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The three Slytherins weren't at dinner that night but other than that there didn't seem to be anything wrong, the meal proceeded as normal. Even Snape looked calmly uninterested, which he wouldn't have been if they were in the hospital wing after the attack or had been reported missing. In fact, the only person who seemed to notice their absence other than the five of them who knew what happened, was Pansy who looked more annoyed at having been stood up by her boyfriend than concerned. Malfoy had spent a lot of time off by himself or with his friends lately, though it was unusual for Crabbe and Goyle to miss a meal.
Harry and the others tried to keep their minds off it so they didn't act suspiciously by staring at or obviously avoiding looking at the Slytherin table. Luckily Seamus made it easy for them by blowing up his water glass trying to turn it into wine again and set the table on fire.
"You ought to give that up mate, the results are getting worse and worse," Ron said complaining about the food that had being wrecked when Harry, Neville and Dean had all shot water out of their wands to put out the fire.
"Have you thought about going to the library and looking the spell you want up in a reputable spell book?" Hermione asked disapprovingly as she dried herself off after the water spray drenched their entire section of the table. "Or asking Professor Flitwick for help. I'm sure he'd rather give you the spell once you're of age than continue to watch you destroy the glassware every dinnertime."
The next morning was a different story the sixth year Slytherins looked uneasy, the junior years looked frightened and Snape stalked around the great hall in fury.
Dumbledore stood to make an announcement. "We have three students missing. Draco Malfoy, Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle haven't been seen since just after breakfast yesterday. If anybody knows anything about their whereabouts please come and speak to myself or one of the Heads of House. You won't be in any trouble for having seen or heard something."
Harry saw that everyone else was staring at the Slytherin sixth years and hoped his friends were too, and not drawing attention to themselves by acting guilty.
"Potter," Snape spat. "What did you do?"
"I haven't seen them Professor," Harry replied calmly.
"I know that you had something to do with their disappearance. Where are they?" Snape demanded.
"Perhaps Voldemort called them, and they left to join him. He kills nearly as many of his followers as the number of enemies he personally kills. I hope they haven't failed him at something he ordered them to do, I can't see the Dark Loser tolerating Malfoy's arrogance and inability to keep his mouth shut," Harry said feigning mild concern.
Severus knew he was faking concern and was fairly sure he was lying but he couldn't prove it.
"Potter, the Headmaster wants to see you in his office," Minerva ordered.
"Yes Professor," Harry agreed getting up.
"You do realize that you painted a target on Harry's back? Thanks to you sending him to the Headmaster in front of everybody, they all now believe that he had something to do with Malfoy and his bookends disappearing. If Harry is hurt because of this it will be your fault," Hermione said severely to her favourite professor.
"Hasn't Harry been ostracized and bullied enough for things he didn't do over the years without anyone stepping in to stop it? Now you're actually encouraging the Slytherins to blame him for these disappearances without a scrap of proof he was involved. How can you justify doing that?" Neville asked disapprovingly.
Minerva looked taken aback for a moment by two of the most well behaved of her house questioning her actions, but frowned at the two Gryffindors defending their friend and walked away without saying anything. At least Harry thought that the comments had been overheard by their house and most of the Hufflepuffs and it seemed that his housemates at least, were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Susan was torn between vocally adding her support to Harry's friends and rushing away to find somewhere isolated so she could watch what was happening with Harry. She made a quick comment how unfair Snape always was to Potter blaming him for everything that went wrong and how this was probably just more of the same, then rushed off and locked herself into a toilet so she could keep an eye on Harry and try to raise the alarm if something happened to him.
Not that she knew what she would do she didn't even know how to get into the Gryffindor dorms to get to his friends much less have a way to make anyone except Neville believe her, but hopefully Harry would feel her presence and know he wasn't alone.
"Harry, I don't believe that you had anything to do with the disappearances but perhaps your father's wonderful map could help us to find them," Albus said, his eyes twinkling merrily.
"And you couldn't have defended me from Snape's accusations in the great hall where it mattered?" Harry asked tiredly.
"We will deal with those trivialities later, please get your map out and see if they are somewhere in the castle before we call in the Aurors," Albus replied.
"Well I hope you don't still think that it's so trivial when I'm beaten bloody as revenge for something I didn't do," Harry said dryly turning to leave. "The map is in my trunk."
Minerva frowned in concern, it seemed that Harry shared his friends' concerns that he would be blamed for the disappearance and suffer some form of retaliation. Worse he seemed resigned to their lack of support. Had she really failed one of her cubs so badly?
"What happened Harry?" Hermione demanded as he entered the common room.
"He wants my help to find them," Harry said sardonically, walking towards the stairs.
