Warning: dark fic, adult themes.

"Ladies and gentlemen -- here's exhibit A
   didn't I try again? And did the effort pay?
      Wouldn't a smarter man simply walk away?

"But nothing is good enough for people like you
   who have to have someone take the fall
      and something to sabotage --
   determined to lose it all..."

Aimee Mann, "Nothing Is Good Enough"


Part 1

The explosion brought everyone awake.

Professor Binns' voice had been droning through the classroom for almost an hour, echoing quietly off the stone walls in time with the deep breaths of his seventh-year students. The room was dim and slightly damp, chilly enough to cut even through their robes. The wide windows contributed only a draft, the clouds too thick for the sun to peep through, and offer anyone hope for brightness ahead.

On the Gryffindor side of the classroom, Lily Evans' quill scratched furiously, keeping up with every word, for which her year-mates would be grateful come the N.E.W.T.s -- if, of course, the N.E.W.T.s came. All four of the other girls were soundly asleep, faces against the desk or heads slumped to the side. The boys were still awake, but would need the notes just as badly. Black and Potter's heads were bent together in furious, occasionally violent whispers; Lupin and Pettigrew looked worried, but resigned to whatever their reckless cohort decided to expend their energy on next.

The Slytherin side of the room was more awake, but only two were even attempting to pay attention to the lecture. Malfoy watched Potter with narrowed eyes, a tiny, cruel smile playing around his mouth. His robes were crisply ironed and expensive; his seatmate's robes were less expensive, and rumpled, his notes impeccable, but Snape's intelligent black eyes gleamed with the same malice that glinted from Malfoy's, as he stared at the back of Evans' red hair. Istan's chin kept drifting downwards; as it hit his chest, he would jerk awake, and return to scribbling notes that would be legible only to himself, until his chin began to droop again. The other two boys -- Goyle and MacNair -- had given up all pretense; Goyle's snores nearly drowned out the lecture, his girlfriend Morgan's nasal wheezes adding a delicate, whining counterpoint. Two more Slytherin girls giggled and whispered and tittered and were ignored by the boys they were trying so desperately to impress.

The last Slytherin, seated by the window, with empty desks separating her from the class, ignored them all. Every one, Gryffindor and Slytherin alike. Her concentration was on the Goblin Wars, and keeping her notes legible, and trying desperately to stay awake. If she were very lucky, there would be a nap between Arithmancy and Potions, curled in Myrtle's bathroom where only people who didn't want to be found would go. A short nap, while the others were in sixth-hour lessons, but it might be enough to see her through until evening meal. Under no circumstances would she sleep here, surrounded by her housemates. No weakness allowed in Slytherin House -- the price was too high.

Binns' voice paused for a long moment, signaling a change of topics, and Malfoy, wonder of wonders, decided to divert his attention from Potter and his gang long enough to actually take an note or two. He lifted his thick, sweeping quill, dipped it in the ink well, and touched it to parchment.

That was when thunder rocked the room, everyone and everything obscured for a moment in a flash of light and smoke. Most of the room cursed in shock or simply screamed; McNair reached a pitch rarely achieved after adolescence, and flushed deep red. On their feet, wands out and ready in the reflex too many of them had already learned, 11 pairs of eyes searched for the attack, and found only Malfoy, sprawled on the floor, his robes and face stained with soot and his face contorted with rage.

"Black!" His furious shout echoed back from the walls, ringing through the room in search of something to kill. Literally. Two Gryffindor girls and four Slytherins cowered; all of the Slytherins but Snape looked for cover.

Black and his gang contrived to look innocent. With the exception of Lupin, they failed.

"Problem, Lucius?" Potter asked, turning in his chair to look imperturbably at the furious figure across the room.

"Yes, Mr. Malfoy," Binns asked, for once jolted from his interminable lectures, as he floated over to inspect the scene. "What happened?"

Lucius made his way back to his feet. "Professor, I have been assaulted!" He leveled his wand at Black in what could have been a simple indicator; Lupin's hands fell to his wand regardless, Pettigrew's following after only a moment's hesitation.

Binns looked befuddled, as only an ancient Hufflepuff could. "With your own quill, Mr. Malfoy? That is your own quill, isn't it?"

"One of mine," Malfoy gritted through his teeth, "but obviously tampered with. I demand--"

Binns' eyebrows almost disappeared into his hair. "No one demands in my classroom but me, Mr. Malfoy. Take your seat."

Istan scuttled forward to pick Malfoy's chair up off the ground, muttering a Reparo charm that almost worked, but Lucius stayed where he was, seething. "Your seat, Mr. Malfoy," Binns reiterated.

"Maybe he hasn't learned to sit yet," Black contributed, smirking. "Like he hasn't learned to use a quill. Perhaps if he'd spent more time listening in Charms instead of dreaming of world conquest, he wouldn't end up in these situations."

For a moment, it seemed Lucius would lunge straight through Binns to wrap his hands around Black's throat. Snape caught his arm before he could quite carry it off. "Later, Lucius," he advised quietly, his eyes throwing daggers at Black and Potter. "We'll deal with them later."

Lucius shook Snape off, but seated himself in the remains of his chair and his dignity, his glare never leaving Black. Black's smirk only widened, then bounced over Malfoy's head to the Slytherin girl at the window. She met his cocky grin expressionlessly, her pale eyes blank and unimpressed, until he rolled his eyes and ostentatiously looked away, seeking a more appreciative audience among the Gryffindors.

He found it in blonde, bubbly Levinson, who smiled at him with an awe usually reserved for conquering heroes, but it came too late; Malfoy and Snape had both followed Black's gaze to the window, and she felt their eyes on her, cold and assessing. The Gryffindors would tell this tale the length and breadth of Hogwarts; it could be dismissed as exaggeration if no Slytherin confirmed its truth. The others would keep their silence to honor their house, or simply out of fear of Malfoy. She cared little for the honor of her house any more, at least as Malfoy personified it, but fear.... Oh, yes, she was afraid.

She lifted her eyes to meet Malfoy's, and held his stare, kept her face as blank against his wrath as it had been against Black's 'charm'. She wanted to smirk as Black had, wanted to dismiss him with a roll of her eyes and a shrug as Evans had. Instead, her eyes dropped and her shoulders slumped, letting her brown hair fall heavily forward over her face. She returned her attention to her notes as Binns' voice picked back up in mid-drone. 'I saw nothing,' the submissive show stated. 'I will say nothing.'

But foolish, stubborn pride had made her hold his eyes too long, far longer than she should have. There would be a price to be paid, and she closed her eyes and tried to lose herself in the Battle of Ox and Deer, as if that would be enough to save them.

Class ended and she heard Evans scolding Black as she made her escape, heard Pettigrew beginning to expound on the prank, felt Snape's eyes boring into her back as she escaped into the corridor. Muffled footsteps behind her made her quicken her step, and she went for her wand when the hand grabbed her shoulder.

But it was only Evans, and the other girl fell a step back when she saw the wand in the Slytherin's hand. "Sorry, Katherine," she apologized instantly. "I didn't mean to startle you."

She almost smiled -- as if Lily Evans was anything to fear -- and nodded her head once in cool acknowledgment. It wasn't every day a Gryffindor apologized to a Slytherin, after all. "What is it?" Her voice was low and calm and utterly detached.

Evans looked as concerned as if they were best friends. "I wanted to apologize. For what happened in there."

Katherine lifted one eyebrow. "It's your fault Sirius Black is an overgrown child? At last, someone to blame."

It was meant to be crushing, but Evans just smiled. "Of course it's not my fault. But he'll never apologize for himself so someone has to."

"I'm not the one who was thrown to the floor."

