The castle is dark and quiet. The stones welcome trespassing feet, muffling the sound of their footsteps, conspiring with the mysterious figure who crosses the Entrance Hall, hood up over their face. They are bent low, avoiding patches of moonlight from the enchanted windows, treading softly. They pass by with only the merest whisper of disturbance.
The boy watches with bated breath as the figure enters the kitchens, first tickling the pear in the painting, and then slipping through the door. He can see nothing of their face, and though he is curious, he dares not enter after them. Something about the figure gives him the chills and he considers turning around and heading back into his common room, which is just down the stairs. But he doesn't. He waits and after a few minutes the door opens again and the figure emerges, wraithlike, their cloak billowing behind them. The boy slips further into the shadows as they pass, melting out of sight, so that he only hears their footsteps fading away and cannot see which way they have turned. But he knows enough. He spotted his only clue as they passed through the glare of a torch: the tie hanging from their neck, shining in green and silver.
News spreads quickly in a castle, floating up and down spiral staircases, whispering through paintings. The Great Hall was abuzz with horror at the events of that fateful morning by the time fifteen-year-old Dorcas Meadowes entered the huge room, and she was soon filled in. Elsewhere, Alice Harper was breathlessly relating the story to Nicole Abbott outside the Gryffindor Common Room. A group of first years were whispering about it near the Potions classroom. Two Ravenclaw students were swapping rumors on their way down the staircase into the Entrance Hall. All over the castle, the events were being replayed in words. Some details were embellished, and others were lost in the transition from fact to rumor. But eventually, by midmorning, the entire castle seemed to know that the Gryffindor Quidditch hero, James Potter, had been poisoned that morning at breakfast, was in St. Mungo's with a bad case of uncontrollable bubble-vomiting, and that a mysterious Slytherin was to blame.
Frank Longbottom was known around the castle for his quick smile and helpful attitude to first years. But in times of trouble, the Head Boy was quick to drop the sweet talk and could quickly become the tough guy interrogator who could spot a trouble maker from a corridor away. He wasn't harsh and he wasn't cruel, but something about Frank Longbottom's steady, narrowed gaze could turn a third-year hiding a contraband Auto-Answer Quill into a trembling mass of apologies in minutes. But now he had been given tougher nuts to crack, and though he knew he was up to the job, he also knew it wouldn't be easy. He was entering the snake's den as sure as Salazar and he was determined not to leave until he had weeded the culprit out.
Frank sat in the Gryffindor common room, frowning, his eyes on the parchment in front of him not taking in a word of the essay which he was supposed to be revising. Instead, he was paying close attention to the portrait hole, waiting for a friend to arrive. Within a few minutes, his vigilance was rewarded, as Gideon Prewett slipped into the room.
"Gid," Frank called, waving the young man over. Gideon turned, caught his eye, and moved through the room toward him, his hands in his pockets, quiet and unobtrusive as ever. He was a shy young man, generally unnoticed, but he had an invaluable tendency to make use of his anonymity by closely observing everyone around him. He had served Frank well before, and they had become good friends in the process. Now, however, Frank was all business, as he leaned forward and spoke to Gideon in a whisper.
"I'm checking up on the Potter poisoning for Dumbledore," Frank said quietly. "What can you tell me?"
Gideon considered for a moment, pushing his glasses up on his noise absentmindedly. "Witness calls it for the Slytherins," he said, and Frank nodded, as Gideon lost himself in thought once more. "Alright," he said, leaning forward. "You've got four big contenders for this one if what the witness says is true. First, Bellatrix Black," he said, and Frank scribbled the name on a piece of paper quickly. "She's known for hating just about everyone but Gryffindors especially, and she's gotten violent before. But watch her, she's a slippery one."
"Next, talk to Donovan Avery," Gideon suggested. "They're big Quidditch rivals, Potter and Avery. The Slytherin-Gryffindor game is coming up and word has it they've gotten into it before."
He paused, allowing Frank to catch up with his writing.
"From Avery you come to Vivienne Parkinson. Potter's year. Someone said she was lurking around the Gryffindor common room a few weeks ago and no one is quite sure why. Plus, she's an old girlfriend of Avery's, so maybe she shared his dirt. Either way, she's got the brains to pull something like this off, and the looks to convince anyone who asks that not only is she innocent, but she's a canonized saint."
