Obligatory Disclaimer: Still not mine. Not that I'd want some of them.
Author's Notes: So, Caraline Fisher caught the 4000th review of Chasing the Sun. She couldn't think of a prompt in the end – a new baby in the house will do that to you – so she gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. So have some scenes from Chamber of Secrets, and a certain Slytherin's thoughts on the story. I've wanted to do this for a while. It was originally just going to be a load of Lockhart jokes, but it seems to have altered itself quite a lot since then.
Warnings: A bit of mild language - hardly surprising given that Lockhart's here.
"Idiots are fun, no wonder every village wants one."
- House MD.
Most of the faculty had been excited to meet the latest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, to Severus' quiet amusement; he found it funny to see his colleagues getting a little star-struck. For his part he was curious; he'd heard a few things the man had claimed to have done and he sounded both interesting and competent, which was a startling contrast to his predecessors in this job. On the other hand, it didn't seem likely that such a figure would waste time with interviews in Witch Weekly and all the other celebrity activities that had made Gilderoy Lockhart famous, not if he was everything he said he was; Severus was sceptical, but willing to keep an open mind, at least until they actually met him. He never read magazines and only skimmed the newspaper headlines, so he'd never seen Lockhart that he remembered; the man was only a year or two older than he was, but he had been in Ravenclaw and Severus didn't remember him at all.
Their new colleague showed up – late – to the final staff meeting at the end of August, before the students arrived and the term began. Severus took one look and decided scepticism won; the man was wearing vivid turquoise robes, his blond curls were perfectly styled and set, he'd had his teeth bleached and was preceded into the room by enough perfume to make several people sneeze. Not exactly the bounty-hunter sort of figure he had half-imagined from what little he knew of Lockhart's acts over the years. He exchanged a glance with Minerva as Dumbledore stood to greet the man and started the introductions; the Deputy Headmistress gave him a stern look that warned him to behave himself.
Lockhart did not endear himself to the rest of the teachers. In the space of five minutes he managed to remark on how much older most of them looked compared to the days when they had taught him and blithely assured everyone he had lots of helpful suggestions about their particular subjects that he had no doubt they would appreciate, before promising signed copies of his newest book to them all.
"Well, who's left?" he asked cheerfully, looking around. "I don't see old Slughorn; who do you have teaching Potions now, Dumbledore?"
Reluctantly Severus got up and moved forward, forsaking his usual distant corner, already gloomily certain that he was going to spend yet another year thoroughly and enthusiastically despising the current Defence teacher. Lockhart greeted him with the same irritating chirpiness he had everyone else, with just enough condescension in his smile to set Severus' teeth on edge, and attempted a manly bone-crushing handshake with absolutely no success. Severus favoured him with a sneer and the curtest greeting he could get away with before returning to his seat and settling down to watch everyone's interactions, judging how things were going to play out this year; he'd lost quite a bit of status now Slytherin had been so painfully dethroned.
The meeting dragged on for over three hours; it usually took just under one to wrap up everything that had already been arranged over the summer. Lockhart kept chiming in with suggestions or alternatives to everything that was said; by the second hour of attempting to ignore him even Filius Flitwick was losing the ability to be polite, and Severus had reached wistful homicidal fantasies a full week earlier than he had expected to. Dumbledore was finally unable to overlook his staff giving him venomous glares any longer and at last intervened, taking Lockhart off for a guided tour and leaving everyone else to scatter hastily in case they were forced into another meeting.
On his way to unashamedly hide in the dungeons for some more quiet brooding – he hadn't quite got it all out of his system over the summer – Severus was hailed by Minerva and turned to give her an ironic look; her accent had been growing steadily broader throughout the meeting, a sure sign of increasing irritation. "Well?" he asked darkly; the two of them got along well enough normally but he couldn't quite bring himself to be particularly civil to any Gryffindor after last year.
"What did you do to upset Albus this time, Severus? It must be something bad for him to hire a man like that to make his yearly point that you're not getting the job."
"I haven't seen him since term ended, I can't have done anything," he retorted. Unless, of course, Dumbledore was still angry with him; he had cornered his employer after the feast last year and really ripped into him for publicly humiliating Slytherin like that and snatching the Cup away from them. Had Gryffindor won fairly and openly, that was one thing; Severus still wouldn't have liked it, not when he'd fought so hard to get his House to the top and to stay there for six years, but he would have accepted it, grudgingly. But no; the entire school had assumed that Slytherin had won, right up until the last possible moment, and Dumbledore had given Severus no warning before snatching it away from his students.
Severus was accustomed to dealing with small groups of upset and angry children; facing his entire House had been unbelievably depressing and frustrating. There had been absolutely nothing he could have said or done to make them feel better. Hopefully at least some of them might have moved on by the time term started, but somehow he doubted it; he wished he could make Dumbledore stand in front of them and explain. It was one of the few times he had genuinely lost his temper with the Headmaster, instead of repressing it and turning it into sullen sarcasm as he usually did, and now apparently the whole school was going to pay for it by being made to endure a year of Lockhart.
Of course, it's always possible he just thinks Lockhart looks like... No, I really don't want to know.
Not eager to dwell on the subject, he returned his attention to Minerva. "Do you remember much of him?"
"He was one of the worst in his year at Transfiguration. Despite what he clearly believes, I'm not in my dotage yet and I do remember him," she replied crisply, and he smirked at her.
"We're sure he was actually a Ravenclaw? How on earth did that happen?"
"Severus, be nice," she chided him with no sincerity whatsoever, and he snorted.
Despite his lingering irritation with Dumbledore and his growing dislike of Lockhart, the new term started very promisingly in Severus' opinion. In over a decade of happily scaring the living daylights out of unwary students he had never seen anything to rival the looks of absolute horror on the faces of Potter and Weasley when they had turned to see him standing right behind them and realised that he'd heard everything they had just said about him. Severus suspected that being allowed to go and find the errant pair had been Dumbledore's attempt at a peace offering following their fight over the House Cup, since he couldn't think of any other reason why the Headmaster would have permitted him to play with them.
