Chapter 3 : Troubled Feast
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"Whoa there Munchkin! Where are you off to?"
"Brandon!!! I'm so sorry. I'm headed to the feast." She stopped and looked around, and then a smile broke onto her face. "Maybe I'll go this way?" She pointed behind her in the direction Brandon was headed.
"Seven years as a student, your second year as a professor and you're still getting lost in the castle? Wow, and they say Hufflepuffs are thick."
"Shut it," she grinned. "I was just distracted."
Brandon whistled his appreciation. "Your hair pulled up instead of your usual braid down the back? And new robes: green suits you. You look stunning."
"Thank you. It's Severus' favorite color."
“Oh now there's trouble. You're dressing to please him."
"It's a holiday! It's not like I do that every day.” Alara answered as Brandon held open one of the staff doors to the Great Hall that stood behind the head table.
Brandon laughed as they entered the Great Hall. "Relax Munchkin. You're happy; he's actually tolerable to be around. For as much as I thought you’d completely lost it when I found out about the two of you, I'm on your side now. Do you know he almost smiled at me the other day?"
"You're evil for a Hufflepuff, did you know that?" They walked along the back wall to two open seats laughing; Alara sat where she always did, next to Severus. On the other side of Alara sat Brandon, who was also next to Pomona Sprout. On the other side of Severus was Filius Flitwick, then Minerva McGonagall sat in the Headmistress' chair. The students were just starting their dinners.
"You're late," Severus said to Alara curtly.
"Sorry, I thought I’d make myself presentable."
Severus looked her up and down, internally appreciating her efforts, though he gave no outward sign of it. The color of her robes was a gorgeous Slytherin green, standing in stark contrast to her sapphire-blue eyes. Above them, hundreds of laughing skeletons waltzed through the mists of the ceiling that reflected the growing fog outside. Severus wished he could be waltzing through the mists with Alara, alone just the two of them. He sat back in his chair glumly wishing everyone but her would just disappear.
“She is a vision of loveliness, isn’t she Severus?” Brandon tried to lead him through the process of complimenting a woman as he filled Alara’s glass with fresh Harvest Wine.
"See?" Daniel Groundsell poked Alyssa as he motioned to the head table where Professor Brewer was filling Professor Ayoni’s glass and grinning broadly before turning and answering a question of Professor Sprout’s. “See how they came in late together and see how he’s making sure she’s taken care of? I tell you that they are seeing each other. That is how you treat a woman.”
Alyssa snorted. “What would you know about how to treat a woman Daniel? You’ve never even had a girlfriend.”
Daniel grinned, “Only because I am so devoted to the Quidditch team that I have forsaken all else.”
“Is that why you tried to knock me off my broom this morning; dedication and devotion?”
Daniel held up his hands in surrender, “I apologize.”
Alyssa smiled and dug back in to her she dug back into her mashed potatoes. “Monday berry tiger school, monster answer ticket.”
Daniel stared at Alyssa. "Come again?"
"Prison candle race portrait?" Alyssa looked as confused as Daniel and then looked around in fear at the people staring at her. "Dungeon pendant? Lucky voice eight shore!"
Daniel and Alyssa stared at each other in alarm. “Alyssa?” Daniel asked.
“Park!” Alyssa began to panic as more and more heads turned her way. “Horse snow tree ice status!”
Up at the head table, Minerva McGonagall spotted the fuss and motioned to Severus to pay attention. By now the commotion was commanding the interest of a fair portion of the Slytherin table and some of the Gryffindor table next to them. Daniel and Alyssa were both standing and Alyssa looked terrified.
He put his fork down with a heavy thud. “Excuse me,” he muttered as he stood up and strode down the aisle wondering why these two seemed to do nothing but fight. “What is the problem this time?
"She's gone off her rocker!" Daniel shouted.
“Broomstick!” Alyssa shouted back.
Severus grabbed them both by the collars. "You two: outside now." He pushed them out the main doors into the hallway. "I presume you have a reason for disrupting the entire Feast?"
"Ask her," Daniel motioned angrily to Alyssa. "She's the one talking like a raving lunatic."
Severus looked at Alyssa expectedly, but was taken aback to see fear in her eyes instead of anger. "Miss Middleton?"
Alyssa opened her mouth to speak two or three times before she could actually get any words out. "Broomstick chicken bad join? Potion?"
"Come on, hospital wing for you. You too Groundsell: you were there, we'll need to know what you know."
"I don't know anything!"
"Then it should be a very brief conversation."
Two hours later a very concerned Severus Snape uttered the password "Quidditch Champions" and entered Slytherin House: the long, low common room was a painful reminder of a childhood littered with mistakes. Out of the corner of his eye, his memory could just see himself with Avery and Mulciber sitting in the corner, laughing as they plotted a hex against Mary Macdonald. Back in the present, it seemed like the entire House was crowded into the Common Room. Unlike in his memory, it seemed like every torch in the room was lit up, and the students were hovering together in small groups.
"Interesting password," he said to the assembly of students gathered.
"It was Alyssa's idea, a way to fire us all up for the Gryffindor game," a fourth year offered. "Is she all right?"
"Miss Middleton is receiving medical care. I understand there was some kind of altercation between her and Mr. Groundsell this afternoon?"
"They were just arguing Quidditch," Kate Tyler offered. "You know them, they always fight about it."
"Where is Daniel sir?" asked another student. “Is he in some kind of trouble?”
"Mr. Groundsell appears to be suffering from the same ailment that Miss Middleton is."
Murmurs and whispers shot though the House.
"Quiet... Since this appears to be more than an isolated incident, I ask you again," Severus walked with authority through the Common Room. "Can anyone tell me if anything unusual happened this afternoon?"