"And finally," he said after a pause, "I think your best bet is Severus Snape."
Frank nodded. "I was thinking the same thing," he admitted. "Not exactly a secret that they hate each other, and Snape's got a good reputation for Potions."
Gideon stood up, shoving his hands in his pockets once more. "Not much, but should be enough to get you somewhere. And Frank?"
Frank looked up from his notes, raising an eyebrow.
"Don't let them get under your skin," Gideon advised.
Clutching Dumbledore's map in hand, vowing not to let the Headmaster down, Frank stepped into an alien world.
The room was dimly lit, the decor distinctly intimidating. It was an exact opposite to the warm and cheerful atmosphere of the Gryffindor common room: here, everything appeared cold and dark, but strangely elegant, appealing in a haunting, dangerous fashion. The walls were hung with deep green tapestries and the furniture accented with strong dark wood and everything gleamed with shadows. The torches flickered over the scene and though Frank knew it was daylight, he felt he had stepped into a kind of eternal nighttime, a darker place where shade lingered and conspired to hide the truth. Frank smoothed the paper in his hand, forcing himself to control the bit of nervousness that the place had inspired in him.
The light filtering in greenly cast the occupants into shadow, so that he was forced to squint to make them out. They stared haughtily back at him, unintimidated, each wearing the same disdainful expression so well that he wondered if they had been trained in it. Four students, four suspects, and four stories from which he had to unravel the truth. It had been a full day. By now they would have tightly woven their alibis, formed alliances, conspired to cover up the dark deed. But facts had a way of emerging from fiction, if you had an ear for them.
She was beautiful in her own poisonous way, with heavy-lidded eyes that stared out at him with burning intensity, and full lips curved into a mocking smile. She was a seventh year, in several of his classes, but he had never spoken to her before now. But she had a reputation throughout the school for her dangerous attitude and general taste for destruction. Miss Bellatrix Black was not a young woman whom any first year would want to run across in a dark corridor, nor did any Gryffindor ever venture willingly into her territory in the library.
"Miss Black," he said firmly, wanting to let her know immediately that she was in his court now. "Can you tell me where you were, around one a.m. night before last?"
"Playing Gobstones," she answered promptly, a maniacal grin crossing her face. "With Professor Binns and the Duke of Cornwall."
She let out a giggle that sent chills across the back of his neck. Rubbing it self-consciously, he stared her down.
"Really? You weren't, say, anywhere near the kitchens?"
"I don't cook," she shook her head, letting out another girlish giggle. He switched tactics, staring her down.
"You're a known Gryffindor hater," he said coldly, and her face turned somber.
"Such vicious lies," she said sadly, shaking her head. "Don't you know, I just love my little Gryffindors. We're the best of pals, old Godric and I. We do everything together- we skip stones, and go shopping, and go strolling down the corridors hand. In. Hand," she said, her sadness turning mockingly as her lips curled into a sneer.
"You have a history of attacks on members of that house," he said, speaking over her.
"Attacks! No, you misunderstand," she said sweetly. "I just wanted to play with the ickle first years, just wanted to have a little fun."
"Do you know James Potter?"
"Jimmy!" she said loudly, clasping her hands to her chest. "Of course I know Jimmy Potter. Such a hero on the Quidditch pitch. Such a handsome young man."
"The perfect target for an attack, wouldn't you say?" he asked her shrewdly.
As quickly as though a lightbulb had burst, her cheer vanished. She scowled, as though she was actually disappointed that he was not playing along with her games. She leaned forward in silence for a moment, her fingers tracing a detailed pattern on the arm of the chair in which she was seated. When she looked up again, it was with clear eyes and a bored expression.
"I didn't poison the hero's pumpkin juice," she said flatly, sighing. "Wish I'd thought of it. I imagine he must be quite a sight to see, bubbling spilling out of his handsome little mouth. Guess he must not be much of a hero after all, though, if Dumbledore sent you down here to do his dirty work for him. Scared of us wee little Slytherins, is he? Or too busy reorganizing his trinkets up in his office?"
"Dumbledore has better things to do than try and get through to you, Black," Frank spat, shaking his head.
