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Arms of a Dark Angel by Snapegirl

Format: Novel
Chapters: 46
Word Count: 226,222
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Drama, AU
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, McGonagall, Snape, Lily, Draco, OC
Pairings: James/Lily

First Published: 02/04/2009
Last Chapter: 04/10/2009
Last Updated: 04/10/2009

Summary:
Sickly and neglected by his caregivers, little Harry would not have survived were it not for the mysterious dark angel who watched over him, caring for him when he was sick. Harry never knew his name, until he attended Hogwarts and discovered a certain teacher bore a remarkable resemblance to his savior.  AU, SS fic!  Banner by lilausty!



Chapter 1: Guardian Angel
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Title based on the song by Sarah McLaughlin "Arms of An Angel" which was playing while I wrote this.

An additional note: In this universe, wizards worship all kinds of religions and hold different religious beliefs. There is some discussion of them in this story, though it is not the focus of it. No criticism of any religion is meant by the author. If this bothers anyone, please do not read or review.  But any other feedback is welcome! 


"Watch over Harry, Severus, but don't let anyone know."

Those had been the last words Lily Potter had ever spoken to him. It had been right before she had gone into hiding in Godric's Hollow, and she had made her oldest and best friend swear Wizard's Oath that he would watch over her son should anything happen to her or James. She had said he was the only one she could trust, for he was skilled in the arts of healing as well as subterfuge. Severus had agreed, reluctantly, for James had never done him any bloody favors, but he could sense the desperation in Lily's tone and couldn't bear to refuse her. So he had sworn, and bound himself to be little Harry's unseen guardian, the watcher in the shadows, apart yet closer than his own heartbeat, thanks to a special bracelet Severus had given Lily to put on her baby. Once on, it would turn invisible and could only be removed by Severus himself.

The bracelet was keyed to Harry's emotional and physical state and would alert Severus, who wore its twin upon his left wrist, if something happened to the boy while under the care of his Muggle relatives, such as an injury or an illness or some violent emotional upheaval. He had protested to Albus, of course, that leaving Potter with Lily's sister and her husband was not a wise choice, but Albus had insisted that blood must take care of blood, and silenced the younger man with a stern glare.

Severus had subsided, seething silently, but vowed to be true to his promise.

Watch over Harry, but don't let anyone know.

* * * * * *


Three years later:

Harry coughed loudly, trying his best to smother it with one little hand. If his aunt or uncle heard, they'd yell at him to stop being such a burden and he wouldn't be allowed to eat tomorrow because he had disturbed them with his damn coughing. But it was getting harder and harder to breathe in the cramped cupboard under the stairs. He had started coughing on Wednesday, from staying out too long in the rain, Dudley had locked him out of the house and no one had heard him banging on the door until two hours later.

Once Petunia had hauled him inside and scolded him for tracking mud on her clean floors, she had then sent him to his cupboard and locked him in. Harry had been shivering and soaked, and had done his best to dry himself with the tattered blanket, but it had barely been enough, and he had shivered the whole night through until his clothes had dried.

He had started coughing then and now it was getting worse. His chest felt heavy, it hurt when he breathed, he was achy and hot and hungry. He huddled under the threadbare gray blanket Petunia had purchased from the sixpence store, trying to stem the wracking cough that burst from his chest.

It was hopeless. He coughed loudly, feeling as if he were going to cough up his insides, his whole frame shook with violent tremors, and tears prickled his eyes. In a way, he almost hoped his aunt or uncle would hear him, because then they might come down and see what was wrong. His chest hurt so much . . .he was thirsty but there was no water, and it was dark and clammy and the door was locked.

Unknown to the child, the bracelet on his wrist began to send a silent alert to the man who had vowed, years before, to watch over him.

Severus Snape looked up from the cauldron of Swelling Solution he was brewing, feeling the bracelet on his wrist quiver urgently. This was the first time in three years the bracelet had reacted like that, and he immediately set down his stirrer and clasped his wrist.

Images formed in his head, of a child coughing under a raggedy gray blanket, sick and flushed with fever. Equally clear was the child's worry and fear and a sort of resigned desperation. Goddamn those Muggles! He swore and then he performed a Fetching Charm, which was a sort of limited Apparition spell, designed to fetch a single living thing or object to the caster.

In the cupboard, Harry wheezed and gasped, then vanished.

Only to reappear in the arms of a man wearing a dark velvet robe. Severus quickly cast the hood of his robe over his face, so that the child could only see a faint outline of his chin. The little boy whimpered and looked up at the face of his rescuer, frightened.

"Easy," Severus whispered, attempting to make his tone soothing. "I'm not going to hurt you."

"Where am I?"

"A magic place. A safe place. You're sick, Harry."

"Uh huh. My chest hurts." He coughed violently.

Severus winced, for the boy sounded as if he were going to hack up a lung. What the bloody hell was wrong with those Muggles? Why didn't they do something to help their own flesh and blood? He shook his head angrily. Well, if they would not help, then he must. He was bound by the oath he had sworn.

He frowned down at the boy, who looked so like his father that it made Severus's lip curl. But then he looked at Harry's eyes and those eyes, bright with fever, took his breath away. Her eyes. He has her eyes. The eyes of the woman he had once loved were now staring back at him. He felt his chest tighten and he blinked hard. Then he forced the inconvenient emotions down and summoned several potions to him.

He moved over to the chair, a comfortable leather one, that he normally kept in his lab for sitting in while he was waiting for a potion to steep, and sat down with Harry in his lap. "Now then, child. I'm going to give you some-"

"Medicine? Will it taste icky?"

"No, a potion. A magic potion. And yes, it might taste a little unpleasant. Nevertheless, you must take it. It will help you get well." If he had to, Snape would shove the potion down the brat's throat, but what the boy said next totally shocked him.

"Magic's not real."

"What? Who told you that?"

"Uncle Vernon n' Aunt Petunia. They said magic's just tricks n' mirrors and doesn't exist. There's no such thing."

Severus's jaw hung open. He had known that Lily's sister had never approved of her sister's magical talents, he had grown up with the Evans sisters, and knew Petunia was violently jealous of her younger sister for having an ability she never could, but to deny magic's existence, especially to her nephew, who was undoubtedly going to be a wizard as strong as his mother someday? It was . . .it was . . .preposterous! It was cruel and wicked. And it made Severus's blood boil. He fought to keep his temper under control. Petunia was lucky she were nowhere near him now, for he would have been hard pressed not to hex her miserable tongue out. Magic didn't exist, indeed!

"You're wrong, Potter. Magic is real. I use it everyday. And I'm going to give you a magic potion that will quiet that cough and another to get rid of that fever." He shifted the boy slightly, sitting him up against his shoulder. Merlin, but why did the child feel so thin? He could practically feel his ribs, even through his heavy velvet robe. He carefully unstoppered the vial of Decongestion Draft and poured a measured dose into a small graduated cup.

"Open up and drink," he ordered, pressing the cup to the little mouth.

Harry obediently opened his mouth, and Severus gently tipped the cup and the thick Decongestion Draft flowed down the child's throat.

Harry sputtered and grimaced. This magic potion tasted utterly nasty!

"Swallow, young man."

"Ugh!" Harry wanted nothing more than to spit the horrible stuff out, but a hand was holding his mouth closed and he was forced to swallow.

As soon as he had done so, the pain in his chest eased and he could breathe a little easier.

"Now for the next one."

Severus administered the fever reducer next, this one didn't taste quite as bad, but he made sure the child swallowed with a firm hand to his chin, tilting the boy's head back as well.

"There. You should start feeling better soon."

"Uh huh." Harry yawned, he was feeling sleepy and the arms that held him were warm and soft and he nestled his head deeper into the dark fabric. He had never felt so safe in all of his life. There was an odd smell in the air, some kind of spice he didn't know, but he was too tired to ask what it was.

His rescuer was frowning down at him, though Harry couldn't see that because of the hood. Snape couldn't believe the nerve of the little brat. He was falling asleep on Severus's shoulder, of all the cheek! What made the brat think he could be allowed to do that?

But there he was, sound asleep, his lashes a coal black smear against the porcelain white cheek.

"Humph! Bold as brass, just like your damn father! Figures," muttered the Potions Master sourly.

He thought about returning the boy to his . . .home, if one could call it that, but then he recalled that Potter might need another dose or two of potions and so he transfigured the brat's clothes--what was he wearing? It all looked two sizes too large-into a soft set of pajamas with green snakes on them, then transfigured an old set of scales into a child-sized bed.

I will keep him here for the night, to monitor him. Then, once I'm sure he's recovering, I'll send him back home.

Severus frowned viciously. From what he had observed, he didn't think the Dursleys were fit guardians, but he had to send the boy back, his disappearance would be noted after too long. Watch over Harry, Severus. But don't let anyone know.

The Potions Master heaved an exasperated sigh, damning the impulse that had made him swear an oath to watch over this quasi-reflection of his rival. Still, a promise made must be kept.

So he carefully laid the sleeping child in the bed he had conjured, and tucked the covers under his chin. The boy should sleep through the night. Then Severus turned back to his brewing, glancing every so often at the still form in the bed. The things I do for you, Lily.

* * * * * *

The next morning, Harry's fever and breathing was much improved. Snape administered both potions again, this time Harry took them without a fuss. Afterwards he looked at his black-robed rescuer and asked, "Who are you?"

Severus ignored the question.

Harry frowned, wondering why the man didn't answer. Instead, he whirled about and went to the other side of the magic room, where something was cooking in a large black pot over a fire. The man's black soft robe billowed behind him kind of like wings.

Harry frowned. He recalled his teacher at preschool saying that sometimes angels came down from heaven to watch over little children. Harry had asked her if they even watched over kids who were . . .strange and freaky . . .and she had said yes, that angels were there for everyone, but especially children. They watched over them and protected them always.

Perhaps this one was an angel. But the angels in the books all had white robes and wings. But maybe his angel was different. Like he was different. Yes, that made sense. He had a dark angel instead. Harry smiled, then he yawned. He felt sleepy again, so he snuggled down into the soft bed, it felt so very good, like a cloud, and fell asleep.

When Severus looked up a few moments later, Harry was curled on his side, sleeping soundly.

Time to send him home, wretched place though it is, thought Severus reluctantly. He waved his wand and intoned the reverse of the Fetching Charm.

Harry potter vanished from the little bed and reappeared a second later in his dingy cupboard, restored to health once more.

* * * * * *

This continued over the course of Harry's childhood.

Whenever he was sick or hurt, he would retreat to his cupboard and would be magically fetched to Severus's side. Severus would then use his potions and healing skills to cure the boy, keeping him under surveillance until he was healed. He never told the boy his name, and he never let the child see his face, always remaining hooded.

Harry grew to think of him as his dark angel, and that was what he called the man in his mind. When he was with the angel, he knew nothing would ever harm him, in the magic place of warmth and spicy strange smells, he was safe. Sometimes the angel would feed him before sending him back, or give him food and drinks to take with him.

"I must send you back, child, but I will always be here if you need me."

One time, Harry had been badly burned while cooking dinner over the stove, he was around eight, and when it came time for him to go home, he had burst into tears and clung to the velvet robes. "Please, sir! Please let me stay! I don't wanna go back!"

The sobbing plea tore at the wall Severus had built around his heart, tore and shredded it until it was crumbled to naught but dust, and he looked down at the undersized waif gripping his ankles and felt a scorching anger at his mentor followed by a heart-rending anguish for the scrawny unloved boy, who had somehow ceased being a brat he took care of out of duty, and instead had become something more, something very like a son, if only he could bring himself to admit it.

A secret son, a son who was borrowed, but nevertheless a son.

He laid a hand gently on the weeping boy's head, that messy mop that would never be tamed, no matter how many times Petunia shaved it or Severus combed it. "You cannot stay, Harry. You know the rules."

Harry sobbed harder. "Don't care! I hate the rules. They're dumb! Please let me stay! I'll-I'll do anything. I'll clean, I'll scrub the floor, I'll cook."

"Child . . ." Severus began, his throat hoarse from choking back his own bitter bile. He wanted, more than anything, to have Harry stay, but it had taken him too long to recover from this latest hurt, and Severus could only use the Time Turner so long before it was noted by the Ministry. Two days, no more. Watch over Harry, but don't let anyone know. "I . . .am sorry. But you must go back. Now stop this and stand up, you're acting like a whiny two-year-old."

"Don't care."

"Harry." Severus made the boy's name into a lash, and the child flinched.

Conditioned to obey such a tone, he rose, but he refused to look his angel in the face. Instead he kept his gaze upon the floor upon the dark guardian's boots.

One finger tipped the boy's chin up, until the accusing green gaze was piercing Severus's own, stirring feelings of guilt and regret within the other's breast, emotions he had not felt in eight years, since Lily had breathed her last.

"Understand, I do this because I have to. It is not because I wish it."

"But why? Why do you have to?"

Severus sighed. "I cannot answer that. But there is a reason."

Harry sniffled, looking so forlorn that Severus broke his own rule, and hugged the boy for a very long moment. He had tried so hard not to become attached, but little by little, over the years, Harry had managed to worm his way through the thorn thickets that surrounded Severus's heart.

Then Severus stepped back and sent Harry from him, and with the boy's departure felt the bitter ache of longing curdle in his throat.

Harry reappeared in his cupboard with a pop, as always, and the only warmth he had to sustain him was the memory of the dark angel's arms about him, holding him close.

* * * * * *

He did not see the angel again until two years later, when he developed pneumonia from Dudley nearly drowning him at the local pool one afternoon when the lifeguards were off duty. Then he had been so ill that Severus had feared for his life.

It had taken almost three days for the Potions Master to bring down the 104 degree fever and repair the damage done to Harry's lungs. During that time, he barely ate or slept, consumed with making the child get well, he worked feverishly brewing and administering one draft after another.

Until finally, after forty-eight hours, the fever broke and Severus could rest. He fell asleep in the chair next to Harry's bed, exhausted to the bone.

Not long after, Harry awoke and found he felt better. He also saw, to his shock, the angel sleeping beside him. He had never thought the angel needed sleep. But apparently, it was so. For there he was asleep, and the hood . . .

Harry gasped.

The hood that always covered the angel's face had fallen off.

Harry slipped from the bed and crept over to peer at it.

It was a face that was pale, framed by long midnight hair, a strong nose and long chin. It was not particularly handsome, but there was something . . .noble about it. Harry stared at it for a long time, then crept quietly back to the bed and flopped down on it. Now he had seen the angel's face, the one thing he had always wondered about. He bit his lip. He didn't want the angel to be mad. If he got angry, he might send Harry away for good.

So the boy quickly jumped up and replaced the hood over the sleeping face.

There, now no one would know Harry had seen the face of his guardian.

When Severus awoke some four hours later, he found Harry asleep. He checked the boy's temperature and found it was normal. So were his lungs. Heaving an immense sigh of relief, Snape woke Harry up and fed him some soup and bread with butter.

Harry knew what that meant. It was almost time to go.

But he knew better than to protest. So he bid the angel goodbye and hugged him hard before being sent back to his cupboard upon the wings of magic. This time, at least, he had the angel's face and arms to keep him company inside the dreary cupboard, until Petunia summoned him to do more chores. And that was enough.

* * * * * *


One year later

Hogwarts School:

Harry hurried along the corridor, his new school robes flapping awkwardly about his knees, as he ran to his Potions classroom. He didn't want to be late for class his first day here. He stumbled to a halt just outside the door, fumbling with unsteady fingers for the handle.

Then he opened it and stepped inside.

As he did so, he breathed in the familiar scents of astringent herbs and sweet marjoram and basil. It washed over him in a wave and he gasped in recognition. This was the same smell that had always permeated the room where he had stayed with the angel, recuperating from illness and injury. He would know that smell anywhere.

He stepped cautiously into the doorway, feeling an odd sensation in the pit of his stomach. He felt as if he had come home.

He glanced down at the rows of desks, the cauldrons lined neatly along the back row, and then his gaze was drawn to the desk where a slender man in a black robe sat, marking papers with a green quill, frowning in disapproval.

"Sir? Uh, I'm here for class," Harry said, wondering after he'd spoken if he should have kept silent.

The Potions Master, whose name, according to Ron, was Professor Severus Snape, looked up with a scowl. "Well then, have a seat, don't just stand there dawdling, boy, like. . ." he trailed off, recognition slamming into him like a sledgehammer.

Emerald eyes met obsidian.

Locked.

"You. It was you. You were the one who took care of me all those years," Harry whispered.

Severus could not answer, his tongue was frozen to the roof of his mouth.

How had Harry recognized him? And what was he going to do now?


Chapter 2: Keeping Up Appearances
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Snape's mind raced. How had Harry recognized him? He had always been hooded whenever he had treated the boy over the years. He swiftly considered acting as if he didn't know what the boy was talking about, but discarded that idea. Harry was far too bright to fall for such a deliberate ploy. And he could not Obliviate the child either, Dumbledore had forbidden such a practice and there were wards about the school to prevent a spell such as that from being cast by any teacher upon a student.

Footsteps were heard in the corridor and Snape made a snap decision. "Potter, you will see me in my office at 7 o'clock. Do not be late. And speak not a word of this to anyone, understand? Now, take your seat."

Harry obeyed, sitting down in the desk closest to the board, for despite his glasses, his vision was blurry and he could not read fine print or see further away than a few feet. But he was used to that. His eyes had always been bad, and his aunt used to tell him often enough that he was lucky he'd not become blind, because then she would have put him in an institution for crippled orphans.

Now the other students were coming in, and Harry waved to Ron and Hermione, who came to sit in the seat to his left and right. "How come you're here so early, Harry?" asked Ron. "It's unheard of for a Gryffindor to be early for Potions, Snape has no liking for us, he's the Head of Slytherin House."

"Ron, don't be ridiculous. Professors don't play favorites, it's not good form," Hermione frowned at the redhead.

"Well, Snape does. Just ask my brothers." Ron said, then turned and pulled out his text with a sigh. "I just hope he doesn't take too many points from us this first lesson."

Harry glanced back to where Snape had been seated and found the man was no longer there. He wondered how on earth the man had managed to disappear when Harry had just seen him not a scant five minutes before. Then again, this was his dark angel, who always knew when Harry was hurt or ill, and would bring him to his magic place to be healed. The eleven-year-old fidgeted in his seat, wondering what the lesson would be like, marveling over the fact that his savior was teaching a class at Hogwarts. Harry wondered if he had sent the letters to Privet Drive. Perhaps he could ask the man about that and other things when he came to his office. He trembled suddenly.

What if the dark angel was mad at him for recognizing him? Harry had not meant to blurt out his thoughts like that, but his shock had been too great to contain and his mouth had run ahead of his brain. He prayed the angel--or should that be professor?-forgave him for his curiosity, for he couldn't bear it if the angel sent him away for learning his identity. But why was it a secret anyhow?

The door slammed open and Snape billowed in impressively. He fixed the students with his usual intimidating black-eyed stare, the one that he had heard made children think he could read minds. Really, that was ridiculous. He was no telepath, and even if he were, what teacher in his right mind would want to spend his days listening to the whining and angst of over five hundred teenagers? It would guarantee one a trip to St. Mungos, at the very least. His goal now was to establish his authority and ensure that his students caused as little mayhem in his class as possible, for potions was not a place to fool about in, the substances they worked with were far too volatile for larking about with infantile pranks, a slip could result in serious harm.

He began with his patented first-year introductory speech, which he had perfected over the years, down to his finely honed glower and sneer. "There will be no foolish wand waving in my class . . ."

Harry stared up at him, rapt, his emerald eyes glowing with something resembling hero worship, had he but known it. The timbre of Snape's voice, soft as silk, yet sharp with warning, made the boy tremble. He had never seen the dark angel thus, so commanding, and while it made him a tad nervous when the man eyed him sneeringly, he recalled that this was his protector, and he had never known hurt at the hands of this man ever.

Suddenly, Snape's dark eyes were gazing directly at him, and he blinked, startled. He was not used to the angel looking at him so sternly, and he fought back the urge to squirm like a naughty child. Have I done something wrong? Why is he looking at me that way?

"Ah, so we now have a . . .celebrity in our midst. Mr. Potter, can you tell me what another name for asphodel and monkshood is?" Severus barked, praying the boy would recall the lessons he used to give him in the correct names of herbs and plants used in potions. Come on, Harry, you remember this one, it's one of the easier ones. Show me how smart you are, boy.

Harry cleared his throat, then said quietly, "Those are both names for the same plant, sir. It's more commonly known as wolfsbane, sir."

"Correct. What are the uses of a bezoar stone? And where do you find one?" Snape continued to fire questions at Harry.

Harry did not disappoint him. "A bezoar stone is to neutralize poisons and it comes from the stomach of a goat."

Snape gave him a nod, grudgingly, and continued to ask questions. "What do you get if you mix porcupine quills, crushed snake fangs, dried nettles, and stewed horned slugs?"

"Umm . . ." Harry's mind went blank for a moment. He knew the answer to this, he did, they had discussed potion ingredients many times while he was in Snape's magic place, recovering from some injury or illness. But he cudgeled his brain frantically and couldn't come up with an answer. "Err . . ."

"Too difficult for you, Mr. Potter?" demanded Severus, still with a faint sneer on his face. Harry, you couldn't forget this one! It's an elementary potion, for Merlin's sake!

Next to him, Hermione was waving her hand frantically in the air.

Then Harry remembered. "Sir, I know the answer!"

"Then be so kind as to inform the rest of your classmates, won't you?" Severus said sourly.

"Uh . . .when you mix all those things you're making a Boil Cure Potion." Harry declared, his green eyes shining with triumph. He grinned in delight.

"Humph. Yes, that is correct."

Harry flinched at the stark coldness. He had given the right answer, why then was the professor angry? He was trying so hard to please the dark angel, why did everything he say seem to irritate the man instead? Harry hung his head, confusion and hurt sweeping through him.

Severus could not fail to note the hurt in the boy's gaze, and he inwardly cursed the need to berate the child so harshly, especially in front of his classmates, when he had answered questions most first-years would never have been able to. But if he showed kindness to Potter, he would arouse suspicion from those who were followers of Voldemort, some of whom had children in this very class. He darted a swift glance across the room, and caught the smirk of one Draco Malfoy, the son of one of the worst Death Eaters of all, Lucius Malfoy. The boy's smirk irritated the Potions Master, however, and he found himself saying something totally unexpected.

"For your correct answers, Potter, I shall award you ten House points." Gasps followed this statement. Severus quickly added, "Do not expect this largesse on a regular basis, however. Gryffindors are more likely to lose points in my class rather than gain them, so these might be the only points your House earns the whole semester."

The Slytherins lounging in the back row snickered at that pointed comment.

Severus ignored them, wishing he could do more to alleviate the hurt expression on Harry's face. He felt very much as if he had just kicked a hurt puppy, the boy looked so woebegone. But he had to keep up appearances, unfortunately. He would explain everything, or almost everything, to the boy later on in the evening. For now, however, he must play the role of snarky bat of the dungeons to the hilt.

"Now then. If you will all choose a partner, you may begin on the following potion, a Boil Cure. Turn to page 75 and follow the directions written there. All materials will be found in the third cabinet. Well, what are you waiting for, Potter? A personal invitation written in gold script? Move!"

"Y-yes, sir," Harry stuttered, getting to his feet so hastily he knocked over his chair. "S-sorry, sir," he muttered, feeling his face go bright pink. The other kids tittered and chuckled, and Harry wondered if he was doomed to be known as a klutz the way he had in primary school, only then it had not been his fault, but Dudley's, who was always shoving him and tripping him.

"C'mon, Harry." Ron said, whispering in his friend's ear. "Told you Snape was a mean git, didn't I? Picking on you the first day of class. You were brilliant, by the way. How did you know all those answers?"

"Uh . . .I . . .I read my potions text before I came here," Harry lied, knowing he couldn't tell Ron the truth. Then he made his way to the back of the room to get the required ingredients for the potion. He prayed the rest of the lesson would go smoothly. He wanted to get the potion right so his dark angel professor would be proud of him.

Somehow or other, Harry and Ron managed to brew an almost perfect potion, and Snape sneeringly bottled it as a sample to the other first-year classes he had to teach that day. "I'm sure Weasley must have learned about potions from his brothers, seeing as you were raised by Muggles and couldn't possibly know how to brew a potion correctly, Potter."

"But sir, I learned how from . . ." Harry trailed off, recalling just in time that no one was supposed to know about himself and his occasional lessons with Snape.

"From copying another's work, perhaps?"

"What? No!"

"Cheating is not an acceptable practice here, young man."

"B-but I wasn't!"

"Detention, Mr. Potter. 7 o'clock sharp. Don't be late. You will find that cheaters never prosper in my class." Then, before Harry could protest further, he swept towards the other side of the room to berate some other students, who were talking instead of taking notes for homework.

Harry stared down at the hem of his robes, blinking furiously to hide the sudden tears in his eyes. How could Snape be so unfair? This was not at all the same man Harry remembered from before. What had happened to him? Where was the dark angel who had held and comforted him for all of his childhood? Had it all been a lie?

"C'mon, mate. We'll be late for Charms." Ron said, stuffing his books in his bag. Then he muttered, "Greasy git! Can't believe he gave you detention already!"

Harry jerked his head up, angry as well as very confused. "Shut up, Ron!" he ordered, unwilling to let the other boy defame his rescuer, no matter how unfair and mean he was being. "I don't want to talk about it. Let's just go."

He finished copying down his homework, then stuffed it in his bag and left. Tonight he would get some answers. He hoped.

 

* * * * * *

 

 

At precisely 7 o'clock, Harry entered Snape's office, having asked Percy where to find it beforehand. Percy had clucked at him disapprovingly before telling him where the Potion Master's office was, saying Harry was lucky Snape was feeling merciful and hadn't taken away points as well as giving Harry detention, which he never should have earned in the first place. Harry had just nodded, not up to debating with Percy, and had left for the dungeons as quickly as possible.

Now he paused a moment on the threshold of the office before knocking once on the door.

"Enter, Potter."

Harry shoved open the door and entered, finding the man's office crammed full of books and odd looking jars of potion ingredients, though everything was neat. And the smell of spices that Harry associated with his dark angel was present here as well, and the soothing scent of cinnamon, marjoram, basil and rue washed over him, calming the butterflies in his stomach. There was nothing to fear. Not from this man.

Severus looked up from the fifth year essay he was grading, setting aside his veridian quill and steepling his fingers together atop his walnut desk. He shut the door with a careless wave of a hand, then cast a Muffliato Charm over the room so no one could eavesdrop on this conversation.

Harry jumped when the door shut behind him. "Sir? Am I in trouble?"

"Not today, Mr. Potter. Have a seat. There are matters I must discuss with you." He indicated a small padded chair in front of the desk.

Harry sank into it gratefully. Then he looked at Severus expectantly, waiting for the man to start explaining his odd behavior.

Severus fixed the boy with a penetrating gaze before saying quietly, "Firstly, I must insist that you keep silent on any matters I discuss with you here. There is a reason behind this request which I am not at liberty to tell you, but demand you cooperate nonetheless. Do I have your word?"

"Yes, sir. I won't ever tell. I never did before," Harry said, a bit indignantly. Did Snape think he was a baby that babbled everything to everyone?

"That was wise. Now then, as you have probably guessed, I am the one who has been caring for you all those years, ever since you were brought to the Dursleys and left with them." Here Severus's mouth twisted. "They were the worst sort of guardian for you, Harry."

"Then . . .if you knew that, why didn't you take me away from there?" Harry demanded. "I asked you loads of time to stay."

"And now as then, my answer to you must be no. I know it may seem cruel, sending you back with those people, but I cannot keep you with me, Harry. It is far too dangerous and I cannot protect you as I should."

"Dangerous? How?"

"I have many enemies, child. And so do you. How much do you know about your parents?"

Harry told him. "But sir, the . . .the dark wizard that killed them is dead."

"Presumed dead, Harry. No body was ever found. And he was powerful. Powerful enough to try and cheat death."

Harry gaped at him. "Can he do that?"

"Maybe. But even if he is dead, there are scores of his followers who are not. And they will do whatever they have to in order to bring down the one who killed their Master." Severus said darkly. "You are safe here, while at Hogwarts, but the only place you are safe outside of school is the Dursley residence."

"Why?"

"There are layers of magical protections about it that make it so. That is why you must return there, and why I could not have you stay with me, no matter how much I wanted to." For the first time ever, Severus allowed a small smile to lift the corners of his mouth.

"You . . .you wanted me to stay then?" Harry asked, and his voice quivered with an unnamed longing. Had he at last found someone who wanted him around, that did not regard him as a freak or a burden?

"Yes, Harry. It was . . .very hard for me to send you back there. But I had no choice."

"Why? Will you tell me now?"

"I made a promise, and no one can know about it. That's all I'm going to say."

"Oh. Okay."

"Now, I have a question for you, child. How did you know it was I who helped you? I was careful to hide my face from you, or so I thought."

Harry hesitated. Did he dare reveal the fact that he had woken up after being sick with pneumonia and peeked at his guardian angel's face? Still, he had never lied to Severus before this. He wasn't about to begin now. "I . . .do you remember that time when I was sick just last year, after Dudley pushed me in the pool and tried to drown me?"

"Yes. You had a very bad case of pneumonia."

"Well, when I woke up after, you were, uh, asleep in the chair next to my bed and the hood you wore had come off. So I . . .got out of bed and I went to look at your face. I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't of, but I . . .couldn't help it." He gazed at Severus pleadingly. "Please, don't be mad. I just wanted to know what you looked like."

Severus sighed. "That is a normal reaction, Harry. I'm surprised that you remembered me after only seeing my face once though."

"Of course I would remember you! You were the only one who ever helped me. Nobody else ever cared."

"I know, child. The way those Muggles treated you was inexcusable. But you are safe here now. At least as safe as I can make you. I will continue to watch over you here as much as I can. But it must be secret and I cannot be seen as taking an interest in your welfare, do you understand? I must behave as I did today, and act indifferent and even cruel to you at times. But it is not real, it is an act. Anything I say to you during class or in the company of others is not the truth."

"Then today . . .you weren't really mad at me for getting all the answers right? And you didn't believe I'd cheated on my potion?"

"No, Harry. I was very proud that you knew all the answers to my questions. You did very well for your first potion, better even than some of the children who come from wizarding families, in fact. I couldn't say that, of course, so I awarded you points."

Harry smiled at his guardian angel. "I just remembered what you told me, sir. Wasn't much to do in the cupboard ‘cept recite the potion ingredients and the potions instructions you'd taught me."

"I suppose not." Severus glanced at his watch. "It's nearly time for you to go back to your dorm. Remember, tell no one that you were here. If anyone asks, you tell them that you were scrubbing fifteen cauldrons for me as detention."

"Okay, sir. I know the rules." He stood up, feeling the way he usually did when Severus sent him back to his cupboard.

"One other thing. If you ever need me, you may come to my office. I am usually here at this time, grading papers and so forth. Here, it can be as it was before, when you were in my lab at my home."

"Was that where I was?"

"Yes. Though occasionally I was here at school as well." Severus gave the boy another small smile. "Go on, Harry. Curfew is at nine-thirty for first years." He came around the desk then and hugged the small form briefly. Then he sent him out the door with a gentle pat on the behind.

He hoped all would go smoothly during the year. Yet he had a strange premonition that this year would be unlike any other he had known, now that the child he was sworn to protect had come to Hogwarts.


Chapter 3: A Creepy Feeling
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Ron was waiting up for Harry when he came through the portrait hole and entered the Gryffindor common room. "Hey, Harry. How'd your detention with the Slimy Snake Master go?"

"Okay." Harry said, wanting to snap at the redhead to quit calling Snape names.

"What'd he make you do? Scrub the dungeon floor with a toothbrush and a bucket of Magical Mess Remover? Or pickle some rat brains? Or disembowel some horned toads?"

"Nothing like that," Harry made haste to reassure his friend. Had Snape really done that to other students during detentions? Harry winced, wondering what the other students had done to get the professor riled up like that. "He just . . .made me scrub out fifteen cauldrons."

"Ouch!" Ron winced theatrically. "Your back must be killing you then."

Harry shrugged one slight shoulder. "Not really, it wasn't any worse than what I used to do for my relatives at home."

"What?" Ron gaped at him. "You're putting me on, right? Your relatives were worse than Snape?"

"Sometimes. I used to scrub plenty of dishes for Aunt Petunia, it was part of my chores. And clean the house too. Weed the garden, do the laundry." Harry ticked off the various jobs he'd had to do on his fingers until he ran out of them and Ron looked like he was about to asphyxiate right there.

"Harry . . .mate, that's just . . .wrong. Doing all of that . . .how old were you?"

Harry thought for a moment. "Uh. . .four or five when I first started doing some of it. Why? Didn't your parents makes you do chores?"

"Well, yeah, sure, but . . .mostly I just had to pick up my room, or de-gnome the garden, or set the table or play with my little sister Ginny while Mum cooked dinner. Normal stuff. Not . . .not doing everything the way you did. If you were doing all the work around the house, what were the rest of them doing? Sitting on their fat lazy arses?"

"Dudley was. Uncle Vernon worked and Aunt Petunia cooked sometimes or went out shopping." Harry sighed. He didn't see what the big deal was. Tedious as those chores had been, it was better than being sent to St. Brutus's, where they beat you with a cane, and fed you disgusting cold mush for every meal. At least at Privet Drive, he could hide in his cupboard, and the dark angel would come and spirit him away. That had been one of the good things about living there. "Look, I'm tired, and we'll never get up tomorrow unless we get some sleep."

"Right." Ron turned and padded up the stairs, and Harry followed.

He quickly changed into his pajamas and slipped into the gloriously soft and clean four poster bed with the Gryffindor hangings. Harry had never known such a bed existed until he came here. The only other bed he could compare it to had been the one he used to sleep in when he was in Snape's lab, being treated for some illness. That had been very comfortable too, and one reason why Harry always regretted leaving the magic place.

But even with the hangings drawn and the fact that he was tired after the long day of classes plus the "detention" with Snape, Harry found he could not sleep. He was unused to sharing a room with anyone, much less six new people at once. He heard someone snoring loudly, and tried to muffle it with his pillow. Then he heard someone else talking in their sleep, and another tossing and turning. It was very annoying, and Harry wished he was back in Snape's lab, where the dark angel would keep silent watch over him and soothe him to sleep with a hand on his hair and some quiet humming.

Harry closed his eyes and tried to imagine he was back there, lying all warm and cozy in his bed, with the dark figure hovering nearby, making sure all was well. Snape had always made Harry feel better just by touching him, the man's presence was a balm to his wounded spirit.

Before he knew it, he was fast asleep, and didn't wake up till the next morning, when Ron shook his shoulder.

* * * * * *

 

 

The next morning the Gryffindors had Defense Against the Dark Arts with the Slytherins. The new Defense teacher was Professor Quirrell, who Hagrid had remarked upon as being "scared of his own shadow, the students, and his own subject." He was reputed to be a brilliant scholar and wore a purple turban that he had said was a gift from an African prince for defeating a zombie. But he was very disturbing, with his continuous nervous tics and his hand twitching every so often.

He was timid and unassuming, Harry thought he made a much better scholar than a teacher, for from the first lesson, Quirrell made it clear that he was not able to control his students. Several Slytherins were talking instead of paying attention to the stuttering professor's monologue on the dietary habits of redcaps, and a few Gryffindors in the back row were passing notes around and sniggering into their sleeves.

Harry glanced around at the misbehaving students and wondered why Quirrell did not do something about them. Snape would have never permitted such antics and disrespect to go on in his classroom. But Quirrell appeared oblivious to the students misbehavior, sneezing and continuing to lecture in his stuttering monotone.

Harry tried to pay attention, for he wanted to do well in this class, it had seemed so interesting, but he soon found himself yawning. Then he rubbed his eyes and focused back on the teacher, and all of a sudden he felt a sharp pain in his forehead. He winced and rubbed at his scar unobtrusively. Bloody hell, why was it hurting now? Harry squinted at the pale professor, wishing he would just finish and get on with teaching them some spells.

Beside him, Ron was half asleep over his parchment and so were Neville and Dean next to him. Only Hermione was busy scribbling away at her parchment.

Then Harry's green eyes met Quirrell's odd blue-gray ones, and the Gryffindor felt a shiver go through him. He could not explain it, but there was something about the Defense professor that creeped him out. Harry quickly looked away, rubbing his head again, where his scar was throbbing like seven hells.

Weird. My scar's never hurt like this before. Maybe I'd better ask Professor Snape about it later. Brrr! That Quirrell sure makes me feel all shivery and creepy. What's up with this guy? He's been talking half the class about the same subject and we haven't learned anything useful except how to fall asleep with our eyes open. Blast! And I was looking forward to this class too.

He did his best to stifle his disappointment and hoped that his next class, flying with Madam Hooch, would be better. Really, he'd have done better reading the text book than listening to Quirrell drone on and on. He was almost as bad as Binns. And the way he was eyeing Harry, like a lion would a tasty antelope . . .yes there was no doubt about it, Quirrell was definitely creepy.

Harry pretended to scribble down a few sentences on his parchment, careful to try and not smudge his letters. Writing with a quill was harder than it looked, and Harry wasn't doing particularly well with one. Ron had said there were ones which were charmed to write for you and ones that wouldn't need to be refilled, but they were all expensive. Harry planned to buy one if and when he ever returned to Diagon Alley. It would make his school work so much easier.

When he looked up again, he found Quirrell's disturbing eyes were staring off into the distance, and Harry breathed a sigh of relief. He glanced up at the clock and thanked God Quirrell's lesson was almost over.

At last the hour and a half was up and Harry nudged Ron awake. "Psst, Ron! Wake up, it's time to leave, we're going to flying class next."

"Huh? Oh, right." Ron rubbed his eyes blearily. "That ought to be loads of fun compared to this one."

Harry murmured an agreement, then picked up his bag and headed out the door to the lawn, where Madam Hooch was waiting.

* * * * * *

 

 

 

Afterwards, Harry wondered what had possessed him to disobey a teacher's direct order and skyrocket after Malfoy, of all people, who had probably been on a broom before he could walk. Of course, there was the small fact that he didn't care for Draco's attitude towards Neville and the way the blond boy sneered at anyone weaker than himself. It reminded Harry of Dudley and Piers, who used to take turns tormenting the younger kids in primary school and down the street.

Harry had always hated bullies, mostly because he ended up getting beaten up by them as well, and it irritated him profoundly that Malfoy thought he was above everyone, the stuck-up git. So he allowed his temper to overrule his sense, and pursued the Slytherin on his broom without thinking.

When Malfoy had tossed the Remembrall at him, he had reacted on pure instinct, catching the tiny red globe in one hand the way he would've a cricket ball. He had always had unnaturally good reflexes, something that had served him well when he had needed to run and hide from Dudley and his gang.

He had expected McGonagall to take strips off his hide and give him detention at the very least. She has certainly looked mad as a dragon with a knot in her tail. Yet she had dragged him inside, partly by his ear, and then told him he was to train that weekend with the Captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch team, Oliver Wood, as their new Seeker.

Harry had felt as if he were in the midst of a very odd but pleasant dream, and had gone on to lunch in a kind of daze, only to have Ron and Hermione congratulate him for being the youngest Seeker to play on a House team in over a hundred years.

"It must run in your blood, Harry," Hermione had said softly.

"Why do you say that?"

Then she had led him to the Trophy Room and showed him the plaque that rested there with the name of his father, James Potter, who had played the exact same position when he had gone to school.

Harry had examined the trophy with interest and wished he knew something more about his parents other than what was written in that book Hermione had gotten out of the library called Famous Wizards and Witches of the 20th Century. He wondered if Professor Snape knew anything about them. He had never spoken anything about them in all the years Harry had known him. Then again, Harry had never really asked, he was too busy getting well or asking questions about this or that potion or spell to inquire about two people he couldn't even remember, even if they were his parents.

Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon had never spoken about them either, except to tell Harry that they had died in a car crash and his father had been a deadbeat drunk and his mother an idiot for marrying him. It had all been lies, of course, as Harry had learned from Hagrid. Harry was not surprised. The Dursleys had always been good at lying to cover up unpleasantness. It was almost second nature to them. Harry had learned early on that he would never get the answers he so desired from them, and so he had quit asking.

But perhaps now . . .

He had just turned away from the trophy, Ron and Hermione a respectful distance behind him, when the door opened with a bang and the figure of Professor Snape swept into the room. His dark eyes alighted on the trio with a disapproving sneer.

"What's this? Admiring the past glories of former Quidditch players? I believe your father is somewhere up there, Potter. A typical Seeker, arrogant and full of himself, considering himself to be the best player ever to fly a broom. And now it seems as if you bid to follow in his footsteps, Potter. Professor McGonagall tells me that she has made you-a mere first-year, with no knowledge of Quidditch whatsoever-her new Seeker."

"Yes, sir," Harry said, forcing himself to meet the other's eyes, which were dark with scorn and what looked like anger as well. He flinched unconsciously. It's an act, remember? He told you he would do this last night. Even so, the tone stung, flicking the boy's fragile self-esteem like a lash.

"That is a poor decision on her part," Snape continued, his sneer even more pronounced. "She has done you no favors, boy. Now why are you three loitering here? Up to no good, are you?"

"No, sir," Ron put in quickly, backing away from the tall man.

"We were just leaving, Professor." Hermione said respectfully.

"Hurry up then," ordered Snape, waving a hand at them irritably.

The three quickly turned and headed for the doors.

"Potter, one moment."

Harry halted instantly and turned about, trying to make it seem reluctant.

"Sir?"

Severus scowled down at the tousle-haired boy. "Did I not tell you to go straight back to your dormitory after your detention with me last night? Yes? Then why were you wandering around the corridors like a misplaced shadow? Got lost on the way back to Gryffindor Tower?"

"Uh . . .a little."

"You have a map of the school, correct? Why didn't you use it?"

"I, uh, don't know, sir." Harry squirmed uneasily under the man's fierce gaze. Snape was terrifying when he was like this, and even knowing it wasn't real didn't stop Harry from trembling.

"You're a scatterbrain, are you? Just like your father. All attitude and no brains. Ten points from Gryffindor for disobeying a direct order."

"Sir! That's not fair!"

"Are you answering me back, Potter?"

"N-no! Just pointing out that it's not fair-"

"Now you're questioning me on discipline, you cheeky brat?" Severus demanded frostily. "You have some nerve, Potter! I think another detention is in order, to teach you your place in this school. My office, Potter, seven o'clock. We'll see if a few hours skinning shrivel figs and slugs won't improve your attitude."

Harry glanced down at his feet, looking angry and chastened at the same time. "Yes, sir."

"Be prompt. Or else I'll take more points that your House can ill afford to lose," threatened the Potions Master silkily, then he swept from the room majestically, his black cloak fluttering behind him like the wings of a dark angel.

Ron glared after him and growled, "What a load of dung. Snape's such a -"

"Ron!" Hermione cried, shocked. "How can you say that about a teacher?"

"Because it's true. Harry didn't deserve that detention, Snape's just looking for an excuse to take points from Gryffindor, as usual. He's a greasy git and I hope he falls face first in his cauldron one night and drowns."

"Ron!" Hermione protested. "That's an awful thing to wish on anyone."

Harry silently agreed with her. Now he had an excuse to be down in the dungeons after dinner again. He wondered if Snape would ever run out of things to punish him for? Probably not, the boy thought gloomily. But at least he wasn't in trouble for real. That was one good thing. Because that detention sounded ruddy awful.

"Come on. We'd, uh, better get going to Herbology." Harry said, and they exited the Trophy Room and went outside to the greenhouse for their next lesson, Ron still muttering about how unfair Snape was.


 




Thank you for all the awesome reviews!

Next: A flying lesson with Severus has some unexpected results for both the Potions Master and Harry.




Chapter 4: Flying Lesson
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As he swept down the corridor back to the dungeons to prepare for the class of seventh years, Severus fought to keep from grinding his teeth, every time he thought of the conversation he'd had previously with Minerva. Her complacency had shocked and alarmed him, for normally she believed in obeying school rules as he did. But it appeared that for Harry, she was willing to bend them until they snapped. Traditionally, first years were banned from playing sports because they needed time to adjust to their new school, classes, and learn good study habits. There was also an element of danger in Quidditch and first years didn't have the spell craft necessary to cast Cushioning and Featherlight Charms to save themselves if they were knocked off their brooms. And lastly, the older students were much bigger physically and had an advantage when it came to flying expertise.

"Minerva, I cannot believe you would be willing to allow a first year to play upon an intramural Quidditch team, no matter how much natural talent he has," Severus had argued, attempting to make her see reason. "There are reasons why first years aren't allowed to try out for Quidditch."

"I'm aware of them, Severus," she declared frostily. "However, in this case, I think an exception should be made. Surely you aren't . . .jealous that I now have a Seeker that can give your Logan Thorne a run for his money?"

