The clatter of wands falling to the stone floor echoed in the Great Hall. Snape coolly surveyed the eighty odd dueling pairs, giving points to those who had done an exceptional job disarming their opponent. Flitwick trailed behind offering practical tips to those who now scrambled to find their wand.
"Again!" Moody commanded as soon as everyone had resumed their positions on the floor.
Severus watched as Rose bowed stiffly to Cedric Diggory, who returned her bow with a flourish. Raising their wands in near perfect sync, each fired the Disarming Spell, though he suspected his ward cast it a millisecond earlier. Both managed to duck out of the way, resulting in an indignant yelp from Cho Chang as she was hit in the back by the Hufflepuff's spell. Diggory gave her a sheepish grin before bowing to Rose once more.
The Dueling Club practiced Disarming Charms for another five rounds before changing partners to practice the Shield Charm. Lloyd Harper had to be sent to Madame Pomfrey after his Disarming Charm rebounded off Seamus Finnegan's Shield Charm with such force that the impact hurled him unconscious to the floor. He certainly wasn't the only one sent to the Hospital Wing during practice. During each session, at least two or three students were sent to Poppy with minor injuries. Over the last two weeks, she'd complained frequently about the increased workload.
Two weeks—Severus thought them the longest two weeks of his life. While Rita Skeeter had finally run out of lies to print, Howlers addressed to him still poured into the castle. Thankfully, Dumbledore now had them automatically sent to a warded room where they could spout their hate to empty air. Even Peeves didn't venture into the Howler room, saying the noise blistered his ears.
As if the newspaper article wasn't bad enough, he'd been forced to listen to Sirius Black's increasingly irrational rants. The Marauder hiding as wolfhound didn't understand the meaning of the word patience. He wanted to hex Skeeter, interrogate Slughorn, thwart Albus' plans for Rose and begin hunting Horcruxes all in one go. Their nightly meetings after curfew had turned into shouting matches, and he feared the mutt soon might take rash action if left to his own devices.
Severus, of course, wished to do all of those things just as swiftly as Black. However, he'd enough experience as a spy to understand the importance of timing. For the moment, Skeeter lay beyond his reach. Slughorn took pains not to see Snape when he visited the castle; it would take a few more weeks of studying the wizard's schedule to arrange a chance meeting. Short of murdering the Headmaster, Rose would likely be entered into the TriWizard tournament, and he wasn't ready to commit murder, at least not yet.
The Horcruxes, however, were another story. Courtesy of Albus, he knew of two probabilities: Slytherin's locket and Hufflepuff's cup. Both were thought to be stolen by a young Tom Riddle during his short tenure as a buyer for Borgin and Burkes. Unfortunately, the hiding places of the two items were unknown. Dumbledore assured him that he had begun to research the matter, but the Headmaster had not made any progress to that end, at least none that he had shared with his Potions Master. If Snape didn't receive any concrete information by Christmas, he'd unleash Black to hunt for the retched items.
"They're making marked improvement, wouldn't you say, Severus?"
He sniffed disdainfully as Neville Longbottom failed to perform the most basic Shield Charm. "Some of them, at any rate." Remedial Potions with Mr. Longbottom had so far been a disaster, but Snape couldn't decide if the young wizard truly had no aptitude or could not overcome three years of being browbeaten by his git of a Potions professor.
The diminutive Charms professor grimaced as the Gryffindor erupted into a mass of boils. "Mr. Finch-Fletchly, kindly refrain from casting a Boil Hex whilst your opponent practices his Shield Charm." He then quickly sent the counter-spell flying towards Neville, who grinned weakly in appreciation.
Walking down the line of combatants, Snape handed out points to Eddie Carmichael, Theodore Nott, Daphne Greengrass, Ernie Macmillan and Cormac McLaggen. He would have awarded points to Rose for her outstanding Shield Charm, but he let Flitwick do that instead. His fellow teachers had suggested he not award Rose points to avoid any appearance of favoritism, and he had reluctantly agreed. He did, however, praise her for her accomplishment. Beaming, she sent a Disarming Charm hurtling towards Millicent Bullstrode so quickly that the poor girl didn't have time to frown. As Severus helped his Slytherin to her feet, Flitwick gently suggested to Rose that she send a beam of light from her wand the next time instead.