"No need to be rude, Longbottom," she said, sickly sweet. "Your questions bore me, they're very unoriginal. I'll save you time. I didn't do it. At one a.m. I was in my dormitory, and my roommates will confirm as much."
"I will be checking," he warned her.
"Please," she said mockingly. "I wouldn't want to get credit for such a pitiful attempt anyway." Without being dismissed, she stood up, then shot him a deadly smile. "If I'd done it, he'd be doing a lot worse than vomiting bubbles."
She started to get up and go and he made to protest, but she was already stopping and turning around, her long, dark hair sweeping over her shoulder gracefully.
"By the way," she said with a glittering smile. "If I were you, and i were wasting my time investigating this irritation, I might look into who was trying to tamper with Potter's broomstick last Saturday evening. Seems to me that the same person who was pathetically attempting to reverse the Steering Charm might also be responsible for this, especially so close to the next match, don't you think?"
He eyed her shrewdly, trying to calculate her angle. But she was a perfect mask of indifference, and all of his intuition got him nowhere, so he tried a direct approach.
"And who was that?"
She shrugged, already turning away from him. "You should know your Quidditch rivals, detective."
Bellatrix Black melted down the corridor with her skirts billowing behind her, a small smirk playing on her full lips. She was still laughing inwardly at the ineptitude of the oh-so-noble Head Boy. He was well out of his depths here and he didn't even know it. But then again, there were a few other players in this game who could be called nearly as pathetic. She found one with her eyes now, where he was waiting for her at the end of the hall where the torchlight almost didn't reach. His arms were crossed in sullen defiance but he didn't dare raise rebellious eyes to her. She stopped a few feet away, not wishing to get too close.
"You kept your mouth shut?"
"Don't worry, Avery," she said lazily, rolling her eyes. "Your sad little secret is safe with me. By the way, next time you may want to actually read up on the safety mechanisms of broom before you go trying to mess with one. Maybe you'd have realized it can't be done," she sneered.
He colored and his mouth set in an angry line, but he didn't contradict her. "As long as you say nothing, we're square," he said tersely, ignoring most of what she had said.
She didn't bother to disguise her eagerness. "You got it?" she asked him, leaning forward unconsciously.
In answer, her reached into the pocket of his robes and pulled out a small package, enclosed in his fist, which he held out to her. "One package of lacewing flies, from my personal store at home. Why do you want them so badly, anyway?"
She took them and stuffed them into a pocket, grinning gleefully. "What do you care? Let's just say they'll be useful in my outside studies," she said mysteriously, her grin fading slightly.
He looked wary but shrugged. "As long as you don't mention where we got them. Or say anything to Longbottom. I need to have nine N.E.W.T.s if I want to join the Ministry straight out, I'm not going to get those if I've been put on two months of detention."
"So you did do it , then?" Bellatrix asked curiously.
He looked back at her, raising an eyebrow. "What do you care?" he echoed her, and she shrugged.
"It would be the finest moment of your sad life," she said sweetly, and she had just enough time to enjoy his furious expression before she turned and waltzed gracefully away. Behind her, the torchlight flickered, trembling at her passing.
"Donovan Avery," Frank said, pacing before the young man who sat in the armchair before him. He was familiar- tall, average looking, but his expression tight and brooding. "You're a smart guy, Avery. Good marks. Good Quidditch player. So why are you here?"
The fire crackled behind them and sounded less cheerful than ominous, echoing slightly against the cold walls. The heat of it was beginning to bother Frank, and he reached up and adjusted his collar, tugging it away from his neck.
"You tell me," the other young man replied snottily, glaring.
"Well, somebody thinks you might have had a reason to poison James Potter," Frank said nonchalantly. After the fiasco with Bellatrix Black, he was determined to play it extra cool with this one. He seemed tense and angry, like a wound up spring, ready to explode at any moment. It was easy to believe he could have snapped, and if what Bellatrix Black said was true, he was looking good as the number one suspect on the list.
"Well somebody is wrong," Avery snapped, shifting forward in his seat. "I didn't touch the git's juice. In fact, here's an idea. I bet he poisoned himself, just so that he could say I did it. Is that where you got my name? Did poor baby Potter say it was me?" He sneered heavily, disgust coloring his tone. "Dumbledore would believe anything he said, of course."
