"Is it wrong to hate our Head of House?" Anthony Mulciber asked his friend, Joram Avery.
Evan Rosier, a year above them, answered bitterly instead. "Not if it's Slughorn."
"You used to be so respectful," Joram said without disagreeing.
Rose snorted, not deigning to voice his reply.
The three were looking for their friend and housemate, Severus Snape, in the dark unused corridors beneath Hogwarts. Sev's amazing OWL performance had done nothing to ease his misery following the assault he'd suffered after completing his Defense OWL. The attack had distressed him more than most, but he might have been in better shape if he'd been able to earn the forgiveness of Lily Evans. Quick as she was to demand absolution when she hurt others, Evans wasn't the forgiving sort herself. Worthless though his friends deemed it, losing the stuck up ginger's friendship had broken Sev.
He'd been a wreck ever since and their housemates weren't making things better. Snape had lost much of the hard earned respect he'd acquired over the last five years when he went to Gryffindor Tower to grovel for the mudblood's forgiveness.
His friends had never understood the girl's attraction for him. Severus had found a better class of friend at Hogwarts, and Joram wasn't just thinking of her pedigree. Once they'd been sorted, Evans had barely acknowledged knowing Severus when her housemates were near.
"Sev hates going home," Rose said uneasily. "He won't even be able to go see Bitch Lily when it gets really bad."
"Maybe my parents won't mind if I ask him to visit." Joram thought he'd kept the doubt from his voice pretty well, but Mulciber gave his shoulder a comforting slap, nearly knocking him to the dirty floor.
Their disloyal Head of House had made Severus's position even worse. By third year, Slughorn had recognized the ragged little halfblood's gifts and offered him the "opportunity" to help brew the school's potions. While most were purchased from outside sources, a few couldn't be preserved or stored for very long. Those were brewed by the school's Potions Master. The task had grown into a summer job because Severus Snape's brewing was already as good as Professor Slughorn's, possibly better. Slughorn paid his student a fraction of what an apothecary would charge. The difference undoubtedly went towards the old git's Slug Club parties.
Unfortunately, Horace Slughorn was among Lily Evans's biggest admirers. Naturally he'd sided with the spiteful witch when he learned that Sev had called her a nasty word. The Slug had already told Severus that his brewing skills wouldn't be required over the summer or next year, leaving him dependent on whatever his mad parents might give him towards text books and robes. Not enough, judging by past experience.
Snape was glad to brew the days away in the Slug's lab, too, even if he wasn't welcome in the old slob's house proper. Improper to socialize privately with a student, he says, Joram thought as they entered yet another disused corridor beyond the Hufflepuff dorms. Severus never minded that bit. I suppose he preferred exhaustion and fumes over hexes and fists.
These corridors were much narrower than most in Hogwarts, hardly wider than Mulciber's broad shoulders. There were rooms off of them, though, a few relegated to storage but most empty. Joram suspected that these had been classrooms once, probably the first ones used by the Founders, while they were still developing their muggle avoidance spells.
"Footprints," Mulce said, sounding relieved. "I guess he's been hiding his marks in the dust but he missed these."
"Even the Swot of Swots isn't perfect," Joram said.
"What if it's someone else?" Rosier asked.
"There's only one of them," Mulce replied. "Those Gryffs always travel in a pack. The Puffs aren't risk takers. They won't come down to an unused part of the castle. Sev? He's always looking for a better hiding place to work in peace. If it's historic, too? Try keeping him out."
That was true. Severus had a passion for history that rivaled his love of brewing. His study club lectures were vastly superior to Professor Binns's classes.
By the light of their wands' Lumos charms, they sought more footprints in the ancient dust. Joram spoke to fill the increasingly grim silence. "I'm dropping muggle Studies next year."
"What about improving your Ministry prospects?" Rose asked.
"Sod the bloody Ministry."
Mulce chortled. "You turning into a rebel, then? You always talked like Snape's girlfriend. Changing it from within, stamping out corruption, that rubbish."
Joram shrugged, ignoring Mulciber's gibe about the older Ravenclaw who was part of their study club. "I've decided it won't work. Why can't anyone call out Dumbledore? He's got too many positions, important ones. No one should have that much power, especially him. I don't think he cares what happens here at Hogwarts, not really. He just enjoys playing the benevolent ruler since wizards don't have royalty."
