A/N: Family problems prevented me from posting sooner, as did another holiday fic I was working on. I hope the pacing of this story is not boring anyone.
Harry woke the next morning feeling refreshed and dressed quickly in his uniform and robes. He would have preferred to stay in Snape's quarters and have breakfast with the Potions Master and Skull, but Severus would have none of it. "You are going to eat breakfast with your friends and Housemates just as you have done since you arrived here. Hiding in here will not help your situation, merely add more fuel to the gossip mill. Certain people already think I chain misbehaving students to the wall of my dungeon by their wrists, there's no telling what they will think if they don't see you at breakfast, Mr. Potter."
"Do you?" Harry dared to ask saucily.
"Only when they have pushed me past all tolerance," his guardian snorted. "Come here. Your tie is crooked."
"I don't really know how to tie it," admitted the small Gryffindor.
Severus sighed. "Your uncle never showed you?"
Harry shook his head. "No, Uncle Severus."
"Watch." Severus removed the red and gold tie and demonstrated.
"Oh. I see now . . . I think."
Severus repeated the lesson, then handed the tie to his student. "Your turn."
Harry fumbled a bit, but managed to get the tie to knot. It wasn't really hard once he memorized the steps. He untied it and put it about his neck, retying it. "How's that, sir?"
"Adequate." Severus straightened Harry's robes and ran his wand down them, getting all the creases and dust off them. He examined his ward. "Presentable. Except for your hair."
"My hair? What's wrong with it?"
"It looks like birds have nested in it."
"Err . . . well . . .Skull did sleep on my head last night."
Professor Snape shook his head and Summoned a brush. "Hold still." He carefully ran the brush through the boy's untidy locks.
"Professor, I can comb my own hair!" His ward objected, squirming in embarrassment.
"Be still!" growled the other, using a charm to make Harry's cowlick lie flat. "There! Much better! Collect your bag and let us go to the hall."
Snape waited while Harry went and got his bag, Skull perched on his shoulder.
Harry was a bit annoyed at his guardian's fussing over his appearance, but then supposed it meant that Snape cared about him. He got a warm glow somewhere in the pit of his stomach at that thought. He recalled Petunia always fussing over Dudley every morning before school, but she hadn't bothered to so much as look at Harry. At least Snape made sure he looked decent, even if it was embarrassing to have his hair combed like a two-year-old's. He grabbed his bag and headed back to where Snape waited.
As they emerged from the dungeon, a few Slytherins greeted their Head of House, eyeing Harry curiously, but without animosity.
"Morning, Potter!" Blaise Zabini called over his shoulder. He was a slender boy with dark hair and eyes, clearly of Italian descent.
"Hey, Zabini," Harry waved back shyly. He had not expected any of the Slytherins to speak to him, and was happy that Zabini wasn't being a total drip. Unlike Malfoy.
Skull took wing off Snape's shoulder and flew on ahead to the hall, where he assumed his usual station upon the back of the professor's chair at the staff table.
"Hello, Skull!" Lena smiled at the large raven.
"Good morning, Lady Rook," said the raven, bobbing his head in a gesture of respect.
Lena looked astonished, but before she could ask the raven anything further, Severus took his seat beside her.
"Lady Rook?" Severus raised an eyebrow, then said very softly, "You are a member of the Society, Lena?"
The other nodded discreetly. "Since I came of age. My mother inducted me into it. You also?"
The professor gave a tiny nod. He then stirred some milk into his morning cup of tea and sipped it. He was not surprised at the young woman's admission. She was exactly the sort the Society recruited. He tapped the side of his plate and said quietly, "Poached eggs, bacon, toast." The food he had requested popped up on his plate.
"You forgot my red grapes," his familiar reminded.
"My apologies," Severus then asked for a bunch of red grapes. When they appeared, Skull walked onto his arms and ate them daintily from Severus' fingers. Like all his kind, Skullduggery could eat anything. Once he had his fill of the grapes, the irrepressible bird snitched bacon off Snape's plate.
Snape shot his familiar a pointed look. "Just when I think you've learned some manners," he hissed out of the corner of his mouth.
"What? I'm hungry," Skull replied.
"Behave," ordered his master wearily. He began to eat his eggs.
Lena concealed a grin behind her napkin. The bold raven made her want to laugh out loud, but mindful of her seatmate's dignity, she restrained herself. She then winked at the raven, who gave a playful caw, then proceeded to fly over to Dumbledore and drink from the Headmaster's water glass.