It was a little disappointing that the two only received detentions for this latest stunt, but he didn't mind too much. He hadn't expected anything else – they were Gryffindors, after all – and it had been such a Marauder-like incident that he felt quite vindicated in his continual statements that Potter was no better than his father had been. He did enjoy being proved right, even if it didn't happen as often as he would like.
More than that, some of Lockhart's continual blather had given him an idea to further torment Potter. Severus was aware that his petty behaviour wasn't particularly fair to the boy, but he was planning to restrain himself a little more than he had done last year, now that he was getting used to the constant low-level stirring of painful memories every time they laid eyes on one another. That didn't mean he couldn't occasionally enjoy making the boy miserable, and he had a plan.
A plan that luckily involved one of his favourite pastimes; beating Minerva at either chess or poker. She usually challenged him to a game of one or the other every week or two, and although she always lost at chess she did tend to win at cards – when he played fairly. Severus had learned to cheat from some of his father's friends, many years ago, and shamelessly did so now, carefully calculating just how much to gloat in order to sting his colleague's pride and make her continue.
Finally she threw the cards down in disgust. "Enough."
"One more game?" he offered mildly.
"No, Severus. I owe you more than twenty Galleons now, damn you and your lucky streak."
Lucky streak, indeed. Cheating against witches and wizards was easy; they would notice if he used magic, but nobody ever thought to watch for simple sleight of hand, or a marked deck, and he hadn't even needed the old mirror-behind-the-shoulder trick. Severus shrugged and smirked. "If that's what's worrying you, let's make it interesting. One more game. If I win, I'll waive the debt; instead, I'll want a favour."
Her eyes narrowed. "A favour you can't simply ask me for, presumably, which means something I'll say no to."
"I'm not going to ask you to break any rules or anything. It's something small and harmless."
"I reserve the right to refuse, but all right. And if I win?"
"The same deal," he replied, confident that she wasn't going to win.
He was right; five minutes later his colleague sighed heavily and stared gloomily at the three kings he'd just laid down against her three jacks. "All right, let's hear it. What do you want?"
Biting back his grin, Severus leaned back in his chair. "Potter and Weasley have their detentions tomorrow. I don't care what you do with Weasley, but Lockhart mentioned that he'd like a student to help him with his fan mail someday soon," he said with as much withering scorn as he could get into two syllables. "Give Potter to him for the evening."
"That's evil, even for you," she scolded.
He tried to look innocent, and failed miserably. Not only was he terrible at it, but Minerva had simply known him too long to believe it for a second. "It's for his own good."
"No, it isn't. You know he'll hate it."
"Precisely. That is the point of a punishment. And let's be honest, Minerva – if this punishment doesn't persuade him to behave himself, nothing will."
Curiosity, boredom and irritation – and wondering what the hell Dumbledore was playing at – drove Severus to decide to do some research a couple of weeks into September, and he settled down in the staff room one evening and somewhat reluctantly picked up the first book on the pile of shiny volumes Lockhart had proudly deposited on a table when he had first arrived and that everyone had resolutely ignored ever since.
"Good morning, Severus," Minerva greeted him, interrupting his concentration.
"Morning?" he repeated vaguely, looking up, and she stared at him.
"Severus, have you been here all night?"
"Apparently." He put the latest book down and stood up, wincing as something clicked in his back and gingerly stretching his arms over his head, making a mental note not to do that again. At least not in the staff room; the oldest and most battered armchair in his own rooms was comfortable enough to spend a night in without crippling him, but this chair wasn't.
"Why?" his colleague asked. He could understand her surprise; it was rare for anyone to see him before breakfast.
"Reading Golden Boy's masterpieces," he explained, indicating the books.
Minerva glanced at the pile. "You're terribly hard on books, Severus. Look at them. Cracked spines, bent pages... it's no wonder Irma doesn't like letting you near the library."
"She doesn't like letting anyone near the library," he replied dryly. "If she had her way all the books would be preserved behind glass."
"True. Anyway, we've wandered off the point; hardly surprising since you seem to be half asleep. Why were you up all night reading Gilderoy's books? They seem an odd choice of bedtime reading."
"There's something hypnotic about them," he replied. "You can't put them down. The sheer bullshit is mesmerising."
"Watch your language," she rebuked him, beginning to make herself some tea and him a strong coffee. "You think some of it is made up, then?"
"I think a squad of the best in our world would struggle to do half the things he claims he's done. No one person could manage all this. Especially not that glittery ponce; his only talents seem to be smiling and really annoying people. He couldn't overpower a damp tissue, let alone an army of ghouls or vampires, and a hag or a werewolf would turn him inside out."
"That's harsh, Severus."
"I've had four complaints this week from my Slytherins. His entire syllabus seems to consist of telling stories from his books and encouraging the students to write about how wonderful he is for homework. In just a fortnight my students are convinced they're not going to learn a thing from him. Are your lions any more confident?"
"...No." She handed him his coffee and he buried his face in it gratefully, hissing when he burned his tongue.
Surfacing, he eyed her sideways. "Is there any point mentioning it to the old man?"
Severus' usual bleak Halloween mood was disturbed by the incident with Mrs Norris and the writing on the wall. He had been dragged into Dumbledore's office and quizzed at length; the Headmaster knew about as much as Severus did about the Chamber of Secrets, namely that Salazar had built it to house something his heir could use or play with, and had logically assumed the Head of Slytherin might know more. Severus had told his employer honestly that he had absolutely no idea – if there was some secret volume of Slytherin lore anywhere, he'd certainly never seen it – which had not been well received.
Once freed, he sank back into his accustomed Halloween depression, slinking to the staff room to find some paperwork to try and distract himself from his memories, and was promptly pounced on by Minerva. "Severus, finally. I've been waiting to talk to you."
"What?" he asked sullenly, in no mood for conversation.
"What's involved in creating the Mandrake Restorative Draught apart from mandrakes? Pomona says they won't be ready for some months yet. Can you brew the potion easily?"
