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Freedom flew frantically through the hallway, struggling to recall if Ron or Hermione had ever mentioned where the DA meetings were held, on what floor at least. He dimly recalled something about the seventh floor and quickly shot upwards like a streak of lightning. But once he got there, he was at a loss. He was unsure what room was the Room of Requirement, and even if he did know, how would he open the door, and how would he communicate with his friends even if they did open the door? None of them could speak hawk.

He flew back and forth, desperate. What to do? I need to warn them, but how? Think, dammit, think! You're so smart, Harry, use your brain for more than causing mischief, as Snape would say. Who can get here and find the room and warn them in time that understands you? Sev could, but he's in his lab, brewing, and by the time he got here, Umbridge will have too. So . . .who's left?

Then he remembered the other time he had called for help, when Severus was so badly injured by the Cruiciatus Curse. Of course! Oh, I am SUCH a dunderhead! He drew in a breath and screeched-TWIXIE!

A second or two later, Snape's house elf-at least that was how Harry thought of her-popped into view. "You called, Freedom?"

Twixie, do you know how to find the Room of Requirement? Because it's really important. My friends were betrayed and Umbridge will be here in minutes to, uh, arrest them or whatever, so please, you've got to warn them!

Twixie blinked. Then she said, "I don't know where that is, but Dobby might." She clapped her hands and called, "Dobby!"

There was another pop, and then Dobby appeared. "What is wrong, Twixie?"

Twixie told him and he quickly popped away, saying, "I shall warn the young wizards and save them from the nasty old wicked witch!"

Freedom gave a happy screech. Go, Dobby! Thanks, Twixie! You're the best.

The elf blushed. "You are most welcome, young hawk. Now, I must be going, I have floors to sweep. Oh, and Master Severus is looking for you, so you ought to go home." Then she blinked away.

Right. I'll go home just as soon as I make sure they're all right, Freedom thought.

A minute later, he heard a door open, and several students spilled out into the corridor, running hard, their faces pale and scared.

"Quick, down the stairs! Hurry! She's coming up the other staircase!"

Freedom swiveled his head around. Sure enough, he could hear Umbridge's heels tap-tap-tapping out a death march, as well as other feet striding purposefully down the corridor.

Most of the students had gotten away by then, but Ron, Hermione, and Neville were the last to emerge from the room, and they had no time to run before Umbridge spotted them. "Halt! What are you three doing here? It's after curfew and prefects or not-you are out of your common room!"

The three froze, like deer caught in headlights.

The door to the Room of Requirement was slightly ajar. Umbridge pointed, and the two Aurors, Shacklebolt and Dawlish, accompanied by Cornelius Fudge, who had come to the school to find out why Dolores had not responded to his letters, pushed by them into the room.

Umbridge strode up to the three, a smile of satisfaction upon her face. "Now, we shall see what has been going on here. It would seem you all have been meeting in direct defiance of Educational Decree #24."

"We weren't doing anything wrong!" Ron blustered, his freckles standing out sharply against his ghost pale skin.

Hermione just looked at the other witch and said nothing, her lips clamped tight.

Neville whimpered and shook, but he too said nothing.

A furious Freedom watched and longed to slam Umbridge on the back of the head with closed talons, but he restrained himself by the slimmest of margins. Stop and think! Stop and think! He chanted softly, over and over. Remember your promise. You'll make it worse if you attack her now.

Fudge called from inside the room, "Come here, Dolores, and see what we've found! Evidence of sedition and an attempt to overthrow the government! I knew he wasn't to be trusted!"

Dolores waved her wand and the three were surrounded by a glowing belt of light. "Stay here and wait. We shall be having a long discussion in my office very soon!"

She stomped into the room.

Three minutes later, they all emerged, the Aurors looked grave and stern, and Umbridge and Fudge like they wanted to dismantle someone. Umbridge herded the three students back down the stairs and Freedom made a soft noise of dismay.

I'm sorry. I tried. He hoped that Umbridge wouldn't harm them too much. He made as if to return to the dungeons, but something made him turn back and follow Umbridge back to her office.

He needed to know what happened to his friends, he wouldn't be able to sleep without knowing.

He nipped in just behind Fudge on the revolving staircase, and again as the door was opened and they all filed into the Headmaster's office. Freedom refused to acknowledge Umbridge in that capacity, to him she was just a usurper. Yet another word he'd learned from Snape. Really, the man was a walking vocabulary text, he thought, trying to keep his churning stomach from coming out of his throat.

Once they were all inside, Umbridge relaxed, though none of them noticed the red-tail perched upon the top of the bookshelf except Fawkes, who warbled curiously in alarm. *What has happened, fledgling?*

Freedom couldn't answer, he was simultaneously fighting back the urge to rip Umbridge's hair out and vomit at the same time. Could they be expelled? Surely not over this! But still, he'd not put it past the woman.

Fudge stomped over to the fireplace, a pinch of Floo powder in his hand. "I shall firecall Dumbledore and see what he has to say about this, Dolores! You deal with those three!"