Familiar with the raven's antics, the rest of the staff ignored him, for which Snape was quite thankful.
Down at the Gryffindor table, Harry was being pelted with questions from Ron and Hermione. He had just poured himself a glass of orange juice and the familiar vial of Nutrient Suppliment had appeared next to his plate, when his friends barraged him.
"Harry, where were you this morning?" asked Ron.
"Harry, did you finish the homework in Charms yet?" Hermione wanted to know
Harry debated on whether to admit the truth to Ron, then decided to be truthful. He didn't like lying to his friends. "I . . . after what happened last night, I . . . couldn't sleep in my bed so I . . . err . . . went down to Professor Snape's apartments. He has a couch and I slept there." He decided not to mention that soon there would be a room there for him as well. It wasn't there yet, after all. He pulled the stopper from the vial of potion and gulped it down.
"Oh. Yeah, I can see why . . ." Ron grimaced. "Bloody Craven!"
Hermione looked from one to the other, an expression of extreme puzzlement upon her features. "Harry, I don't understand. What happened last night? Did Malfoy prank you or something?" She had been sleeping when Percy had called the meeting last night and no one had bothered to wake her.
"No. It's just . . ." Harry sighed. "Certain people in our House don't like the fact that Professor Snape is my guardian so they . . . decided to redecorate my bed and trunk last night. With green paint. They think I'm a Slytherin lover and should be Re-Sorted."
"Which has never happened and whoever's behind this had better watch out, or else McGonagall's going to nail their arse to the wall."
"Oh, Harry! That's awful! I can't imagine who would be mean enough to do that to you." Hermione said sympathetically. "I hope they catch whoever it was and give them detention for the rest of the year. It's nobody's business but yours who your guardian is."
Ron rolled his eyes. "He's the Boy Who Lived, Hermione. In the wizarding world, anything that concerns Harry concerns everyone else too."
Harry scowled down at his scrambled eggs and sausage. "I hate being famous! It bloody sucks!" But he said that last under his breath, so Snape wouldn't hear it. He didn't want to eat soap for breakfast.
Just then the owls flew into the hall with the morning post. Several of them carried packages and letters in their beaks and also the morning edition of the Prophet. A brown owl delivered a copy to Hermione. At the Slytherin table, Draco also received a copy, and began scanning it immediately for Quidditch stats.
Suddenly, a gray and white barred owl landed in front of Harry with an envelope in his beak.
"Huh? A letter for me?" Harry frowned, taking the letter. "I don't understand. Who would be sending me a letter by owl?" The only people he knew that were wizards were those in Hogwarts. He turned it over to see if there was a return address, but all he found was a red seal with a large M on it.
"That's the seal for the Ministry of Magic, Harry!" Ron exclaimed, peering over his shoulder.
"I don't know anyone from there."
"Maybe the Minister wrote you a letter," Ron said eagerly. "My dad works over there, that's how I recognize that crest.
"Open it, Harry," urged Hermione.
Harry broke the seal and opened the envelope. Inside was a creamy sheet of parchment.
He unfolded it. Written in a bold unfamiliar hand was the following message.
Dear Mr. Potter,
I am writing this to inform you of your extreme stupidity in accepting the guardianship of Professor Severus Snape. Do you not know he is associated with dark magic? He's a sneaking skulking Slytherin, for pity's sake! You cannot trust anyone from the House of Serpents, my boy. The truth is not in them. You have made a very grave mistake in letting Snape have control over you.
You ought to terminate the guardianship immediately, you have no need of a Slytherin seeing to you when there are perfectly good Gryffindors or Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs who would gladly take you in. Get rid of Snape! Having him in charge of you is like allowing a cobra to sleep in your bed.
I knew your parents well, boy. They never would have wanted this for you. Your father hated Snape.
Find someone else—anyone else—to be your guardian. You disgrace your House by allowing that scummy snake control over your vault.
Tell Snape to go drown himself in his own cauldron. It's what your father would have done. Or else suffer the consequences.
The Fifth Marauder
Harry scowled. "This is ridiculous! I wish people would just mind their own business!"
"The Fifth Marauder?" Ron repeated. "Is that some sort of code name?"
"How should I know? I didn't write it." Harry said irritably.
He half-crumpled the letter and started to shove it in his pocket. He would show it to Snape later. Maybe he could figure out who the mysterious author was.