Filch's cat really wasn't Severus' priority right now – he did actually like animals, but Mrs Norris was a vicious little hairball – but if the few scraps of legend he remembered were true, there would be other victims before this was over. "I wouldn't say easily, but yes. I have most of the ingredients anyway and I know where to source the others." From what he remembered it wasn't the easiest potion in the world, but it wasn't too difficult either, although adapting it for feline use might be a little more challenging.
"I'll help," Lockhart chirped, all but bouncing over to them.
"Didn't you hear me the first time?" Severus snapped at him. "It is my job, not yours. And potions are about the only things you don't mention among your dubious 'accomplishments' in your endless books about how clever you are."
Something flickered through the man's eyes that suggested he might have finally struck a nerve, before the emotion was buried in Lockhart's overwhelming ego once more and the cheerful smile returned. "Now, Severus, I'm surely allowed a little modesty. I can help."
"Really. Name one ingredient apart from mandrake root that is used in the potion," he said curtly, automatically assuming the challenging tone of voice he used on overconfident students. Christ, I've been teaching too long.
"Well..." Lockhart trailed off and hesitated.
Severus and Minerva both regarded him expectantly as the silence dragged out and grew thicker, before the Deputy Headmistress' lips twitched and she had to look away. Severus sneered at the crestfallen Defence teacher. "That's what I thought." Turning on his heel, he stalked off; maybe reading the Restorative Draught's formula could distract him and help him forget that past Halloween.
November had been quite chaotic really in the wake of the attack. Rumours were flying everywhere and most of the staff were rather tense and trying to recall everything they knew of the Chamber of Secrets; Severus didn't fully understand why at first until Filius filled him in on what had happened last time, long before he was born. Everyone was on edge waiting for the inevitable second attack.
He didn't find out until after it was all over; he'd been in the staff room needling Lockhart about his careless deboning of Potter's arm in an abysmal attempt to heal the boy, which had been one of the funniest things he'd seen in a long time, frankly. Once he heard about the attack on Creevey, Severus retreated to his rooms to start searching through his books; magical creatures had never been his forte but offhand he couldn't remember anything that continually Petrified without killing – except perhaps a Gorgon, technically, but being Petrified and being turned to stone weren't the same thing. And if it only Petrified, then how had a student died last time?
It wasn't easy to research it in between trying to stop curious students exploring around the dungeons – not too difficult given that none of them wanted to go anywhere near him – and working on tweaking the base of the Mandrake Restorative Draught so it would work on a cat, especially since Potter and his minions were up to something again. Severus knew their trademark guilty-but-trying-to-look-innocent expressions very well by now, and the stunt with the firework during a lesson in December had him worried; it had obviously been meant as a diversion, but for what? Well, theft, presumably. His stores had been disturbed and a couple of items had been snatched, but he wasn't sure if those specific ingredients had been the target or if it had just been an attempt to annoy him by taking whatever they could reach. Whatever their motives, the three of them were up to something.
He was brooding about it as he sat marking essays in the staff room a few days later when Dumbledore walked in, twinkly-eyed and smiling in a way that never boded well. "Good evening, everyone." The old man only smiled more when he was greeted with various sullen mumbles; he was not everyone's favourite person right now, as Lockhart managed to grow more annoying by the day.
Disregarding the not very friendly looks being directed at him, the Headmaster continued cheerfully, "Gilderoy came to me earlier with an excellent idea..."
"Really?" Severus murmured, just loudly enough to be heard. "An early Christmas miracle, perhaps?"
Next to him Filius stifled a chuckle as Dumbledore continued, pretending he hadn't heard, "He felt the students might be reassured if they were taught a little about defending themselves..."
"Well, yes," Minerva responded rather scathingly. "That is his job, as the Defence teacher."
Severus snorted quietly and pulled another essay over to him, scanning the opening paragraph. "It's taken him four months to understand his own job description. I'm amazed he manages to tie his own shoes in the mornings."
Dumbledore cleared his throat pointedly. "He has suggested starting a Duelling Club in the evenings to demonstrate a few useful self-defence tricks. Naturally he would need at least one other member of staff to assist and make sure nobody gets carried away..." He paused, the ever-present twinkle turning faintly malicious. "Severus, I rather thought you might like to help out."
This was obviously intended to be a punishment, Severus considered as some of his more fickle colleagues snickered in relief that it wasn't them, but he couldn't stop the smile curving his lips in time. Dumbledore looked puzzled by his reaction before confusion turned into mild alarm. "On second thoughts..."
"Too late," he replied swiftly. "I'll do it."
"Severus, I want your word that you won't use this as an opportunity to hurt Gilderoy."
He widened his eyes and gave his employer the least convincing innocent look possible, even attempting – unsuccessfully – to bat his eyelashes. "Why, Dumbledore," he replied in a voice that dripped syrup, "how on earth would I be able to hurt him, when he's faced so many incredible dangers over the years? I'm sure he'll have no problems duelling me." He considered smiling sweetly, but he was aware that his smile never managed anything better than vaguely sinister.
"Your word, Severus."
My word has never meant anything to you, he reflected, before shrugging and smirking at Dumbledore, hearing Minerva stifling a laugh. Crossing his fingers under the desk, he replied blandly, "Of course, Headmaster. I wouldn't dream of doing such a thing."
Unfortunately the Duelling Club hadn't been quite as much fun as he had hoped. Leaving Lockhart to lick his wounds in sulky silence, hopefully a long way away, Severus headed to Dumbledore's office feeling rather worried about the shape of the future.
"Well," he announced as he entered, nodding briefly to Fawkes, who responded with a quiet trill of acknowledgement, "that's the end of the Duelling Club, I fancy."
"Oh, Severus. You gave me your word," Dumbledore said in a very familiar disappointed tone.
He waved a hand impatiently. "He's fine, I only hurt his pride. I'm sure his ego will reinflate soon enough. Your other pet might not be so fortunate, though."
"You used this as an excuse to go after Harry?" The disappointed tone had turned very cold.
Severus glared at him. "No, damnit, of course I didn't!" After all these years I had thought you had come to think better of me than that... Shaking the thought off, he demanded, "Did you know Potter was a Parselmouth?"