"No, you weren't." Evans gave a short laugh. "But it was awfully funny to see Malfoy there, I admit. How do you put up with him? Bad enough being in the same class, but the same house... I can't imagine."

There were so many ways to respond to that -- a laugh, a sob, a scream. In the end, she settled for simply saying tonelessly, "No. You can't."

Evans looked at her more closely. "Are you all right, Katherine? Because you look... I've been worried, you see, that you look so tired. As if something was dreadfully wrong. Is there... Can I help at all?"

Katherine stared at her blankly. Evans? Offering help?

But then, it was Evans after all, Head and Universally Beloved Girl, Quidditch Captain's girlfriend and purveyor of all things good and Gryffindor. Sincerity sparkled from her eyes, concern oozing from her very pores. Perhaps there was something she could do, some way.... But she was a Gryffindor, and only a student, and what could she and all of her good intentions really do except make things worse?

It would have been pointless, really, to do anything but what she did. "Everything's fine, thanks," Katherine replied calmly, before she turned and walked away.

"What was that about?" Potter's voice drifted down the hall after her.

"I don't.... Nothing," Evans replied quietly. "It was nothing."

"Glad to hear it." Black's footsteps joined the others, strong and confident and oh-so sure of himself. "Start hanging about with Slytherin Ice Princess and we'd have to learn a few good spells to cure frostbite."

"And Heaven forbid you should have to spend time learning anything useful," Evans shot back, exasperation fighting for precedence with affection. Then Katherine was gone, away from the Gryffindors and their easy comradeship, and sickeningly grateful to be so.

Part 2

The tables were full when she entered the Great Hall nearly halfway through noon break. The noise level was fierce, stomachs now full enough to allow mouths to be open and active. The Gryffindors elbowed and shoved, most of the Ravenclaws were studying, the Hufflepuffs and the Slytherins talked a mile a minute within their own tables. At the end of the Slytherin table, two or three body spaces between them and the others, five anxious faces turned to her the moment she was spotted.

"Kit!" Second-year Andrew somehow kept his yelp nearly inaudible; David laid a warning hand on his shoulder anyway. Rina made a move towards her that looked as if she were seeking a hug; Katherine stiffened as she sat, ignoring the girl until Rina slumped in her seat and played with her peas.

David leaned over the first-year until he was close enough to be heard. "What happened in History of Magic?" he asked quietly. "The Gryffindors have been--"

"I'm aware of what the Gryffindors have been," she cut him off, loading her plate with ham and mashed potatoes and gravy. "I was there to see it. Black pulled one of his infantile pranks on Lucius and, wonder of wonders, it worked."

"He was really on the floor, huh?" Erin grinned across the table through a mouthful of gooseberry fool. "I'd have liked to have seen that."

"I'd gladly have given up my place, O'Malley," Katherine said quellingly. "Would you like to attend classes with Malfoy?" Erin shook her head quickly and subsided, but the glint of enjoyment of another's misfortunes was still there. It usually was.

"Maybe they'll be so mad at Potter and Black that they'll ignore us?" Third-year Shivani offered quietly, drawing furrows in the top of an apple tart with her fork. Her long dark hair curtained her face. "At least for tonight."

"Maybe." David tried to smile reassuringly, and didn't succeed; Katherine idly wondered why he'd bothered. "Eat now, worry later."

The advice was meant for the younger students, but Katherine took it anyway, setting into her meal with grim determination. Couldn't cast a hex on an empty stomach, could you?

Two Slytherin third-years, Shivani and Erin's roommates, raced into the hall, short of breath from rushing. They eyed the table, and one of them actually started to slide into the space between Erin and the rest. The other yanked her away, dragging her down to squeeze into a tiny opening on the other side, well away from the lepers. Shivani bit her lip, and Erin's fork slammed hard into the remains of her dessert, scattering crumbs across the table.

Katherine very carefully didn't notice any of it. "Everyone needs to be in the Common Room well before curfew," she reminded the group a few minutes later. "That corner near the fireplace is still the most defensible. Bring all of your homework so we can at least look busy. Do *not* bring blankets or anything else you sleep with, Rina."

Rina looked close to tears at being deprived of her battered stuffed owl, and Erin rolled her eyes with all the lofty disdain of a third-year for an ickle first year. "We know the drill, Kit, we've been doing it for a week. How much longer do you think we're going to be able to keep it up?"

"It's Katherine, not Kit, and not much, so enjoy your sleep while you can get it."

"And after Malfoy gets tired of playing with us?" Shivani asked, not taking her eyes from her nearly-destroyed tart. "What happens then?"

Katherine tried to come up with something calm and all-knowing to say; infuriatingly, David didn't help, but stared at her with the same 'let's see you pull a rabbit out of a hat' expression the younger ones had. She settled for simply shaking her head, and picked her fork back up without looking at any of them. "Eat now, worry later."

One by one, they obeyed.

She didn't get the nap after Arithmancy, shanghaied by a Slytherin/Ravenclaw study group, and she had to kick David awake halfway through supper. Fortunately, they were still in their No Man's Land at the very end of the Slytherin table, and she didn't think anyone had noticed.

"Sorry," David apologized in a low whisper. The circles under his eyes were getting deeper and darker, and even his dark blond hair seemed tired, laying limply across his forehead. He looked too old and worn to be only a fifth-year, and she wondered how ancient she looked. She'd been avoiding mirrors lately.

"Don't be sorry, stay awake." She tried not to move her lips as she spoke; she'd managed to miss Malfoy and Snape at noon, but they were at the other end of the table now, and she could feel Snape's speculative gaze as it rested on their little group. Unwillingly, a list of various potions that could be disguised in food started marching through her brain, and she shoved her plate away.

The younger students finished and the group trickled out in pairs, making their way through the dungeon corridors to the Slytherin Common Room -- Erin next to David, Rina tagging after Shivani like her younger, shorter twin, Andrew with Katherine, all of them trying to look as if it wasn't planned that way. They wouldn't fool anyone, but Slytherins had their pride, after all. Even these Slytherins.

Erin and Shivani arrived in the Common Room first, and staked out the corner table by the simple means of ejecting the group of second-years who'd gotten there first. Erin gave one a shove on his way, ignoring his stifled gasp of pain when his knees hit the floor too hard. David gave her a hard look and she shrugged, green eyes dancing innocently. "What?"

Shivani opened a Defense Against Dark Arts text and was immediately absorbed in it; it was David's fifth-year text, and Katherine could guess the hexes she was studying by reading her lips as she chanted them under her breath. Rina and Andrew hunched over Transfiguration essays, and David gave up on chastising the unrepentant Erin to begin tutoring her in Arithmancy. Katherine pretended to work on a History of Magic essay, and instead kept a wary eye on the rest of the Common Room.

Being six weeks out from winter break and end of term exams had motivated most of the room to crack down on the studying or, in several cases, to begin refining their plans to cheat. Study groups coalesced throughout the room, the susurration of sixty whispers broken only by the sounds of a bloodthirsty game of wizard chess by the fire, as Snape took far too much satisfaction in wiping out the pieces of a fifth-year boy who should have known better. His tall, skinny shadow flickered against the wall, unnaturally elongated by the firelight.

But it was the group in the far corner of the room that worried her -- Malfoy surrounded by the most intense and most sycophantic of his cronies, expounding with sweeping arm gestures and great smugness, the firelight glinting from his silver prefect badge. Periodically, he would tap his left arm, just below the elbow, for emphasis, and everyone who saw inevitably flinched. But they still pretended they hadn't heard the rumors, pretended that Malfoy didn't already wear the Dark Mark.

Sometime during the last two weeks, Malfoy had stopped bothering to pretend. About a lot of things.