Another owl hovered over the dark-haired boy, a large yellow envelope in its beak. It dropped it down on Harry's plate.
"Another one?" Harry groaned, lifting it up.
Across the room, Skullduggery saw the bright flash of yellow and turned his head to see what it was. He gave a squawk of alarm. "Don't open that!" he bellowed in Hagrid's bass.
He flew like lightning across the hall.
Snape looked up from finishing his breakfast. "Skullduggery, by all that's good on the earth—" He tracked the raven's flight . . . and saw the yellow envelope in Harry's small hand. "Potter, no—!"
The innocent sunshine yellow envelope unfolded itself. On the inside was a single word.
A puff of some kind of purple dust flew out and into Harry's face, coating it and his glasses.
Harry started coughing and gasping. He could feel the dust burning his skin, making it red and swollen, as if he'd been stung by a nest full of hornets. His tongue swelled because he'd accidentally gotten a bit of the dust on his tongue as he coughed. His eyes began to stream with tears, and he tried frantically to brush off the dust, only to find his fingers were now itching, burning, and swelling up as well.
"Harry!" Hermione gasped. "What's happening to you?"
"It was cursed! The letter!" Ron cried, staring at his friend in horror. "Somebody help him!"
Skullduggery landed on the table, and began to croon worriedly at Harry, whose cheeks were so swollen you could barely see his eyes. "Bran-boy, you shouldn't have opened that. It was a hexed letter."
"Skull . . . help . . ." Harry whimpered.
Severus was on his feet and striding down to the Gryffindor table before anyone else had a chance to react to Harry's predicament. He reached Harry before Percy could get out of his chair, and lifted the stricken student into his arms. "Mr. Potter, relax. I'm taking you to the Hospital Wing. Poppy can dismantle the curse." He swept the table with a hawk-like glare before striding out of the hall, Harry cradled close. "Skullduggery, go to Poppy and tell her what happened. Quickly!"
The raven was out of the door before Snape had set foot across the threshold.
Harry was whimpering and shaking, unable to help himself. "Hurts . . . Sev'rus . . . make it stop . . ." His entire face felt like it was on fire and twice its size as well.
"I know. We're almost there." Severus said, trying to remain calm, half-running down the corridors. "You were hit with Hornet Dust, Harry. A powder designed to make the recipient feel as if they were stung by a thousand hornets. " He winced as the child groaned, tears falling down his grossly swollen face. He cursed under his breath. I should have warned him not to open any envelope colored yellow. Fool! If I had been paying attention, I might have stopped him from opening it. It made him furious, that someone would target Harry over the guardianship in such a cruel way. He had expected to get Howlers and cursed letters, but figured Harry would garner sympathy as the dupe of the big bad dungeon bat, not be attacked as well.
Harry buried his face in Snape's robes, making strangled sobbing sounds. Nothing had ever hurt so much in his life, not even his broken wrist.
Severus ran faster, arriving at the infirmary in seven minutes flat. He pointed his wand at the door and it slammed open.
"Severus, bring him over here, quickly!" the mediwitch ordered, gesturing to a bed.
The Potions Master set his ward down so Poppy could examine him, holding him down firmly for Harry was squirming in pain. "Easy, child."
Poppy waved her wand and some of the swelling about Harry's face and hands went down. "Mr. Potter, can you talk?"
Harry managed a choked, "Yes. I dink so." His tongue was still swollen and it hurt.
"Open your mouth." Poppy ordered. "Hmm, looks like he got some in his mouth, Severus. Which means . . . he can't swallow potions."
"Can you spell them into his stomach?" Snape asked.
"No. I haven't the skill for that. Fetch me a syringe."
Severus obeyed, Summoning it and the potion, then turning Harry over so the mediwitch could give him an injection of the antidote.
Harry yelled as the needle slid into his bottom. "Oww! That hurt!"
"Forgive me, child, but it was the only way," Poppy apologized, patting him on the back. "You should start to feel better in a minute or two." She waved her wand over the boy and Harry's school uniform was Transfigured into a set of hospital pajamas. "Severus, help me turn him."
The Potions Master did so, gently laying his ward on his side. As they watched, the swelling and most of the redness began to disappear, and Harry could speak normally again and see through more than slitted eyes as well. "How do you feel now, Harry?"
"A little better, sir." He replied, shifting slightly. The terrible burning sensation was beginning to fade little by little, though now his bottom ached.