"Why would he ask for your help?" Seamus asked incredulously. "He doesn't really believe you've hidden them somewhere and are stupid enough to lead him to them? He's gone Barmy,"
"Probably because Harry knows the castle better than the rest of us, remember he was the one who found the room for the DA and he always seems to know a shortcut when he's running late," Dean reminded his friend,
Hermione huffed at being left behind as Seamus, Dean, Ron and Neville followed him and waited while Harry get out his father's map and activate it. They gathered around looking for the names of the missing boys. Seamus and Dean looking at the map curiously but not asking questions.
Harry deliberately looked from the upper levels downwards to waste time and not seem suspicious to anyone watching. They didn't find anything. Harry realised that the lower dungeon level that they'd left the three Slytherins was not on the map. He grinned.
"I guess I should go and tell Dumbledore that they're not here," he said pocketing the map without deactivating it for once.
"We will come with you. I don't think you're safe on your own outside the common room until Malfoy and his goons are found, and it's proved you had nothing to do with it," Ron said. Neville agreed and seeing the three of them come down the stairs and Neville and Ron both draw their wands as they headed out of the common room together, Hermione got up to join them.
Harry sighed. "Thanks guys," he said gratefully. "You need to make sure you don't look Snape or Dumbledore directly in the eyes or they will know the truth," he warned them quietly once they were alone.
"We can't not look at them either, that would be suspicious," Hermione said.
"I don't think I've looked either of them in the eyes all year," Harry said.
"I don't think I ever have," Neville said.
"Look at their mouths or one of his ears, it will be fine, just don't meet their eyes. Passive legilimency requires eye contact, I think that's why Dumbledore uses that eye twinkling charm," Harry suggested.
"They arrived back at the Headmaster's office and politely asked the gargoyle to tell the Headmaster they were there, not in the mood to play guessing games with the password.
"Come in Harry," Dumbledore called but Harry didn't fool himself that the Headmaster didn't know that his friends were with him. They pocketed their wands as they entered the room.
"I'm afraid that I cannot help, they aren't on the map," Harry said.
"I don't trust you. Hand it over," Severus demanded.
"It is a family heirloom, and I don't trust you with it. I'm willing to show Professor McGonagall and Professor Dumbledore," Harry replied.
"Lay it out on the desk Harry," Albus directed him.
Harry glanced at his friends then laid out the map. Ron and Neville drew their wands and moved to flank Snape.
"What is the meaning of this?" Severus demanded.
"That map means a lot to Harry," Neville said.
"His Dad made it and we all know how you felt about James Potter," Ron added.
"Stand down!" Minerva ordered. "Why are the three of you even here?" She asked annoyed as neither boy even hesitated to keep their wands out.
"Protection. After the three of you all acted like Harry had something to do with the missing students it won't be safe for him to be out of the common room by himself until they are found and he can prove to the rest of the school that he had nothing to do with their disappearance," Hermione explained sternly.
"Don't be ridiculous, you can't think that Potter's in danger from Severus?" Minerva said, her colleague's first name slipping in her agitation.
"I doubt that he'd physically attack Harry in front of you or the Headmaster, but that map is one of only two things Harry has of his father's and it is literally irreplaceable to him. No amount of apologies on your behalf would make up for the loss of it. Or for the loss of his trust as well as our trust in the both of you if it was damaged in your presence because you didn't take Professor Snape's hatred of James Potter seriously," Hermione replied.
"Know that if you go to draw your wand you will be stunned and if you manage to destroy the map some other way we will destroy you," Ron said viciously.
"Fifty points from Gryffindor for your disrespect, and detention tonight at seven," Snape shouted.
Minerva noticed that none of the teens seemed surprised by the point loss or detention, nor did they look towards her to save them from the punishment.
Harry tried not to take offense at the amount of time they spent searching the map for the names of the three missing students instead of believing him when he told them that they weren't on the map. Eventually they conceded defeat.
"What doesn't show up on the map?" Minerva asked.
"You'd know the castle better than I do. The room of requirement on the seventh floor and the chamber of secrets isn't there, and probably any building or extension built since my parents left school or that was completely blocked off to even the most intrepid explorers for the entire seven years that they were here, and I don't know if it shows all the rooms in the other house dorms or all of the dungeons. I've heard rumours of a lower level but I've never really gone down there, we aren't exactly welcome there other than to attend potions, not that I've ever felt welcome in that class either, or of course if they've gone more than about 20 meters into the forest they wouldn't show up," Harry said easily enough for his voice to not give him away.
"Would they show up if they were unconscious?" Severus demanded.
"I don't know I've never looked for anybody unconscious but it shows people sleeping or in their animagus form and the ghosts so it should," Harry replied barely refraining from offering to transfigure a shovel and knock Snape on the head to see if he still showed up after being knocked out.
"Severus isn't there a level of the castle below your classroom and office?" Minerva asked.
"Two levels, though the bottom level is too damp to use without extensive reworking of the climate control charms and the other is mostly storage," Severus replied.