"I don't think that's it," Rosier said thoughtfully, swiping cobwebs from his dark hair. "He's a rubbish administrator but I don't think he's that crazy. McGonagall is worse. She doesn't give a fig about being fair. Look how her goons run wild. She never even tries to make them stop."
"They've gone past ignoring it," Joram grudgingly agreed. "The school's covering up for them now. You can't think they'll get punished for what they did by the lake."
"I heard they have detentions every day with Filch," Rose said, checking a shut door. It opened on a dusty, empty room.
"Till the end of this year. A few bloody days."
Mulciber swore, using a string of muggle expletives he'd learned from Severus.
Rose interrupted. "Another print. He went left."
They continued, Joram ignoring a growing fear that they'd waited too long to look for their friend. He'd had hours to do whatever he had planned. It can't be a project. We're leaving tomorrow morning.
"Little Murphy's thinking of transferring, maybe even going back to a muggle school." Mulciber sounded surprisingly unhappy. His family had no use for muggleborns or halfbloods, least of all a true halfblood like Severus, but Murphy, a muggleborn first year, had become a mascot of sorts, perhaps even a friend.
He'd witnessed the horror show by the lake. Knowing he couldn't take on the Gryffindor foursome, Adam had run for help from an adult.
He'd brought the caretaker, Filch, who'd curbed the thugs without a single spell before any professor bothered to investigate the jeering crowd that watched and laughed while Severus was choked on soap, humiliated and stripped.
"My father thinks every mudblood that fucks off back where they come from is doing the wizarding world a favor," Mulciber went on, "but Murphy's a good one. Says he's got to learn how to fight. Plans on never being too scared to move again, like he was by the lake."
"He might be better off leaving," Rosier said. "Some of His claim that mudboods shouldn't get full recognition as wizards and witches."
"Have any of them told Snape that?" Joram asked.
Mulciber snorted. "Reggie's balls'll have to drop first."
"I don't think Murphy's going anywhere," Joram said, preferring not to discuss the controversial Dark wizard. "He's a tough boy. Looks up to Severus, too. I'd bet he wants to learn to fight so he can back Sev up next time those thugs act up and he's around."
"Good. Severus would go spare if that kid gave up his magic." Mulciber sounded almost pleased by the thought. Joram could understand. Severus was at his best when he was seething at some injustice. His dull and broken manner since that day by the lake showed no sign of lifting. If someone needed him, though? They were sure that would bring back the boy they knew.
"Quixote," Rosier said, and they all chuckled at the nickname borrowed from a muggle novel.
Their friend had begun subjecting them to stories and music toward the end of their first year, claiming to be sick of their assertions about the superiority of wizarding everything. It had taken that long to break them all down with his brilliance and sheer obstinacy to a point where they might listen.
Although Mulce liked to claim that he'd taken a liking to Snape the first time he'd driven Professor McGonagall nearly mad by trying to debate with her about some Transfiguration article he'd read before class. Naturally Slytherin lost points. He'd later engaged Professor Flitwick in a similar discussion and ended up earning Slytherin nearly as many points as he'd cost.
It took another two years before they caught on to just how skillfully the halfblood had proven he could outSlytherin them all. After convincing both Mulciber and Avery to take Muggle Studies, he somehow persuaded Lucius Malfoy, bloodproud even by their standards, that the choice had merit. When he finished at Hogwarts, Malfoy gifted Severus with his owl so they could stay in contact.
He'd also formed the Study Club in their third year, designed to attract students from every House and background. He'd done it to put all of his friends in the same room so they could get to know each other.
Ironically, Evans had only come once, taken one look at the other Slytherins with Severus, and left. She hadn't even noticed the two Ravenclaw girls who'd risen to introduce themselves.
She still expected him to help her, though, Joram thought, opening still another ancient door, but only in private, like knowing him was her dirty secret. No wonder Ling can't stand her. Conniving cow.
The dim room was empty, but there were signs that it had been in use recently. A long, stone-topped table had been placed near the wall and the room was clear of dust. Severus Snape would never risk one of his experiments being contaminated. "He's been here."
