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After Freedom's flight, Severus was no longer fearful the hawk would leave him, and so he allowed Freedom to hack, which in falconer parlance meant to give the bird total freedom to come and go as he pleased, without restraint. Severus removed the jesses, instead making a small silver bracelet which he bound about Freedom's right ankle. The bracelet had Freedom's name and on the back Hogwarts, SS. This was just in case Freedom happened to run into any unscrupulous hunters during his treks into the wild, the men would know this was a captive hawk and not a wild one. Unknown to the tiercel, Severus had also spelled a Fetching charm into it, so if Freedom were ever in danger the charm would activate and bring Freedom home to Severus. The Fetching charm was not considered Apparition, since it was used to transport objects and animals mostly, though it was in the same group of transportation charms. Severus never wanted to go through the anguish of having the hawk so badly injured again, and this was one way he could prevent that.

The hawk could be seen at various times of the day upon Snape's person, usually riding on his shoulder, where Snape had attached a reinforced leather pad so Freedom could perch without fear of harming his wizard or putting holes in Snape's robes. Severus also wore a modified gauntlet upon his left wrist, one that left his fingers free to hold a wand or stir a cauldron, but which Freedom could sit on if he chose.

While Snape was teaching, however, Freedom often chose to be out hunting or flying, since many times the potions Severus's classes were brewing were not good for a hawk to be exposed to. Freedom did not mind, he loved being able to fly whenever he chose, and could often be seen circling lazily above the turrets of the castle, stooping occasionally to catch the occasional mouse or unwary bird.

He was an astonishingly good hunter for such a young bird, though he didn't need to hunt all that much, since Severus would always have food for him if he happened to miss his quarry. Still, he enjoyed the pursuit of duck or mouse or rabbit, and preferred to catch his own breakfast or lunch if possible. Dinner he always had with Severus in the Potion Master's quarters, he preferred the quiet of the suite of rooms to the noisy Great Hall.

While flying about the castle, however, he overheard several disturbing rumors concerning the still missing Harry Potter. The most prevalent of these said that Harry had finally gone completely over the edge and either offed himself or gotten himself captured by followers of You-Know-Who.

Draco Malfoy insisted that Potter was too much of a coward to end his own life, and said he was probably hiding somewhere like a terrified baby, praying that You-Know- Who, if he really had returned from the dead like Potter claimed, never found him. "Always knew he'd crack under the pressure," Malfoy boasted. "Comes from being a half-blood, inferior stock, you know."

Freedom considered dive bombing the arrogant twerp, then wondered what kind of trouble the boy would be in if Snape or Poppy ever heard that remark, since they were both half-bloods. Malfoy would doubtless be scrubbing bedpans in the Hospital Wing without magic for a fortnight, and that was in addition to the detention he was still serving for almost killing Freedom and breaking into Snape's lab.

But neither of them were around at the moment, and so the hawk decided to teach the arrogant prig a lesson, he had never really forgiven Malfoy for pushing him off the perch when he was helpless.

He swooped down on the boy as he made his way to the greenhouse for Herbology, making Malfoy screech and cower, one hand thrust over his face.

"Ahhh! Crazy bastard! Get off!"

Freedom snatched several hairs from the boy's head, a playful if rather painful gesture.

Malfoy drew his wand, yelling he was going to hex the damn hawk into pieces, but Crabbe yanked his arm down.

"You crazy, Draco? You forgetting just whose familiar he is? Snape will kill you quick as blinking."

"I don't care! The bloody bird's a menace!" shouted the irate pureblood. "It ought to be stuffed and mounted on a wall."

Freedom circled, having no trouble overhearing the sneering threat. Stuffed and mounted, eh? And you're no better than a portable post for bird droppings, Malfoy!

He zoomed straight towards the blond, thinking wicked thoughts.

An instant later, Draco felt something wet upon his shoulder.

"What the . . .arghh!" He brushed frantically at his robes with a handkerchief, but that only served to spread the mess all over. "You bloody son-of-a-bitch! Just you wait, hawk!" He shook a fist at the sky, where a tiny dark dot could be seen high above.

Crabbe was covering his mouth with a hand, snickering uncontrollably.

Draco glared at his friend, furious. "What are you laughing at? Think it's funny, do you, Crabbe?"

"Uh . . .well . . .you have to admit, you did have it coming, Draco. After all, you nearly killed him."

"Shut up, Crabbe! You turning into some kind of pansy-arsed hawk lover now thanks to Snape's stupid detentions? Want to go all touchy feely and help the animals now?"

Crabbe glared at the other. "So what? It's better than hexing them till they die or whatever."

Draco rolled his eyes. "God, but you're going soft, Vince! Your da won't be too pleased if he hears that."

Crabbe paled, then said, "He isn't pleased with anything I do these days, Malfoy, so what does it matter? Come on, let's get to class, before we're late and Sprout takes points."

They resumed walking towards the greenhouse, while above a certain hawk mused upon their words and thought that perhaps Crabbe wasn't as bad as he had first thought, despite being best mates with Malfoy. At least he seemed capable of remorse and was taking the lesson Severus taught him to heart.

Perhaps not all Slytherins were bad, he mused, then wondered why he would have thought that. The Slytherins he had met in the common room during the all-House meeting had seemed nice enough for humans, properly respectful towards their Head of House and indignant and angry at his own mistreatment at Malfoy's hands as well as willing to mete out justice to one of their own.

