Dolores spent all night plotting on how best to use the information on Snape to her best advantage. Ever since the Potions Master had brought that infernal hawk to dinner, she had resented the dark-haired man for having a pet that humiliated her and for looking at her and finding fault with her without saying a word. She longed to see the proud Head of Slytherin House humbled, she who had once been a Ravenclaw, though she used her intellect selfishly, to further her own agenda, and was rabidly prejudiced against half-humans and anyone who did not fit into her narrow worldview. She believed that animals were inferior to humans, hence her dislike and disrespect of birds, dogs, cats, and the like-she regarded half-humans as a subspecies because they had "tainted" themselves by mingling pure human blood with that of a lowly filthy animal. It was for that same reason she detested half-bloods and Muggleborns.
Unknown to anyone, she secretly agreed with Voldemort's campaign to exterminate Muggleborns, thinking the world would be a better place purged of such undesirable people. She also believed that half-bloods, like Snape, should be registered and not permitted to breed with any save purebloods. Her idea of a perfect world would be one in which purebloods were in charge and half-humans were outlawed.
She licked her lips while reading the report Dawlish had given her, learning that the young Snape had been brought up on charges, but they had not stuck because Dumbledore had gotten him off by questioning the younger man under Veritaserum himself with Auror Moody as witness. And Moody was considered mad from his torture at the hands of Death Eaters, therefore his testimony was suspect, and now so was Dumbledore's, given what the Minister had charged him with. Your protection is null and void, old man, and with a little effort, I could put Snape away for good. Miserable half-blood!
And yet, she knew that her ruling might be challenged, since half the wizarding community still respected Dumbledore, and by extension, anyone he took under his wing. So she had to make his fall from grace more outrageous, get the people on her side. She tapped her finger against her lips thoughtfully. Now, what can I do to make people want to string Snape up by his greasy hair?
She picked up the copy of the Prophet that Cornelius had left her. There on the front page were the words-Harry Potter Missing! Possibly Kidnapped?
"Ah ha. Kidnapped? Perfect."
She whistled happily. All the pieces had fallen into place. In one fell swoop, she would rid herself of the undesirable staff members and then she would rule unchallenged.
Severus Snape, your time has come. And so has that blasted familiar's.
She carefully tucked the folder and the paper into her satchel and then dressed and slipped into bed, falling asleep on her monogrammed pink pillow an instant later, a small smile on her face.
* * * * * *
Freedom awoke in the pre-dawn hours trembling. But his dream was not the old nightmare of Cedric dying, nor of Pettigrew cutting him and using his blood to bring Voldemort back. No, this was a new dream, one where he watched helplessly while Severus was dragged away to Azkaban, held in custody by Umbridge, and then the toad summoned dementors and made Freedom watch while they Kissed the Potions Master.
He woke up shivering and gasping, his eyes darting all over. He was on his perch in the lounge, but he couldn't bear to stay there, so he flew off and into Severus's bedroom, where he nestled into the pillow near Severus's head and tried to go back to sleep.
It's not real, Harry. It's just a stupid dream! Now go back to sleep. Sleep. He concentrated on the wizard's breathing, matching his own to it unconsciously, until finally he drifted off.
* * * * * *
Severus awoke at his usual time, and noticed that Freedom seemed oddly clingy, but the hawk insisted nothing was wrong when he questioned him. So he simply attributed it to a mood and thought no more of it. Today was Wednesday, and that meant he had no class until the late afternoon , but he was required by Umbridge to have breakfast with the rest of the staff in the hall, much to his irritation. He had come to enjoy his solitary quiet breakfasts with Freedom.
But he knew he was on thin ice with the High Inquisitor and so he went to the hall for breakfast like an obedient drone, Freedom perched upon his shoulder.
Strangely enough, Umbridge was absent from the table, usually her pink garbed self was visible from five meters away, Snape thought sneeringly. But perhaps without her scrutinizing the table, he could manage to choke down more than a few mouthfuls of breakfast. Just looking at her flabby face made him lose his appetite.
He walked to his usual place and sat down, in between Minerva and Wilhemina, said a perfunctory good morning, then selected some toast, buttered, a slice of ham, and poached eggs. He quickly placed the ham atop the toast and then the eggs and then summoned Twixie to bring him some Hollandaise sauce, which he drizzled over the eggs.
Wilhemina eyed him and asked, "Whatever are you eating, Severus?"