Snape shot her a withering glower. Fool woman, obsessed with damn Quidditch, he thought furiously. Too obsessed to see that putting Harry on a team with older and bigger players was like tossing him in a cage with hungry wyverns, the boy was likely to get pulverized. And now it was going to be ten times harder for Snape to protect him. "My reluctance to having Potter be Seeker has nothing to do with jealousy and everything to do with safety. I don't feel that an exception should be made for anyone, and especially not for him. He needs to learn that the rules exist for him just like any other student, and his status as a celebrity doesn't allow him to be above authority."

"Severus, Potter has not displayed to me any need to be "above authority" as you put it. I need a Seeker since Dale Robinson quit the team and transferred to America to go to the US Academy of Magic, and it just so happens that Potter has all the raw talent I've been looking for. The Headmaster has approved my decision, so I don't see why you are so set against it. Unless you're afraid Slytherin might lose the cup this year?"

Severus sneered. "Don't count your dragons before they hatch, Minerva. And don't come crying to me when Potter falls off his broom and breaks his fool neck either," he said shortly.

"Have no fear of that, Severus. I have faith in Harry, he seems to have inherited James's skill on a broom, and Wood will be coaching him. So worry about your snakes, Potions Master, and leave my lion cubs to me, won't you?"

"As you will, Minerva."

Then he turned and left, before he lost his temper completely and said something rude and unexpected. Couldn't she see that she was being irresponsible and putting a young boy's life in danger over a stupid game? The Potions Master would never understand how a game was worth risking your life. He enjoyed watching the matches, and occasionally refereeing them, but he would never have permitted one of his first years to play in one, and especially not an undersized scrawny child like Harry, who had never even heard of the game until he came to school. All of my team is twice and three times his size, and they play rough, and I can't tell them to let up on him either, he thought agitatedly as he stalked down the hall, his robes snapping and rustling around his ankles. Damn you, Minerva! You'll be lucky if he doesn't end up in the Hospital Wing with half his bones broken. He's never even been on a broom until today and you think he's ready to play Quidditch with the big boys? You're insane! The next match is in two weeks and you think Wood can coach him enough to keep him safe? You're gambling the boy's life for the sake of a damn Quidditch Cup, just because your pride is hurt that your House hasn't beaten mine in over five years. For the love of Merlin, Minerva!

The way he saw it, he had no other option than to coach Harry himself on the finer points of flying and safety, making sure he had some knowledge of the rules of the game, and what to watch out for as far as checking and other rough tactics. His Slytherins played hard, they didn't cheat, but they played quick and dirty, and they would show Harry no mercy whatsoever. If Potter wanted to play with the big boys, best he learn to suck up and deal with it, and that would be the prevailing attitude of the rest of the Houses as well, all of whom were at least a year older and had to wait to make a House team. Severus shook his head. No, Minerva had done Harry no favors by allowing him to start so young, it would only breed resentment, and rightly so. And Albus was just as bad, for he could have overruled her, and probably would have, had it been any other student. But because it was Potter, the Golden Boy-Who-Lived . . .Severus clenched his jaw and swore under his breath.

I will keep him safe. I promised Lily. No matter what, I shall be true to my oath. We can begin with some flying lessons tonight, things that Hooch doesn't cover in her classes. Hopefully between me and Wood, we can make sure he is adequately prepared for the first game in two weeks.

* * * * * *

 

The door to Snape's office banged open, and the professor looked up from his latest pile of homework essays, a stern frown on his face, ready to tear strips off the rude brat who had come barging in like a herd of unicorns. Only to see that it was Harry, who was grinning like a jack-o-lantern, and his expression softened slightly.

"Potter, close the door and sit down," he ordered.

Harry obeyed and turned back to the professor, still wearing that delighted smile.

Severus quickly cast the Muffliato Charm again and locked the door, before saying with a touch of annoyance, "For Merlin's sake, boy, wipe that grin off your face, you're supposed to be coming here for detention, not a high tea. And that's generally not something to look forward to, especially with me."

Harry's face fell. "Oh. Right. Sorry, sir. But nobody saw."

"You're certain?"

"Yes, sir." Harry reassured him, going to sit in the same chair he had the previous day. The smile returned and the green eyes glowed as Harry said, "I can't wait for the first Quidditch match, sir. I'm a little nervous, but . . .still I can't wait. My dad played Quidditch too, he was a Seeker like I was."

"And also Captain in his sixth year," Severus recalled dryly, masking a sneer.

Harry blinked. "You knew my dad then?"

"Yes, and your mother as well, we went to school together," Severus sais softly.

"What were they like, sir? Could you tell me? No one ever talks about them."

"Your aunt never discussed her sister with you?"

"No. Once, when I was small, I tried to ask her, and she yelled at me to shut up, that she wasn't going to discuss her sister's freakiness with me and give me ideas, and then she locked me in my cupboard for being nosy and that was that."

Severus frowned. "Stupid imbecile!" he muttered. He expelled a breath, then said, "Lily and I were neighbors, we lived on the same block. When we were children, we played together down at the park. She was my first friend who could wield magic."

"And my dad? Did he live there too?"

"No. James was from a wealthy wizarding family, his family owned an estate in the north of England. I didn't meet him until I attended Hogwarts." Snape grimaced. "Your father and I . . .we did not get on. He was full of himself and arrogant, privileged and spoiled." Severus broke off abruptly, not wishing to discuss James bloody Potter any longer. "Enough about him, that's not why I called you here tonight. I wanted to discuss your sudden elevation to Seeker, a position that no first year has ever held in over a century."

"Ron told me that too. His brothers, Fred and George are on the team too, as Beaters. I'm not sure exactly what they do, but Wood promised he'd give me a manual that explained all the positions and the balls."

"You've spoken with Wood then?"

"Yes, sir. Right after lunch, he took me down to the pitch and showed me all the balls, including the Snitch. He said that's the only one I ought to be concerned about."

"Humph! He's right, technically. However, he neglected to mention that you also need to be alert for the Bludgers, even though it is the Beaters' job to keep them away from you."

"Did you ever play Quidditch?"

Snape shook his head. "I had no time for sports, I was too busy studying. But I do referee matches from time to time. I can show you some basic moves and tactics, after you learn how to fly properly, that is."

"Really? You'd teach me?" Harry sounded as if he had just received a billion Galleons.

"Did I not just say so?" Severus repeated. "Pay attention, Harry." He rose to his feet, summoning his broom from the closet. "Come along, Mr. Potter. Do you have a broom, or must you borrow one from the school stores?"

"Uh, I have to borrow one. It wasn't on my list of school supplies," Harry admitted, biting his lip. He was practically dancing from foot to foot.

Severus raised an eyebrow. Playing Quidditch on a borrowed broom? That's not going to protect him worth a damn, those broom are old and need safety charms rewoven into them. He needs a decent broom, Sev. One that won't become kindling and allow him to outfly the majority of the other players. It's the only advantage he's likely to have. He hid a sigh. One more thing he had to see to. "Very well. Has anyone taught you a Summoning Charm yet?"

"No. Professor Flitwick only covered levitation."

"Yes, that's one of his favorites. More practical though to start with a Summoning Charm. No matter, watch me closely, Harry. Accio broomstick!" Severus spoke the charm slowly, enunciating the words distinctly and keeping his wand movements deliberately slow, so Harry could see exactly how the charm was cast.

An instant later, a broomstick flew into Severus's outstretched hand. "There. An easy bit of magic, and very useful too." He placed the broomstick upon his desk, then opened the office door. "Go outside and cast the charm. Remember to speak the incantation firmly and with the proper inflection."

Harry obeyed. A second later he spoke the spell, and the broom quivered an instant before falling back into place.

"Again, and this time put some conviction into it. Magic is nine tenths will and one tenth power."

Harry spoke the charm again, this time putting some force behind the command. "Accio broomstick!"

This time the spell was successful and the broomstick flew off the desk and into his hand. Harry grinned. "I did it."

Severus nodded. "Not bad for your first try. Very well, follow me." He stepped out of his office, locking the door, then he led Harry down a short corridor he had never known was there, to what looked like a dead end. But then Snape tapped the stone with the flat of his hand and it glowed and slid aside to reveal a doorway out of the castle.

"Neat! I never knew that was here."

"Nor should you, for this is an emergency exit. Not to be used by students for sneaking out of the school." Severus told him sternly. "However, this once, we must use it. Come."

Harry followed practically on his guardian angel's heels as they slipped from the castle.

Snape led him past the lawn and the Quidditch pitch, down a winding twisty path between several rows of larches and aspens. Harry panted, struggling to keep up with Snape's long strides.

Severus glanced back, saw that his student was having difficulty and slowed down. "Hurry, Harry. There isn't much time to practice before curfew."

"Where are we going, sir?"

"A place where we can fly unseen," answered the Potions Master, and continued walking.

The path looped and twisted, until Harry was totally disorientated and certain that they were no longer even on the grounds. Finally Severus walked inbetween two gigantic oak trees and into a large clearing.

Sweet meadow grass carpeted the ground and Harry could see the first stars of evening brighten the twilight sky. There were several oaks surrounding the clearing, though when Harry glanced back, he could see the silhouette of the castle in the distance. So they had not left the grounds as he had thought.

Severus walked to the center of the clearing and beckoned to Harry. "I'm going to put a Sticking Charm on you once you mount your broom. That way if something happens while I am demonstrating a maneuver, you can't fall off."

"But why? I flew just fine without one today." Harry protested.

Severus narrowed his eyes in disapproval. "What you did today was reckless and foolish, young man. You had never been on a broom in your life, what if you had miscalculated and fallen off, the way your classmate Longbottom did? You were higher than he was, you would have broken more than just a wrist."

Harry goggled. How had Snape known about Neville? Did the man really read minds, the way the Weasley twins said he did? "How did you know about that, sir?"

"I have my sources," Snape replied. "That's none of your affair. Your only concern should be obeying me, and that means when you fly with me, you do so with safety charms, am I clear? I want no accidents, I have too much to do to be mending broken bones, Harry James Potter."

"Yes, sir," Harry said dutifully, though he really didn't see why Snape was being so cautious. He was a good flyer, everyone said so. Why then did the professor insist on treating him like a little baby?

"Mount your broom, Harry."

Harry did so, and then Severus cast a Sticking Charm upon him, practically cementing the seat of his trousers to the broomstick. Harry felt the difference immediately, it was rather like wearing a seatbelt inside of a car. He wasn't sure he liked it, but he knew better than to protest.

Severus mounted his own broomstick, then kicked off into the air. "We'll practice some basic flying first, loops and spirals, until I'm sure you've gotten used to being in the air, then we'll go on to some more advanced moves, things you'll need to catch the Snitch and avoid Bludgers and other players trying to ram you."

Harry hovered next to him. "They can do that, the other players?"

"Yes, if they can catch you. It's not an outlawed move. So you must learn to be alert and pay attention not only to the Snitch but the other players around you. So, we begin." Snape circled the entire clearing, rising to some thirty feet above the treeline. They were far enough away from the castle to avoid being seen by anyone save an owl.

Harry found the elementary exercises Snape insisted he perform quite boring, but he did as the dark angel had requested. Severus matched him effortlessly, noting that the boy did indeed have an instinctive grace on a broom. After ten minutes, Severus rose another five feet into the air and began showing Harry the more complicated maneuvers, weaves and dodges, and double backs.

The boy performed each maneuver gracefully, and that was when Severus reached into a pocket and withdrew a small glowing Snitch from it. "All right, Mr. Potter. Catch this."

He tossed the tiny winged globe up into the air, and it fluttered all over the clearing, but no further, since Severus had placed a Boundary Charm upon it.

Harry squinted, spied the glittering globe, and began to pursue it.

Severus hovered some ten feet up, watching his secret son chase the Snitch, a small smile playing across his face. Oh, Lily. It's too bad you couldn't be here to see this. If only . . . There's no use in wishing for what can never be, Severus, he reprimanded himself sternly. Better to appreciate each day as it comes and not hope for more. Except, if he was being honest, since Harry had come into his life, he had been hoping for more than simply existing. Since Harry had come to matter so much to him, his life had taken a turn for the better. The boy had brought a measure of happiness and contentment back into his life that he had only known once before. With Harry's beloved mother, whom Severus had loved the way he had never loved another. Had things worked out differently, Lily would have been my wife, not Potter's. And Harry my son in truth, not just borrowed, and then I'd . . .he cut short his musings to glance down at where Harry was flying after the elusive golden ball, and almost fell off his broom. Great bloody Merlin's ghost! What the blazes is that boy DOING!?

For Harry had pursued the Snitch right up to the trunk of a large oak and proceeded to slingshot around it at a speed that nearly made Severus's hair stand on end. It was a dangerous maneuver, for one single miscalculation and Harry would have smashed face first into the trunk and tumbled some forty feet through the air.

Yet the boy darted around the trunk, missing it by a scant half an inch, and then he was soaring up at a fantastic rate, one hand outstretched to grab the Snitch.

Severus's heart nearly came up out of his throat as Harry twisted about, zigzagging like a drunken sailor in and out of the trees, flying with a speed that bordered on insanity. Severus opened his mouth to shout at the boy to stop immediately, then froze, afraid he might disturb the boy's concentration and cause him to lose focus. And if that happened . . .

Harry, you reckless little imbecile! Just wait till I get a hold of you! Severus thought wrathfully.

Just then Harry's hand closed about the Snitch and he spun about, waving his hand in triumph. "I caught it! See? See?"

"Potter! Get your damn backside on the ground NOW!" Severus snarled, totally losing his legendary composure once he was certain the boy was safe. Did the boy not realize how close he had come to splattering himself all over? How near he had come to hitting his head on that last branch? Where was his sense of self-preservation, for Merlin's sake? It was damned unnatural for the child to display no fear whatsoever at flying at such a reckless speed, in and out of blasted trees . . .Severus had almost died of heart failure.

Harry froze, the smile he had been wearing sliding off his face, all his joy at catching the Snitch evaporated in the heat of Severus's anger. Huh? What . . .why's he so mad? He wondered frantically, then dived down for a landing after seeing the look of stark anger upon the older wizard's face. He had never seen that particular expression upon Snape's face ever, and it made his heart begin to pound crazily and fear surge through his limbs.

Severus followed, touching down a scant minute before Harry, jumping off his broom to stride over to the boy, his face set in forbidding lines. He snapped out a reversal of the Sticking Charm before his hand shot out and picked up the boy, holding him effortlessly in the air, and shaking him hard.

"Have you gone totally insane? What do you call that kind of stunt you just pulled, mister? Did I or did I not tell you to be careful when you flew about the trees?"

"I-I was, sir . . .!" Harry stuttered. "I wasn't all that close to them, honest." Actually he hadn't been able to tell how near he was to each tree, he had just flown on pure instinct, his eyesight was unreliable in the dark.

"Not all that close . . .!" Severus growled, and shook the boy again. "Are you blind? Or do you simply have a death wish? You missed hitting a tree branch by half an inch! And the tree trunk by another three quarters. You could have smashed your head open, foolish child! And then all your blasted brains would have been decorating the grass."

"I was?" Harry repeated blankly. "I didn't know . . .I thought . . ."

"No, you didn't! You didn't think at all. Otherwise you'd never have done something so utterly stupid, and risked your neck that way." Severus spat, his terror at Harry's daring shifting into anger. "You could have died, you reckless little fool! I didn't save your life all those years only to have you smash your head in now."

Harry was stunned. Never before had anyone ever cared whether or not he was careful, or if he got hurt. He had always been the unwanted burden, the poor relation abandoned on the doorstep, the freak of nature that would have done better to die along with his parents. No one had ever cared if he lived or died. No one . . .until now.

Harry swallowed sharply, trying to moisten his throat, which had gone dry from fear. He had never seen his dark protector so angry, and to have the full force of that anger turned upon him . . ."I-I'm sorry . . .I really didn't know . . .I was just trying to catch the Snitch . . ."

"You're telling me you didn't see how close you came to knocking your head against that tree trunk?" Severus demanded harshly, trying to rein in his temper.

Harry shook his head. "My . . .my glasses . . .I can't see too well at night, or . . .or far away . . ."

Severus drew in a deep breath. "You can't see even with your glasses, Harry? You wouldn't happen to be making that up as an excuse, now would you? Because if I find out you're lying to me . . .you'll discover what a real detention is like with me, young man!" He punctuated his scolding with another brisk shake, then he set the boy on his feet, though his hands remained resting firmly on the slender shoulders.

"I'm not lying, sir! Honest. My eyes are bad . . .I can't even see well with my glasses. Aunt Petunia . . .she said I was lucky I wasn't blind." Harry said, dropping his gaze to his shoes, all the euphoria he'd experienced earlier burned to ashes by his guardian's temper.

"Harry. Look at me," Severus ordered, waiting until the boy had dragged his gaze up from the grass before saying in a much more even tone, "When did you last have an eye exam?"

"Huh? An eye exam? I don't know what you mean."

"When was the last time you had your eyes checked by a doctor?" queried Snape exasperatedly.

Harry's brow furrowed. "Uh . . .I've never had my eyes checked by anyone. Not that I can remember."

"Then how did you know that you needed glasses?"

Harry shrugged. "Uh, my teacher in preschool noticed I kept holding things to my face and squinting, and she told Aunt Petunia I should get glasses. Aunt Petunia said a new pair was too expensive for the likes of me and she got me one from the Masons bin."

"So you've never had your eyes tested? Or been to a doctor to determine if they can be corrected with surgery so you don't need glasses?" Severus demanded, incensed at the neglect and cruelty of Harry's Muggle relatives, though it didn't surprise him.

"No, sir. This is the only pair of glasses I've ever had. But at least with them on I could see a little better. Enough to keep from bumping into things."

"Those miserable . . ." he trailed off, muttering explicatives under his breath. He managed to get control of himself after a moment however, and said, "You need to pay a visit to Madam Pomfrey, the school's medi-witch, and let her perform an eye exam on you. Perhaps that will enable her to figure out the correct prescription for your eyes and then you may get a pair of glasses that actually improve your vision instead of making it worse."

"My glasses make my vision worse?"

"If they aren't the right prescription for your eyes, yes."

"But . . .I don't have any money to pay for new glasses," Harry recalled. He had spent the last of the money he'd withdrawn from his vault on the train coming to Hogwarts.

Severus waved off his concern. "I can afford to buy you a decent pair, though I shall tell Madam Pomfrey that I loaned you the money, and you must repay me next year. I suggest you go see her tomorrow morning, first thing. Then perhaps you will be able to see the trees in the clearing from now on and quit almost hitting them."

"I didn't know I was, sir." Harry protested. "Was my flying really that bad?" He looked crestfallen.

"It was . . .terrifying, you young imp," Severus scolded gently. "You nearly made my heart come up out of my throat."

"Really? You care that much?" Harry asked, wonder shading his tone.

"Foolish child, do you not know that by now? Would I have healed you all those years if I didn't?"

"Well . . .you said you made a promise. And you should always keep your promises. That's what you told me."

"True. But the promise is only one reason. I . . .care very much about you, you reckless young fool," Snape growled gently, cuffing the boy very lightly on the back of the head. "And if you ever scare me that way again . . .you'll be very sorry, that much I will promise you." He gave the skinny eleven-year-old a semi-nasty Snape glare to make sure he was taking this seriously.

"I'll watch my flying next time, sir," Harry promised, and gave the professor a tentative lopsided smile.

"You had better, or else you'll see a side of me you wished you hadn't," the professor threatened softly. He glanced at his watch. "Come, it's time to go back. You don't want to miss curfew, do you?" he added as Harry groaned. "Give me the Snitch."

Harry reluctantly handed it over and Snape whispered something that made the ball go still and tucked it back inside his pocket.

"Even if I did miss curfew, I could always say it was your fault," he remarked cheekily. "That you kept me too long in detention."

"My fault, is it? You're pushing it, boy. Get your broom, Mr. Potter, and quit dawdling, before I give you an honest to God detention."

Harry obeyed, sensing the other wizard was not joking. He fell in beside the tall man, and Severus placed an arm about the slender shoulders for a bit as they walked. The night was cool and the stars above sparkled like tiny jewels in the velvet vault of the sky. They walked in silence for some way, until Severus said, "I will continue to give you flying lessons, Harry, every evening I can spare until the Quidditch match. I will send you an anonymous note with your owl, and you can meet me outside by the greenhouse. But make certain you are not seen. It would look very strange if it were known that I, Head of Slytherin House, was giving you flying lessons."

"I'll be careful, sir." Harry pushed his glasses back up on his nose. Severus's concern warmed him to the core of his being. At least there was one person who cared about him, even if he did have a rather odd way of showing it at times.

They re-entered the castle through the emergency entrance, and Severus made sure no one saw them entering the office. Once inside, he took Harry's broom and returned it to the school broom cupboard with a Returning Charm. Then he took another look at the boy, making certain he was not injured, before drawing him into a fierce embrace.

Harry returned the hug, glad that his dark angel was no longer angry at him for flying like a maniac, unintentional as it had been.

Severus released him after a long moment, admonishing him sternly to "Get some sleep and then go see Madam Pomfrey in the Hospital Wing first thing in the morning. Don't forget."

"I won't. Good night, sir. And . . .thanks."

Severus snorted. "Now he thanks me, the wretched imp," he muttered. "Off with you, Mr. Potter. You've wasted enough of my evening," he said gruffly, removing the charm about the office. Then he sent the boy on his way with a firm spank, making Harry yelp softly.

Harry cast his guardian an indignant glance over his shoulder before shutting the door to the office. Really, did Snape think he was five, giving him a swat like that? He rubbed his bottom absently, then made his way back up to Gryffindor Tower, thinking perhaps he ought to be grateful that he was too old to spank, else Snape might have taken him over his knee instead of merely screaming and shaking him half to death. He snorted at his own foolishness. Don't be ridiculous, Harry. He would never do that to you, he's your teacher, not your father. His father . . .would James have gotten angry like that over Harry nearly flying headfirst into a tree that way? Was that how a parent who cared for their child behaved? Harry didn't know the answers to those questions, for no one before had ever given a damn what happened to him. Still . . . Harry supposed if his father had lived he might have reacted that way. Perhaps he would ask Ron tomorrow, because he had an odd feeling that the Potions Master was coming to care for him as more than his student. If that were possible.

It was only after he was sliding into bed that he recalled he hadn't told his guardian angel about the creepy feeling Quirrell gave him and the way his scar had hurt. Oh well. I'll tell him tomorrow night, it's not like it's that big of a deal anyhow. Harry yawned, then snuggled down in his crimson comforter and was asleep in seconds, too tired from the night's excursion to notice the snoring and tossing of his Housemates.



So how was that for a different plot twist?
Next: Quarrels abound at Hogwarts between students . . .and a Potions Master.




Chapter 5: Quarreling
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"Well, Mr. Potter, it looks like you definitely need a new pair of glasses, these are not strong enough to correct your vision. You are possibly the most nearsighted patient I have ever had walk through this school. And that includes your father." Madam Pomfrey clucked gently at him, reminding Harry of a hen with one chick. "I'll have to order a pair for you from Wizarding Occulars, but until then I can adjust these so you can see enough to read the blackboard and so forth. Professor Snape has said, in his note, that "your myopic squinting and staring is disturbing him profoundly during his lessons", and he has offered to loan you the money to purchase a new pair of spectacles. I would strongly suggest you take him up on his offer."

Harry pretended to consider the offer carefully for about five minutes, biting his lip, a pensive expression on his face. "Uh . . all right. But could you, uh, please tell him that I'll pay him back? Soon as I go to Gringotts again next year. I . . .I don't want to owe him forever, and he might start charging interest the longer I don't repay him."

"I shall, Harry." Madam Pomfrey promised and then she chuckled. "Interest? Yes, well Severus might, if he thought you were taking advantage of him. Let me see those specs of yours, Mr. Potter."

Harry slipped off his glasses and gave them to the medi-witch, who drew her wand and muttered something he couldn't understand, it was more Latin, and his glasses glowed a shimmering blue before fading back to their normal matte black.

"There! Try them on and see how they work. Mind, the charm's only temporary, it'll wear off in two weeks, but by then your new glasses should have arrived from Wizarding Occulars. How on earth did you go for so long without getting a new pair? Those are about seven years out of date."

Harry shrugged, not wanting to discuss the Dursleys with her. "I dunno." Then he put the charmed glasses on and his green eyes went wide. "Wow! I . . .I can see everything!" He turned slowly, staring in wonder.

For the first time ever, the world was not a bunch of colored blurs and hazy outlines. Everything was clear and sharp and he could finally see. He could read the sign across the room opposite him, which read, Sleep is the physician of pain. And another hanging beside the door to Pomfrey's office, I swear, by Apollo the Physician, Aesclepius, and his daughters Hygeia, Panceia, and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfil according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant: First to do no harm . . .

Harry tore his gaze away, a smile of sheer pleasure spreading across his face. Oh, how wonderful it was to be able to see without getting right on top of something, and read without needing to hold a book or paper plastered to his nose. Colors were brighter, outlines sharper, and he felt as if he had been given the most magnificent gift of all.

"Thank you, Madam Pomfrey," he managed after a moment more, recalling his manners, which were the one good thing Petunia had taught him.

"You're welcome, Harry," she smiled back at him, it was impossible not to, the boy seemed so starved for kindness. Even Severus, grouchy stern man that he was, had noticed and decided to help the boy. Then again, Poppy knew the Potions Master had done other such deeds in the past, with other students, though he would never admit it. Merlin forbid anyone should ever guess the Potions Master had heart beneath that snarky exterior . . .The medi-witch concealed a smile, for she knew Snape would never demand Potter repay him, even if the boy could afford to. And if the boy did . . .Severus would simply give the money back, unobtrusively, of course.

"You know, now we have magical surgery to correct your eyes, and it may be that you might not need to wear glasses if you're a candidate for it." Pomfrey recalled then.

"Really? Do you think I am?"

"Well, I'm no specialist, that would require a visit to St. Mungos and a consult with one of the Occular Healers there. But if you were, it would be an easy procedure, you would be able to see without glasses in a day or two. A friend of mine had it done, and she sees better than I do now. Although, it is rather expensive . . ."

"Oh. Well, thanks anyhow, ma'am," Harry said.

"Go on with you, Mr. Potter. Breakfast should be served soon in the hall, you don't want to miss it," Poppy said then, shooing him out of the infirmary.

 

Harry went, marveling at how easy it was to find his way about now that he could see more than four feet in front of him. He wished he could get the surgery Madam Pomfrey had described, but he knew his aunt and uncle would never pay for it. Vernon had once said, soon after Petunia had gotten Harry his glasses, that if Harry had been a dog, he'd have taken him out back and shot him for being a useless crippled animal. Then he had cursed Petunia's sister and brother-in-law for having the bad taste to die and leave him saddled with their freaky brat.

And I could never ask the professor to pay for surgery, that would be too much, besides I have to have an adult guardian or parent sign the consent forms, since I'm underage, otherwise I'd be able to pay for it myself. Oh well, these are fantastic for now, and I've worn specs all my life, so I can deal with it. He pushed the idea of correcting his eyes surgically to the back of his mind, where all the other hopes and dreams he had were, things that he knew would never become reality, but that he held onto nevertheless, because it didn't hurt to dream.

He hurried down the corridor, glancing at the map that Percy had provided all the first years, and found the way to the Great Hall without mishap. Ron and Hermione were already at the Gryffindor table, eating.

Harry slid in beside them. "Morning, Ron, Hermione." He greeted, filling his empty plate with a bacon strip, some scrambled eggs, and a pancake.

"Where were you this morning, Harry?" asked Ron curiously. "Don't tell me Snape summoned you back to the dungeons for more detention."

"No. I was at the Hospital Wing, getting my eyes checked. I need new glasses and Madam Pomfrey ordered me some." Harry answered, putting syrup and butter on his pancake. He began to eat slowly, savoring each bite. The food here was wonderful, but he had to be careful, and eat small portions, or else he would get sick and throw up.

That had happened once before, when he was with Severus, he had eaten too fast and too much of a sandwich and soup the guardian angel had set out for him, and ended up throwing up all over the stone floor. He had been about six. After Snape had cleaned him up and given him a potion to settle his stomach, he had fed Harry a cup of chicken broth and a small piece of toast. Harry had then told Severus how he had not had anything to eat in several days and the Potions Master had explained to him (after using several swear words, all of which Harry was not allowed to repeat ever) that he must eat small portions very slowly, until his stomach could tolerate food again. "Two to three bites at a time, slowly, chew and swallow." Severus had recited whenever Harry ate with him, until the knowledge was embedded in the young wizard's brain, never to be forgotten.

Harry concentrated on his breakfast, eating as much as he could, which was about half the plate, then he said, "Hey, Ron. You ever had your dad flip out on you for doing something, uh, stupid and crazy?"

"Like what?" asked the redhead, devouring a cinnamon bun.

"Uh, like nearly crashing your broom or something."

"Yeah, one time I was playing Quidditch with my brothers, and I was going for the Quaffle and I nearly went through the kitchen window after it. Dad looked like he was about to have a heart attack. First I thought it was ‘cause the ball broke the window, and I didn't catch it in time, but then he started yelling about me almost breaking my neck and cutting myself to ribbons on the glass and how Mum would never forgive me if I killed myself. I was about eight, and I thought for sure he was gonna wallop my bum, the way he was screaming, but he didn't. He just screamed at me and then he hugged me and called me a stupid idiot."

"He was right, you know," put in Hermione. "You could have been hurt badly, and for what? Catching a silly red ball."

Ron rolled his eyes. "Girls! You don't understand anything. Quidditch is not silly, Hermione. It's like, the greatest sport ever."

"Not good enough to risk your life over." Hermione disagreed, eating an orange neatly. "No sport is."

"Forget it. A bookworm like you will never understand that the danger's part of the fun," Ron sighed. "Right, Harry?"

"Yeah," Harry agreed, pleased that his earlier assumption about Snape's reaction last night was correct. The dark angel was acting more like a father to Harry than anyone ever had. He wasn't sure how he should feel about that. He liked the idea of someone else caring about him, but at the same time it was strange and bewildering.

Another thought occurred to him. "Have either of you noticed the way Quirrell's been acting? He's . . .weird. Gives me the creeps."

"Yeah, I think the light's on but nobody's home," Ron agreed. "I mean, I could deal with the stutter, but he didn't even bother to teach us anything yesterday."

"Maybe he was just warming up," Hermione said.

"For what? He's supposed to be a professor, so why can't he teach?" Harry asked. "All he did was blather on about redcaps and what they ate-people-and he didn't even teach us any spells. What's the use of having Defense class if we never learn how to defend ourselves?"

"You know what my brothers told me?" Ron asked, lowering his voice to whisper. "They said the Defense Against the Dark Arts position is cursed. Ever since You-Know-Who held it, they say he put a curse on it, so that no teacher has ever taught it for more than a year, and whoever teaches it has something bad happen to them that makes them leave. That's why Dumbledore has to hire a new teacher each term. And why nobody really wants the job, except Professor Snape. He's probably mean enough to outlast the curse, but I don't think I'd want him teaching me either."

"He'd be better than Quirrell," put in Harry.

"Harry, a rabbit would be better than Q-Quirrell," Ron sniggered.

"Ron, you shouldn't make fun of him like that," scolded Hermione. "It's not his fault he has a . . .disability."

"Stuff it, Hermione! You sound like my mum. You're not supposed to defend your teachers, don't you know anything?"

"Humph!" Hermione sniffed. "My parents taught me to respect all my teachers, even if they were . . .odd or . . .or strict. They said you never know why a person behaves the way he does unless you take a walk in their shoes. Maybe Quirrell's got a nervous disorder or something."

"Or he's just a lousy teacher." Harry said.

"Or he's a victim of the curse," Ron said dramatically.

"Oh, please!" Hermione snorted. "Surely you don't actually believe there's a curse on the DADA position? Sounds like your brothers were putting you on."

"Nu-uh. Neville said his gran told him the same thing. So there, Miss Know-It-All."

"Well, you can believe what you like, Ron, but I don't think there really is a curse. It's just a silly superstition."

"What? How can you say that? You're a witch and you don't believe in curses?" Ron gaped.

"There are curses and then there are curses, Ronald," Hermione said loftily. "Maybe Professor Quirrell has a fear of public speaking, I knew a man like that once, he got sick every time he had to speak in front of people . . ."

Ron snickered. "Right! He's cursed, Hermione! Watch and see. He'll be lucky if he lasts the year. But if they do replace him, I hope whoever it is knows how to teach something besides Boredom."

"You're impossible, Ronald!"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever, bookworm."

She glared at the redhead. "Will you stop calling me that? I have a name, you know."

"Okay, Miss Encyclopedia."

Hermione sputtered, unable to come up with a good enough insult, since she didn't have much practice in that department. Harry hid a smirk in his napkin, then finished off his pumpkin juice and the rest of his breakfast. He wasn't sure who was right, Ron or Hermione. Maybe they both were. He just hoped that his scar didn't ache every time Quirrell was near, because it made it bloody hard to concentrate. He wished his classes were over with, so Snape would send him a note and he could go flying again. Being on a broom was like the best thing ever.

"Come on, slowpokes. You'll be late for Charms unless you hurry," Hermione reminded them, then she grabbed her bag and stalked off.

"You'll be late unless you hurry up," Ron mimicked, making a face at Hermione's back. "Merlin! I swear, she could be somebody's mother, the way she harps at us. What'd her parents do, switch her brain with an adult's?"

"Maybe she's under a curse. The curse of growing up too fast," Harry suggested.

"Got that right, mate." Ron laughed, then he made haste to follow the little witch.

* * * * * *

After dinner that night, Harry paced about the common room, waiting impatiently for Snape's note. Six o'clock came and went. No Hedwig. Then six thirty. Harry was nearly chewing off his nails in a frenzy of impatience, and he had to force himself to sit down and act like nothing was wrong. He pulled out his Transfiguration homework and stared at it, uncomprehending. Why hadn't Severus summoned him yet? It was after seven now, and curfew was at nine-thirty.

Just then, Hedwig flew into the portrait hole, a small note clasped in her talons.

Harry stroked her as she landed on his shoulder and held out the small square of parchment. "Thanks, girl." He fed her a small owl treat, she gulped it and chirruped at him.

Then he unfolded the parchment.

Tonight is not good weather for flying. Too much to do. Tomorrow night is better. Burn this after you read it.
SS

 

He bit his lip hard, disappointment lodging in his stomach like a lump of overcooked oatmeal. He had so been looking forward to some air time. Last night, despite the stern scolding, had been the most exciting rush he'd ever experienced in his life. He wished he had his own broom, then he could fly whenever he wanted.

Dutifully, he stood up and fed the note to the fire as per Snape's instructions. Then he heaved a sigh that seemed to come from his toes and decided to finish up the potions homework Snape had assigned. He was used to dealing with disappointment, he reflected while reading over the essay topic he'd been assigned. His whole life had been one disappointment after another, save for the rare bright spots when he'd spent time in the magic place. I was probably the only kid in the history of the world who looked forward to getting sick, because anywhere was better than my stinking cupboard, and at least he was there to care for me.

It had made a great difference, he thought, going to an empty table and spreading out his parchment and ink and quill. There weren't many students in the common room at this hour, most of them preferred to socialize and do homework later, if at all. Harry smoothed out his parchment and dipped his quill, trying to write his name at the top of the page. Almost immediately, a blot pooled on the parchment. Ah, bloody hell! I hate this! Why can't we just use damn ballpoints? We're living in the twentieth century, not the fifteenth.

He crumpled up the parchment and withdrew a fresh sheet. It was going to be a long evening. He definitely was buying one of those magicked quills next time he went to Diagon Alley.

* * * * * * *

 

 

It was Saturday before he could meet Severus to go flying again, however, due to the professor's busy schedule. However, Severus did show him a few very neat moves, such as the Dragonfly Spiral, where you did a 180 degree shift in midair and spun down in a spiral pattern that enabled you to duck a Bludger being aimed at you. For that lesson, Severus had brought along a bat and a single Bludger, charmed to be at half strength, for the Potions Master was taking no chances on seriously injuring his student.

That lesson they focused on how to avoid the Bludgers and still locate the Snitch while doing so. Harry's repaired glasses made it much easier to see where everything was, even in the moonlight. Even so, it was hard to dodge Bludgers and spot the Snitch at the same time, more than once Harry found himself getting tapped hard by the black ball, though Snape kept it off him most of the time. Harry was surprised the professor played as well as he did, considering he had never been on a team, and remarked upon it.

Severus had snorted and said it didn't take much brains or coordination to whack a ball with a big stick. "Remember, Harry, in the real match next Saturday, your Bludgers will be at full strength, so if they hit you, they'll do more than just bruise you a bit. Avoid them if at all possible and catch the Snitch as soon as you can. And lastly, watch out for the opposite team, they'll be coming for you, you're the most vulnerable player, so keep your head and fly smart and quick. You've got some of the best reflexes on a broom I've ever seen, use them."

Thus encouraged, Harry flew better and better each session, until Severus was reasonably sure the boy would survive his first match with all of his limbs intact, and if he were extremely lucky, catch the Snitch as well. The professor had already heard mutterings from his House team as the match drew closer about how they were going to make Pretty-boy Potter eat dirt and ram a broomstick up his arse, the teacher's pet. They had reacted exactly the way Snape had feared they would, and Harry's only hope was to be able to outfly them.

The boy had enough natural talent to become one of the best Seekers in Hogwarts history, if he could get enough experience to hone that spectacular gift. Severus had learned that in one session, but that raw talent needed to be nurtured, and time was running out. Harry also needed a good broom, better than the old Clean Sweeps that the school provided. On a decent broom, he could outfly Thorne, Flint, and Nott and so avoided getting pounded. That would be the last thing Severus would provide him with before the match, anonymously, of course. He would have the broomstick shop ship it directly to Harry, so no one would see him carrying it.

After a rather exhausting session, the two landed and Snape placed the Bludger back in its special carrying case. "We'll practice some more tomorrow night. Provided you re-do your potions assignment to my satisfaction. Your handwriting is atrocious, young man."

Harry sighed. "I know. I just can't seem to get the hang of writing with a quill, sir. It's a big pain in the arse. Why can't we just use regular ballpoints, like Muggles?"

Severus's mouth twitched. He had been waiting for that question. "Because a quill is traditionally more elegant, and the precision and discipline it takes to learn to use one is good practice for learning spells. Magic is not just about waving a wand about, it requires will and stubbornness and determination. Writing with a quill takes patience and focus, two things essential to a spellcasting wizard. That's why we insist upon them. And also because it's traditional, and separates us from the Muggles."

Harry conceded that it made a kind of sense.

"I will assign you some additional practice pages along with your regular homework that you can turn in to improve your handwriting," the Potions Master told him. "The more you practice, the better you will write."

Harry groaned. That was all he needed, more bloody homework. "But, sir . . .isn't there another way? I already have so much work to do . . ."

"Don't whine, Mr. Potter." Severus ordered briskly. "You'll manage, you simply have to learn to prioritize your time."

"It's not fair," Harry muttered rebelliously. "Nobody else has double homework except me."

"I beg to differ. Some of my seventh year Advanced Potions students have triple the work you do, young man. Now stop complaining and just do your assignments."

"I'm buying one of those charmed quills first chance I get," the boy grumbled under his breath, figuring Severus couldn't hear him.

He should have known better. Severus had ears sharper than a desert fox. "Excuse me? Charmed writing implements are illegal here, Mr. Potter, so get that fool notion out of your head immediately," the professor declared frostily. "I catch you with one and I promise I'll have you writing I will improve my handwriting for me until your fingers fall off. Am I understood?" He tipped the rebellious boy's chin up until Harry was staring directly into his obsidian eyes, which were blazing with barely banked fury. "There is no need to cheat when honest hard work will get you the results you need. Is that clear?"

Harry flinched, for the dark angel's eyes pierced him like a sword. "Yes, sir," he whispered, trying to jerk his chin out of Snape's grasp.

But the older man held him firmly, and he could not look away. "Remember this, because this is the only warning you will ever get. I don't tolerate cheating, Harry James Potter, not ever. I want you to practice writing the alphabet, twenty times per letter, and turn that in next class period."

"Fine, sir."

"Mind your tone, boy," he warned. "Else I'll take twenty points for that sulky attitude, and give you detention on top of it."

Harry wisely decided not to say anything else, and they continued walking back to the castle in stony silence. It was the first disagreement they had ever really had, and Harry found he did not like the sour feeling it left in his stomach at all. That night, he departed without the customary hug, stomping out the door in a temper.

Severus gazed at the partially opened door, tempted to stalk after him and give him a good smack and shake some sense into him, the impertinent brat. But he controlled himself. Let the boy sulk and grumble, get it out of his system, for he would soon see that such tactics did not work on Severus Snape. The Potions Master rubbed a hand across his eyes wearily. Was this what it was like to have a child? Did other parents long to rip out their hair over their child's attitude? Or was it just him?

 

* * * * * *

 

As a result of Snape's additional assignment, Harry was in a foul mood the next morning. He scowled over breakfast, prompting Hermione to ask if he'd slept well. "Because you look like you didn't, your hair's sticking up all over like a hedgehog's, you know, and you've got circles under your eyes, like you've been awake half the night wrestling with nightmares or something."

"I don't want to discuss it, Hermione!" Harry snapped.

"Well, you're in a snippy mood this morning! Nightmares are nothing to be ashamed of, Harry, everyone gets them. Why, one time I-"

"Don't tell me, you had one over getting a bad grade on an exam, right? Or maybe coming in second in the national spelling bee?" teased Ron. "Oh, the horror!" he pressed his hands to his cheeks, pretending to look utterly devastated.

Hermione frowned severely at him. "Really, Ronald! I'm not that obsessed with grades."

"Says who?" hooted the other boy. "How many times have you read all the textbooks? At least five times, right? And you do homework the same day we get it assigned, for Merlin's sake. If that's not being obsessed with school, I don't know what is."

"Just because I'm a conscientious student who wants to get good marks and earn House points, doesn't mean I don't know how to have fun."

"No? Tell me, Granger, what's your idea of fun? Reading the encyclopedia? Checking out half the library?"

"You know, Weasley, it wouldn't kill you to crack a book once in awhile, instead of just staring off into space and hoping the answers will magically insert themselves into your fat head!" Hermione cried. "We lost ten points in Professor Snape's class because you didn't know what belladonna was good for-"

"So? Snape's a greasy git, he was just looking for an excuse to take points from Gryffindor, the rotten old bat, he hates Harry for no reason-"

"Shut up!" Harry snarled. "Just . . .shut the hell up!"

Suddenly he couldn't bear to be near the two squabbling Gryffindors any more. He had to get away, before he lost it completely, and told Ron to quit badmouthing Severus before he punched him out, and Hermione to stop being such an insufferable know-it-all. He jumped to his feet, nearly upsetting his plate of cold cereal, he was no longer hungry, and stalked from the hall, struggling to control his temper. Angry as he was with Snape, he still couldn't stand it when Ron or another Gryffindor started sneering and passing remarks about him in Harry's hearing. It made him want to scream, Don't you get it? He's only being strict to save your hide, and he doesn't hate me, he was the one who saved my life, more times than I can count, and now he has to pretend he hates me, and it sucks!

He headed up the staircase, going to Transfiguration, not caring if he was early, when he banged right into Draco Malfoy.

"Hey! Watch it, Potter!" snapped the blond-haired boy. Then he sneered, "Oh, I forgot. Maybe you need new glasses, huh, Potter? That way you'd be able to see people coming and not bash into them like a blind idiot."

Harry, who had just gotten his brand new spectacles from Madam Pomfrey that morning, was in no mood for Malfoy's comments. "Shove off, Malfoy."

"Aww, Pretty-boy Potter's in a bad mood," taunted the other, grinning maliciously. "What's wrong, Potter? You and Weasel have an argument over who was going to copy Granger's homework first?"

"Get out of my way, Malfoy." Harry made as if to push past the other boy and go up the stairs.

"Not so fast, Potter," ordered Malfoy in a lofty tone that set Harry's teeth on edge. "I haven't dismissed you yet."

"Dismissed me? I'm not your bloody servant, Malfoy."

"No? Your mother was a Muggleborn, wasn't she? That makes you inferior to me, Potter."

"Says who?"

"Anyone who's everyone. A pureblood is better than a half-Muggleborn any day of the week."

"Like hell." Harry felt his fist clench.

"Temper, temper." Malfoy sneered. "Wouldn't want to lose more House points, now would we? Considering Gryffindor's in last place, as usual."

"Bugger off, Malfoy, you arrogant snotrag!" Harry shouted, losing control completely.

He would have punched the supercilious boy in the nose had not a silky voice, low and sharp with disapproval, said, "What is going on here? Instigating a fight, are we, Potter? That'll be twenty points for causing a ruckus in the hallway, plus another ten for name calling."

Harry gasped and looked up.

There at the top of the stairs stood a very irate Potions Master.

"That's totally unfair, sir! Malfoy started it, ask him what he said to me!" Harry protested. No way! This can't be happening to me.

"Whatever Mr, Malfoy said to you is no excuse to use such foul language, Potter. If your mother were alive-" Snape began, angry at the boy for making him scold him twice in a twenty-four hour period.

"Well, she isn't, and what do you care anyhow? Ron was right, you do favor your own, you miserable bloody damn bat-" Harry cried, his temper completely running away with him.