And yet . . .and yet . . .a picture flashed into his brain-the same red-haired boy who had made the nasty comment about wishing Severus dead had told him, "Don't associate with Slytherins, that's the House You-Know-Who came from, and nearly every dark wizard since has been a Slytherin."

But that was wrong, for he had seen for himself that the Slytherins were not all of a piece, that there were good members as well as bad. And Slytherin might have had the worst of the bad wizards, but it also has one of the best, my wizard, Severus Snape. He risks his life to protect us and no one even knows . . .of the students, I mean. If they did, would they call him the greasy git, or the bat of the dungeon still? Somehow, I think not.

But he knew that what Severus did had to be kept secret, else his life would be in jeopardy, more than it already was. And Freedom was not willing to risk the Black Protector's life for the sake of a reputation. Someday though, perhaps it would be safe for Snape to reveal what he had been doing all these years, and then maybe he would at last be appreciated instead of reviled. Freedom wondered how long it would be till that happened, then decided it didn't really matter, time was relative to a hawk.

He flew across the lake and back, playing among the air currents, until he felt his stomach growl, then he headed back to the castle, his internal time sense telling him it was almost time for dinner and Severus should have finished with his last class.

Freedom flew gracefully through the halls, he was by now such a familiar sight (no pun intended), that students hardly remarked upon him any longer when they spotted him. A few of them were wary of him, those who had an unnatural fear of flying creatures or who thought that as Snape's familiar he was bad tempered, but most knew the hawk wouldn't bother them and treated him the way they would a school owl.

He knew his way back and forth to the dungeons and Severus's quarters by now, since hawks possessed a homing instinct similar to a pigeon's, and he had no fear of getting lost, even in a castle the size of Hogwarts. His sharp eyes soon caught sight of the Potions Master emerging from his classroom, even from over three meters away, and he quickened his flight, making an odd sort of chuffing noise to greet the professor and also warn him that he was coming in for a landing.

Severus looked up and held out his wrist in invitation.

Freedom glided in for a neat-footed bind a second later.

"Good afternoon. I hope your day has gone better than mine has," Severus confided in a bare whisper. "The little dunderheads were really testing me today. I narrowly averted a fire and three exploded cauldrons and have now issued five detentions and taken a total of sixty points, twenty from each of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. Plus I had to lecture three of my own House for doodling in their notebooks and talking about their significant others instead of paying attention to my assignments. Teenagers!"

Sounds like the day from hell, the hawk said with a sympathetic screech.

"And it's about to get worse, unfortunately," Severus said, unlocking the door to his quarters. Once he and the hawk were safely inside, the Potions Master slipped off his professor's robes, which were of heavy duty cotton made to be stain and tear resistant and also spelled to repel most spilled potion ingredients, and hung them up on a hook on the wall, then toed off his boots and padded over to the couch to sit down.

"Twixie," he called.

"What can I do for you, Master Severus?" the house elf asked, popping into the room.

"I would like a tall glass of ice water with lemon. I have nearly lost my voice today from scolding those blasted brats." He shook his head in disgust.

"Right away, sir."

The elf vanished, and Snape rubbed his temples, knowing that part of the reason his voice was so hoarse was from the Hawk Speak Elixir. As yet, no down had appeared on him, but he knew that would probably occur next, but he did not wish to halt taking the draft, he enjoyed speaking to Freedom too much. Much as he hated to admit it, Hagrid had been right, talking to one's familiar was a great stress reliever.

Twixie reappeared with the water and then said quietly, "Master Severus, you told me to remind you that the staff dinner is at seven tonight."

"So I did. Thank you. You may go, Twixie."

Twixie vanished, Severus sipped his water and scowled. "Bloody Albus and his bloody staff dinners once a month. Bad enough we have to listen to Trelawney ramble on about the conjunction of Venus into the House of Mars or some other idiotic twaddle, now we are inflicted with Umbridge's Ministry doctrine as well, delivered in that sickening sweet little girl voice that makes me want to vomit, it's so nauseatingly fake. She's about as sweet as a lamia, Freedom, and just as dangerous, since she actually believes in all that rot the Ministry touts, that the return of the Dark Lord is but a hoax and Potter is crazy and delusional. Potter may be many things, but one thing he isn't is crazy. Umbridge, like her master Fudge, blinds herself to the truth, she's terrified of it, and thinks if she ignores it, it will go away. Humph!"

Severus, I'm hungry.

"Hunting not go well today?"

I caught a shrew. Not enough for me.

"Here." Severus summoned his game bag to him, and removed a large haunch of rabbit, tossing it to the hawk.

Freedom caught it deftly, then settled down to eat it near his perch, upon the old copies of The Daily Prophet. Yum! Rabbit!

While the hawk ate, Snape sipped his water, considering glumly if there was any way to avoid going to the blasted dinner. He supposed it was too late to start brewing an extra large batch of potions for the Hospital Wing, or come down with a contagious disease. Barring his untimely death, he was going to have to attend, and suffer through Dolores the magical facist, Trelawney the idiot seer, and Albus and his damnable twinkling eyes. He'd almost rather get Crucio-ed again.

Freedom soon finished off the rabbit and then flew up to perch upon Severus's shoulder. That was excellent, thanks! How long does this dinner usually last?