"Eggs Benedict, Wilhemina. A Muggle recipe . It's quite good, you should try it." With that, he picked up a fork and knife and began to eat.
Freedom watched and remembered that Uncle Vernon had liked that too, and he had learned to make it very well by the time he was nine. I always wanted to try it, but there was never enough left over for me to have a taste, he thought wistfully. Maybe one day, though, if I ever return to a boy, I can request some from the house elves.
"Where is Dolores?" queried Snape, after finishing most of his breakfast.
"She had an important meeting with the Minister," Minerva replied, spooning some more bananas over her porridge. "She should be back after breakfast, I believe."
Severus nodded and fixed a cup of tea, sipping it leisurely while eating the rest of his eggs. It was amazing how the atmosphere improved when Umbridge was absent. She cast a noxious pall over everything, he thought derisively.
Breakfast over, the Potions Master rose and was just about to go down to his lab to begin brewing a few extra Deflating Drafts. He had a class of second years tomorrow who were going to be working on Swelling Solutions, and ever since Potter's class with the exploded cauldron, Snape deemed it necessary to have extra doses on hand, just in case. But before he could leave the hall, Winky appeared next to him and said diffidently, "Professor Snape, sir, Mistress Umbridge request you come up to her office immediately."
Severus frowned down at the elf, and Winky flinched. "Is it a matter of grave importance? I have drafts I need to brew for class."
"Oh, yes sir, it is! Very important, Professor Snape sir!" Winky began wringing her hands. "Not good to keep Mistress waiting, sir. Mistress does not like it. Mistress will punish Winky if Master Snape is not there soon."
"Typical," Severus muttered. "Very well. Tell "Mistress Umbridge" I shall be there directly."
"Oh, thank you, sir!" the elf looked like she was about to kiss his boots, but instead she vanished, much to Snape's relief.
"I wonder what the bloody pain-in-the-arse wants now?" Snape grumbled balefully to Freedom. "To change my curriculum yet again? Damn pinch-faced wench! She could use a good purging. I swear, if she has me alter my class again, I'm going to put a few drops of a Constipation Reliever in her afternoon tea and see if that won't cure her of her need to change schedules every other week."
On his shoulder, Freedom shook with silent laughter. Oh, Sev, that would be so funny! Would you really do that?
Snape cast the hawk a sly grin. "In a heartbeat. No one deserves it more." He walked over to the stone gargoyle and said, "Pink carnation."
The gargoyle slid aside and he stepped up onto the revolving staircase.
Hell hath no fury like a Potions Master, the hawk chirped, still chuckling inwardly.
"Indeed. Best you remember that, fledgling," Severus teased.
For some reason, Freedom recalled the nightmare he had last night as they ascended the staircase and he shuddered involuntarily. Don't be ridiculous. It was just a dream, not a premonition. You're not a Seer, Potter. It was probably all that rabbit you ate. What possible reason could Umbridge have for sending Severus to Azkaban? He hasn't broken the law.
Even so, the hawk was uneasy. Umbridge played fast and loose with protocol when it suited her. Severus, be careful. I don't trust her.
"Neither do I. I trust her as much as I trust the Dark Lord."
They had reached the carved oak door and Snape put his hand upon the knob, then paused. "I trust you will remember your manners, fledgling?"
Yes, Severus. Unless she hurts you. Then I'll be within rights to rip her a new arse.
"Where is that written?"
It's part of the Code of Familiars, answered Freedom glibly. If anyone hurts your wizard, you're free to defend him by any means necessary.
Snape raised an eyebrow. "I will keep that in mind. Though I think I could take her in a duel."
She fights dirty.
"So do I, when necessary." Snape admitted, then he turned the knob and entered the office.
Umbridge was seated behind the mahogany desk, an eager look upon her face as she heard the door open. The colored kitten plates upon the wall meowed annoyingly, as if announcing Snape's presence. Severus stepped into the room, looking at Umbridge questioningly.
Standing off to the side of the desk, near the window, were Dawlish and Savage, a young man with a lean hungry face like a jackal.
"You wished to see me, madam?" Snape queried, his tone coolly polite.
Freedom glared warningly at the other wizards, though none of them paid attention to him.
Umbridge looked up at the taller man, her nose twitching eagerly, like a hound who has scented a quarry. "Professor Snape, it has recently come to my attention, by a certain letter from an anonymous person called . . ." Here she shuffled through the folder on her desk before pulling out a letter. " . . .Padfoot, that you once were associated with the followers of You-Know-Who. Is that so?"