"Detention, Potter, for addressing a teacher with such disrespect," Severus cut in, before Harry could say anything worse. "My office, six o'clock. And if you're a minute late, I shall come and drag you there by your ear, Potter, so do not test me." Severus fixed him with his most fierce and intimidating glower.

Harry dropped his eyes, appalled at what he had said to his protector. He hadn't meant to blow up like that, but somehow his temper had taken control of his mouth and now . . .now he was in real trouble. There was no doubt about it, this time there would be no fake detention. No, this one would be for real.

"Mr. Malfoy. I would suggest you get down to the Great Hall, with the rest of your classmates," Severus snapped, and Malfoy blanched and scurried away, leaving Harry alone with a furious Potions Master.

"How dare you speak to me like that, you impudent brat?" Severus hissed, walking down the stairs and gripping Harry's shoulder hard. "You forget what you owe me, little boy. Who do you think you are?"

"I-I'm sorry . . .I . . ." Harry stammered miserably.

"Sorry, are you? Not half as sorry as you will be, Potter," Snape snarled. "Get out of my sight, before I forget you're my student and do something you will regret. Go!"

Harry bolted up the stairs, shame and dread now curling up inside of him and making his stomach churn. What had he done? And what would Snape do to him for speaking like that? Whatever it was, Harry had the feeling it was going to be most unpleasant.


 




So . . .any ideas on what Severus should . . or will do to Harry?

The quotes in the infirmary are from an ancient Roman medicus saying "Sleep is the physician of pain" And the Hippocratic Oath--the classical version.

Harry's sight with and without glasses mirrors my own, I'm blind as a bat without my glasses and have worn them ever since I was two as I am horribly nearsighted.

Next: Harry's first real detention with Snape.




Chapter 6: A Real Detention
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A Real Detention



"Where are you going, mate?" asked Ron, upon seeing Harry about to depart the Gryffindor common room at five to six. "I was going to ask if you wanted to play Wizard Chess. You going to, uh, practice some more with Wood for the game in three days?"

Harry shook his head, not really up to discussing his latest screw-up.

"What then?" Ron frowned. "Aw, no! Don't tell me Snape gave you detention again? What the hell's his problem? Did you wrong him in another life or something?"

"Ron . . .it's not like last time. This time . . .I deserved it." Harry admitted.

"What'd you do, look at him wrong?" Ron scoffed.

"No. I . . I called him a miserable bloody damn bat . . .to his face."

Ron's mouth hung open so wide the Hogwarts Express could have passed through. "No freakin' way! You really said that to his face?" He reached out and felt Harry's face and arm.

"Ron? What the heck are you doing?"

"Seeing if it's really you and not your ghost. Because I didn't think anybody called Snape names to his face and lived to tell of it."

"Well, I'm still here."

"Yeah, but for how much longer?" asked Ron gloomily.

"Knock it off, you stupid prat," Harry ordered, cuffing the other lightly. "He's not going to kill me . . .I hope." He glanced at the clock and swore. "Oh, bloody hell! It's 5:58." He could clearly recall the Potion Master's voice, saying furiously, "If you are one minute late, I shall come and drag you there by your ear, Mr. Potter, so do not test me."

He practically bolted out the portrait hole.

"Good luck, Harry. Hope Snape doesn't use you for potion ingredients," Ron called as he darted through the tunnel.

Gee, thanks, Ron. Some friend you are. Well, if I die tonight, least you can say I told you so and throw flowers at my funeral. Harry sped down the corridor, wishing he knew a spell for instantaneous transportation. Or a spell that soothed the savage beast, or in his case, the savage angel.

He reached Snape's office precisely at 6:00, gasping and doubled over from a stitch in his side. But he managed to reach a hand up and knock on the door.

"Enter."

Harry did so, still hunched over slightly and panting.

"Shut the door and sit-what's wrong with you?" Severus demanded, upon catching sight of the boy doubled over. "Are you ill?"

"N-no, sir. Just . . .ran too fast. Didn't want . . .to be late."

Snape frowned. Merlin, what am I going to do with this boy? He's going to kill me before I'm thirty-five if he keeps this up. "Put your hands on your knees and lean forward," he ordered softly, coming over and rubbing slow circles on the boy's back. "Good. Now, take a slow deep breath. Exhale. Again."

Harry obeyed the familiar tone, and gradually the cramping in his side dulled and vanished and his heart rate dropped and his breathing steadied. Snape's hand on his back, rubbing gently, was achingly familiar. How many times had the man done that when he was sick and unable to sleep? And Harry had called him a miserable bloody damn bat. Shame swept through him in a red tide. He really was an ungrateful brat, and he deserved whatever punishment Severus meted out.

Once Severus was satisfied that Harry's breathing had evened out, he pointed to the desk in front of chalkboard and said, "Sit, Mr. Potter."

Harry obeyed, wondering uneasily what was going to happen next.

Severus paced back and forth for a full minute, letting Harry sit and stew, for he knew the waiting was the worst thing when you were about to get punished for some misdeed. He darted a glance out of the corner of his eye at Harry, who was unable to sit still, but squirmed in his chair, looking guilty as hell. Good. He ought to feel sorry for what he said, the impudent brat. Snape let him squirm for another minute before whirling about and striding back to the desk.

He placed both hands upon it and leaned down until he was nearly nose to nose with his disrespectful ward. "So. You think I am a miserable bloody damn bat, do you?"

Harry flushed, staring down at the wood grain. "N-no. I didn't mean it, sir."

"Really? Yet the words came out of your mouth. Why would you say something you didn't mean?"

"Because . . ." Harry licked his lips. He felt like he was confessing a crime to a stern and inflexible judge. " . . .I was angry. First I was angry at you, for . . .for giving me an extra assignment. Then I was mad at Ron and Hermione for their stupid quarreling. Then I was angry at Malfoy for saying he was better than me ‘cause my mum was a Muggleborn. . .then you came and started blaming me for it all and I just . . .lost my temper . . ."

"Malfoy said he was superior to you because Lily was a Muggleborn?" Severus demanded sharply.

"Uh, yeah. Said everyone who's anyone thinks that or some stupid rot like that. I told him to move out of my way and he wouldn't, so I got mad." Cautiously, Harry raised his eyes from the surface of the desk and peered warily at Snape.

"So I heard. From halfway down the Charms corridor. It seems Mr. Malfoy and I will be having a discussion as well." Severus said, frowning severely. Malfoy dared to speak that pureblood racist garbage about Lily? We'll see about that! Slytherin or no, he's not going to get away with badmouthing her, no matter who his father is. "While you might have been provoked, that is still no excuse for your use of foul language. As I started to say before I was so rudely interrupted-" Here he fixed Harry with another of those scintillating raptor glares that made the boy cringe, then continued, "-your mother, were she alive, would be most ashamed at your behavior, young man. Lily detested, above all, those who used foul language and rude names. She once hexed your father for speaking so to me, as a matter of fact."

Harry swallowed hard. Great, Harry. Just great. I'll bet if Mum's looking down at me from heaven, she wishes she had a different son, one who didn't embarrass the hell out of her. "She did?"

Snape nodded curtly. "She cast a hex on him that swelled his tongue up so he couldn't speak a word, insulting or otherwise, for a whole half-a-day. He never insulted me again, or I should say, in her hearing."

Harry winced, and wondered if Snape were going to do that to him.

"However, it is forbidden for a professor to hex a student, and even if it were not, magic should never be used as a punishment." Severus said firmly. "That being so, I shall resort to a more mundane method to punish you for your filthy mouth, young man. Come."

He beckoned Harry off the chair.

Reluctantly, the boy followed, pretty sure he knew what was coming. Once, when he was seven, he had called Dudley a bloody bugger and Aunt Petunia had made him eat dish detergent. It had taken him a day to get the soapy taste out of his mouth.

Severus led him out of the office, through a connecting door into his private potions lab, which was where Severus had treated Harry for various illnesses over the years, unbeknownst to anyone. Harry dragged his feet a little when he saw where Severus was headed-to the stainless steel sink at the back of the lab. Oh, damn. I really hate the way soap tastes.

Severus halted and picked up a brown bottle sitting next to the sink that bore the innocuous label of Mouthwash. He summoned a spoon with a snap of his fingers. Then he turned to Harry, still wearing that awful look of disapproval, and said sternly, "I have used this on only five other students since I first began teaching. All of them thought it was acceptable to swear at me. They only did so once. You are the sixth. I am terribly disappointed that you require me to resort to this, Harry James Potter."

He poured a measure of a reddish syrup onto the spoon.

Harry backed up a little. "I'm sorry."

"No doubt. Now quit stalling, young man. Open."

Harry knew better than to disobey that tone. He shut his eyes and opened his mouth.

Snape popped the spoon in.

Instantly, Harry's mouth was filled with a disgusting combination of soap, lemon juice, and tabasco sauce. He gagged, but Severus held his mouth shut.

"No. You are to keep that there for two minutes, Mr. Potter. One minute for swearing at Malfoy and the other for swearing at me."

Harry found he was unable to speak, the awful stuff coated his entire mouth, his teeth, his tongue, and he could feel his eyes start to water at the acrid bitter horrid taste. Harry whimpered, gazing up at Snape mutely. This was ten times worse than the dish detergent.

Severus kept his hand firmly under the boy's chin, silently gritting his teeth. He hated punishing the boy this way, but he refused to allow Harry to get away with such behavior. Lily had told him to watch over her son, and Severus knew that she hadn't simply meant health wise. She had also meant morally as well. He had never known this to fail, and it was not harmful, though Severus knew Harry would think his mouth was on fire.

Tears welled in the green eyes, but Severus remained firm. "One minute."

Harry tried breathing through his nose, certain his tongue was burnt and he would never be able to taste anything ever again. God, how much longer? I'm sorry . . .I'll never say anything like that again . . . promise! He begged silently with his eyes, but Snape was made of granite, he did not release his grip on Harry's chin.

Then, just when Harry was sure he could not bear the taste any longer, Severus released his chin and said, "Two minutes. Rinse out your mouth." He handed Harry a large cup.

Harry leaned over the sink, retching and spitting, but the disgusting taste would not go away. "Ugh! Can't . . .get rid of it . . ." He gagged.

"Harry. Rinse out your mouth with water, foolish child."

Oh. Right. He fumbled for the tap, but a lean hand interposed itself and turned on the water.

For a moment, Harry was tempted to just stick his whole face under the faucet and drink it like a dog. But then he thought better of it and filled the cup Snape had handed him and swished the water around in his mouth and spat.

It cleared out some of the taste, but not all.

He repeated the process. Then he did it again. And again.

"Enough." Severus ordered after allowing Harry to rinse twelve times. "The taste will linger for awhile, as a reminder. It will be gone by tomorrow morning." He turned off the water and banished the brown bottle back to the cabinet in his office, where it would remain until another student needed a lesson on the proper way to address a teacher.

"I trust we will not have a repeat offense."

"No, sir. Never!" Harry vowed. He was just grateful he hadn't puked up his dinner right there. His tongue still had a lingering aftertaste on it and he grimaced. "What . . .what was in that?"

"It is an old Snape family recipe. My mother invented it."

"Oh. She ever use it on you, sir?"

Severus nodded solemnly. "Once. And never again."

Harry shuddered. "You're mean, sir."

"Yes," Snape agreed, not sounding at all sorry. "But I've cured you of your need to use foul language, so it's worth it. Now for the rest of your detention."

"The rest? But . . .but I thought . . ."

"That was for swearing at me. The rest is for your disrespect of a teacher." Severus led the way back into the office. "Have a seat, Mr. Potter. Madam Pomfrey tells me you just received new glasses today. Therefore you should have no trouble writing the following lines for me, two hundred times." Severus pointed his wand at the board and the chalk magically wrote, in graceful cursive, I will control my temper and not disrespect my teacher.

Another gesture and a quill, ink, and parchment appeared upon Harry's desk.

"You may begin, Mr. Potter. You have one hour."

"Yes, sir."

Harry groaned and picked up his quill. Merlin, how did he get himself into these messes? Well, his detention would do one good thing, he thought glumly as he began to write. It would improve his awful handwriting.

Severus retreated to his desk to mark some papers and for a solid hour there was no sound in the room save for the scratch of quill on parchment.

Harry finished the last word just as the timer on Snape's desk ran out of sand.

"Done, sir." He handed the completed sheet to the Potions Master with a sigh of relief. Then he shook out his hand, which felt sore and achy. His tongue still tasted of that horrid "mouthwash".

Severus took it, examined it critically, then nodded once. "Adequate. Hopefully you will remember this, young man, and not test me again."

"Yes, sir. I'll remember."

"Good. Because if you ever do so again, you will be even sorrier." Then Snape's stern gaze softened. "Come here, incorrigible child." He held out his arms and Harry buried his face in the familiar velvet robes. One lean hand stroked the messy black hair. "There now. All's forgiven, my Harry."

Harry sucked in a breath, willing the sudden tears to go away. He was not a baby, for God's sake, to cry over a punishment. Only it wasn't the punishment he was crying over, he admitted soundlessly. It was relief that his dark angel had forgiven him for his smart mouth. He kept his face pressed against Severus for several more moments, until he had stopped crying. Then he drew away, hastily wiping his eyes on his sleeve.

 "Thank you, sir."

"For what?"

"For forgiving me."

Severus arched an eyebrow.

"You see, whenever I was bad when I was little, Uncle Vernon always said I didn't deserve to be forgiven, because I was an evil little brat, and forgiveness wasn't for the likes of me. So . . .thank you."

"He said what?" Severus growled, and temper glittered in the black eyes. "Why that . . . that . . ."

"Careful, sir," Harry warned, greatly daring. "You wouldn't want to use that mouthwash, now would you?"

Severus glared at him. "Why, you impudent scamp!" He swatted the boy lightly on the bottom. Then he drew the boy into another hug. "Oh, Harry. Of course you deserve to be forgiven. Forgiveness is for everyone, but especially for children. Christ forgave us from the cross, for all the sins of mankind. How then could I do any less?"

"You believe in God then? But Aunt Petunia said all wizards were heathens and devil worshippers."

To his surprise, the Potions Master chuckled. "She would like to think that, but she is wrong. God made wizards too, and of course we believe in Him. Or some version of a deity. We are no different from Muggles in that regard." He patted Harry on the back. "All right, brat. Time for you to go to bed. You have school tomorrow."

Harry made a face. "Oh, joy." Then he turned to go. "Sir?" He paused and looked over his shoulder. "Do I still have to write the alphabet?"

"Yes. Bed, Harry. Now."

Harry sighed. "Okay. Okay. I'm going, Mr. Slavedriver."

"What was that?"

"Nothing. Good night, sir." He darted out the door.

Behind him, he could swear he heard the greasy git of a Potions Master reply, "Good night, son."

But then he shook his head. He must have imagined it. Because it would be a cold day in hell when any man claimed him for his son, worthless impudent whelp that he was.


A/N: Snape may seem a little OOC here, but remember this is AU and he regards Harry as a surrogate son.  And as I said before, this story does feature wizards who believe in God, and Sev is one of them.  This is not against canon, since JKR said herself that her wizards believed in God, which is why they have Christmas and Easter, though religion was not a major component of her stories.  

Also, lest anyone think the 'mouthwash' Severus used on Harry was cruel, it is not a harmful substance, but it DOES taste horrible and stings as if you ate a hot pepper for a bit, but it goes away and leaves nothing more than a memory, Harry was being overdramatic when he thought his tongue was burning.



Chapter 7: An Unfortunate Accident
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Watch the staircases. Sometimes they move, Percy had warned the first years when they had first arrived at the school. Only he had never explained how to avoid them when you were on one and it suddenly decided to shift while you were halfway down, on the way to Herbology. Harry, Hermione, and Ron had all been making their way down from their second floor Transfiguration class when the staircase they were on suddenly began to move.

Hermione yelped and grabbed tightly to the bannister, while Harry and Ron just froze, afraid to move lest they slip and fall off into the empty air as the staircase realigned itself with a loud creaking noise. When it had settled into place with a pop, the three students glanced about.

"Where are we, Harry?" asked Ron, as if Harry could somehow discern their location out of the air.

Harry stared about him. He didn't recognize any of the portraits on this floor. Most of them were dark and bore pictures of scary subjects, like a gryphon attacking a knight, and a man lying in a pool of blood with a woman in a long blue dress beside him sobbing. "Alastair! Alastair, my love!"

Harry jumped about a foot, and ran quickly away from the portrait of the wailing woman and the dead man. As he passed several other portraits, of various monsters, growled and hissed at him. He had no idea where he was, or where he was going, but he knew he didn't want to be near the portrait of the crying woman. The sobbing woman triggered something in him, and he felt as if he had heard another woman crying that exact same way, long ago. But of course, that was ridiculous. He knew no other woman save his aunt, and she never cried over anything.

"Harry! Wait up!" called Ron, and began to run after his friend, his bookbag bumping loudly against his shoulder.

"Where are you two going?" shrilled Hermione, her little face set in a reproving frown. "I don't think we should be here. I think this is the third floor, and it's forbidden." She began to follow them hastily. "We're going to get in so much trouble. Professor Dumbledore said at the beginning of the welcome feast we weren't allowed here, that we would die a gruesome death."

The boys paid her no attention. She shivered, for the portraits along the corridor were all nasty and snarling and she was beginning to be really afraid. "Harry! Ron! We should go back and wait for the staircase to move again. It's dangerous here."

Ron glanced over his shoulder, looking a bit nervous himself. "That could take ages, Hermione. Maybe this isn't the third floor and we can find another way down."

Hermione shook her head irritably. "Ron, I know I'm right, and we should leave immediately. I don't want to get expelled. And neither do you two. What would your mother say?"

"Don't know, I never knew her," Harry replied, halting and allowing his friends to catch up, because there was safety in numbers.

"Mine would tell you to mind your own business," put in Ron impudently.

"She would not, Ronald Weasley!" Hermione sniffed. "Fine! Go on, get expelled . . .or . . .killed . . .see if I care!" she spun about, ready to march back down the corridor, when Harry spotted a large wooden door ahead.

"Wait! There's a door here." He tugged hard on the brass door ring. "Ugh! It's stuck! I . . .can't open it."

"Let me try." Ron walked over and attempted to open the door too. But the door didn't even budge.

Hermione just shook her head. "Here. Let me. Boys!" She pointed her wand at the door and cried, "Alohomora!"

Immediately, there was a sharp snick and the door swung open with a soft shriek. Hot air blasted out into the corridor and Harry sniffed sharply, his nose was keener than most of his other senses due to his poor vision. "Huh? What's that smell? Smells like . . . " he paused to analyze the scent wafting to him. " . . .a wet dog. Or a dog that needs a bath."

"Get real, Harry. The only dog in this school is Fang, and he's never allowed in the castle," Ron pointed out.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, will you two quit jabbering and move?" Hermione snapped, then she pushed past the two boys and into the room beyond, which hopefully was some kind of exit.

But she had not gone two feet into the large circular stone room before freezing in terror. Her breath came in short swift gasps and she feared that she would faint right then and there.

"Hermione? Is there a way out?" Ron called.

"Hey, Hermione. What's in there?" Harry asked, then he reached out and dragged Ron in after him. The door shut with an audible click, but neither boy took notice of that little fact.

For they were all staring in horror at the monstrous dog that lay sprawled on the floor in front of them.

It was the size of a bus, massive shoulders rippling with muscle, paws the size of Harry and Ron's heads, brownish brindled fur and three, not one, but three heads, and all of them were so huge that they could have swallowed each of the children whole in one gulp. One head looked like a giant mastiff, the other resembled a giant wolf, and the third looked sort of like a bulldog. The heads were sleeping, puddles of drool seeping from beneath the mastiff and the bulldog to spread in a sticky mess across the floor.

"Oh! It's a Cerberus!" Hermione gasped, finding her voice. She gulped and stared at the dog in a kind of fascinated horror. "I've read about them."

"Big surprise there," muttered Ron, his eyes bugging out.

"They're very rare and they're almost extinct because people don't breed them much, they're very territorial and they make excellent guard dogs . . ."

"Save the bloody lecture, Hermione!" hissed Harry. "We've got to get out of here. Before it wakes . . .up . . ."

He started to move backwards, but just then the wolf head sniffed and its yellow eyes opened and saw them.

It bared its massive fangs and howled, and immediately the other two heads woke up and began slavering and barking.

"RUN!" Ron screamed, and bolted headfirst into the door, which had mysteriously locked itself.

He pounded on it in a frenzy. "Help! Let us out! Let us out! I don't wanna die!"

"Hermione, cast the spell again!" shouted Harry, yanking hard at the door.

The dog was on its feet, and coming towards them.

Hermione was frozen. "N-Nice doggy. Want a b-biscuit?" She reached into a pocket and took out a honey biscuit she had been saving for a snack and threw it hard in the opposite direction.

The mastiff head whipped around and snatched the treat out of midair.

But the distraction was enough for the Gryffindor to gather her courage and run, yelling, "Alohomora!" and pointing at the door.

The door burst open, and Ron, Harry, and Hermione all piled through, slamming it shut behind them.

They heard a loud THUD as the dog threw its weight against the charmed door and snarled loudly.

"Ahhh!" Ron yelled, and sprinted down the corridor back towards the stairs, Harry and Hermione right on his heels. "Are they freaking NUTS? Keeping that thing locked up in a school! It almost killed us all."

"Did you see the trapdoor by its paws?" Hermione asked suddenly.

"Huh? I wasn't looking at its feet! I was looking at its teeth!" Ron sputtered.

Hermione tisked at him. "You really need to pay attention. It was obviously guarding something. That's what Cerberus's are bred to do, guard magical treasures."

Harry looked thoughtful. Hagrid had gotten a small unmarked package out of a vault called 713 before coming to Hogwarts along with Harry. He had said that Gringotts was the safest place to hide something besides Hogwarts. Perhaps that was what the dog was guarding?

They reached the stairs and sprang onto them, praying they would move again, and this time they did, moving and extending all the way back down to the ground floor. The three petrified apprentices dashed down them, only to skid to a halt at the bottom, where Draco Malfoy was standing, peering up at them with a smirk of unholy glee on his patrician face.

He was flanked by his two constant companions, the rather dimwitted Crabbe and Goyle.

"Well, well. Look who it is. Weasel, Potty, and the Muggleborn. And what were you three doing on the third floor? Is that forbidden? I think I heard someone say that if any student were caught there it would mean . . .expulsion."

Hermione went fishbelly white. "I-It was an accident we ended up there, Draco. The staircase moved . . ."

"The staircase moved . . ." Draco mimicked her squeaky voice perfectly. "Lame excuse, Know-It-All. Nobody in their right mind's gonna buy it, ‘specially not after I tell them I heard you three plotting to sneak up there and wander around." He laughed nastily.

"You're a bloody liar, Malfoy!" shouted Ron. "We never wanted to go there, it just happened."

"Sure it did, Weasley," sneered the other boy. "You're a troublemaker, just like the rest of your poor bastard family, and so is Potter there. How many detentions have you had from Snape now, Potter? Ten? Tsk! Tsk! Not looking too good."

Harry felt his temper go from a simmer to a boil in two seconds flat. The rational part of his mind was shrieking, Ignore him, Harry, for the love of Merlin! Snape will have your hide if you get into a fight again. But the rational part of his brain was drowned by the red fury surging up from somewhere deep within him.

"Sod off, Malfoy!" he snarled.

"Or what? You'll hex me?" sniggered the other boy, his gray eyes glittering with barely concealed scorn. "Bet you don't even know which end of a wand is which, Potter. I heard you didn't even know that magic existed until Hagrid came to get you off that rock your relatives lived on."

Beside him, Crabbe and Goyle sniggered loudly.

Harry gritted his teeth, struggling against the urge to pop Malfoy one right in the teeth. He had acted like he didn't know about magic to preserve his dark angel's secret. "So what? I know enough about magic now to knock you flat on your arse, Malfoy," he blustered.

The blond lofted an eyebrow. "Think so? Prove it."

"No, Harry, don't . . ." began Hermione uneasily. "He's up to no good . . ."

The boys ignored her, as usual.

"How, Malfoy?"

"A wizard's duel. Ever heard about one of them before?"

"Harry, dueling is forbidden!" Hermione cried.

"Only if you get caught," Draco laughed. "You game, Potter? Or are you a little coward half-Muggleborn?"

Harry tensed, glaring at the supercilious Slytherin. "I'm no coward, Malfoy. When and where?"

"Harry!" Hermione wailed.

"The empty classroom next to Charms, midnight tonight." Draco stated, his nose twitching eagerly. "Wands and spells only, no contact."

"Who's your second, Malfoy?" asked Ron, shooting the other a nasty look.

"No seconds. Just Potter and myself," Draco said.

"But it's tradition to have seconds," Ron objected.

"Either you do it my way, Potter, or else I go straight to the Headmaster and tell him I saw you three creeping around the third floor. Then we'll see who gets thrown out on his ear, won't we? Maybe you and Weasley can beg for handouts on the street corners and Granger can advertise for you-WILL WORK FOR FOOD."

Harry felt his stomach twist. He was unsure if Malfoy was correct about expulsion, but did he really want to take that chance? Beside him, Hermione was white and shaking, and Ron was scared too, though he was trying to hide it under a facade of bravado.

He sucked in a breath. If Snape ever found out . . .Harry knew he was a dead man. But better the wrath of the Potions Master than his friends' expulsion. Malfoy had connections, he came from a rich pureblood family.

"Shut it, Malfoy! I'll do it."

"Harry, no!" Ron protested. "You need a second as a witness . . .! He's a Slytherin, he'll try and cheat!"

"Against Potter?" Malfoy laughed. "A three-year-old could beat him! It'll be the easiest duel I've ever been in. Midnight, Potter, the empty classroom next to Charms. I'll be waiting. And if you don't show . . .it's bye bye Hogwarts! My father will see to it that you're all expelled, count on it!"

Then he turned and walked away, his nose in the air, like he was a big-shot arrogant toff.

"Oh, Harry!" moaned Hermione. "What have you done?"

Harry didn't answer. He was too busy reviewing all the spells he knew in his mind, trying to come up with something he could use to defeat the arrogant prig. And then he prayed that they wouldn't get caught.

Hermione glanced at her watch and yelped. "Oh NO! We're going to be late for Herbology! Hurry!"

She darted out the entrance, and after a minute, Ron and Harry ran after her. The last thing they needed was to get a teacher annoyed at them.

* * * * * *

Evening came, and for the first time since coming to Hogwarts, Harry found himself hoping that Severus was too busy to summon him to flying practice. He was a bundle of nerves, and he knew the Potions Master knew him too well to not see right through him and know something was wrong. He had never been able to lie to Snape at all, and he wouldn't have a prayer of doing so now. One look from the tall wizard's obsidian gaze and he would spill everything.

For once, it seemed fate was on his side, because Hedwig came with a note around seven o'clock. It read:

Catch up on your studies tonight. I expect an improvement in your handwriting as well. No slacking! Tomorrow will be soon enough to practice. Destroy this.
SS

Harry quickly crumpled the note and chucked it into the fireplace, where it burnt to a cinder. He heaved a sigh of relief. Somebody up there liked him. He ruffled Hedwig's feathers and then went upstairs to get his bookbag. Homework was the least of his concerns, but perhaps he could find something useful in his Charms text.

He settled down in the common room with his Charms book, determined to try and memorize a useful defensive spell, when Hermione appeared and came over. "Harry," she whispered, her face grave. "You can't mean to go through with this? It's . . .it's insane. Malfoy's grown up with magic. He probably knows all kinds of curses and hexes."

"So what? If he tells, we're all dead, Hermione. Besides, I've been looking for an excuse to pay the arrogant snot back since we started school. Now's my chance." Harry said hotly.

"Oh, brilliant! Now's your chance, all right. Your chance to get expelled for good."

"Only if we get caught, and I won't. Trust me." Harry said, sounding a good deal more confident than he felt. "Know any good charms to kick someone's arse, Hermione?"

Hermione sniffed. "I don't believe in physical violence." Then she sighed. "But I do know one spell . . .it's not really harmful, but maybe it'll surprise him . . .It's a Leglock Jinx."

Harry's eyes gleamed. "Cool. Teach me?"

"Okay. The incantation is Locomotor Mortis."

Harry smiled. "Thanks, Hermione. This could be just what I need to kick Malfoy's privileged arse." I hope.

Ron joined them soon afterwards and offered a few pointers as well. The evening passed quickly, and before Harry knew it, it was almost midnight. He slipped silently out of his four poster and crept noiselessly down the stairs in his bare feet, holding his trainers in one hand.

The common room was dark, only the embers of the fire cast a dim glowing light near the hearth. Harry walked all the way to the portrait hole, then turned and looked back up to the top of the stairs to the boys dormitory, where Ron's head peered out, looking like a disembodied spirit in the dim light.

"Good luck, Harry!" he mouthed.

Harry nodded and opened the portrait hole, glanced cautiously about the corridor, then went out.

"And where are you going at this time of night, young man?" asked the Fat Lady.

"To an appointment. Hush!" Harry hissed, putting on his sneakers.

Then he crept down the stairs of Gryffindor Tower and up to the second floor to the empty room next to the Charms classroom.

* * * * * * *

Harry waited for what seemed like forever, pacing softly up and down the room, his hands clenched in white-knuckled anticipation. Where was Malfoy? After all his posturing and sneering, Harry found it impossible to believe he had chickened out. Was he all talk and no guts?

Not that Harry particularly wanted to fight him, but still, Malfoy needed to be taken down a peg or two in a big way. Harry was sick and tired of allowing people to walk all over him. He had to endure Dudley and his gang for too many years without respite because if he dared to try and get some of his own back, his uncle would have stripped his hide off and hung him out to dry. But now . . .now maybe he could show one bully that he wasn't about to take anything lying down.

That Leglocker Jinx ought to knock Malfoy right on his privileged arse all right. If he ever shows up. What the hell's keeping him? It's fifteen minutes past midnight.

Harry was starting to get a bad feeling about this. He knew the longer he lingered here, the greater the likelihood he had of being caught by Filch or Mrs. Norris, or Merlin forbid, Snape. George and Fred Weasley had told him that Snape often prowled the halls as well, searching for any student out of bed. That would be all Harry needed.

He walked to the door of the room and peered around the frame, trying to see if anyone was coming along the corridor or up the stairs.

But the hall was empty.

Harry stepped out into the corridor, moving cautiously towards the stairs, intending to wait for five more minutes and then leave. Clearly Malfoy was a classic coward.

Little did Harry know that Malfoy was pent up in his dormitory, not daring to stick a toe outside his bedroom, lest his angry Head of House catch him. He had gone back to Slytherin House all smug and happy, intending to teach Potter a good lesson, only to be confronted by a very irritated Potions Master. Draco had been the shocked recipient of a thorough dressing down for trying to sneak out of the common room and also having an arrogant attitude. "Just because you are a pureblood, Mr. Malfoy, does not mean you are Merlin's gift to the wizarding world. Now desist with this arrogant spoiled attitude immediately, or else I shall have you gutting rats and pickling toad ovaries for the whole term." When Draco had protested, Severus had informed him coldly that if he were found out of bounds again, he would be serving detention for two weeks straight, and not even Lucius would be able to get him out of it.

"When you are at school, you are under my authority, Mr. Malfoy, not your father's, and as such your actions are answerable to me. Therefore, you had best watch yourself, or else you'll find out why no Slytherin ever crosses me twice, am I understood?" And Snape had given the spoiled boy such a glare that Draco had squeaked and stepped backwards, fearful the man would do him some serious physical harm.

"Y-Yes, sir."

"Get in your dormitory then, and mind you stay there," ordered the Potions Master crisply, and Draco had no choice but to obey. "I'll be coming to check up on you periodically, and if I find you aren't there . . ."

Of course, Harry had no knowledge of what had transpired, only that he was hanging around an empty room waiting for the Slytherin to show up.

Harry peered down the staircase, thinking he saw a flash of movement coming towards him. He squinted, even with his new glasses, he still didn't see well in the dark. Was that a flash of pale hair?

He leaned forward slightly and then something shoved him hard from behind.

One minute he was standing on the top of the stairs and the next he was falling, tumbling head over heels down the entire flight of stairs.

He tried desperately to break his fall, but only succeeded in turning himself over so he was skidding down on his right hip and then his head cracked hard against the edge of a stair and he was knocked into a deep blackness and knew nothing more.

Harry lay at the bottom of the staircase, limp and still, blood pooling from his head, like a broken ragdoll.

Up above, his assailant smiled coldly and turned away.

Little did he know that the bracelet about Harry's wrist was sending an urgent signal to the one who had always protected the boy, to save the life he had pledged to protect yet again.


So how did you like that little twist?

Yes, I know the cliffie is awful! Don't hex me, it was necessary. Tension makes for a good read.

Next: Severus goes to save Harry.



Chapter 8: Warmth and Healing
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Severus felt the bracelet on his wrist vibrate violently. It woke him up out of a sound sleep, startling him so badly that he nearly fell out of bed. What the blazes? It took the Potions Master a minute to figure out what had woken him, then he immediately placed his opposite hand on the thrumming bracelet. Instantly, he saw Harry lying motionless and broken upon the floor at the bottom of the stairs.

NO! His heart shrieked in denial, leaping to a terrible conclusion.

Then his head overruled his heart. The bracelet would not have warned if Harry were dead. Death negated the magic. Therefore the boy still lived. And Severus, his guardian, must once again save that which had been given into his keeping. He sent a silent plea that Harry hang on for one minute, just one minute longer.

Then he drew in a sharp breath and flung on his clothes and ran swift as a panther on the hunt, up a secret passage to the stairs near the Entrance Hall. Hogwarts was honeycombed with such passages and Severus had learned most of them through the years. Now that knowledge would enable him to save his child, Lily's legacy, that he had come to love as his own.

I'm coming, son. Wait for me. Please.

He cursed the fact that Dumbledore had placed Anti-Apparition wards all over the damn place, because in an emergency, every second counted. Severus ran as quickly as he could, until at last he was out of the secret passage and crossing the hall to kneel beside the still form of Harry Potter.

He saw, to his immense relief, that the boy still breathed, his chest still rose and fell. Severus could have wept for that small bit of mercy. He hissed a Summoning Charm and a stretcher appeared. Another quick gesture and Harry's unconscious form was levitated on it and the stretcher followed Severus as he retreated back through the passage.

He could have taken the boy to Pomfrey, but years of habit were hard to break, and all he thought of was how he could save the child, whom he had healed many times over from various ailments. He quickly cast a standard diagnostic, discovering that Harry did not have as many broken bones as he had first thought. In fact, the only thing he had broken was his left ankle. His other more serious injury was a severe concussion and multiple bruises to his head, back, right hip, and thigh. His hands were scraped and abraded, he had tried to break his fall, but obviously hadn't been successful.

Severus wondered what had caused Harry to fall, but soon shoved that thought to the back of his mind. That was not important right now. Time enough for answers later. First, he must heal his broken child.

He made his way to his lab, which was where he always took Harry when he needed to be healed, and carefully laid him on the bed. The mattress was spelled to conform to Harry's frame and cradle him gently, easing the pressure on his bruised and battered body. Severus quickly summoned a potion that reduced swelling of internal organs and administered that to the boy first.

The concussion had caused some swelling and bruising to Harry's brain. Nothing too serious, and the potion would help heal the damage. Severus used a straw to give the potion to the unconscious boy, letting a measure flow down the child's throat until the vial was empty. Then he moved on to getting the Bone Knit Elixir down Harry, and straightening the broken ankle so it would mend properly. He carefully splinted it, even though it would be fully repaired within a day.

So far, so good. There are no other internal injuries, thank God. Though plenty of bruises and scrapes. The child will look like a patchwork quilt by tomorrow and ache like bloody hell, even with my potions. Still, that is better than the alternative.

Severus turned to get his bruise balm and a strong pain reliever, shuddering slightly at the memory of seeing Harry crumpled on that cold stone floor. His heart had nearly stopped beating, fear had congealed in his veins, and every atom of his being had shrieked in denial. He had seen some awful sights as a spy in the days when Voldemort was active, but none of them compared to the sight of his vulnerable, exasperating, incorrigible son lying so still upon the ground, glasses askew and cracked, blood trickling from a cut lip, one arm outstretched, as if he had tried, at the last minute, to save himself.

Severus blessed the foresight that had possessed him to make the bracelets that day and also his mother for teaching him all of her healing arts. Eileen Snape had been an excellent Healer as well as a potion maker and she had taught her son everything she knew. Without it, he would have never been able to keep his promise and save Harry as often as he had.

One hand gently stroked the hair away from Harry's face, and then he vanished the boy's clothes and turned him over, hissing in sympathy at the abrasions and bruising down Harry's back, all the way down to his feet almost. The bruising on the right hip and thigh was the worst, though Severus also discovered a shallow cut and a lump on the back of the boy's head where he must have struck it. Oh, Harry. How the hell did this happen to you?

He quickly set to work washing the cuts and scrapes with some antiseptic wash, cleaning them thoroughly before applying special salve and bruise balm to them. They would be healed within a day as well, until then however, Harry wouldn't find sitting very comfortable at all. In fact, Severus knew he would have to send the boy to the Hospital Wing and tell Pomfrey of his injuries, and he would strongly suggest she keep him there for an entire day to make sure everything was mended. The medi-witch knew of his healing skills and also of his occasional tendencies to succor students in need, so she would not find it odd that he had helped Potter.

Once all the salve had been applied, Severus spelled a set of underwear and loose pajamas on the still unconscious boy, turned him gently on his side, and sat down to wait. He prayed Harry would wake up soon and tell him what on earth had happened and hopefully his memory had not been affected by the knock on the head.

Two hours later, Harry awoke, groaning softly. "Oooh . . .I hurt . . ."

Severus laid a hand on his shoulder. "I know, child. You had a nasty fall. I found you lying at the bottom of the stairs."

The green eyes tracked on him and he saw to his relief, a flash of recognition in their depths. "Where . . .?"

"You're safe in my lab, don't worry." Snape gently lifted Harry's head and placed a vial of pain reliever to his lips. "Here, this will help with the pain. Swallow." Harry did so, grimacing, but Severus ignored that and made him finish the vial.

Afterwards, some of the sharper pain in his leg and hip dulled and Harry sighed in relief.

Severus gently laid his ward's head down on the spelled pillow and said, "I need to ask you a few questions. What's your name?"

Harry blinked, then answered, "I'm . . .Harry . . .that's my name. . .Harry Potter."

"Good. Now then, Harry, how many fingers am I holding up?" Severus held out a palm up with four fingers.

Harry squinted. "Uh . . .f-four . . .?"

He reached out a hand for his glasses. "M-my glasses?"

"Wait. They were cracked in the fall," Severus cautioned.

"They're broken?" It came out as almost a wail. Not my brand new glasses!

"Yes, but they're easily mended. Hush." Severus soothed, pointing his wand and chanting a quick, "Occulo Repairo!" The glasses mended in a flash. Typical, the boy made a fuss over his broken glasses, but never over himself. "There. Good as new." He slid the frames on Harry's face. "Now, how many fingers, Harry?"

"Three."

"Good. Do you know where you are?"

"Yes. The magic place. Your lab in . . .Hogwarts."

"Right. And who am I?"

Harry's brow crinkled for an instant. Then he said, very softly, "You're my guardian angel, Severus Snape."

Severus remained stunned, unably to form a coherent reply. He thinks of me as his guardian angel? Me, Severus Snape? I, who am the most flawed imperfect man upon the face of the earth . . .and yet I am the one he calls angel. The impact of those words, innocent and heartfelt, touched him profoundly. Never had anyone called him thus, he the sarcastic greasy git, the strict taskmaster, who inspired respect tinged with fear from nearly all his students. Except this one, the unloved child, who had somehow touched the lonely heart of the man in black, and taught it how to love again.

Harry wasn't sure why he had said what he had. Perhaps it was the effect of the pain relieving potion, which made him feel slightly fuzzy-headed. He had a vague feeling that maybe he shouldn't have told the man that, but it was too late to take it back. "Sir? I . . .I'm sorry if I've . . .uh . . ." he groped for the right words, his mind wasn't working too well. " . . .offended you . . .I know, it sounds dumb . . ." He dropped his eyes to the sheet-covered mattress, wondering if Severus would sneer at him now for being a little baby.

"Offended me?" Severus repeated incredulously. "You think calling me your . . .guardian angel is offensive?"

"Well . . .when I was little, you never told me your name so I . . .I started calling you that in my head because you helped me whenever I was sick."

"Harry, I . . .am honored that you would equate me with something so pure and holy. I cannot even tell you . . ."

"You don't mind then? Or think I'm . . .a stupid little kid?"

"No. You are anything but stupid, Harry. You are one of a handful of people who has ever seen past my mask . . .one of those was your mother."

Harry smiled, relieved that Severus didn't think he was stupid. He was about to ask Snape to tell him more about his mother when an agonizing cramp shot through his right thigh. His eyes went wide and he cried sharply, "Ahhh!" It felt like a bolt of fire had stabbed him and he writhed uncontrollably.

"Harry! What's wrong?" Severus was on his feet immediately.

"My . . .leg . . .arghhh! Oh God . . ." the boy sobbed, unable to help himself, he had never known anything like that terrible sharp pain. His hands gripped the mattress in a frenzy.

Severus's diagnostic revealed a bad muscle spasm, what Muggles called a charley horse. He must have torn something there and it stiffened, the Potions Master thought, and gently lifted the battered boy. "Harry. Harry, listen to me. I want you to let go of the sheet and I'm going to stand you up. Standing up will help. All right?"

Whimpers came from the boy now, and tears stood in the green eyes. Severus set him on his feet, keeping an arm around him. Harry slumped half against his lean frame, shaking. His leg felt as if someone were squeezing it with a pair of dull shears. Horrible darts of pain shot up and down his entire leg, from hip to ankle. "Sir . . .make it . . .stop!"

"Easy, son." Severus knelt, still keeping an arm about his waist, and began to massage the knotted muscles in Harry's thigh and calf. "How's that? A little better?"

"Yes." Harry agreed, sniffling. The awful pain was easing under the firm pressure of Severus's long fingers. He took a deep breath, wincing as the Potions Master worked at the muscle. But the agony was fading, bit by bit.

Severus rose, then lifted Harry in his arms and placed him back on the bed on his stomach. "I'm going to remove your pajama bottoms, child, and massage you with some eucalyptus oil. I don't have a Muscle Reliever made up, so my hands must suffice. Try and relax."

Harry gritted his teeth, feeling himself blush, though he knew quite well this wasn't the first time Severus had seen him partially undressed. When he had chicken pox, Severus had rubbed Rash Away salve all over him, and given him a bath with oatmeal. He'd been five then. He buried his face in the pillow as the Potions Master gently removed his pants and began rubbing the sharp-smelling eucalyptus oil into his thigh, working the muscle in a firm circular motion.

Severus tried to be gentle, but the boy was bruised and for a few minutes the massage hurt quite a bit, until the muscle began to relax and the lean strong hands worked in the oil, rubbing up and down the thigh, calf, even part of the lower back and bottom.

"Ow, ow, ow."

"Relax. It'll only hurt for a minute."

"You said that before," complained the eleven-year-old, wriggling.

"Lie still." Severus ordered, his hands kneading firmly.

"Ow! This isn't helping."

"Hush. It'll be better soon. Count to ten."

"Huh? What for? Ow!"

"Just do it."

Harry groaned and began counting.

Severus massaged, applying pressure, until the knot in Harry's thigh was gone. By the time the boy had reached ten, the cramping was also gone. Snape rubbed for a bit more, easing all the tension in the leg before drawing away and wiping his hands on a rag. Then he replaced Harry's pajamas and asked, "Well? How do you feel now, Harry?"

"Better," Harry said, his leg tingled a bit, but it was not feeling that excruciating sensation it had before Snape had worked in the eucalyptus. He lifted his face from the pillow. "Where did you learn how to do that, sir?"

"My mother," Severus replied. "Are you comfortable? Do you want anything to eat or drink?"

Harry thought about it. "Maybe a little juice," he answered.

Severus summoned a cold glass of pumpkin juice with a straw and Harry sipped it gratefully.

The Potions Master waited until he had nearly finished the cup before he asked carefully, "Harry, can you tell me what happened to you? I found you lying at the foot of the stairs. Did you trip and fall?"

Harry frowned, trying to remember. It was so hard. His mind was all fuzzy . . .he couldn't remember, every time he tried, he felt the memory slide away from him, and the harder he tried to grasp it, the more elusive and slippery it became. "I . . err . . .I didn't fall . . ." He dimly recalled standing at the top of the stairs looking down and then felt someone shove him hard. "Somebody . . .somebody pushed me . . .but I can't remember anything else."

"You're certain?" Severus demanded, looming over him, his face dark with anger.

In spite of himself, Harry trembled. He couldn't help himself, the look on Snape's face was terrifying. He imagined an avenging angel would look so, just before he smote-smited?-a demon or whatever. "Yes, sir."

Severus held out his hand, and Harry placed the empty cup into it. Snape banished it back to the kitchen with a lazy flick of two fingers. His mastery of wandless magic was one of his talents, like Occlumency. "You saw someone before you fell?"