She shuddered suddenly, and the younger students looked up with wide eyes. "It's cold in here," Katherine told them, more for form's sake than because she expected them to believe her. She shoved her chair away and walked to the fire for the sake of moving, the comfort of doing.

She lost herself in the shadows at the corner, as far away from Snape and his victim as she could get. This close, she could almost make out Malfoy's proselytizing, and blocked him out as well as possible. The fire didn't help with the cold -- Slytherin House was always cold these days; the only kind of fire that would help was the kind that destroyed it -- but she tried to concentrate on the flames as they flickered in their endlessly moving dance, tried to lose herself in them.

But Malfoy's voice rose again, his glance skipping over her to the table just behind her, the word "Mudblood" too clear to be missed -- as, of course, he'd intended. She stared at the flames, but her eyes betrayed her, drawn by some sick fascination back to the dark robes over Malfoy's arm. Knowing what burned under there....

"Fascinating, isn't it?" It took all her self-control not to jump when Snape's voice came, low and harsh, right beside her ear. "The way they flock to him -- not because of his wealth or his so-charming personality, but because of the promise of power. Endless power, to achieve... anything."

"They'll be devoured by that power," Katherine replied. "You know it at well as I do."

"Of course." She felt rather than saw Snape's smile. "The question is, is what that power can give you worth what it will take? Wealth, knowledge... protection, perhaps?" He stared thoughtfully into the fire, ever-changing shadows casting his face into that of a much older man, his black eyes hollow, his bones too strong against his skin. Then he turned back to her, and was merely a gangly 17-year-old again. "The followers of the Dark Lord will need fear nothing again."

"They'll fear the 'Dark Lord', if they're wise." She turned enough to meet his eyes. "How wise are you, Severus?"

His smile grew, self-confident and sure, and she wondered if he would live as long as he thought. Somehow, she doubted it. "Wise enough to take all the power he can give. But I'll give him nothing more of myself than I choose." He tried to rearrange his face into sympathetic lines, and failed. "Pity you and the other Muggle get won't have the same option."

She stared at the fire for a long time after he swept away, still freezing from within.

"I hate sleeping on the floor."

"You'd like sleeping with spiders better? They might be in your bed next time, instead of your trunk."

Erin sulked, but shut up and closed her eyes again, and Katherine turned back to David. "Go to sleep; I'll keep the watch."

"And when do you plan to sleep?"


"You won't make it that long."

"You know, you'd have done better in Hufflepuff. They'd have liked it, you being everyone's mother."

David shrugged faintly, his thin shoulders barely moving his robes. "The Hat thought otherwise. Besides, I have plans for myself; I don't intend to wander my life away like a blind old badger."

The stairs to the boys' dormitory cracked suddenly, splitting the silence of the darkened Common Room, and both Katherine and David came upright, wands pointed towards the steps. But their harsh breathing was the only sound.

"Nothing," David finally muttered. "Unless Malfoy's got himself an invisibility cloak."

"I wouldn't put it past his father to buy him one. Make it that much easier to slip out when V-- Voldemort tugs on his leash." David's eyes went wide at the unexpected venom in her tone, but Katherine fiercely gestured him to silence. Not a gasp, not a growl came from the room in response to the taunt; they were alone.

She hoped.

David finally settled back against the leg of the table they were using as a fort. The younger four slept beneath and behind the limited shelter, small heaps of black robes almost lost in the darkness; David and Katherine sat between them and the rest of the room.

They returned to silence, each watching one half of the room, trying not to see anything moving in the shadows that wasn't actually. Finally, David couldn't stand it any longer, and broke the quiet again. "The headmaster's been gone a long time."

"Two weeks. More than." She'd been counting. Most of the school had.

"We could go to Professor McGonagall."

She let her eyes sink closed, too tired to go through this again. "And tell her what? There were poisonous spiders in Rina's trunk, more in Erin's and Andrew's, and we think it was attempted murder? But Professor Noira thinks it was just a stupid prank? McGonagall's not going interfere with another Head of House." She laughed once, quietly, harsh and humorless. "As if she even cares about Slytherins."

"Maybe Dumbledore will be back soon," he tried next, his voice that of a boy wanting to believe what he doesn't.

She couldn't help him there; she didn't believe it either. "Maybe."

"He has to be. We need to sleep, Kit."

"I know."


"I know!" The words came out too sharply, so sharp they nearly cracked; she struggled for control and found it, finishing much more quietly, "And don't call me Kit."

David was blessedly silent for a long moment; then, "This would be so much easier if it was just the two of us, wouldn't it?" The last flicker of embers from the fire cast his face into harsh, ever-changing edges, as they had with Snape, the planes almost unrecognizable. "It's guarding them that makes it so hard."


"But it would be wrong to leave them," he continued anyway, still determined to convince himself. As if they hadn't had this conversation every night for a week. "Malfoy and the others... we'd be as bad as they are."


"But we're not."

"No." Not quite. Not yet.

Not ever.

"They'd be surprised, wouldn't they? The other houses," he clarified, when Katherine raised her eyebrows. "They think we're all up here singing praises to you-Know-Who. Counting the days until we take the Dark Mark." He almost laughed, looking wryly down at the children who slept restlessly beside them, barely more than a child himself. "If they only knew...."

"They don't want to know," she bit out, before reluctantly remembering the concern on Lily Evans' face. "At least, most of them don't. But it doesn't matter what they think." Her smile was small and bitter. "It never matters what everyone else thinks. 'Take care for thine own self, and let others choose as they may. They will anyway.'"

"Did you *actually* memorize Salazar's autobiography?"

"Only the good parts." She stared past the shadows that wrapped around and through the room, the better to see them move. "Go to sleep. I'll wake you in a few hours."

Maybe David knew she'd had enough for one night; maybe he'd simply had enough himself. He wrapped himself in his school robes without argument, and stretched out in front of the younger students, between them and the darkness. Rina rolled next to him in her sleep, whimpering; he looked slightly embarrassed as he put his arm around her, but she quieted. Katherine ignored them both, and soon their breathing leveled into peaceful sleep.

The fire was almost dead, and she didn't dare move to put more wood on the fire. That would mean leaving the table, leaving the useless security blanket of the other five. Something flickered in the darkness and her heart skipped several beats. Had that been a flash of silver there, at the top of the boys' stairs?

Her breath echoed, short and harsh through the room, but nothing moved. Her wand was 12 inches, rowan and nagaskin -- the skin of a snake, destined for Slytherin. She ran her fingers up and down its cool length, and kept her eyes fixed on the stairs, and waited for morning to come.

If it ever did.

Part 3

"This is exactly what I was talking about, Professor." It was less the volume of the voice that woke her than the tone, the supercilious smugness of it all. She pried her eyes open, wincing against the brightness of the dozens of torches that lit the Common Room. There was no confusion, no peace to be found in a moment of forgetfulness; she knew exactly where she was and, like the Seer she'd never been, knew exactly what was about to happen.

"Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Mr. Malfoy." Professor Noira looked perfect, as usual, dark blonde hair smoothed back from her face, dark brown eyes clear and cool. "I would have thought, as a prefect, you could have handled the situation yourself, but I'm always happy to help when students are over their heads."

It was almost worth what was coming to see the expression on Malfoy's face. Almost. Katherine stored the memory to savor later, but kept her face blank, and David only blinked, neither of them willing to anger Malfoy any further.

But the still-sleepy Rina and Erin were unable to hold back giggles. They choked them off seconds too late; Katherine moved between the girls and Malfoy reflexively, and took the full force of his glare of cold hatred.

