Professor Severus Snape, the Potions master for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, scowled darkly as he watched the crowd of students hurry into the Great Hall, all of them seemingly eager to join in the duelling lessons.
Not that he disagreed with Dumbledore's decision to have the children taught how to duel - in fact, he supported it. They'd had eleven years of relative peace since Voldemort's defeat, but considering the events of last year, and the fact that Snape knew Voldemort would not be giving up, the sooner the children learned how to defend themselves, the better.
No, he simply disagreed with Dumbledore's decision to put Lockhart in charge.
Gilderoy Lockhart was, in Snape's considered opinion, an idiot and a preening peacock who didn't know the first thing about the Dark Arts, much less about how to defend against them. He'd heard what had happened during the first second-year lesson - how Lockhart had left Granger, Potter and Weasley to clean up the mess caused by his releasing a group of Cornish pixies - and he'd heard numerous complaints from about half of Slytherin that the man was teaching them nothing except about what an idiot he was.
Snape still didn't understand what Dumbledore had been thinking when he'd hired the idiot as the DADA teacher for this year. Even one of those self-righteous type Aurors would be able to do a much better job than Lockhart.
He followed Lockhart on to the stage, paying as little attention as he could to the idiot's prattling. Unfortunately, he couldn't shut it out completely...
"...Now, I don't want any of you youngsters to worry - you'll still have your Potions master when I'm through with him, never fear!" Lockhart was saying, as he moved into position for the formalities.
Snape curled his upper lip in a sneer.
Nonetheless, he had agreed - reluctantly - to let Lockhart do the teaching.
The DADA teacher made a formal bow, including all the various flourishes. Snape satisfied himself with a simple jerky nod, keeping his eyes on Lockhart the entire time. Not that he thought the idiot was about to cheat - Lockhart was too fond of his own self-image to do something like that in front of the whole school - but he did hope that the students would notice, understand why he was doing it, and perhaps actually manage to learn something. This wasn't a game; it was meant to be a survival lesson.
Lockhart kept up with the preening and posing even as they prepared to start, and Snape felt his irritation level - which had been rather high already - increase. As soon as Lockhart had finished his count, Snape gestured easily with his wand and said clearly, "Expelliarmus!"
Lockhart's wand was torn out of his hand and Lockhart himself went flying, to the obvious amusement of several students - including, to Snape's surprise, Potter and Weasley - and the definite dismay of most of them, including Miss Granger. That was something of a disappointment; despite his frequent attacks on her attitude, Granger was highly intelligent. Snape had expected better of her.
He watched disdainfully as Lockhart picked himself up, his own amusement increasing at the ridiculous picture the other man made. Unfortunately, that amusement lasted only until Lockhart opened his mouth and began making excuses.
What was Albus thinking, hiring this idiot? Hagrid could do a better job of teaching than Lockhart!
Well, at least the idiot had decided to actually get the students involved.
Snape made certain that he headed straight for the small knot of Gryffindor second-years. He had no intentions of permitting Potter to have either of his friends as a partner; that would defeat the entire purpose of this lesson. Far better to give Potter a good reason to actually pay attention and learn something, rather than just play games with his friends. Malfoy would do that, and perhaps manage to learn a thing or two along the way as well. The two boys shared an arrogance that blinded them to a great many things, and Snape wanted to snap them both out of it.
He wasn't in the least bit surprised when Malfoy attacked before the count was finished, nor that neither of them were using the Disarming Charm. It was no more than he had expected.
He let it go on for a short while, as most of the rest of the students finished their Disarming, and then stepped in, ending the charms. Potter was definitely going to need some training in tactics - he should have followed up on his Tickling Charm attack while Malfoy was still down. Preferably with the Disarming Charm, considering what they were supposed to be learning here... but anything would have been better than simply letting Malfoy recover enough to counterattack. I'll have to mention that to Albus.
Then Snape glanced around the rest of the Great Hall. It appeared that not all the students had been as fortunate as Potter and Malfoy: Terry Boots, one of the Ravenclaws - a reasonably good student at potions - had a nasty cut on his forehead; Weasley's broken wand - couldn't the boy get a new one? - had obviously done something unanticipated to Finnigan; Granger and Bulstrode had been struggling with each other like Muggles...
Lockhart looked flustered. "I think I'd better teach you how to block unfriendly spells."