Umbridge smiled and the three standing before her desk gulped loudly, for her smile would have looked right at home upon a piranha. "You-sit there, there, and there!" She pointed her wand and three very hard wooden chairs sprang up.

"Professor, I can explain-" Hermione began, finding her voice at last.

"Really, Mrs. Granger? Well, I do not need your explanation. Because I already know what you were doing inside that room every other Friday and Thursday night." She cleared her throat. "Ahem! Ahem! Mr. Malfoy, Miss Edgecombe, come in here, if you would!"

A tapestry next to the fireplace slid aside and out stepped Draco and Marietta. Marietta looked guilty and scared, her face was blotchy with tears and a rash of pimples that spelled out the word SNEAK upon her forehead.

Hermione looked at her and shook her head in disappointment and Ron half-leaped to his feet and shouted, "You sold us out you rotten, conniving, two-faced-!"

Marietta burst into tears and Umbridge snapped "Silencio!" effectively cutting off Ron in mid-tirade.

"Now, as you can see, I know all about your little Defense meetings," Umbridge began, her smile widening the tiniest bit. "I also know that they were more than that."

"More than that? No, professor, all they were-" Hermione began, only to be cut off as well by Umbridge.

"Quiet! When I wish you to speak, I will say so! Until then, you will be quiet." Umbridge smiled sweetly. "That's better. Now, as I was saying, I know that the real purpose of these meetings was to recruit supporters for Albus Dumbledore, you were gathering for the purpose of fomenting a rebellion against me and by extension the Minister of Magic."

The three Gryffindors' mouths hung open in horror.

Fudge turned on them then, and said sternly, "You needn't bother to deny it, the evidence was plain upon the chalkboard and the piece of parchment we found with all of your signatures upon it. You have named yourself-Dumbledore's Army, is that not so?"

"Yes, sir." Hermione answered quietly.

"And that is all the proof I need!" Fudge declared triumphantly, just as the fire flared green and Dumbledore emerged from the fireplace.

"Cornelius, what seems to be the problem?" inquired Dumbledore politely.

Though Freedom caught the quick slip of one sleeve as Dumbledore freed his wand and held it hidden in his hand. Good. The old man's not as batty as he looks. He and Severus must have practiced in the same school, because both of them know how to keep a wand up their sleeve. Wish I knew how to do that.

"The problem Albus, is you!" Fudge cried, his face turning red as a tomato. He was literally shaking with rage from head to toe. "You have been plotting behind my back ever since the summer, when I nearly expelled Harry Potter. You told me then to beware of rousing a wizard's wrath-and I didn't get the reference at the time, but now I do."

"Ah. Then you too have read Tolkien, Cornelius?"

"What?" the other sputtered. A moment later he recovered. "Don't try and sidestep the issue, Dumbledore! You are guilty of recruiting these children into an army to use against me-I know it, you know it, and they know it! Well, it won't work! You've been found out and now . . .now comes the day of reckoning!"

Fudge's wand was in his hand, pointing directly at Dumbledore's heart.

Freedom tensed, wondering if he could snatch the wand away before Fudge cast.

A soft hiss from Fawkes halted him. * Stay, Harry-chick! This is not your battle-it is mine! No one hurts my wizard!*

Freedom glanced down, astonished, to see the normally peaceful phoenix with his wings half-spread, fiery sparks flying onto the floor and a look of anger in the dark eyes. It appeared that when their master was threatened, even the most docile familiar turned fierce.

Albus raised an eyebrow. "Indeed, Cornelius. Is that why Shacklebolt and Dawlish are here? To bring me in?"

"Exactly!" Fudge cried. "I am charging you with attempted overthrow of Ministry authority, among other things. Now then, surrender your wand and come along with us, Albus, and perhaps I'll agree to shorten your stay in Azkaban. I doubt you'd last long there anyhow, considering your age . . ."

"Cornelius, I have no intention of going to Azkaban. I organized that group of students to counter Voldemort, not to overthrow you, my friend. You are quite mistaken if you think I would ever wish that-"

Fudge paled. "Lies! You see what lies come out of his mouth?" he gestured to the two Aurors. "He-Wh-Must-Not-Be-Named is DEAD! And you cannot make me think otherwise! He died that night and only his followers are left. And you want me gone and someone of your choosing in my place . . .maybe even that wet-behind-the-ears boy hero of yours-if you can find where he skipped off to-well, it's not going to happen! Not while I can still hold a wand! I will not be treated this way, Dumbledore. Now, will you come quietly, or must I use a Stunning Hex?"

Dumbledore's eyes narrowed and Freedom flinched involuntarily at the wave of raw power coming off the old wizard. "No, Cornelius, I shall not . . .come quietly. As I said, I am not minded to stay in Azkaban, and any attempt to make me will go poorly . . .for you. Therefore, do not try it." There was steel in the Headmaster's voice.

Fudge ground his teeth together. "Dawlish, Shacklebolt-take him!" he cried.

But before the others could so much as raise their wands, Fawkes sprang from his perch with a loud cry and flew over to Dumbledore. He lifted the wizard in his talons, shrilling a sharp war cry, his entire body blazing with eldritch fire.