"Everyone up!" Professor Noira ordered, either not seeing the exchange, or ignoring it; it was always impossible to read her face. The students struggled to their feet, Rina nearly tripping over her robes. Andrew steadied her at the last minute. "This is the Common Room, not a dormitory or a slumber party, and it is not to be treated as such. Miss Mitchell, I'm surprised at you, encouraging the younger students to deliberately flout the rules in this manner. 20 points from Slytherin, each, and detention, and you'll lose even more points if I catch any of you anywhere other than your own beds at night again."

"But, Professor--" Andrew tried to protest; Noira cut him off.

"Your. Own. Beds. Am I making myself very clear, Mr. Ryan?"

Andrew bit his lip and stared at the floor. "Yes, Professor."

"Excellent." Noira gave them one more hard stare before shooing them off to their dormitories. David's jaw was tight, but he pulled Andrew by the elbow to the boys' stairs. Katherine led the three girls to the other staircase.

"What are we going to do, Kit?" Rina was close to tears. "I don't want to sleep alone, the spiders will come again, I know it!"

"Oh, stop whining!" Erin rolled her eyes. "Like Kit can do anything now."

"Fine for you," Rina shot back. "You and Shivani are in the same room. The rest of us are alone!" Her voice rose to a wail on the last word.

"Both of you shut it," Katherine snapped. "Get cleaned up and dressed; we'll talk at breakfast. Go," she repeated when Erin and Shivani both started to protest.

Rina gave Katherine one last pitiful look over her shoulder as she shuffled through the first-year door, disappearing inside only when Katherine beckoned her on with a jerk of her chin. Erin and Shivani dragged themselves reluctantly towards their rooms, meeting their two roommates leaving. The other two third-years hugged the side of the doorway, working their way past the Muggle-borns as if they had something deadly and contagious, then nearly raced down the hall and away. Shivani's eyes were wide and wounded, but she set her chin and went into the room. Erin slammed the door behind them.

Katherine took the last flight of stairs to the seventh-year room, hoping ti would be empty, knowing it wouldn't. She was correct -- Morgan was already gone, but Kurtz and Halme were still lurking. Waiting.

"Aww, too bad, Mitchell." Kurtz's attempt to look sweet and sympathetic left her looking as if she'd swallowed something disgusting. She brushed her black hair with long, luxurious strokes as she reclined on the end of her bed, her prefect's badge catching the light. The badge that should have been Katherine's, and everyone in the House knew it, especially Kurtz. "All of your little playmates sent to their rooms. What will you do for company at night?"

"Can't blame her for not wanting Ryder to go away," Halme got into the game, applying what appeared to be her tenth coat of mascara to her brown eyes, making them look even smaller than they already did. "He's almost attractive, for a Mudblood, and it's not like she could do any better than a fifth-year."

"I'd be more concerned with how well you can do, Castiga," Katherine advised the other girl, choosing a new uniform sweater and skirt with calm composure. "Malfoy was paying much more attention to that fifth-year last night than he was to you, if I recall. Best look to your back."

Halme paled, then her cheeks flushed with angry color. "As if that little runt Black could take Lucius away from me! I'd like to see her try!"

"She did. In the Common Room last night. And seemed to be relatively successful." Katherine buttoned a clean white shirt and pulled her school tie over her head and collar before tightening the knot. "And as Narcissa has more than a few centimeters on you -- everywhere," she added with a glance towards Halme's less-than-impressive chest, "--you might want to spend a bit more time worrying about your sleeping partners than mine."

Kurtz didn't bother trying to suppress her snicker at her 'friend's' expense. Halme's hands flexed, but her wand lay on top of her books, a good three meters away. "Have all the fun you like now, Mitchell," the bigger girl snarled. "We'll be the ones laughing tonight, won't we, then? When all of your little friends are alone in their beds, no one here to protect them...."

Halme's eyes dropped pointedly, and Katherine realized her robes were fisted in her hands. "Strong, powerful witches, aren't you?" she managed to say emotionlessly. "Attacking children in their beds. Too bad you're too afraid to take on someone who can fight back."

"Well, everyone needs to start somewhere." Kurtz grinned and tossed her hairbrush towards her dresser; the silver clattered loudly against the wood. "Don't worry, Mudblood, when the time comes, you won't be left out." The two wafted out of the room, their laughter trailing nastily in their wake.

In the now-silent room, Katherine closed her eyes and breathed deeply, once, then again, then again. Then, carefully, she opened her hands, and began the work of magicing the wrinkles from her robes.


Everyone ducked at the roll of paper went flying over their heads and slammed into the door of a stall, the crash echoing through the room. "Good, Shivani," David told her, retrieving the roll with a flip of his wand and dropping it to the floor in front of the other third-year. "Erin, try it."

Erin, still sulking over her last four failed attempts, tightened her grip on her wand, swished, and popped her wrist. "Telawasi!" The roll twitched a bit, then stilled. Erin's wand went flying in frustration.

"Accio wand!" David redirected the flying wood into his hand before it could hit anything. "Brilliant, O'Malley. Disarm yourself before anyone else has the chance. That'll be very effective."

Erin crossed her arms and plopped to the tile floor, her scowl deepening. "This is a stupid charm, and it's fifth-year work, anyway. How are we supposed to learn it in an hour?"

"If I can do it, you can do it," Shivani pointed out, the nerves in her eyes and voice making her forgo her usual diplomacy.

"Well, pardon me for not being a future Auror like the two of you," Erin sniped back at her roommate, including David in her glower. "I plan to have better things to do with my time than fling rolls of toilet paper around the loo. This is useless!"

"If you'd prefer to go to bed tonight with no defense but third-year spells, be my guest," Katherine cut in before Shivani could say whatever she'd been about to say, as it almost certainly wouldn't have been helpful. "Otherwise, quiet down and work."

Erin looked rebellious, but hauled herself back to her feet for another try. Katherine returned her attention to Rina. "Again. Wingardium leviosa. Honestly, you learned this first day in Charms."

"I'm failing Charms," Rina said miserably. "I can't make my wand work right. Isn't there a potion I could use?"

"You're the only one of us who's any good in Potions." Andrew's forehead wrinkled in concentration as he levitated his roll of paper across the room, carefully banging it into every pipe and sink along the way. "Do you know anything Snape wouldn't?"


"Better work harder in Charms, then." Andrew brought his battered paper back, landing it at Rina's feet with a flourish; Rina promptly threw it at him. He ducked and the paper sailed over his head towards the wall -- and passed right through the ghostly head that had just popped out, hitting the wall and bouncing back to the floor. Moaning Myrtle let out a shrill wail and retreated for the third time, chased by the semi-hysterical laughter of the younger students.

Katherine rubbed her throbbing forehead and sighed, sinking to the floor and leaning back against the cool stone pedestal of the center sinks. Her eyes closed against the headache, she listened as David regained control of himself and paired the other students off, Rina with Andrew to continue working on the levitation charm, Erin to serve as a target for Shivani's impediment and body bind curses.

"How much good to you really think this is going to do?" he asked as he sat next to Katherine, pitching his voice under Erin's bitter complaints.

She shrugged without opening her eyes. "Probably none. I'm out of ideas."

"You think they'll come after us tonight?"

"Halme and Kurtz said as much -- and you saw Malfoy this morning. He's bored with playing with his food."

"Thank you for referring us that way."


"Yeah." Erin yelped and toppled over as Shivani nailed her with a body bind; David looked over at them, but didn't move. "You should go remove that, Kit. Good practice."

"As Miss O'Malley pointed out, you're the future Auror. The Minister of Magic doesn't need to remove curses." But she rose anyway, and took only two tries to banish the hex. Erin got up grumbling and nursing bruises; Shivani tried not to look triumphant, and almost succeeded.

"Almost time for fifth-hour," Andrew announced.