Harry slowly shook his head. "No . . .But I felt somebody shove me and then I was falling down the stairs."

Severus scowled blackly. So it had not been an accident. It had been deliberate. Someone had been trying to kill Harry. "Do you remember what you were doing up there, Harry? Classes were over for the day, why were you on the second floor?"

Harry gulped. "I . . I was . . .I don't know . . .there was something . . ." He struggled to remember what had happened before, but there was nothing but a large blank spot. "I went to eat with Ron and Hermione, and then . . .I can't remember."

"You don't remember going to your common room?" Severus prompted.

"No," Harry's eyes went wide. "I'm trying, sir . . .!" His brow creased until Severus feared he would bring on a migraine.

"Don't worry, Harry. Right now it's not important. Stop trying to remember, it may come back to you later, when you've healed more from this trauma." One long-fingered hand ruffled the boy's mop of hair. "Sometimes head injuries can do that to you."

He continued to run his fingers through the child's raven hair, thinking frantically about how he could protect Harry without letting any of the staff or Dumbledore know. If he cast a protection spell, they would see it and know from his magical signature that he had cast it, and then they might start questioning him. Severus knew that whoever had hurt Harry would be watching and waiting another chance. But Snape would make sure he never got another one.

"I want you to give me your class schedule. That way I'll know where you're supposed to be at all times. Furthermore, you're not to go anywhere alone, always stay with one or more students, your friends, whoever you want. Whoever hurt you might try again, but he won't dare harm you in front of someone else. Keep your friends close, Harry."

"What about you?"

"I will be watching as well. But I fear whoever it was has gone underground." Severus sighed. He might be able to coax the would-be murderer out by leaving Harry unguarded, but that was one risk he was unwilling to take. He would not use Harry as bait. No, he would draw whoever it was out another way. "Don't worry, boy. I will make sure you're safe. That I promise."

Harry smiled up at him, his lips curving in a sweet smile of utter trust.

Seeing it warmed Severus almost as much as when Harry had called him his "guardian angel". He returned the smile with a quiet one of his own. "Is there anything else you remember, Harry? Anything at all? Sometimes even the most insignificant detail can be important."

"No . . . except I think I remember yelling at Malfoy."

"Your fight with Malfoy was two days ago, Harry. Nothing else?"

"No. I'm sorry." Harry said unhappily. He knew it was important that he remember, but his mind refused to cooperate.

"Perhaps you'll remember later. For now, I'd like you to rest a bit more, it's almost three in the morning."

"And I've got class tomorrow," Harry grimaced. He wondered how he was going to be able to get through it. His lower back, bottom, and legs felt like one big ache. He had never been hurt this badly before, not even the time Dudley pushed him off the monkey bars at the park when they were six and Harry had cut open his lip and broken a tooth.

"No, I'm going to bring you up to the Hospital Wing and tell Madam Pomfrey to observe you for a day. It'll give you time to heal, you're bruised quite badly, child, and you've a broken ankle as well. Sitting down is going to be uncomfortable for a day or two until my salve has a chance to speed heal those bruises, I'm afraid. So best you stay in the Hospital Wing and rest."

"Why can't I stay here? I like it here, it's warm and comfortable." Harry protested, snuggling into the emerald blanket. He didn't want to tell Severus he was afraid to leave him, that here was the only place he felt truly safe.

"Harry, what's the condition of my promise?" Severus reminded.

"That no one can know you're protecting me. . . Oh." Harry's face fell. He was beginning to really hate that condition. "Why does everything have to be a secret?" he demanded petulantly. "I hate pretending to hate you, it really sucks."

"Believe me, I don't enjoy it either. But the Hospital Wing is the best place for you. Madam Pomfrey is a better healer than even I am, and she'll see to it you're well before you go back to class." Severus didn't tell Harry he was setting up protective wards about the Hospital Wing, which would only activate if the visitor was evil and up to no good. "I know this is difficult for you, child. But we have no choice. So we must bear it as best we can."

Harry longed to snap that he didn't want to, that the situation sucked, and he wanted nothing more than to just stay here, warm and safe, where his guardian angel was. He wished he were eight, so he could throw a tantrum and beg to stay, but he wasn't. He was eleven and too mature for such tactics, plus he knew it would do no good. When Snape made up his mind, that was it. Whining got you nowhere and only irritated the hell out of his professor. Still . . .

"Do you have to send me back in the morning? Can't I stay till the afternoon, sir?" He fixed the stern man with his most pleading wide-eyed gaze.

"Harry. I have class to teach, and you can't be seen down here. But I will keep you till after breakfast. Then I shall deliver you to the Hospital Wing. You should be fully recovered by tomorrow night."

"All right." Harry sighed, pouting slightly, knowing it was the best he was going to get. "At least I'll be able to play Quidditch on Saturday."

Severus frowned, wishing he could forbid the boy, but Harry was not in his House, and so all he could do was vow to make sure no harm came to his ward. "Yes. Remember what I taught you and you'll be fine."

"I know, sir. Thank you."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "And what are you thanking me for now?"

"Umm . . .for saving my life."

Severus's mouth twitched. "Well, it is my job. As your ‘guardian angel'."

"Yeah, but thanks anyway." Harry said, then rubbed his scar absently. His scar . . .suddenly he recalled Quirrell's stuttering voice. "Uh, professor? The first day I had class with Professor Quirrell, something kind of . . .weird happened."

"Something weird? Do tell."

"It was my scar, it just started hurting real bad. And it happened when I looked at him for a little bit." Harry related the incident in Quirrell's class. "Do you know what it means?"

Snape had his suspicions, but no concrete proof. Still, he knew better than to say what he really thought to the impressionable boy. No sense in making the boy panic. But the scar had been gained after Voldemort had tried to kill Harry, so perhaps it resonated when evil was near, like a former broken bone ached when it was about to rain. "Was that the only time it has hurt like that?"

"Uh, yeah." It had never hurt that bad again, though occasionally it tingled when the turbaned professor was nearby. Still, Harry wasn't about to tell Snape about every little pain, lest the dark angel think he was a wimp.

"I am not sure what it means yet. If it happens again, let me know immediately, am I understood?"

Harry nodded, yawning. A slow sleepy lassitude was spreading through him. The familiar scents of spices surrounded him and he was so very warm . . .he stretched out a hand and felt it clasped by a familiar large one.

"Sleep, Harry. I will keep watch." Severus murmured, patting the boy gently.

"I know," Harry mumbled. "Night, Severus." An instant later, he was asleep.

Severus stared down at his child, a reluctant grin stealing over his features at the bold way Harry was now addressing him. When had he ever given the brat permission to call him Severus? Of all the cheek!

Then he bent and allowed his lips to brush Harry's forehead. "Sleep well, you cheeky brat. I will discover who is behind this, I swear by all the magic I possess. And when I do . . .that one had better pray for God's mercy, for he will have none from me." And in the ebony eyes blazed the promise of vengeance squared. "No one hurts my son and gets away with it. No one."

Then the Potions Master settled back into his chair, the fingers of his left hand still clasped by a sleeping young wizard, determined not to fail in his guardianship.


 




And so . . .the plot thickens.

How did you all like Severus's reaction?

Next: Suspicions abound on who pushed Harry down the stairs. Plus breakfast with Snape.




Chapter 9: Suspicions
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Harry awoke the next morning stiff and sore and aching like seven bloody dragons had trampled him. He bit back a moan of pain and half-rolled off the bed, he needed to use the bathroom urgently. His feet touched the floor and he shivered at the cool stone beneath his bare feet, or foot, since his left foot was encased in a splint and couldn't really feel the stone.

"And where, may I ask, are you going, young man?" a familiar silky voice inquired.

Harry glanced over his shoulder to see Professor Snape standing there with his arms folded, raising an eyebrow. Behind him, Harry could see steam rising from a small tea kettle. Severus was making tea, Phoenix-Dragon blend, if Harry's nose was smelling it correctly. He recalled that particular tea from countless other times spent here, it was what Severus made to soothe and calm both himself and Harry after healing him. Harry associated the orange spice black tea with comfort and home.

"Uh, bathroom." Harry replied, and started to limp towards the small bathroom near his bed. Severus had deliberately placed the bed close to the bathroom, so when Harry was a small child, he didn't have go far to use the toilet, and thus reduced the chance of accidents.

Severus nodded, then turned back to pour two cups of tea into two chipped black cups with wolves on them, they were an old pair from his childhood, back when he and Lily used to drink the same tea in his backyard. He also summoned a house elf to bring him a heavier than usual breakfast, so he could share it with Harry before sending the boy to Pomfrey.

By the time Harry had made his way out of the bathroom, the small table in the lab had two steaming cups of Phoenix-Dragon tea on it as well as eggs, bacon, biscuits, toast with boysenberry jam, oatmeal, and fruit. Harry's eyes nearly fell out of his head.

"Who's all the food for?"

"Us. The house elves overdid it," Severus sighed, then gestured for Harry to sit down opposite him and prop his injured foot up on a padded foot stool.

Harry slowly and painfully made his way over to the table, wincing. Severus noticed, of course, and made sure that Harry's chair had a Cushioning Charm upon it. Even so, the boy hissed and grimaced as he sat down. "I'll put on some more bruise balm before I send you to the Hospital Wing," he told the boy, who immediately helped himself to a bit of everything.

Harry reached for his tea, sipping it slowly, and after he had drank some of the spiced orange blend, Severus passed him another pain reliever. The boy made a face, for the Pain Reliever Elixir tasted gross, but he drank it down at a look from his guardian. "Ugh! Can't you make that stuff taste good?"

"No. If I add anything for taste it will dilute the potency. You know why the Pain Reliever tastes bitter, don't you?"

"Yes, sir. Because it has willow bark in it, which is where you get aspirin from, and it tastes bitter." Harry replied, familiar with Snape's little mini quizzes over breakfast. This was how they used to be, back before Harry started school.

"Correct. Eat, before it gets cold. And mind you take small bites, and-"

"-chew slowly and swallow," Harry finished the familiar litany. He picked up his fork and started eating his eggs, which had chives in them and were very tasty.

Severus turned back to his own breakfast, which was usually fruit, a small bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and cream, and thickly buttered toast with boysenberry jam. Severus had a passion for boysenberry jam. He had once made himself sick to his stomach as a child by eating an entire jar of boysenberry jam. As an adult, he rarely allowed himself to indulge in sweets, but he did permit himself to enjoy boysenberry jam on toast at breakfast every other morning.

The two ate companionably, and Harry allowed a wave of nostalgia to sweep through him. This was how it used to be, just the two of them, back when he was small, only then he hadn't been allowed to see Snape's face, his long hood had shadowed it. It felt good to finally gaze without obstruction upon the face of his guardian angel, who was taking great pleasure in eating his toast and jam.

It was kind of funny to think of Snape as enjoying food like a normal person, since many of his students probably thought he lived off his potions, or blood, or something utterly gross like that. Harry knew many Gryffindors called him a vampire behind his back as well as a bat and other unflattering names. Harry wished he could defend his mentor to those in his House, but he knew he had to keep his temper and hold his tongue, for Snape's sake if for nothing else. But oh, sometimes it was so hard!

He chewed on a bit of bacon, thinking sadly, Nobody else knows him like I do. Nobody knows the truth, what he's really like, except me. I don't think even the other teachers or Dumbledore really knows. He hides himself away from everyone except me.

Harry ate slowly, but not only because of his delicate stomach, but because he wanted to prolong his stay in the dungeons as long as possible. He knew it was necessary for Snape to send him away, but that didn't mean he had to like it. So he dawdled deliberately, a slight rebellion, and wished the deceptive game they played were not necessary.

"Have you recalled anything else about last night, Harry?" Severus broke into his thoughts abruptly.

Harry shook his head slightly, for his temples throbbed even with the pain reliever, as did his legs and backside. He felt like he'd been stomped on by a dozen Irish step dancers, all of them wearing steel-toed shoes. "No, sir. I still can't remember," he sighed. He couldn't understand why his mind was drawing a blank, though a strange feeling was nagging him that maybe his memory loss was a blessing in disguise.

Severus looked slightly annoyed, but then his face smoothed out and he said, "Finish your breakfast and your tea, Harry. It's getting late and I still need to put on some more salve and send you to Madam Pomfrey."

Harry merely nodded, and finished his toast, another piece of bacon, and some oatmeal before pushing his plate away. Then he finished his tea, not realizing that Severus had slipped a Sleeping Draft in there.

Harry found himself yawning before he knew quite what he was about, then Severus told him to remove his pajama bottoms and lie on the bed so he could reapply the salve.

The boy did as ordered, though his fingers were strangely reluctant to obey him, and he felt himself yawn again. God, why was he so tired? He had only just woken up. He laid on the bed, wincing as his leg protested the sudden movement.

Drowsing, Harry barely protested when the Potions Master removed his boxers as well, the better to apply salve to his bruised backside as well as his right hip. Severus swore under his breath at the multi-colored bruises that decorated the child like a patchwork quilt, as the professor had foreseen. "Lie still, child. I know you're quite sore, so I will try and make this as quick and painless as possible."

Gentle as the Potions Master was, it still hurt when he rubbed the salve on, and Harry whimpered and clenched his teeth. But in a minute, the bruise balm was numbing the area, healing the battered boy inch by inch. Severus was thorough, knowing Harry would rather die than admit he needed salve to the medi-witch, and the process took longer than he had intended. But at last the salve had been applied all over, and Severus replaced the boy's clothing and stood up.

By then Harry was fast asleep, as Snape had intended. It was a calculated gesture, for Severus knew Harry needed to sleep in order to heal, and also so he couldn't protest his leaving the dungeons again. He stood looking down at the sleeping child for several long minutes, and his lips whispered a silent heartfelt prayer that he had been able to save Harry once more from the jaws of implacable death. Please, let me continue to do so, for he is all I have left of the woman I once loved, though she never knew the depth of my feelings for her, because I was too much of a coward to tell her until it was too late, and she had married Potter. That has always been my greatest regret, that I loved too late and I could not save her as well as her son.

But he had arrived too late to prevent Voldemort from destroying the Potter residence, for they were betrayed from within, by their Secret Keeper, and even the premiere spy had not known of it until Voldemort had left to mete out his wicked justice to those who had dared to defy him. Severus had tried to make the evil wizard wait, but Voldemort refused to be swayed by the spy's honeyed words, and had Crucio-ed him for his impudence before Apparating away. It had been a full twenty minutes before Severus could move and shake off the awful pain and by then James and Lily were dead and so was Voldemort.

Snape had arrived to find baby Harry screaming his head off, his howls echoing in the empty house like the wailing of a banshee.

He had found James dead at the entrance to the house, and had paused to close the empty eyes and drape a summoned sheet over the Auror's limp body. "You died with honor, my rival, as you wished," Severus had said softly, giving the corpse a brief bow of respect, for even Potter deserved that much, though Snape had never liked the man.

But the sight of Lily's lifeless form lying in front of Harry's room had completely undid him, and he had sank to his knees and cradled her in his arms, tears running freely down his face, his composure utterly shattered. "Lily, my love . . .don't leave me . . .!" he howled, and for a moment Harry's wails had been drowned out by the sound of the Potions Master sobbing desolately, as he held his beloved to his chest and cursed Voldemort to the depths of hell. You have taken everything from me, you devil spawn! My love, my life, but no more. Somehow, someway I shall find a way to defeat you and send you to hell, Riddle, this I swear by all I am and all the angels in heaven. Grant me vengeance, Lord, by whatever means necessary.
Hagrid had found him there, weeping like a lost child over Lily's body, and it was he who finally persuaded the professor to let her go and pick up Harry. "She'd of wanted yeh t'take care of her baby, Professor. He's all we've got left of ‘em. It's a miracle he's still alive."

Snape had nodded, for Hagrid was right, and he had no idea how the child had survived the wrath of Voldemort. The only evidence of harm upon the little one's face was a peculiar lightning bolt shaped scar, red and angry-looking. Severus had rubbed a bit of salve on it, figuring that was part of the reason the little one was still sobbing.

Then Severus had cradled the hysterical child in his arms, hugging him hard, while Hagrid wept and gestured to the double-seated motorcycle. Severus had ridden shot gun, baby Harry cradled close, asleep on the Potion Master's shoulder. Hagrid brought them to Dumbledore, who then proceeded to tell Snape that Harry must be left with his Muggle relatives.

Senile old coot, I warned you no good would ever come from trusting them. They never loved him, he was just the unwanted orphan brat that was there as a reminder of all they hated about us. Minerva warned you also, but you insisted, and he suffered for it. If not for my vow, who knows what would have become of him?

He bent and kissed Harry gently on the forehead before placing him on the stretcher and Flooing to the infirmary. Pleasant dreams, child of mine. May God and His angels watch over you. You are more like your mother than you know.

* * * * * *

Sunlight streamed into the infirmary from the partially opened drape across from Harry's bed, crawled up the coverlet, and tickled Harry's eyelids. He stirred, loth to leave the pleasant dream he'd been having. In it he had been with his mother and he was small, she was holding him and laughing, and Severus was there too, smiling at him and saying, "He's got your eyes, Lily. Rare and precious and they say the eyes are the windows of the soul." Then he had reached out his arms and Severus had held him, nestled against the familiar soft spicy-smelling black velvet chest, and he had snuggled into the warmth and fell asleep, warm and safe at last.

Slowly, his eyelids fluttered and he opened them, one at a time. His stomach was also staging a rather loud rebellion, so he knew he had slept for quite awhile. The strong sunlight made his eyes water for a minute, until he turned away slightly and saw two familiar faces peering at him.

"Huh? Ron? Hermione?"

"Here, Harry. Your glasses," Hermione said, and slipped them on his face.

Immediately, everything quit being a blurred kaleidoscope and came back into focus.

Now he could see Ron and Hermione sitting in chairs beside his bed. Both looked quite worried and concerned. "Hi. How long have I been here?"

"Practically the whole day, we've only just got to see you now, Harry." Hermione said.

"What happened last night?" Ron hissed, looking around to see if they were unobserved. They were alone. "Pomfrey says you fell down some stairs and Snape-Snape-found you and brought you here."

"I really don't remember a lot about last night," Harry said truthfully. "Except that I didn't fall down the stairs like she thinks. I was pushed. That's the last thing I remember clearly. A good hard shove."

Hermione looked horrified. "Oh my God, Harry! But that means . . .oh, Harry!" She looked as though she might burst into tears.

"I'll bet it was Malfoy who pushed you," Ron put in hotly, hoping to distract Hermione. "He was afraid he'd lose the duel, so he cheated and ambushed you. Typical Slytherin. Maybe Snape helped him, like an accomplice."

"No," Harry said firmly, and at the same time Hermione snorted.

"Don't be ridiculous, Ron. What possible reason would Professor Snape have to harm Harry?"

"Who knows? Maybe for some creepy reason of his own, like being in league with You-Know-Who. He's always hated Harry for some reason."

"But Ron, he brought me here. Why would he do that if he wanted me dead?" Harry pointed out logically.

"He's right. Why bother bringing Harry to the Hospital Wing unless he was just doing his job as a teacher and helping an injured student?"

"Yeah, right, that'll be the day, Snape concerned over students."

Harry frowned and played with the covers. If only he could tell his friends the truth! But he couldn't, so he said, "Maybe Snape decided he would act like a normal human being."

"Or maybe he's in on it with Malfoy and decided to bring you here to make it look good," insisted Ron.

"Ron, why would Snape want to kill Harry?"

"Uh . . .because he's got a filthy mouth? No?" He grimaced and his brow crinkled. "So he couldn't play Quidditch and beat Slytherin this Saturday?"

"Oh, please! That's got to be the stupidest motive I've ever heard of. All Snape would have to do to stop Harry from playing is to give him detention. Not murder him."

"What about Malfoy?

"Malfoy might . . .but I dunno. Why were we having a duel anyhow?"

Ron just gaped at him. "Why were you . . .don't you remember, mate?"

Harry shook his head. "I . . .hurt my head when I fell and I can only remember bits and pieces about what happened after lunch. . ."

"You don't remember getting trapped on the moving staircase?" Hermione reminded.

Harry frowned. "A little. There was a dog with three heads or something."

"Shhh! Not so loud, else we'll be in for it!" the girl hissed.

They quickly filled Harry in on the specifics of their adventure on the third floor and Malfoy's challenge.

"He was trying to get us expelled, the big git, so that's why he pushed you down the stairs. Because if you couldn't fight, then he could go running to Dumbledore and tell lies," said Ron.

"Well, he hasn't told him yet, since we've not gotten called to the office," Hermione said, sounding very relieved. "I don't think he will, either, because he was breaking rules too and could be accused of attacking Harry. After all, he doesn't know you've got memory loss, Harry."

Harry winced at the term. It made him sound like a doddering toothless old man. He cleared his throat. "Look, maybe the best thing would be for us to just stick together, don't go anywhere alone till we find out who was in on it, if we can."

"That makes sense," Hermione approved. "No criminal will strike with witnesses about."

"Don't worry, Harry. We'll watch your back."

Harry shifted slightly, his hip and backside were aching from lying down, and he carefully flipped onto his stomach.

"Are you in a lot of pain?" Hermione asked, concerned. "Madam Pomfrey said you'd broken your ankle and were very badly bruised."

"Yeah, but I'll be better by tomorrow, so I won't miss the Quidditch match on Saturday."

"Thank Merlin for that. We don't have a replacement Seeker," Ron said. "McGonagall would've had a hippogriff."

"Are you sure you should play, Harry? What if whoever it is tries to . . .hurt you again?"

"Hermione, I have to play. And I don't think whoever it was would hurt me during the match," he stated with more confidence than he really felt. Besides, Snape would be watching, and he knew with his guardian angel standing by, no harm would come to him. When Severus made a promise, he kept it.

Speaking of promises, he'd promised Snape his class schedule. He drew his wand and spoke a quick Summoning Charm, he'd been practicing them with Severus during the flying lessons. "Accio Harry's bookbag."

The bag soared into his grasp from Gryffindor Tower.

Ron and Hermione looked like they'd been slammed with a club, their jaws nearly touched the floor.

"Hey! How'd you do that?"

"I didn't know you could do Summoning Charms, Harry," Hermione gasped, sounding a bit put out. "When did you learn that?"

"Uh . . ." Harry floundered, not knowing how to explain it and then he said, "I . . .can't remember that either. But . . .who cares?" He reached into his bag, found his potions homework, and tucked a copy of his schedule inside the two foot essay on common uses of belladonna and dragonbane. "Hermione? Could you, uh, do me a favor? This is my potions homework, I need you to hand it in for me this afternoon, otherwise he might give me a zero."

"Sure, Harry. Would you like me to give the other teachers your homework too?"

He ended up giving her all of his homework to hand in.

"It's too bad you can't remember where you learned the Summoning Charm," she said wistfully.

You'd never believe me if I told you, he thought. Then he said," Well, maybe later I could, uh, teach you. It's not hard. You just need to focus. Magic is nine tenths will to one tenth power."

"Thanks, Harry! Hope you feel better." She tucked Harry's assignments into her bag. "Ron, we'd better move, before we're late for History of Magic."

"Like that'd be such a loss," Ron muttered, but he rose and followed his year-mate out the door.

Harry watched them go, pondering on what he had learned about the duel and he thanked his lucky stars that he truly hadn't remembered what had happened when Snape asked him, otherwise he would have been in trouble again. Now though, he would pray that Severus didn't ask him anything about that night, because he didn't want to get Snape mad again.

He tugged his potions text from his bag and started reading up on standard cures for everyday ailments, like the Pepper Up potion for colds. He recognized most of them since Severus had dosed him with them over the years. He read quietly for about two hours before growing tired again. Then he set the book aside, drank the cup of water Pomfrey had set out and drifted into a half-doze, where he dreamed of the item Hagrid had removed from the vault, it was rare and precious and the three-headed dog guarded it diligently.

Then the dream changed and Dumbledore was standing in front of him, saying he was unfit to play Quidditch and then Snape replaced him, scolding him severely for dueling with Malfoy and making him swallow more of that horrid "mouthwash".

He woke sweating and shivering, the memory of Snape's disapproving frown hovering over him like a black cloud. He squirmed guiltily. It was evening now and he felt much better physically than he had before, Snape's potions had mended much of the damage.

"Let's see how you're doing, Mr. Potter," Madam Pomfrey appeared beside him and ran a quick diagnostic. "Very good, your ankle and head are nearly mended and so are most of the bruises and lacerations. "Professor Snape just may have saved your life, you know. It was lucky he found you when he did."

"Yes, ma'am. Does that mean I can go back to Gryffindor Tower tonight?"

"Well, I think tomorrow is soon enough. You can get a better night's sleep down here." She gave him a tray with some turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, a roll, buttered beans, and some more pumpkin juice. "Eat your supper, please, and then you can have dessert."

Harry started eating, for he was starving, and Pomfrey bustled away to check on some supplies.

Just then a large Great-Horned owl flew into the infirmary, carrying a long parcel wrapped in layers of brown paper in its large talons.

"A package for me?" Harry exclaimed as the owl flew down. He gave it some turkey and it hooted once and was gone.

Harry was puzzled. Who would be sending him mail? Certainly not the Dursleys, who were probably celebrating his absence. There was a small card attached to the end of the package, and Harry read it.

DO NOT OPEN THIS PACKAGE IN FRONT OF ANYONE were the note's first instructions. The next lines read:

Fly safe and fly well and God help you if you get injured again, you incorrigible brat. I'll be watching.

It was unsigned, but Harry didn't need a signature to know who had wrote it. Only one person ever scolded and cautioned him all in the same breath.

Smiling, Harry unwrapped the parcel, and for a full minute just stared at what was revealed there.

It was, as he had expected, a new broom.

But not just any broom, a top of the line racing broom called a Nimbus 2000. Harry had read about the new model in a borrowed Quidditch magazine called Quaffles and Snitches and seen it advertised in Which Broomstick? And the price . . .

His hands gently caressed the sleek golden handle, made of a rare lightweight wood with the inscription Nimbus 2000 in gold on the end of the handle. Also included was a broomstick care and repair kit. The twigs on the Nimbus were uniformly trimmed and glistened with polish, it looked like lightning standing still and Harry couldn't wait to try it out.

Perhaps tomorrow night Severus would take him flying, so he could get used to it. He ran his hand down the silky grain again and this time noticed his initials, HP, engraved on the opposite side of the handle.

Holy Merlin! This is like . . .the most amazing broom ever. Thank you, Severus. I really don't deserve this.

He had never expected anything like this, even though Severus had been muttering the last few lessons that Harry needed a decent broom for the match. One with speed and safety charms, he'd said.

But this. . . !

Overwhelmed, Harry gently placed the Nimbus on the bed and carefully fed both note and paper to the fireplace, before sitting back down and putting the broom on his knees, marveling at how perfect it was. It was a magnificent gift. He was still gazing at it in stunned surprise when Ron walked in and caught sight of it.

"Bloody hell! A Nimbus 2000! Where'd you get it, Harry?"

Harry looked up. "It came today. From an old friend of my mother's."

"Anyone I know? You think maybe he's got another one lying around?" Ron asked hopefully. He reached out to stroke the handle reverently.

"Uh, I'd doubt it," Harry chuckled.

"Too bad. Whoever he is, he must like you an awful lot to give you a Nimbus!"

Harry hid a grin. He wished he could tell Ron who had sent it to him, the expression on the Weasley's face would have been priceless.

"Just wait till Malfoy sees," Ron was saying. "He thinks he's so hot cause he's got a Comet 260 at home. Ha! The Nimbus blows his away."

Harry smiled. As long as it let him outfly the opposition, he didn't care what Malfoy had. And he owed Severus more than he could ever repay. 


How did you like this one?

Coming next: The infamous troll incident!

I changed the rating to be safe, as there is a scene of non-graphic abuse eventually in the story, plus a few battles.



Chapter 10: Of Trolls and Tirades
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Harry was released from the Hospital Wing bright and early the next morning, as soon as Poppy had pronounced him in perfect health again. He was able to go to the hall and eat breakfast with his Housemates, all of whom welcomed him back with grins and several of the girls said how glad they were he hadn't been hurt worse.

"You've got to watch the stairs, Harry," said Percy pompously. "They move all the time and you're lucky you didn't get worse than a couple of bruises and a busted ankle."

For that was the story Harry had asked Ron and Hermione to spread about, that his fall had come from one of the staircases moving while he was on it and he had tripped and fallen off it. While it was a bit embarrassing and Harry knew he'd endure his share of taunts from the Slytherins especially, it was better than the truth. If the person who had pushed him thought he was unaware of what had happened, he could grow careless and then perhaps Snape could catch him before he hurt Harry again. Harry had great faith in his guardian angel, and he knew Severus would be watching over him like a hawk, making sure nothing else happened to him.

Harry sat down at the table, ignoring some of the snickers of his Housemates as they re-told the story of how he had fallen. He began to eat his breakfast, a piece of toast, some ham, and the chive spiced eggs he'd grown so fond of here.

"You okay, Harry?" Ron asked, peering at his friend.

"Fine. I'm just hungry." Harry replied. He wondered if Severus would send for him tonight, so he could try out his new broom.

"It's Halloween tonight," Hermione announced. "I've read about the Halloween feasts in Hogwarts: A History. They're supposed to be wonderful, with every kind of food and sweets and the Great Hall is magicked to look like different themes. I can't wait to see what the Headmaster comes up with this year."

Ron shook his head. "Lord, Hermione, is there anything you haven't read? Like the rest of the books in Flourish and Blotts, maybe?"

"I like reading," Hermione said, with a touch of annoyance. "Is there something wrong with that, Ronald?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact there is. It's not normal to be so book crazy. You use your brain for too much information. Don't you ever get sick and tired of learning? Why don't you take a break and learn to have fun, like a normal kid?"

Hermione glared at him, angry tears standing in her eyes. "I am too normal, Ronald Weasley! Just because I'm smart doesn't mean I don't know how to have fun. I like to do crosswords and . . .and watch the Discovery Channel and play Scrabble, so there!"

Ron looked utterly confused. "Huh? What's Scabbers? That's the name of my rat."

"Not Scabbers, Ron. Scrabble," Harry corrected. "It's a board game Muggles play where you have to make words out of seven letters that you pick out of a bag. You get points for the longest words and stuff."

Ron snorted. "Figures. A word game. Like that's real fun. Why don't you play a real game, like Wizard Chess?"

"Because Wizard Chess is barbaric!" Hermione snapped, wiping her eyes angrily. She hated the way her eyes teared when she got mad, it made her seem like a weepy six-year-old. "The pieces kill each other, it's disgusting!"

"It's disgusting," Ron mimicked. "Typical girl. Can't stand the sight of blood, I'll bet."

"Well, at least I know how to spell something besides my name."

"You know too much, that's your problem."

Hermione stood up and grabbed her bookbag. "Fine! Next time you need help with your homework, Weasley, don't come running to me." Then she stalked off.

"Oh, great. Nice going, Weasley," groaned Dean Thomas. "Now what are we gonna do when we don't know the answers to an assignment?"

"Read the book," Harry muttered, then quickly shut up at Ron's incredulous glare.

"What's gotten into you, mate? You're not defending that annoying know-it-all, are you?"

"No," Harry said quickly, for he didn't want to be labeled an outcast the way he had been in primary school thanks to Dudley telling everyone his cousin was a criminal and a liar. He turned back to his breakfast, though a part of him did feel a little sorry for the little witch, who wasn't smart enough to realize that her answering all the questions in class made her unpopular, since it looked like she was showing off.

The day only got worse from there on. Hermione refused to speak to Ron at the beginning of Charms, even though she was his partner. They were studying the Levitation Charm again, and Professor Flitwick had given everyone feathers to try to levitate. No one was having much success, Neville made his blow up, and Seamus Finnegan set his on fire. Harry couldn't get his to move at all, he began to think his feather was jinxed.

Over at the next desk, Ron was waving his arms wildly and yelling "WIN-gardium LEV-i-o-sa!" and jabbing his wand at the feather as if he were going to spear it.

The feather remained inert upon the desk and he huffed in frustration.

"You're saying it wrong," Hermione gritted out, unable to keep silent any longer. "It's not WIN-gardium LEV-i-o-sa, it's win-GAR-dium Lev-i-OH-sa. You have to say the words properly or else the incantation will fail."

"Let's see you do it then, know-it-all," Ron snapped, irritated that Hermione was lecturing him as if she were a bloody professor, for Merlin's sake.

"Very well," she rolled up her sleeves, tapped the feather with her wand and intoned, "Wingardium Leviosa!"

The feather drifted free of the wood and soared gracefully into the air.

Everyone stared and Hermione was grinning as she watched her feather flying.

"Congratulations!" cheered Flitwick. "See here everyone, Miss Granger's done it! Well done! Ten points to Gryffindor."

Several of the Gryffindors cheered and the Slytherins groaned.

Ron looked like he wanted to blow up Hermione and her feather. "Bloody show-off!" he growled.

"Now, remember, everyone, swish and flick!" chanted Flitwick, stressing the proper wand movements, which were also essential for casting a spell correctly.

Harry concentrated hard, swishing and flicking his wand, and then saying, "Wingardium Leviosa!" the way Hermione had.

He was rewarded with his feather also lifting off the desktop and floating through the air. "Congratulations, Mr. Potter. Five more points to Gryffindor."

By the time class had ended, most of the students had managed to get their feather into the air for short periods.

But Ron was still steamed at being shown up by Hermione yet again, this happened on an almost daily basis, and he followed Harry out of the classroom and started heading towards the stairs. "Merlin! It's not Win-gar-dium Leviosa, it's Win-GAR-dium Levi-OH-sa. She's a nightmare, honestly. No wonder she has no friends."

"Hush!" Harry hissed. "She'll hear you."

Just then, Hermione pushed past them, running quickly down the stairs and down the righthand side of the first floor, her eyes blurring with tears. She had thought the two boys were her friends, the first real ones she had ever had, but no, they were just like everyone else, jealous because she was smart and not afraid to show it. Hurt by Ron's thoughtless comments, she ran into the girl's bathroom, locked herself in a stall and proceeded to cry her eyes out. Why couldn't she ever seem to fit in?

* * * * * *

Evening came, and Harry headed back to his common room to drop off his books before the feast. He found Hedwig with a note for him, and he read quickly as he changed his clothes, they'd gotten all sweaty practicing maneuvers with Wood, though he didn't use the Nimbus that practice, for he wanted it to be a surprise and decided to save it for those times he flew with Snape and for the upcoming match.

"Hey, girl," he murmured, stroking her feathers lightly. "What do you have for me?"

Hedwig allowed him to take the note from her, rubbing her head against him fondly.

Harry quickly scanned the contents.

No lesson tonight. Celebrate Halloween with your friends. You'll be fine tomorrow. Watch your flying, boy. I'll see you at the feast. Behave with decorum, if you know how. You ought to know what to do with the note by now.
SS

Harry sighed, he'd rather been hoping Snape wouldn't cancel the lesson. But then he supposed it would look odd if the Potions Master and himself went missing at the feast, and resigned himself to another night without flying. He destroyed the note, then hurried downstairs to go to the feast. He would have to find a way to thank Severus for the Nimbus tomorrow, before he played.

He found that Ron and the rest of Gryffindor House were already there, under the crimson and gold lion banner, enjoying the heaps of food upon the table. The ceiling of the hall had been charmed to look as if thousands of jack-o-lanterns were floating in the sky, along with bats flying around and a few glowing skulls as well.

"Ooo! Spooky!" Ron sniggered, pretending to shrink away as a skull floated nearby.

"Look! It's Snape's grandfather!" joked Seamus, pointing to a large bat hovering, then he quickly glanced around to see if the Potions Master was anywhere in the vicinity. But Snape was up at the staff table, with all the other teachers.

Harry picked up a chicken leg to hide his reaction Seamus's little remark, he scowled down at his plate. I'd rather be related to a bat than you, you stupid git! Lately, he found himself biting his tongue until it bled around his Housemates, especially when they started in on Severus. He knew they were biased against the professor because he was Head of Slytherin and too strict, but did they have to insult the man all the time?

He tore off a piece of chicken and chewed savagely.

"Better watch out, Seamus!" laughed George. "If Snape hears you, he'll come and drink your blood, just like a vampire."

"Ugh! Gross!" squealed a girl.

"Bet Halloween's Snape's favorite holiday," said another girl. "He fits right in with all the other monsters, the greasy git."

Harry continued eating the chicken, even though the food no longer tasted good. Shows how much YOU know, you stupid ass. That "monster" saved my life two days ago. Again. If he had something in his mouth, he wouldn't be tempted to hex the girl who had just spoken.

"Where's Hermione?" asked Lavender Brown.

"Parvati says she's been in the girl's room all day, cryin'" answered Neville, looking sorry for the girl.

"She missed class?" repeated another in awe.

Neville just nodded and Harry shot a look at Ron, who looked slightly red-faced and guilty. Ron's words must have hurt her pretty badly for Hermione to miss class. Now Harry felt bad for not sticking up for her, though he agreed with Ron that she was a know-it-all, he also didn't like feeling like a bully and making her cry.

"Ron, maybe we ought to . . .you know . . .say we're sorry?" Harry whispered.

Ron looked a bit startled. "She was showing off, Harry, same as always. I get so sick of her always being right, always being the teacher's pet. Hell, even Snape isn't that nasty to her, he actually gave her five points for knowing what the hell love-lies-bleeding was. It's like being friends with a walking textbook."

"I don't think she knows how annoying she is, Ron. Maybe we should give her another chance," Harry suggested.

Ron considered, but before he could say yes or no, the doors to the Great Hall burst open and a disheveled Quirrell rushed in, his turban askew and panting, his face pale as a ghost's and shaking like a willow in a windstorm. His nervous tic was more pronounced than ever, making the side of his face jerk up and down eerily. "T-T-T-Troll!" he sputtered loudly. "Troll in the d-d-dungeons!" He raced up the aisle, utter terror written all over him. "Thought you should know!"

The next instant he collapsed in a dead faint, right in Professor's Sprout's dish of rice pudding.

The Herbology Professor jumped and cried, "Oh dear, I think it was too much for him. He's got such a nervous disorder."

"Nervous disorder my arse!" muttered Snape, glaring viciously at the Defense teacher. "He's a damn coward, and all of us know it. Some Defense professor he is!"

He gestured swiftly and Quirrell was levitated out of Pomona's pudding and dumped unceremoniously onto the floor.

Pandemonium broke out as several students attempted to flee the hall at the same time and got jammed up in the aisle, screaming and pushing. "Get out! It'll kill us all!"

"Silence!" roared Dumbledore, standing up and shooting several loud firecrackers with purple streamers from his wand.

The shock stilled the panicky students, enough so he could instruct the older prefects to gather the students and bring them back to their dormitories. "Students, follow your prefects, there is nothing to fear. Professors, to the dungeons, we shall deal with the troll."

He waited until the prefects began to make some headway gathering their scared brethren before rising and beckoning his staff to the fireplace, where they began to Floo to the dungeons.

Only the Potions Master hesitated. His instincts were tingling like mad, and he did not trust Quirrell after what Harry had told him about his scar. It would be most unlikely a troll had managed to wander down to the dungeons, they didn't do well with stairs, they were too clumsy, though beastly strong. No, there was something off here.

Severus quickly made a decision to check up on the object hidden on the third floor. He could always rejoin the others later, it was hardly necessary for the entire staff to go and attack a single mountain troll. He glanced quickly across the hall, and saw Harry following his classmates back to Gryffindor Tower as ordered. Good. At least the boy wasn't a risk taker like his father. He had inherited Lily's common sense at least.

The spy departed through a secret passage, so no one would see where he was heading.

* * * * * *

"Ron, how could a troll get in?" Harry cried, shouting loudly to be heard over the mad crush of people, some of whom were still screaming.

Ron shrugged. "I dunno. They're really dumb, maybe Peeves let it in. Don't worry mate, the professors will kill it and that's the end of it."

They began to file out of the hall. Some of the first year girls were crying and looked very scared. Percy was striding ahead, acting like he was a general on parade, with his chest puffed out. "Come along, people! Don't dawdle, keep formation now. Gryffindor Tower just ahead."

Ron rolled his eyes. "Obnoxious arrogant twit! I can't believe he's my brother. I think he was switched at birth."

Suddenly Harry recalled there was one member of their House who didn't know about the troll. "Ron!" He reached out and grabbed the other by the back of his robes.

"Yikes!" yelped the red-head. "Harry, what the blazes? You almost choked me to death."

"Sorry. But we need to go tell Hermione to go up to the tower." Harry reminded. "She doesn't know about the troll."

"I'll bet she does. She knows everything."

"Ron! I'm serious. We have to go tell her. It's your fault she's in there, you know."

"Me?" Ron tried to look innocent, but Harry wasn't fooled.

"Yeah, you, you big idiot. Now come on, before Percy notices we're missing." Harry urged, then hauled Ron away down the corridor to the girl's bathroom, which was where he had last seen Hermione headed that morning. In the crush of people, Percy never noticed his little brother or Harry was missing until he got all the way inside the common room and started to take roll.

The two boys had almost reached the girl's bathroom when they heard footsteps behind them. Ron and Harry exchanged glances of utter horror. "Run! Quick, it's my brother," Ron moaned and they ducked into a supply closet, peering out between the mops and broom handles.

But it was not Percy they saw coming along the corridor, but the black robed figure of Professor Snape.

"Why's he here and not down in his dungeons with the rest of the teachers?" Ron wondered.

Harry shrugged. "I don't know." For a wild instant, Harry feared Snape had read his mind and was searching for him, the man's face was dark with anger and grim purpose. It was just the sort of look that would terrify a misbehaving child into obedience, and Harry prayed hard that the professor was not searching for his wayward student. Please, please, don't let him find me here. He'll have a bleeding fit. He scrunched down among the mops and buckets, figuring if he made himself small, Severus would never know he was there. Funny, he was more afraid of Snape's anger than he was of the troll. Then again, he knew what Snape was like in a temper, and somehow he couldn't picture a troll as being that terrifying.

The professor paused beside the supply closet and Harry held his breath and crossed his fingers. Please God . . .

Ron was looking at him with an odd expression, half puzzlement and half fear. He was frozen as the shadow of Snape passed over them.

Then he was gone, moving off towards the stairs, and the two boys could breathe again.

"Phew! That was a close one, mate!" Ron said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. "If Snape had caught us . . ."

Harry nodded, he didn't even want to think of what the Potions Master would have done if he had found Harry wandering the hallway and not up in Gryffindor Tower. "C'mon, we've got to warn Hermione."

But just as they stepped into the hallway again, they felt the floor vibrate with the weight of several hundred pounds of stinking gray mountain troll. THUD! THUD!

Petrified, the two raced into the girl's bathroom in an attempt to hide from the monster.

"Hermione!" yelled Harry. "We've got to get out of here! There's a troll coming."

There came a muffled hiccup and a sniffle from the third stall from the end. "That's not funny, Harry. Just go away! I'm not speaking to you!"

"It's not a joke, I swear!" Harry cried. "There really is a troll, can't you hear it?"

"And smell it?" Ron cried, wrinkling his nose.

The troll's stench reminded Harry of the sewers, rotting vegetation and manure and dead things all rolled into one. The miasma rolled over him and he began to gag, his nose was very sensitive, it compensated for his poor vision.

"Ugh!" came Hermione's voice from inside the stall. "What's that awful smell? Has Moaning Myrtle clogged a toilet again?"

"It's the troll!" Ron yelled, and all of a sudden the door splintered into pieces as the troll smashed it in with its huge studded club.

Harry and Ron ducked the flying shards and ran to hide inside one of the stalls, but the troll was upon them before they took three steps.

Hermione peered out of the stall and screamed in horror.

The troll was hideous. It was over twelve feet with gray skin that resembled rock but had pustules all over it, as if it were diseased. It had tufts of black hair upon its head, pointed ears, and a maw full of snaggly teeth, some of which had shreds of flesh clinging to them. Its beady yellow eyes lit upon the three children and it bellowed in delight.

"Food! Suppertime!"

At least that's what Harry thought it said, its jaw was so misshapen it was difficult to understand it. But he had no trouble interpreting the hungry gleam in the yellow eyes.

Bloody hell! We're the main course on the menu, unless we think fast!

The troll shambled forward, club raised to crush Hermione, who was crouched upon the floor a few feet away, wandless, since her wand was in her bookbag, which was two feet away.

"Do something!" she shrieked.

Harry sprang forward, yelling, "Leave her alone, you great brute!"

The troll paused, glanced down, and Harry jumped up and stabbed it in the eye with his wand.

The troll screamed in agony and staggered backwards.

"Blimey, Harry! You poked its eye out, I think!" Ron cried.

But that was not enough, for the troll was bellowing and smashing everything in sight, its club bashing apart the stalls and knocking the sinks off the walls. Debris flew everywhere and Harry just managed to duck a piece of marble as it flew through the air.

"Stun it or something!" Hermione yelled, still crouched on the floor.

Ron fumbled for his wand. "Uh, Wingardium Leviosa!" he shouted, and the club was levitated out of the troll's grasp for a second.

Then it crashed back down on the ground, crushing the troll's hairy foot. It screamed.