An hour later, the students had advanced to practicing the Trip Jinx and Jelly-Legs Jinx when Moody called for the practice session to end. The three teachers returned the tables to the Great Hall so the house-elves could prepare for dinner. Afterwards, they joined Minerva and Pomona in the teacher's lounge to discuss the day's practice. Talk soon turned to the upcoming dueling competition.
"I've heard a rumor that the Weasley twins are currently favoring Mr. Bole by two to one. Not that I would condone wagering on the outcome," the tartan clad witch added primly.
Severus snorted with derision. "On the basis of his father's reputation, no doubt. Mr. Bole is an adequate duelist, Minerva, but he lacks a certain inventiveness necessary to truly excel at the sport."
"Those two," Moody growled, shaking his head. "They should have joined the club themselves. Together, they'd make a formidable team."
"Oh dear, it is single combat, is it not? I thought we'd all agreed."
Flitwick comfortingly patted the Herbology teacher's arm. "Of course, Pomona, but Alastor is right. Fred and George work better as a team. Perhaps that is why they chose not to join."
"Perhaps." Severus knew the twins were too busy experimenting with various Potions to join the Dueling Club. The week before, they'd asked for a small laboratory in which to brew, and he'd agreed on the condition that they keep him apprised of their work.
Before the conversation could flow to another topic, Moody asked, "So, have you made a decision about the platform yet, Snape? Will the students be given a chance to practice on it before the competition?"
Professor McGonagall sat straighter in her spindly wooden chair. "Of course they will be given the opportunity to practice on the platform. It wouldn't be fair to the Muggle borns otherwise."
"Minerva, I will never understand your insistence on fairness. The world is decidedly not fair."
When Sprout and Flitwick both opened their mouths to protest, the Potions Master added silkily. "However, all members of the club will be given the opportunity to practice on the dueling platform before the competition. Since the surface is slick, it is a matter of safety, not fairness. Filius, perhaps you should review Sticking Charms at some point with your students. I'm sure the more astute of them will think to apply them to their feet."
"An excellent suggestion! In fact, I could tailor some of the N.E.W.T. level Charms curriculum to complement Defense Against the Dark Arts. What do you think, Alastor?"
Severus excused himself before politeness forced him to listen to Flitwick's enthusiastic conversation with Alastor Moody. The ex-Auror had proved to be a decent DADA instructor, but Snape thought he spent too much time on the Unforgivables. One could as easily be killed by a Severing Charm or Entrails-Expelling Curse as the Killing Curse. Moreover, he thought Moody's motto of 'constant vigilance' should be augmented by a few more practical spells. He hoped the Dueling Club would help with that.
"I don't see why you're so fussed, Snape. I'll host a Halloween party. Old Sluggie's bound to attend. It's just a matter of spiking his drink and getting him into the cellar."
Throwing his eyes heavenward, Severus counted the stars above the Forbidden Forest. "Why is throwing a party the answer to everything with you, Black? I tell you Horace is too cunning to walk into such an obvious trap. Besides, I thought you would wish to be here when Dumbledore announces the Hogwarts Champion."
"I do, but as myself, not Draco's pet. He doesn't need me anymore, Snape. He's managed to beguile all the girls save Parkinson who hit Rose with those Stunners last year. You needn't fear a repeat."
"Please tell me used sweets to charm them. Rose glares at him enough without discovering he's snogged his way through Slytherin House."
Barking with laughter, the mutt ran his fingers through his unruly hair. "Merlin, but you're naïve. Most of those girls have done a lot more than snog, but rest assured, Draco's virtue remains intact. Blaise Zabini's on the other hand . . . ."
"Spare me the details. What else have you learned?"
"Parkinson has little power inside the House. She's practically shunned, although I've seen Vincent Crabbe with her a few nights after curfew. Lloyd Harper had some problems at home over the summer. His parents seem to think his sorting into Slytherin reflects an innate lack of morals."