The man's an absolute idiot. How did he ever survive his school years? Of course he should have started with the Shielding Charm...
Then, to make things worse, Lockhart started to gesture for Longbottom and Finch-Fletchley to demonstrate. With the way Longbottom handled even the simplest of spells... Snape's eyes fell on Potter again, and he smiled. "How about Malfoy and Potter?"
"Excellent idea!" Lockhart exclaimed enthusiastically, and started ushering the two students toward the middle of the hall. He then attempted to demonstrate the movements of the Shielding Charm to Potter, only to drop his wand because of the unnecessary flourishes he was putting in. Snape smirked in amusement.
However, Potter might still be able to figure out how to do the Shielding Charm from that demonstration - he wasn't unintelligent, only lazy - so the best way to teach him and keep him off balance would be for Malfoy to use a spell that wouldn't attack directly.
Leaning over, he quietly told the student, "Use the Serpent Conjuring Charm - Serpensortia."
Malfoy nodded slightly, and smirked in Potter's direction.
Snape moved out of the way as the two students got ready, smirking himself as Potter muttered something in response to Lockhart about dropping his wand. At least Potter knew enough not to fall for the idiot's façade of competence - not that dropping his wand demonstrated the height of competence, admittedly.
Then Malfoy cast the spell, and Snape felt a touch of pride in the young Slytherin as the black serpent appeared and prepared to strike. Potter was standing motionless, staring at the snake, obviously not having anticipated the possibility of a physical-type attack - which was the point, of course.
"Don't move, Potter," he said calmly. "I'll get rid of it..."
But before he could banish the snake, Lockhart moved forward and attacked it with a spell, sending it flying up into the air. When it came down, it was obviously enraged, and slithered straight for the target nearest it - which happened to be the Hufflepuff second-year, Finch-Fletchley.
Furious - Lockhart had just endangered a number of the students - Snape prepared to banish it, only to be interrupted a second time, as Potter moved forward, drawing the snake's attention.
A sharp hissing sound echoed throughout the Great Hall, and Snape found himself staring at Potter in shock. The hissing had come from him, and it was obvious that the snake had understood, because it had suddenly become docile and obedient.
A Parselmouth. The Boy-Who-Lived is a Parselmouth.
Snape could see the other students staring at Potter in shock, and rapidly took control of the situation by banishing the snake before anything else could happen. Bad enough Potter had revealed his ability to what was most likely his entire year, as well as Lockhart, but it was obvious from the expression on his face that he had no idea what he'd just done.
Then he saw Weasley and Granger grab Potter, and felt a touch of relief. They would explain it to the boy...
Now, all he had to do was explain to Dumbledore.
"Sugar Quill," Snape said, as he reached the gargoyle that guarded the stairs to Dumbledore's office. It moved aside to let him enter, and he hurried up the stairs.
Dumbledore was reading a letter as Snape flung open the door to his office, and he glanced up with a quizzical expression as the Potions master stepped inside. "Is something wrong, Severus?" he inquired calmly.
Snape gritted his teeth. He held an immense respect for Dumbledore, both as a wizard and as a person, but the man had an unfortunate habit of acting... almost frivolous, even under the most serious circumstances. "There hasn't been another attack, if that's what you're wondering," Snape declared.
"In that case, do sit down, Severus. Would you care for a sherbert lemon? Perhaps a cup of tea?" Dumbledore said, before Snape could continue.
He glowered at the headmaster in irritation, but sat obediently in one of Dumbledore's visitor chairs. "No thank you, Albus. Now, if you would let me explain?"
"That idiot Lockhart--"
"Severus," Dumbledore said, his tone a warning.
"You know perfectly well that I'm right, Albus. He's useless as a teacher," Snape declared firmly.
"You are, as always, entitled to your own opinion, Severus. Nonetheless, I do ask that you refrain from making disparaging comments concerning other members of the staff. Now, do go on."
Snape gritted his teeth again. "Lockhart held the first duelling lesson today," he declared grimly. "Most of the second-years showed up, as well as several students from other years."
"Ah," Dumbledore interrupted. "I presume, then, that young Harry was there?"