"Not more than two hours, thank Merlin. Two hours is the maximum any of us have been able to tolerate Sybill babbling and seeing omens in the folds of the tablecloth or the silver hairs in Dumbledore's beard. And now we have Dolores as well to contend with, and her attitude towards Muggleborns and mixed bloods like Hagrid makes Lucius Malfoy look like a grubby boy repeating what his older sister told him to." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Tonight will not be good."

What if I come with you? I could talk to you when things get boring and you could leave early too, just tell the Headmaster that I'm still a little sick and you need to go back to our quarters.

Severus pondered. "Very well. You may come," he said at last.

Freedom seemed delighted.

Then Severus said sternly, "And it goes without saying-be on your best behavior. No biting or flying at them, simply stay on my shoulder and observe, are you clear on that?"

Yes, Sev. I'll be good. But can I at least insult Umbridge?

Snape chuckled wickedly. "Of course. I would never go that far and deprive you of everything fun."

Freedom nibbled at his talon, his amber eyes glinting in delight.

The Potions Master allowed himself half-an-hour to unwind before going to shower and dress for the dinner. Though the dinner was not formal, Severus nevertheless did not want to appear at it dressed casually. He did, however, decide to wear ordinary black trousers and a soft short-sleeved white collared shirt beneath his second-best set of professor robes.

These robes were a bit more precisely tailored than his everyday ones, they hugged his slim frame to advantage, showing off his trim waist and well-muscled shoulders, for Severus had good body tone despite teaching from stirring and lugging around cauldrons day in and day out, plus he walked to keep fit. The robes also had a bit of silver and green trim on the sleeves and the left breast was stitched with a silver cauldron with an emerging dragon, the emblem of a Potions Master.

A quick spell and his boots were newly shined and he drew part of his hair back in a neat tail, so that it was not hanging in his face. That was an affectation he donned for the students, in keeping with his persona of terror of the dungeons. But he was just Professor Snape for this dinner and he could forgo that image tonight, with only his colleagues to see him.

He tugged on his gauntlet and Freedom flew up to his accustomed perch upon Severus's wrist, then the Potions Master tossed down a handful of Floo powder and called, "Staff room!"

Seconds later he stepped out of the green fire and entered the staff room, which had been enlarged slightly to accommodate the long table where the house elves had placed a huge feast.

There was a whole glazed ham, roasted capon, beef swimming in gravy, some kind of shrimp in a butter sauce, Yorkshire pudding, what looked like noodles with butter, a rice pilaf, baked potatoes with all the trimmings, a loaf of bread, salad, and carrots and string beans.

Severus eyed the spread and felt his stomach turn over. He was not that hungry and just seeing all of this food made him feel slightly ill. Or perhaps it was laying eyes upon Dolores Umbridge, who was seated to the left of the Headmaster, dressed in some kind of frothy frilly dress and jacket combination in a hideous shade of lemonade pink that made Severus want to cover his eyes and run from the room. Merlin have mercy, but does the woman have NO fashion sense? My grandmother Prince, who was renowned for her awful taste in clothes, would not have been caught dead in that. Where did she get it, off of a lampshade?

If the dress, Severus was being generous calling it that, weren't bad enough, Umbridge had rouged her cheeks and lips in yet another shocking pink color and she had her brown hair piled atop her head in a style that would have looked good on a beehive. She was chattering and sniffing to the Headmaster, who was looking a bit glazed over, his blue eyes not sparkling with their usual verve.

He glanced up and saw Severus step out of the fireplace and his eyes shone with unadulterated relief.

"Ah, Severus! Come and join us, my dear boy!" Albus said, beckoning him over to sit next to him.

Snape reluctantly walked over, Freedom eyeing the pair distrustfully. "Good evening, Headmaster, Miss Umbridge." His tone was cool and only slightly condescending when he spoke Umbridge's name.

Umbridge gave him a disapproving glare upon catching sight of the hawk on his arm. "Ahem-ahem! Must you bring your familiar to dinner as well, Professor Snape?"

Severus met her stare steadily. "There is no rule against it."

Freedom looked at her and Umbridge actually looked nervous. Clearly she did not like birds, or maybe it was only hawks that flew free on their master's wrist she didn't like.

"Freedom is always welcome here, Dolores," Dumbledore remonstrated gently but firmly, sounding rather like a grandfather admonishing a pert granddaughter. "He adds character to the meal."

Umbridge cleared her throat again, then gave Severus a saccharine smile that made him long to gag. "Such an unusual familiar, Severus. You don't mind if I call you that, do you?" She fluttered her eyelashes at him. "After all, we're all colleagues here."

Severus did not answer, he was trying hard not to say the first thing that popped into his head, which was Only those I respect and like may use my first name, you prissy old maid. The fluttering of her spiky eyelashes nearly threw him into a panic. She must be desperate, if she were making eyes at him. The mere thought of her in that way was enough to turn him into a monk, he thought, shuddering.

Luckily he was saved by the arrival of Flitwick, Sprout, and McGonagall entering the room at that minute.

"Welcome, Filius, Pomona, and Minerva!" Dumbledore said, beaming at them like long-lost relatives.

Hagrid arrived next, as well as Professors Vector and Sinistra, the teachers of Arithmancy and Astronomy. After them came Charity Burbage, Muggle Studies, and Madam Hooch, flying coach, who informed the Headmaster that Bathsheba Babbling, the Ancient Runes teacher, could not make it, she was suffering from a migraine.