"He isn't now. He's cleaned up, too." Rose sounded less than pleased. Severus was no slob but he tended to gather stuff: plants, bugs, soil and stones, all lovingly sorted and preserved if necessary. He even had preserved animals and... pieces. As a good roommate, he'd removed it all from their shared room after they'd complained a few times.
Apparently when he'd shared his interests with Evans, she decided that it was all their fault and they were turning Snape into the darkest of Dark wizards, declaring the lot of them Death Eaters in training.
Mulce blamed Mary MacDonald, who saw Satanic influence (whatever that was) everywhere. Rosier thought it was Potter, melding his gift for lies with his newfound fame for saving Severus Snape's life back in November. Evans still insulted Potter and pretended to consider him the lowest form of life at Hogwarts, but Rose insisted that there was a touch of foreplay to their interactions lately and she'd started believing his rubbish. None of them had heard their friend's version of Potter's heroism. Until they did and the stories matched, they wouldn't believe Potter's tale.
They all knew that something bad had happened because for most of the year Severus had suffered insomnia and nightmares. He'd also grown anxious and suffered several panic attacks. The Gryffindor goons found the incidents hilarious, especially Pettigrew.
Rose never used to care about politics before, but he'd begun to say that burning the Ministry and Hogwarts to the ground might be an attractive notion if it involved Pettigrew's fat little head on a pike. Mulce agreed if McGonagall could join him there.
The three fell silent as they continued along the narrow corridor. Having found a hint of their friend's presence, they weren't willing to miss the next sign and pass him by. By wandlight, Mulce looked grim enough to pass for angry. The best term for Rose's expression would be fearful.
After years of facing the Gryffindor four and redirecting his own housemates' hostility towards him instead of weaker targets, none of them doubted Snape's courage or sheer stubbornness. What was harder to judge was if he'd finally reached the limits of both.
The attack by the lake wasn't only the latest of many, it had been exceptionally cruel, shameless and public. Two prefects at least had been present. Lupin was never any use when his friends were involved, but Evans had always talked nobly about standing up for the underdog and doing the right thing. In the end, she'd sneeringly joined in the mockery before storming off. If there had been other prefects in the crowd, they'd done nothing to intervene.
The aftermath only added to his stress. Besides his purported best friend and Slughorn's rejections, Severus was still being mocked in the hallways. Some members of the Study Club had dropped it, in the main due to pressure from classmates who'd never been there. Mary MacDonald was calling it a Death Eater recruitment scheme and collecting signatures for a petition to shut it down.
How much more could their friend stand?
Mulciber was a few steps ahead, being longer limbed and short on patience at the best of times. He stopped, raising his wand and almost silently dismissing the Lumos. Joram and Rosier did the same.
In darkness, a thin thread of rectangular light outlined a door just a few steps away. Drawing in a breath, Joram could smell an unfamiliar blend of odors, but it wasn't strong. They'd found Severus Snape's haven, although he seemed done with brewing for the night.
Joram Avery wanted to believe that his friend was packaging cosmetic and prank potions to sell on the train while on the way home, or that he was putting away a final experiment. He would be if his mind were on the future. Joram and the others feared that this hellish year had knocked all thoughts of a future from his mind.
Joram found that he couldn't step closer to that outlined door. Mulciber paused as well, his bulk almost blocking the light entirely. Another shadow pushed past them both to open the door, causing light to spill into the hallway.
"Hey Sev," Evan Rosier called with a nervous attempt at cheer.
Snape spun, holding a dark glass bottle in one hand that he quickly fumbled to the other so he could pull his wand. "What are you doing here?" he snarled.
"Looking for you, you twat!" Mulciber snapped in response.
"We were worried," Rosier said, stepping into the room.
"Stay out!" Snape took a hasty step back, clutching the bottle. The movement produced a tiny clink. "Go on, the pair of you!"
"I'm here, too," Joram said, following the others inside. He made a show of craning his head to look around. "Where are the doomsday weapons?"
"Oh for... Will you bloody well bugger off?"
The modest joke had fallen flat. Snape was still trying to drive them off. He was also trying to both keep hold of the bottle and hide it behind his back.
"What are you doing, Severus?"
His parchment colored skin went even paler. "What's it to you? I don't need to answer questions about my business!"