"You heard me."
Dumbledore frowned. "How do you know?"
"I paired Draco with him. He cast Serpensortia, and Potter – well, I don't know. Told the snake construct to back down, I assume, since that's what it did."
"And who taught young Mr Malfoy that spell, I wonder?"
"If I hadn't, we wouldn't know about this. Focus on something apart from having a go at me for once, please. Potter is a Parselmouth, as witnessed by half the school, and I'm sure the other half all know by now."
The Headmaster stared into the distance for a while, deep in thought, before responding. "I know what you're thinking, Severus, but Harry is actually descended from Godric, not Salazar, although I am not sure he is aware of it. He is not the Heir of Slytherin."
"Good luck convincing a lot of frightened children of that," he snapped. "They have no way to protect themselves and they will want an enemy they can see and avoid rather than the phantasms they've been imagining since the attacks started."
"What would you have me do, Severus? Close the school?"
"Yes, frankly, unless you want another traumatised ghost of a child you could not or would not protect to spend its afterlife haunting the place," he said quietly, darkly satisfied to see the old man look away. Dumbledore hadn't been Headmaster when Myrtle died, but her fate could easily have been Severus' as well, more than once. "But we've already debated this and the majority vote was to keep the school open as long as possible for a lot of reasons we've talked to death long before. Right now we are discussing Potter, much as I dislike doing so."
"There seems little to discuss. No doubt you are right that the students will not show much kindness to Harry for a while, but the Chamber of Secrets and the attacks have nothing to do with him. There have been other Parselmouths than Salazar Slytherin."
Yes. There have. Severus searched Dumbledore's gaze, knowing both of them were thinking of the Dark Lord. Immediately after Voldemort's death, some of his fellow Death Eaters had speculated that perhaps this infant boy was a very powerful Dark wizard, since they could not comprehend any other explanation of how their master had been defeated. Potter was strong enough, although not exceptionally so, but he had never shown any signs of the Dark Arts before. Speaking Parseltongue in and of itself wasn't dark magic, of course, but it was a trait that did tend to manifest in such wizards and was rarer in those who avoided the darker side of the spectrum.
If the Headmaster had any theories, he wasn't sharing them. The old man shrugged. "I see little we can do except keep an eye on the situation. If conditions do become unpleasant for Harry, Severus, I expect you to control your students and see to it that things do not get out of hand."
Piss off. He's as likely to be bullied by more of your precious lions as he is by my snakes. Admittedly that was probably mostly because Draco was a fairly ineffective antagonist despite his best efforts, but that wasn't really the point. Severus shrugged in response, and the Headmaster frowned at him before continuing.
"I must ask again, though. Have you been examining the heritage of your Slytherins as I requested?"
He sighed impatiently. "Dumbledore, every pureblood from the older families is taught their ancestry from the cradle, and the four half-bloods in my house at the moment are all pureblood on their father's side and received the same education." Even the ones born on the wrong side of the sheets, he added privately. "None of them are descended from Salazar. And nor am I," he ended pointedly, although he'd never actually bothered researching either side of his family tree and for all he knew the Princes might well have been. He certainly hadn't opened any mysterious monster-filled chambers.
"Severus, you know I don't mean it as an accusation. You cannot take offense when people look for Slytherin's heir in Slytherin's house."
"It would be less offensive if it were not on the heels of many years spent automatically looking for the source of any trouble whatsoever among the Slytherins," he said grimly. "Do you think they don't know you suspect one of them? How many times must I tell you that your attitude causes far more problems among my house than any factor of heritage or natural inclination ever could?" He shook his head and sighed again; this argument was futile. "Anyway. Potter is a Parselmouth, which I thought you should know. Aside from that, the Duelling Club was a total farce and the children still have no idea how to defend themselves. I doubt it's going to meet for a second session."
"What did you do to Gilderoy? I know you don't like him – hardly a surprise – but he is still the Defence teacher and has a superb record in facing dangerous situations..."
Severus snorted with contemptuous laughter, feeling a little better as he savoured the memory. "He's made up a lot of lies, you mean. Dumbledore, I cast a simple Disarming charm and it threw him half way across the room. A first year could take him out in a fight. Hell, Argus Filch could probably take him out in a fight; the man must be weak enough to be practically a Squib. All four Heads of House have been complaining to you about how dreadfully inept he's been in Defence lessons. He's an incompetent moron with no idea what he's doing, and now when the children are more at risk than they have been in years, they have even less of an idea of how to defend themselves than they usually do. I keep telling you, you must find competent teachers, especially if what happened to Quirrell last year really does mean... what you think it does." Refusing to say it aloud wasn't going to help, but he couldn't form the words.
"Competent teachers like yourself, perhaps, Severus?" Dumbledore asked mildly.
He rolled his eyes. "I'd struggle to do a worse job than some of the imbeciles you've hired over the years, but no, I've never actually expected you to hire me. Someone who might actually teach them protective spells and evasive actions would be a good start, though. Instead of someone who, to take a totally random example, manages to drop his wand, nearly trip over his stupid turquoise robes, look like a complete prat and then get the wind knocked out of him and almost achieve flight from the most basic duelling spell in existence, all the while insisting that he's some sort of hero of legend. He may be the worst professor you have ever hired. Including Jacobs the narcoleptic drunk with a phobia of the suits of armour. If he does suggest trying to keep the Duelling Club going, stop him before he kills someone; I'm sure he can do more damage than accidentally removing bones."
"Was there anything else?" the Headmaster asked with a faint but noticeable edge to his voice. The old man had never liked being challenged, and Severus made a point of doing so as often as possible.
"Not at the moment, no. Right now I need to go back to the staff room; I promised Minerva a full report and I'm sure she and the others will enjoy my re-enactment."
Severus didn't really see the point of Christmas; he never had. He'd been taught about it, but they hadn't celebrated much at home when he'd been a child and he only recalled perhaps three or four presents in his first decade or so of life, none particularly exciting or memorable. He had always been a little bewildered by the importance his peers at Hogwarts had attached to it, ever since he was eleven; and it was rare for anyone to give him anything, nor did he often give gifts himself. Unless he was forced to attend meals it was usually just another day for him.