Then there was a sharp clap like thunder and Dumbledore and Fawkes vanished in a sheet of crimson and gold flame.

No one moved for an instant.

Blazes, Fawkes, but you sure know how to make an exit! Thought Freedom in admiration.

"Where did he go?" cried Fudge. "I want him traced!"

"We'll try to, sir," began Dawlish.

Shacklebolt chuckled. "Well, even if you don't like him, sir, you have to admit-he's got style."

Umbridge and Fudge scowled. "Well, I'm finished here, Dolores. I trust you can handle it from here?"

"Of course, Minister," Umbridge simpered. "Everything is under control."

"Very good! Carry on, Dolores!" and with that, Fudge and the Aurors Floeed back to the Ministry.

Umbridge turned to her wayward students. "You will all serve detention with me tomorrow morning at seven o'clock sharp. And for every morning next week as well. And so will everyone else upon this miserable list! Unbelievable, that you thought you could get away with such unseemly behavior! You are lucky I am being merciful and not calling for your immediate removal from this school!" She waved her wand and released Ron from the Silencing Charm. "Get back to your dormitory, all of you!"

The three rose and left without a word.

She looked at Marietta and Malfoy. "And you two should also get back to your common rooms. Miss Edgecombe, you might want to see Madam Pomfrey about your face, that jinx looks nasty."

"Yes, ma'am," muttered Marietta. She scurried away.

Draco paused, one hand on the door before saying, "Professor Umbridge, that familiar of Professor Snape's attacked me earlier for no reason. I want to lodge a complaint against it."

Why you little coward! Freedom thought furiously. Running to a teacher and tattling just like a little baby! I didn't even touch you!

Umbridge smiled happily. "Complaint noted, Mr. Malfoy. I shall speak to Professor Snape in the morning. Well done, my boy. Now off to bed with you." She shooed him out the door and Freedom quickly followed on silent wings.

All the way back to the dungeons, the hawk was tempted to scratch Malfoy a good one. Or to cut loose with a nice big one right on the smug twit's head. But he didn't, recalling how impulsiveness and temper had gotten his parents into trouble, and how he wanted to try and learn from their mistakes.

So he let Malfoy go back to the Slytherin common room unmarked and continued on to Severus's quarters, where he tapped sharply upon the door with his beak and called Severus! I'm home, let me in!

The wall shimmered as the door was opened and Snape stood aside to let Freedom enter.

He frowned at his familiar who flew down to perch on the couch. "And just where, might I ask, have you been?"

Freedom blinked, wondering why Snape sounded so put out. Surely Umbridge had not told him yet about Draco? Around. I fell asleep in the Owlery.

"Humph! Well, it's a good thing you came back when you did. I was just about to go to sleep and then you would have been spending the night in the Owlery. Next time come home at a decent hour."

Okay, Sev! No need to have a hippogriff. I didn't know I had a curfew.

"Maybe you should, the way you've been staying out till all hours," the other grumbled, settling down on the couch and scratching the hawk behind the head.

Freedom leaned into the caress, unmindful of the other's grumbling, he knew it meant nothing. For now. Tomorrow, though . . .His stomach growled and he realized he hadn't eaten since this afternoon. Uh, Sev? Do you have any chicken? I'm kind of hungry.

Snape sighed and summoned the game bag over. "Unbelievable! Gone all day and all night and then when you do come home-it's Sev, feed me! Is that all I am to you, a walking food dish? Hmm?"

No, of course not! Freedom reassured him. Then he began to devour the raw chicken the Potions Master held out. Mmmm. Thanks, Sev! This is the best chicken ever and you're the best wizard a familiar ever had . . .

"Never mind the flattery," the professor said gruffly, but Freedom heard the smile behind the words and was content.

After finishing his meal, the hawk came to sit upon one black-clad shoulder, figuring he'd better get some snuggle time in while he still could, because Severus wasn't going to be too happy with him the next morning. Odd, how that left a lump in his crop and a fluttery anxiety in his stomach. He didn't want Severus to be disappointed in him. It was strange but a month ago, he'd not have cared two pence whether Snape was disappointed in him or not. Now though . . .things were different, and he felt guilty for making the wizard worry and fret over him.

Merlin, what's happening to me? First Hedwig and now Snape, both of them treating me like . . .well, a kid. Nobody's ever really done that before and it's kind of . . .weird. And nice and annoying. Freedom heaved a sigh, and thought that at least it was better than how the Dursleys had treated him, as if he didn't exist.

Although, that might be preferable to what Severus is going to do once he finds out what I've been up to. Ah, well, I'll worry about that tomorrow. The hawk tucked his head under his wing and thought sleepily that for once Dumbledore had done something right and he hoped Fawkes had plenty of grapes and pineapples to eat wherever they had gone.

* * * * * *

Breakfast the next morning was both subdued, in the case of the DA members, and excited, in the case of everyone else. The hot topic of the day was the Headmaster's vanishing and several worried looks were thrown up at the staff table, where Umbridge presided like a queen over her subjects. Umbridge herself looked pleased as punch, unlike the rest of the staff members. Snape scowled down at his eggs grimly, having just been informed that his familiar had, according to Mr. Malfoy, attacked the boy without provocation.