Frank cut in. "Anybody could have named you, Avery. The whole school knows you're Quidditch rivals," he pointed out, watching closely for a reaction. But Avery only huffed.
"Yeah, me and half the guys on any other team. Look, I don't need to poison Potter to beat him," he growled, pointing his finger at Frank harshly. "He's gotten lucky so far, but this next game is mine. I wouldn't poison him. If I did, I wouldn't get the satisfaction of seeing his face when I win."
He grinned cruelly and Frank stopped pacing to stare him down. There was something convincing about his attitude, but Frank wouldn't put it past him to be a better liar than he was a cheat. He decided to lay it all on the table, but couldn't help stepping back first, away from Avery's volatile temper.
"But you'd still try and tamper with his broomstick?"
He braced himself for an explosion that didn't come. Instead, Avery sat back, suddenly looking calculating. These Slytherins were about as predictable as an earthquake and twice as destructive, if he had any instinct on it. But there was still something strangely impressive about them and they way they kept their secrets.
"Why would you say that?" Avery asked shrewdly, his expression unreadable.
"I have evidence that you tried to reverse the Steering Charm on Potter's broom," Frank said calmly, raising an eyebrow.
"What evidence? My nametag? My signature? Is the charm even reversed?" Avery scoffed convincingly, but he made one tiny error- his eyes never left Frank's face. "You've got nothing."
"Maybe not," Frank admitted. "But I have enough to make you a very suspicious character. I could go to Dumbledore with that right now," he commented lightly.
There was a moment of silence while Avery evaluated the threat. The two young men stared one another down while the fire continued to pop in the background and the shadows flickered through the darkened spaces in the room.
"Alright," Avery said after a moment, and though his tone was calm, Frank could see the fury in his gaze. "Let's say I have something for you."
"If it's good, I don't see why I need to go to the Headmaster straightaway," Frank conceded, nodding.
Avery nodded silently to that, and inexplicably, a smirk crossed his face. "Well, I'll give you this. Potter had a lot of girls after him. One of them took it pretty personally when he didn't want to take it any further than that," he said mysteriously.
"And that girl is a Slytherin? Give me a name, Avery," Frank demanded, leaning forward, his hands on the table in front of him.
"Parkinson," Avery said, chuckling. "Good luck with her."
She leaned against the frame of the doorway in the tower, the moonlight playing games in the curves of her hair. She was angelic in the darkness, or appeared so, anyway. He met her there at eleven.
"Parkinson," he greeted her, when he rounded the corner of the spiral staircase and spotted the back of her blonde head in the darkness. She turned to face him, her eyebrows raised.
"Avery," she replied, her hands linked in front of her betraying her otherwise cool attitude. "I heard you had a chat with Longbottom today."
"Yeah, we had a nice talk," he replied sarcastically, rolling his eyes. "What a prat. He honestly thinks he can bully us into saying something."
"And he can't?" she breathed, stepping closer to him. He could smell her perfume drifting with her movement and he knew she was too close for comfort or safety but he let her play her game, enjoying the advantage he had over her both with height and valuable information.
"He's got nothing," Donovan Avery said carefully, shrugging. "Some silly blathering from a Hufflepuff about seeing Slytherins, and Quidditch rivalries."
She breathed a sigh of relief, her eyes dropping, She could almost pass for innocent. Almost.
"I do expect you to hold up our part of the deal. Tell Longbottom I was with you," Avery said carefully, and she looked up, stepped forward, her head tilting slightly to one side.
"Of course," she said sweetly, and her hand brushed his. "Avery, you know I'd do it for you. Lie, I mean," she added, and just like that the angelic facade was broken, and her jerked his hand away.
"Yeah, whatever," he snapped. "I've heard that before, Vivienne. You're really something, you know that? Did you honestly think you could get Potter to fall for that sweet little act?"
She pouted, but it was a mocking expression, not meant to look sincere. "Don't wound my ego, Don. You're just mad I left you for him."
That angered him, in fact, he was tempted to tell her the deal was off, to tell her just what he had revealed to Longbottom not so long ago. See what she thought of her little secret getting out. But he held his tongue, knowing he needed her to believe she owed him, at least for a little while longer.