His voice broke Rina's concentration just as she'd maneuvered the roll of paper into the air. It fell to the floor and she threw it at Andrew again with a shriek of rage, hard enough to stagger him back a few feet. "Hey!" He recovered his balance and, face dark, leveled his wand to retaliate.

"Rina! Andrew! Enough!" They'd never heard Katherine shout before, and five pairs of wide eyes turned to her, silenced. She felt the weight of those eyes bearing down on her shoulders and closed her own, breathing until she could control her voice again. "Go to fifth-hour. Everyone who can, meet back here before dinner. We'll meet again after dinner and keep working until curfew."

"Kit?" Shivani's voice was tiny, tentative, all triumph gone.

"Go." She listened to them leave, hasty whispers and one nervous giggle, books clumping together, satchels thumping against backs, feet scuffling on tile until the room was silent again.

Only David remained when she opened her eyes, watching her gravely. "Only 8 hours to curfew. Dumbledore isn't back yet."


"It's not enough time."


If he was looking for comfort, he was disappointed, but he didn't show it. He nodded and picked up his books, then hers, and inclined his head towards the door. Katherine almost smiled as she let him escort her out of the girl's loo.

8 hours to curfew. Only 8 hours.

It wasn't enough.

Part 4


At her whisper, Katherine's wand glowed with the barest hint of light. She had waited what seemed like hours for the other three girls to give up on the giggling and the knowing looks, and finally fall asleep. Morgan was snoring and Halme's chest moved up and down, little whimpers escaping her now and then. Kurtz had never made it in to bed -- but Katherine fully expected to see her tonight.

It was getting late.

She'd gone to bed with her wand in her hand, and didn't let it go even to locate and put on comfortable, weekend clothes -- denim jeans and a thin jumper in Slytherin green. Socks and track shoes on her feet, hair tied back, no robes to get in the way, and then there was nothing to do again but sit cross-legged on her bed, stare at the door as if she could see through it without the charm she had never bothered to learn, and wait.

Whatever Malfoy was going to do, it would come tonight. Lucius had never been known for his patience, and he couldn't risk waiting any longer or Dumbledore could return. The headmaster only left Hogwarts when things outside -- things with You-Know-Who -- were at their worst, and he always came back as quickly as possible for that very reason. No, Malfoy had to attack now or hold his peace, and he'd made far too much of himself in the last weeks to afford to do that.

David and Andrew were in the boys' dormitory, too far away to help or be helped. She spent a moment fiercely wishing that David was a girl, his obsessive study of Auror's skills only a few rooms away, then equally fiercely dismissed what wasn't to concentrate on what was. Erin and Shivani had each other, of course; she'd told them to trade off staying awake, and they might actually obey. But Rina was all alone with the first-year girls, who couldn't hurt her, but couldn't -- or wouldn't -- help her, either. And Katherine was three flights of stairs and two closed doors away from her, and she was so tired....

It would be so much easier to just let it happen. Leave the others to look after themselves, concentrate on surviving until graduation, then leave it all behind. Her fingers ran smoothly across her wand as she stared at it. Up and down. Up and down. There was a job with the Ministry with her name on it, International Relations, or Improper Use of Magic, perhaps -- something that came with power, and a solid wage, and respect. Most of all, respect. Her fingers kept moving, of their own volition. Up and down. She would be someone at last, she'd show them -- all of them, Muggles and wizards alike -- what a Muggle-born witch could do. She could fight the Dark Lord then, when she was older. More powerful. She'd fight him then.

It wouldn't be so hard, really. Up and down. Just let it happen. Up and down. Keep her head low, let Malfoy have his fun for just a few more months, and she could have everything she'd ever wanted. Be everything she'd ever wanted to be. Just let it happen.

Up and down. Then slowly, slowly, down. She watched her wand with detached fascination as it touched the duvet, watched someone else's hand release it and saw the smooth wood slip away with her resolve.

Just let it happen....

The scream seemed to fill the tower, tearing through the stone walls as if they were tissue, more screams joining it a heartbeat later. Katherine was off her bed and halfway to the door before she remembered she'd dropped her wand; when she turned to retrieve it, she found it already clenched in her hand.

No doors opened as she took the steps to the first-year room, feet barely touching the stone; Rina's cries were joined by her roommates', echoing with terror and helpless, half-heard spells. The doorknob resisted her for a moment and she wasted no more time on it, but stood back and aimed her wand. "Alohomora!"

The door slammed back on its hinges, and three terrified first-year girls scrabbled past it into her. "Snakes in the bed! Snakes!" they babbled, voices almost too shrill to be comprehensible, hands clutching at her desperately.

"Out of the way!" She peeled them ruthlessly away until she could shove past them into the room. "Rina!"

"Kit! Help us!" The eleven-year-old stood on top of a bed, wand clutched in both hands and pointed in front of her, one of her roommates next to her in an identical pose. Inches away from the girls' faces, held only by the levitation spell they'd somehow managed to cast, three vipers twisted and struck, venom dripping from their fangs as they fought through the air to attack their prey.

"Impedimenta!" Katherine shouted; as the snakes' violent thrashing slowed, she followed the spell with another: "Nodare serpenta!" The girls screamed again as the thrashing resumed, but the snakes twisted in and around each other until their bodies were caught in an intricate knot. Enraged, the snakes struck over and over, their fangs finding only each others' bodies.

"Let them drop, in the trunk!" Rina and her roommate were wild-eyed with terror, but they obeyed, their wands directing the tangle of vipers into the open trunk at the foot of Rina's bed. In two steps, Katherine was there to slam the lid closed.

"Are you all right?" she demanded of the girls. They nodded breathlessly, and Katherine realized they weren't the ones screaming any more. It was coming from outside the room, up the stairs. "Shivani. Erin."

And she was running again, barely aware of Rina a few steps behind her. The dormitory had awakened by now, doors slamming open up and down the staircase. There was shouting from the Common Room, familiar voices calling out to them, but Katherine didn't have the attention to spare.

The door to the third-years' room was closed; she didn't bother with the knob this time, simply shouted "alohomora" without breaking stride. Once again, the door slammed backwards and Katherine raced through, just as a viper cannoned into the wall inches from her head.

"Serpentiwasi!" Shivani shouted from the foot of her bed, and another viper went flying. Its body slid limply down the wall to join a pile of three others there, leaving a trail of greenish blood behind it. One of her roommates, the one who'd almost sat with them the other day, echoed the spell, her young face set in grim determination, and a fifth viper splattered against stone.

Obviously that side of the room was under control; Katherine spun to look for Erin. "Over here! Help!" a girl's voice cried from behind one of the beds. Katherine went over the bed instead of around it, falling to the floor next to the last third-year. She was crouched by Erin, hands wrapped tightly around her arm, a broomstick lying next to her. Its bristles almost hid the bodies of the two snakes it had crushed; Erin's wand lay abandoned next to them.

The roommate -- Penny? Penelope? Pandora! -- looked up at her, her pupils dilated so widely from panic that her eyes were nearly black. "We didn't wake up fast enough," she said helplessly. "They bit her before we could kill them. They both bit her."

"Both?" Oh god, there was another bite on Erin's leg, already turning dark purple and swelling beneath the hem of her nightshirt. "Run. Now. Get to the infirmary, get Poppy Pomfrey. Go, now!"

Pandora disappeared out the door so quickly she could have apparated; Katherine took her place by Erin, tearing off a strip of torn nightshirt, and using Erin's wand to make a crude Muggle tourniquet on her arm. "Erin? Open your eyes, O'Malley, look at me!" She kept calling the girl, trying to remember the healing spells that kept skittering out of reach -- the Minister of Magic wouldn't need to know them. The Minister of Magic didn't need to know a lot of things.... "Erin!"

The girl's head finally moved, her eyes slitting open. "...Kit?"