"Keep that bird in line, Mr. Snape, or else I shall deal with it myself, the way a dangerous beast should be treated!" Umbridge warned, her tone dripping with poison. "And you are now on probation for endangering students with your pet, Professor."

You're a dangerous beast yourself, maybe someone ought to put you down! The hawk chirruped insolently.

"Quiet! You're in enough trouble as it is!" Snape hissed out of the corner of his mouth. "We'll discuss this later!"

Freedom hunched up on the Potion Master's shoulder, looking abashed. No doubt about it, now he was in trouble.

* * * * * *

"What were you thinking, attacking Malfoy like that?" Snape demanded as soon as he had gone back to his quarters after breakfast, he still had a half-an-hour before his first class.

Freedom was sitting upon his natural wood perch, while the irate professor paced up and down in front of him, looking like a father about to decimate a misbehaving teenager. I didn't . . .attack him . . .I just flew at him, Severus.

"For what reason?"

Freedom hesitated. He couldn't tell Severus the real reason. He was being a dumbass to a girl.

Snape's eyebrow rose. "Oh, and I suppose it is now your business to interfere in personal relationships? Since when did your name become Cupid?"

No, it's not like that. It's Malfoy . . .the git who nearly killed me . . .Come on, Sev, you know I can't stand him.

"And I cannot stand Umbridge, but that doesn't mean I hex her," Severus pointed out.

But you'd love to, wouldn't you? Freedom said cheekily, then subsided when Severus threw him a look.

"After last time, I thought you would have learned to control yourself. You promised you would behave and then you go and do this."

The hawk hung his head. Sorry.

"Now you are, sure." He frowned severely at the bird, who looked rather like a repentant six-year-old. He walked over to the hook on the wall where he hung the bag of falconry equipment and removed the jesses and a short creance line. He turned around and walked back to where his familiar was sitting, looking very upset.

Freedom caught sight of the jesses and bated, crying, No! Severus, don't! You said I'd only get in trouble if I attacked Umbridge.

"And attacking Malfoy is all right?" Severus demanded sharply. "You promised you would stay out of trouble and this is how you keep your word?"

I did keep my word. Freedom protested. I never attacked the toad. Just her little kiss-arse. He backed along the perch, gazing at Snape pleadingly. Don't do this, Severus. Please?

"Do you think I enjoy doing this?" Severus demanded. "But you seem to think you can disregard rules whenever you wish and there will be no consequences. Not so. You heard Umbridge, she will be waiting to catch you out, and if she does, she will not hesitate to destroy you, you fool bird! She will order you put down and force me to watch and there will be nothing I can do to stop her. Do you not understand?"

I do, and I'm sorry. I don't mean to make you worry, Severus. I'll be more careful.

"Good. But that does not answer for this. Come here."

Freedom hissed sulkily. But Severus!

"You were warned what would happen. I never threaten. And if you will not have a care for your well being, than I must. I didn't bring you back from the brink of death only to lose you because you are a crazy incorrigible fledgling." Before Freedom could move, Severus spoke a word and the jesses bound themselves to his feet and the line's swivel ring, anchoring him securely to the perch.

"You are to stay here until I am finished with class today, then I will return and let you off the line." Severus said firmly. Then he sighed. "I . . .regret making this necessary."

You do? Then let me go.

But Snape merely shook his head. "No. You must learn."

You're mean, Severus.

"Yes. Sulking doesn't become you," he added as he strode towards the door. "I will see you later."

The hawk did not answer, giving the professor the cold shoulder. He had expected a lecture, but not being tied to a perch and grounded like a . . . well, like a rebellious teenager. Was this how parents punished their children? All he'd ever had for a reference were the Dursleys and somehow he didn't think they were normal.

He spread his wings and flew a few feet away from the perch to the couch before the line brought him up short. Damn! This really sucks! He walked over to the green afghan and settled down in it. Still, I guess I kind of deserve this. I really do need to control my temper. He drifted into sleep then, waking only when Severus returned to his quarters for lunch.

Over his chopped rabbit drizzled with honey, Freedom tried to get Snape to let him off of his punishment early, but Severus remained firm.

"No. And quit giving me that pathetic look, it won't work. You'll stay on the line until supper and that's final."

Freedom sulked. It's boring as hell. C'mon, Sev, have a heart. I'm going crazy here.

"If you don't like it, don't get in trouble." Then he ruffled the hawk's feathers. Freedom glared at him.

Severus shrugged, then finished his lunch, leaving the hawk in his quarters.

Freedom gnawed irritably upon his perch, wishing Snape were not so damn . . .consistent when it came to punishments. Would it really kill the man to compromise a little? After all, this was the first time he'd ever disobeyed before.

Guess maybe that's why he's not letting me off the hook, the Animagus thought ruefully, then he settled down to doze away the rest of the afternoon until Severus came home.

Freedom opened his eyes to find Severus deftly undoing the jesses and coiling the creance line and stowing it away. "I trust you've learned your lesson, reckless one?"

Yes, Sev. Next time I'll make sure Malfoy can't talk, the hawk answered saucily.