"I can't believe you were falling over yourself for that git," he growled, shaking his head. "I can see why you don't want it getting out that he flat out rejected you, Viv. Not very good for your simply irresistible reputation, is it?" he smirked.
She flipped her hair back, the darkness conspiring to hide her blush when she answered, though he could sense its presence. He knew her well enough, having dated her for a few months, but to her, he was another bead on her endless string of conquests. The string to which she had tried- and failed- to add Potter. He wondered if she really had it in him to poison the Quidditch hero. Something about the dangerous and proud glint in her eyes told him she could do it, if revenge were at stake.
"I wouldn't want to touch him now, anyway," she said, shrugging slightly. "Not with bubbles spilling all over his handsome face. Don't worry, I have a plan."
Gideon hadn't lied. When Vivienne Parkinson entered the room as gracefully as a summer breeze, her golden hair spilling in soft curls down her back, Frank had to fight down the instinct to reject her as a suspect immediately. She looked sweetly nervous, softly biting her bottom lip, her hands folded demurely in her lap, a picture of loveliness and gentleness that Frank simply couldn't tie with a poisoner, the kind of person who would sneak beneath the kitchens in the dead of night to fulfill some dangerous task.
"Parkinson," Frank said, clearing his throat. She shook her head immediately.
"You can call me Vivienne," she said in a clear, soft voice. "Everyone does."
He nodded, shuffling his notes before him. "I don't want to take up too much of your time. Can you tell me where you were, night before last, around one a.m.?"
She blushed, her eyes dropping. He sensed her reluctance. "Out of bounds?" he asked shrewdly, and she shook her head fast.
"No," she said quickly. "Nothing like that. It's just... I was here. In the common room, I mean," she said, her hands tightening on her lap. "With Don."
"Donovan Avery?" Frank asked quickly, and she nodded. Damn. And Frank had been sure Avery was good for this, too. Unless they were protecting each other, which was a distinct possibility. He tried to think of a delicate way to approach his next question, but there was really no way around it. "Listen, erm, Vivienne," he said, leaning forward, but immediately pulling back when he caught a scent of her delicate floral perfume. "I know you had a relationship with James Potter."
There was no doubt about it, her jaw tightened at his words and her hands twisted sharply. But within a second, she was all soft curves and sad smiles once more, sighing, "It wasn't a relationship. I mean, not really. James just couldn't seem to understand."
"He rejected you?" Frank said gently, wishing not to embarrass her, though he couldn't understand why.
"I mean, he couldn't understand why I didn't want to be with him," she corrected sweetly, looking away, sorrow coloring her expression. "I didn't mean to upset him, but he just wouldn't get the message. Poor Jamie," she added, shaking her head.
"You mean you rejected his offer?" Frank said, confused. This was certainly not what Avery had claimed.
"Of course," Vivienne said, widening her eyes. "I could never do that to Don."
"You and Donovan Avery are together?"
She nodded, smiling. "For a year now. That's why we were together, that night. Our anniversary," she said dreamily, and Frank frowned. He was nothing but confused now, and he had to wonder if that hadn't been Avery's intention. Surely this sweet, breathless girl couldn't have thought of such an elaborate pattern of lies. So why was Avery trying to throw the dirt on his own girlfriend? Especially as, according to Vivienne, he was innocent. So was she. It was looking more and more like Bellatrix Black was his best suspect. Unless...
"Can I ask you something, Vivienne?" he said, more comfortable with her innocence all the time. She nodded. "Do you know Severus Snape?"
"Sev?" she asked, delicate confusion wrinkling her brow. "Yes, I know him. Why do you- oh," she breathed, her gaze widening. "You think Sev poisoned James?"
"It's a possibility," Frank conceded carefully. "They're known to hate one another."
"Yes, they do, certainly," Vivienne agreed, frowning. "You know, there's one other thing... But maybe it's personal," she concluded, stopping short.
"Whatever it is, it's important that you tell me," he encouraged her. She tilted her head to the side, exposing the elegant curve of her neck, and he was struck by the picture she created, this luminous creature surrounded by the darkness. But she didn't seem out of place here, no, she seemed to fit surprisingly well in the austere and imposing room. Something about the dark glitter of her eyes.