"I'm here." Her free hand fluttered over Erin's body, trying to soothe with no idea how to go about it. "We're getting help, you'll be all right. Just stay awake."

Erin's eyes were dulled by pain, but she managed to grin a little. "P-panicked... tried locomotor m-mortis. D-didn't work -- snakes don't have l-legs."

Katherine tried to dredge up a smile in return; it felt twisted and wrong, obscene. "And you'll remember that next time, Miss O'Malley, I'm sure. Stay still, don't talk. Help's coming."

Erin nodded slightly -- then her eyes slipped closed again.

"No! Erin!" Dimly, she was aware of David's presence beside her, of Rina staring wide-eyed until Andrew grabbed her, then burying her face in his narrow shoulder, of Shivani and the other third-year -- what was her name? it didn't matter -- standing between them and the door, wands raised against all comers. None of it made an impression; there was only the teenager that had begin convulsing at her feet.

"Let me in!"

"Get stuffed!"

"If you want her to live, let me in!"

"You tried to kill her! Get stuffed!"

"I didn't try to kill her, but I might be able to save her, if you wretched little brats will let me pass!"

Some part of her had been aware of the conversation, but when the dark, attenuated figure tried to pry off the grip she had on Erin's body, her fist swung out instinctively.

Severus Snape warded her off with one hand. "Are you all stupid?" he demanded, face pinched in irritation and something that looked vaguely like... guilt? "Or do you simply not care what happens to the girl? Let me--"

Katherine's wand had already snapped up, David moving in perfect synch. "You're. Not. Touching. Her."

Snape's eyes narrowed and Katherine braced herself, ready for any spell he could cast. So she was entirely unprepared when Snape simply pushed her aside. She fell off-balance into David, tumbling them both to the floor; before they could right themselves, Snape produced a small vial from his robes, with no trace of the flourish he usually displayed, and dripped thick, purple liquid over Erin's leg.

The girl screamed in pain as green mist billowed up; David shouted in rage and lunged for Snape, knocking him backwards against the bed. Katherine scrambled to Erin's side, trying frantically to clear the mist away from the wound. She froze, staring, when she finally saw Erin's skin.

"David. Let him go."

But David had managed to get the upper hand over his seventh-year tormentor, and had no intention of letting up now. His hands were around Snape's throat and tightening. "David! Stop!"

"What? What did the bloody bastard do to Erin?"

"He's healing her!"

David's head snapped up, then his knee caught Snape in the stomach, getting an anguished "oof" from the older boy, as he scrambled over to see for himself. The bite was still there, but the swelling was almost gone, the flesh merely red instead of virulently purple-black. "I'll be damned."

"Quite probably," Snape rasped, hands at his abused throat. "May I continue, or would you prefer it if she dies? She still might."

Silently, the other two Slytherins sat back, clearing the way for Snape to half-crawl over with as much dignity as he could manage. He tilted the vial again, pouring it over the wound on Erin's arm, then gestured for Katherine to tilt her head so he could pour the remains down Erin's throat. Erin sputtered and coughed, then went limp.

But she was breathing, and the convulsions had stopped.

"She's... okay," David breathed.

"Not yet." Snape stood, shaking his robes out with evident self-satisfaction. "But she will be. No thanks necessary," he added snidely, as the other two could only stare. The younger students gathered silently around, their open-mouthed gazes bouncing from Erin to Snape, and back.

"What the devil is going on in here?" Professor Noira's demand broke the stillness; black robed and furious, her hair and robes disordered, she seemed to take up the entire doorway. Malfoy loomed over her shoulder, his concerned expression terminally marred by an amused smirk. Until his eyes fell on Snape.

"Mr. Snape! Mr. Ryder!" Both boys jumped slightly as Noira yelled their names. "What are you doing in the girls' dormitory? What is all this about!"

"Snakes, Professor," Katherine managed to answer, when everyone else -- including Snape, damn him -- looked to her. "There were poisonous snakes in the girls' beds. They woke the tower screaming. Erin O'Malley was bitten."

"There were snakes in Andrew Ryan's bed as well," David belatedly contributed. "We killed them, then came to check on the girls. Snape... Snape brought the anti-venom."

"He saved Erin's life." The words seemed unreal to Katherine even as she said them.

"Did he?" Malfoy's voice was silky smooth and colder than ice, as he stared daggers at Snape. Snape merely lifted his eyebrows in return, then continued straightening his robes.

"Saved O'Malley's..." Professor Noira came further into the room, and the rage on her face gave way to shock as she saw the pile of dead snakes by the doorway, and the still-livid bite marks on Erin's arm and leg. "Merlin protect us.... I never dreamed... Clear the way, let me bring the girl out of here! She'll need to go to the infirmary immediately!"

"I've got her." David stood, hefting Erin's body with a grunt. Katherine contributed a quick levitation charm to take some of the weight off; he nodded in thanks and started towards the door, everyone else in the room trailing after him. It was a mark of Noira's shock that she simply got out of the little group's way.

Malfoy also let them pass, but couldn't resist following them down, leaning close to Katherine as she brought up the rear. "Nicely done, Mitchell," he murmured into her ear, under the uproar from the Common Room below. "But it's amazing how these accidents happen -- almost like there's no place in Hogwarts safe for the little Mudbloods. Isn't it?"

Katherine turned just enough to meet his eyes, the narrow-eyed, superior stare that had kept the six of them awake, afraid, for two weeks. And she smiled. "Eat snakes, you son of a bitch. I've even got some handy."

His eyes flared in rage, but this time, Katherine didn't look away, didn't hunch over, didn't back down. She tightened her grip on her wand and silently dared him to try something. Anything.

20-year-old Poppy Pomfrey fussed her way into the Common Room below, Pandora right behind her, saying something about snakes in beds, children bitten, and in Hogwart's, too, what was the world coming to? But Katherine's world had narrowed to Malfoy's sneer and the wand in her hand, rowan and nagahide, smooth under her fingers. The right curse came clearly to mind, almost shimmering in the air in front of her, and Malfoy's mouth opened on a curse of his own--

And the dungeon door opened again, a familiar voice calling out over the racket. "Gone for only two weeks, and one of my Houses has fallen into chaos? Indeed, Poppy, what is the world coming to?"

Albus Dumbledore had returned.

Her curse died, uncast, on her lips, but as she turned to face the headmaster, Katherine had the indescribable satisfaction of seeing Lucius Malfoy's fingers go limp around his wand, and his face turn dead white with shock. And fear.

As Dumbledore waded through the Slytherin Common Room, David met her at the bottom of the stairs. He gave the still-stunned Malfoy a single, nasty smile, then grinned down at Katherine. "So, chalk up a win for our side?"

"Mmmm...." Erin was sitting up already, Shivani and Pandora supporting her on each side. Andrew and Erin's other roommate -- Natalie, that was it -- stood guard at either end of the couch, daring anyone to come anywhere near them, and Rina bounced next to Erin, spinning out the details of the fight that Erin might have missed. Several feet away, Dumbledore was speaking gravely to Professor Noira, who suddenly seemed very young, biting her lip and refusing to meet his eyes. Every other Slytherin in the tower did their level best to be as far away from the headmaster, the Muggle-borns, and Malfoy as possible.

"Yes," Katherine finally nodded, feeling all of the tired muscles in her body finally begin to relax. Sometime soon, she might actually be able to sleep. "I think we won."

She found Snape across the room, leaning against the fireplace as if he had no part whatsoever in all this hullaballoo; she could still feel Malfoy on the steps above her, thwarted, dangerous fury filling the air around him.

"This battle, at least," she finished quietly. "No guarantees about the war."

David nodded, sobering a bit. But only a bit -- his face was still alive with relief and triumph. "I can live with that."