"Freedom! Would you like to stay in here tomorrow too?"

No! It was a joke, for Merlin's sake! The familiar squawked. You know, you really need to get a sense of humor.

"I don't find it particularly funny thinking about some Ministry wizard killing you off."

That'll never happen, the hawk soothed. I'll keep my head down, promise.

"You had better." Then Snape held out his wrist, with the modified falconer's glove, and Freedom hopped on it.

The two ate companionably, then Severus settled down with a book and a cup of tea and some blueberry scones, Freedom perched upon the back of the couch.

Severus had barely read a page, however, when Freedom interrupted him. Sev, if you're on probation, does that mean she can sack you whenever she likes?

He set down his book and looked up at the hawk. "No. She would still have to produce grounds to remove me from the school. She will be more stringent in trying to find fault with my teaching and my curriculum, of that I have no doubt, but she will fail. I intend to follow her ridiculous policy to the letter and frustrate her to no end." He smirked wickedly. "The only other way she could have a reason to sack me would be if I challenged her authority over an issue. And there is only one issue that I would ever do so on, so do not worry on my account."

Freedom was quiet for a minute, pondering what Severus had said. Me. You'd fight her for me, wouldn't you?

"Always. It would not even be a question."

Do I . . .really mean that much to you?

"Yes, you incorrigible bird. You really do."

Freedom suddenly felt a warm glow run through him. He had never known what it was to be wanted, to be loved, until that moment. The warmth filled him, driving away the darkness that lingered in his soul, the well of tears he had yet to shed, and for one glorious instant he was truly happy.

Thank you, Severus.

"For what?"

Everything, the hawk said sincerely. Abruptly, he jumped down off the couch to land lightly upon the Potion Master's stomach, Severus was stretched out just below him, his stocking feet propped up on the far arm of the couch, knees slightly bent to accommodate his long legs. Mind if I stay here?

"No. Just don't nibble on my book."

Ugh! I'd never do that! Paper . . .disgusting!

"My thoughts exactly." One corner of his mouth quirked upwards, Severus returned to reading, one hand absently caressing the hawk's chest every so often. Freedom's gratitude warmed him, for it was rare he ever received acknowledgement for his skills. He occasionally felt that Albus took his potion-making skills for granted and it went without saying that the Dark Lord did. Ironic, really, that a hawk knew more of gratitude than two of the most powerful wizards in the world. And people considered animals "dumb beasts".

Night fell, and wizard and familiar spent the hours quietly enjoying each other's company, never knowing that such contentment was not to last.

* * * * * *

Early the next morning, a copy of the Prophet was delivered to Severus's office mailbox, since not even the owls could get past his wards. The professor summoned Twixie to bring it and a steaming cup of hot chocolate to his quarters while he dressed for the day. Normally, Snape drank tea, but every so often he indulged his sweet tooth and allowed himself to drink cocoa. That morning was one of those days.

After buttoning up his professor's robes, which were spelled to repel most potion ingredients and protect him from extreme heat, cold, or acidic solutions, he sat down on his couch and began to read the paper while drinking his cocoa.

Freedom peered over his shoulder, also scanning the headlines.

Suddenly, Severus started coughing violently.

Freedom shrilled in alarm as the spasm continued. Sev, are you okay? Should I call Twixie?

Through his paroxysm, Severus managed to shake his head negatively, at last managing to get his breath back. He carefully wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and straightened, glowering viciously at the paper.

All right there? Thought you were going to cough up a lung. Freedom crooned worriedly. What happened? Did you swallow wrong?

"No. This is why I nearly choked to death. Because bloody Rita Skeeter decided to use her gossip column and expose Hagrid as a half-giant again, the miserable scheming bitch! She'll do anything for readers, and never count how her revelations could ruin someone's career." He thrust the paper pointedly at Freedom and read aloud.

Hogwarts Gamekeeper Revealed!

Rubeus Hagrid is half-giant!

A secret source reveals that Rubeus Hagrid, Care of Magical Creatures instructor and gamekeeper at Hogwarts actually had a secret past. His mother, Fridwulfa, a giantess, died when Hagrid was three, leaving him to be raised by his wizard father. Even so, one wonders just what kind of heritage his giantess mother bequeathed to her son, who has exhibited unusual tendencies to harbor monstrous pets and dangerous ones as well. Rubeus Hagrid is a failed wizard, expelled from Hogwarts in his third year under dubious circumstances and has also done time in Azkaban, though his name was cleared . . .

No! Freedom cried. Sev, if Umbridge sees this . . .she'll go spare! You know how she feels about half-humans and stuff.

"Yes, I know. But I fear there is little we can do. With Dumbledore gone, she is free to do as she wishes, and she will be delighted in discovering Hagrid's background and exploiting it. I have no doubt she will sack him immediately."

Freedom gave a sharp bitter cry. But that's so unfair, Sev! Can't we do something?

"I wish there was, but regrettably, there isn't. The only thing I can do is offer condolences when and if she decides to sack him."

That bloody sucks! Freedom declared, digging his talons into the Potion Master's robes a bit more forcefully than he intended.