Still, he did know what day it was, which was why he was slightly puzzled when the fire in his office turned green and interrupted his work that afternoon. "Yes?" he asked the flames guardedly, putting his quill down.
"Severus, I could use your help," Poppy's voice responded. "A student has had a rather unfortunate Potions accident."
"On Christmas Day?" he asked, puzzled. "What sort of accident? Is it serious?" Who the hell was it? None of his NEWT students had stayed here over Christmas, and none of them were dedicated enough to have tried to check on their projects today of all days anyway, and his wards would tell him if anyone had been in any of the Potions rooms down here... Potter, perhaps? Ingredients had been stolen a few weeks ago and he was sure the boy had been behind it, but even he had a hard time imagining Potter trying to brew potions when he wasn't being forced to.
"Serious in a way, but not life threatening as such," Poppy replied, interrupting his musing. "I have no idea how to reverse the effects, though, so if you can't help then we'll have to contact St Mungo's."
"I'll be there in a few minutes," he conceded, as much from curiosity now as from any real desire to forsake his peaceful dungeon for the tinsel-filled chaos of the castle at large.
When he saw the unfortunate patient, he instantly recognised the effects of attempting an animal transformation using Polyjuice Potion, but it took him a little longer to recognise the student. Mercifully Granger had been sedated, which turned out to be just as well – he couldn't help himself as the sight startled him into laughter. Severus seldom found anything funny enough for genuine full laughter, but the picture before him of the know-it-all covered in fur and whiskers was too much.
"Severus!" Poppy said angrily, sounding genuinely scandalised. "This isn't funny!"
Her tone only made him laugh harder as he leaned against the door frame for support, trying to catch his breath. "Yes, it is," he managed a little breathlessly.
It took a few minutes for him to get himself under control, by which time the mediwitch was about ready to strangle him by the look on her face. Wiping his eyes on his sleeve, he straightened up and pulled himself together as Poppy said acidly, "If you've quite finished, Severus?"
"For now, yes," he replied, smirking. This memory was going to entertain him for a long time, he suspected.
"I'm so glad. Now, do you think you could possibly turn that brilliant mind of yours to the possibility of helping her? She was very upset and scared half to death before I administered the sedative."
He waved a hand. "I can start the antidote today, it will be ready tomorrow morning. It will take a while for the effects to wear off but she should be back to plague us all by the end of the holidays."
"It's that easy?" the nurse asked, putting aside her irritation with him. "I thought – this looks like Polyjuice."
"I thought those accidents were very difficult to reverse."
"Using charms and spells, yes, almost impossible. Brewing a potion to reverse the effects is much simpler, especially if I'm the one making it, although the first dose must be administered within two days or it won't work."
The girl had been unbelievably lucky, Severus reflected. Polyjuice was a dangerous potion if you made even a small mistake. It could have killed her, or caused permanent damage. Still, this explained where his missing ingredients had gone and why; he'd been right, Potter was behind it, albeit indirectly. What on earth had the three of them wanted Polyjuice for? Obviously it had worked for the boys, unless Granger had drunk first and they hadn't taken any themselves, which actually wouldn't have surprised him, but still...
"What was she thinking, trying to make Polyjuice at her age?" Poppy fretted, interrupting his musing. "You don't even mention anything that complex to your second years, do you?"
"Of course not, but the insufferable bookworm could have read about it anywhere," he replied tartly – and somewhat hypocritically, considering his own bibliophilic tendencies. "I'm more concerned with how she got hold of the formula. It certainly wasn't from me, and the only book in the school library to carry it is Moste Potente Potions, which is in the Restricted Section, so either she somehow got hold of that or she brought books into school with her that she shouldn't have."
"You know off the top of your head that only one book mentions it?"
He snorted. "I know every book in the library that contains the full formula for any potion."
"Your mind scares me sometimes."
"Could you check with Irma later to see how Miss Granger accessed the Restricted Section, please?"
Severus paused and abruptly snorted a laugh. "No need. I know how they did it. Think, Poppy – who's the only staff member thick enough to grant three troublemakers permission to access the Restricted Section without asking what they're planning? I'll bet my wand that if I do check with Irma I'll find a note signed by Lockhart. It wouldn't surprise me to learn they'd just asked for his autograph and written the rest of the note above it later."
The mediwitch looked disgusted. "You're probably right." She hesitated. "...I suppose you should tell Albus about this. I haven't reported it yet..."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "You don't want me to, do you?" he accused. "You want to pretend this hasn't happened."
"Ambition isn't a crime, Severus. And I remember another youngster not so many years ago who kept acquiring problems because he'd been experimenting with advanced potions," she added pointedly, staring fixedly at him until he looked away. She had a point there, but he wasn't feeling charitable towards any Gryffindor, especially not a member of the Golden Trio, and especially not the member of the Trio who had given him a second-degree burn last year. And he was so tired of the rules always being bent for those who wore red and gold.
Scowling, he glared at the wall, thinking it through. Having to spend the next couple of weeks as half a cat was probably enough punishment to be going on with, and would certainly scare the girl badly enough to make her much more careful in future. It might persuade her to keep her moronic friends on a tighter leash, although he doubted it. He could still get a little bit of entertainment from making the three of them squirm in lessons, and the Polyjuice antidote was quite fun to brew, and his laughing fit had done him some good. The main reason for giving in, though, was that Dumbledore wouldn't punish her anyway even if he did report it. It seemed pointless to keep repeating the same fight with his employer – he'd been reliving that battle since the seventies, and he'd never won yet.
Really, it depended on why they'd wanted Polyjuice. Obviously the three of them were trying to discover what Slytherin's monster was and where the Chamber of Secrets was – them and every other student in the castle, and half the staff members too – but... Well, presumably, they had wanted to investigate Slytherin. Logical enough, but he'd eat Mrs Norris if any of his current students turned out to be the Heir of Slytherin. Making a mental note to keep his ears open for reports of odd behaviour among his House later, Severus shrugged a little sullenly and glared half-heartedly at Poppy.
