hermione weren't around to talk him out of it.

"Alright. Yes. He didn't want whoever is doing this to be able to blackmail him and demand anything having to do with Hogwarts," he said. He stared at Malfoy, waiting for his response.

Malfoy's mouth was set in a thin line as he stared at the newspaper.

"This is Prudence Carson in the photo," Draco said. "But she didn't write this letter. It's not her style." He frowned and shook his head. "Someone is trying to bring Snape down, Potter. My guess is that it's personal. It always is with that group."

"That group?" asked Harry. "You mean…?"

Draco's voice was tight as he answered. "Death Eaters. Former Death Eaters. Reformed Death Eaters. It's all the same. Listen, Potter. I'm only going to say this once." He raised his head and Harry saw immediately that this was not easy for Malfoy. "If he did kill that…Muggle—that girl. If he did…he did her a favor."

The two young men, enemies for so many years, locked eyes. For once, they understood each other perfectly.