Inwardly, Severus cursed, calling Black every foul name he knew. But his demeanor remained calm and unruffled. He replied to the hag evenly, "As a young man, I did follow the tenets of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, for about six months. Until I realized what they were and renounced them forever."
No! Oh, Sirius, what have you done? thought Freedom in horror.
"Indeed? You were pardoned by Albus Dumbledore, is that not so?"
"It is. I confessed all to him and he heard my testimony, as did Auror Moody." Severus answered, furious that he had to discuss this with her, of all people.
Umbridge's eyes narrowed. "Confessed to what, exactly? Torturing Muggles? Deflowering little girls? Murder?"
Snape's jaw was clenched, and a muscle throbbed in his temple. "No, High Inquisitor. I never did any of that. As a new recruit, I performed other duties for You-Know-Who. I brewed potions, for the most part. And did research on dark curses and such. Those other . . .pursuits you mentioned were saved for those of his Inner Circle. I was not one of them." Though I am now, he added silently, with a bitter twist to his lips.
"Yet you bear his Mark, do you not?"
Snape nodded. "As do all who once were followers."
Umbridge seemed pleased by that. "You know, Severus, I believe in second chances. I think that one should always give someone the benefit of the doubt. Which is why, when I first learned of your . . .shall we say . . .involvement with You-Know-Who . . .I did not go with my first impulse and dismiss you out of hand. Instead, I watched you carefully, and I must admit, you are good, Snape. You nearly fooled me."
"In what way, madam?"
"You nearly made me think, as poor foolish Dumbledore did, that you had changed. But then I started hearing rumors. Rumors that you detested young Mr. Potter. That you wished the boy expelled from Hogwarts. You told Dumbledore as much when the boy arrived for his second year. Do you deny it?"
"No. I did say Potter ought to be expelled, because of that incident with the flying car, he put our world at risk with that fool stunt. It was reckless and irresponsible and the boy should have been given consequences for his actions."
"Indeed. From what I have heard, Potter was forever breaking rules and being disrespectful to teachers. He defied me as well. Very cheeky." Umbridge sniffed. "But still . . .even I would not have resorted to kidnapping, Professor Snape."
"Kidnapping? I haven't the slightest idea what you mean."
"Don't you?" Umbridge purred, and in her eyes was a glint of terrible satisfaction. "Where were you the night Harry Potter disappeared, Snape?"
"I fail to see why that is any of your business."
"Everything that goes on in this school is now my business, Snape. By order of the Ministry of Magic, I demand you answer my question. Where were you the night Harry Potter disappeared?"
Snape looked bored, though Freedom could see a faint trickle of sweat behind his left ear. "I believe I was walking around the grounds, as I normally do after class, it helps me clear my head."
"Was anyone with you?"
"So you have no alibi."
"What exactly are you accusing me of, madam?"
"The kidnapping and possible murder of Harry Potter."
Snape stared at her. "You are mad!"
"Am I? I think not. You, a former Death Eater, pardoned by an old man whose mental capacity is under suspicion, have admitted freely to me that you disliked Mr. Potter and wished him gone from this school. You are the only one who has no alibi on the night he vanishes. You have motive and opportunity, Professor. You Stunned the boy and hid him away somewhere."
"To do what with him? Play twenty questions?"
"Do not mock me, sir!" Umbridge yelled, slamming her hand upon her desk. "You are guilty of conspiracy and have doubtless used what you learned from your fellow Death Eaters to torture and perhaps even kill a defenseless child!"
"That is ludicrous!"
"Not by my lights, Snape. You have already proven to be lax when it comes to your students' safety, look at the familiar you keep, a vicious bird who attacks children without provocation."
That's a filthy lie, hag!
"There, you see! A nasty beast, like his master. Severus Snape, I am charging you with the crime of harming and kidnapping the Boy-Who-Lived. You are the reason why he has been missing. I shall not have a criminal half-breed on my staff. I hearby dismiss you from your post and remand you into the custody of these Aurors." She turned to the Aurors. "Arrest him! We shall see if some time in Azkaban will not loosen his tongue."
Severus's wand was in his hand. "Since when do you arrest someone without proof of a crime?"
"I need not explain myself to you. You got off once before because you had a powerful protector. But Dumbledore is finished and now you shall pay for your misdeeds, Snape! Once in Azkaban, we shall get the truth out of you." She gestured, and the two Aurors started forward.