Snorting at the thought, Snape's breath fogged the clear night sky. "Harper's well on his way to becoming a prefect. I trust him more than most of my Slytherins."
"Perhaps you should tell his parents that before his younger sister intentionally misplaces the silver over Christmas holidays. She tried the same trick with her mother's brooch and he ended up sleeping on his stomach for a week."
Snape's eyes narrowed in anger. After his abusive childhood, he firmly opposed corporal punishment. "I will. Anything else?"
Sirius crossed his arms. "Adrian Pucey received a letter from Marcus Flint. And, before you ask, no, I was not able to read it before he burned it."
"I'll look into it," he promised with an audible sigh. Albus should have had the human troll locked in Azkaban and thrown away the key. Nothing good could come of his freedom.
"If it's any consolation, he's still listed as a starter on the Rio team."
Black laughed again before returning to the topic of Horace Slughorn. "Look, I know Dumbledore tasked you with learning Horace's secrets, but I truly think my plan will work."
"Fine," he spat, tired of arguing. "If I haven't questioned him before then and if he accepts the invitation, you may try on Halloween. Satisfied?" Privately, Snape vowed to do everything within his power to interrogate his former Potions teacher long before Halloween.
"Snape, I haven't had a witch in three weeks. Do you think I'm satisfied?"
His lips twitched as he fought a smirk. Narcissa had Flooed to his quarters the night before. "I've no idea, Black. I don't share your difficulty."
For once, he managed to stun the Marauder, although he had to put up with the mutt's incredulous barking for the entire trek back to the castle.
"Very good, Mr. Longbottom. Now, if you would carefully add the shredded fluxweed . . . ."
Ensconced in his Potions lab, Severus watched Neville Longbottom attempt to brew the Ageing Solution he had assigned for remedial work. Although the Potion was at a critical juncture, it appeared that the teen finally understood the brewing process. He gave the dark blue sludge a final counter-clockwise turn before picking up the volatile fluxweed.
"That's right. It needs sixty clockwise turns spaced precisely sixty seconds apart. Begin . . . now."
Setting a clock next to Longbottom's cauldron, Snape closely observed the teen's stirring for the first ten minutes before returning to his own work. Essays didn't grade themselves no matter how much he wished they would. He'd just finished marking through a particularly dimwitted one when the door to the Potions lab burst open with a loud bang.
"Severus Snape! This is the last straw! I've admitted Colin Creevey to the Hospital Wing with a concussion and broken kneecap. He claims you gave the Gryffindors permission to use the dueling platform after dinner. How could you be so careless? I'm surprised no one was killed! How could you let them practice on that slick surface without adequate supervision?"
Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. Trust the Creevey boy to do something reckless on onyx and marble.
"The Gryffindors were given permission to use the dueling platform with the stipulation that a member of staff be present during their practice. Do you mean to tell me they disobeyed my instructions?"
She gave him a tight-lipped nod.
"Fifty points from Gryffindor," he droned as he dipped his quill into red ink.
Unfortunately, his response did not appease the kindhearted but fiercely protective witch. She marched up to his desk to snatch the inkwell away.
"That isn't enough, Severus! Dueling is a dangerous sport. There's a reason it was banned in the first place. I am a Medi-Witch, not a Healer. I have enough on my plate with tending to sick children and countering the odd jinx gone wrong without being forced to piece errant students back together like they were Humpty Dumpty. You must do something, Severus. I am simply stretched too thin to allow this to continue."
"Stretched too thin?" He sneered, hardly believing his ears. "You've dealt with far worse after Quidditch matches, and you know it."
Madame Pomfrey blinked, appeared to lose herself in thought and then blinked again. Rubbing her temple with her free hand, she shrilly replied, "You can argue until your blue in the face, but the fact remains that I am simply stretched too thin to allow this to continue. I insist you disband the Dueling Club immediately."