"Fine," he said curtly. "I won't say anything yet. But if I find out what mischief her little friends managed to achieve with it, I will insist they're punished for it. And you're going to have to tell the old man something to explain why she's going to be up here for a fortnight."
"I'll deal with it. Thank you, Severus." She smiled at him and added teasingly, "Merry Christmas."
Privately amused despite himself, he gave her the irritated growl he knew she'd been trying to provoke and made a show of stalking off; he and the nurse understood one another quite well by now, as well they should given how much time he'd spent in the hospital wing over the years.
As he left, he thought briefly over the incident and shook his head. He'd drink rat poison before he'd admit it, but secretly he was quite impressed. He almost certainly could have managed Polyjuice successfully aged twelve or thirteen, had it ever actually occurred to him to try, but it definitely wouldn't have been easy. Why the hell couldn't the girl have been in Ravenclaw? What a waste.
By February, Dumbledore was making it clear that he was not happy with his staff's attitude towards their newest colleague. He had obviously given up on actually achieving a united front, but he did insist on the illusion of it. Only his direct order ensured full attendance at breakfast on the morning of the fourteenth once Lockhart happily announced his intention to make Valentine's Day more enjoyable; Severus thought he'd gone blind for a moment when he walked into the Great Hall, stopping and blinking rapidly. The red and pink haze turned out to be because the room was red and pink, rather than because his eyes were actually bleeding, but he wasn't sure that was a good thing.
"What fresh Hell is this?" he asked rhetorically.
Behind him, Minerva made an impatient noise. "If you'd get out of the way, one of us could tell you. It can't be that bad – Merlin's beard!" she ended in a strangled voice as he side-stepped to let his colleagues see the horror that awaited them.
Stunned into silence, the teachers took their seats as Lockhart beamed at them – he was wearing bright pink robes today. Severus already had a headache from the garish colours. "Isn't this wonderful?" he asked cheerfully.
"Has someone warned Poppy about this?" Severus asked Minerva in an undertone, eyeing the nearest dwarf suspiciously – none of them looked pleased to be dressed as Cupid, which was entirely understandable. "She's going to have a lot of students being sick soon."
"Try to look less nauseated," she advised him dryly. "Your skin tone is clashing with the... decorations."
"All right, everyone," Lockhart continued airily. "The first students will be here soon and it's important to keep morale high, so I want us all to make sure we're smiling..." He looked a little taken aback by the hostile glares he was receiving. "It's not that bad. I think it looks rather splendid; it livens the old place up."
"Are you drunk?" Severus demanded, somewhat amused to note that almost all his colleagues seemed to be unconsciously imitating his usual scowl. Lockhart hadn't looked this smug since his birthday a few weeks ago, when he had been showered in gifts from hundreds of people and nearly killed several post owls. It had been a grim contrast with Severus' own completely unacknowledged birthday earlier the same month.
"That's enough, Severus," the Headmaster snapped. "Your insubordination isn't amusing any more. Gilderoy suggested this to distract the students and try to cheer everyone up a little, and in that spirit you are going to sit here and not scowl and you are going to behave yourself. That goes for everyone else as well. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal," he replied gloomily with the others, aware that he was pushing his employer dangerously far now.
He sat and fumed silently throughout the meal, not quite daring to look around and see how the students had responded to this crap, grinding his teeth and firmly reminding himself of what would happen if he killed the stupid prick, and spent most of the morning venting a little of his temper on the unfortunate children who happened to have Potions with him. Having come dangerously close to hexing one of the singing dwarves who had tried to interrupt a lesson, he stormed into the staff room before lunch in a very unpleasant mood and slammed the door behind him, throwing himself down into his usual chair violently.
"So, Severus, how many love potions have you made?" Minerva asked him teasingly.
"Shut up," he replied bluntly, no longer willing to even pretend to be civil. "I couldn't eat anything at breakfast because of the glitter and confetti everywhere, so my blood sugar is low and I will kill you." He had at least got something useful out of it, though, having Transfigured his coffee mug into a jar and filled it with rose petals – they were a versatile component of many potions and he knew better than to turn down any free ingredients.
"Poor dear. Out of curiosity, what would your response be if any student was suicidal enough to ask you for a love potion?"
"I would personally escort them to the Ministry and report them for trying to obtain a date-rape drug," he said in a voice one small step removed from a snarl. "And if he mentions anything of the sort to me again I'm going to leave those shiny teeth he's so proud of embedded in the walls."
"Charming. Didn't you get any Valentines then?"
"I repeat, shut up." Of course he hadn't. He never had, not once, which was a secret he intended to take to his grave. He was just thankful nothing like this had ever happened when he was at school – he didn't even want to think about what sort of singing Valentine his tormentors would have devised for him.
"Poor Filius has been hiding in his office when he isn't teaching. I've never seen him so embarrassed," his colleague commented.
"I'm not at all surprised. Entrancing Enchantments are as illegal as love potions, and for damned good reason. Magical coercion isn't something we should be joking about. Or telling the students about."
"I suppose so. I'm not surprised he chose to jab at you like that – as ever, you haven't exactly been endearing yourself to our newest colleague..." He smirked, and Minerva shook her head at him before continuing, "but Filius certainly hasn't done anything."
"Lockhart's a prick. Do we need to look for more of a reason than that?"
"I do wish you'd watch your language, Severus. You can be eloquent when you try – must you resort to such crudities?"
"You have to admit it's a perfect description."
Life had been suspiciously quiet for months. No new attacks, no stupid stunts from Lockhart, no equally stupid if less flamboyant stunts from any of the students. Severus didn't even consider actually relaxing; until they discovered a dead monster or someone confessed, this wasn't over. He and his colleagues remained on edge, all of them trying to pretend they weren't, and everyone was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Finally at the start of May Dumbledore alerted the staff to a fourth attack; Hermione Granger was the newest victim to be Petrified, along with Penelope Clearwater. Granger's not having much luck this year, is she? Unfortunately this was certain to drive Potter and Weasley to do something very stupid; hopefully Minerva would have the sense to watch the pair of them closely. Once Severus had settled his students in their common room – with dire threats should any of them put so much as a toe outside until the all-clear was given – he headed outside and down to the Herbology greenhouses to check on the Mandrakes, which were hopefully only a couple of weeks from maturing. The rest of the potion was as close to ready as he could get it without this final ingredient, although he wasn't sure the adapted version for Mrs Norris would work and he was still trying to process it into a vapour or something else that would work on a ghost.