Then it tried to grab Ron and tear him apart.

"Ahhh! Help!"

Harry thought fast. They needed to knock it out, but he knew no offensive magic yet. Then he thought of something else. "Accio Snape's extra large cauldron."

An instant later, drawn to him by the utmost need, Snape's huge cauldron flew into the bathroom.

And impacted right into the troll, knocking it out. It fell to the floor with another earthshaking THUD!

"Wow! Death by cauldron!" Ron whooped.

"It's not dead," Harry murmured, lowering the cauldron to the ground. "Just knocked out."

"Good thing for us," Hermione cried, getting to her feet and retrieving her bookbag from the stall. "That was a very clever move, Harry."

Harry allowed himself a smile, though it had been a near thing, his wild gambit had paid off. He bent and retrieved his wand from the troll's eye. "Yuck! Eyeball grease!" he quickly wiped it off on the troll's loincloth.

"What the blazes is going on in here?" demanded a familiar silky voice, sharp with fury.

All three children froze in dread.

Severus stepped into the bathroom, his ebony eyes narrowed, quickly taking in the troll on the floor, the three children, and his heaviest and best black cauldron. His brows drew down in a fierce scowl and Harry cringed and quickly dropped his gaze to the floor.

"Why aren't you in your dormitory, Potter? Weasley? Miss Granger? Do you not understand when the Headmaster gives an order it is meant to be obeyed?" He stalked over to the troll, nudged it with his boot and seemed satisfied that it was indeed out of commission. Then he gave the children his most disapproving Snape glare. "Potter, do you think you're above the rules?"

"No, sir," Harry managed. Oh, but I'm so dead. He waited for Snape to take him by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattled or box his ears or something.

"I think you do, since you are here rather than in your dormitory where you belong. What gives you the right to disobey a direct order, Potter? Do you think the rules exist for everyone but you? Just like your father did. He never obeyed the rules either." Severus lectured, keeping his temper by the slimmest of margins. Oh, but he longed to take his disobedient child by the ear and give him a good smack for behaving so stupidly. Had they been alone, he would have done just that. "What were you thinking? You could have died, all of you!"

"But we didn't, sir!" cried Ron defiantly. "I dropped the club on its foot and Harry knocked it out with the bloody cauldron!"

"Sheer dumb luck, Mr. Weasley," Snape said through gritted teeth. Good God, three of them! Why me? "Who do you think you are? Merlin himself? Such arrogance is to be expected in Potter, given his background," here he sneered the word, his eyes snapping with barely restrained fury. "But I would have thought you knew better, Weasley, considering your elder brother is a Magical Creatures expert. But it would seem Percy got most of the brains in your family-"

"Sir, please!" Hermione interrupted, her voice gone abruptly high and squeaky because she was so nervous. "It wasn't Ron and Harry's fault. It-it was mine, sir." She hung her head. "They came after me. I went looking for the troll, you see."

"Oh?" Severus looked unconvinced. "For what reason, Miss Granger? To ask it to tea?"

"N-no, sir. I thought I could . . .handle it, because I read all about them."

Ron nearly fell over. His wand clattered to the floor and he knelt to pick it up, blushing fiercely. It was unbelievable. Hermione Granger, telling a lie to Snape, of all people?

Severus peered at her sharply. "You thought you could handle it, did you? A mere first year, with barely two months of schooling, and you thought you could handle a fully grown mountain troll? That's possibly the most courageous thing I have ever seen," began the Potions Master, and Hermione looked pleased. Until Snape leaned forward and snarled, "And also the stupidest, foolish girl! No wonder you're in Gryffindor, they're known for rushing in where angels fear to tread, all courage and no bloody sense!"

Hermione shrank away, for the look Snape was giving her was reminiscent of an angry panther.

"You could have died tonight, young lady, all because you thought you could handle a troll by yourself. Merlin save me from reckless children and courageous idiots. It is not your place to go hunting trolls, that's what the teachers are here for, to protect you, Miss Granger. I'm taking ten points for your sheer stupidity and five more for Weasley's mouth, and ten for Potter's cheek as well. And all three of you will serve detention with me tomorrow morning, for thinking you are above school rules."

Before he could go on, McGonagall showed up, followed by Quirrell, who peeked at the troll lying on the floor and nearly fainted dead away again.

"Severus, have you seen . . .? Oh, there you are! Where have you three been? Percy nearly had heart failure when he found you were missing, Mr. Weasley." McGonagall scolded sternly.

"They were playing at being Achilles and his Myrmidons, Minerva," Severus put in, still shaking with rage mixed with fear. "They went looking for the troll because Miss Granger thought she could handle it."

Minerva whirled on Hermione. "Miss Granger? You were the cause of this?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"I cannot believe . . .I am very disappointed in you, young lady. That'll be five points from Gryffindor for your foolishness. Are you hurt?"

"No, ma'am."

"Professor, you can't take points from your own House!" Ron wailed.

Minerva glared at him. "I most certainly can, for you risked your lives for nothing more than pride. All of you."

"But Professor Snape already gave us detention and took points," protested Harry softly.

Minerva raised an eyebrow. "You gave them detention, Severus?"

"I did. Such blatant disregard of school rules deserves some kind of punishment. If they were in Slytherin . . ." Severus trailed off meaningfully and Harry shuddered at the look of disapproval and anger his secret guardian sent him.

"But they are not," Minerva cut in smoothly. "It is not many first years who can defeat a full-grown mountain troll and live to tell of it." There was a note of pride in her voice now.

"It was sheer dumb luck," Snape said sourly, sneering.

"Indeed. Miss Granger, you may return to your dormitory, the feast is being continued there. That goes for you two as well, Mr. Potter and Weasley. Five points to you both for managing to rid us of a menace by sheer dumb luck."

Severus bit his lip hard. Minerva had nearly negated all the points he'd taken away earlier. Damn it woman, why do you seek to undermine my authority like that? "They're still serving detention with me tomorrow morning at eight o'clock." He put in, for he'd be damned if they wouldn't get any kind of punishment. Minerva was too easy on them by half.

"Yes, that is fair. You may go," she ordered, and the three students filed out of the bathroom.

As Harry went past, still hanging his head, he caught a glimpse of Snape's left ankle. It was all bitten and bleeding. What happened to you, Severus? You look like something took a good bite out of you. He almost stopped and asked the man if he needed help, recalling just in time that Snape was the "enemy" and he left without saying anything.

He paused about halfway down the hall though to retie his trainer and so caught the rest of the conversation between Snape and McGonagall.

"Very nice, Minerva! I punish them and you come along and pat them on the head for challenging the damn thing," Severus was growling. "Quirrell, make yourself useful, man, and bind up this damn troll, won't you? It's out cold and hardly likely to do you any damage now." The sarcasm in the professor's tone was so thick you could have cut it with a knife.

Quirrell stuttered a reply, then Harry heard Minerva say crisply, "I felt some kind of reward was necessary after you chewed them up and spit them out, Severus."

"Reward?! Damn it, Minerva, they nearly got themselves killed, and you want to reward them? For what? What are you playing at here, the understanding mother figure who hugs them after the strict father punishes them? Why is it that I'm always the nasty one?"

"Well, Severus, you play the strict father so well, it would be a shame to blow your cover now, wouldn't it?" Minerva teased.

Snape snorted, then Harry heard them come out of the bathroom and quickly ducked back into the supply closet. He heard Snape's footsteps outside the door, faltering slightly as the man limped along.

"I'd make a terrible father, Minerva. I'm too much of a perfectionist bastard, I would drive any child crazy within a year. And I'm more inclined to yell than hug and I have trouble apologizing . . .Maybe it's a good thing I never married and had children."

Was it his imagination, or did Severus actually sound wistful there at the end?

Apparently, McGonagall caught it too, for she said quietly, "Actually, your description sounds a lot like my father, Severus. He too was a strict perfectionist bastard. He set certain rules when my brothers and I were growing up, and heaven help you if you didn't live up to them. But he was always fair, though I didn't see that until I was older. As a child I thought I could never please the old battleaxe, though I never quit trying. When I got my Transfiguration Mastery at twenty-five, I was sure he'd find something to criticize about that too, since I hadn't gotten the highest score on the test that I could have, and he'd wanted me to marry and not go into teaching. I was waiting for him to make some kind of comment when he came up to me after the ceremony, for Ian McGonagall never missed an opportunity to tell you what he thought."

"And did he?"

"He did, but not the way I was expecting. He looked me up and down and then he smiled and said, ‘Ye've done me proud, Minnie, my lass.' That was all, but God, it meant more to me than all the hugs and congratulations and all from everyone else there. I still remember it to this day. And that was over forty-something years ago. I loved him very much, the damn stubborn old man," she admitted with affection coloring her tone. "So, you see, perhaps you wouldn't be such an awful parent, now would you, Severus Snape?"

"Maybe. But what child would ever trust me enough to allow me to try?"

I would, sir, Harry thought, peeking out at the two, who had paused just before the closet door.

Severus was favoring his bitten leg and grimacing.

McGonagall was eying him in concern. "Best you let me tend to that leg, Severus. Dog bites can fester unless tended and that overgrown mutt has a filthy mouth."

"I'm fine. I'll see to it when I get back to my office," he brushed off her concern. "I've had worse."

"Ah, now dinna play Spartan with me, Severus Snape!" she scolded then, her Scottish brogue growing more pronounced, as it did when she felt strongly about something. "I've patched ye up more than once before this, an' well ye know it!" She knelt and tore off a strip of her robe and began to wind it about Snape's leg.

"Have done, Minerva! I'm not thirteen any more, for Godsake!"

"Thirteen's what you're acting like, mister," she snorted, standing up and shaking a finger at him reprovingly. "Now come along wi' me, and let me tend you properly, Severus Tobias Snape, or do I have t'drag you to my office by your ear, lad?"

Severus gaped at her. "You wouldn't dare!" he sputtered. "I'm a professor now, not your student, Min, and I don't need you fussing like a mother hen . . .Ow!" he yelped as the Transfiguration teacher reached up and expertly grabbed his ear. "Minerva, for the love of God, let me go."

"Are ye gonna behave and come wi' me then, laddie?" she demanded sternly.

Severus flushed and snapped, "Yes, ma'am. Now if you don't mind . . ."

She released his ear and patted him gently on the cheek. "See, I knew you'd come round to my way eventually. . . Quit looking at me like that, Snape, even you need a helping hand every once in awhile, your mother died too soon . . ."

"Yes, and I don't need another one, thank you very much." He started limping down the corridor.

"Don't you? Severus, everyone needs someone, lad . . ." She followed him down the corridor.

Harry waited until the sound of their footsteps had died away then he slipped out of the supply closet and dashed back to Gryffindor Tower. He just caught up to Ron and Hermione at the portrait hole.

"Hey, mate, where were you?" asked Ron. "Get lost or something?"

"No, had to tie my shoe. Last thing I need is to fall again."

"Right." Hermione said, and gave them a tentative smile. "Thank you for saving me from the troll."

"You're welcome," Harry said. Then he nudged Ron.

"Oh, uh, yeah, it was no big deal. And . . .um . . .I'm sorry I called you a know-it-all and was rude to you. My mum would've skinned me if she knew the way I talked to you." Ron admitted, blushing almost as red as his hair. "If you hadn't, uh, corrected me in Charms, I would have never been able to cast that spell right and the troll would have killed you."

Hermione blushed too. "Oh, uh, well, I'm glad I helped you then." Her face fell. "But now we're in so much trouble. I've never had detention before. Is it terrible?" She looked up at Harry, her lower lip trembling.

"Well . . .it depends on how mad Snape is. If he's real mad, he could make you chop up disgusting potion ingredients, or write lines or something. It's not fun, but then detention's not supposed to be. And it'll only last three hours at the most and then it's over with. Don't worry so much, Hermione. Snape won't bite your head off too much, since you're not always in trouble, like I am." Harry sighed gloomily. Unlike his friends, he knew Severus was furious with him, and would probably have additional punishments lined up and an additional lecture as well.

"C'mon, Hermione, let's go inside and eat some pumpkin pasties and stuff," said Ron. "You act like this is the first time you've ever gotten in trouble at school."

"It is!" Hermione wailed.

Ron just looked at her and shook his head. Then he said, "Welcome to the real world, Granger." He turned back to the portrait hole. "Shining star."

They all scrambled inside. No sooner had Ron crossed the threshold than he was met by a very angry Percy, who proceeded to grab his younger brother by his collar and shake him soundly.

"You bleeding little idiot! What do you mean, going off like that? If anything happened to you, Mum would have my arse! Stupid little twit!" He cuffed Ron alongside the head. Then he said, "You okay, Ron?"

"Yeah. I'm fine, let me go, Percy."

"Good. But you ever scare me like that again and I'll wallop the living daylights out of you, got me?" Percy growled, then he hugged his brother hard.

A moment later he released him and said gruffly, "Now go and eat, it's Halloween, after all."

Ron rolled his eyes and muttered, "You're not the boss of me," and then went over to the table to start eating the remainder of the feast, along with Harry and Hermione.

Soon, other members of their House crowded around, wanting to know what had happened. Harry let Ron and Hermione fill them in, he wasn't feeling much like talking right then. His mind was still going over the conversation he'd overheard and trying to figure out why Severus had gotten bitten by the dog and if he might look upon Harry as something more than a student, maybe even a foster son. Did he dare even hope that was possible?

He bit into a piece of pumpkin pastie, savoring the sweet filling. He had too much to think about to start going off on tangents. There was the first Quidditch match of the season tomorrow afternoon, and Harry was eager to try out the Nimbus. Always assuming he survived Snape's wrath, that is.

But he would worry about that tomorrow. For now, he just wanted to enjoy the rest of his Halloween.


 




What kind of detention will they face? And what do you think Snape will say or do to Harry? How about Minerva scolding Severus?

Next: The first Quidditch match Gryffindor vs. Slytherin coming up! Harry rides his Nimbus. Fly, Harry, fly!




Chapter 11: Countercurse
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Severus paced angrily about the classroom for a full five minutes, working on getting his explosive temper under control. Despite what his students thought, he did not enjoy losing it with them, and in fact strived to keep his greatest bane under wraps when doling out punishments. He had learned the hard way that his temper was more of a liability than an asset as a spy, and his own childhood had been marked by his father, whose temper had been irrational and had made his only child suffer for it with a succession of beatings and verbal humiliation. Much of the mask he wore during the school year was patterned after his father's mannerisms and Severus shuddered every time he put it on. There were days the mask clung so close that he feared he would become Tobias Snape in truth, and that thought scared him more than anything. He knew quite well there was more than a little of his father in him, but he was determined not to follow in the abusive bastard's footsteps any more than was necessary to maintain his cover.

I will never become my father, I swear by my magic and all the angels in heaven. I refuse to let that be my only legacy. He might have shaped my past, but I'll be damned if I'll let him shape my future too. I'm a Prince too, and a better man than my father ever was. At least that's what my mother used to say.

Severus paced, his boots hitting the stone floor in a rhythmic tap. His mother Eileen had died when he was a mere thirteen, and he had never really gotten over her loss. She had been ill and eventually the disease, a rare one that attacked the auto-immune system, had overwhelmed her. But before she died, she had told her distraught son that she would always be watching over him. "Remember, Sev, I'll always be there, looking over your shoulder, even when you can't see me. Nothing ever truly dies, son. We just go to a better place, and become angels. And I'll be the angel on your shoulder, my sweet son. Don't cry, love. Just promise me that you'll grow up a better man than your father, please. I know you can do it."

And he had promised.

He had tried, as best he could, to honor that promise, and though he had made many mistakes, no one could say that Severus Snape was an alcoholic, or a deadbeat, or had ever beaten a child. A clever spy, yes, and enigmatic, but not wickedly cruel like the Death Eaters Lucius had introduced him to in sixth-year.

He had known after two or three secret meetings that those Lucius gathered were people very much like Snape's father and he had immediately started looking for a way to get out. He had been helped by Lily and Albus Dumbledore, though Albus came up with the spy routine in order to gather valuable intelligence about the ones who supported Voldemort. He pretended to "betray" Dumbledore and become a Death Eater, secretly gathering information about the vile order up until the time Lily was killed. Then the Death Eaters scattered and hid, and Severus's days as a spy were over, for now.

He shook his head abruptly. Time to quit woolgathering and start setting up for the detention he had given. He wanted it to be a memorable one.

He pointed his wand at the front of his desk and a large barrel appeared before it. It was covered, but even then a strong smell of fish hung in the cool air. On three desks appeared a set of thin gloves, a small curved knife, and four sheets of parchment, plus a Magic Refill Quill.

He glanced at the clock. Five to eight. They should be here any minute.

Furthermore, he was going to have a private discussion with Harry about the boy's deplorable tendency to take unnecessary risks, like James Potter used to. He had been hoping that trait had skipped Harry, but apparently not. That was twice now Harry had nearly gotten himself killed, thought Snape exasperatedly. Something would have to be done about that. Snape had enough to handle trying to keep the boy safe from whoever tried to kill him, he did not need Harry throwing himself in harm's way as well. But he would deal with that little problem later. First, he had the three wayward Gryffindors to impress upon the folly of disregarding rules and hunting for trouble.

Snape had two methods of giving detention. The first one was the silent treatment, he spoke as little as possible to the offender, and set them some disgusting task to complete in two hours. That worked well on those students who liked to argue the "unfairness" of their punishment with him. The second, and the one he used most often, was the lecture and punishment method. First he delivered a blistering lecture to the student and then set them a punishment designed to hammer home the foolishness of their actions.

He would be doing that here.

He swept behind his desk and stood there like a forbidding dark knight out of legend, imposing and fierce, arms crossed and a stern glower implanted upon his face.

Right on cue, the door creaked open, and three penitent Gryffindors entered.

"Finally decided to grace me with your presence, have you?" he asked, in a tone that was soft yet filled with sarcasm.

"Sir, we're supposed to be here at eight and we are," Hermione managed to say, not really looking at him.

She was extremely nervous, having heard some terrible rumors last night in the girl's dorm about what Snape did to students during his detentions, everything from whipping the student to using said student's body part and blood in some dark potion. Most of the rumors Hermione knew to disregard, she knew they were false. Corporal punishment had not been used at Hogwarts since 1945, ever since the Ministry had passed the Child Abuse Act, since several charges of abuse had been brought against Hogwarts teachers for abusing their authority by parents and students prior to the legislation, and all had been found guilty in a court of law. The offenders were now in Azkaban for life and received a daily dose of a cane as a reminder of what they had inflicted upon their former students. As for the rest, Hermione was reasonably certain Snape wouldn't really use her for potion ingredients, that was Dark Wizardry and there were no dark wizards here at Hogwarts.

Snape snorted, giving them all a scintillating glare that made them tremble.
"Troublemakers Three, that's what you are. I expected such from Weasley and Potter, since getting into trouble is a long-standing tradition in their families, but you surprise me, Miss Granger. I had thought perhaps you might not succumb to the wave of idiocy that possesses most of Gryffindor House, but it would seem I was wrong."

Hermione hung her head, looking very ashamed.

Severus came out from behind his desk to stand in front of them, still wearing that nasty scowl, one he had perfected over the years to strike fear into the heart of misbehaving students.

"All of you have trouble following the rules, as was made clear by last night's stupidity. Challenging a full-grown mountain troll! Do you know what would have happened if that troll had hit you with its club? No? Let me elaborate. You might have only had half the bones in your body shattered and crushed and be unable to walk ever again or you could have had your head smashed in like an overripe melon, and what brains you had dripping out on to the floor. The spikes could have torn open your stomach and shredded your entrails . . ."

By then Hermione looked slightly green and Harry was swallowing hard. Ron also looked pale and sick.

"Shall I go on, or would you like to see some examples?" he inquired silkily.

"No, sir!" they all said.

"Or you could have died from your own arrogance and stupidity. And all because you thought you knew best and could handle a mountain troll," sneered Severus. "That being so, you will now do two things for me. First you will write an essay of no longer than three feet and no shorter than two about alternatives you could have come up with instead of blindly flinging yourselves in harm's way. I also want a paragraph on how you think your death would have impacted someone. Be specific, with concrete examples. You have one hour."

"All that in one hour? Ron groaned.

"Correct, Mr, Weasley. And mind, if I don't think your examples are sufficient or the essay is written well, you will do it over until it meets my standards, and I shall keep you here the whole day if necessary. Am I clear?"

"Yes, Professor Snape." Ron said, looking even more sick, for he hated writing essays.

"After the essay is done, you will then put on those gloves at your desk and go to the large barrel there," he pointed to the huge barrel standing in front of his desk. "Inside you will find glimmerscale fish. Both their skin and eggs have magical properties and are used in several potions of water-breathing and swimming and such. You will need gloves to handle them since the slightest touch of skin against a glimmerscale will destroy the magic in it. Then you are to skin and gut them, placing the skin in one container," he gestured and several large containers popped into view. "And the eggs in another."

Hermione raised her hand timidly.

"What now, Miss Granger?"

"Please, sir, I've never skinned or gutted a fish. Could you, maybe, show me how? So I don't make a mess of it?"

Snape pretended to be vastly annoyed, but he was actually pleased by the girl's request. Glimmerscales were expensive. "Pay attention, all of you. Watch." He drew on a set of gloves, opened the barrel, and removed one very dead glittering rainbow fish. He set the fish on Hermione's desk, picked up the small curved knife, and expertly sliced open the fish's abdomen, removed the roe and put it in a container. Then he used the knife to cut off the fish head and strip the skin, managing to get it all in one piece.

He placed the skin in another container and tossed the rest of the fish into yet another one. "I trust that is sufficient? Yes? Now get to work."

He placed the knife back on her table and stripped off his gloves, then retreated to his desk to mark homework.

The three bent over their papers, writing quickly.

* * * * * *

Harry nearly chewed on the end of his quill as he paused before writing the final paragraph of his essay. For Ron and Hermione, that was the easy part. Their parents would be most affected by their deaths. But Harry knew quite well that if he died, the Dursleys would be more likely to celebrate than to mourn his demise. He darted a glance up at his teacher, who was marking papers industriously. Did he dare write the truth? That in all the world, there was only one who might care if he died?

He bit his lip hard. Then he made up his mind. Snape had always stressed telling the truth when Harry was little. He picked up his quill and wrote The only person I know who would care if I died is you, sir. My parents are dead and my relatives couldn't care less, as you know. So there is only you, and that is the truth. He paused, fidgeting, then wrote, I'm sorry for making you worry, I was stupid and didn't think, I'm sorry. I only wanted to help Hermione, I didn't know the troll would be that dangerous. Am I really like my father? I'll try not to be. But if I were to die, at least you would come to the funeral. I think.

There was really no more to say after that, and so he set the essay on Snape's desk and went to start working on gutting the glimmerscales.

Harry soon discovered that gutting and skinning the slippery rainbowed fish was much harder than Snape had made it look. Even with gloves, the fish was slippery and unwieldy, it stank and cutting open the belly made him want to gag. He was happy he hadn't had anything to eat this morning, else he might have disgraced himself by throwing up all over the floor. He darted a look at his classmates and saw that they too were pale and sick looking. The skin was difficult to remove, and Harry wondered how Snape had made it look so easy.

By the time he was done with the first fish, he was sweaty and covered in disgusting fish juice and stank to high heaven. He wrinkled his nose, swallowed hard, and began on the next glimmerscale. Ugh! And there was a whole barrel full of them . . .

* * * * * * *

At the end of two hours, all three students were splashed liberally with fish scales, salt water, and bits and pieces of fish guts. And they smelled horribly. But they had also become skilled in skinning and gutting and they would never forget this detention, and each of them vowed silently to never risk their lives again, or if they did to make sure Snape never found out about it.

It was with profound relief that Hermione announced that they were finished.

Snape rose and inspected their work. "Humph! I suppose it is adequate. I trust you have learned your lesson about following rules which exist for your own safety?"

"Yes, sir," Hermione answered respectfully.

The two boys echoed her.

"Dismissed, Granger and Weasley. Potter, you stay, there is some discrepancy with your homework we need to discuss." Severus added just as Harry was leaving.
"Yes, sir," Harry halted, groaning inwardly. But he had known this was coming.

Ron shot him a sympathetic glance just before he left.

The Potions Master cast a Muffliato spell over the room and locked the door.

Severus banished the stinking container of fish guts and heads and the empty barrel and sealed the other containers and placed them in a cabinet before turning around to face Harry, who was standing in front of the desk looking like a child about to receive a well-deserved scolding. The wizard waved his wand and cleaned the boy up before taking two steps forward and gripping the slender shoulders and shaking him hard.

Now that they were alone, Severus could give vent to the emotions he'd been keeping in check and he growled, "What in God's name were you thinking, young man, to risk your life that way? I just finish healing you from a major injury and this is how you act? Attacking a troll that could have crushed you in two seconds?"

"I-I'm sorry . . .!" Harry began. "I was just trying to help Hermione."

"How? By getting your brains splattered all over?" Severus demanded acidly. "Foolish child, do you know how close death came to you last night? He all but came and tapped you on the shoulder! It was sheer luck you managed to knock the troll out with my cauldron, had you been a millimeter off or a second slower, I would have found three dead students! Damn it all, boy!"

Then he spun the child around and gave him a good smack on the backside. "That's for risking your neck and nearly giving me heart failure!"

Harry yelped and sniffled, wondering if there would be more.

But in the next instant he found himself pulled into a familiar embrace, as the dark guardian hugged him fiercely and whispered, in a voice hoarse with some unnamed emotion, "Do not ever do that again, do you understand? Good God, child, do you know what it would mean if you died? I would . . .I cannot even . . ." Unable to articulate the desolation he would have felt, Severus nearly crushed the child to him. "Risk your neck again, Mr. Potter, and you'll be gutting more than fish, am I clear?"

A muffled, "Yes, sir," and another "M'sorry" came from the depths of the black robe.

"And well you should be, you disobedient little brat," scolded the Potions Master. "Of all the stupid, irresponsible, insane stunts . . .I didn't keep you safe all those years only to have you throw away your life on some stupid schoolboy heroics. And here I thought you were more like your mother."

He allowed Harry to lift his head a little, enough so the boy could talk. "She wouldn't have gone to help a friend?"

"Yes, but she would have also gotten a teacher or made damn sure she knew some defensive spells before taking on a mountain troll. Your father, on the other hand . . ." Severus sneered. " . . .was famous for acting first and not thinking at all. Do not follow his example, Harry. It will only get you killed." He sighed and drew away, pretending not to see the quick hand the child dashed across his eyes. "Learn to use your head, boy. That will keep you safe more often than not. Think, don't just react."

"I will, sir. I'm sorry."

"I forgive you," Severus said gruffly. "But it seems that maybe you could benefit from a few self-defense classes, since you Gryffindors have the deplorable habit of getting into trouble every other minute. So, after the match tonight, meet me behind the greenhouse, and we will go over basic survival techniques, since I cannot be everywhere at once and perhaps this will serve to keep your head on your shoulders, you reckless young fool."

Harry lifted his eyes from the ground, a half-smile on his face. "Really? You'll teach me to fight? With magic?"

"Humph. Yes, with magic. And without it too. This is not some game, it is deadly serious. I will work you hard, harder than I ever have, but if it keeps you alive, I don't care how much you hate me afterwards."

"Hate you? I could never hate you, Severus!" Harry protested.

"No?" The Potions Master smiled wolfishly. "We'll see about that. And when did I ever give you permission to use my given name, Harry?"

Harry blushed. "Uh . . .I didn't think . . .I should have asked if you'd mind . . .Do you want me to stop?"

"No, child," he said after a moment. "You meant no disrespect. Just the opposite, rather. You may call me Severus . . .but only when we're alone. Otherwise, it's Professor Snape or sir, the same as always."

Harry's smile lit up his face. "I'd like that. Thanks, Severus."

"Now go, get some rest and eat some breakfast. You'll need your strength for the match today."

"Yes, sir. Oh and uh, thank you very much for the Nimbus!" Harry said, his eyes shining. "It's the most awesome broom ever. You didn't really have to get me that one, sir. I wouldn't have minded a Comet 260."

"I would have," Severus snorted. "You are most welcome, child. Now get down to the hall and eat. And mind you eat more than a piece of toast, else I will come over there and sit you on my knee and spoonfeed you like a baby," he threatened silkily, knowing Harry's penchant to skip meals when he was nervous.

Harry blanched, utterly horrified. "No! Please, don't do that, sir! I'll eat, swear to God I will."

"You had better. I'll know if you haven't," Severus said, smirking wickedly. "Now get!"

He practically shoved Harry out the door.

Then he went back to his desk, sat down, and buried his face in his hands. God, but he needed a good stiff drink. And the year was just beginning.

* * * * * *

Harry made sure to eat more than a piece of toast and jam, he also ate some eggs and sausage, though the food stuck in his throat and he had to drink glass after glass of juice to get it down. The food sat in his stomach like a lump and he felt faintly queasy, but at least he wouldn't have to worry about Snape coming over and putting him on his lap and feeding him like a baby. He slid a glance around the table, and sure enough, there was his guardian angel seated at the staff table, eyeing him sternly.

Harry was tempted to pick up his plate and hold it out for Severus to inspect. See? I'm eating, okay?

With any other teacher, he wouldn't have taken the threat seriously, but with Snape . . .

"Good luck, Harry," said Hermione, giving him a thumbs up sign. "We'll be cheering for you."

"Yeah, knock ‘em dead, mate." Ron clapped him on the back. "You've got the best broom out there."

Harry gave them a shaky smile, then summoned his Nimbus and went to follow Wood and the other Gryffindor players to the Quidditch locker room to change into their red uniforms.

* * * * * *

The Nimbus flew like a dream, Harry felt like Zeus or the Archangel Gabriel as he circled the field, trying to spot the elusive golden winged ball. Despite all of his weeks of practice with both Wood and Severus, he still felt horribly nervous, and his eyes darted everywhere like a startled owl's.

Was that it there? Near the Slytherin goal post? No, just a trick of the light.

Harry tried to relax, but it was hard, with all the action going on above and below him and the hundreds of shrieking students in the stands. He was incredibly grateful for his brand-new glasses, because now he didn't have to squint any more and he could see where everyone and everything was in the air. Granted, sometimes people still looked blurry, but that was to be expected. Glasses couldn't correct everything.

He ducked an incoming Bludger, and Fred waved at him after whacking the black ball halfway across the pitch. That had been the plan, for Harry to wait until Gryffindor scored at least two goals before actively seeking the Snitch. Wood didn't want his youngest player to get ambushed before he really had a chance to play.

The Nimbus was fast enough for Harry to observe most of the action between the Slytherin and Gryffindor Chasers and Beaters without getting targeted. Though once the Slytherin Beater, Gunnar Hansen, tried to knock him off his broom, but Harry was too quick, and avoided the slam with ease. None of the other players could match the Nimbus for sheer speed and aerodynamics.

He focused on locating the Snitch, scanning the sky casually, without really seeming to look anywhere in particular. Severus had told him that was a good way to spot something moving, especially when it was flying at an incredible speed. So Harry hovered and watched and suddenly he saw it, fluttering down and to the left of Angelina Johnson, the Gryffindor Chaser.

Harry swooped down, praying that Angelina would be able to avoid his dive and was almost to the Snitch when Flint, the Slytherin Captain, flew in front of him.

Harry checked hard, and thanked heaven the Nimbus could pull out of a dive on a sixpence, otherwise he would have crashed right into the larger wizard, who was smirking nastily.

"Careful, itty bitty Potter! Don't want trip and fall off your broom, now do you?"

"Pick on someone your own size, Flint!" shouted Angelina, shoving the other player.

Flint spun around, smirking. "Anytime you want to dance, babe, Floo me!" Then he sped off after the Quaffle, laughing.

Angelina flashed him a rude gesture and chased him.

Harry looked for the Snitch, but it had moved away, and he sighed in frustration and continued searching, flying a good length up above the other players.

Opposite him, he could see the Slytherin Seeker doing the same.

Five minutes passed and then Gryffindor scored and the stands on the one side went wild, shouting and hollering and waving the red and gold Gryffindor lion banners. That was one, Harry thought, swerving out of the way of a Bludger. Now he just had to wait for the Chasers to score again.

Angelina had scored that last goal, and she had flashed Flint a triumphant smile and called, "I'd take you up on your offer, Marcus, but I don't date losers."

Her teammates roared with laughter at her wit, and Flint just glared and snapped, "We haven't lost yet, Johnson. And I was kidding, I don't date Gryffindor chicks."

"Like I'd go out with a snake!" sneered Angelina, then she dove for the Quaffle again.

There was a scramble for the red ball, then one of the other Gryffindor Chasers, Katie Bell, broke out of the pack and tucked the Quaffle under her arm. She looped around flying with all the speed she possessed towards the goalposts on the Slytherin side.

"Bring it home, Katie!" Harry yelled, and resumed his search for the Snitch, certain his teammate would score.

It was then that his broom began behaving strangely.

* * * * * *

Severus was standing up in the staff box, next to Quirrell and Filius, watching the match with his heart in his throat. He had observed countless Quidditch games as a teacher, but none had ever caused him this amount of anxiety. It was rather like a father watching his little baby take his first steps, anxiety mixed with anticipation curled in his stomach, making him shiver.

Harry was flying very well, he did not seem that nervous and he had managed to avoid getting whacked by Bludgers and even Flint's sudden block had not seemed to rattle him too much. Though his recovery had nearly caused Severus to cry out in alarm, it had been so quick, and once more the Potions Master blessed the instinct that had led him to buy a Nimbus 2000 instead of a cheaper model.

That's it, Harry. Fly like I showed you, quick and evasive. That's how you'll stay on your broom and win the match. Severus encouraged silently, longing to pace, he was aquiver with nerves. He sneered at himself for acting like a overprotective lion with a single cub, Harry was doing fine, the Nimbus would keep him safe.

Then he saw, to his horror, that Harry's broom was jerking up and down. Harry was hanging on, but the broom appeared to have gone haywire, it shot across the pitch in a deadly streak, Harry clinging to it for dear life.

Then it began to buck and spin, as if trying to rid itself of the passenger atop it.

Severus went white. God in heaven, it's been tampered with. That's a Wild Fly Jinx, or I'm no spy. It'll knock him off in seconds unless I can counter it.

He took two deep breaths, centering himself, ignoring the panicked cries of the spectators and his fellow teachers as they saw Harry flying utterly out of control, spinning and jerking like a possessed puppet.

Severus blocked all else from his mind but the countercurse, and then he fixed his eyes upon Harry and began to mutter the countercurse in a soft even tone. He did not let his concentration waver, for even an instant would have meant death. Focus, Severus, focus! Maintain eye contact with the subject and just keep repeating the spell over and over.

He could feel the dark curse pulsing in the air about Harry, it was a thin slimy oily film, rotten and cold, it sought to break through the shield Severus had erected about his child and finish what it had begun. But Severus refused to let that happen. Only once before had he failed to protect one he loved, and that time had cost him Lily. He would be damned if this was a repeat, and so he threw all of his formidable powers of concentration and determination, all of his iron will, into holding the dark curse at bay.

I will NOT surrender! Not this time. This time I will NOT fail. The dark shall not claim another whom I love. Not so long as I have breath in my body.

The world went away then, as all his being was focused upon keeping Harry from falling off his broom, and he became nothing more than an extension of the spell he was speaking. The magic consumed him, until he was swept away, and only a very small spark of his consciousness remained to tie to him to the fact that he was Severus Snape, Potions Master.

It was that tiny spark that noticed that his robes were suddenly on fire, that he had blue flames licking the sides of his boots, but even then he would not have broken his concentration, he was too far gone, until Quirrell screamed and fell into him.

"M-Merlin, you're on FIRE!"

Then the world came back with a rush and he felt the sudden sting of the flame and snapped a charm to cancel the flames. How that had occurred, he had no idea, but he suspected some kind of prank by a student, and if he ever found out who it was . . .that one would be serving detention with him for the rest of the year, including a stint at St Mungos burn ward, so the brat could see firsthand the perils of playing with fire.

He straightened, shoving Quirrell off him, ignoring the stinging pain in his calf, he turned back to the Quidditch pitch. Harry had managed to fly after the Snitch, the Nimbus sending him soaring with the speed of a peregrine falcon across the sky, and then he gave a kind of convulsive jump and landed on the ground.

Severus breathed again.

Safe. His secret child was safe. Relief washed through him then, and he didn't even care that Harry had caught the Snitch and Slytherin had lost by a whopping 150 points. He could give a bloody damn about Quidditch. All that mattered was that Harry was alive, and he wiped the sweat from his brow, thanking God he had been able to reverse the dark curse. But it had been a near thing.

Somehow, some way, he must find out who was trying to murder Harry, before it was too late. It had to be someone at the school, but who?

"Severus, are you all right?" Minerva shook him slightly. "Your robe was on fire, are you burned?"

Severus blinked. "I . . a little . . ." He pulled the fabric aside to reveal scorch marks on his boot and a red swath on his right calf, where the fire had burned away the black cloth pants to ash. Immediately, he felt the stinging pain grow.

"That looks like more than a little to me, Severus." Minerva hissed. "Best let Poppy see to it."

He shot her an exasperated glare. "Congratulations on your win. Now quit fussing."

"Promise me you'll see Poppy," she countered. "Or must I drag you there by your ear, lad?"

"Fine! Honestly, woman, you are too much!" he snapped, feeling very much like a schoolboy with the way she lectured him. "I've been taking care of myself since I was fourteen, and I'm still alive, you know."

"I know. Which is why you ought to let someone else step in and help sometimes, Severus," she said gently. "You are too much alone and you push yourself too hard. You're not invincible. Now go, let Poppy see to that burn. It must be hurting like bloody blue blazes."

It was, but he would never ever say so. He checked once more on Harry, who was being carried about by Hagrid, amid deafening cheers, then he made his slow painful way down from the stands and across the lawn. He had several potions that would mend the burn in his private lab, but the infirmary was closer, and he knew Minerva would be hounding him unless he allowed Poppy to treat him, and so he limped into the Hospital Wing, surrendering himself to the medi-witch's capable hands.

As he lay back on the hospital bed, he felt exhaustion sweep through him. He was so very weary, that countercurse had taken more than he would have liked, but it had all been worth it. His child was safe and his vow unbroken. He allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction before his eyes closed and he fell asleep, leaving Poppy in peace to heal him.


 



Chapter End Notes:


So, how did you like getting Severus's version of events at the match? And the detention?

Leave me a review so I know how you're liking this, thanks!

Next: Self Defense lessons with Sev & a discussion with Hagrid.



Chapter 12: Tea and Ten Laps
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After the game, Harry was invited to a celebratory tea at Hagrid's along with Ron and Hermione. The whole team was ecstatic, and said that they were going to hold an "after curfew" party in the dorm that night to celebrate their first victory over Slytherin in five years. "You can join us if you'd like, Harry," Wood offered, clapping the little Seeker on the back. "Normally, we don't let firsties attend, but we'll make an exception for you."

Harry said thanks, but he knew he wouldn't be going. He was supposed to meet Severus behind the greenhouse later on. Funny, but he hadn't seen his guardian in the stands after the match, and wondered what had happened to him. But he couldn't ask without it seeming strange, and so he simply kept silent and followed Hagrid and his friends to the gamekeeper's hut.

The medium-sized stone and thatch cottage was cozy and homey, though Hagrid filled the space with his bulk. It was all one room, with a large hearth and a cast iron stove and sturdy furnishings of handcarved oak and maple. Hagrid's black boarhound, Fang, lounged upon the doorstep, and when he saw his master, he jumped up and wagged his tail so hard it smacked Ron in the knees, making the youngest Weasley boy yelp, for Fang's tail was like a whip.

"Down, yeh overgrown mutt," Hagrid scolded the big dog affectionately, and Fang drooled all over his master's boots, delighted to see him again. "He gets lonely and misses me when I leave," he explained, petting the big dog. "He won't hurt you, he's a big softie."

He told all three children to pet the big dog and let him smell them, which they did.

Fang licked Hermione's whole face, and the girl laughed and crooned, "Aww, you're such a sweet dog, aren't you?"

"Yup, he is that." Hagrid reached into a pocket and fished out two large dog biscuits. "Here, Fang. You stayed and watched the house for me today like a good boy."

The biscuits vanished down the boarhound's throat in a flash.

Harry stroked the dog behind the ears and the hound groaned delightedly and leaned into the slight boy, nearly knocking him down, for the dog was half Harry's height. "Good dog," he murmured, smiling. He liked dogs and other animals, though the Dursleys had never had any pets, Petunia had refused to have any "dirty animals" mucking up her immaculate house. But Harry had always wanted a pet of his own, and now he had Hedwig. Still, he wouldn't have minded a dog, though perhaps not one quite as big as Fang.

Hagrid unlocked the door and opened it, beckoning his three guests inside. They entered the homey cottage, with the earthy smell of peat from the fire, and the sharp tang of onions which hung in bunches from the rafters, along with dried basil, oregano, and other herbs. Small wizard lamps illuminated the hut, and a few braided ragrugs on the plank floor brightened the gray interior immensely.

Harry glanced around, noting the crossbow hanging on the wall beside the hearth, and a huge pair of antlers up above on the mantle, which had a clock and a carving of a bear standing upright on it. Fang trotted in, lapped water from a large bowl in the corner, then settled down beside the fire to gnaw a meaty bone lying on the floor.

In front of the hearth was a large armchair and a sofa of worn leather, and above the sofa was a pelt of some kind, striped blue and gray, that Harry didn't recognize. Hagrid gestured for them to have a seat around the table in the kitchen area, and he put a brass kettle on the stove and set out some large chipped earthenware mugs and pulled some bread from the pantry and a crock of butter and boysenberry jam. "Here yeh go. That's fresh bread I made this mornin', and boysenberry jam too. I make that too, and always save some extra for Professor Snape, since he loves it too."

Harry hid a grin, for he knew just how much Severus enjoyed that particular treat from the many breakfasts he had shared with the Potions Master over the years.

Ron stared at the big man in astonishment. "You mean you make that-that evil old bat jam, Hagrid?"

Hagrid gaped at the young wizard. So did Harry. "I do, and why d'you say Professor Snape's evil, Ron? You earn yourself a detention with him? Now listen here, Snape may be strict, but he ain't evil-"

"Oh yeah? Then why would he jinx Harry's broom?" Ron demanded angrily. "Hermione and I saw him."

Hermione nodded miserably, and Harry simply remained with his mouth open, not trusting himself to reply. His whole being wanted to scream that they were wrong, that Severus would never harm him, that he was the last person to ever do anything like that to his ward. He's my guardian angel, and he protects me, he would NEVER hurt me!

But it was Hagrid who leapt to Snape's defense, much to Harry's relief. "Yer wrong! Snape's a Hogwarts professor, he would never harm a student. He might seem all dark and cold, but thas' only ‘cause yeh don't know him."

Yeah! Harry added silently.

Hermione looked torn. "But Hagrid, I saw him jinxing the broom, honest! He was looking right at Harry and not blinking and that's what you do when you cast a curse on someone."

"I know, but mebbe yeh saw somethin' wrong, lass. I know Snape, he usta spend lots of time here, back when he was your age an' a little bit older. After his mum died ‘specially."

"Snape had a mother?" Ron repeated incredulously. "I thought maybe he was hatched from a serpent's egg."

"He did, an' he lost her when he was thirteen, she took sick an' no Healer could cure her." Hagrid said simply, recalling the frantic way the young Slytherin had tried to research a cure, only to come up with nothing. Eileen Prince Snape had died just before Easter and Severus had returned to school hollow and grieving, but hiding it from all save Lily and Hagrid.

"Oh, that's so sad!" Hermione cried. Then she added, "But I know what I saw, Hagrid. He only stopped jinxing the broom when I set him on fire."

"You what?" Harry yelled, unable to keep still any longer. "How could you do that, Hermione?"

"I . . I had to do something!" she wailed. "You were falling off and hanging on by just one hand and you could've died. I didn't want to hurt him, I only made a small spark, to distract him. And it worked."

"Lass, ye never should have done that," Hagrid scolded. "Attacking a teacher with magic just isn't done."

"I know . . .but I had to save Harry."

Harry wanted to scream that whoever he needed saving from, it wasn't Snape. And now the Potions Master had been hurt because of him. He swallowed hard. He felt awful.

Hagrid rose to pour the tea and Ron added, "Serves him right, the wicked vampire!"

"Ron, now that's enough!" Hagrid said sternly. "Why would Snape want to hurt Harry?"

"Because Harry found out he got bit by the three-headed dog on the third floor," Ron declared triumphantly. "He was trying to steal whatever the dog was guarding."

"Fluffy? You know about Fluffy?"

"That thing has a name?" Ron gasped.

"Sure he does! He's mine, I raised ‘em from a pup, got him off a Greek chappie down at the pub one evening . . ."

"But he's a Cerberus, right?" asked Hermione. "And they're bred to guard magical objects."

"Yeh, they are, and Fluffy does a great job at guarding the . . .I mean, Dumbledore borrowed him to . . .er . . .never mind. I shouldn't have told yeh that." Hagrid stammered, scowling down at his slice of bread with butter and jam.