Severus winced. "Watch the talons, hawk. I don't want to have to heal myself already."

Oops! Sorry.

Severus finished his cocoa, though the drink had lost its sweetness after reading Rita's article. "Come, Freedom. Let us go down to the hall for breakfast. We will know then how Umbridge reacted to this. If she hasn't read the paper, Hagrid will still be seated with us. If she has . . .his place will be empty."

Together, they made their way to the Great Hall, Freedom flying just ahead of Severus, hovering while the black-robed wizard opened the door and then flying directly to the staff table to land on the back of Severus's chair. They were early, only Pomona and Minerva were there and they looked very grave.

"Severus, have you seen the morning paper?" began Sprout, her round face drawn and miserable.

"Yes, Pomona, I have," answered Snape, sliding into his seat. "But has she seen it?"

"I don't know," Minerva murmured. "But she will eventually. Poor Hagrid! He has tried so hard to be a good role model and instructor and now she will most likely dismiss him, the paranoid harridan."

Her other two colleagues nodded in agreement, Sprout looking distressed and Severus angry.

Soon the High Inquisitor arrived, dressed in one of her hideous magenta ensembles that made Freedom long to splatter it with droppings. Dolores seated herself at the table and tapped the side of her glass. Food appeared in front of them, and all the teachers served themselves from the platters.

Snape took hardly anything, his stomach was in knots after reading that bloody article. He eyed Umbridge over his juice glass, she seemed unusually jolly this morning.

They were soon joined by the other professors, though Severus noted anxiously that Hagrid was not among them. Had it happened already?

He toyed with his eggs and bacon, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten.

"Ahem! Ahem!" Dolores cleared her throat, an affectation that annoyed the hell out the rest of the staff, had she but known. "I have an announcement to make before we all eat this fine meal. Because of certain, ah, unsuitable characteristics and teaching methods, I have been forced to dismiss Hagrid from his post. He will still remain as gamekeeper at the school, but he will no longer be teaching Care of Magical Creatures. That position has now been given to Professor Grubbly-Plank. She gestured to the gray-haired witch with the prominent chin who was now seated at Hagrid's place.

The other staff members, save for Snape, greeted her cordially.

Severus stared down at his plate, his jaw clenched, his temper smoldering. Hypocritical harpy bitch! To dismiss a teacher on grounds of race! What I wouldn't give to hex you into pieces. He did not acknowledge Wilhemina, though he had nothing against the other professor, he was too upset over his mentor's dismissal to make small talk with the one who had replaced him.

Sev, I'm going to go and see Hagrid, said Freedom in his ear.

"Go. I shall meet you there after my morning classes are over."

Freedom took wing off of Severus's shoulder.

Umbridge flinched and cringed as the hawk's silhouette fell across the table. "Where is that . . .bird going, Severus?"

"Hunting," answered Snape shortly, and had the pleasure of watching Umbridge shudder.

* * * * * *

Snape sought out his mentor as soon as his second period potions class was over. He found Hagrid, Fang, and Freedom outside, Hagrid watching, a lure in one hand, as Freedom pursued a hare across the meadow.

The hawk struck, and the hare went limp in the raptor's talons. Freedom mantled over the kill, but Hagrid whistled and swung the lure and the hawk came to it, leaving the rabbit for Fang to retrieve and bring back to the gamekeeper.

"That's a good boy, Freedom," praised the gamekeeper as the hawk gobbled the rather large piece of chicken liver on the end of the lure.

He petted Fang and fed the dog a treat as well, then tucked the dead hare into the large leather pouch on his hip. He turned when he heard Severus's quiet footstep, and Freedom abandoned the lure to ride upon the professor's shoulder.

"Hullo, Severus. Freedom and I were jus' fetching some lunch. I oughta have a hunter's stew cooked up later on if y' want some."

He is sad, but not hysterical, like Trelawney was, Freedom reported.

Severus nodded, then asked quietly, "How are you, old friend?"

"Fair to middling," replied the big man. "Guess you heard then-Umbridge sacked me on account of me mum."

The Potion Master's face tightened and his black eyes flashed. "She had no right! If she can dismiss you over your heritage, where then will it end? What is to stop her from dismissing me next for being a half-blood, or Charity Burbage for being a Muggleborn? I feel like a prisoner waiting for the axe to fall."

Hagrid sighed and patted Severus on the shoulder gently. "S'all righ', Severus. She's got 'er pound of flesh fer now, plus the way she sent Dumbledore away. That'll make her happy for a time."

"And what of you? She took away a decent teacher out of mere prejudice."

The half-giant heaved a sigh and combed his hand through his beard. "I kinda been expectin' it, ever since she was given the run o' the school. Not many people tolerate someone like me, a half-human."

"They are fools! You are better than nearly all the purebloods I know, the toad bitch included!" Severus said hotly.

Damn straight! agreed Freedom.

"Severus, don' take on so. There's more important things than a job, y'know. Least I still have a roof over my head an' friends to talk to an' care for. That's more than most people got. More than she's got, I'd wager."

Severus's black eyes glittered. He nodded curtly.