Bluster and snappish verbal aggression were among Snape's favorite weapons. He didn't like violence, hating to cause hurt almost as much as he hated to be hurt himself. Being a master of verbal sparring was a less violent means of self-defense. It also allowed him the pleasure of making fools look foolish.
This was different, almost amateurish. Snape was both hiding something and laughably off his game.
Mulce indicated the bottle. "What'd you make, Sev? Something good?"
"Nothing for you. Go." He gestured with his wand.
"I don't think we should," Rose said bluntly.
Snape reddened and shook his head, letting lank strands of hair he'd tucked behind his ears fall loose to conceal his face. "I need to be alone a bit."
No, Joram wanted to say, eyeing the bottle full of liquid and something else. He had a terrible feeling that leaving Severus alone would be a very bad choice and that they needed to be very careful. "Evan, calm down. Severus, you as well. We're all friends."
When Snape winced, Mulciber frowned, then walked over to examine the room's sparse contents. Snape's school trunk and a wooden shipping crate with no top sat in the middle of the room.
"I thought you didn't have room for all this at your house," he said, reaching down to touch a jar full of something murky.
"I don't. It's rubbish. I'm getting rid of it."
"Leave a note for the elves. They don't get much extra attention."
"You mean extra work." Working class Snape's opinion of spoiled purebloods was evident in his disapproving tone, Joram noticed with relief.
"Leave the crate here for now," he suggested. "Grab your trunk and come get some sleep. Deal with it in the morning."
"Go ahead. I was going to rest here tonight." Sev was still holding that bottle while trying to distract them from it.
Evan smiled one of his idiot grins and said, "A sleepover! It'll be brilliant. You can show us how to roast marsh melons."
Mulce rolled his eyes. "Marshmallows, you git."
"There's an actual plant by that name," Snape said, turning towards Rosier. "Muggles used to use it to make the sweet. It's used in potions more than anything these days. Oddly enough, I've never heard of a wizarding sweet that uses it. Our marshmallows follow the muggle recipe."
"Or the other way around." From his narrowed eyes and smirk, Mulciber was using that sharp, challenging tone just to bait him.
"The wizarding world doesn't tend to innovate," Snape countered.
Good, Joram thought. Get him thinking instead of brooding or, best of all, arguing. Whatever the professors claimed about other students, Severus was undoubtedly the brightest student currently studying at Hogwarts. Nothing pleased him better than a good debate about pretty much any subject and he'd evidently caught on that his friends had no intention of leaving him alone tonight to use the contents of that bottle.
He set it in the crate like just another piece of his collection, shrank his trunk with a casual flick of his wand.
"Let's stop in the kitchen to ask if the elves have any marshmallows, then," he conceded. "Perhaps they'll have graham crackers as well. I'm certain at least one of you still has some chocolate from your last trip to Honeyduke's. There's something called s'mores. I fancy trying them all of a sudden. We can roast the marshmallows in the Common Room."
Making it easier to sneak out once we fall asleep, Joram noted. Well, I'll see you that challenge and good luck to you. You'll be leaving this pit with us tomorrow and it won't be in a bloody coffin.
As they left the old classroom, Severus tried to hold back, but Joram outwaited him. He didn't bother to hide his action as he picked up the dark bottle. Again, he heard something small rolling around the bottom, just a touch louder than the liquid's sloshing. Their eyes met, but he was accustomed to his friend's glares and this one was nowhere near a full bore Snape glare.
"It wouldn't be right to leave this, would it," he said, not making it a question. "You don't want some poor House Elf opening it to see what's inside."
Sev swallowed and paled at the very idea, then shook his head slowly and reached out.
Joram kept it from him. "I'll hold it."
"Come on, then. After curfew party!" Mulce called, poking his head in with a grin. "I've got some brandy we should drink up. That French girl I met last summer still thinks of me."
"Or you stole it from your parents' liquor cabinet," Snape said drily.
Joram laughed at Mulciber's protests, but managed to catch his tall friend's eye. He wasn't the only one who thought they should keep Severus close, Joram realized with relief.
He was a little surprised when Evan Rosier threw an arm around Snape's thin shoulders as they entered the hallway, leaning in to ask something about s'mores.
That dumb face he puts on fools me sometimes, too. He knows Severus was up to something bad. Bad for him. I wish Severus just wanted to poison those thugs or Evans. I think we'd all pitch in for that.