"But Snape's trying to steal it!" Ron cried. "He's a Slytherin and they're always up to no good."

"Rubbish and codswallop! Just ‘cause Snape's a Slytherin does not mean he's up to no good," Hagrid scolded. "That's just Gryffindor sour grapes talkin', there's good and bad members in all o' the Houses, Slytherin ain't the only House to have a wizard go dark from it. An' I oughta know, seein' as I've been here a long time. Snape isn't a dark wizard, I'm tellin' yeh! He's a strict teacher that don' take no backtalk an' all, but he's not one o' them." Hagrid could recall many an evening with the young Severus, discussing this or that potion and cure for some animal. He also remembered the one evening Severus had sobbed broken-heartedly at the kitchen table after the death of his mother. "Everyone leaves me, everyone! I couldn't save her, Hagrid. I tried . . .but it wasn't enough! I'm useless!" It had taken a Calming Draft and some hugging from both Hagrid and Lily to convince Sev he was not to blame for Eileen's death.

"How do you know that? Maybe he's tricked you." Ron objected.

Hagrid shook his head. "No. He's protectin' the . . .ah, I shouldn't of said that!"

"But then why did he try and kill Harry?" demanded Hermione.

"Now, lass, ye're assumin' too much here. I don't know why Harry's broom acted like that, but I do know that Snape wasn't responsible. Now you jus' forget all about the three-headed dog and what its guardin', it's none of your business and you're meddling in things that don't concern yeh. That's top secret stuff known only to Dumbeldore and Nicholas Flamel . . ." The half-giant hit himself in the forehead. "Drat! I shouldn't have said that!"

"Nicholas Flamel?" Hermione repeated. "Now where have I heard that name before . . .?" Her nose started twitching and in her eyes was a look like a cat that had just caught wind of a nest of mice somewhere and was going to hunt them down.

"Leave it be, lass! ‘Tis none o' yer business, any of yeh! Now stop this foolishness an' drink up yer tea and eat yer bread. We're here t' celebrate Harry's first game as Seeker, remember?"

Sensing that they would never convince the gamekeeper that he was mistaken about Snape, the greasy dungeon crawler, Ron and Hermione shut up and did as Hagrid had ordered, eating their bread and butter and drinking the strong tea he had made, which had been a gift to him from Severus last Christmas.

But Harry knew the two well enough by now to know that this discussion was far from over. Ron was still considering ways to prove Snape really was a dark wizard, like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and Hermione was pondering the mystery of Nicholas Flamel. Harry himself was trying to recall if he'd ever heard the name and what Fluffy could be guarding. He loved a good mystery, in fact those had been his favorite kind of books to read at the public library, he had read all of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. But somehow he sensed that this mystery would not be solved easily, and might even be dangerous to pursue. And he also got the feeling that Severus wouldn't like it if he went poking his nose in where it didn't belong.

But . . .his curiosity was driving him insane, and he knew he had to find out more about the magical object. And just who was Nicholas Flamel? And who was behind the attempts on his life? He had never had any enemies before this, unless you counted Dudley and his gang, but even they had never tried to kill him. Beat the spit out of him, yes, but not seriously injure him. Harry sighed. He would like this mystery even better if he weren't the target of whoever was behind all of this.

* * * * * *

Later on that evening, Hermione said she was going to do some research in the library, and Harry pretended he had left a book in the greenhouse that he needed and so managed to slip out of the dorm without getting anyone suspicious. Half the older Gryffindors were partying with the Quidditch team and paid no attention to Harry's departure. Even Percy was drinking a butterbeer and talking about the Chudley Cannons with Mark Lightfoot, a seventh-year.

Harry walked silent-footed as a ghost out of the castle, clutching the hood of his black school robe tighter against him, for the wind had picked up and it was chilly. The sky was sprinkled with stars and the moon soared cold and pale overhead, illuminating the pathway just enough so he didn't trip. He really wished he could get that surgery Madam Pomfrey suggested, so he could see in the dark and didn't have to worry about his glasses coming off during a Quidditch game. He had tied them on with some twine, luckily no one had noticed.

At last he reached the greenhouse, which was always lit dimly for some of the plants grown there required some form of light twenty-four hours a day. He slipped behind it, waiting beside the wheelbarrow for his dark angel to show up. Funny, but Severus was usually never late, he was always on time, or even early. Harry turned to glance around at the trees a bit further on, and nearly jumped out of his skin when a warm hand clasped his shoulder.

"Do try and be more alert, Harry. What if I was an enemy?" chided his professor.

It was a moment before he could manage to reply. "P-professor! I mean, Severus! You .. .surprised me!"

"Obviously. Because you weren't paying attention to your surroundings."

"I was looking for you," Harry objected. "It's not my fault my eyes are so bad. I can't see in the dark at all," he lamented.

"Then you must learn to compensate for your poor eyesight with your other four senses," Severus lectured. "Come along, Mr. Potter. The night grows cold, but I'll soon warm you up, you impudent scamp!" he began to move down the path to their secret grove.

"I wish I could get that surgery Madam Pomfrey mentioned," Harry said wistfully as he walked beside his protector.

"What surgery? To correct your eyes?"

"Um . . .yeah. She said magic could fix them, but . . .it's expensive and I would need an adult to sign consent forms since I'm a kid. So that'll never happen, since my aunt or uncle would never do it." Harry sighed gustily. "Guess I'll just have to make do with my glasses." He shrugged.

Or maybe not, Severus thought, making a mental note to speak with Poppy about the surgery. He would send a note from Potter's mysterious uncle, an old wizarding friend of Lily's named . . .Uncle Toby. The Potions Master smirked like a little boy with a juicy secret. Yes, that would work. He could use the alias many times, since no one would connect Toby with Severus Snape, for few knew his middle name, only Minerva, Albus, and Hagrid.

"Harry, I have been doing a bit of thinking, and if I ever need to send you something during the year, or you need to speak with me urgently, you may use the alias of a good family friend of Lily's, namely an Uncle Toby. Tobias is my middle name, which no one ever uses, so it would be perfect for this sort of subterfuge."

Harry grinned. "Cool! I like it." Then he asked, "Sir, I noticed the other day . . .you were bleeding on your leg. Did you get hurt? Are you okay now?"

For once Severus cursed the boy's powers of observation. "I am fine, Harry. I cut myself but it is healed now and you don't need to concern yourself with it," he said firmly. He halted, flicking aside his robe to show Harry his leg, which was healed from both bite and burn.

"Oh. Okay." Harry seemed relieved Severus was better. "Did you watch the match, sir? I caught the Snitch, even though my broom went crazy."

"I know, child, I saw it all. In fact, I'll be inspecting your Nimbus for jinxes, while you're doing some warm-up exercises for me," said the Potions Master. "You did very well for your first game, Harry. You'll make a first-rate Seeker."

Harry beamed, for praise from his strict teacher was not something he heard every day. "Like my dad, right?"

"Yes. Though that is the only thing you should follow in his footsteps," Snape said softly, the old bitterness tinging his tone.

Harry paused, then asked a question that had been bugging him for sometime. "Severus . . .why don't you like my dad?"

"For many reasons, Harry. His arrogant attitude was one of them. His feeling that he was above the rules is another. He ran with a group of classmates who called themselves Marauders. They got into all sorts of trouble, and they caused trouble too, especially for Slytherins like myself. But that is a tale for another time. For now, I want you to pay attention to my lesson in self-defense. That will save your life more than stories of your father's misbegotten youth."

They had reached the secret grove by then, and Severus told Harry to remove his robe. "You won't be needing it during this lesson, it'll only get in the way."

"But, sir . . .it's cold," he complained, shivering slightly in the chill November air. His long-sleeved jersey did not keep out the penetrating wind, which blew even harder here than it did closer to the castle.

"You'll be warm in a few minutes," the Potions Master said with a smirk.

Harry groaned and handed Snape his robe, wrapping his arms around himself.

"Now, then. One of the first keys to self-defense is observation. You must know where you are and where your opponent is in relation to each other. As I mentioned before, you need to use more than just your eyes. You need to listen, feel, and smell your opponent. Often a person will give away his intentions in the tone of his voice. For instance, I might be standing here quietly, but if I growl at you, you'll know that I'm angry and will probably be coming towards you in a minute to punish you for something, yes?"

Harry nodded, still shivering.

"Good. Think about that, we'll go over the others later. Defending yourself magically requires quick reflexes and an alert mind, as does defending yourself physically. That being so, you need to train your body to react at a moment's notice. So, we'll begin with stretches. Have you ever run track, Harry?"

"No, sir. Couldn't try out for sports, wasn't allowed." Harry admitted, shuffling his feet.

Severus muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath, then said, "No matter. Watch what I do." He also removed his robe and hung both of them on a convenient tree branch, so he could demonstrate several elementary stretches.

Harry copied his guardian.

Severus nodded in approval. "Do those for five minutes, until I tell you to stop. Then you'll be limber enough to run a few laps around the clearing."

Harry obeyed, though he didn't see what running had to do with self-defense. Unless he was running away from someone. But he had learned long ago that Severus hated to be questioned continuously when he gave an order, and so he simply did as he was told. Five minutes later he was breathing a little harder, but he was warmer from the exertion.

"Good. Now, start running around the clearing, Mr. Potter. Ten laps, no stopping. Let's see what kind of endurance I have to work with. Begin!"

Harry jumped at the tone and began to run, jogging steadily around the clearing, which was quite large.

As his charge ran, Severus summoned Harry's Nimbus to him and began to check it for jinxes and curses. As he had suspected, there were faint traces on the handle of a jinx called Wild Fly, which was designed to make the broom go out of control and buck off its rider, a deadly prank if ever there was one. Snape's lips thinned and his eyes blazed. Then he cast a spell to purify the broom from evil influences.

While Snape was examining his broom, Harry panted and sweated, running around the clearing repeatedly. Ten laps didn't sound like much, but it seemed to grow longer the more circuits he did. Now he understood what Snape meant when he had said Harry wouldn't have to worry about being cold. Sweat was dripping off his forehead. The wind felt good now on his flushed skin.

"Five more, Mr. Potter," his teacher called, having kept track of the laps in his head.

Harry didn't bother replying, he was concentrating on running. Luckily the ground here was relatively smooth, with no holes or dips and his trainers didn't slip or slide on the grass. He hadn't run like this in quite a while though, not since his phys ed class in primary school, and he felt his legs start to burn with fatigue and his breath whistle through his nose.

He brushed a hand across his forehead, his hair was falling in his eyes now. The trees were all a dark blur against the moonlit backdrop, and he gritted his teeth as the annoying ache in his muscles deepened.

"One more to go," Severus called, his tone faintly encouraging.

Harry finished the last lap, perspiring freely, his hair flopping up and down.

"Don't stop," the Potions Master ordered. "Walk slowly around for about three minutes, so you can cool down."

Harry mumbled something irritably, but did as he was told. He hadn't thought he was that out of shape, but then again, he hadn't been chased by Dudley and his gang since he was nine, and doing household chores didn't build up stamina.

Severus continued scanning the Nimbus while the boy walked, but found no more harmful influences and then sent the broom back to Harry's room, having cast a few protection spells upon it that the boy might need. By then Harry was sufficiently cooled down.

He came to stand in front of the dark guardian, still breathing a bit harshly, his cheeks flushed from exertion and cold. "What now, Severus?"

"Draw your wand, Harry. Now you're going to learn a standard defense spell, one Quirrel should have taught you already. The Shield Charm." Severus pulled out his own ebony wand. "Move your wand in a slight clockwise motion and say firmly, Protego!"

Instantly, Severus was surrounded by a transparent but slightly tinged with blue magical shield. "This will cause most magical attacks to bounce off or reduce their impact. It will also allow you time to run to safety. In any situation where you feel as if you're in peril of your life, you should always cast this first." He indicated Harry was to try the charm.

Harry tried, but the shield he conjured was a pitiful weak thing that collapsed under Snape's Tickling Hex.

"Not good enough, Potter. Again, and this time put some will behind it. I'm not throwing feathers at you, boy."

Harry repeated the charm. This time the shield was bigger, but not the globe it should have been.

"Again, boy! Focus. Don't just say the word, feel it."

"I'm tired," Harry whined.

"So? There will be plenty of times you'll be tired. D'you think an enemy is going to wait till you're nice and rested before coming for you? Maybe had a cup of tea and a scone?" asked his teacher sarcastically.

"No, sir."

"No, they'll be coming for you at your most vulnerable. So quit whining and do it over, boy!" snapped the Potions Master.

Harry groaned. Then he spoke the charm again, focusing all his will upon it.

This time a bright greenish sphere appeared around him.

Harry grinned, his green eyes shining. "I did it!" he cried. Then the shield vanished, for Harry had broken his concentration.

"Potter! Do not lose focus!" Severus yelled. "Do it again."

Snape made Harry cast the Shield Charm until the boy was sure he could do it in his sleep and his arm was aching from holding his wand.

Severus watched impassively, knowing that his ward was quite tired now, given the long day he'd had. "Once more, child, then we'll call it a night."

Harry huffed, but recast the charm. This time the greenish sphere stayed for a full three minutes before dissolving. "How was that, sir?"

"Adequate. We'll work some more on it tomorrow. Now it's getting on towards curfew, we need to get back." He handed Harry his robe and put on his own.

Then they walked back towards the castle, silent as the shadows that surrounded them.

At the entrance, Severus withdrew a small container from a pocket and handed it to Harry. "Rub this on before you go to sleep. It'll keep you from stiffening up so badly you won't be able to move tomorrow."

"Thanks, sir." Harry said, and took the small jar gratefully. He blessed the Potion Master's attention to details, for how would he have explained to his Housemates why he was so bloody sore come the morning? And Ron and Hermione think he's the one trying to kill me! Ha! Harry thought, biting back a chuckle at his friends' foolishness. He waved once to Severus, who gave his shoulder an affectionate squeeze, before hurrying up the stairs to the portrait hole and saying the password "Noble heart."

The party was still going strong, but Harry ignored the other kids' attempts to get him to join in, instead heading straight for the shower, where he took a nice long one before preparing for bed. He was asleep almost before his head touched the pillow.

But his dreams were uneasy, filled with the barking and slavering of three-headed dogs and he found himself atop his broom as it suddenly bucked himself off into space and he fell through the air. The next minute he was watching a tall black-robed wizard that he felt certain was Severus weeping over a small grave. And when he drifted closer, an icy chill of dread skittered down his spine.

For the headstone read:

Harry James Potter
1980-1991

Gone Too Soon

But Never Forgotten

He woke with a start, shivering in the pre-dawn air, the image of the headstone and the quiet sobs of a bereft Potions Master etched within his memory, and he curled up in a ball and prayed that the future he dreamed never came to pass.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Please excuse any typos, I just wrote this. Let me know how you liked it! Special thanks to Keats for the idea of "Uncle Toby", it was great!

Next: Harry's first Christmas at Hogwarts is full of surprises
.



Chapter 13: All He Ever Wanted
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For the rest of November and into December, Harry met with Severus every other night or so to have a self-defense lesson. The magical lessons were usually accompanied by some kind of physical exercise, such as running laps or crunches or push-ups, and there was a strange exercise where Snape put several large sticks on the ground and had Harry hop over them in a set pattern. "For coordination and footwork," he explained at his ward's puzzled query. The sessions grew more demanding physically and magically as the month wore on, and Snape began pushing his charge. Harry often ended the lessons aching as if he'd been beaten with sticks and he went through a container of Snape's Muscle Soothing Salve by the end of November and had to ask for more.

Harry regarded that salve as a life saver, for the next morning after his first lesson, he had been very sore, and had ached all day. At night, when he met Severus for the second lesson, he complained a bit, though his dark angel had no sympathy for him. "I warned you, this wasn't a game. You're going to be sore until your muscles toughen up and adjust to the exercise, use the salve I gave you after a hot bath or shower later tonight. Now stretch for ten minutes and start running."

"But Severus, my legs feel like rubber, I don't think I can run," Harry complained.

"I beg to differ," the Potions Master said frostily. "You're not going to let a little thing like sore muscles prevent you from defending yourself, are you? Because if so, then you may as well quit wasting my time and go back to your room, I don't have the patience for whiny crybabies."

Harry flushed at the derogatory tone. "I'm not a crybaby . . .sir." He added, though his tone was just this side of disrespect.

Severus's eyes narrowed. "Mind your tone, boy. Or you can do laps and ten pushups for me as well, plus scrub a few cauldrons. Stretches, young man! Move!"

Harry groaned, but did as he was ordered. At first the exercise hurt, but as he warmed up, his muscles felt better, and by the time the ten minutes were up, he could run laps without feeling like his legs were going to come off.

Of course, the next morning he was almost too sore to get out of bed.

But gradually his body adjusted and Harry found his new physical fitness an asset when Severus altered their sessions after two weeks and began casting hexes and jinxes at him. Being quick enabled him to dodge and duck a hex, and he learned to be alert as well, and notice things about his opponent before Snape did them, and so he was not caught off-guard. Severus was teaching him standard Defense spells, the Shield Charm, the Mirror Charm, where you could reflect a low-level spell back upon the caster, the Notice Me Not Charm, which allowed you to trick a Muggle or unsuspecting wizard into thinking you weren't really there, the Leglocker Jinx, that one Harry knew from Hermione, and the Body Bind.

Snape was nothing if not a thorough teacher, making certain Harry had mastered one spell before moving on to the next. He also made Harry use those he had already learned in short spars against him, and it was then that Harry realized just how skilled Snape was at dueling. Harry almost never won against him, he ended up knocked on his bum most times, enduring Tickling Hexes, Stinging Hexes, and other mildly physical jinxes.

Occasionally, Harry would grow frustrated at his seeming lack of progress, and take the wrong tone and attitude with his teacher. Severus never let him get away with it either. He gave one warning, and if it was not heeded, Harry ended up running extra laps and doing push-ups. Once, and only once, did Harry ever protest running extra laps, saying Severus was being unfair and acting like a sulky brat.

That time, Snape had taken him by the ear and made him stand facing a tree for twenty minutes. "If you're going to act like a spoiled brat of a six-year-old then I will treat you like one, Mr. Potter, and give you a time out. Perhaps I was wrong and you aren't grown-up enough to learn self-defense. Maybe you need a nap and a bedtime story instead?"

"No, sir." Harry had muttered, feeling ashamed at his outburst. "I'm sorry, sir."

"Apology accepted, now quit fidgeting and stand still, or I'll add another minute and make you stand on one leg," growled the Potions Master.

Harry froze. Embarrassing as this punishment was, he didn't want to have anything added to it.

Severus released him after twenty minutes, and then made him run the extra laps as well, until he was certain Harry had learned his lesson about mouthing off to him. That night they barely had time to practice magic at all, due to the young apprentice's attitude. Harry sulked all the way back to the castle, until Severus took his chin in his hand and said sternly, "Do you want to continue these lessons, young man? Or shall I just wash my hands of you right now? This is for your own good, Harry James Potter, now why are you sulking like a three-year-old?"

"Because I barely learned any magic tonight," he'd answered, biting his lip.

"That was your own fault, boy. Lose the attitude and we won't have a problem. Keep it and you'll end up running and standing with your nose against an oak tree all night. It's your choice."

Then his guardian had given him a look of vast disappointment and disapproval, making Harry feel guilty and regretful, before sending him off to Gryffindor Tower with a sharp swat.

That night Harry slept badly, wondering if Severus was so mad that he wouldn't want to continue teaching him. Early the next morning, he sent Hedwig off with a note, telling Snape he was sorry and he would try to behave better and he truly did want to continue the self-defense lessons.

After that, Harry learned to control his temper and his tongue and to accept his punishments with good grace, knowing that he deserved them.

Severus had told Harry to wear old clothes for the lessons, not his school uniform, because the boy often got dirty and sweaty, and when Harry had shown up in Dudley's old sweats and shirt, which were swimming on him, Severus had asked him why, and become furious when Harry told him all he ever got to wear was his cousin's cast-offs.

Goddamn skinflint Muggles! What have they been doing all these years with the stipend Dumbledore sent them? Spending it on that bloody spoiled brat of theirs? Snape had thought angrily, then cast a charm to make the clothes fit properly. He didn't discuss it further, but two days later, Harry received his first package from Uncle Toby, and inside were several pairs of trousers, shirts, socks, and underwear, plus a lightweight exercise outfit.

Harry had never had any new clothes before except his school things, and delighted in the feel of soft new fabric against his skin and clothes that actually fit him and weren't too long or too big and were free of holes and stains.

Ron had raised an eyebrow at the package. "Who's that from, Harry?"

"My Uncle Toby. The old friend of my mum's who sent me the Nimbus," Harry replied without blinking an eyelash. "Guess he figured I needed some new clothes or something."

Ron peered at the pile of clothes and whistled. "Merlin, Harry, those clothes aren't cheap. See the moon and star logo on the tag, and on the shirt here?" Ron pointed to a small silver crescent moon and star design on some of the shirts and embroidered into the tags on each item.

"Yeah, what's that mean?"

"It means those clothes were made by Mystic Designs. That's a real pricey clothing line in the wizarding world. Mystic's like what toffs like Malfoy wear sometimes, only it's casual wear, and made to be stain resistant and tear resistant. They've got charms woven into the fabric, see? My brother Charlie's got a Mystic pullover and he wears it every year on holidays. This uncle of yours must be rich as Midas. Does he have a Galleon tree in his backyard or something?"

"Uh, I dunno," Harry said, stroking the soft rich blue fabric of a long sleeved shirt again. "You mean, money really does grow on trees in the wizarding world?"

Ron grinned. "Only if you have an enchanted Galleon tree, and they're so rare that I think the only one left in Britain is the property of the Ministry of Magic. Where did you say your uncle was from again?"

Harry thought fast. "Uh . . .America. He's from . . .California. I wouldn't be surprised if he did have one of those trees there. I haven't seen him since I was a baby, and I can't really remember him all that well, but he used to go to school with my mum, and he always sends me stuff around Christmas and my birthday or whatever."

"Blimey! Wish I had an uncle like that. Think he'd adopt me?"

Harry had to turn away and cover his mouth to keep from laughing uncontrollably. Oh, Ron, what would you think if I told you that my "Uncle Toby" is none other than the greasy bat of the dungeons, Severus Snape? Just imagining the expression on his friend's face was hilarious. "Excuse me," he muttered, and left the hall quickly. Once outside the great double doors, he leaned against a statue and began to laugh hysterically.

He laughed until tears flowed down his face, picturing Ron fainting dead away if he ever learned he'd just requested Snape to adopt him, then he finally got himself under control and went back inside the hall.

The next morning there was another package, and this one contained a brand-new pair of white and red trainers, with crescent moon and star logo displayed prominently on the side of the sneaker. Harry tried them on and they fit perfectly. That day he wore one of his new outfits and the trainers under his robe when he went to class.

On the way to Herbology, Malfoy happened to glance at Harry and spotted his new trainers. "Potter, since when do you wear Mystic? I didn't think you even knew what real clothing was."

"Shows how much you know, Malfoy," Ron put in hotly. "Harry's uncle sent them to him and he's got more money than you and all your ancestors put together."

"Do tell. You going to hit him up for a loan then, Weasley? Before your family goes on the Needy Family list? Bet you're jealous, since that one trainer probably costs more than your entire wardrobe."

Ron clenched a fist. "Sod off, Malfoy."

Malfoy grinned nastily. "Maybe if you ask him nicely, Harry's uncle will let you rent out a room, since a bedroom in his house is probably bigger than the shack you grew up in. Then your family will be living in luxury like you've always dreamed of."

Ron lunged at Malfoy, snarling something about rearranging all the Slytherin's teeth, just as Professor McGonagall came out of the greenhouse.

"Mr. Weasley! Stop this at once!" she yelled, storming up to them.

Harry had Ron by the collar of his robe, else Ron would have tackled the smirking Malfoy to the ground.

"You know better than to start a fight, young man."

"But Professor, he started it!" Ron protested. "He said-"

"No excuses, fighting is against school rules and now you've just gotten five points from Gryffindor," she informed him sternly. "Learn to control that temper, young man." Malfoy smirked, until Minerva whirled on him and said, "I cannot take points from you, Mr. Malfoy, since I did not hear the remark that started this, but best you wipe that smirk off your face, boy, else I shall take points for your saucy attitude. Am I clear?"

Malfoy immediately lost his smug attitude. "Yes, ma'am."

Then he hurried off to the greenhouse, followed by Harry and Ron, who felt somewhat vindicated by his professor's scolding of Malfoy, though he grumbled about her taking points. "Bloody hell, but she's almost as bad as Snape."

Harry said nothing, for Ron's continued vendetta against Snape was really starting to wear on him, especially given the man's current generosity.

That afternoon in potions, Harry lingered after class to ask a question about their homework assignment, but in reality he wanted to thank the professor for buying him the clothes and shoes.

"Yes, Potter, what is it?" Snape demanded irritably, unsure if any students were still in earshot.

"Uh, I just had a question about the homework, sir," Harry began, playing along.

"Well, let's have it then, I haven't got all afternoon to waste, unlike you," growled the Potions Master, then he motioned for Harry to shut the door and he put up the wards. "Yes, what is it, Harry?" he asked in a much more normal tone of voice. "Do you honestly have a question about the assignment or was there something else you needed to talk about?"

"No, I get the assignment, Professor. I just wanted to thank you, is all, for the uh . . .clothes and the new trainers. You really didn't have to go through all that trouble . . ." he began awkwardly, scraping the side of his sneaker against the floor. "Ron told me that Mystic clothes and shoes are expensive . . .I could've done without anything so, uh, fancy."

"You don't like them? I can exchange them if you'd like," Severus began. "I wasn't sure about certain styles, perhaps it would be better if you came with me?"

"No, oh no, sir, I don't mean I didn't like them!" he hastened to explain. "They're the best clothes I've ever had in my life. But it wasn't necessary for you to spend so much . . ."

"Yes, it was," Severus put in firmly. "Child, you have been denied basic necessities all your life, and I'm sorry I couldn't act on my instincts all those years ago and give you clothes and shoes and decent food and all the things your relatives neglected to provide for you. But I had to be careful, your relatives would have noticed you wearing new clothes and such. But here, I can give you what someone should have long ago, and don't even mention the price again, Mr. Potter. How I spend my money is my business and you do deserve to wear decent clothes and Mystic is great for wear and tear, it was designed for boys and girls who play sports mostly."

Severus didn't bother to tell his ward that for years he had lived a very Spartan existence, and so had plenty of money and for once it was pleasant to spend it on something other than rare potions texts or ingredients. He had enjoyed picking the clothes out for Harry and been wondering how he had liked them. Judging from the Gryffindor's expression, he liked them very much.

"Oh. Well, anyway, thanks and I'll see you later."

That night Harry wore his new exercise outfit to the self-defense lesson, and it was one of the best sessions yet. He managed to catch his wily guardian unaware, something that probably happened once in a blue moon, and ricocheted Snape's Stinging Hex right back on to him, causing the professor to wince and fumble his wand.

Then Harry followed up with a Body Bind, just the way Severus had taught him, and knocked his teacher flat on the ground.

For a few minutes, Harry just stared at the still form in disbelief, unable to comprehend that he had actually won a spar. Then it hit him, and he grinned like an imbecile. "I did it! Got you, Severus!"

The next instant, Snape muttered a countercurse, and stood up gingerly, but he was wearing a look of satisfaction and pride on his face. "That was well done, my boy. Very well done indeed. Remember it, for it could save your life one day. You're actually becoming dangerous, Harry. To your enemies, that is," chuckled the Slytherin, and he ruffled the boy's hair.

Then he gave Harry the rest of the night off, as a reward.

* * * * * *

By mid-December, winter had settled in about the grounds in all of its chilly glory. Frost coated all the gargoyles and the ramparts of the castle and students now wore extra sweaters and scarves while walking to and from Herbology and Care of Magical Creatures. Harry had received some heavy shirts and pullovers from Uncle Toby, black and red and gold, all with the Mystic logo.

Hermione thought he looked sharp and remarked, "If your uncle keeps sending you clothes like this Harry, you'll be the best dressed student at Hogwarts soon."

"Yeah, and Malfoy will drown himself in despair," teased Ron, then winced as Harry socked him in the arm.

"Knock it off, you idiot," he ordered, but he was secretly more pleased than embarrassed, since being the best dressed was far better than being the charity case and made fun of for wearing old baggy clothes.

So far, nothing had turned up about Nicholas Flamel, much to Hermione's disappointment, though she wasn't giving up on her research.

And Ron still maintained that Snape was behind all the problems with Harry, making the dark-haired boy long to smack him upside the head for being so thick. True, Severus still picked on him in class, but no worse than he did any other Gryffindor.

With the holiday break approaching, the teachers were really piling on the homework, and even the first years felt the pressure. Harry spent at least an hour to two hours at night doing assignments, sometimes more if it were a paper. Ron teased him, saying he was turning into a brain like Hermione until Harry threw a parchment ball at him. That sparked off a brief parchment ball fight, until Percy scolded them and told them if they couldn't study quietly they should go to bed.

"You can't send me to bed, Percy," Ron snapped. "You're not Mum."

Percy eyed his younger brother and said softly, "Want to bet, Ronald? I can still toss you over my shoulder, baby brother, and I will if you don't mend your tone. People are trying to study, and if you can't respect that, you might as well go to sleep and quit creating a ruckus."

Ron flushed and glared, but sensed that Percy was serious, and so did not care to test him. "Okay, we'll be quiet. God, you act like you've never thrown a parchment ball in your life."

"I'm a prefect now, with standards." Percy said, sniffing. "Don't make me come back over here." Then he turned and walked away.

Ron made a face at him and muttered, "Thinks who the hell he is, all of a sudden. He forgets, I grew up with him, and he used to get in trouble all the time before he went to school, for trying experimental potions and spells and stuff. Got his arse walloped more than once, I'll tell you, for giving me and Ginny samples . . ."

Harry chuckled, though it was hard to imagine the proper Percy ever being a mischievous little kid and getting spanked. Still, Ron would know, if anyone would, and given the Weasley penchant for mischief . . .

"You're staying here for the break, right?" Harry asked, for he would not be leaving over Christmas, since staying at Hogwarts was much better than spending it with the Dursleys.

"Yeah, my parents are going to Romania to see my brother Charlie, and can't afford to take all of us. Percy will be going, though. But me and the twins will be here, so you won't be all by your lonesome on Christmas, Harry."

"Oh, that's good," Harry said, then recalled that he had wanted to spend part of his Christmas with Severus, so the professor wouldn't be alone either. Maybe he could find a way to snitch a few hours while Ron was sleeping or whatever. He didn't have any money to buy Severus a gift, so he decided to bake something instead.

He asked Hermione where the kitchens were, and once she had shown him, waited until the weekend to bake some of Petunia's gingerbread biscuits, using cutters shaped like cauldrons and candy canes and decorating them with tiny sugar sprinkles. Then he asked the house elves for a tin and wrapped it up with a large red bow and attached a small tag that was addressed to Uncle Toby, Happy Christmas, Your nephew, Harry. He would have Hedwig deliver it Christmas morning. He also made up a tin for Ron and Fred and George, Hagrid, and Hermione. He hoped they all liked gingerbread, although Petunia's recipe had won a prize once at the church social.

* * * * * *

The Great Hall was being decorated for the holidays as the break approached. Hagrid had dragged in several fir trees and Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Sprout had decorated them. Swags of Christmas greenery tied with large red velvet bows and tinkling silver bells hung over the mantle and about the House tables. There was also a twelve-foot high menorah and a blue fairy light sparkling Star of David for those who celebrated Hannukah instead of Christmas. The menorah candles were lit with rainbowed flames that never went out until the eighth and final night of Hannukah.

The wizarding community, like their Muggle counterparts, followed all religions, and Dumbledore was careful to represent them around their holidays so no one's feelings got hurt. Some of Harry's dorm mates, like the Patil twins, were of the Hindu faith, others, like Josh and Miriam Goldbaum, were Jewish, and there were a few Muslims, Buddhists, and Wiccans as well. During the course of the year, as different holidays came and went, Dumbledore would change the decorations in the hall to reflect whatever major holiday of a religion that was being celebrated.

That had not always been so. Centuries before, when religious tolerance was unheard of, and the Church held sway, Hogwarts had been strictly a Christian-based school, but in modern times, religious equality and tolerance was now the norm. There was a small plaque that hung just above the staff table that read: All faiths are welcome and equal here.

Finally, it was the night before Christmas, and the last student had left who was going home for the holidays. Ron and Harry had the common room of the tower to themselves. Hermione had promised to try and find out about Nicholas Flamel during the vacation if she could, which was nearly two weeks long.

"I really think he's the key to discovering what Fluffy's guarding and why Snape wants to get his hands on it."

Harry had told them of the mysterious package in vault 713 and recently there had been a headline in the Prophet about an attempted break-in at Gringotts, but the thieves had gone away empty-handed, since the vault 713 had been emptied already.

"Good thing Dumbledore moved whatever it is here," Ron said. "Sometimes he's not as dotty as he looks."

Hermione had suggested they try researching some more in the library over break, maybe even slip into the Restricted Section and have a peek at the books there. Ron just shook his head and said to Harry after she had gone that he wasn't going to spend his holiday doing anything other than eating, sleeping, and playing Wizard Chess and Quidditch.

The last weeks before the break had been a killer with exams and homework and both boys were looking forward to catching up on some sleep and relaxing. Most of the teachers had gone home during the break as well, save for Pomfrey, Snape, Pince, and Dumbledore. They usually stayed for at least one of the breaks, since they out of the staff were without families, or were no longer on speaking terms with them.

Christmas morning brought a spate of snow from the Highlands that coated everything in a pristine frosty white blanket, making the castle seem shrouded in mystery, which in fact it was.

Harry awoke to find several packages beneath the tree in the common room, several with his name on them, much to his shock. He hadn't been expecting anything this year, since the Dursleys never gave him presents. This year, he received a crumpled up tissue, inside of a small plastic box, along with the phrase Waste not, want not. He promptly threw it in the fireplace, right after showing it to Ron, who scowled and said that his aunt and uncle were cruel and needed to be checked into an institution. "Too bad you got stuck living with them instead of that friend of your mum's, huh?" Ron said sympathetically.

"Yeah, too bad."

"Anyway, open up the rest of your gifts." Ron urged, and tore into his own pile of presents with gusto.

He discovered several from the Weasleys. Ron had given him a Quidditch book called Flying With the Cannons, it was a biography about his favorite Quidditch team. "Thought you'd like to read about something b'sides school books."

"I would, thanks." Harry said, then set the book aside and opened the rest of his presents.

Mrs. Weasley had sent him two homemade mince pies, fudge, and a red sweater with a big gold H on it. "She always gives us those. Likes to knit, Mum does," Ron told him, laughing. Also included was a matching scarf and a hat and gloves.

From the twins he received a box of chocolate frogs and Zonkos firecrackers. "We can have some fun with those with Filch and Mrs. Norris," said the card.

Hermione had given him a leak-proof quill and a leather journal, which Harry planned to use to record all the self-defense spells and techniques that Snape had been teaching him.

Hagrid had sent him a box of rock-cakes, which Harry knew better than to eat, last time he had eaten one it had made him have a terrible stomachache and Severus had to give him a potion to help him digest it.

Then there was an odd flat package, inside of which was a shimmery gray cloak of some lightweight material that was not like anything Harry had ever seen before. When he tried it on, he became invisible. "Hey, Ron, check this out!"

Ron whistled. "Merlin, Harry! That's an Invisibility Cloak! They're really rare. Your Uncle Toby send you that?"

"No. The card's not signed." Harry examined it again. "All it says is that it used to belong to my dad and to use it well, whatever that means." He too had thought it was from Snape, until he had read the card. Severus would never send him something that had belonged to James.

"Must be one of your dad's old friends then. Wish some of my parents' friends would send me cool stuff like that," Ron sighed a bit enviously. "All they usually bring me are chocolate and hugs and kisses." He made a disgusted face. "Oh, by the way, thanks for the gingerbread, Harry. It's excellent." He popped another biscuit in his mouth.

"You're welcome. I made it myself," Harry declared, blushing. He hoped Hermione, Severus, the twins, and Hagrid were enjoying theirs as well.

Hedwig had not yet returned from delivering the Potion Master's gift, and Harry wondered what was keeping her.

As if his thoughts had summoned her, the snowy owl glided in through the open window of the common room, a green envelope clutched in her talons.

She delivered the envelope directly to her master, then retreated to the back of the sofa to eat a square of buttered toast.

Harry eagerly tore it open, the return address read T. Knight, which was Snape's alias.

Inside was the following note, written in Severus's elegant script:

Dear Harry,
First I would like to thank you for the wonderful gingerbread. I have already sampled one, even though I rarely allow myself to indulge in sweets, for they are my weakness. But I make an exception around the holidays and these are the best gingerbread biscuits I have ever eaten. I will try and make them last more than three days.

I thought long and hard about a gift for you, and in the end I decided to give you something unconventional, but I hope you will appreciate it. I have arranged an appointment with an eye specialist, Healer Hawkins, at St. Mungos, who will do a preliminary exam to determine if you're eligible for the eye surgery you mentioned to me. If so, you can have the surgery done over break, it's a relatively simply procedure, and start the new term without glasses. I shall pay all the fees as my gift to you.

Meet me tomorrow afternoon, one o'clock, in the infirmary, and don't be alarmed if I look different than you expected. I'll need to sign a few forms for Poppy before we visit the hospital.

Happy Christmas, Harry.

Love,

Uncle Toby

Harry was utterly overwhelmed. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected such a gift. He sat down with a thud on the floor, unable to speak, or to do anything save stare at the letter in his hand.

He must have had a strange expression on his face, for Ron peered at him worriedly and said, "Hey, you all right, Harry? Is it something bad?"

"Huh? No, it's just . . .a shock. My uncle, the one who sends me all those packages, is coming here tomorrow and he's taking me to see an eye specialist so maybe I can get that eye surgery and not need to wear glasses ever again. I mentioned it to him once . . .but I never thought he'd offer to pay for it . . ." Harry said dazedly. "I'm not even blood related to him, and the surgery's expensive. Only he says it's my . . .my Christmas present."

"Wow! That's great, Harry. That's a super Christmas present. Hope everything works out for you, mate." Ron said. "I'm gonna go wake up Fred and George, so they can open up their gifts and all." He raced upstairs, leaving Harry alone, holding the letter on his lap.

To be able to see . . .really see . . .not just with glasses alone, but like everyone else . . .it would be the best thing ever. I used to dream about that, when I was small and kids used to tease me for wearing ugly specs and Dudley broke them on me all the time. But I never thought it could happen . . .never ever. He felt a sudden lump grow in his throat and found himself choking up and tears filling his eyes. For once, he could be almost normal, like everyone else. Instead of the four-eyed freak his aunt and uncle had always told him he was. Two tears slid down his face and he hastily wiped them away. He didn't know what was the matter with him.

Here he was, about to get what he had always wanted, and all he could do was cry over it like a little baby.

How can I ever thank him for this? I don't know what to say. Except thank you God for sending him to watch over me.
Blotting his eyes once more with a corner of his sleeve, he tucked the precious letter inside his pocket and fed the wrapping paper to the flames, just before the twins stampeded down the stairs yelling Christmas wishes and tearing into their gifts under the tree.

* * * * * *

The next afternoon, Harry arrived in the infirmary at precisely one o'clock, to find a tall blond-haired blue-eyed stranger in casual denims and a blue collared shirt awaiting him, along with Madam Pomfrey. Harry blinked, unsure of how he should greet this disguised Snape, then Severus held out his arms and said, "Hello, Harry. You've grown some since last time I saw you, kid. You fit in my arms then."

His uncle was smiling, and the smile was genuine, Harry could see it reflected in his eyes. That was all he needed. "Hi, Uncle Toby," he said, then he ran over and hugged the older man hard, burying his face in Severus's chest. Despite the Glamour Charm, he could smell the familiar scent of spices that always clung to the Potions Master, and the feel of Severus's arms about him was still the same. Sudden tears welled up in his eyes and he muttered into the soft fabric of Severus's Mystic shirt, "I . . .can't believe you would . . .thanks so much . . .thank you's not enough . . ."

"Hey, take it easy. I thought it would make you happy," his uncle soothed, and though he spoke with an American accent, the timbre of his voice was unmistakably Snape. He rubbed Harry's back soothingly for a moment, looking awkward.

"I think he's a little overwhelmed, poor dear," said Pomfrey softly. "His relatives, from what I've heard, were not the best sort of people . . ."

"Toby" snorted. "You can say that again. I knew Petunia Evans when we were kids, and she was no prize then and I doubt she's changed. Always resented Lily and me for our magic, and she married a man who's as bigoted as she is, least that's what Lily told me before she . . .was killed." The Potions Master sighed heavily, still rubbing circles on his "nephew"'s back. Harry was crying silently into his shirt, and Severus continued talking to Pomfrey about living next door to Lily as a child and then moving to America during his second year at Hogwarts.

"My father took a position as a Magical Relations Ambassador and ended up falling in love with the United States and that's where I grew up, though I always kept in touch with Lily, and she asked me to look out for Harry if I could, if something should happen to her. So that's why I'm here," Severus said, the half-truth rolling easily off his tongue. He glanced down at the dark-haired boy and asked, "You okay now, son?"

"Yes, sir," Harry sniffled, blushing. Now why did he have to fall apart like that? Severus probably thought he was the biggest wimp on the planet. He accepted the handkerchief Snape handed him and wiped his eyes. "Sorry."

"It's okay. Sometimes getting what you've always wanted is scary, huh?" Severus said sagely. "If that's the last of the forms, ma'am, I guess we'll be on our way to the hospital."

"It is, Mr. Knight. Good luck, Harry." Poppy waved at them, smiling.

The two left the infirmary, walking down to the gates of the school and past the wards a little ways. Then Snape's fingers tightened upon Harry's shoulder, and he Apparated them to St. Mungos, where Healer Hawkins awaited them.

* * * * * *

It only took ten minutes for Healer Hawkins to examine Harry's eyes and have him read an eyechart before determining that Harry was indeed a prime candidate for the magical eye surgery. "Based on my diagnosis, Harry's vision can be corrected to almost 20/20 in both eyes with my new surgery technique. There was no permanent damage to the retina or the optic nerve that I can determine. He wasn't born with bad vision, this happened as a result of that curse that rebounded on him when he was a baby."

Harry gaped at the doctor and so did Severus. That was something no one had ever known before.

"You mean, my nephew's vision problems are a direct result of . . .of the Killing Curse?"

"Essentially, yes. The curse hit him in the forehead, and the shock damaged the nerves and retina in his eyes, resulting in acute nearsightedness. It's really a miracle that not only did he survive, but that he's not blind. Blindness wouldn't be able to be corrected with my surgery. However, his vision could have been corrected easily had he been examined by an Occular Specialist as a child."

"And now?"

"Now it's a bit trickier, but nothing I can't handle," Hawkins replied. "I do surgery like this almost everyday, and Harry's vision problems are hardly unique. We can schedule the surgery for next Monday, or sooner if you'd prefer, Mr. . . .ah, Knight, is it?"

"We'd prefer sooner than later, if you can manage it," Severus said quickly.

"Very well." Hawkins flipped through a schedule, then said, "How does this Tuesday sound? Good enough?"

"Tuesday is fine."

"Great. You can come here at nine o'clock in the morning, and I'll do the procedure right here in my office. It should only take an hour at the most." Hawkins, a young man in his thirties with brown hair and hazel eyes, turned to Harry then and said, "Harry, you can't eat or drink anything except water after midnight, since the potion I have to give you to put you to sleep can sometimes make you a little queasy."

Harry nodded and Severus said, "That potion you're using, is it an Anesthetic Elixir?"

"It is. You know healing potions then?"

"I know a bit. It's a hobby of mine."

Hawkins smiled, then gave Severus and Harry several forms to sign. Once they were done he handed them a reminder card, said he would owl them if anything changed, then bid them good day and they Apparated back to Hogwarts.

* * * * * *

The morning of the surgery, Harry was so nervous that he nearly threw up several times, and was grateful he hadn't had anything to eat. He was excited and apprehensive all at the same time. He didn't say much to Severus on the walk up to Hawkins' office, though the Potions Master reassured him that he would be there the whole time.

"I won't leave you alone, Harry. I'll be sitting right next to you, watching everything," Severus said, giving Harry's shoulder a comforting squeeze.

"Okay," he said, and gave his guardian a wobbly smile.

Healer Hawkins was all prepped and ready as soon as they walked in the door. "Hello, Harry! All set for your big debut? An hour or so from now, you'll be able to open your eyes and see like a hawk. And I'm not joking either. How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, sir."

"He's a little nervous, so I'll be staying here the entire time," Severus interjected firmly.

Hawkins smoothed his white robe and nodded. "Fine, family members can observe. But first, we need to cast some sterilizing spells on you both." The Healer waved his wand and intoned a short spell in Latin and Harry felt a tingling sensation run all over him.