"I think Severus... is jealous. Of James, I mean," she whispered haltingly. "And Lily Evans."
"Evans and Potter?"
She nodded. "Well, Sev hates James. And Evans is his best friend. If he saw them together..."
He waited, and after a moment was rewarded, when she looked up and met his gaze with hers.
"I don't know what he would do."
Vivienne flipped her hair back, a smirk crossing her features as she crossed the library, passing the mostly deserted rows. The library was about to close, but he could always be found here, buried in books, until the very last possible moment.
"Severus," she said softly, and he looked up from where he had been scanning an ancient text. His eyes were dark and seemed to bore holes in her with their direct gaze, but she refused to let them intimidate her tonight. She had always thought Severus Snape was a little strange- too quiet, too solitary, and one of the only young men whom she seemed to have no effect on whatsoever. But strangely, she didn't mind him. She would even go so far as to say they were tentative friends. He was not judgmental, cared little for who she was seeing or what kind of reputation she had. She felt a tiny spark of guilt flaring in her, knowing that she had not done him any favors with her words to Frank Longbottom. But she had promised Don that she would do all she could to get the pressure off of him, when he had no real alibi other than that he was probably fast asleep in his dorm. And he had the leverage on her. Severus Snape was just a victim of circumstance.
"I've just finished with Longbottom," she said dully, taking a seat next to him.
"How was it?" Severus Snape asked quietly, not taking his eyes off the page.
"Mind numbing," she complained, running her finger over a rough spot on the tabletop. "What a waste of time."
"Does he have any idea who did it?"
Again, she felt a tiny bit of guilt, but she swallowed it without too much effort. "No. Then again, neither do I, so I don't suppose I can fairly hold that over him. Who do you think it was, Sev?"
"Honestly?" he asked, and she nodded. "Bella Black," he said, shrugging. "It's the obvious choice."
"I suppose you're right there," Vivienne agreed, inwardly relieved. "She could have done it easily. In fact, I'm surprised that was all she did."
"Probably didn't want to risk too much so close to N.E.W.T.s," Severus said wisely, and Vivienne agreed. She thought of Bellatrix Black and suppressed a shudder. Even within her own house, the girl was both respected and feared. Younger students tried not to have anything to do with her and those in her own year tried not to earn her disapproval in any way.
"You shouldn't trust Don, you know," Severus told her matter-of-factly, shutting his book quietly on the desk. She looked up, her eyes round with surprise and shame.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean whatever deal you had worked out with him," he replied, shrugging. "He sort of hates you."
"No, he really does. You broke his heart. What was left of it, anyway."
On that ominous note, Sev packed up his books quietly and left her sitting in silence at the desk.
Frank knew Severus Snape and James Potter had a long history of bitter hatred towards one another almost since the moment they stepped off the train. Gideon had given him a brief history of the more notorious events, and it all sounded nasty, fitting right in with this last incident. But with the young man in front of him, Frank couldn't help but feel distinctly uncomfortable bringing some of them up. He was quiet, just a shadow when he entered the room, but there was a proud, direct look in his eyes that, of all the students Frank had spoken to so far, made Frank the most cautious. Not because he expected Severus Snape to blow up, or break into pieces, but because he was strangely impressive, silhouetted against the fire the way he was. Because he had a distinct air of knowing more than Frank did, and an equally distinct air of having no intention of revealing anything.
"James Potter," Frank said at last, letting the name drop and smoke on the floor. Severus Snape was silent for a moment.
"I'm aware," Snape said, raising an eyebrow. "That is why we're here, isn't it?"
"That's why you're here," Frank corrected him. "I'm here because Dumbledore wants to know what you know. So what do you know, Snape?"
They evaluated one another for a long moment, the fifth year and the seventh, the Slytherin and the Gryffindor, two players on opposite ends of a minefield. Frank privately believed there was no navigating this one. Someone was always going to get hurt trying. Was that what had happened here? Severus Snape and Lily Evans, the icy boy and the fiery girl, unsuited, unbelievable, but best friends. James Potter, the valiant hero, the unwanted rescuer. Well, now someone was in St. Mungo's and someone was here, weaving a delicate tapestry of lies over the stark truth. He almost felt sorry for the boy.