Lucky her, Severus thought longingly.

Sybill Trelawney was the last to arrive, since she refused to Floo from her tower and insisted upon walking to the staff room. She breezed in on a sigh, her overlarge spectacles making her look like a drunken owl, she was wearing an array of colors that would have looked good on a tent bazaar and her bangles and necklaces tinkled and clashed together annoyingly.

"Forgive me, Albus!" she gasped throatily. "But I was occupied with my tea leaves . . .the omens were very odd . . .they said we would have an uninvited guest for dinner, but I see no one here that I don't know."

"Sit down, Sybill," Dumbledore said calmly. "Perhaps your vision will become clearer after a glass of sherry?" he floated a glass over to her.

Next to Severus, McGonagall snorted into her napkin. "Things will become clearer all right. Albus, you silly fool, you ought to know better than to get her started, last time she had a hangover, we never heard the end of it for three months." She turned to Severus. "You do have a Hangover Remedy made up, don't you, Severus? Because I cannot go through that again."

Severus smirked, nodding. "I suppose endless renditions of Witch Doctor and Greensleeves is enough to drive anyone over the edge."

Minerva rolled her eyes. "Severus, don't get me started. You at least got to hide in your apartments, mine are right below hers, and I had to endure her . . . caterwauling every night."

"The perils of being Deputy Headmistress, Minerva," teased Severus.

"Oh, be quiet!" she ordered, chuckling. "Someday, Mr. Snape, I am going to give you an apprentice, a wet-behind-the-ears potions apprentice to mold, and let him drive you crazy."

"Ha! I'd like to see you find anyone willing to work with me."

"Oh, I'm sure I can find someone if I look hard enough."

"I'll scare him away within a week."

Minerva sipped at a glass of white wine, her eyes bright with amusement. "Then I shall have to find someone who is not afraid of a grumpy man that likes to skewer you with his eyes." She eyed Snape's familiar thoughtfully. "That looks like an intelligent bird, Severus. What have you called him again?"

"Freedom," answered Severus, drinking yet another glass of water. He had a small glass of wine as well, but rarely drank in mixed company.

Freedom permitted McGonagall to scratch him lightly, ruffling his feathers gently. He was perched upon Severus's chair back, watching the staff members alertly. Strangely, he found he recognized over half of them, and not from his recent flights through the school. Flitwick he recalled charming a feather and saying, "Remember-swish and flick!" and he also remembered Professor Sprout handing out earmuffs and demonstrating how to repot mandrakes. They disturbed him, for he knew instinctively that the memories were not ones a hawk should have, at least not a normal hawk. He wished the memories would stop, sometimes they came so quickly he was overwhelmed, and they gave him a headache.

Just then he flashed back to a memory of Umbridge, standing before him and saying in a tone sweet as poisoned honey, "I do not tolerate the telling of lies in my classroom. You will now write lines for me, two hundred times, I must not tell lies, using this quill here." She handed him a quill, long and black with an unusually sharp point. "It carries its own supply of ink," she informed him, and something about the way she said that caused his flesh to creep.

Before he could remember anything further, he was yanked out of the memory by Dumbledore tapping on the side of a glass with his fork. "Attention, please. Before we all begin to eat this delicious array of food-quite a lovely feast and just wait till you see dessert-ahem . . .there are a few announcements I would like to make. The first concerns our missing student, Harry Potter. As you know, Mr. Potter has not yet been found, though how he is continuing to hide from us all is quite a conundrum. And most worrying. If any of you have reason to suspect you know his whereabouts, please speak with me immediately. Dolores has brought it to my attention that the Ministry now has a new policy regarding student absences. If a student is absent from school without a signed note from a parent, guardian, or a Healer for more than two months, that student is considered an academic drop out, and as such cannot attend Hogwarts without a thorough investigation into the student's background. It is my fervent hope that Harry will reappear before that deadline, and I would like to ask all of you to please continue searching for him. It is my firm belief that he is still somewhere within the confines of the castle and the grounds, or perhaps in Hogsmeade under a glamour."

"But why would he do such a thing, Headmaster?" queried Professor Sinistra. "I don't know the boy, except by reputation, but why would he choose to absent himself from class and his Housemates? Is it because he is bored or lazy?"

Severus eyed the Headmaster, wondering how he would respond. Before speaking with Hagrid, Snape might have assumed, as Sinistra did, that Potter was lazy and arrogant, assuming, like his father before him, that he was above such things as attending class and obeying rules. But he no longer assumed that, and felt that Potter's disappearance was indicative of a troubled personality rather than a prank or adolescent rebellion.

Albus looked at Aurora and said quietly, "No, I don't think it's because Harry is lazy or bored. I think there is a deeper problem here, but without the boy himself to confirm it, I cannot be certain, and so at this time shall say nothing."

"He must have some powerful magic to remain hidden from you so long, Headmaster," spoke up Charity. "How many weeks now has he been missing?"

"Nearly three."

More muttering followed and then Umbridge coughed and stated, "I find it inexcusable that Potter has been allowed to run wild like this for so long. The boy is clearly taking advantage of everyone and needs to be brought to heel. I have found him quite rude and shifty, telling lies to gain the attention of his peers. Perhaps this is a new scheme."