"... I tried to persuade her to stay on, but she feels her talents would be put to better use in a more active role during these difficult times. It's an admirable decision, of course, but Professor Noira will be missed here at Hogwarts. It will take some time to find another Arithmancy professor, to say nothing of a new Head of House for Slytherin."

Dumbledore paused and Katherine came back from the gray fog she'd been drifting in, realizing he was waiting for a reply. "Yes, sir." He tilted his head, his eyes sympathetic; evidently, that wasn't what he'd been looking for.

But he didn't press, simply continued, "Of course, you have more than enough concerns of your own. Is Miss Slopak still settling in with her new roommates, now that they've all returned from Christmas break?"

"They're fine, sir."

"The third-years don't mind having a first-year in their midst?"

"No, sir." He lifted his eyebrows knowingly and she amended, "Not much, rather. All of them still feel a bit protective, especially now, since we heard...." She swallowed and leveled her voice, finishing, "And Rina's trying to behave."

"And is she succeeding?"

"...As well as can be expected."

He smiled appreciatively, either of Rina's efforts, or of Katherine's diplomatic phrasing. "Excellent. You'll be pleased to know, I'm sure, that Mr. Ryan is also doing well with the Hufflepuffs. I'm sure this first Interhouse Exchange experiment will work out quite well." He said the last part wryly; everyone in Hogwarts knew why Andrew no longer slept with his housemates in Slytherin. "And you, Miss Mitchell -- how are the advanced Charms and Defense Against Dark Arts tutorials going?"

"Very well, thank you, sir." He waited again, expectantly, and she cast about for something to add. "Professors Flitwick and Halbard have been very helpful; I appreciate the time they've been willing to put in with me."

"They tell me you obviously worked quite hard over the holiday. Dedication is admirable, but please remember that even the strongest wizard must occasionally rest."

"Yes, sir."

"And I do hope you'll come to me when it's time to apply for Auror training -- if, of course, you feel my recommendation would be helpful."

"Yes, sir, it would. Thank you."

"Oh, it's the least I can do for a prefect."

"Yes, sir." Katherine looked reflexively down at the badge she still wasn't quite used to wearing, even though she'd had it the entire last six weeks of the previous term, since the morning after.... "About that, Headmaster... I did have a question."

"Yes, Miss Mitchell?"

"Malana Kurtz, sir, and Derek Istan, and the others who were expelled after.... After." She'd worked on the question for weeks, but her tongue still stumbled over the words, as if appalled she was actually going to voice them. "How do you know they were the ones who attacked us that night? Attacked the others, I mean," she corrected hastily. No one had done anything to her, after all; they'd been too busy going after the children who couldn't defend themselves. Such a shock they'd gotten....

"Didn't I tell you--?" The headmaster looked shocked for a moment, then closed his eyes and rubbed them with one hand, sighing. "I hope you'll accept an old man's apology, Miss Mitchell; I didn't realize you hadn't been informed.... Well. As if happens, there was a witness to the events of that night."

"A witness, sir? David... David and I were both out of our rooms first, and we didn't see anyone."

"The witness chose not to be seen, as is his privilege." Dumbledore seemed to recover a shadow of his usual good humor at the confusion on Katherine's face. "It seems the Bloody Baron took it upon himself to monitor events in Slytherin House in my absence."

"The Baron?" She shuddered in spite of herself. "Why would he...?"

"Whatever his highly questionable opinions of your birth, I understand he was quite impressed with your self-sufficiency -- he regards it as representative of the highest traditions of Slytherin House. I was also impressed, I must admit -- though by somewhat different actions, and for somewhat different reasons. And I would wish such efforts had never been needed.

"Adults like to believe we are all-knowing and all powerful, but we are not, and there is nothing I regret more deeply. Especially during such times as these...." He trailed off for a moment, lost in his thoughts, then suddenly focused on Katherine again. "I hope you will never face circumstances such as those again, Miss Mitchell, but that is not something I can promise. But I hope you will remember this: if ever any of my students need my help, or that of anyone else at Hogwarts -- any professor, any prefect, anyone -- it will be given them, to the full extent of my powers. They have only to ask.... however difficult I know the asking can be."

She had no trouble now facing the hatred in Malfoy's eyes, but she couldn't quite meet the compassion in Dumbledore's. "Yes, Headmaster," she said quietly, studying her hands where they lay twisted in her lap.

The silence stretched a long time, pulled far too thin. She finally had to break it. "Sir, if I may... the others will be waiting for me."

"Of course, Miss Mitchell, I'm sorry to keep you from them for so long. I'll see you in the Great Hall in a few minutes?"

"Yes, sir."

She escaped as quickly as she could without being rude or undignified, and leaned against the wall outside the Headmaster's office for a long while before she was calm enough to wind through the staircases between her and the Great Hall.

The disturbance was audible long before it was visible -- from two flights above the scene, Katherine could see the group clustered together: Rina protected in the center, Erin, Shivani and their roommates defiantly facing down the group of Slytherin sixth-years, three boys and two girls, that had them cornered.

Katherine sighed and hurried down the stairs, adding together the number of points Slytherin would lose for this, and not feeling nearly as badly about taking points from her own house as she should.

But before she could get close enough to do anything, five students wearing Gryffindor red and gold appeared behind the sixth-years, who were too busy tormenting their prey to realize they had *become* the prey.

"Aren't you a little too old to be picking on third-years?" Potter asked, startling the sixth-years into whirling around. Evans smiled sweetly at them from his side.

"Oh, haven't you heard?" Black stood next to his friends, giving the sixth-years a cheerful smile that would make anyone with sense run in the opposite direction. "Slytherins *prefer* to take on third-years, or even first-years. You know, so they can't fight back."

"Actually, I understand that even third-years are a bit much for them," Lupin contributed from Potter's other side. "Shameful, that."

"Absolutely," Black agreed. "Maybe they need more practice? Against opponents that are up their weight level?"

Pettigrew nodded agreement and all four boys took one steps closer to the Slytherins; Black actually pushed up the sleeves of his robes in anticipation. Evans stayed back, watching with her head cocked in interest, obviously not about to intervene. The sixth-years took a step back, only to run into their former victims. None of whom were looking particularly victimized.

Katherine took her time going the rest of the way; when she left the stairs, the Gryffindors and the third-years had turned the tables, forming an ever-smaller circle around the increasingly-panicked Slytherin sixth-years. She lingered just that little bit longer, before finally asking, "Is there a problem here?"

The sixth-years' eyes flashed to her with relief, which turned into blatant fear when they realized who had come to their 'rescue'. She smiled blandly, then looked past them at Potter.

The Head Boy smiled back, just as blandly. "No problem, thanks. Just reminding a few people of their manners."

"So I see. Well, I'm sure they've the idea now. Perhaps they should be moving on to the Hall? Before things get nasty?"

The sixth-years took the hint and began edging their way to freedom. Black and Erin took their time opening a hole, but finally stepped aside. The sixth-years fled.

"By the way," Katherine called after them, "ten points from Slytherin."

"Each," Evans added, finishing with a toss of her hair, "for being great bullying gits." The third-years giggled a little in startled appreciation, Erin imitating the hair toss.

Potter watched the last of sixth-years scurry out of sight with a satisfied nod, then turned back, sobering. "May we offer you an escort into the Hall?" he asked Katherine specifically and the group as a whole.

Rina and the third-years were all in favor, several of them smiled bashfully up at the older boys, but Katherine shook her head. "We'll be fine from here."

Erin looked briefly mutinous, then suddenly serious again, as if remembering what they were gathering in the Hall for. "Yeah," she echoed quietly, staring at her feet. "We're fine."