Leaving the greenhouses empty-handed, he was heading back towards the castle when he saw the little group leaving Hagrid's hut and heading down the drive. Curious, Severus drifted closer; Dumbledore and Hagrid walking together was hardly unusual, but he was startled to recognise his old friend Lucius Malfoy, although not as startled as he was to see Cornelius Fudge. What is the Minister doing here...? Oh, crap. He studied everyone's expressions; Hagrid was staring at the ground, shoulders hunched, his big hands opening and closing aimlessly. Lucius was smirking, which didn't say much since that was largely his default expression; Dumbledore looked mildly amused, although the tightness around his eyes suggested it was feigned.
Hoping he was wrong, Severus strode over to intercept them. "Good afternoon, Headmaster. Minister, a surprise to see you here."
"Snape," Fudge said distractedly, nodding to him. "What are you doing here?"
"I was monitoring the growth of some plants in one of the greenhouses. Headmaster, what..."
"I'm afraid I am not Headmaster at the moment, Severus," Dumbledore said mildly. "Lucius has been very busy, it seems, and has managed to convince his fellow governors that the school would be better off were I to be suspended until all this has been sorted out."
Shit. I hate being right. "I... see," Severus said slowly. He was about to say something else – probably something extremely unwise – when Dumbledore spoke again, more quickly now.
"I'm afraid the Minister is here for another purpose, however. You are aware of Hagrid's misfortune at school... the Ministry has decided that history may have repeated itself. Would you be so kind as to inform the others, please, Severus? Minerva will have a great deal of work to do and I'm sure she will appreciate whatever assistance you can offer."
There seemed nothing else he could do except nod. "Minister, might I have a quick word with Lucius before you go?"
"What? Oh... yes, but be quick. We have business to conduct elsewhere."
Severus nodded and walked off out of earshot, hearing Lucius' footsteps following him. "Fudge is a pompous idiot, isn't he," his friend's drawling voice observed, "but he has his uses."
"Lucius, have you lost your bloody mind?" he asked, keeping his voice down as he turned to face the older man, who looked a little surprised.
"I thought you'd be pleased, frankly."
"Don't be a fool, you're no good at it. I have many problems with Dumbledore but he's good at his job and the school needs him right now. And Hagrid? I understand that he makes a convenient scapegoat, but I'll bet my left testicle that none of this has anything to do with him."
"I don't want your left testicle," Lucius replied dryly. "That was nothing to do with me, anyway. Fudge wants to look like he's doing something productive. Dumbledore has achieved nothing, Severus. May I remind you that my son attends this school?"
"Your son is a pureblood Slytherin and isn't remotely at risk," Severus snapped at him, "as you well know. Damnit, Lucius! I don't blame you for wanting to settle old scores, and at any other time I'd be cheering you on, but not now. Dumbledore's reputation is probably the only thing that has been keeping these attacks to a minimum. With him gone..." He shook his head and impatiently swiped his hair back from his face. "Well, it's done now, but if anything else happens – if a student gets killed – it's on your head, yours and our esteemed Minister's."
"You've been teaching too long, Severus. You almost sound like you care. Don't you have some babysitting to do?"
He sighed. "Unfortunately, yes. All right, sod off then. You might as well enjoy yourself mocking the old goat now you've finally ousted him, but I won't celebrate just yet – he'll be back, probably before the end of term."
Severus almost jumped out of his skin when Minerva's voice suddenly boomed into the relative silence of the busy Potions classroom during a lesson with the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw fifth years at the end of May. "All students to return to their house dormitories at once. All teachers return to the staff room. Immediately, please."
A fifth attack, then, presumably. His colleague's voice sounded odd, but the amplification spell was seldom kind to the one using it. Severus looked at his white-faced students. "You heard the Deputy Headmistress," he told them. "Leave your potions as they are. Gather your things and return to your dormitories."
"Professor, what's happened?"
"Do as you are told," he replied, crisply but without rebuke. "No need to stampede. Be off with you."
As soon as the last student had left Severus warded the lab and hastened to the staff room to join his fellow teachers, none of whom knew what had happened. His sense of unease grew, especially when Minerva walked in looking unusually pale and – well, in any other woman he'd have said 'frightened', but he had long ago decided Minerva McGonagall wasn't frightened of anything.
"It has happened," she told them all quietly. "A student has been taken by the monster. Right into the Chamber itself."
Gripping the back of a chair for support as people started panicking, Severus searched her face anxiously. "How can you be sure?" he asked.
"The heir of Slytherin left another message," she said unsteadily. "Right underneath the first one. Her skeleton will lie in the Chamber forever."
He closed his eyes for a moment as Rolanda Hooch asked weakly, "Who is it? Which student?"
Oh, damn. Severus winced internally – he considered all the Weasley children to be collectively a waste of space, but he'd known Molly and Arthur for a long time and respected them about as much as he respected anyone.
"We shall have to send all the students home tomorrow," Minerva said bleakly. "This is the end of Hogwarts. Dumbledore always said..."
She was cut off as the door slammed open, and Severus wasn't the only one to reach for his wand as he spun around; this latest blow was enough to send everyone to the edge. Lockhart's cheerful smile – the one he almost certainly practised daily in front of the mirror – very nearly earned the idiot a fireball to the face as he said brightly, "So sorry – dozed off – what have I missed?"
The air in the room was thick with hatred as they all glared at him. Severus' temper snapped and he was on the verge of cursing the man when a better idea occurred to him. Pure malice curved his thin lips into a smile as he stepped forward, declaring, "Just the man. The very man."