"Disband?" His lip curled in disdain as he stood across from the abnormally unreasonable witch. He might have exploded in a fit of temper if he hadn't noticed the red ink trailing down her starched white apron like a river of blood. Alarmed, he circled the desk to pluck the inkwell from her left hand.
In a much gentler voice he asked, "Poppy, are you quite alright?"
"I . . . ." She wiped a stray tear from her eye. "I'm simply stretched too thin, Severus. You must disband the club. Please, I'd never forgive myself if one of the students was injured and I lacked the means to heal her."
He would have laughed at her anxiety if she weren't on the brink of tears. Poppy was the best Medi-Witch he'd ever met, better in emergencies than most trained Healers. After almost forty years of successfully treating childhood injuries, how could she possibly question her skills? And why did she keep repeating the same phrase?
Growing suspicious, he carefully made eye contact. He Legilimized her only long enough to determine that no one, including Albus, had tampered with her will. Wherever her anxiety about the Dueling club originated, it was solely her own. Abruptly, the answer popped into his consciousness. Of course, how could he have been so thick?
"This is about Victoria Ashdown, isn't it?"
She let out a strangled sob. After a second's indecision, he awkwardly patted her shoulder. Completely forgetting the presence of Neville Longbottom, he sat her in his chair behind his desk and quickly spelled her apron clean of the red stain. Belatedly, he thought to offer her a handkerchief.
"You saved her life, Poppy. If you hadn't found the counter curse, she would have certainly perished. What happened was an aberration, nothing more. I know of no one currently enrolled at Hogwarts who approaches the sadism of Rodolphus LeStrange. It won't happen this time; I assure you."
"How can you say that?" She asked between quiet sniffles. "Look what happened to Rose last year. Her heart stopped, Severus! If it hadn't been for the Potion of Last Resort, we would have lost her. I don't understand why the Parkinson girl wasn't expelled. And then poor Rose nearly ended up in a bed next to Frank and Alice after Peter Pettigrew Cruciated her! How can you tell me someone else won't use the Dueling Club to attack her again? She's been injured so many times. And, those horrible, horrible Muggles!" Unable to go on, she burst into tears.
"What about the Muggles?" Could she possibly remember? Had her concern for Rose broken through the Memory Charm?
Dabbing the corner of her eye with Snape's handkerchief, Poppy took a deep breath. When she spoke again, her voice sounded more composed, although it warbled at times.
"I know her aunt and uncle weren't kind to her, Severus. She spent every break she could at Hogwarts and begged to remain here during the summers as well. You know the Headmaster, though; he prefers to give people the benefit of the doubt."
Disappointed that she hadn't remembered, but not terribly surprised, Severus deftly steered the conversation back to the Dueling Club.
"Which is why Pansy Parkinson has not been expelled. Albus would like to believe that she did not understand the effect of simultaneous Stunners. While I disagree, the most I can do is isolate her from doing more harm. She has been banned from dueling."
When she continued to look unconvinced, he smoothly added, "However, I certainly understand your concerns. Perhaps you are right to advise caution. If I have a certified Healer present during practices and competitions, would that be acceptable?"
"Oh, Severus! Would you? I can't tell you how much that would mean to me."
Quite unexpectedly, she threw her arms around him to give him a hug. Blushing, she immediately took a step backwards and nervously smoothed down her dress. They were both saved from any awkward explanations, however, when thick, green smoke began billowing from the gawking Gryffindor's cauldron.
Snape vanished the mess as Poppy did a quick examination of Neville. Satisfied that the boy hadn't been injured, she hastily made her excuses to leave. When Longbottom began to stammer the same, however, the Potions Master gestured towards his desk.
"Sit, Mr. Longbottom."
Gulping, the teen did just that.
I imagine you have questions," he stated without preamble as he towered over the chubby teen with his arms crossed.
"A few, sir."
The boy spoke softly, but without his usual stammering. Coming to a decision, Severus uncrossed his arms and sat across from him. The teen's brow furrowed in puzzlement under his Potion Master's stern gaze.
"Well, what are you waiting for? Ask your questions, Mr. Longbottom."