Albus looked pained at that, and Minerva incensed. She hissed to Snape, "I am his Head of House, and I have never known Potter to be either dishonest or rude. And he has never liked attention from either the press or his peers. Wouldn't you agree, Severus?"

Severus sipped at his water before replying. "To be honest, Minerva, the boy has been rather rude to me on more than one occasion, and I have caught him in a lie once or twice, but no more or less than any other student. There is something wrong here, and I do not think it has anything to do with a need to get attention from his peers. From one of us, perhaps . . ."

"Do you think he is getting help from one of them? Weasley perhaps, maybe even Granger?" Minerva pondered. "I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out how he has managed to go this long without food or water and thought perhaps his friends have been smuggling him things, but I've had the Owlery watched and no owls have left with any suspicious packages."

"Unless he had help from one of the house elves. There is one here, Dobby I believe his name is, that seems to be devoted to Potter, you might want to question him."

"Yes, that is a good idea, Severus. And I shall question Weasley and Granger again, although they were the ones who first informed me that Potter was missing."

Before they could say anything further, Dumbledore interrupted again. "And there will also be a slight . . .change in school policy, but I shall let Dolores tell you more about that." He gestured to Umbridge.

"Ahem! Ahem! The Minister of Magic was most . . .disturbed over the summer to have nearly expelled that Potter boy from Hogwarts. He has since decided that it is time for a change and has asked me to help him implement it." Umbridge smiled sweetly. "The Ministry is concerned that today's children might be influenced by lies about the return of a dead wizard and wish to take steps to avoid panic and maintain status quo."

Lies about the return of a dead wizard? Snape thought with a sneer. Shall I show you just what this dead wizard is capable of, Umbridge? Would you like to see the scars of his handiwork and then tell me he isn't real? His hand tightened on the water goblet.

Umbridge went on, totally oblivious to the fuming potions professor across from her. "To that end, he has appointed me High Inquisitor of Hogwarts. I shall be overseeing the school, replacing Headmaster Dumbledore where necessary and re-organizing the school according to Ministry policy."

Minerva raised an eyebrow. "Re-organizing the school? And just what do you mean by that, Dolores?"

"Just what I said, Minerva. The Ministry has seen that several practices here are outdated and wish to implement new ones. I shall become Inquisitor next Friday, and you all shall apply to me in regards to vacations, sick time, curriculum-speaking of which, I shall be examining you all in regards to your curriculum content and your teaching methods, making sure you comply with Ministry policy. I will give you a parchment list of accepted Ministry teachings for your students and expect you to comply with them. If I evaluate you and find you are substandard, I shall issue you a warning. That will be the only warning you will get. After that, any failure to comply with regulations will result in . . .dismissal."

All of the teachers stared at each other and then down at their plates in horror. Then they looked at Dumbledore, as if expecting him to tell them it was all an elaborate joke. But Dumbledore looked drawn and worried and Severus felt a cold chill run down his backbone. He cannot help us any longer. The old wolf has been brought to bay and now we must fend for ourselves. And I have more in my past to live down than any of them. Does she know, I wonder, about the six months I was a Death Eater before I turned spy at seventeen? I was never convicted of anything, but the Ministry is ever suspicious. Should Umbridge ever discover his past, he knew she would sack him without blinking.

Severus, what does that mean? Freedom hissed in his ear. Does it mean that Dumbledore is no longer in charge? But how could they do that? How could they just shove him away and put that . . .that hag from hell in charge? She doesn't know anything about running a school and everyone hates her. Even YOU hate her!

"I know, but the Ministry rules and after recent events, they are starting to think Dumbledore is mad, supporting Potter about the return of the Dark Lord. So they put a spy like Umbridge in the ranks and then bump her up into a position of authority. Idiots! Why can't they leave well enough alone?"

Dolores rummaged about in a overlarge pink satchel. "Ah, here we go! Your revised class syllabuses and content area requirements. These should make teaching much easier, after all, it's important that we all have structure, and this will help you." She summoned a house elf to deliver the parchments.

"Thank you, Dolores. And now, let us eat," Dumbledore declared happily, and said, "A bit of everything please." A portion of each food was transferred to his plate. He immediately began eating.

Severus longed to hex Umbridge until she begged for mercy after looking at the revised syllabus for potions. What does she think I'm teaching here, pre-schoolers? Oh, they may act like it on occasion, but this is ridiculous! I am not allowed to instruct them on antidotes or poisons, it's good we covered that last year, then. No drafts pertaining to illegal substances, Merlin have mercy, as if I want to teach teenagers that are high . . .The list went on for about two feet and by the time he had reached the end of it, he was ready to slip Umbridge a Mind-Altering Draft. About the only 'safe' potions he could teach were ones for toddlers, he might as well have them learning to brew tea.

He stuffed the offending parchment into a pocket and glowered down at his plate.

"Something wrong, Severus?" purred the witch across from him. "You look rather . . .perturbed."

"Do I?" he raised an eyebrow. "You are mistaken, madam, for I am merely pondering my new syllabus and how enlightening it will be for the children to learn Ministry approved methods," he drawled. "The new generation will benefit from the wisdom of learning how to see like an ostrich, always an important life skill."

He knew he should not bait her, but he was disgusted and furious, and he had never reacted well to pompous idiots telling him what he could and couldn't do.

"Why, yes, exactly!" the cow simpered.