Everyone stared at him blankly, clearly wondering if he'd gone mad. Severus fixed his gaze on Lockhart and continued, "A girl has been snatched by the monster, Lockhart. Taken into the Chamber of Secrets itself. Your moment has come at last."
The lackwit went very pale as his colleagues perked up slightly, understanding what Severus was doing and using the chance to distract themselves from the shock of what had happened.
"That's right, Gilderoy," Pomona Sprout said brightly. "Weren't you saying just last night that you've known all along where the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets is?"
"I – well, I –" Lockhart stammered, looking like he was about to faint. By now the rest of the staff were crowding around him, smelling blood and moving in for the kill.
"Yes, didn't you tell me you were sure you knew what was inside it?" Filius Flitwick continued.
"D-did I?" Lockhart said weakly. "I don't recall..."
"I certainly remember you saying you were sorry you hadn't had a crack at the monster before Hagrid was arrested," Severus said nastily. "Didn't you say that the whole affair had been bungled and that you should have been given a free rein from the first?"
Lockhart swallowed nervously, staring from face to face. "I... I really never... You may have misunderstood..."
"We'll leave it to you, then, Gilderoy," Minerva said crisply. "Tonight will be an excellent time to do it. We'll make sure everyone's out of your way. You'll be able to tackle the monster all by yourself. A free rein at last."
Severus was inwardly trying not to laugh as he watched the panic in Lockhart's eyes. At least this would get the stupid prick out of the way – he gave the man an hour at most before he fled in terror. There was no pity in any of the faces surrounding him as Lockhart finally stuttered, "V-very well. I'll – I'll be in my office, getting – getting ready," before tottering shakily out of the room.
"Right," Minerva snapped impatiently, "that's got him out from under our feet." The brief humour of the moment faded as her shoulders slumped a little before she said more quietly, "The Heads of House should go and inform their students what has happened. Tell them the Hogwarts Express will take them home first thing tomorrow. Will the rest of you please make sure no students have been left outside their dormitories."
They filed out silently. As Severus turned towards the dungeons he heard Minerva call after him. "Severus, wait a moment."
Letting her catch up, he fell in beside her. Unsure of what to say, he finally offered tentatively, "This wasn't your fault."
"Do you think it would have happened had Albus still been here?"
"There's no way for anyone to know that. Unless you want to try asking Sybill."
The jibe brought a brief smile, but it faded quickly. "I'll have to tell the Weasley boys. And Merlin knows what I'm going to tell their parents. Severus... do you think she's still alive?"
In all honesty, no, he didn't, but honesty wasn't what was required here. "I don't know."
"What else can we do?"
"Nothing." He sighed. "We've searched all year and combed the castle from towers to dungeons. Wherever the Chamber of Secrets is, it seems fairly certain only Slytherin's heir can get into it. There's nothing more we can do, Minerva. Nor could Dumbledore have done anything else. The most important thing right now is to get the students away; Pomona has harvested the Mandrakes this morning and by tonight I will have completed the potion to revive four students, one ghost, one cat and a partridge in a pear tree. If one of them can tell us something useful we may find the person responsible; otherwise there is nothing else to be done."
"I suppose not." They walked in silence for a few minutes, until Severus turned to take his route down to the dungeons and his Slytherins, who were likely to be panicking in case someone blamed them. "This is the end of Hogwarts, isn't it?" Minerva said quietly, and he looked back at her.
"For now," he agreed guardedly. "Not for ever, I trust."
Her expression turned fierce. "Once the students have left I intend to remain here and continue searching. I will take the castle apart stone by stone if I must. Your... skills would be appreciated."
Severus cocked his head. "A monster hunt? Who do you think I am, Lockhart?" he asked wryly, making her snort.
"That was one of your nastier tricks. I thought he was going to wet himself."
"If he hasn't run by the time the students leave, let's use him as bait."
"You'll stay and search, then?"
"The only one allowed to terrify the students in this school is me. I'll not let any mysterious hidden monsters steal my thunder."
"Thank you, Severus."
"Go away, Minerva. I have work to do."
In the end, perhaps inevitably, the planned monster hunt proved unnecessary. Gryffindors seemed excellent at turning life into fairytales; Potter had got into the Chamber of Secrets, slain the monster, rescued the girl and even made Lockhart wipe his own memory, just in time for Dumbledore to come back.
You couldn't make it up.
The rest of the term brought absolutely no surprises as far as Severus was concerned. The Mandrake Restorative Draught was completed, he delivered it to Poppy and it worked exactly as it should do, even the experimental version for Mrs Norris and the atomised spray he'd developed for Nearly Headless Nick. Gryffindor won the House Cup again. Dumbledore utterly failed to mention him when crediting the staff who had worked to revive the Petrified students, instead giving the impression it had all been down to Poppy and Pomona Sprout; he gave the old man a rather half-hearted venomous glare for that, but he hadn't expected anything else.
He might have been angrier about the slight had he not been preoccupied by the fact that for the second year in a row Potter had faced down a shadowy remnant of the Dark Lord. After ten years of silence, it was enough to seriously frighten him the way very few things could. Dumbledore had been right all those years ago; one day his master would return properly, and when he did... Severus didn't want to think about it, but that wasn't going to help. He wasn't sure he could go through it all again. More troubling was the fact that the Headmaster wouldn't tell him what had actually happened this time, how this latest ghost of the Dark Lord had manifested in the school or what the hell was going on.
Perhaps it was a little unfair of him to automatically blame Potter for all this, but the past decade or so had been quiet and uneventful – boring, a small voice whispered; he ignored it – until the boy had started school. Potter attracted trouble, clearly. He'd like to think the rest of the boy's school career would be less eventful, but somehow he rather doubted it. Not good, not good at all, but there wasn't anything he could do except wait uneasily to see what next year would bring.
I'm sorry it's taken so long.
Anyway, in other news, Explopyro has written another fun one-shot called Tabloid Journalism, which I highly recommend you read. It indirectly makes fun of JK and it has Severus snark, what's not to love?
I owe two more one-shots from CTS reviews, but it's likely to be a while since my newest full-length fic is demanding a lot of my attention.