"There. Now, if you would hop up here on my chair, Harry, and lean back a bit . . ." Hawkins assisted Harry into a high padded chair that tilted back, sort of like a dentist's chair. "We're going to dilate your pupils first with some drops," Hawkins said, and put a drop of some solution that stung a bit into each eye. "And then I'm going to give you the Anesthetic Elixir to drink, you'll go to sleep for a bit, and when you wake up, it'll be done."

He moved over to retrieve the vial of elixir from a bowl of ice.

Harry exchanged glances with Severus, feeling his stomach lurch. He reached out a hand and squeezed his guardian's fingers tightly. "Severus . . .I . . .I'm a little scared . . ." he whispered practically in Snape's ear. "I've never had surgery before."

"Relax, child. You'll be fine. I will be here, right here. I promise." The Potions Master smoothed the hair back from Harry's forehead and squeezed the boy's hand comfortingly. "You won't feel anything, you'll be asleep. I'll make sure nothing happens to you."

"Thanks," Harry murmured. "I wonder what it'll be like once it's done? I really want this, but I'm still a little afraid. What if it doesn't work?"

"It will. Hawkins is a known expert, I would never have brought you to him else." Severus seated himself in a chair next to Harry.

Hawkins returned with the vial and handed it to Harry. "It's a little chilly, but I want you to swallow it quickly. It will work in about five minutes, you'll feel a little hazy and tired, then just close your eyes and go to sleep. You should sleep without dreams and I'll wake you when I'm done. All right?"

Harry nodded, then uncorked the potion and drank it quickly. It was icy and tasted faintly of lavender and something else Harry didn't know. Almost instantly, he felt a soothing warmth sweep over him and he yawned.

"Go to sleep, Harry. I'm right here," reassured Severus, giving the boy's hand a gentle squeeze.

Harry smiled at his dark angel and then let the potion send him to sleep.

When he awoke again, Severus was beside him, as promised, still holding his hand.

Harry blinked, his eyes felt a bit gritty.

He lifted a hand to rub them, and felt it caught by a larger one. "No, don't rub. I'm going to wash out your eyes with a Soothing Solution," Hawkins said. Then he suited actions to words and put a clear potion into each of Harry's eyes.

The gritty feeling vanished and Harry blinked once, twice. Then he turned his head and stared directly at Severus.

The Potion Master's face was sharp and clear, not slightly blurry.

"Harry? How are you? Can you see me?" Severus asked softly, seeing the emerald eyes widen and brighten with amazement.

"Yes," the young wizard answered. "I can see . . .everything!"

"Can you read this?" Hawkins asked, and held up an eyechart from several feet away.

Harry read, easily and clearly, even the very bottom line, that he had never been able to read before even with his glasses. He grinned, the joy on his face radiating outward to everyone in the room. "I can read everything now! It's like a miracle."

Hawkins smiled. "Yes, a magical miracle, if you like, Harry."

"And the best Christmas present ever," said the Boy Who Lived, and then he sat up and gave the one who had made it possible a very long hug.

Severus felt his own eyes mist with tears. "Well, I had a lot of Christmases to make up for, son," he said, clasping the boy to him.

They left St Mungos a few moments later, Severus having paid the seven hundred and fifty Galleon fee without blinking an eye, Harry gazing about in wonder at the new world he could see through his almost perfect emerald eyes. The tall professor smiled down at his charge, and thought wistfully, Lily, I wish you were here to see this. ‘Tis the season of miracles indeed. And the greatest one of all perhaps, is right here beside me. 

Who's happy for Harry now? Believe me, I wish I had that magic eye surgery.

Next: The mystery deepens as the kids investigate Nicholas Flamel and Harry discovers a magic mirror.



Chapter 14: Mirror Of Dreams
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The magical eye surgery was the best thing that had ever happened to Harry. With his new hawk-sharp sight he could beat Ron when they played Quidditch even quicker now, catching the Snitch in a matter of three minutes.

"Merlin, Harry! Next time you play Quidditch against Thorne or Chang, you could blow them away, easy as blinking!"

Harry smiled. "I see even better now than I did with my new glasses." He had put the glasses away in the bottom of his trunk, he didn't need them any more, but couldn't bring himself to just throw them away. They had been expensive and his first gift from Severus.

Uncle Toby had returned to California a day after the surgery, and Harry was sorry for that, since only under that guise could he spend time with Snape openly. Ron and the twins had even met him briefly and pronounced him "first-rate" which made Harry smirk secretly behind his hand, for they never would have complimented their snarky teacher that way.

You see, he longed to say, THIS is the Severus Snape I know, my protector and friend, not the greasy snarky bat of the dungeons. He took care of me since I was little, every time I was sick or hurt, because of a promise, but now it's more than that.

Since coming to school, Harry had discovered that the Potions Master, like himself, had no real family, only colleagues, acquaintainces, and students. His one true friend, Harry's mum Lily, was long dead. The professor, though he would deny it to his last breath, was as lonely as Harry had ever been living at Privet Drive. Harry understood, though, for he too had no real family, just relatives who regarded him as an unwanted burden. And while Ron and Hermione were his friends, it didn't take the place of a real family.

Yet the two had each other, and what had begun as the fulfillment of a promise to a beloved friend had since grown into something more, something that Harry was just beginning to recognize as the love and concern of a parent for a child. He wasn't quite certain yet, having never known anything quite like that, but many of Snape's reactions were more like a father's than a teacher's, especially these past months.

For what teacher would pay for expensive eye surgery for a mere student? Or sit by said student's bedside after a nightmare and soothe them to sleep?

After the surgery, Severus had taken Harry back to his private lab to rest, since he was feeling a bit queasy, a common side-effect of the Anesthetic Elixir. He had given Harry a dose of Stomach Soother and bade him have a bit of a lie-down till his stomach stopped aching. Harry did, promptly fell asleep, and ended up dreaming of a glowing green light and a clawed scaly hand trying to pluck out his eyes.

"For what you cannot see, you cannot fight, little hero. Blind worm, I am coming for you, and when at last we meet, little boy, I shall finish what I started, long ago. You shall burn and no dark protector shall save you!" He had awoken with the thing's terrible laughter echoing in his ears and the feeling of claws upon his face, chilled to the marrow, and screaming in denial.

Until Severus had come and held him, calming his racing heart with his mere presence and whispering that there was nothing to fear, it was merely a dream, and no harm would come to him ever.

The Gryffindor supposed that was what a father would do, and though he was a little embarrassed, he still felt better with Snape's arm about him, snuggled into the familiar black velvet chest, listening to the steady beat of the man's heart. He doubted if he would have felt the same if it had been McGonagall or Flitwick holding him. Only Severus had ever engendered that closeness, that warmth, that feeling of utter security. It had always been so, ever since the first time Snape had held him, when he was a sick four-year-old, coughing his lungs up from bronchitis. Black velvet, spices, and arms that held him close, all those things equaled safety and Snape in his mind.

Is it like that for everyone? Or only me? If only I didn't have to keep it a secret. It's such a royal pain in the bum, having to hide and sneak about like a thief in the night. Even on holiday I have to pretend.

Harry sighed and stretched, it was the sixth day of vacation and really too early to be awake. Six AM, according to his watch. Ron was still snoring away, they had stayed up till past midnight toasting marshmallows and grilled cheese in the common room and playing chess and Exploding Snap till their eyes closed and Ron almost burnt a hole in his pajamas when he got too close to the fire before nodding off with the marshmallow in his hand.

So Harry should have been exhausted, but instead he was wide awake and restless. Deciding to test out the Invisibility Cloak, he dressed and removed it from his trunk. Maybe now I can sneak into the Restricted Section and look for clues about Nicholas Flamel, like Hermione said. He had let the mystery slide during Christmas and afterwards, but now his curiosity had been rekindled, and he was anxious to find out more about the secret treasure hidden beneath the Cerberus's paws.

He swirled the shimmery cloak about him dramatically, like a matador in a bull ring, then tugged up the hood and vanished.

Out of the tower and down the hall towards the library he crept, and not even the castle ghosts paid him heed. The library was deserted, even Madam Pince was sleeping in today. He slipped beneath the archway with its glowing red letters that warned Restricted--No Student Allowed to Sign Books Out Without a Pass from A Professor! He spent an hour combing the shelves for likely looking volumes, only to come up empty-handed.

Disappointed, he tried to have a look at a book called Spiritual Realities, opening it up only to have the most God-awful shrieking emerge from a magical mouth that suddenly appeared on the front page.

"Ahhh!" he yelped, slammed the book shut, and shoved it on the shelf. Then he ran for the exit, for that terrible screeching was sure to bring Filch or Madam Pince to investigate.

On the way to the door he passed Peeves the poltergeist, bane of students, yelling, "Naughty, naughty, someone's been poking in forbidden places, ooo! Somebody's in trouble! Oh, FILCH! Argus baby, we got a security breach here! Hurry up, man, move your lazy arse! Here kitty, kitty! A brat's invaded the library! Hunt 'em down, boys! Hunt 'em down and make a stew outta their miserable little carcass, what?"

Harry scampered past the library in the opposite direction, cursing both the poltergeist and his blasted curiosity. Why hadn't Hermione warned him about the alarm on the books? She remembered everything else, how could she have forgotten that?

Eventually he slowed, there was a stitch in his side and he looked around, only then realizing that he was in a part of the castle he didn't recognize. It was thick with dust and there were no portraits upon the walls, only rat-nibbled faded tapestries that had probably been around since the birth of Merlin or Arthur, if not before.

Panting, he discovered a door and turned the handle and went in, hoping to find a chair he could rest in for a minute before trying to find his way back. The room was empty of all save a few musty wooden crates that might have once held wine and a large gilded mirror.

The mirror, upon closer inspection, was heavily gilded and decorated about its oval face with cherubs, flowers, fanciful birds, stars, and moons. Harry had never seen such a beautiful mirror, the carvings seemed to breathe and the glass was smooth and clear. Harry peered at it and all at once the mirror began to glow.

He threw up a hand to shield his eyes from the sudden flare, but an instant later it had died, and when Harry blinked, the mirror was now filled with mist.

Then it cleared and instead of his own reflection, Harry saw a young woman with auburn hair and familiar green eyes holding a dark-haired baby and laughing. Next to them was a rather tall man with the same dark hair and glasses, smiling. They looked awfully familiar...

Harry stared at them for a few moments, noting how the older man had hair just like his and glasses like he used to and then it hit him. These were his parents, whom he couldn't remember. And the baby in Lily's arms must be . . .

Me! But why was the mirror showing him this? The family he'd had once and lost? He swallowed, an odd constricton in his chest.

Then the mist erased the image and Harry felt a strange tug from somewhere dep within him. It did not hurt, but it left him strangely bereft and hollow, longing for something else, something more . . .

Then the mist cleared and this time Harry saw Severus standing next to him, an arm about him, smiling while off to the side students and teachers gaped in shock and then he heard Severus announce, "This is my son, Harry." And Harry was grinning and waving, thrilled at last to finally acknowledge the truth.

He gazed at the image, losing itself in the promise it whispered through his entire being. All that you wish for can be yours. The deepest desires of your heart can become reality within the Mirror of Dreams, all you need to do is surrender . . .

Harry slumped to the ground, eyes fixed upon the impossible dream in the mirror, the cloak slipping down to pool about him in a shimmery swath, forgotten.

A home. A father who was alive, who loved Harry, and who no longer had to keep their relationship a secret. Someone who could, at long last, claim him as his son, where he could be wanted and cherished, no longer the freaky poor relation.

"This is my son, Harry."

My son.

My son.

The words swelled to a triumphant chant in his head and he reached out a hand to touch his father's, eager to feel the familiar touch of long fingers wrapping about his own. The image vanished as his hand brushed the glass.

NO!

He howled in anguish, feeling as if something had been ripped from within him. "Come back! Please! Don't go....I'll do anything!"

Tears dribbled unchecked down his face and he cried, for the wonderful feeling was gone and all he felt was empty.

He gazed pleadingly at the mirror and suddenly the image of himself and Severus returned. Entranced, he settled down before the mirror, losing himself in the siren call, captive to the deepest desire of a lonely starved heart.

* * * * * * *

He had no idea how long he reamined there, oblivious to the outside world, but it must have been hours, for he came back to an insistent hollow ache in his stomach, and when he turned his gaze away, he saw that his watch read half-past two. No wonder he was starving, he'd missed breakfast and lunch. He stumbled to his feet, stiff from sitting too long, and picked up the cloak. He felt a pang of longing as he looked at mirror, and the image it held. Wait for me. I will return.

Return to me.

Return to me. It called soundlessly, the heartbreaking note of a lost lonely child in its plea.

"I'll be back," he reassured it, and then he left to get some lunch and tell Ron about the amazing mirror.

Together the two returned to the old wing and Ron looked into the mirror as well, seeing himself winning the Quiditch Cup in one scene and then being Head Boy in another. "See, I'm not just my brothers' shadow, who always is least and never best," he exclaimed. "I wonder if this mirror shows the future, Harry? And if so, what's it doing here, in a dusty old room, forgotten?"

" I don't know." Harry said, then peered into its depths, losing himself again in dreams of what might be. He would have stayed there for hours had not Ron nudged him and said, "C'mon, mate, let's go flying."

Reluctantly, he drew away, but he could still hear the mirror in the back of his head, crying, Return to me. Don't forget.

* * * * * *

And Harry did return to the mirror, night after night, he succumbed to the siren lure and sat entranced in front of the glass.

Away from it, he was apathetic and irritable, not wanting to do much of anything, and Ron soon gave up on trying to interest him in new Quidditch moves and went to practice himself, leaving Harry to brood and pick over his food in the hall alone.

Severus noticed how pale and thin the boy was becoming, however, and asked if Harry was eating. When Harry mumbled noncommitally, the Potions Master gave him a Nutrient Shake, insisted he drink it all, and then ordered him lunch and stood over him while he ate.

Harry sulked and toyed with his meal until Snape said warningly, "Quit playing and eat, young man, or shall I feed you like a baby? If you haven't eaten five pieces of ham before I count to three, I promise I'll put you on my lap and feed you like I did when you were four."

At that dire threat, Harry roused himself and ate what he could. But the food tasted like ashes and as soon as Snape agreed he had eaten enough, he left and returned to the secret room to look upon the dream within the mirror.

This might have gone on indefinitely, had not Dumbledore sought the mirror for a certain purpose and discovered Harry in front of it almost a week later. He roused the boy from his trance and said softly, "Harry, the Mirror of Erised can be dangerous if you look too long and hope for too much."

"What? I don't understand."

"The mirror does not always show you what is true, merely what you wish to be true. It offers no solutions, only illusions. People have been known to go mad or waste away from looking into the mirror upon their heart's desire for too long. What do you see in the mirror, child?"

Harry hesitated. Then at last he replied, softly, " I see myself and . . .my father. My family."

"Ah. I understand. Child, you must stop looking into the mirror and wishing for what can never be."

Harry scowled. Who did Dumbledore think he was, saying his vision could never happen? The old wizard stepped in front of the mirror and the image changed as he did so. "What do you see then, sir?" Harry demanded, rather rudely.

Dumbledore did not seem to mind. "I see myself . . .holding a pair of socks. One can never have too many and no one buys me them for Christmas, only books and scarves." he broke off and cast a sheet over the mirror. "Come along, Harry. The sun is shining and it's a marvelous day. Enjoy it while you can." He pulled Harry to his feet and marched the reluctant boy from the room.

Ron was outside and Harry joined him on his broom, but after his friend was asleep, he slipped back to the secret room, the mirror's lure pulling him onward, only to find that the room was empty and the mirror was gone.

The boy spent several minutes cursing and kicking the empty crates about in a temper before crumpling to the ground and sobbing hopelessly.

At last however, his unnatural grief spent itself and he picked himself up and made his way to Severus's quarters, where the Potions Master wordlessly let him sleep in his lab. As Harry snuggled down into the soft emerald comforter, the familiar smells of spices in his nostrils, he reflected that at least he still had this to comfort him. It was not the same, but it served to mute the craving in his heart for now. And maybe someday . . .the vision in the mirror might come to pass. After all, the Headmaster did not know everything, and Harry had the feeling he had lied when he had told Harry about his own vision. For whose heart's desire was nothing but a pair of socks?

The exhausted boy slept deeply for the first time in days and when he awoke he was ravenous and all of his old energy had returned.


So, how did you like that version of the Mirror of Erised? Creepy, no?

Next: School term begins again, with the three trying to decipher the mystery of Flamel and some other unexpected nasty happenings.




Chapter 15: Chocolate Frogs and Dragon Eggs
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"That's wonderful, Harry!" exclaimed Hermione upon seeing her friend without his glasses.  "I'm so happy your uncle paid for your eye surgery.  You look so much different without your glasses." She tilted her head to one side, examining him.  "Your eyes . . .they look bigger and a deeper shade of green."

   Harry could feel himself blushing slightly at the girl's frank observation.  It was the first compliment he had ever received from a girl.  Back in primary school, most of the girls had avoided him, calling him freak and scar-head.  He found Hermione's words a little disconcerting, but he liked the fact that he looked better without his glasses, it was an unlooked for bonus of the surgery.  "Uh . . .thanks, Hermione.  I never thought about the way my eyes looked without my glasses.  But now I can see just like everyone else.  Now I can do my homework without squinting.  By the way, Hermione, did you find out anything else about Nicky?" That was their code for Nicholas Flamel.

  Hermione shook her head regretfully.  "No, I tried looking him up in my local library, and all I found were some references to alchemy. Sorry.  How did you two fair?"

  "Same as you," Ron sighed.  "I don't think we're meant to know.  Maybe we should just . . .I don't know. . .give up?"

   Harry shook his head firmly.  "No.  We can figure this out, I know we can.  We just need a little help." He turned and pulled a chocolate frog from the box he had gotten for Christmas.  "Here. Chocolate frog, anyone?"  

 Ron immediately took one and Hermione also.  The red-haired Gryffindor popped the frog in his mouth and looked at his card.  "Humph.  Godric Gryffindor.  Already got him, but maybe I could trade."

   They were sitting at one of the little study carols in the common room, school term had only begun three days ago, yet all the teachers had already given them loads of homework.    Hermione unwrapped hers and held it until it stopped moving, then she nibbled hers, and looked at her card.  "Oh, rats! Nimue Ambrosius.  I was hoping to get Rowena Ravenclaw.  She's the last founder of Hogwarts I need."

    "Who's Nimue Ambrosius?" asked Ron.

   "She was the daughter of Merlin and a well-respected Healer and Seer," Hermione replied, reading the back of the card.

   Harry opened his chocolate frog and found Albus Dumbledore inside.  He flipped over the card to read the back and discovered something amazing.  "Hey! You'll never believe this."

   "What?" asked Hermione.

   "This card mentions Nicholas Flamel," Harry said in an undertone.  He read from the back of the card.  "Dumbledore is also known for his work with Nicholas Flamel, famous wizard and alchemist, on the Sorcerer's Stone."

  "Let me see that, please," Hermione ordered, and Harry handed it to her.  She re-read the back of the card again, then said excitedly, "Now we're getting somewhere.  I can do some research on the Sorcerer's Stone tomorrow evening, after I finish my homwork.  I think I remember reading a little about it in a book about ancient magical treasures."

   Harry took the card back and tucked it in his pocket.  "Good thing I got this box of chocolate frogs for Christmas," he murmured.  "And it was even luckier that my card had the information we needed, after all." 

   "And once we find out what this Sorcerer's Stone is, maybe then we'll know why old Snape was trying to get his greasy hands on it," Ron said.

    "Ron, Hagrid said that Snape was trying to protect the stone, not steal it," Harry pointed out exasperatedly, wishing his friend would just quit his vendetta against the Potions Master.

  "Humph! Hagrid doesn't know everything, Harry." Ron snorted. "Didn't you say you saw him limping on Halloween? He probably went up to the third floor and the dog bit him.  Otherwise why would he have been lurking around there instead of finding the troll?"  

"He's right, Harry," sighed Hermione.  "And Snape did try and hex your broom as well.  All the evidence points to him."  

Harry felt his temper begin to spark.  "So what? Evidence be damned! I think you're both wrong.  It's someone else."  

"Harry, be logical," Hermione argued.  "Who else would have the motive? I hate thinking a teacher betrayed us, but . . .well . . .I saw what I saw at the Quidditch match and well . . .Snape IS Head of Slytherin House--"  

"Where most of the worst dark wizards come from, like You-Know-Who," put in Ron. "I think Snape's in league with them."  

Harry stood up, furious that such slander could come out of Ron's mouth.  To accuse his guardian angel of being in league with the one he fought against seemed the worst sort of blasphemy.  "Don't be an arsehole, Ron! Snape's no more in league with them than . . .than I am!"  

"Why are you defending him, Harry? He hates you, he's always on your back in class, how can you not believe he's the one?" cried Ron.   

"I just DO!" Harry shouted, biting his lip hard.  "Look, let's drop this, okay? I'm sick of talking about it.  I'm going to bed."  He picked up his bookbag and beat a hasty retreat up the stairs before his temper caused him to betray Severus's secret.   

Hermione and Ron exchanged glances.  "I don't get it, Hermione. What's up with him and Snape?"  

Hermione shrugged.  "I don't know, Ron.  But I'll think about it while I'm researching the Sorcerer's Stone."She yawned.  "Well, I'm for bed too.  Night, Ron."  

"Night, Hermione." Ron waved, then went over to see if he could interest Dean and Neville in a game of Wizard chess, since he felt it was too early to go to bed yet.  

 * * * * * *    

" . . .The Sorcerer's Stone, sometimes also called the Philosopher's Stone, is an ancient magic jewel known to give the bearer unnaturally long life and youth, in effect making the one who holds it immortal.  So long as the stone is in the holder's possession, the holder need never fear death, whether natural or magical . . ." Hermione read from the book she had checked out of the library.  "The last known holders of the Stone were the wizard alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perelandra."  

"The Philosopher's Stone!" Ron exclaimed. "I've heard of that.  Percy used to prank me when I was seven, casting illusions on rocks and saying he found the stone in our backyard and now we'd all be immortal and filthy rich.  I really believed him too, until Mum yelled at him and made him stop.  But this . . .if they've got a Cerberus guarding it, it must be the real thing."  

"I'm sure it is," Hermione stated firmly.  "Cerberus's only guard magical objects with such devotion."  

"And now we know why Snape's trying to steal it.  Because he wants to be immortal.  Either that or sell it for a fat lot of cash." Ron grimaced.  "Ugh, can you imagine the Greasy Git living forever? Terrorizing students year after year?" He made a gagging noise.  

"Or maybe he wants the Stone for a darker purpose. . .I've heard that there are still dark wizards out there, trying to, uh, bring back You-Know-Who," Hermione hissed.  

Ron snorted.  "Don't be ridiculous, Hermione.  That  one's dead, he died the night he tried to kill Harry, so don't even go there.  You can't bring back the dead, even with magic.  No, Snape wants the Stone for himself, so he can live forever and make everyone's life a bloody misery."  

Harry had remained silent during the discussion, mostly because he feared if he opened his mouth, all of his anger at his friends' unjust accusations of Snape would come boiling out.  He groped hard for what fragments of self-control he had left, then slowly stood and pushed back his chair.  

"Hey, where are you going, Harry?" asked Hermione.  

"For a walk," he replied neutrally.  "I need to think.  But remember one thing.  Voldemort--" Ron gasped, but Harry ignored him.  He thought it was stupid, not saying Voldemort, as if his name would summon him.  The man, evil though he was, was not Satan.  Maybe his younger brother . . ."On that night he tried to kill me, they never found his body.  So how does anyone know he's really dead? Without a body for evidence, no one can be certain.  I think he's still out there and he's the one who wants the Stone. That's who they're guarding it from."  Ha! Put that in your pipe and smoke it! He thought as he walked off.  I'd sooner believe Voldemort returned from the dead than that my guardian angel was a traitor.  

"But Harry, that's crazy!" Ron murmured.  "Snape's the one, why can't you see that . . .?"  

"Hmmm . . .he may have a point, Ron. . . ."  

"No way! Snape's got some kind of hold on him, maybe he's Confunded Harry, that's why he won't believe anything we say against him . . ."  

"I don't know, Ron. Harry doesn't seem confused . . ."  

Harry quickly left the library, returned to Gryffindor Tower to drop off his bookbag, and fetch the Invisibility Cloak.  Confunded indeed! How ridiculous! It's just like Ron, to accuse a teacher of hexing a student.  It was just after supper, and hardly any students were about, most were outside, playing in the snow.   

Swirling the cloak about him, he loved doing that, Harry vanished.  Then he headed down to the one person who could provide solace and comfort for his aching angry heart.  

Five minutes later, he was tapping at the door to Snape's office, the cloak removed and tucked into a square inside his robe, it folded down quite easily.  He knew the professor was usually there at this time in the evening, grading papers.  

"Enter."   The door swung open, and Snape looked up to behold . . ."Potter! What are you doing here?" he began, using his familiar acerbic tone, just in case.  

Harry shut the door.  "Professor? I . . .really need to talk to you." The boy was pale and his eyes glittered with a mixture of anger and anxiety the likes of which Severus had never seen.  

The master wizard quickly cast the Anti-Eavesdropping wards, then asked softly, "What's the problem, Harry?" he gestured for the boy to sit down.  

Harry shook his head.  "I . . .I just can't stand it any more, Severus!  Any of it!" he declared angrily.  "They keep saying things about you . . .nasty things . . .and I had to get out, before I blew up and hexed them both.  They're so stupid!" Harry's face was flushed and his chest heaved with the force of his emotions.   

"Calm down, son," Snape began, keeping his tone low and even.  "Can't stand what? From whom? Sit down and start from the beginning, Harry, you're not making a bit of sense.  I can't read your mind, child, even though rumors say otherwise."  

Harry sank down into the chair in front of the desk, his hands clenched hard.  He focused on the warm swirls of the wood grain on Snape's desk until he was calm again, and could speak without shouting.  'It's . . .I can't stand pretending to hate you, I know it's just an act, but . . .after everything you've done, Severus . . .I just can't. . . I hate this masquerade . . ." He rubbed the heel of his hand into his forehead, then sighed.  "Ron and Hermione think you're evil, in league with . . .with the monster who killed my parents . . .and that you hexed my broom . . .I keep telling them they're wrong, but they won't believe me, Severus . . .They made me so damn mad, I almost hexed them both today . . .I just wish I could tell them the truth . . .I'm not good at keeping secrets like this . . .I will cause I have to, but it's so hard! Sorry, I don't mean to whine."    

Severus was silent for a moment.  He had known when he began this masquerade that it wouldn't be easy, but he hadn't reckoned on Harry being involved in it.  The burden of secrecy was very wearing and it was not one that an eleven-year-old should be carrying.  That had never been his intention.  But now was too late for regrets.  He came around the desk and patted the boy comfortingly on the shoulder.   

"I know this is not easy for you, Harry.  I never intended for you to see past my mask, that's why I never let you see my name or my face all those years ago.  Anonymity was safer for us both.  However, that's a moot point now.  I have lived in the shadows for years as a spy, Harry, and have grown accustomed to living a double life.  I'm sorry you were brought into this, it can be hard to maintain a facade, especially with your friends."  

"Tell me about it.  It's a big pain in the arse.  Sorry for my language, sir, but it is.  I just want to scream at them to shut up, that it was you who protected and healed me all those years and you'd never hurt me. If only they knew, they'd never say you were a . . .greasy git . . .and selfish and hard and cold . . .or cruel and evil . . .or that you hated me.  Never!" Angry tears sparkled in the emerald eyes, tears that Harry quickly dashed away with the sleeve of his robe.  

Severus squeezed his shoulder gently.  "Harry, the path I walk is lonely and dark, but I made that choice long ago, the night your mother died, in fact.  The path of the spy often is, but I accepted it as the price I must pay, it was worth it so long as I brought the monster to justice in the end.  I wish you had never recognized me, Harry, it would have been much easier if you only knew me as the cold-hearted greasy git."  

Harry shook his head stubbornly.  "No, sir! Easier for me maybe, but what about you? You don't deserve that, sir.  Look at everything you've taught me. I'm glad I recognized you that day.  Because now you've got someone to trust who trusts you.  I just hate it when they start in on you . . .sometimes I want to punch them all out . . .the other Gryffindors, I mean."

  "I can undestand that.  Perhaps this will help.  It doesn't matter what other people think, only what you think.  You know the truth, after all.  I've heard what they call me, and I don't let it bother me, for they're only words, false ones, and meaningless.  Once, it would have bothered me, when I was your age, but no longer.  I know who and what I am, my loyalties and actions are clear as is my conscience.  If I died today, I could meet God knowing I did my best to fulfill my vow of bringing down Voldemort and protecting you.  That is what matters.  Not my reputation, child.  That was shot all to hell long ago." He placed a hand over his heart.  "In here is what counts, Harry. Not out here.  People see what I want them to see. But you and I know the truth."  

He began to massage the back of Harry's neck, and the boy leaned against his angel's side.  Then he continued, "Nothing worth doing is ever easy.  The life I lead, Harry, is not one you should ever walk, and there is little I can do to make it easier, except to tell you that you can always come to me and talk and I shall listen . . .And someday, when Voldemort is banished for good and all, you can stand beside me and tell all those who sneered and mocked me how mistaken they were." Then he added with a sly smirk, "And watch them all faint from shock."  

Harry grinned at that, imagining Ron and Hermione keeling over from shock.  "Can't wait for that day, Severus.  Till then, guess I'll just count to twenty and bite my tongue."  

Severus ruffled Harry's hair.  "And practice some meditation as well.  You're doing a brilliant job of keeping your temper, and I'm proud of you."  

Harry basked in the praise, for he knew Snape never said things like that unless he meant them. "Thanks, sir.  I'll try and remember what you said."  

Severus gave Harry one of his rare smiles. "You are so like your mother.  A burden shared between friends is no burden at all.  Thank you, Harry."  

Harry simply leaned into Snape's side, wearing an identical smile, content to just sit here and allow Severus's presence to soothe his weary spirit.

    * * * * * *

  The next morning was Saturday and after Quidditch practice, Harry called Hedwig to him and was going to send her off with a letter for Snape, asking if they were going to hold Defense lessons tonight, when he noticed the owl's normally perky self was subdued and quiet, her feathers looked dull, and she pecked him when he went to fasten the letter about her foot.   

"Ow! Hedwig, what's wrong with you? Why are you mad at me?" He examined the owl more closely, noting that her eyes seemed glassy and she felt thinner and hotter than normal. 

"Hey, are you sick? I think you are, that's why you're so snippy.  Okay . . .uh, who takes care of sick owls?" Harry thought fast, then recalled Hagrid saying he knew a lot about animals.  He cradled the owl in his arms and began running down to the path towards Hagrid's hut, praying the gamekeeper was at home.  

Luckily, Hagrid was just brewing a pot of tea and answered the door as soon as Harry knocked.    "Hello, Harry! Care for a spot of tea?"  

 "Thanks, Hagrid, but I'm here 'cause something's wrong with Hedwig.  I think she's sick."  

"Sick? Well, let's 'ave a look see." Hagrid took the owl from Harry and set her on the table.  He then examined her eyes and wings, looked in her throat and poked at her stomach.  She hissed at him, but Hagrid just nodded.  "Yup, she's off color and seems like she's got sommat wrong with her stomach.  D'you know if she's eaten or drank something she's not supposed to?"  

Harry frowned.  "Uh, I feed her what the other owls eat and she's normally in the Owlry, so I don't know if she ate something there that made her sick.  Can you help her, Hagrid?"  he twisted his fingers nervously in his robe.   

"Aye.  Though this doesn't seem like an ordinary sickness," the gamekeeper mused.  "Usually all the owls get sick when one does.  But nobody's come to me to say all the owls are sick, and those symptoms . . .is this the first time you've noticed she was peaky, lad?"   Harry nodded.    "Hmm . . .if I didn't know better . . .I'd say it seems an awful lot like silvermort poisoning . . .but that's ridiculous.  Who'd hurt an owl here at Hogwarts?" Hagrid muttered.  

Harry stiffened.  First someone had tried to kill him and make it look like an accident, and now this.  He didn't know who was behind these strange attempts on his life, but he knew he couldn't let Hedwig be at risk.  "Hagrid, you can cure her, right?"  

"Sure, Harry.  I can have Professor Snape brew me a draft that'll fix her right up, it's the antidote for silvermort, charcoal and dandelion and some other stuff, he'll know."  

Harry breathed a sigh of relief.  "Thank God! And can you do me another favor, Hagrid?  Once she's better, can I leave her with you instead of sending her back up to the Owlry?  She'll be safer here, I think."  

Hagrid considered, then nodded.  "All right, Harry.  Though I don' know what you're worried about.  I don't think it's silvermort poison, even though the symptoms are the same.  Silvermort grows in the Forbidden Forest and not many wizards know how to harvest it correctly, it's got to be picked at a certain time o' the night and cut with an iron knife.  It's used as a poison by evil wizards, it'll kill both owls and small pets."  

"Thanks, Hagrid! You're the best!"  He said, then he noticed the strange pot Hagrid had buried in the ashes of his fieplace.  "What's in there, Hagrid? Is it potatoes?"  

"Uh, no.  It's . . .err . . . a surprise."  Hagrid coughed uncomfortably.  

Harry peered into the pot and saw an enormous purple egg.  His jaw dropped.  "Hell, Hagrid what's that?"  

"Something special." He blushed. "Here, Harry.  Let's get yer owl settled."   Harry assisted Hagrid, waiting until Hedwig was resting comfortably before leaving to fetch a school owl so he could deliver the message to Severus.  He was still worried about Hedwig, but he trusted Hagrid.  If anyone could make Hedwig well, he was the one.  

* * * * * *  

 It took four days before Hedwig was well, and Harry, Ron and Hermione came to visit the owl after classes, bringing her small voles and insects to tempt her appetite.  Severus warned Harry again to never go anywhere alone and not to eat anything someone gave him, unless it was himself, of course.

It was on one of those visits that the strange egg Hagrid kept buried in the ashes of the fireplace began to rock back and forth and crack open.   The three children stared in awe as the egg hatched, and from it emerged a tiny Norweigian Ridgeback, very hungry and making an odd demanding croon. 

Ron nearly fell over.  "Merlin, Hagrid, that's a baby dragon! Where'd you get it? They're illegal to own as pets less you get permission from the Ministry.  They're too dangerous."

   "Dangerous? Don' be ridiculous.  Norbert's harmless," Hagrid chuckled, then winced as the black dragonet blew fire at him and started a blaze in his beard.  "I got 'em off a chap in the pub.  Won it in a game of cards.  I've always wanted one." He put the fire out and scratched the dragon under its chin.

  "Here, son, look what Dad has for ya." He fed the starving dragon a large steak, which it devoured.   

"Hagrid, how can you keep a dragon here?" Hermione asked.  "Somebody's bound to see it sometime and then you could get put in prison."  

"Ah.  I'll be careful.  He was abandoned, the man who put 'em up in the game said his mother was dead.  So he's an orphan and if I don't take em he'll die, he's too little to survive on his own."  

"We'll keep your secret, don't worry, Hagrid." Harry reassured him.  He shot a warning look at his friends.  

"Yeah, we're not snitches," Ron agreed.  But he wondered just how long Hagrid could keep the little dragon hidden.  His brother Charlie always said dragons grew pretty quickly and they ate like crazy especially after they were first hatched.   

Hermione just shook her head.  Hagrid was just as bad as the boys for breaking school rules.  Maybe it was a disease men contracted when they were boys and never got rid of.  Then she yelped as Norbert tried to nip her finger.  

"Ah, Norbert, no biting!" Hagrid wagged a finger at the dragonet.  "He don' know better, Hermione.  He's jus' a baby."

  "Some baby!" the little witch sniffed.   Norbert hissed and pounced at the teapot, nearly knocking it over.   "Gotta get him some toys an' make a pen for 'im," said Hagrid happily.   

After stroking Hedwig for a few minutes, Harry and the two Gryffindors left, for it was time for class.  

 * * * * * *  

 By the time a month had gone by, Norbert had tripled in size and was eating enormous amounts of meat, all of which Hagrid hunted for in the forest or bought at Diagon Alley.  Harry, Hermione, and Ron were seriously worried that Norbert would burn down Hagrid's house, however, since the little dragon had quite the temper and breathed fire when angry.  Twice Hagrid had ended up singed and bitten as Norbert didn't like it when he was away for longer than a few hours.   

No cage could hold him either, the dragonet was very strong and smart, if he didn't knock it down, he would hum the lock open.  Opening locks was part of a dragon's magic, and even the small ones could do it.  Hagrid was lucky Norbert hadn't decided to magic open the lock on the cottage yet.   

"That creature's a menace," Ron snapped, after one visit when Norbert had set the seat of his pants on fire.  "If Hagrid's not careful, his little baby's gonna burn him to a crisp by accident some night."  

For some reason, though, the dragon liked Harry, and would curl up near him or purr softly when he saw him, but he hissed at Ron and ignored Hermione when they tried to pet him.  "Contrary little beast," chuckled Hagrid.  'He's got his quirks, does Norbert.  Funny though, th' only other person he purrs for b'sides you n' me, Harry, is Professor Snape."  

"Snape knows about him?" Ron cried in horror.  

"Nah, he never saw 'im, but he came by one day t'give me some coffee an' Norbert was hiding and when he saw him, he started to purr.  I tol' the professor it was a cat an' he didn' question me. But Norbert liked 'im right enough."  

"Huh.  Figures.  Slytherins would get along with dragons," Ron huffed.  

"What about me and Hagrid then?" Harry demanded. "We're Gryffindors and he likes us."  

Ron looked uncomfortable.  "Hagrid's like his dad an' who knows why he likes you, Harry? You're just weird."  

Harry socked him playfully in the shoulder.  "C'mon, it's almost curfew."   They turned to depart the hut, when they caught sight of a pale face framed by blond hair peering through the window.   

"Huh? Who was that?" Harry cried.  He dashed outside.   It was then he saw the familiar figure of Draco in his Slytherin robes running hell for leather back to the castle.   Harry swore and chased him, but couldn't catch him, and had to abandon the chase. 

He paused and waited until Hermione and Ron caught up to him.  "Malfoy was looking in the window and I think he saw Norbert.  I tried to catch him, but he was too bloody fast.  I think . . .I think he's gone to tell a teacher about Norbert."  

"Damn and blast! We gotta warn Hagrid!" Ron swore and they ran back to the hut to tell the gamekeeper the bad news and help him hide the dragon as best they could.            


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well, what did you think?

Next: Malfoy reveals all and they serve detention in the forest and are stalked by an unknown animal.



Chapter 16: Something Wicked This Way Comes
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They managed to hide Norbert beneath Harry's Invisibility Cloak, with Harry holding him so the dragon would be quiet. Five minutes later they saw Dumbledore coming down the path to Hagrid's cottage. Ron and Hermione slipped out the back door and hid in the pumpkin patch.

Dumbledore knocked on the door and Hagrid opened it. "Evening, sir. What can I do for ya?"

"Hello, Hagrid. I was just coming by to see if you need anything?"

"No, I'm fine Professor. Would you care for a spot of tea or cake?" Hagrid stepped back to allow the other wizard entrance.

Dumbledore declined the cake offer, but agreed to a small cup of tea. As he entered, he looked about curiously but saw nothing amiss. Fang was lying on the hearth, gnawing a bone.

The two chatted a bit while they had tea, speaking of other animals, including Fluffy, and Harry prayed they'd hurry up, for his arms were about to fall off. Norbert had fallen asleep in his arms and he was snoring lightly in Harry's ear. Harry shifted uncomfortably, then froze as Dumbledore cleared his throat.

"Well, Hagrid, I must be going. I will see you later."

"Be seeing ya, sir." Hagrid waved, then shut the door.

Harry whipped off the cloak with a sigh of relief and quickly set the sleeping Norbert down on the blanket that served as his bed. The dragon never woke. Harry massaged his aching shouldes and said, "Well, that was close! I'll bet Malfoy saw Dumbeldore first and told him."

Hagrid nodded glumly. "I'll have to figure out a better way to hide him, I guess."

Ron and Hermione crept back into the hut. "Hagrid, what are you going to do about Norbert?" Hermione asked. "He's growing too big to keep in your cottage. And Malfoy already suspects something."

"What can I do, Hermione? He's a baby, he can't hunt for himself. He'll die if I let him go in the Forest."

Ron looked thoughtful. "Hey, I know! My brother Charlie works for a dragon preserve in Romania, he trains dragons there. Maybe he could take Norbert for you."

Hagrid looked torn. "I dunno, Ron. Norbert might get lonely. He ain't used to anywhere but here. What if they don' know what to feed him? He likes venison and turkey. And a bowl of goat milk."

"Hagrid, they're dragon tamers, of course they'd know what a dragon eats." Ron said. "I'll owl Charlie and ask him, okay?"

Hagrid sighed, he was clearly unhappy about giving up Norbert, but he didn't want to be arrested for having an illegal pet. "All righ', you ask Charlie then. Now, best ya be gettin' back, before your curfew."

They bid the gamekeeper goodbye and all of them crowded under the cloak and slipped back into the castle.

Three days later, Ron got a reply from Charlie, saying they would be happy to take Norbert. During that time, Norbert had chewed up Hagrid's recliner, burnt a hole in the wall, and ate an entire barrel of salt pork in the pantry.

Hermione said Norbert was out of control and Hagrid ought to be glad he was getting the dragon a good home before Norbert destroyed his house. Norbert was almost the size of Fang now, though much more aggessive and intelligent.

"Charlie says that he'll come with some of his mates to take Norbert, but it's gotta be at midnight on top of the Astronomy Tower, so nobody sees."

Hagrid looked worried. "How am I gonna get 'im there without anybody seeing?"

"I'll take him," Harry volunteered. "I can cast a Featherlight Charm on him and carry him under my cloak."

Hermione cast him a startled envious look. "Where did you learn that charm, Harry?"

Harry didn't want her to know that Snape had taught him that charm, so all he said was he had read up on it in the library over break, making Ron look at him cross-eyed.

"Ron, will you be lookout?"

"Yeah, besides, I'm the only one Charlie trusts to make contact with. He's gotta be careful, 'cause taking an illegal dragon could mean trouble if the Ministry ever found out."

Harry eyed Hermione. "How about you, Hermione?"

Hermione groaned. "I really want nothing to do with this crazy scheme. You're sure to get caught or something and then what? I don't want to get another detention."

"Quit being such a worry wart, Hermione," Ron sniffed. "Everything's gonna be fine."

Hermione looked unconvinced. But at last she nodded. "I don't know how you convince me to do these things."

That night, all three Gryffindors snuck out of the school and down to Hagrid's hut to get Norbert. Norbert was very excited, he kept breathing little spurts of flame and twitching his stubby wings, they had not grown large enough for him to fly, and his golden eyes glittered.

Harry spent a few minutes petting the baby dragon, who wound himself about the boy's ankles, 'purring" happily. He even stood up on his hind legs and licked Hary with his red tongue.

"Ugh! Eeew, Norbert! Your breath really stinks." Harry grimaced.

The baby dragon made a burbling noise that sounded like oatmeal boiling--the dragon version of laughter. "Think you're funny, huh?" Harry pretended to be annoyed, but Norbert wasn't fooled.

Harry knelt and scratched him about the ears. "Okay, here's where you get to be light as a feather, Norbert." He drew his wand and tapped the little dragon once on the nose and chanted the spell.

The dragon sneezed, but didn't seem to mind the spell. Harry picked him up, and carried him easily. "Say goodbye to your dad, Norbert."

Hagrid hugged the little dragon and shed a few tears. "You be good, y'hear, and don't go wandering off and play nice with th' other dragons, okay? You'll like it there, you can make lots of friends."

Norbert purred and licked Hagrid. Then he curled up in Harry's arms. A faint trickle of smoke drifted from his nostrils.

"Here, give this to yer brother, Ron. It's a list of his favorite foods and toys." he gave a list to Ron and a blanket to Harry. "So he'll have something t' remember me by."

"Come on, we haven't much time," Hermione reminded, looking pointedly at the clock, it was eleven thirty.

They all squeezed under the cloak once more and crept into the school. Up the stairs to the Astronomy Tower they tiptoed, praying that Filch or Mrs. Norris wasn't on patrol there. Or Snape, who also roamed the school at night.

Hermione volunteered to go ahead and check the tower top, making sure the coast was clear. It was, and the three waited at the top of the tower, which was windy and cold, for Charlie and his mates to arrive. They shivered and trembled, the night was pitch black, save for a sprinkling of stars. Only Harry was not cold, since he was holding Norbert, who gave off heat like a furnace.

Finally, at five after midnight, there was a sudden glow, and a carriage pulled by two pegasus's appeared in the sky. Charlie, who looked like an older version of Ron, stepped out of the carriage and onto the tower. "Hey, kid. Where's the tyke?" he clapped Ron on the shoulder and smiled. He was dressed in red leather and his arms, which were well muscled, were crisscrossed with old scars from talons, fangs, and fire.

"There he is, Charlie," Ron jerked his head at Harry.

"Aww. C'mere, you little rascal." Charlie crooned, letting Norbert smell him. The little dragon eyed him, gave a soft hiss, then began to purr. He snuffled Charlie's shirt and the dragon tamer lifted him up and held him, wrapped in the blanket.