"Oh, I didn't . . . I mean . . . thank . . . uh, yes, sir." When Snape glowered at him, he shifted uneasily in his chair. "Who's Victoria Ashdown?"
"Victoria Ashdown was a Hufflepuff a year behind me in school. During a practice session of the Dueling Club, Rodolphus Lestrange cast a Blood Draining Curse upon her as her back was turned. She nearly died, although Madame Pomfrey was ultimately able to cure her. Lestrange was expelled, but Victoria emigrated to Australia with her parents shortly afterwards."
Neville's eyes narrowed into a scowl, and Severus added, "I take it you are familiar with the name Rodolphus Lestrange?"
"He's one of the Death Eaters who tortured my parents." Without giving his professor a chance to comment, Neville asked, "Did Peter Pettigrew really Cruciate Rose last year?"
Briefly closing his eyes against the memory, Severus nodded. "He did."
The teen stared at his shoes for almost a minute. "Does she know? About my mum and dad, I mean?"
"Not that I am aware. I must ask, though, Mr. Longbottom, why you choose to keep such information a secret. As I explained before, what happened was in no way their fault."
That defiant spark of bravery he'd been privy to when Neville had argued against the fake Moody's sacking once again lit the young wizard's eyes. "It's not truly a secret, sir. How can it be when the Daily Prophet kept it on its front page for a week? I simply don't go around telling people about it. I don't need anyone's pity. But . . . maybe knowing about them would help Rose."
"Perhaps it would help you both."
The teen nodded in agreement before profusely apologizing for ruining yet another potion. "Could we try the Ageing Potion again next Wednesday?"
Severus stifled a long-suffering sigh. Perhaps if Poppy had not made her unexpected entrance, the boy might have successfully completed the assignment. Unfortunately, Mr. Longbottom's endeavors were often subjected to mishaps and unexpected events, and Severus' patience had begun to wear thin.
Abruptly, it all clicked into place. Leaning forward, Snape smiled. "Mr. Longbottom, how would you like to play a pivotal role in the fight against the remaining Death Eaters?"
"Ah, Severus, come in, my boy. Would you care for a sherbet lemon?"
Still reeling from what he had learned, Snape snapped, "I could do with a firewhiskey, Albus."
Dumbledore's half-moon spectacles slipped down his nose. "Indeed. Have a seat, Severus."
No sooner had he sat himself in a comfortable chair in the Headmaster's office than an amber bottle and two crystal tumblers appeared on the wooden monstrosity Dumbledore called a desk. Always the consummate host, Albus allowed him to contemplatively sip his firewhiskey without asking a single question.
"A month ago, I suggested to Mr. Longbottom that he request tutoring from Horace Slughorn. The arrangement has been mutually beneficial."
"Yes, so Horace has informed me. I must say that I am proud of you, Severus. It is not easy to admit that some students flourish better under another's instruction."
"My teaching methods are more than adequate." He paused for a moment to rein in his already short temper. "However, that is not what I wish to discuss. An hour ago, I used Polyjuice Potion to impersonate Mr. Longbottom. I offered some Veritaserum laced pastilles to my supposed Potions tutor. The greedy lout ate them immediately."
The older wizard's eyes narrowed. "Severus, while I laud your dedication, please tell me that nothing untoward has happened to Neville. I would hate to have Augusta knocking on the gates tomorrow after hearing that you subjected her grandson to a Body Bind Curse."
Snape added another splash of firewhiskey to his glass. "The boy was a willing participant, Albus. It only took one lesson for him to understand why I would wish to speak to Horace in disguise. It seems that my failings are his favorite topics of conversation."
"My apologies, then, dear boy. Do continue."
"The combination of Veritaserum and Legilimancy quickly led me to a very disturbing memory. He did indeed have a conversation with Tom Riddle about Horcruxes. In fact, Tom asked him if a soul divided into seven parts might be the most advantageous because of the number's significance in Arithmacy."
"Seven? You're certain he said seven?"
There was no mistaking the horror or revulsion in his mentor's surprisingly unguarded expression. Snape shared it. He downed the second shot in one go.