"Neither of those levels is on the map, they will need to be searched," Albus stated.
"I want to look in the chamber of secrets," Severus demanded.
"The last time we took a professor down there he tried to obliviate us to death and prevent us saving my sister's life," Ron said bluntly.
"I'm afraid that I have to decline. I am prepared to swear an oath that I have not opened the entrance to the chamber of secrets since my second year," Harry offered.
Severus scowled and started to ask for the oath when Dumbledore told him it wouldn't be necessary.
"If Neville and Hermione could take Minerva to investigate the room of requirement, Harry and you Severus collect a couple of students to search the lower dungeons," Albus ordered.
"No professor, I'm not safe down in the dungeons and I don't trust Snape to protect me from being hexed in the back," Harry said bluntly.
"Severus has my complete trust," Albus said reprovingly.
"But he doesn't have mine, trust is earned Headmaster and the three of you have done very little to earn my trust lately," Harry replied firmly.
"What do you think happened to Mr. Malfoy, Mr Crabbe and Mr Goyle?" Hermione asked professor McGonagall.
Minerva just looked at the four of them and didn't answer.
"I believe that they have left the castle under their own volition for some reason," Hermione said. "I cannot rule out Malfoy taking his bodyguards with him to meet Voldemort like Harry suggested, or they could have snuck into Hogsmeade to buy fire whiskey and be passed out drunk somewhere between here and the pub."
"Or Draco's gone off on his own again and Crabbe and Goyle are out looking for him. They've been hanging around without him a lot lately, looking like lost children," Neville said.
"What I want to know is why we've been made to help find him and not his friends," Ron said.
"That's a good question. What exactly are we being punished for? If it's not liking the blonde ferret then the whole of Gryffindor, most of Hufflepuff and probably about half of Ravenclaw are guilty of that and I'd bet there are quite a few Slytherins who secretly despise the pompous git, so why am I being singled out since the others are really only here to protect me from the consequences of your stupidity," Harry said.
"You are not being punished, Mr Potter," Minerva said crisply.
"Forgive me Ma'am but I believe that punishment is in the eyes of the beholder and this definitely feels like punishment, being forced to look for a git who would curse me in the back any time he thought he could get away with it and has already got away with trying to cast an unforgiveable at Harry. It's going to feel even more like a punishment when my best friend ends up in the hospital wing because you Professors led everybody to believe he somehow abducted or vanished Malfoy and his sidekicks," Neville replied dryly. His words may have been more polite but his tone was anything but.
"But don't think I won't go down fighting if I am attacked because you led everyone to believe I had something to do with this, their injuries as well as mine are going to be your fault," Harry growled.
"Nor can you expect us not to do everything we can to protect Harry since you've thrown him to the wolves," Hermione added.
Ron and Neville both nodded their agreement determinedly.
Minerva shuddered at the thought of what Harry could do if he was in a position to fight back and properly motivated. He'd managed to put Malfoy in the hospital for the weekend with a first year spell that hadn't even hit its target for Merlin sake, and Neville had power to burn as well since he'd unblocked his magic. If he'd been training Neville and Ron like she believed he had they'd be capable of seriously injuring most of their opponents too, and Hermione might seem to be the weakest link but if she were hurt, Harry's and Ron's reactions would be brutal and the whole situation would probably escalate quickly beyond their control.
She belatedly realised that Harry, Hermione and Neville were correct in their assumptions, she should have supported Harry when Severus accused him of some involvement in the students going missing and she shouldn't have approached Potter to ask for his help in front of everybody. But it was too late for worrying about what she should've done and she didn't know how to stop the battle she was sure was coming, unless the three Slytherins turned up soon, safe and well having left the school under their own volition, she was afraid it might be too late.
Harry chose to accompany them to the room of requirements since he didn't want his friends left alone outside the common room any more than they were willing to let him be. They reached the dancing troll picture and Harry walked back and forth three times thinking determinedly of their training room but the door didn't appear.
"There's someone already in the room," he explained, hiding his satisfaction with that situation. "You'll have to come back later or wait for whoever it is to come out." He turned to leave and his friends moved to follow him.
"There must be a way to know who's in there," Minerva said frowning.
"I don't know how, if they've asked the door not to let anyone in then you're not going to get in there," Harry said uninterestedly, keeping walking.
"Can you send a messenger patronus to a place instead of a person?" Hermione asked thoughtfully before hurrying to catch up with the others.
"Minerva pulled out her wand and a silvery white cat shot through the wall.
Two seventh years appeared looking like they'd pulled their clothes back on too quickly.
"Tidy yourselves up. Fifty points from Ravenclaw," Minerva snapped.
Around the corner, Hermione grinned at being right and the boys grinned back at her.