"James Potter had a lot of enemies," Snape said, shrugging. "The fact is, any one of here could have done it, would have, if we had the chance. You know that, don't you? You know you have no chance of finding the real perpetrator," he said shrewdly, eyeing Frank. "The question is, how badly do you want the credit for catching them? What would you say to make sure you don't let the Headmaster down? And they say Gryffindors are supposed to be noble." He shook his head with a tiny sneer that riled Frank's temper, but he checked himself.
"I'm not going to lie, if that's what you mean," Frank replied.
"No, you won't, but you'd have no problem if you really believed one of us capable, even if you had no proof. Well I'll save you time. We're all capable. And if you want the truth, look in front of you. They're all lying, covering up for one another, making and breaking pacts."
"And you're not?"
Severus Snape mer his gaze, direct and penetrating, and Frank found himself looking away. "I don't care who gets caught. But you know what? I didn't poison James Potter."
It was inexplicable, strange, impossible, but Frank found himself believing him.
"I think you know who did, though," Frank said quietly, honestly.
"I know what I saw," Snape evaded.
"And that was...?"
"Bellatrix Black in the potions storage cupboard, the day before the poisoning, with her hood up," Snape said flatly.
Frank felt a wave of disappointment. "Black has an alibi, confirmed by witnesses," he revealed, shaking his head.
"That's unfortunate," Snape said, sarcasm dripping from his tone. "Then I guess you really do have nothing after all."
He stood up and Frank stepped back automatically, allowing the young, dark man to leave the room. It was a few minutes before he realized he had never even asked where Snape was when the poisoning occurred.
St. Mungo's hospital was an appealing place, but the young man wearing the cloak hated it there. He could almost smell the aura of suffering and pain and trauma that permeated the spotless tiles and walls, and there was always the occasional moan to remind him. He had been here only once before, when his mother had been slowly dying, and he would never forget the helplessness of it: the pitying looks from the Healers, the soft, pathetic noises she made, his inability to comfort her. But now he was on a different mission, not anywhere near that place of death, and he forced the memory from his mind in order to make room for contemplation of the unpleasant task before him. He read the numbers on the doors until he found the one he was looking for, swallowed a significant amount of distaste, and pushed it open.
James Potter was sitting up, flipping through a Quidditch Magazine. The only sign of his unpleasant condition was the bucket on the floor next to him- presumably to contain the occasional unstoppable flow of bubbles that the poison generated- and the generally tired look on his face. It was sad, really, that he was even here. There was nothing the Healers could do for him until the bubbles stopped coming, and the only danger of his condition was an inability to eat very much. He supposed they were giving him Nutrient Potions.
Potter looked up and his expression became startled, then shocked, then angry in a quick series of flashes. He was already reaching for his wand when the intruder raised his hands, indicating his unarmed state.
"Snape," Potter spat, glaring at him. "What are you doing here? Come to finish me off?"
Snape couldn't contain the roll of his eyes at the other man's dramatic tendencies. He loathed Potter more than anyone in the world, and here he was, unarmed, defenseless, and Snape had only come here to speak with him. It was maddening, really, and he wanted to leave as quickly as possible, so he chose not to comment on the statement.
"I didn't poison you," he replied dully, not moving any further into the room. "Believe me, if I had thought of it first, I would have," he admitted.
"Well someone did," Potter snapped, crossing his arms in front of him. "If you've come here to gloat you can clear off now."
"No, I've come to tell you who did it," Snape replied, fighting to keep the snarl from his tone. "So that I can go back to loathing you in peace."
"Well? Spit it out. Was it your friend Avery? I bet it was him," Potter said, shaking his head.
Snape almost laughed. It was sad, really, how much they all had faith in their own deductive reasoning, how blinded they all were. "Frank Longbottom thinks so," he admitted. "That or Bellatrix Black. I thought so myself, for a few hours, anyway. A witness saw a Slytherin do it, right?" he remarked in a silken voice. "Funny how a Slytherin knows where you sit, Potter."
The look that crossed the other boy's face was priceless: a mixture of surprise and then defiance as he thought it over, what they had all ignored. "Any one of you could have watched me sit there," he rejected.