"C'mon, Severus. All this huntin' has made my throat dry. I could use a spot of tea. How about you?"

"I could as well," his friend agreed, and followed the gamekeeper back to his hut. The big man's calm acceptance of his lot humbled the fiery Potions Master, and enabled him to get a hold on his temper.

The two drank cups of Hagrid's Black Bohea and ate bread with butter while Freedom plotted ways to revenge himself on Umbridge for this latest affront.

* * * * * *

The next morning, a fusillade of swear words could be heard coming from Umbridge's quarters. "My best set of Auvigerne lace robes-ruined! By a bloody damned bird!"

More swearing and several loud thumps followed, as of shoes being hurled against a wall.

"Winky!" Umbridge bellowed.

Winky appeared, trembling. "You called, Mistress?"

"Look, just look, at my wardrobe!" shrilled the witch. Half of her clothing lat scattered about on the floor, all of it various shades of pink, and over half of it marred by bird droppings. "I came back from a meeting with the Minister and this is what I found! My entire wardrobe . . .shat upon!"

"Mistress, how terrible! Winky will try to fix it!"

"You'd better, or it'll be your head!" growled Umbridge.

Winky squeaked, then snapped her fingers and the dress robes Umbridge was holding were cleaned and pressed like new.

"There, Mistress! That's one clean! Winky shall do the rest."

"Good, get busy! And I want to know how this happened! How did a bird get into my quarters?"

"Winky has no idea, Mistress. None at all." Then the elf took the ruined clothes and departed, leaving Umbridge standing in the middle of her bedroom fuming.

* * * * * *

The story of Umbridge's ruined wardrobe soon made the rounds until everyone was whispering and snickering behind their hands whenever the witch passed by, and scanning her attire for anything . . .spotty. Padma and Parvati Patil went to visit Trelawney in her tower one afternoon and reported back that the Divination teacher practically had convulsions when told of Umbridge's . . .misfortune.

Even Severus smirked over it, though he eyed his familiar sternly and said, "I hope you did not have anything to do with her . . .err . . .wardrobe fiasco."

The hawk busied himself cleaning his feathers, avoiding Snape's eyes. Hmm . . .oh, that. Serves her right.

Snape did not deign to comment, though he was suspicious of the hawk's nonchalant behavior. Still, he had no proof his familiar was misbehaving, and so would give him the benefit of the doubt, for now.

He had other things to worry about, namely the fact that Potter was still missing after a month and a half. "Where the hell is that boy hiding? It has to be near enough to the castle so he can slip in and get food, yet far enough away so he can conceal himself from us," he muttered irritably.

One long finger stabbed down at the Daily Prophet, whose front page headlines were all concerning the missing Boy Who Lived. Where in the World is Harry Potter? one screamed and another questioned Missing or Foul Play? The Disappearance of Young Mr. Potter Mystifies Staff.

"That deadline of Umbridge's is fast approaching. I must find the boy before then, or else the brat will find himself tossed out of the gates on his ear for an unexcused absence."

Freedom halted in cleaning one wing. That's right. Ah, bloody hell, I forgot about the deadline. That means I'm going to have to figure out a way to change back . . . and soon. I just hope Severus will understand and forgive me for deceiving him. I wish things were different between us . . .I wish that I didn't have to make this decision . . .Humph, while I'm at it, I may as well wish that Dumbledore never made that false prophecy, my parents never died, and Voldemort killed himself again.

He continued preening with a vengeance, knowing deep down that whatever choice he made was going to hurt like hell, and there was nothing he could do about it.

* * * * * *

Now that the rumor mill had started up about Harry's disappearance once again, though it had never really died down at school, Hermione and Ron decided it was necessary to contact someone else who was probably missing Harry as much as they were and who might have an inkling of how to go about tracing him. It was Ron who thought of Sirius first, saying he must be going nuts shut up at Grimmauld Place wondering what was happening to everyone, and Harry especially.

"We ought to get in touch with him, Hermione. See what he says about looking for Harry. He used to go to school here, he probably had loads of hiding places on the grounds and in the castle. Maybe he remembers one, or told Harry about it."

"Yes, it's worth a try. I mean, none of the professors are having much luck and that really scares me, Ron. What if . . .he got hurt and lost his memory or something? Maybe we ought to be looking in Muggle hospitals for someone that matches Harry's description."

"A Muggle hospital? But Hermione, how would he get there?"

"That's where they bring you if you don't know who you are," she explained. "Harry could have . . .I don't know . . .Flooed back to his aunt and uncle's for some reason that night and then maybe he had an accident or something . . ."

Ron shook his head. "I dunno, Hermione. Seems kind of strange. But let's write to Sirius first. See what he says. All right?"

So that was what they did. Hermione wrote the letter, since she had the better penmanship, and they both supplied the content. They sent it out with Ron's owl, Pigwidgeon, and then waited anxiously for a reply.

Two days later, a letter came with no return address for one Hermione Granger. After class that day, Hermione and Ron read the letter together, delighted that Sirius had responded to them. Sirius had told them he was a nervous wreck wondering what had happened to his godson, but was forbidden by Dumbledore's express order to leave Grimmauld Place to search for Harry. His only contact with the outside world were the papers he got from Lupin, who came by every morning to bring him one. He was also concerned about Harry and suggested they check the Shrieking Shack, perhaps Harry was holed up there and no one would ever think of looking in it, since it was reputed to be haunted.