"Dawlish, you cannot believe her," Snape began. "I would never harm Potter. I am sworn to protect him."
Umbridge laughed, high and shrill. "Another lie, Snape? You and Dumbledore were conspiring together. He was going to make himself Minister and you wanted to revenge yourself upon Potter and so you made him disappear."
"I will take Veritaserum and prove you wrong, woman!"
"I know better, Snape. Death Eaters are trained to resist that particular potion. Do not make this hard on yourself, Severus. Surrender and save yourself some pain."
Snape bared his teeth. "If you wish to take me, bitch, you will have to fight."
Dawlish shot off a Stunning Hex, but Snape ducked.
Freedom flew from his shoulder, screeching in fury. Leave him ALONE! Nobody hurts my wizard!
He dove down at the Auror, talons glinting and hit the man hard, raking back and down the other's head.
Dawlish screamed and clutched his head, dropping his wand.
Savage snapped out a Body Bind. "Locomotor mortis!"
But Snape was too quick, and the hex was deflected harmlessly wide, bouncing off the wall.
"Blasted hawk!" Umbridge yelled, and pointed her wand and shouted, "Incendio!"
A jet of flame shot out from her wand, nearly scorching Freedom's tail feathers.
Several of the portraits cried out in alarm as they were nearly set on fire.
Severus spun, his eyes burning with a terrible rage. "You dare-?"
Umbridge froze, for in that moment, she saw her death approaching.
Freedom saw it as well. Saw that Snape hovered upon the cusp of destruction and in that instant made a choice.
Severus, no! Don't! he screamed. Stop it, all of you! He dove inbetween the Potions Master and Umbridge and felt a terrible pressure build up behind his eyelids. Then sparks formed before his eyes and fire etched his limbs.
The wizards stared in astonishment as the hawk blurred and then reformed-into the shape of a fifteen-year-old boy with a shock of dark hair, glasses, and a lightning bolt scar. His wand was clutched in his fist and he snarled at Umbridge, "Don't touch him, toad bitch! You want to know where Harry Potter is? Well, here I am, and if you want to hurt Severus, you'll have to go through me."
Harry's eyes bored into Umbridge with a fiery emerald intensity that caused the witch to flinch and step back. "B-but how . . .is this possible . . .? You have been here this whole time . . .?"
"Yes. I transformed into my Animagus form by accident one night, flew out the window and crashed, I broke my wings and lost my memory. Professor Snape found me and healed me. He didn't know I was an Animagus. No one did. He never kidnapped me or hurt me. He saved my life. Now call off your dogs, Professor."
Umbridge sputtered, but waved Dawlish and Savage back. Then she gathered herself and said, "It could be a trick. A Disillusionment Charm. How do I know you're not lying?" She pointed her wand at Harry. "Finite!"
Nothing happened. Scowling, she snapped, "Dawlish, give me some Veritaserum."
"Sorry, ma'am. But that's illegal. He's underage." drawled the Auror. "And anyhow, you only have to look at Snape there t'see the kid's not lying." He jerked his head at the Potions Master.
Umbridge looked up and Harry slowly turned about, swallowing hard.
He was prepared to see anger, scorn, or shock in the eyes of his professor.
What he saw instead was betrayal, intermingled with disbelief.
Harry flinched and took a step back.
"You knew nothing of this, Snape?" demanded Umbridge, sounding like a child just deprived of a trip to the toy store.
"No. I thought . . .he was just a hawk. My familiar . . ."
"Looks like the kid just got into a bit of trouble by being too hasty," Savage said. "It happens. Since it's obvious Snape isn't guilty, that means you'll have to retract the charges, High Inquisitor."
"Oh, very well! Though I still think he was in league with the boy!"
"No," Harry insisted firmly. "He didn't know anything. I'll swear on my wand, any oath you like, but it's the truth."
"I believe him," said Savage.
"Me too." Dawlish agreed, holding a rag to his bleeding scalp and glaring at Harry.
Dolores huffed then said, "Fine! Charges will be dropped. You may go, gentlemen. I shall deal with Mr. Potter's truancy myself."
The two Aurors nodded and then Flooed back to Auror Headquarters, leaving Harry alone with a sulky furious Umbridge and a stunned angry Snape.
The young wizard looked from one to the other and wondered if he'd have been safer in Azkaban.
Chapter End Notes:
Hope you all enjoyed this one!
It's my birthday today, by the way!
It's my birthday today, by the way!
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