Susan stayed with Harry watching through his eyes until he was safely back in the common room. She was shaking with combined fear for him and rage over the unfair treatment he was expected to just accept without question, by Dumbledore and Snape and the lack of defence from his Head of House. Professor Sprout would never have let Snape threaten one of the Hufflepuffs the way McGonagall ignored the treatment of the Gryffindors.
Seamus and Dean were back down in the common room so the boys went up to the dorm room and cast an alert charm on the stairs to warn them if anybody came close enough to overhear. Harry also cast detection charms for animagii and any form of magical listening charms.
"You know making such a fuss about them giving everyone the impression that you caused Malfoy's disappearance is going to come back and bite you in the butt if Malfoy or the goons remember us attacking them?" Ron said.
"Only if they manage to prove it was us, or one of us admits it," Harry said calmly. "They've refused to punish him without proof when he's attacked us I don't know how many times."
Ron laughed. "You think proof is going to matter to Snape?" He asked.
"No but I don't think Malfoy's word on what happened will make any difference either. Snape won't actually believe Malfoy if he said it was us after he's found down in the dungeons but he has already decided that I'm to be blamed so he won't be willing to lose face by backing down on that whether he actually believes I did it or not, so if he is the one to find them they'll be telling Dumbledore I did it whether they remember it or not," Harry snarked.
Hermione frowned at being excluded from the others due to the new charms on the stairs and sat down to read.
It was almost dinnertime before the three Slytherins were found since the undisturbed cobwebs had dissuaded the searchers from searching the bottom level of the dungeons until they'd exhausted all other possibilities. They were conscious though highly disoriented and for some reason had huddled together for warmth and gone back to sleep rather than trying to open the door which had been unlocked, sparking rumours that the three of them had been found cuddling, with suggestions that they were involved in a threesome. Luckily for Harry and his friends they had no memories of being attacked or even the hour or so before that or being near the room of requirement that afternoon, and the seventh years who had found them had levitated them directly to the hospital wing instead of retrieving their head of house, so Minerva, Filius and Poppy were on hand to question them before they were encouraged to believe Potter had done this.
At breakfast Minerva stood up to make a statement before Dumbledore could do it.
"As many of you may have heard, Mr Malfoy, Mr Crabbe and Mr Goyle have been found in the lower levels of the dungeons and are now safely in the hospital wing, they were attacked magically and badly beaten and this attack will be investigated and I urge you all to come forward and confess your involvement or share any information you have about the attack. The punishment will be much more severe if we have to find you."
"It has come to my attention that many of you were under the impression that we believed Mr Potter was involved in the attack. This is not the case, and there is no evidence Mr Potter was involved in the attack. Harry Potter as the heir of Gryffindor, has a unique connection to the castle and we requested his assistance to use that connection to find the missing students if they were still in the school. Unfortunately, that connection does not extend that far into Slytherin territory but it did still save us hours of searching on the upper levels of the school and enabled the students to be found more quickly than they otherwise would've been, for which we are grateful and award twenty points to Mr Potter. We are also investigating the altercation that left many of our first and second years needing Madam Pomfrey's attention after curfew last evening so if any of you have any information about that incident please speak with myself or Professor Flitwick."
Albus frowned at her as she sat down. Was that necessary?" He asked her.
"I believe it was. Potter, Weasley, Longbottom and Miss Granger were quite clear that they believed Potter would be attacked due to our reactions to Severus' accusations yesterday and declared that they would defend themselves vigorously. We have more than enough to be going on with, with the war outside these walls without starting another war inside the castle by our own lack of forethought. You saw what Potter is capable of using a simple disarming spell and I have no doubt he's learnt more damaging curses since they were so easily defeated at the battle at the ministry. Potter is unfortunately accustomed to fighting for his life and has the reflexes of a world class dueller. Do you really want to risk him retaliating to an attack by another student without thinking." Minerva said severely.
"I think that Minerva was wise to say what she did. I've heard rumours of the type of training Potter is doing. The group he ran last year taught a large number of students how to defend themselves but he's only teaching the students who went to the ministry with him this year. It's said that he's preparing them for battle." Pomona Sprout said. "But what happened with the younger years? None of my Hufflepuffs were involved."
"I'm surprised at that, nearly half the rest of the third and fourth years came in, thankfully all with fairly minor injuries. But I'd dread to think what could happen if the fighting spreads to the senior classes," Poppy Pomfrey said.
"I'm not surprised, the upper year students have been ferrying around the younger years for their own protection since Malfoy got away with casting the Cruciatus on a student," Pomona said.
"Attempting to cast, there's no proof the spell would've succeeded," Albus reminded them.
"At least half the junior years in the hospital wing currently, are there due to being attacked after expressing the hope that the three missing students didn't return because they were sick of being bullied by them," Filius said. "And it wasn't only mine and Minerva's students who expressed that opinion."
A/N: Thank you to all those who reviewed and those who followed or favourited this story for your support.