"Yeah, but we don't," Snape replied, raising an eyebrow. "Contrary to your opinion, no one cares what you do, Potter. You are utterly insignificant." He enjoyed a moment of pleasure at the insult, before continuing. "Besides, as we've already established, any one of us could have done it, but would we? Would you be innocently vomiting up bubbles, if we had a chance to slip something into your juice? No, believe me, I would have come up with something much more creative. And maybe permanently damaging."
There was only stunned silence in reply as Potter digested the information, his eyes widening, then narrowing into a glare.
"So who did it, then? You said you know," he taunted, his hands curling into fists.
"I do," Snape admitted. "That's why I came to tell you. Because Longbottom can never find out. And you and I will make sure that happens, as revolting as it is to be your conspirator in anything."
"Why should I cover up for the person who poisoned me?" Potter asked incredulously.
"Because it was Lily Evans," Snape said, and he couldn't help but smirk a little at the expression on Potter's handsome face.
Dumbledore stood in his study with his hands clasped behind him as Frank Longbottom took a seat in the comfortable chair across the desk. The sun was just setting, on this the third day since the poisoning had occurred. He turned around and sat down, keeping his gaze on the boy before him, and Frank swallowed uncomfortably. He liked the Headmaster, but he couldn't help but be intimidated by his penetrating gaze, as gentle as it was.
"Professor, I'm sorry," he said, his head hanging in shame. "But I couldn't find anything. Well, no, that's not true. I found out a lot of things. But all of them seem to have an alibi for the night of the poisoning, or else they're lying for each other and I can't figure it out," he mumbled the last part, shaking his head.
The twinkling stare was kind when he raised his head, and he felt a little better. But the silence that followed only confused him, until Dumbledore spoke in a gentle tone.
"Oh Frank," he said, sighing, a smile coloring the sound. Frank saw that he was shaking his head, and he felt ashamed of himself once more. But Dumbledore wasn't finished. "That's quite alright," he said, his hands folding on his desk. "I didn't really expect you to find anything."
Frank looked up, shocked. "But why send me in there in the first place? Sir?" he asked, confused.
"Because I wanted you to understand, Frank," the Headmaster sighed. "I wanted a student to discover the truth, rather than have it come from me. You see, there is quite a difference between what an old Headmaster tells you, and what a peer does," he chuckled, adjusting his glasses.
"But I didn't discover the truth-"
"Oh, but you did, Frank, you did," Dumbledore interrupted him. "You spoke to each of them. You could not find the perpetrator. What does that tell you?"
Frank felt rather as though he were answering an exam question, but he went with his instinct. "That... none of them did it?" he asked slowly, watching the Headmaster's face until he nodded carefully.
"Indeed, all of our Slytherin friends are innocent," the old man revealed. "Surprising to you, isn't it? To me, on the other hand, it is as I suspected. But it was important that you discover this on your own, to erase any lingering doubts. Now you can go back to your house and spread the news. And perhaps you'll add a little bit of your experiences to the tale, Frank, when you tell it. How they are not so different from you after all, hmm?"
Frank's immediate reaction was to scoff, but the Professor was still examining him with that twinkling gaze, and the reaction seemed immature. He considered it. Of course they were different. But opposite? He supposed not. He knew a fair amount of Gryffindors who wouldn't be above a bubble poisoning if it meant a guarantee of the Quidditch Cup. Bellatrix Black, certainly, was mad, but she seemed to be an exception, not a rule.
"I suppose not, sir," he answered, somewhat stiffly. He stood up and made to go, but first he turned around, thinking hard.
"Professor?" he asked, and Dumbledore eyed him over his spectacles, smiling. "May I ask... if it wasn't a Slytherin, who was it?"
Dumbledore chuckled. "Oh, I'll be handling the discipline privately. I think she would prefer word not get around. But between you and I, Frank," he said, stern for a moment, and Frank nodded, "It was just a young girl annoyed with the unwanted advances of a handsome Quidditch hero, who had access to a friend's uniform," he revealed.
Frank thought for a moment, before a chuckle escaped him. "Really?"
"Really," Dumbledore nodded, and Frank left, smiling.
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