Next to Severus, Minerva was quietly snickering into a napkin, laughing at the stupidity of the other witch, who didn't even know Severus had insulted her and her entire policy of re-education.

Severus concealed a smirk, then called for some chicken, shrimp over noodles, rice, and vegetables. He began to eat, hoping not to get indigestion, for the tension in the room was a palpable presence.

Guess you told her, Severus! Freedom remarked, delighted with his master's wit. Is she stupid or what? Everyone knows ostriches bury their heads in the sand!

"Indeed," Severus said out of the corner of his mouth, covering his word with the napkin. It was gratifying to know that a hawk was smarter than Umbridge. He resumed eating, noting that the twinkle had returned to Dumbledore's eyes.

Umbridge abruptly put down her fork and declared coldly, "Is there any way to muzzle that bird, Severus? He's disrupting the peace of my dinner."

Too bad, toad! Like you didn't ruin it already! Freedom hissed, hovering a few inches above Severus's chair, eyeing Umbridge the way he would a tasty mouse or a rabbit. You know, I eat toads for breakfast.

Umbridge turned a pasty white. "Control that animal, Snape!" barked the witch. "Before I do." Her wand was in her hand.

So was Snape's. It was pure reflex, he didn't even think about it. No wizard threatened his familiar. His icily polite veneer vanished and he gave the squat witch a warning glare. "Don't ever threaten my familiar, Umbridge," he growled.

"You dare to threaten me?" she gasped, her bosom heaving. "That creature is a menace!"

"That creature did nothing to you and yet you would curse him," Severus declared frostily. "Is this the famed Ministry justice, madam? Hexing a defenseless hawk because of what he might do? Such restraint you show, such maturity."

Before Umbridge could open her mouth to reply, Dumbledore cut in.

"Severus, Dolores, please! Put your wands away, this is a dinner, not a dueling arena! There is no need for you to get so upset."

Umbridge whirled upon him, her brown eyes snapping. "No need, Albus? He never should have been allowed to bring that vicious thing here, and now he threatens me, a known member of the Minister's cabinet!"

"Now, Dolores, you're overreacting. Severus did nothing of the sort. Freedom would never harm you, he is merely excitable. You are not used to birds of prey, I know." He reached over and patted her hand comfortingly, much the way one would soothe a frightened child or a crotchety old woman. "There is no need to be afraid, hawks only attack prey animals, like rabbits, mice, and . . .toads," he added with a sly wink. "Please, put your wand away, my dear, shouting only startles him more, and you would not want him to fly, now would you?"

At that, Umbridge pocketed her wand. "I detest flying things!" she snarled. "As well as monsters that have partly human shapes. Abominations, all of them!"

Severus flicked his wrist, and his wand disappeared up his sleeve. He held out his fist for the hawk, saying softly, "Freedom, to me."

The angry hawk hovered briefly then settled on the proffered fist. Better watch yourself, you evil viper. Draw a wand on me again and I'll show you how quick I can strike, harpy.

"Shhh. Quiet!" Severus ordered, stroking the hawk's feathers. "Control yourself, dammit!" he hissed in an undertone.

I am! She wanted to muzzle me, Severus! Someone ought to muzzle her instead! She's nothing but trouble. Dumbledore ought to kick her arse right out of the castle! The students all hate her, I've heard them talking. She can't teach at all, all she knows is a textbook, and her detentions are horrible too.

Severus did not respond, he was still trying to get his temper under control. He didn't know who he was angrier at, Umbridge or himself, for losing control like that. He hadn't let his temper rule him in years, yet the sight of Umbridge's wand trained upon his hawk had brought all his protective instincts surging to the fore and he had responded without thinking, or rather without thinking of the consequences to himself.

Gritting his teeth, he knew he would have to do some damage control, for he sensed Umbridge was not one to forget an insult, and once she was in charge, she could make his life hell, or at least very unpleasant. And if she went poking and prying into his background, trying to dig up dirt on him . . .

So he said, every word leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, "My apologies, madam. Had I known you were afraid of birds, I would have seated myself further away down the table. Albus is correct, my familiar is not vicious, he has never harmed a person."

But if I did, she'd be second on my list, right after the bloody Dark Lord.

"Humph!" Umbridge sniffed, eyeing the hawk angrily, then picked up her fork again and resumed eating her roast beef. "Never understood how some wizards could prefer birds to cats. Cats are much better companions, you can hug and cuddle a cat and they rid the world of vermin." She shot a nasty glare at Severus.

"So do hawks," Severus argued. "They keep down the population of mice, rats, rabbits, snakes, and toads. Without hawks we would be overrun by such creatures and starve to death." His words were innocuous, but the sarcasm running beneath was not. Fortunately, Umbridge did not catch it, she was about as subtle as brick wall.

Several of the other staff members did, however, and they silently congratulated their colleague on a clever hit, for Umbridge was universally disliked by the entire staff. They regarded her as a pushy arrogant upstart, one who was more interested in politics than education, and they resented her coming here and telling them how to do their jobs, when most of the staff had been teaching for over ten years.

"Both animals are necessary and useful to the environment," Minerva interjected smoothly, though she tended to agree with Umbridge, since she too loved cats, but it pained her to agree with anything that woman said. She turned to Severus and asked if he had read the latest alchemy journal, some young wizard claimed he had invented a potion that turned a lead ingot into gold.