"Why not ask the Gryffindors?" A particularly brave seventh year boy with an Irish accent stood up.
"You have some evidence of their involvement?" Severus questioned. If what Mr. O'Brien said rang true he would leave no stone unturned to find the responsible party. On the other hand, rumors from teenagers were well known to fly faster than a terrified Hippogriff.
"Well this… whatever it is took out our two best Quidditch players, yeah? The Gryffindor game is only two weeks away and they were sittin' right next to us at the feast. Gryffindor is after us, Daniel knew it and he was trying to convince Alyssa of it this afternoon."
"No, you crazy git, that's the Ravenclaws. Professor Ayoni is using Professor Brewer to--"
"Silence!" Severus commanded in a tone that dared anyone to disobey him. "Rumors and wild speculation will not help us. Now, if anyone has any facts or observations directly related to this illness, I will entertain them." He looked around the common room, but nobody said anything. His eyes finally came to rest on young Nigella Winsgate, who seemed extraordinarily interested not meeting his eye. For a brief moment Snape entertained the thought that she was avoiding his gaze out of guilt and then he quickly dismissed it. His star student was simply not capable of disappointing him in such a manner.
He walked over to the fireplace where he pulled out a paper airplane and placed it on the mantle. "Should any of you have any facts you wish to share, I will leave this here. It is enchanted to fly directly me, I will get it immediately. Please make sure they are not wild, unsupported theories."
He turned to leave when Nigella finally spoke up. "Sir, can you talk with either of them at all?
"It doesn't appear so Miss Winsgate, why do you ask?"
"It would be nice to have some way to let them know we're all behind them, you know? That we all want them to get better."
"They each appear to be completely aphasic. They cannot verbally communicate with anyone, not even each other."
"But non-word signs would work? Pictures, sweets and stuff like that?"
Severus' heart melted for the youngster, "I imagine it would." He exited the Common Room, nodding to a Hufflepuff prefect walking patrol as he strode past the Great Hall. As he turned the corner to his apartment he smiled at young Miss Winsgate: she would make a fine Prefect when the time came.
Nigella Winsgate lay in her bed with the green silks pulled down and thought about Daniel and Alyssa. She didn’t know much about Alyssa other than that she seemed obsessed with Quidditch, but she'd heard all about Daniel. Nobody knew where Daniel's mum was, but his dad was a Death Eater under a life sentence in Azkaban. To get a life sentence, he had to be a really evil guy, and given Daniel's opinions on blood purity, she didn't doubt it.
Nigella hated blood purity; it had cost her the lives of her parents. Nigella smiled as she remembered the voice of her Muggle mum singing her to sleep at night while her Wizard dad used his wand to conjure shooting stars on her ceiling. The smile quickly faded from her face as she remembered the last time she saw him, he handed her off to an old wizard with a scraggly beard and stinky breath. "You're going to side-along apparate sweetheart. I need you go and be brave and to do everything that he tells you, okay?"
"Daddy," Nigella begged through her tears. "Please let me stay--"
"No, you need to go, it's too dangerous here. They've got your mum; I've got to go get her. Now don't be scared." The elder Winsgate slid a Slytherin class ring off his finger and pressed it into the crying child's hand as the sounds of fighting surrounded them. "I know you'll be a great witch someday sweetheart..."
Nigella smiled through her tears at the memory of her dad as she grasped the ring on a chain around her neck. Professor Snape had told her the same thing during their private lesson the day before. He told her that she had it within herself to be a great witch. He called her smart, he called her cunning. All she needed was a chance to prove herself.
Nigella slipped from her bed, carefully making sure that the sounds coming from her roommate's beds told her that they were still sleeping. She tugged on her clothes and grabbed her wand from her bedside table and padded silently up to the Common Room, where she stopped right at the entrance to make sure it was empty. Then it was out the door into the hall, carefully avoiding a Gryffindor Prefect in the lower halls. She stopped short at the bottom of stairs leading up to the Great Hall and held her breath: she could hear The Bloody Baron and Nearly Headless Nick at the top of the stairs talking. She waited for what felt like an eternity, terrified that the Prefect would come back and discover her. Finally, their voices faded away and Nigella slipped up the stairs and peered into the darkened Great Hall. Alone in the dark it looked more enormous than ever, and her heart skipped a beat as she heard the soft clink of jewels against glass behind her. She looked at the House point hourglasses, and noticed the Gryffindor rubies moving up and out of the lower bulb. At this late hour, the only thing that could cause a point loss was being caught out of bed. "Blimey..." she whispered as the rubies kept floating upwards. Whoever got caught was paying a big price for their wanderings. She needed to be careful.
She stepped into the Great Hall, the enchantment covering the ceiling swirled in a haze of thickening clouds. All the floating candles had been extinguished for the night, leaving the only light to see coming in from the entrance way and the torches that lined the walkways outside. She crept over to the Slytherin table and pulled her wand out remembering Professor Snape's words, "Defending against a curse always works by knowing the base properties of the spell, imagining how it's been altered and creatively thinking of ways around that curse." She uttered the incantation Professor Snape had taught her "explorare tenebris." Instantly a nearly invisible wave of energy came from her wand and hit the table, absorbing into the smooth wood. She moved her wand down to the floor where she thought she spotted something. Dark magic leaves traces.... she remembered Professor Snape telling her as she crawled under the table to get a better look. All she needed to do was find those traces and... a pair of black shoes waited for her on the other side of the table.
"Looking for something?"
The menacing voice was unmistakable, Nigella had heard it a hundred times, but never before had it been aimed at her. Nigella's heart started beating so loudly in her chest that she was sure it was waking half the castle as she thudded her head down onto the stone floor. "Professor Snape."
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