"I am certain, but you are welcome to view the memory in a Pensieve."
"Perhaps that would be best."
Borrowing a set of school robes from the Lost and Found, Snape retreated to the privacy of his office. After a final glance at the Marauder's Map, he downed the Polyjuice Potion that sat uncorked on his desk. It took only a minute for his spine to shrink and his body to fill out. Looking in the mirror, he practiced smiling nervously and studying the ground before donning the smaller robes. Satisfied, he picked up the tin of Veritaserum laced licorice pastilles.
Severus walked out of the office with his head down and bumped into Rose before taking more than three steps. He managed to remain upright and keep hold of the tin, but she wasn't so fortunate.
"I'm so sorry, Rose. You're not hurt, are you?"
Grinning, she jumped up and quickly dusted off her robes. Snape could see that her palms were scraped, but she quickly hid them behind her back. "I'm fine, Neville. Honestly, I get worse during dueling practice."
"Uh huh," he murmured, caught between his desire to check her hands and his need to meet Horace Slughorn for Longbottom's scheduled lesson. Though loath to admit it, the Gryffindor had significantly improved in Potions. He'd also done an excellent job ingratiating himself with his new tutor. From all accounts, Slughorn had been delighted to accept Frank and Alice Longbottom's child for private lessons and found him to be an apt pupil who had unfortunately suffered for years under an insensitive teacher.
"You okay, Neville? You seem distracted or something."
"Yeah, I'm . . . running late for Professor Slughorn's lesson. I should be going."
"Oh. I'll catch you later, then."
He took off running as soon as she put her hand on the metal doorknob. When she discovered that Neville Longbottom had been inside his Potions Master's empty office, Rose would no doubt pepper him with questions. He simply didn't have the time to answer. Sure enough, as he turned the corner in the dungeon hallway, he heard her shout the young wizard's name. Luckily, Slughorn's temporary Potions lab was located nearby. As her calls grew louder, he slipped inside the spacious room and firmly shut the door.
Eyeing his former teacher, he thought that Horace Slughorn hadn't changed much. His substantial paunch reflected a comfortable middle age and was exceeded only by the mass of his ridiculous walrus-like moustache. He and Neville stood at eye level, giving Snape an unobstructed view of the wizard's bald head.
Looking to the ground, he concentrated on not letting his animosity show. "Good evening, Professor."
Clutching at his waistcoat, Horace jovially replied, "Good evening, Mr. Longbottom. I see you have a most intriguing tin in your hand. That wouldn't happen to be for me, would it?"
Merlin, could the man be any more conceited? Really, this was going to be too easy. "Yes, sir. My gran sent it, sir. She said to tell you thank you, for helping me improve so much in Potions, sir."
Slughorn looked at him a little oddly; perhaps he'd added one too many sirs to his speech. Still, the arrogant wizard eagerly grabbed the tin. "Licorice pastilles. How delightful that Augusta remembered my fondness for them. Perhaps I shall try one after your lesson."
After the lesson? Snape did have time to wait until after the lesson. The Polyjuice wouldn't last that long. Giving the man his most ingratiating smile, he suggested, "Why don't you try them now, sir? It will take me a few minutes to set up my cauldron."
Horace hesitated just long enough to make Snape's heart race, but he needn't have worried. By the time he had set up Longbottom's cauldron, the portly wizard had eaten a half dozen of the pastilles, more than enough for the Veritaserum to have an effect.
"Professor Slughorn, what do you think of Professor Snape?"
"That arrogant bat? I think he's the most skilled Potions Master Hogwarts has ever employed, but his character leaves much to be desired. I can't believe Lily Potter would have given him a second look after graduation much less had a child with him."
Slughorn clamped a hand over his mouth as he backed towards the door. Unperturbed, Severus bound him to a wooden chair with a flick of his wand. Although the effect was ruined on Neville's ingenuous face, he smirked condescendingly at his former teacher.