Severus snorted. "Impossible. What formula did he use?"

Taking his cue from Minerva, Flitwick, who was seated on the other side of Umbridge, engaged Umbridge in a talk about what kinds of charms were best for the complexion, and so managed to get through the rest of the main course without further mishaps.

Until the dessert course arrived, full of all kinds of cakes and scones and pastries with whipped topping and comfits. Tea and coffee was served, the house elves set a cup of each beside the plates of each teacher, which proved to be a big mistake.

Trelawney, never comfortable around her fellow professors, had been searching for a way to make conversation with her seatmate, Rolanda Hooch, who was the complete opposite of the airy Sybill, and they mixed like oil and water. Rolanda was bored to tears listening to Sybill drone on about mystic symbols and portents and Sybill could have cared less about Quidditch scores.

"Ah, tea leaves!" exclaimed the Divination professor. "My favorite mode of divination."

"Really?" Rolanda yawned, wishing the dinner were over. "Perhaps you can predict who will win the next Harpies-Cannons match then, Sybill?"

Sybill gave her an irritated look. "My Inner Eye is not to be used for such trivialities."

"Oh? What, you only predict natural disasters or the end of the world?" Hooch shot back.

"I do not See on command, Rolanda, like a gypsy." Sybill declared haughtily. "The Sight comes when it wills and not merely when I wish it."

"Fiddle faddle!" laughed Hooch. "You're just saying that because you've never learned to control your Gift, if you even have one in the first place."

"Are you implying I am inferior?" snapped Sybill. She quickly drained her mug, and peered at the tea leaves left in the bottom, seething. "I see . . .I see . . .a great danger coming . . .the shadow of the Dark One shall rise to cover the land . . ." the seer croaked dramatically.

Hooch rolled her eyes. "Typical. There's always a great danger. Anything else? A knight in shining armor, perhaps?"

"Do not mock the Powers!" intoned the Divination teacher. Everyone was now staring down at her. " . . .but the shadow shall be vanquished . . .by sacrifice and truth and . . ." here the seer paused.

"Well? Get on with it," Hooch sighed impatiently. "You left out the part where someone close to me is going to die."

" . . .two hawks flying . . .together they shall find what is hidden and teach death to die!" she finished with a flourish of her beringed hands.

Hooch chuckled. "There! I knew someone was going to die. Good one, Sybill!"

Several of the professors nearest her snickered, for the prediction sounded like so much poppycock.

Umbridge had risen, however, and was eyeing the seer with a frown. "Do you always . . .predict with such . . .outlandish claims . . .Trelawney?"

Sybill looked up at the other witch, blinking owlishly. "I don't know what you mean. I but See what my Sight gives me to see. That is why I spend so much time in my tower, the air there is much clearer, free from interfering influences and minds . . ."

"Yes, yes." Umbridge waved her hand dismissively. "But you mentioned that "the shadow of the Dark One shall rise again" what exactly did you mean by that?"

"What I said," Trelawney repeated, confused.

There was dead silence at the table.

"You're telling me that you saw the return of . . .of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in your tea leaves?" Umbridge scowled.

"I . . .I Saw a great danger . . ." Sybill faltered, uncertain.

"He is dead, Trelawney! Dead and gone these past fourteen years, and he cannot return!" Umbridge shouted. "You are deranged, predicting such nonsense . . . shadows swallowing the earth, hawks defeating death . . .really madam, what kind of fool do you take me for?"

"I did see what I spoke of!" Sybill argued. Then she shrank back as Umbridge advanced upon her.

"You saw nothing! You were making it up, or else spouting sedition! There is no Dark Lord and no great danger coming, save for your possible dismissal for spreading lies to impressionable children!" Umbridge poked her finger into Trelawney's chest. "You are on probation, professor, and if you do not meet Ministry standards, rest assured you will no longer be employed here!" Then she gave Sybill a poisonous grin. "Am I understood, my dear seer?"

Sybill huddled in her chair, clearly petrified by the other witch, and nodded, her head bobbing up and down like a cork in the ocean.

For an instant, no one moved. Though most of the staff at Hogwarts regarded Trelawney as a half-mad eccentric who couldn't see her way out of a brightly-lit room, they detested Umbridge and her bullying ways.

"Hey now, Dolores, no need to scare poor Sybill to death," Hooch objected, glaring daggers at the pink-garbed witch. "Maybe she really did see a great danger."

Umbridge spun on her. "But you . . .you said you didn't believe her either. I heard you."

Rolanda shrugged. "Happen I was wrong. What of it? You need to stop taking yourself so seriously, old girl. Give you age lines before your time."

Umbridge drew in a breath, ready to let Hooch have it, but Dumbledore spoke up.

"Sybill, you look rather tired. Might I suggest you retire to your tower?"

"I . . .yes, I am feeling rather unwell . . .My head is spinning . . .the air here is so foggy . . ."

"Yes, you need a good lie down." He turned to Snape, who was looking at Umbridge as if he wished to skin her and flay her. Freedom too was glaring at her and Dumbledore made a snap decision. "Severus, if you would be so kind as to escort Sybill back to her rooms?"

Snape sighed in distaste, he had no love for the Divination teacher, but neither did he like to see her victimized by that bullying toad Umbridge. "Very well, Headmaster."