"Can you swallow a pain relieving draft?" Poppy queried.
Harry nodded rapidly. No way did he want another injection.
He took the potion the mediwitch gave him without protest, drinking it down quickly. "Ugh! Tastes like old socks."
"Here, dear. Drink some ice water." Poppy gave him a silver goblet and Harry drank eagerly. The water washed the awful taste away and felt cool and soothing upon his tongue.
The pain relieving draft soon banished the last of the prickling and burning, much to Harry's relief. He blinked away tears and gazed up at Severus. "The envelope . . . it was cursed, wasn't it?"
Snape nodded solemnly. "Forgive me, Harry. I should have warned you about them, but I never thought you would become a target for spite and malice as I was."
"Whatever do you mean, Severus?" cried Poppy. "I thought this occurred because of a prank. Are you telling me that someone deliberately sent a Plague envelope to Harry . . . knowing what it would do? That's . . . monstrous!"
Snape looked grim.
"Evil, nasty, wicked people!" sneered Skull, bristling. "I'd like to rip out their livers . . . and eat them with fava beans and a nice Chianti," The raven hissed, imitating Hannibal Lecter.
"Severus! Where does he learn these things?" cried Pomfrey, horrified.
"Muggle culture, I'm afraid."
Harry smiled slightly and wondered where on earth Skull had seen—or heard—Silence of the Lambs.
"From now on, I shall be receiving any mail for Mr. Potter, so I can scan it for any harmful hexes, jinxes, and so forth," Severus declared firmly. "I won't open it, but I will inspect it." He explained to Harry. "Any Howlers or Plague envelopes I shall destroy."
"A Plague envelope?" Harry repeated. "Why is it called that?"
"Because back when the bubonic plague and cholera epidemics ravaged Britain, families put up red and yellow plague flags in front of homes where people were infected, warning others to beware. " Madam Pomfrey explained. "The yellow color was a warning that you should beware the contents of the envelope. It often contained a nasty jinx, or a powder, usually disease related. But of course, Mr. Potter, you wouldn't have known that, as such missives have fallen into disuse over twenty years ago. But back in my day, some unscrupulous little beasts thought it very funny to send them to rival students, though they rarely contained such potent hexes as this one." Her eyes flashed. She looked over at Snape. "I'm surprised, Severus, that you knew about them."
"I've studied many things, Poppy," was all the Potions professor replied. He rested his hand lightly on Harry's head. "The swelling has gone down considerably. Are you in any pain now?"
Harry shook his head. "Not any more."
"Mr. Potter, you'll need to stay here for the morning. By then, the effects of the Hornet powder will have been totally neutralized and you can go back to class."
"Just in time for my afternoon potions," said Severus with some satisfaction.
"What are we brewing today?" Harry asked eagerly.
"You will find out when you have class," answered his teacher obliquely.
"For now, I would suggest you get some rest, Mr. Potter," Pomfrey told him.
Harry wanted to tell her he wasn't tired, but the truth was he felt wrung out and weary. He found himself finishing his water and then yawning. Then he recalled the other letter he had received that morning. "Sir, where are my clothes? I . . . I had another letter . . . before this one . . . I wanted to show you it."
"In my robe pocket."
Severus waved his wand and Harry's robe appeared. He reached intothe pocket and pulled out the letter.
"That's it. Do you recognize the handwriting?"
Severus read it. He was scowling. "No. But perhaps if I study it . . ." The signature alone made his blood boil. He wondered which of his classmates had dared to send Harry this, resurrecting the specter of the bloody Marauders. "Try and rest, Harry. Do not concern yourself with the letter. Focus on recovering."
"Okay, professor." Harry mumbled, his eyes starting to close. He removed his glasses, handing them to Snape, who placed them on the small bedside table. "Severus? Will you stay here until I'm sleeping?" he whispered.
Snape simply nodded and seated himself in an upholstered chair. "Fear not, child. I shall set wards so no one can harm you." He began to chant softly, casting swiftly and with a minimum of wand movement. By the time he had finished, Harry was sound asleep. "Skullduggery, watch over him."
"Of course, Sev." The raven fluttered down on Harry's pillow and gently began to preen the sleeping wizard's hair, a gesture of affection he rarely performed on anyone other than Snape.