Ron thought it was a brilliant suggestion, but Hermione less so. "McGonagall checked Hogsmeade, remember?"

"I know, but what if she overlooked the Shack? It's possible."

"McGonagall' s very thorough." Hermione defended.

"What can it hurt?"

So they resolved to check the Shack on their next Hogsmeade weekend.

They had also told Sirius about how all the professors, even Snape, were combing the grounds and the castle for clues about Harry.

Sirius had written back that he wouldn't trust Snape-the greasy long-haired git-as far as he could hex him. In school, he used to hang around a crowd of Slytherins that all eventually became Death Eaters. How do we know that he doesn't still have ties to them? He was nearly convicted himself, only Dumbledore vouched for him and they let him off. I don't like him, never have really, he was always skulking about, trying to get us in trouble at school. I still can't believe they made him a professor! What a joke! Does he still use all those fancy words, trying to make himself sound cultured? Ha! He forgets, I know where he really came from-a tiny Yorkshire hamlet in the middle of nowhere, son of a dumb Muggle and a Slytherin witch who never managed to make ends meet. When he first came to school, he sounded like a north country dunderhead, James and I used to make fun of his accent.

Ron giggled hysterically when he read that part.

But Hermione frowned and said disapprovingly, "I don't think it's funny, to mock someone because of the way they talk."

"Aw, c'mon, Hermione! It's Snape, so who cares?"

"It's not right. You can't help where you were raised and besides, he talks properly now. He must have worked hard to rid himself of that accent. Sirius should know better than to poke fun that way."

"Well, I happen to think he's right. I don't trust Snape either, no matter what Dumbledore or Hagrid says. He's always had it in for Harry, what if he made him disappear somehow?"

"I don't think so, Ron. He saved Harry back in first year, why would he do that if he wanted to harm him?"

"You think just 'cause he's a professor that he's perfect."

"I do not! I'm just pointing out that your logic is flawed."

"Who cares about logic? I say Sirius is right and Snape probably has something to do with Harry going missing."

Hermione huffed. "Where's your proof, Ron?"

"He's a git and nobody likes him except the Slytherins."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "There's no talking to you sometimes!" She rose and stuffed the letter into her carryall. "Come on, we need to start going down to the Headmaster's office."

"Huh? What for?"

"We still have detention with Umbridge, muffinhead!"

"Oh. Right. I forgot."

"Honestly, Ron! You'd forget your brain if it wasn't inside your head! Come on! Before she takes away points for being late."

* * * * * *

Detention that night was essays, she made them write three feet of parchment on obeying school rules and listing all the decrees she had issued and why they should be followed. Ron nearly fell asleep writing, it was so boring and even Hermione caught herself mid-yawn. But at least Umbridge wasn't using a blood quill any longer, she had become nervous after receiving that reprimand from the Board of Governors.

At last the two prefects were finished, it was almost ten o'clock by the time they were done and both of them were practically asleep on their feet. Umbridge collected their essays and dismissed them. Ron couldn't get out of there quick enough, he practically bolted from the room.

Hermione was a bit slower, taking the time to put her quill ad ink neatly inside her carryall. She had to rearrange the contents a bit to get the ink to fit inside snugly, so it wouldn't spill, and as she pulled out a notebook and some spare parchment, Sirius's letter slipped out and fell unnoticed to the floor beneath her desk.

Finally the ink bottle fit and Hermione shoved her books back inside and departed, calling a brief, "Good night, Professor," over her shoulder. Not that she liked the woman, in fact she detested her, but she had been raised to show respect to teachers and so bid her good night politely.

Umbridge sniffed, then shuffled the papers on her desk before rising and making a last minute inspection of the office, banishing the desks back to her classroom.

It was then she noticed the piece of parchment upon the floor.

"What's this? A love letter?" She quickly unfolded it and read it.

A slow smile of diabolical delight spread over her flabby face. So . . .Snape has a shady past, does he? Well, well. A former Death Eater, was he?

She rubbed her hands together. Finally, a way to bring the high and mighty Severus Snape to his knees. Him and that wretched familiar of his.

Still clutching the letter, she moved to the fireplace and Flooed the Auror Department.

"Dawlish, I want you to give me the records on Severus Snape, everything you have on his prior association with the Death Eaters."

"Now what would you be needing that for, Dolores? Snape was never convicted."

"Never mind that, just bring me them!" Umbridge snapped.

"One moment."

A few minutes later, he popped back through the Floo Network and handed the portly witch a small folder. "Here you go. But I still don't see why you want it. It's ancient history."

"Not anymore," Umbridge smirked, then she withdrew from the fireplace, took the folder and began to read it.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Isn't Umbridge awful?

BTW: Sirius used his Padfoot alias when writing to Hermione, so Umbridge doesn't know who wrote the letter.

Next: With Severus accused, will Freedom be forced to reveal himself?

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