"How nice to hear to hear your true opinion of me, Horace. I wish I could say that I have the same regard for you, but I find your potions skills highly overrated. However, I appreciate your faith in Lily. You're correct, of course. By graduation, I was far too steeped in the Dark Arts for her to associate with me."
It was funny, really, to watch the wizard's near hyperventilation.
"Severus? But how?"
"Polyjuice," he drawled. "Perhaps you've heard of it?"
"Of course I've heard of it," he sputtered. "I simply didn't think you would be so craven as to use it against me. I'm warning you. Whatever secret you and your Death Eater friends expect to learn, I swear by Merlin I'll take it to my grave!"
His lip curled in a sneer. "You play the fool badly, Horace. You always have. The only secret I wish to learn is the one you've kept from Dumbledore."
The portly man paled, though his eyes hardened with determination. "Then, I am sorry to disappoint you. I've already told Albus of Tom's interest in creating a Horcrux."
The mere fact that the drugged wizard could still carry on a conversation suggested he had developed something of an immunity to Veritaserum. Most likely he regularly dosed himself with trace amounts of the forceful potion, just as Severus did. However, his too frank opinions indicated that the truth serum had greatly affected him. There was only one thing to do.
Pushing past Horace's weakened mental defenses, Severus watched with growing disgust as Tom Riddle stroked a much younger Horace Slughorn's ego in order to ease his way into questioning him about Horcruxes. However, when the nascent Dark Lord asked if splitting one's soul into seven would be the most powerful number, he fought the urge to be sick. How could they find and destroy six Horcruxes before the end of the TriWizard Tournament?
Repulsed, he staggered backwards as soon as the memory ended. He needed to put some physical distance between himself and what he had seen.
"You bastard. You've known all along. Lily didn't stand a chance."
"It's not my fault," he begged in a broken voice. "It was a hypothetical question, nothing more. Surely even he wouldn't sink to such depravity."
Snape suddenly found himself inches from Slughorn. In a dangerous, far too calm voice, he asked, "Shall I tell Rose a hypothesis attacked her in her second year?"
Sweat beaded on his bald head. "I . . . Merlin, Snape, I didn't know! I swear I didn't know he would go through with it! Please, you must believe me. I beg your mercy. Severus, please!"
Pressing the point of his wand painfully against the man's windpipe, Snape hissed. "Cowards like you don't deserve mercy." He glowered at the cowering wizard until he had regained some measure of control over his temper. Abruptly walking away, he spoke coldly.
"In a fair world, you would be sent to Azkaban for your silence. Regrettably, life is far from fair. Obliviate."
With well-honed precision, he drowned Slughorn's memory of the past quarter hour, leaving him with the false recollection that Neville had set out his cauldron and then taken ill.
Looking up from the Pensieve, Dumbledore sighed. "Was that really quite necessary, Severus? I'm certain Horace could have been persuaded to give up the memory voluntarily."
"Not to me."
"No, but perhaps to Rose."
A tic under his left eye betrayed his ill-suppressed ire. "Rose, Headmaster? I don't recall that you asked Rose to interrogate Horace. Wouldn't our time be better spent discussing the Horcruxes? Or had you already divined the fact there were six?"
Looking appropriately chastised, Dumbledore returned to the topic of Voldemort's Horcruxes. They spent the next hour theorizing, but made little progress. Leaving the Headmaster's office, Severus pessimistically wondered if emigrating might not be the better option after all.
Author's Notes - Hi! As you've read by now, Neville will play a larger part in this story than he did in The Goblet of Fire. Now that Snape isn't constantly browbeating him, he will be able to gain some confidence earlier than in canon. And, yes, the Horcrux hunt will begin much earlier as well. Whether it will be finished by the end of the TriWizard tournament or even the end of fourth year, well, you'll just have to wait to find out.
Thanks again for everyone who's taken the time to review this story. I really do appreciate it, especially since the update schedule has flown out the window. In the next chapter, the characters had better practice their Sticking Charms for the dueling competition because they'll be attacking each other with more than just Tripping Jinxes. Like the Weasley twins, I'd give odds on the winner, but it would hardly be fair. Hope you enjoyed the latest chapter!