Crossing his arms over his chest, Snape glared at the headmaster again. Dumbledore was well aware of the reasons for his dislike of the Potter boy, but that didn't stop him from attempting to persuade Snape to go easier on the boy. Not that he'd 'go easy' on Potter even if he did like him - the boy wouldn't learn anything that way - but he had no intentions whatsoever of changing his attitude. Potter had never given him any reason to believe that he was different from his father and the other Marauders.
"Yes, Potter was there," Snape replied, his tone still grim. "And we have something of a problem on our hands now."
"The boy's a Parselmouth, Albus. Malfoy conjured a snake when Lockhart attempted to show them how to invoke the Shielding Charm, and Potter spoke to it before I could banish it. Ordered it not to attack another student, I believe, but that wasn't necessarily what the other children saw. They're going to be thinking that he's Slytherin's Heir now."
Dumbledore frowned, obviously surprised by the news. "You're sure he actually spoke Parseltongue, Severus?"
"There's no doubt of it," Snape answered. "The snake was set to attack Finch-Fletchley - it was enraged after Lockhart blasted it," he added. Let that idiot try to talk his way out of that! Dumbledore wouldn't stand for a student being threatened... "Potter stepped up to it and hissed, and it responded instantly. He wasn't just trying to redirect its attention; it calmed down and backed away from Finch-Fletchley. That's the point at which I managed to banish it, but..." He shrugged, and Dumbledore nodded in understanding.
"You're right, Severus, that could be a problem. If the students think that he's the Heir of Slytherin... Harry could be in for some difficult times this year."
Snape didn't particularly care if the other students shunned Potter - his arrogance needed muting, and it could prove to be a valuable lesson for the boy. The opinions of the wizarding world were more subject to gossip and manipulation than those of the Muggles. Best Potter learn as soon as possible that fame could be a two-edged sword, and that the rest of the world would be only too happy to shun him if they found out that their saviour was only human.
His main concern was that some of the students, believing Potter to be Slytherin's Heir, might end up attacking him. That would be a serious danger.
And the idea that Potter, of all people, was Slytherin's Heir... it was ludicrous.
That thought did, however, remind him of something he'd been wondering about since he'd left the Great Hall. "Albus... there's never been a Parselmouth in Potter's family. How did he end up with the ability?"
Dumbledore frowned again. "I'm not certain. The best guess I can make is that when Voldemort's attack on Harry was reflected back at him, Harry ended up with some of Voldemort's abilities. Either that, or they are connected somehow through the curse scar."
Snape felt a shiver of fear go through him at that thought. As any wizard knew, magical connections often went both ways. And if Potter was that closely connected to Voldemort... who knew what else could happen?
"I sincerely hope that it is the former that is correct," he said, his tone still grim.
"As do I, Severus, as do I," the headmaster replied. "Nevertheless, that still leaves us with the problem of the students' perceptions of this event. Perhaps if we made it clear that we do not believe Harry is responsible for--"
Snape shook his head. "That won't work, Albus. None of the students will listen to us if we attempt to convince them that they are wrong. And it may well teach Potter a valuable lesson."
Dumbledore sighed. "He's not his father or Sirius Black, Severus. You are doing both him and yourself a disservice by regarding him as though he was."
Snape stood up; he had no desire to listen to any more of Dumbledore's attempts to convince him about Potter. He'd done his duty: he'd informed Dumbledore of the events in the Great Hall and the fact that Potter was a Parselmouth, and that was all he needed to do. "You'll have to excuse me, Albus; I have some work to do." Before Dumbledore could say anything else, he stalked out the door.
As he walked along the corridor back to the dungeons, however, his thoughts were pulled back to the events in the Great Hall, and Dumbledore's theories as to how Potter had gained his ability to speak Parseltongue; which in turn led to thoughts of Voldemort - Tom Marvolo Riddle, Slytherin's Heir - and the matter of the Chamber of Secrets. Voldemort had never had children; which meant that the only way the Chamber of Secrets could have been opened again was by his influence.
Which meant that somehow, Voldemort had a hold over one of the students at the school. Well, one of the students or Lockhart, but Snape doubted the latter. If there was one thing that he actually respected Voldemort for - the only thing he respected the Dark Lord for - it was his insistence upon competence. And Lockhart wasn't acting - he really was that incompetent.
So, in order to stop the attacks, he would have to figure out which student Voldemort was using. It would not be easy, but he was confident that he'd find a way.