He rose and walked down to the end of the table where Trelawney was seated, looking like a terrified mouse facing down an enraged cat. "Come, Sybill." He held out his right arm.

Trelawney, desperate to get away from Umbridge, jumped to her feet, tripped over her chair and fell into Severus.

He staggered, but managed to keep his feet, gripping Trelawney closely to keep her upright. "Blazes, Sybill, you're an accident waiting to happen!" he growled.

Freedom, upon his opposite wrist, was knocked off, and flapped hard, trying to regain his balance.

Right in Umbridge's face.

Umbridge, whose height put her at Severus's chest, only saw the hawk's talons and wings coming at her. She shrieked, throwing a hand up to cover her face, startling the hawk even more, and Freedom soared up above the table.

"Get it away! Get it away!" Umbridge howled, backing away, her hand still over her eyes.

She bumped right into the table, which was laden with desserts, still screaming, falling over onto it. The resulting crash caused the three-tiered layer cake and several other whipped confections to fall all over her.

Severus whistled for his familiar, and Freedom took the opportunity to swoop low and return to his wizard's fist, gliding right over Umbridge's head.

Convinced the hawk was attacking her, Umbridge squealed and tried to scramble away across the table, her hands still over her face, her high heel catching in a blanc mange. She jerked free, only to end up sprawled face-first in a bowl of strawberry trifle.

Freedom landed upon Severus's fist, skreeing in triumph.

The Potions Master cast his smug familiar a reproving glare before making haste to escort Sybill from the room. The Divination teacher had her face hidden in his robes and she was shaking. Snape prayed she wasn't crying. "Come along, Sybill. You needn't try and bury yourself in my robes, the wicked witch is gone." His tone was only mildly sharp now.

"Vanquished by a bowl of strawberry trifle."

"What did you say?"

Sybill lifted her head from his robes and he saw to his everlasting relief that she was not crying, but laughing. "Oh, Severus! I . . .I never intended . . .but to see that vile woman . . .upended in that strawberry trifle . . .I shall never forget it as long as I live . . .!"

Snape permitted himself a smirk. "She got her just deserts, wouldn't you say?"

His irrelevant comment set Trelawney off again.

Severus winced, for she had a laugh like a hyena. "Hush. You'll wake the entire castle." He quickly ushered her across the entrance hall and up the stairs to her tower suite. There he left her, though he felt compelled to warn her to keep her head down. "She'll be looking for an excuse to sack you, Sybill, so watch yourself."

"You as well, Severus," she said. "Good night." She turned to go inside, then added over her shoulder, "You know, that was the first staff dinner I have ever really enjoyed in all my years here. You should bring your hawk for dinner more often."

"Good night, Sybill," was all he replied, but she could see a faint glimmer of amusement in his obsidian eyes.

As she shut the door behind her, she could hear him scolding his familiar, very softly, "Next time you pull a stunt like that, I'll clip your wings, you incorrigible bird!"

Wasn't my fault, Severus! I got knocked off your arm.

Severus headed down the stairs, shaking his head. "That last fly by was deliberate and don't bother to deny it."

All right then. I won't. Brilliant, wasn't it?

"Have you no sense of self-preservation? Do you want to end up before a committee for Dangerous Creatures?"

For what? Flying when startled? Freedom demanded impudently. She wasn't hurt. Except her pride, that is. Come on, Sev, you can't tell me you didn't enjoy that.

Severus sighed. "It was . . .very satisfying," he admitted at last. "But somehow I have a feeling that tonight will have unseen repercussions for all of us."

Like what?

"I don't know. But a woman scorned, especially one like Umbridge, is always dangerous."

You worry too much, Sev, the hawk chirruped, and nibbled Snape's ear affectionately.

"And you not enough," Snape threw back. "Someday that daring streak is going to get you killed, if you don't learn to temper it."

Okay, okay. Save the lecture, won't you? My head hurts, the hawk meeped plaintively. The headache he'd been fighting now returned with a vengeance.

Severus glanced at the hawk in concern. "What do you mean, your head hurts?"

What I said. I'm tired and my head aches.

"I'll cast a diagnostic when we get home," Severus promised. He was worried, animals usually didn't get headaches and if they did it was usually indicative of a more serious problem.

But the diagnostic revealed no major trauma to the hawk's head or blood vessels, Severus cast several diagnostics to make certain there were no embolisms lurking in the hawk's veins, but when everything turned up normal, he was at a loss. "Maybe it's just stress. Here, have a dose of Pain Reliever, then go to sleep."

To his surprise, Freedom made no protest, allowing Severus to dose him and then put him on his perch, falling asleep almost immediately.

Perhaps he'll feel better in the morning. The last thing I need is for him to get sick again. Bloody Umbridge! Maybe she hexed him while nobody was looking. But his quick "Revelario malus magicka!" came up with no harmful hexes or curses.

He sighed in relief then left his familiar sleeping and went to get ready for bed himself. He put no stock in Trelawney's prediction, yet he could not shake the uneasy feeling in his bones. Nothing good could come of Umbridge being in charge at Hogwarts. The woman was as power-hungry and single-minded as Voldemort, and battle lines had now been drawn. But it remained to be seen who would triumph.




 





Chapter End Notes:




What did you think of the dinner? Umbridge? Trelawney?

Next: Our hawk's headaches are indicative of a real problem--the return of most of his memories!

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