Evens touched her shoulder gently, then began to lead her gang away, one arm looped tightly through Potter's. Katherine suddenly heard Dumbledore's voice in her head again -- 'if ever any of my students need my help... however difficult the asking may be...' -- and called out on impulse, "Lily!"

Evans turned back, and Katherine took a breath, then tried to smile. The very corners of her lips turned up, if not easily, than a bit more naturally than she was accustomed to. "Thank you," she said simply, gesturing at the girls around her.

Evans smiled back, and Katherine envied the warmth even as she soaked it in. "You're welcome. And... I'm sorry."

Katherine nodded acknowledgment, then began to gather her flock as the Gryffindors disappeared into the Great Hall.

The walls were dressed in Slytherin green and silver, the tables bare, the students strangely subdued. Three young Gryffindors laughed suddenly, loudly, but Black, of all people, silenced them with a single sharp word. The head of Slytherin table was empty; after only a moment, Katherine led the others up to take the seats. Malfoy was only a few feet away, but except for one hard look, he chose to ignore their existence. He'd had to do some fancy footwork to keep his prefect's badge, but there had been no proof he'd put Kurtz and the others up to the attacks that night -- or any other night since, no matter what she knew in her heart. There was no proof... Not yet.

Andrew appeared a few minutes after the rest, surrounded by his new Hufflepuff friends and shadowed by a sixth-year prefect. He peeled off from them as they came through the doorway and sat next to Rina, across from Shivani. "Hi, guys," he greeted them softly, his eyes red and slightly swollen still. "Hi, Kit."

They whispered back greetings and Dumbledore rose from the head table, as if Andrew's arrival had been some sort of signal. Which it might have been. He cleared his throat, and the few quiet murmurs faded to silence.

"We gather today," he began, "not in celebration, but in remembrance."

Erin and Shivani leaned together, their shoulders touching; Pandora and Natalie shuffled just a little closer to them on either side.

"We always feel regret when students leave us, even when we know they are bound for better and greater things."

Rina's hand slipped into Andrew's and he squeezed it with a smile that worked its way out around tears, a twelve-year-old boy trying to be a man.

"Our sorrow, then, is so much greater when we lose our students, not to the future, but to that power from which not even magic can secure us forever."

Lucius Malfoy's expression was pious and respectful, as befitted his prefect's badge. But his eyes sneered at Dumbledore's words, as if he knew better; when he felt Katherine's eyes on him, he turned just enough to smirk and tap his fingers against his left arm, just below the elbow. Her fingers twitched for her wand, twitched for proof, and found only air. Not yet....

"This is not the first time we have gathered here, in this Hall, to mark the passing of one of our own. It shall not be the last."

Involuntarily, she followed Malfoy's eyes when they flicked to the other end of the table; Severus Snape sat alone, as far from the others as he could get, staring past Dumbledore up at the clear, starry sky of the Great Hall. One hand rubbed absently at his arm, as if it was hurting him.

His left arm, just below the elbow.

"But even in sorrow, we may find joy, in remembering those who have gone before us, and the countless gifts they have left behind."

Katherine's breath caught hard in her chest, and Snape looked over as if he'd heard her. There was nothing in his face -- no guilt, no excuse, no triumph, no regret. Rina sniffled suddenly, loudly, breaking Katherine's gaze from Snape's, and when she glanced back up, Snape was staring again at the sky.

"In this way, we honor them -- everything they were, and everything we can be, if we aspire to match their gifts."

Tears streamed down Erin's cheeks, and Shivani's, and Andrew's valiant reach for adulthood crumbled in silent, wracking sobs. Rina leaned against Katherine's shoulder, crying softly, and Katherine stiffened at the contact, then slowly relaxed.

"We dare to hope that, when our time comes, we too shall leave something worth celebrating in our wake."

Carefully, awkwardly, Katherine laid her arm around Rina's shoulders, reaching a little further to cup the back of Andrew's neck with fingers and palm. Her other hand found Erin's across the table.

"And so, tonight, we remember our fallen friend. We remember his intelligence and his compassion as a student of Hogwarts. We remember his heroism as it shone just two weeks ago, on a dark Christmas Eve, when he fought alone for the lives of his family against a vicious and cowardly Death Eater attack." She remembered Malfoy's thwarted fury, six weeks ago, and saw him now in the corner of her eye, his face calm and satisfied. She breathed deeply, carefully -- not yet -- and turned her eyes back to Dumbledore, putting Malfoy and Snape firmly from her mind. There would be time for them later. "We remember his dreams of fighting for all -- Muggle-born and magic-born alike -- against the darkness that threatens our world. But it is not, I believe, by fighting that we can best honor his memory."

The future stretched ahead of them in a long line of battles -- prejudice, training, danger. Snape, Malfoy, Voldmort.

"Instead, we remember those we have lost by striving to create, someday, a world where we need no longer fight -- where we need not struggle to live as we choose, but may simply live."

But maybe -- maybe -- they wouldn't have to face them alone.

Katherine let her head slip to the side, until her cheek came to rest on Rina's hair; Erin's hand tightened in hers as she closed her eyes, Dumbledore's voice washing over and around her.

"As David Ryder lived, and as he died, so shall we all be challenged to equal his spirit."

The future would come soon enough. She would rest a little while now, until it was time to fight again.


"but still there is so much left unanswered
   for so many innocent lives
      they close the doors and are letting nobody in
   and only the strong will survive"

Sarah McLachlan, "Shelter"



I was so very beyond relieved when this was finished. I don't like to read darker Harry Potter fic. I like action, adventure, some suspense, maybe a little angst (for hurt/comfort purposes only), but always, always with the fluff. Fluffy fluff. Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione, present-day Hogwarts fluffy fluff. You know, like the books.

So imagine my unparalleled delight when the Mary Sue who'd been wandering around my head for quite some time (for entertainment purposes only; no unwilling party was to be subjected to her) suddenly spoke up, extremely insistently. She began by changing houses on me (a Slytherin Mary Sue -- oh joy!), lost any semblance of people skills she might ever have possessed, and stepped quite firmly away from all forms of friendship with the Marauders, then proceeded to tell me how much it had sucked dead snakes to be a Muggle-born Slytherin when she'd been in seventh-year.

For the next five days, Katherine (not Kit, she informed me early on) held an angst-fest in my brain. It ran on endless loop at work, on the El, in bed at night -- no breaks, no breathing space, just tunnel vision into two days of ever-increasing hell. Don't talk to me about David -- I liked the boy, I didn't know until halfway through what his fate would be, and Katherine insisted that was How It Happened. It's not my fault.

The soundtrack was mostly Sarah McLachlan's 'Touch' and 'Solace' albums, the Aimee Mann 'Lost in Space' CD Diane Levitan handed me on Day 4, and pretty much everything Lowen & Navarro ever recorded, as usual. In particular, Dumbledore's speech in the Great Hall owes much of its spirit, if not its words, to L&N's "Crossing Over". Thanks again, guys.

Thanks also go to: the fabulous Kiki for not letting me go nuts even when I couldn't talk about it, assuring me repeatedly that it didn't suck, and editing even when she was wigged; Diane, for tolerating me on Days 4 and 5, asking to read it, pointing out the potential confusion in the timeline, and supplying more than a little of David's personality; Lizbet, for restarting RTDS and inadvertently setting Katherine loose; Cath, in the hopes she won't mind her name being maligned, since I'm fairly certain someone was trying to reach her with this one, not me; Bruce (BK the Irregular) for arm-wrestling his Muse while I was arm-wrestling mine -- we writers gotta stick together; the members of The Sugar Quill, for feeding my habit with the good stuff, and giving so much feedback; Beaker, for catching the boner mistake, and taking the time to give serious feedback; and the rest of the Horsechicks, for all the usual things.