With his magic and his raven on guard, Severus felt secure enough to leave Harry asleep in the Hospital Wing, returning to the Great Hall to inform Dumbledore and McGonagall about Harry's predicament. If he ever found out who had sent that envelope . . . Skullduggery eating the wizard or witch's liver would be the least of their problems.
Snape arrived just as the students were dismissed to go to their morning classes, and had to wait until the endless deluge of small black robed bodies went past before he could enter the hall. He had a prep period before his ten o'clock class, and so was not in a hurry to get to the dungeons. He waited for the bulk of the students to go by, some of them cast him half fearful glares, and one or two older Gryffindors actually dared to mutter that it was his fault that Potter had gotten cursed, requiring him to take points for disrespect.
"Professor Snape!" he heard Granger call from the middle of the press of students. "Is Harry okay?"
She elbowed her way to his side, her bushy hair flying all over. Ron Weasley came behind her, also looking concerned.
"Mr. Potter will make a full recovery in a few hours. Right now he is resting."
"You're sure?" Ron asked.
Snape looked down his nose at the red-haired firstie. "Weasley, if I were not certain, I would have told you. You shall see Potter in my fifth period potions. Now off with you, before you are late for class and lose your House more points which you can ill afford."
Ron looked like he wanted to argue, but Hermione caught his sleeve and tugged him along. Being late was a cardinal sin in her book. "Thank you, professor," she called breathlessly over her shoulder. "I'm so glad he's going to be all right, Ron. What kind of powder was in that envelope, I wonder . . .?"
Severus nearly smiled at the young witch's curiosity. In many ways she reminded him of himself at that age.
Then he hurried into the hall, where Albus and Minerva lingered, to inform them about Harry and tell the Headmaster he would be screening Harry's mail from now on. As expected, Minerva was livid, and Albus was also upset. But neither of them protested against Severus' protective measures.
"I cannot believe anyone would send a boy such a dreadful thing!" Minerva spat.
"Public opinion can be dangerous," Snape said. Minerva could not comprehend just how dangerous because she had never been in public eye before, nor subjected to public disapproval and censor, like Severus had. "And Potter has many enemies."
"Who do you think sent it?" Dumbledore asked.
"It could have been any number of people." Severus said. With disapproval running so high against the guardianship, Severus could not narrow it down. A Death Eater might have sent that envelope, or merely a citizen who wished Harry to learn a lesson. Right then he cared less about finding the culprit than he did making sure Harry was safe. "But I shall see to it that it never happens again."
"Good for you, Severus! I shall make sure no tampers with Potter's things in Gryffindor Tower either." Minerva declared. "But now I have to run, I have second-years to teach." She blurred into the spectacled tabby and raced away.
"I, too, have correspondence to attend to," Dumbledore said regretfully. "I shall see you at lunch, Severus."
Snape nodded, his mind already far off, mentally calculating his next class and how many students would muck up the potion assigned and blow up a cauldron.
Harry slept for over four hours, and in that time, the potion he had been given finally neutralized all of the powder's effects, returning the small eleven-year-old to normal. Poppy checked on him every so often, though she was busy filling out paperwork for the school's medical records. But the raven was perched upon Harry's headboard, alert and watchful.
Poppy received a Floo call from St. Mungo's in the afternoon, and left the infirmary briefly to deliver a crate of potions for their storage room.
While she was gone, Harry woke up. He sat up gingerly, his bum still twinged with residual pain, but was otherwise bearable. Then he reached for his glasses and stuck them on his head. He glanced around, not seeing Pomfrey anywhere. He debated on whether or not to leave the bed to use the bathroom, he was about to burst and felt much better than he had before the nap.
He carefully slid his legs out of bed and stood up. It was then that he noticed the absence of the raven.
"Skull?" he called, looking around. He was almost positive he had heard Snape tell the familiar to stay with Harry just as he drifted off. And though the raven could be impudent, he would never forsake his duty. "Skull?"
He took two steps forward and stumbled over the still form of the insolent raven.
Harry froze. Then he screamed, "Skullduggery!" and knelt to gather the bird into his arms. The raven was barely breathing.
Harry felt a terrible pressure squeezing his chest and he raced out the door. Severus. He had to find Severus. Severus would know what to do. Tears burning his eyes, Harry ran as quickly as he could to the dungeons, a single thought blazing in his mind—he had to save Skullduggery. He only hoped he was in time.
What will happen now?
Please do not hex, beat, curse, or otherwise kill the author for this evil cliffy. Otherwise you'll never know if Skull lives or dies.
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