'Ron, give him the note," Hermione reminded, and Ron handed Charlie the parchment.

All of them bid goodbye to Norbert, and Charlie quickly climbed back into the carriage, and the pegasus's lifted off and flew away, swift as a falling star.

"Yes!" Harry cheered. "We did it!"

All of them slapped palms together in a group high five.

"Now we'd better get back to our dorm," Hermione said, relieved their mission had gone off without a hitch.

They turned to leave the top of the tower, and froze as they met the icy furious gaze of their Head of House. Beside her was a smirking Draco Malfoy. "See, Professor? I told you they were here, I saw them with a dragon."

"You're barmy, Malfoy," Ron said quickly.

"Mr. Malfoy, do not embellish anything," McGonagall said frostily. "I am appalled at all of you. To think that three members of my own House are out of bed, totally disregarding school rules. What have you to say for yourselves?"

All three of them hung their heads. "It was my fault, Professor," Hermione said suddenly. "I wanted them to come up here and watch the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter and a comet. It only happens once every hundred and fifty years, you see, so I thought they might be interested . . ." she trailed off at Minerva's stony look.

"There is no excuse for your behavior, Miss Granger. All of you will recieve detention and the loss of . . .fifty House points." Then she added, biting off the word as if it pained her, "Each."

"EACH!" Ron shouted. "But . . .but . . ."

"Professor, that's a hundred-and-fifty points!" Harry exclaimed, horrified. That would put Gryffindor in last place for the House Cup.

"I do know how to count, Mr. Potter." Minerva said frostily. "It is your own fault, and no one else's." Malfoy sniggered. She whirled on the Slytherin. "And you too will serve detention and lose twenty-five points, Mr. Malfoy, since you too were in violation of school rules."

"What? But Professor, that's not fair!" Malfoy whined.

"It most certainly is, young man. Now get back to your dormitories, all of you!" Her voice cracked like a whip, and they all jumped and raced down the stairs, ashamed and elated, for though they had gotten caught, they had also managed to get Norbert away safely.

* * * * * *

But they weren't celebrating the next morning, when the rest of their House discovered what they had done to lose an unprecedented 150 points in one night. Everyone was furious at them, at Quidditch practice Wood bawled out Harry in front of the whole team and said he was lucky he didn't kick him right off the team for being the ultimate stupid bugger.

Harry said nothing, knowing Wood was right to scold him, and muttered a sorry. His team mates glared at him in disgust, even the twins. Harry felt his stomach twist in shame, though he was anxious as well over another person's reaction. He wondered in dread if Snape would send for him tonight, and how much trouble he would be in.

But evening came, and McGonagall summoned all four of them to her office for their detention. Harry expected them to be scrubbing the tower or cleaning the Trophy Room or something like that. What he did not expect was to be ordered into the Forbidden Forest along with his classmates and Hagrid.

"You will all accompany Hagrid on a special mission. He is tracking a predator who has been slaughtering unicorns." Hermione gasped. "You will obey him at all times, and perhaps this will be a lesson to you in obeying school rules and staying put in your dormitories. There is a reason why we tell you to stay in the castle at night and not go wandering about after dark. Pray you don't meet up with one of those reasons. Now, let's not dawdle, Hagrid is waiting for you at the entrance."

They reluctantly followed her, and Harry thought that she was even tougher than Snape when it came to giving members of her House detention.

* * * * * *

"You did what?" Severus frowned at his colleague. "You sent them into the Forest for detention, Minerva? Christ Almighty, woman! They were caught out of bed, not blowing up the Astronomy Tower."

Minerva raised an eyebrow. "And who was it, Severus, that kept telling me that I am too easy on my own House? That children need a firm hand? I believe his initials are SS."

Snape ground his teeth. "I know what I said, but Minerva, they are going in there with only Hagrid and Fang for protection. You know there are deadly creatures in the wood, you were almost killed by a manticore two years ago."

"Hagrid knows how to navigate there, Severus. He practically lives in the forest. He won't let any harm come to the students." Minerva said. "Your little serpent is safe."

Severus frowned, for he could not reveal the fact that it was not only Draco he was concerned over. "I still don't like it. Too many things could go wrong."

Minerva snorted. "Name of God, Severus! If you're so concerned, you could always accompany them unseen. Your Animagus form is more than able to track down four scared students, a dog, and Hagrid."

Snape nodded his head. "Perhaps it would be best. Lucius would be most displeased if a manticore ate his heir."

"Go, then. And mind you watch yourself, Severus. Your Animagus form can't intimidate everything, you know."

"Yes, Mother. I'll be careful," he called over his shoulder sarcastically.

Then he left her office and slipped from the castle, walking swiftly down the path past Hagrid's hut and to the edge of the great wood known as the Forbidden Forest.

Taking three deep breaths, he centered himself, closed his eyes, and blurred into the shape of a very large cat.

The great onyx and frost colored snow leopard shook his massive head and sniffed the air. Yes, he could smell the scent of four young wizards, the reek of boarhound, and the strong odor of a half-giant upon the wind. They were barely half an hour ahead of him, he could catch up to them easily.

The snow leopard, twice the size of his ordinary kin, lord of the Himalayas, bounded away into the dark oaks on silent paws, hunting the child he had sworn to protect. There was little in the forest that would threaten a cat of his size, and he was twice as quick and powerful as an ordinary leopard. He prowled the forest often, searching for rare hebs and plants for potions, only switching to his true shape to gather what he needed. Otherwise it was easier and safer to navigate the forest as a snow leopard.

He sprang up into a tree, graceful despite his bulk, and began to travel through the treetops, it was much quicker than being on the ground, and the trees here were very old and intertwined, making it easy to leap from one to another.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, Harry and Draco had taken Fang and were following the iridescent trail of unicorn blood, as per Hagrid's orders. The trail had split and Hagrid had agreed to let the two boys track the blood for a few feet and if they ran into trouble, to summon him with red sparks from their wand. Harry wasn't too thrilled to be serving detention with Malfoy.

The feeling was mutual.  Malfoy didn't speak much to him, for which Harry was grateful. He didn't feel up to making small talk with the kid who had peached on him and his friends to a teacher. It reminded him too much of Dudley, who had delighted in tattling on Harry in primary school for everything, and if Harry wasn't doing anything to get in trouble, Dudley made up something, until by the time they had graduated primary school, Harry had the reputation of a troublemaker.

A cold wind swept through the trees, making both boys shiver and clutch their robes tighter. The wind rattled the branches overhead and made Fang bristle and snarl. Harry reached down and gripped the big dog's collar and made soothing noises. The dog whined and snarled again, pressing against Harry's legs.

"What the hell's the matter with him?" asked Draco, a note of fear in his voice.

"I don't know. Maybe he hears something. But I think the wind blowing startled him."

"Huh. Some guard dog," Malfoy sneered. He held his lantern up high so they could still see the path.

"Come on, Fang. Let's follow the trail," Harry spoke encouragingly to the dog, trying to keep the uneasiness twisting his stomach at bay. He had the strangest feeling that he was being followed, but when he glanced behind him, there was nothing there. It's just nerves, Harry. You're jumping at shadows.

Still, he could not help but feel that there was something sinister lurking in the forest. It was like a chill wind down his spine, a forboding that made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Danger. Danger. His instincts were shrieking at him. Something wicked this way comes.

He swallowed hard, feeling his scar start to throb. He rubbed at it absently, wishing that Severus were there. True, the man would probably scold him into the next century and smack his bum for being a foolish incorrigible brat, but Harry would be safe with the dark protector beside him. He felt exposed and vulnerable out here, even though he knew that Hagrid, Ron, and Hermione were probably within shouting distance.

"Malfoy, do you feel something . . .strange about this forest?"

"Besides the fact that we're wandering about it in the middle of the night, Potter? Why? Are you scared?"

"No," Harry said evenly. It was a lie, he was quite afraid, but he knew better than to admit that to Malfoy. You never showed your throat to an enemy. "But there's something not right here. It feels . . .wrong."

"Aww, little bitty Potter is scared!" Malfoy mocked, smirking. "Poor baby, d'you want to run and hide behind your mummy? Oh, I forgot, you haven't got one!" he sniggered nastily.

A soft snarl came from somewhere behind them.

Draco jumped about a foot. "Ahhh!" he yelled, peering about wildly. "Did you hear that?"

"Yeah. Sounded like an animal," Harry remarked, smiling a bit. "Scared, Malfoy?"

"Shut it, Potter! Let's keep moving. I don't want to be here all night." He pushed past Harry and Fang and practically ran down the trail.

Harry followed more cautiously, recalling something Severus had told him once, about unicorns. 'Unicorns are one of the purest of all creatures. It is said that when God created the unicorn, He did so by breathing on a cloud, and from his breath was born the unicorn. Unicorns cannot bear the touch of evil, their horn can cure almost any wound or illness and when a unicorn dies, angels weep. To slay a unicorn is to slay a pure innocent creature, and anyone who does so deliberately is forever cursed, doomed to a half-life of damnation."

Something in the forest was slaying unicorns.

The young wizard suppressed a shiver and forcd himself to continue onward. His scar began to burn, but he forced himself to ignore it. He never noticed the golden eyes that watched from above, nor saw the shape that darted after him through the branches.

* * * * * *

Severus the snow leopard snarled softly as he followed his charge. When Malfoy had said that cruel statement to Harry, he had longed to spring upon the selfish brat and cuff him into next week. But he did not wish to reveal himself, few people knew he was an Animagus, the exceptions were Minerva, who had taught him how to become one, and Lily, whom he told nearly everything to. Not even Albus knew his Potions Master was an Animagus, though Severus was registered with the Ministry.

So he trailed the young wizards, careful to stalk silently and swiftly, as only a snow leopard could. They were often called the phantoms of the Himalayas, because they could appear suddenly, strike down their prey, and vanish almost like magic. In fact, in his leopard form he was called Wraith, and like his namesake he walked unseen.

Suddenly a sickening miasma of evil flowed through the trees, making Wraith lift his lips in a silent snarl. The fur on the snow leopard's back stood up in warning and his tail lashed hard, as the unmistakable stink of blood magic invaded his nostrils.

A dark wizard was abroad in the forest.

And Harry and Draco were headed right for it.

Wraith quickened his pace, springing in great leaps through the dark oaks.

* * * * * *

They came upon the dead unicorn abruptly. Draco rounded a bend in the path and halted so quickly that Harry banged right into him.

"Hey, what's--" Harry began, then felt the sickening dread seize hold of him. He had never felt anything like it before and for an instant he was unable to move, as he stared at the limp body of the unicorn, whose silvery blood pooled upon the earth, its throat ripped open.

That in itself was terrible enough, but even worse was the black shape crouched over it. Soft sucking and slurping noises came from it, and Harry felt his stomach threaten to rebel. The black shape was drinking the blood of the unicorn.

Then Draco moaned and turned to run back the way he had come, and the thing spun about with a hiss, and Harry caught a glimpse of red eyes and pallid skin and a face that was more inhuman than not with fangs that dripped silvery streams of unicorn blood.

Draco bolted, screaming, followed by Fang, leaving Harry alone to face the awful damned creature. Before he could speak or use his wand, his scar exploded in agony, and he dropped to his knees, clutching his head with both hands and whimpering.

The evil thing lunged at him and Harry could not react in time.

It would have killed him there where he crouched upon the forest floor had not a gigantic cat sprang from the trees with a keening coughing roar, pinning the black cloaked figure to the earth.

The black creature hissed and shrieked, but the leopard was very strong and filled with fury, he raked all four sets of paws down the thing's back. Harm MY child, will you? Not on MY watch, devil spawn!

Harry jerked up at the great leopard's roar, astonished to see a beautiful cat crouched atop the slayer of the unicorn, intent on ripping it to shreds. He tried to get to his feet, but the pain in his head made him dizzy and he could not rise.

The leopard's eyes met his for an instant, and Harry winced, for he could swear that the cat was telling him to run, but he was helpless to obey.

Now the creature was struggling, trying to throw off the big cat, but the leopard clung stubbornly to the thing's black cloak, until the evil one gave a short sharp cry and vanished, leaving the great cat gripping only mist inbetween his paws.

Harry could barely see because of the pain and he hardly noticed when the leopard came up to him and nudged him hard, purring. "Ow! Okay, damn it, I'm getting up," Harry groaned. "My head . . . heaven help me . . . I think it's about to come off . . ." He tried to stand, but the movement made his head spin and his stomach lurch. "Ah, Merlin . . .!"

Before he could stop himself, Harry threw up, retching uncontrollably. He emptied everything he had eaten onto the forest floor, the pain in his head and the smell of the dead unicorn causing him to become unbearably nauseated.

Then he felt hands holding him, and he relaxed, thinking it was Ron or Hagrid, but then he recalled that Ron and Hagrid were in a different part of the forest. He lifted his head at last, trying to turn it and see who held him, and saw a familiar long-fingered hand on his shoulder.

"S-Severus?"

"I'm here, child. Can you sit up a little?"

Slowly, Harry did so, leaning back into the Potion Master's arms. His scar still hurt, but not as much as before.

"How are you feeling?"

"M'head hurts."

"Do you feel like you're going to be sick again?"

"N-no. Least I don' think so." He made a face, for there was a disgusting taste in his mouth. "Did you see it, Severus? The . . .the thing that killed the unicorn? It was drinking its blood." Harry gulped. "And then it attacked me and the snow leopard came and saved me. Did you see the leopard?"

"No. The only thing I saw was you being sick all over. How is your head now? Do you think you can walk?"

Harry tried to stand, but his legs felt weak and heavy, and when he took a step, stumbled and nearly fell, Severus swung him up into his arms.

"Severus, what are you doing?"

"Taking you back to the castle." He began to walk through the trees.

"No, you can't! I've got detention . . ."

"Not any more. I'm canceling it. Teacher's prerogative. Now hush." He walked a few more feet, Harry snuggled securely in his arms. He was awash with relief and anger, relief that he had been able to save Harry and anger that Harry had been put in this predicament in the first place. Once again the Angel of Death had visited his son . . .and passed over him.

"Severus? What . . .was that thing?"

"A lost and damned soul, Harry. Don't worry, it's gone." For now. He stroked his son's hair. "Go to sleep, Harry."

Harry yawned, then closed his eyes. He woke briefly to hear voices, one silky baritone and the other a soft Scottish burr.

"...found him alone in the forest . . .near the freshly killed body of a unicorn . . .crying and vomiting . . ."

"Is he all right . . .?"

"Yes, he was merely shaken and he should be fine in a day or two. . . with your permission . . .put him to bed . . ."

Then he felt himself being carried again and the last thing he knew was being set down on something soft and feeling a fluffy blanket being tucked around him. He felt a cup being placed against his lips and he sipped obediently and tasted water. He swallowed and rid himself of the lingering sour taste.

"Good. Now this."

Another vial was given to him, he swallowed that too, recognizing the mint taste as an anti nausea potion.

Then he drifted off to sleep and his dreams were filled with a dark figure that spat silver blood at him and a magnificent snow leopard who saved him by tearing the sinister figure apart. Then the leopard became Severus and held him tight and he slept without dreams for the rest of the night.



 




Chapter End Notes:



So how did you like this episode? Did you think Sev's Animagus form was cool?



Chapter 17: Unexpected
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When Harry woke the next morning, he had a slight headache and his scar felt sore, as if he'd been sitting too long in the sun and gotten sunburned. But when he took a look at it in the mirror on the back of the door in his dorm room, it was only a little red and swollen. He rubbed some of Snape's salve on it and it quit aching. He still found the events of last night hard to believe. The vampire-like creature, drinking the unicorn's blood, had been about to kill him when out of nowhere, a magnificent snow leopard had appeared and nearly ripped the vile thing to shreds.

He wished Severus had managed to see the leopard before it vanished, then perhaps Harry's story wouldn't sound so unbelievable. He wondered how Ron and Hermione had fared, then supposed they had a better experience than he had, for they had not had to see a dead unicorn or the evil creature feeding off it. Nor had they needed to be escorted back to the castle by their Potions Master either, after puking up their guts right in front of him. He would have been horribly embarrassed save for the fact that this had not been the only time he'd vomited in front of Severus.

His stomach had always been easily upset, a legacy of starvation and malnutrition, and it had taken awhile for Severus to figure out what foods Harry should avoid, mainly highly spiced ones and ones with heavy cream, an excess of peppers, and rare meat. Severus had always maintained that Harry should eat lean meats, fruit, plenty of vegetables, milk, and whole grain breads with extra fiber so he didn't develop more serious digestive ailments, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

When he was a child, he used to pick up every cold and virus going around at school, especially the stomach flu, and many times Severus had treated him for nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. So last night had been par for the course. As far as Snape finding him in the middle of the forest, well that wasn't too surprising either, the man always knew when he was sick or hurt. Harry suspected he might have a sixth sense about that, perhaps because of the promise he had made.

He quickly dressed and by then Ron was awake and so were Dean and Neville. Ron came over and clapped him on the shoulder. "Glad to see you're still all there, Harry. When Malfoy came back without you, screaming about vampires and dead unicorns, we were really worried. Hagrid was like beside himself. We had just started to go down the trail where you were when a bunch of centaurs appeared and they told us you were safe, that Snape had found you and was bringing you back to the castle. How'd he know you were out there, anyway?" asked Ron suspiciously. "Unless maybe he's the one drinking the unicorn blood?"

"No. That thing . . .it wasn't human, Ron. Maybe it had been once . . .but no longer. And it tried to kill me, but then a snow leopard-don't give me that look, I'm serious-came out of nowhere and attacked it. It disappeared afterwards and Snape found me a little bit after that. And no, he wasn't injured. He said he'd been told to watch over us and that's what he was doing. Then he canceled my detention and said he was taking me back to the castle. So you see, you were wrong about him. He saved my life, Ron, just like the snow leopard."

"Humph! That's a first." Ron said. "But I still don't trust him."

Harry fought to keep from clocking the other boy one. "You're impossible! C'mon, let's go down to breakfast. I've got Quidditch this afternoon and I really should eat something."

They met Hermione in the hall and she was horrified by Harry's account of his night in the forest. "You really do have the worst luck, Harry. Was it dreadful, seeing the poor unicorn like that?"

Harry nodded, swallowing sharply. He no longer felt very hungry, though he forced himself to eat anyhow, knowing a certain professor was likely watching him. "Yeah. I don't really want to talk about it, okay?"

They resumed eating. Five minutes later, Hermione set down her fork. "I just thought of something. What if it wasn't a vampire that's responsible? What if it was . . .You Know Who?"

Ron looked at her as if she were an imbecile. "Oh, come off it, Hermione! He's dead, and you can't bring the dead back to life."

"No, she's got a point, Ron." Harry argued quietly. "I told you before, you can't rule out the fact that nobody ever saw him die. He was a powerful dark wizard, who's to say he didn't manage to cheat death?" The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that it was Voldemort, or what was left of him, in the forest last night. "A lost and damned soul" Snape had said. And who on earth would be more lost or damned than Voldemort? Or hunger to become immortal? By whatever means necessary, including slaying the most pure and innocent of all creatures? "The creature I saw was just barely human, and you only get like that if you've almost died and committed the worst crime in order to keep on living. I think the vampire or whatever was really . . .Voldemort," Harry finished in a whisper.

"Don't say his name, Harry!" Ron snapped.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Why not? What are you afraid of? If he's dead, like you say, then what does it matter if you say his name? He won't hear it. And if he's not, who cares? What do you think he is, the devil incarnate? That's just superstition and fear."

Ron stiffened. "You telling me you're not afraid of him? He killed your damn parents and almost killed you too! So how can you say you're not scared spitless of him, Harry?"

"Of course I'm afraid of him," Harry said evenly. "I'm not stupid. But I won't let fear rule me. And refusing to say his name is letting fear rule me. He's a wizard, Ron, just like us. Well, ten times more wicked and older and stronger, but still, he was born a man. He's not omnipotent, he just wants everyone to think so. He's not God. He died once, he can die again."

"Oh, and who's going to kill him, huh? Dumbledore? You?"

Harry was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Maybe someday. I owe him for murdering my parents. He stole away my life. Maybe it's time for me to steal away his."

"Harry, you can't be serious!" Hermione gasped.

Harry just looked at her.

"You're cracked, mate." Ron shook his head. "That's almost as crazy as you insisting Snape is innocent."

"Believe what you want about Snape, Ron. But I know the truth."

"The truth is that you're bespelled, Harry," Ron frowned. "Snape's in league with the followers of You-Know-Who."

"You're wrong. If he was evil, Ron, why didn't he just leave me in the forest? I didn't know the way back, and there are plenty of dangerous creatures in there that would have made a meal out of me."

"Maybe he was afraid of the leopard."

"The leopard was gone when he found me. And he brought me back here safe and sound. Hell, I think he even put me in bed, I seem to remember him doing that," Harry persuaded.

"And he wouldn't have done any of that if he was out to kill Harry," Hermione put in. "He's right, Ron. He had the perfect opportunity to kill Harry there in the forest and who would have known? But he didn't. He saved him instead. Perhaps we're mistaken and Snape's not the evil git we thought he was."

Ron hit himself in the forehead. "You're both cracked! If Snape isn't trying to murder Harry, then who the bloody hell is?"

"Malfoy?" Hermione guessed.

"No, he's an arrogant twit, but he doesn't have the guts for a real fight. He might hire someone though." Harry speculated.

Ron looked unconvinced, but Hermione was nodding in agreement. Harry felt as if he had won a small but unexpected victory. Just then the bell rang for class and Harry had no more time to argue his point of view with his stubborn friend. He picked up his bag and headed up the stairs for Transfiguration, relieved that he didn't have to face Severus until the afternoon.

* * * * * *

 

 

"And what possessed you to allow two first years to go off alone in the forest, Hagrid?" Snape demanded, his eyes snapping with barely restrained temper. "You were lucky they weren't killed when they encountered that vampire creature."

Hagrid hung his head, looking very ashamed, like a small boy being scolded by a stern father, despite the fact that he was some twenty years older than the professor at least. Technically Severus outranked him in the hierarchy of Hogwarts, and he felt terribly guilty for allowing harm to get the slightest glance at Harry and Draco, but especially Harry, whom he had come to care for the way he had the young Severus and Lily back in their schooldays. If anything had happened to Harry, he would have never forgiven himself.

"I know that, Professor. I never meant for ‘em to go so far, I tol' ‘em to follow the trail a little ways and then stop."

Severus sighed and seated himself at the table. Though his temper flared hot, he could never stay angry at Hagrid for long, the man had been his friend when no one else was, and he was as open and honest as a hound dog. Scolding Hagrid, no matter how deserved, always made him feel as if he'd kicked a stray puppy. "They're eleven-year-olds, Hagrid. They don't listen worth spit most times. Give them an inch and they'll take a mile. Why didn't you all stick together?"

Hagrid shrugged. "Ah . . .I thought it migh' take less time if we split up a bit. I didn' want to be in the forest past midnight with the kids. I'm sorry, Professor. I shoulda made sure Harry and Malfoy were doin' what I tol' ‘em to. But I figgered . . .I never thought they'd run into the unicorn killer . . .I left Fang with ‘em, but I shoulda watched ‘em better. . . if they'd gotten hurt, it woulda been my fault. If Professor Dippet were still Headmaster, I'd a been out on my ear."

"Then you ought to thank God he isn't Headmaster, yes?" Severus said quietly. "For we both know Albus would never toss you out over a mistake. Although Minerva should have never allowed you to go into the forest with four children without another adult as back up."

"She didn' think it'd be all that dangerous."

Snape snorted derisively. "The forest is always dangerous, even to those who are familiar with it, like you and me. She ought to know that by now. That was why I followed you."

"And it was a good thing you did, Severus. You saved Harry, didn' you?"

"A snow leopard did."

"Ah. I think I know that one. Wanders the forest a fair bit, he does, and where he walks, evil hides its face," the gamekeeper said knowingly.

Severus said nothing, though he suspected Hagrid had guessed the true identity of Wraith years ago. Instead he said irritably, "It seems I am forever rescuing that Potter brat from one disaster after another. He courts trouble like a lovestruck teenager courts girls."

"Ah, don' be too hard on Harry, Severus. He's a good kid, he jus' needs somebody to, ah, look out for ‘im. You're doing a good job, Severus."

"Humph. The boy could drive a saint to drink, Hagrid, and I am far from sainthood. There are times I long to take the incorrigible brat and shake him until he learns sense. Either that or give him a good smack."

The gamekeeper chuckled. "Now you sound like my dad. That's what he used to do to me, b'fore I grew too big, when I did somethin' stupid and scared him half to death." He eyed Snape thoughtfully.

"What? Why are you looking at me like that?"

Hagrid shrugged. "No particular reason. But I think maybe ya care for Harry more than you'll ever admit."

"Don't be ridiculous, Hagrid. I cannot stand the little brat, he is his father all over again."

"Only half. The other half is his mum."

Severus glared at the big man, then sighed again. "That is, perhaps, the only reason I haven't strangled him by now."

Hagrid chuckled again, but did not press the issue. Severus grew touchy when it came to admitting his true feelings for someone, he'd been hurt too many times in the past by his father and those who called themselves friends. Still, the former wizard would bet his last dragon's tooth that Snape cared a great deal for Lily's son, more than he would ever admit. "Care for another cup of coffee, Severus? It's very good."

"Yes, thank you, and why wouldn't it be, seeing as I bought it?" the Potions Master smirked.

Hagrid merely laughed and went to refill their cups, and Snape relaxed in the homey cottage for another twenty minutes until he had to leave for class. He noticed a familiar snowy owl perched near the window and frowned. "Hagrid, isn't that Potter's owl?"

"Yeah, that's Hedwig."

"Why is she here?"

"Harry asked me t' look after her for a bit."

"What in heaven's name? Don't tell me the boy's too lazy to look after his own pet?" Severus sneered.

"No, no. It ain't that. He brought her to me one morning, said she was sick, an' he was right. Looked like a case of silvermort poisoning, that's why I wanted the antidote."

"She seems fine now, Hagrid.. But you're sure the owl was poisoned?" Severus queried sharply.

"Well . . .yeah, since the symptoms went away after I gave her the antidote." Hagrid shook his head sadly. "‘Course, I think it was probably jus' a cruel joke. Who'd want t' poison an owl? They don' hurt nobody."

"Someone with a very sick sense of humor," Snape said darkly. Or one who wanted to send a warning to Harry. Watch out, because you're next. "I am glad you were able to save her." He meant it. Harry would have been devastated if Hedwig had died. I must make sure he stays out of trouble from now until the end of school, which is luckily only a few more months. Once the Stone is removed, I think most of the danger will be past, but until then . . .The dark angel vowed to be more alert and insist Harry go nowhere unaccompanied. There was safety in numbers. He would be certain to stress that little fact when he summoned Harry to his office for ‘detention" that evening.

* * * * * *

 

Harry stood before Snape's desk staring at the floor inbetween his Mystic trainers. He had been both expecting and dreading this summons to the Potion Master's office, knowing full well that he was going to get a damn good tongue-lashing for breaking another school rule and then nearly getting killed in the Forbidden Forest, even though that last had not been his idea at all. That wouldn't matter to his guardian angel though. He would say Harry brought the detention on himself by disobeying and being where he wasn't supposed to be. Sure enough, that was what Snape said, among other things.

"How many times must we have this conversation, young man? The rules here exist to keep you safe, do you not comprehend that, Mr. Potter?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then why, by all that's holy, do you keep disregarding them?" Severus slammed his hand down on his desk with a sharp crack, and Harry jumped. "Do you enjoy getting points subtracted and costing your House the Cup? Or perhaps you like having half your Housemates longing to string you up by your toes from the Astronomy Tower? Well?"

"No, sir. I . . .didn't think I'd get in all that much trouble," Harry admitted in a small voice. And it could have been so much worse. You don't even know how much worse it could have been.

"Oh? Why not? Do you think you're above punishment, Harry James Potter? That your status as the Boy Who Lived should prevent you from facing the consequences of your actions? Because I assure you, it will never work with me."

"I know that, sir."

"If it weren't for the fact that you nearly died and Minerva punished you properly, for once, you'd be serving another real detention with me, Mr. Potter." Severus pinned him with a glare that was at once angry and disappointed. Harry felt his stomach shrivel, he hated that particular look. "I cannot keep you safe if you keep running headlong into danger, child. This foolish recklessness has got to stop. And if you cannot control yourself, then I will have to do it for you, and rest assured, you will not like my methods, mister."

Harry gulped, for the look Snape was giving him was very angry and stern indeed, and once more he gave thanks that he was eleven and not ten, else he knew one method his guardian would have used was a sound spanking, though the man had never done so before, he knew he was driving Snape quite close to the edge. "I can control myself, sir. But it was necessary."

"Oh? You plan on making this a habit then? Every three months wander about the castle at midnight?" demanded his guardian sarcastically. "Foolish child, do you remember what happened last time you were out of bed alone? Or did the fall knock the memory right out of your head?"

Harry blushed. "I know, sir. But I didn't know somebody was trying to kill me back then. I was just trying to show Malfoy that I wasn't . . ." he halted in horror, for he hadn't meant to reveal that he remembered what had happened that night.

Severus lifted an eyebrow. "I take you've remembered what went on that night?"

Harry hesitated. He had never planned on confessing that particular sin to Snape. Especially not now, when he was already steamed. But his traitorous tongue had betrayed him. "Yes, sir. Sort of."

"And? What reason did you have for being out of bed that time? You mentioned you were going to show Malfoy something." Severus prompted, hoping the boy would be willing to fess up on his own.

Harry bit his lip. Did he dare tell Snape what he had been going to do? He was sure to be furious, with good reason.

"Look at me," the dark protector ordered then, waiting until the green eyes were staring into his own before saying quietly, "Whatever reason you had for being out of bed that night, Harry, is sure to anger me, but I won't punish you for something that happened months ago. Besides which, falling down all those stairs and almost smashing your head in is a far more effective deterrent than anything I could come up with. Now tell me what you remember about that night."

Harry took a deep breath. "Okay. Malfoy and I got into a disagreement and he challenged me to a wizard duel. I got mad and said yes, and he was going to meet me in an empty classroom. But he never showed and the next thing I knew I was falling down stairs."

Severus looked thunderous. "He never showed because I was keeping an eye on him, and refusing to let him go anywhere but to bed. Something which I shall recommend Professor McGonagall do with you as well, since you can't seem to obey rules worth a damn. Have you any idea why dueling is forbidden, Mr. Potter? No? Then listen. Dueling is forbidden because you could get KILLED!" Severus roared.

Harry nearly went backwards at the sheer volume of the professor's voice. He glanced worriedly towards the closed door, only then recalling that Snape put up wards so nothing they discussed could be overheard, a must in a castle whose very walls had ears. "Yes, sir. But I . . .had no choice."

"Why not?"

Harry dug the toe of his sneaker into the flagstones. "Because he threatened to have us expelled." Enough, Harry! Shut up about it, you don't need to go into detail. He's mad as hell already.

The dark eyebrows rose. "Oh? On what grounds?"

Harry thought fast. "Umm . . .for something stupid . . .do I have to tell you, sir?"

"No, for the whole incident smacks of major stupidity." He fixed his misbehaving ward with a terrific glare that made Harry shiver all the way down to his feet. "All of that could have been avoided if you obeyed the rules and went to bed like you were supposed to. Instead you broke them and suffered for it, more than you should have." Severus said with an unexpected slight smile. "Now then, I promised you I wouldn't punish you for that incident, much as you deserve to be scrubbing cauldrons till your fingers blistered and getting a good smack on the behind too. However, there is the little matter of you being out of bed again for the second time around."

"I wasn't dueling, sir."

"No, you were stargazing," he drawled sarcastically. "Though I doubt that's all you were doing. From now on, you will stay with one or more of your friends around school, there is safety in numbers. Have I your word?"

"Yes, sir. I promise."

"Come here," he ordered abruptly, and Harry obeyed reluctantly.

He wondered if Severus were about to turn him around and smack him one, and steeled himself for the punishment, but it never came. Instead, the Potion Master's arms came about him unexpectedly and hugged him.

"Disobedient reckless little brat!" he growled into his charge's ear. But Harry could hear the concern beneath the anger and it relieved him immensely.

A moment later, Severus released him. "Go, Harry, and mind you remember what I said.. Because if you risk your life again I will throttle you. I will be refereeing the next Quidditch match, by the way, and there will be no repeats of what happened before. Stay with your friends at all times and don't eat anything unless you either prepared it yourself or I gave it to you or you know where it came from."

"Yes, sir." He turned to go, and felt an unexpected sting on his rear. "Oww!" He shot the Potions Master an injured look. Then he left the office, waiting till he was out of sight to rub his bottom. Really, did Snape have to hit so hard?

An instant later the office door opened and Snape emerged. "Where are your friends?"

"Uh . . . in Gryffindor Tower."

"Then I shall escort you back there. Come."

Harry followed, feeling rather like a naughty toddler forced to hold his daddy's hand, though Snape never touched him.

Once they had reached the portrait hole, Snape stood aside and let Harry give the password and go inside. Then and only then did he leave and return to the dungeons. At least Harry was safe for tonight. Maybe he could finally have a decent night's sleep.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Next: More danger looms for Harry as the mysterious killer attempts to finish what he started.



Chapter 18: A Hidden Danger
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For the next week up until the second to last Quidditch game, Harry found his movements restricted by not only his friends but his guardian as well. If Ron or Hermione weren't with him, he would turn and notice Severus lurking some distance away, making sure Harry went to class and to the hall and back to his dorm. While he knew it was for his own protection, he disliked being watched, and was occasionally tempted to act insane and turn around and stick his tongue out at Snape, just to see what he would do. Probably make me write lines and give me a dose of that God-awful mouthwash again. Since that was not something he wanted to repeat, Harry behaved himself.

During Defense class, he could feel a strange frustration from Quirrell, even though the man was hopelessly dry and boring, and had barely taught them how to cast Shield Charms, or anything useful except how to recognize certain dark monsters. Harry took notes in that class, because that kept him awake. But he longed for the extra self-defense lessons from Snape, which had been temporarily put on hold until Severus finished the end of the term grades and classes.

Harry was more concerned with the upcoming Quidditch game than finals at the moment and spent every free moment he had, and there weren't many of them, practicing Quidditch moves. Severus always made sure that he was around when the Gryffindors practiced, watching his charge, though this led to some muttering that Snape was trying to figure out strategy so Slytherin could win the upcoming match. Harry mentioned that to Severus once and thereafter Snape watched the game as Wraith, unseen from behind a tree.

It was two days before the match and the Gryffindors were trying out some new moves when Snape noticed Quirrell lurking in the vicinity. Now Severus had some serious doubts about the Defense professor, based upon his own instinctive dislike of the man and also the fact that half of his Slytherins complained about the man's awful teaching methods to him and so did Harry. And they weren't complaining because Quirrell was a strict teacher or gave difficult assignments. No, they were complaining because Quirrell barely taught at all, most of the class time was taken up with the turbaned professor lecturing about his travels in Istanbul and Egypt as well as several other places. To Severus's way of thinking that was just plain lazy, and if Quirrell didn't want to teach properly, he should resign.

Severus watched Quirrell carefully, noting the sly shifty look in his eyes and the way he always seemed to be looking right at Harry. Severus didn't like that at all and decided a pointed warning was in order, just in case. He strode over to where Quirrell was standing, half-hidden under a pine tree and gripped the smaller man by the front of his collar and said menacingly, "What are you looking at, Quirinius? Plan on teaching your class how to dodge Bludgers next lesson, are you? Or perhaps you were trying to come up with another curse to send a broom out of control, hmm?"

His dark eyes bored into Quirrell's watery blue ones and the other man shivered. "I haven't the f-faintest idea what you're t-talking about, Snape. I . . .I j-just came out here t-to get some fresh air."

Snape sneered at him. "Really? Now why don't I believe you, Quirinius? I think you have a deeper motive, and that somewhere along the line you sold your soul to the devil and now he's calling in his debt."

Quirrell squeaked. "W-What? W-w-why w-w-would you think that?"

Severus shrugged and bared his teeth in a most unfriendly smile. "Because you have that look about you, Quirrell. The look of one who is hag-ridden. You hardly eat or speak to anyone and the way you're looking at those children over there is turning my stomach. You need to decide where your loyalties lie, Quirrell, because if you don't . . ." he trailed off meaningfully.

The other man went fishbelly white and whimpered as if Severus were strangling him. "P-p-please, d-d-don't h-hurt m-m-me! It's n-n-not like you think, S-S-Severus," he managed to choke out at last.

"It had better not be, Quirinius," Snape growled softly, his eyes glinting with the promise of serious bodily harm. "Otherwise there may not be enough left of you to put in a burial urn. Clear?"

Quirrell simply nodded, his head bobbing up and down like a puppet's.

"Good. Now why don't you take some fresh air down by the greenhouse? There's a nice breeze down there and the hibiscus's are just beginning to bloom," Severus suggested, though his tone made it clear that it was an order.

Quirrell scurried off like a whipped puppy, moving in that odd half-lope he had, the ends of his turban flapping.

Severus watched him go, scowling blackly. He would need to keep a close eye on his colleague. His instincts were rarely wrong and this time they were whispering that Quirrell was not all that he seemed.

* * * * * * *

The Quidditch game went off without a hitch. Harry played better than he ever had, thanks in part to all his hours of practice and also due to his new improved eyesight. Then too, knowing Snape was nearby gave him an extra boost of confidence, for no one would dare to jinx him with the Potion Master's keen eye watching.

Slytherin was a tough team, however, and Thorne was a good Seeker, despite not flying a Nimbus 2000. Harry had to be on his toes, for Thorne had three years on him and knew maneuvers he didn't. But Harry had the reflexes to compensate and he used every ounce of his natural talent that game. Not to mention all the techniques Severus had drilled into him during their flying lessons about lightning quick turns and sudden swerves and feints.

It was an hour into the game, and neither Seeker had caught the Snitch yet, though not for lack of trying. But the other players kept interfering with them, as per their Captain's orders, and twice Snape had to blow the whistle around his neck for deliberate fouls, both for Gryffindor and Slytherin.

Harry soared up above the pitch, hovering effortlessly, his eyes darting here and there, and then he spotted the gold ball, wings blurring and humming. He dived out of the sky like a streak of light, using every bit of speed the Nimbus possessed.

Thorne tried to match him, but his broom couldn't keep the pace, and he fell back.

He shouted something, and one of the Slytherin Beaters, Nott Harry thought it was, whacked a Bludger directly into Harry's flight path.

Harry saw the black ball out of the corner of his eye, and reacted with terrible swiftness, pulling the Nimbus up and over the Bludger, spinning into a corkscrew, before pulling out of the dive and chasing the Snitch again. It was a daring and impressive bit of flying and Harry felt adrenaline course through him. He turned his head slightly, hoping Severus had caught that move. How was that one, sir? Wicked, huh?

Then he pursued the fluttering Snitch once more, grinning, and managed to grab the elusive ball while flying half upside-down.

The crowd on the Gryffindor side went wild, screaming and cheering when he held the Snitch aloft.

Harry shot a glance at Severus, who as referee was supposed to be impartial, and the man was wearing an icy mask, but when Harry met his eyes, he saw a twinkle and a gleam of pride in the dark eyes, and Snape quirked the corner of his mouth up ever so slightly and nodded.

Harry's grin covered his face then.

Severus was proud of him, and that was the best reward of all.

He flew down to the ground and was immediately swept up in a crushing hug by Wood and the rest of his team mates. They put him on their shoulders and marched about chanting, "Gryffindor rules-Grrowl! And Potter too!"

Ron was jumping up and down and yelling rude things at the Slytherins in the box next to them, calling them cheaters who never prospered and sly scummy snakes, and other things, until Hermione clocked him one and snapped, "Just because we won, Ronald, doesn't mean you should rub it in their faces. What about sportsmanship?"

Ron rolled his eyes. "You don't understand sports, Hermione."

"And I'm glad of it. All of you are like a bunch of animals."

"Uh-huh. And we're proud of it!" Ron said, and let out a loud howl.

That night, Harry celebrated along with his teammates and the other Gryffindors, drinking butterbeer and ginger ale and eating pumpkin pasties and other assorted sweets he purchased from the school trolley. Mindful of Severus's warning, he only ate things he had bought himself and that were sealed.

Even so, by the time the party ended at half past midnight, Harry was quite stuffed and nursing a stomachache. He rummaged in his trunk and found the vial of Stomach Soother Severus had given him some months before, when the rich food at Hogwarts began giving him indigestion, and took a quick swallow. Immediately, his stomach ceased hurting, though Severus had told him it was too mild to affect a serious stomach problem, such as a virus. It was used mainly on children and adults who suffered from upset stomachs from overeating or nervous anxiety.

Then he quickly got into his pajamas and hopped into bed. He was intending on reading a bit, but his eyes closed before he had finished the first page.

* * * * * *

That weekend was also the one where Madam Pomfrey got an urgent request from her aunt to come and treat her cousin for severe depression and possible suicide. Pomfrey made certain Dumbledore knew the reason she had to take a leave of absence, and appointed Severus her deputy medic until she returned. He was the only teacher on staff that would be able to handle the medical emergencies, and seeing as he had no classes for the next two days, he had agreed.

Harry decided to sleep in the next morning after his victorious match. Most of the older students did also, for they too had been at the party all night. Hermione and Ron left him asleep while they went downstairs to get some breakfast. During that time, Harry woke, took a quick shower and dressed. He was suddenly ravenous, and felt like eating something sweet.

He went over to his trunk, opened it and removed the box of chocolate frogs. Funny, I don't remember leaving my trunk unlocked. He shrugged, supposing it was possible, he'd been very tired last night. He removed a chocolate frog package from the box.

Then he carefully opened it and looked at the card. It was of a wizard named Grindelwald and Harry tried to recall where he'd heard that name before. He set the card aside, Hermione would probably be able to tell him what the guy had done. The frog nearly hopped out of his hand, but he caught it and took a large bite out of it.

The chocolate tasted excellent, as usual, though there was a faint tang of something else on his tongue as he chewed, almost like a fruit nectar. He swallowed, and went to take another bite.

Suddenly his vision swam and he felt oddly dizzy. He put a hand to his head, thinking that maybe the party had taken more out of him than he thought and perhaps he should lie down. He turned to go back to bed, tripped over one of his shoes, and fell on the floor.

He tried to get up, but the room was whirling, and he couldn't see which way was up or down. He sat up, one hand still clutching the remainder of the chocolate frog, then gasped as a violent cramp tore through his abdomen. Huh? Merlin, that HURT! Oww! It was followed by another and he doubled over, whimpering and moaning. What was wrong with him?

Sweat stood out on his brow and he shivered. He tried to focus his eyes, but they insisted on seeing two of everything, and his stomach was burning and cramping. He knew there was something terribly wrong with him, but he couldn't move, and when he tried to call for help, his voice came out a croak and he babbled utter nonsense.

He huddled on the floor, his stomach and head screaming in agony, tears dripping down his cheeks. Severus! Where are you? I need you. Oh, God . . .please . . .I think I'm gonna die . . .Severus! Help me!

Then his muscles spasmed violently, and he banged his head on the stone floor, and knew nothing more.

That was how Hermione and Ron found him some ten minutes later, coming back up to wake him up for breakfast, he was the only one of their year not awake yet.

"Merlin's bloody arse!" Ron yelled, running over to the still form of his friend. "Harry? Harry, what're you doing on the floor?"

Hermione came to kneel beside them. "Ron! He's barely breathing! We've got to get him to the Hospital Wing, ASAP!"

"Huh? What'd you say?"

"As soon as possible, you idiot!" Hermione snapped, waving her wand and making Harry's unconscious form float into the air. "It looks like he had some kind of fit." She began running down the stairs, Harry's still form following. Ron ran beside him.

They burst into the infirmary, calling for Madam Pomfrey at the top of their lungs.

"What is all this ruckus?" demanded a soft icy voice. "This is a hospital ward, not a playground."

Ron felt his jaw drop in horror. "Huh? What's Snape doing here?" he blurted.

"I am here because I am substitute medic until Madam Pomfrey returns, Mr. Weasley." Snape replied coldly, coming out of the office to stand before them. "Why are you screaming like banshees?"

"It's Harry, Professor!" Hermione sobbed. "We . . .we went to call him for breakfast and found him unconscious on the floor."

Severus felt his heart freeze. But somehow he managed to maintain his facade. "Where is Potter now?"

"Here. I cast Locomotor Mortis on him, sir." Hermione answered, gesturing to the floating Harry.

Severus immediately moved over and picked up the child, he could feel his bracelet throbbing and he had known something was wrong, but never imagined this. He placed Harry upon a bed and cast a diagnostic on him, swore, then began treating him for extreme shock. He cast a Breath Ease spell on him, then began to fire questions at the other two.

"When you last saw him, how was he?"

"He was sleeping. We didn't want to wake him," Ron said defensively.

"And you found him on the floor where?"

"Beside his bed, sir. He was holding a melted chocolate frog in his hand," Hermione said, indicating the candy still clutched in Harry's fist.

Severus pointed his wand and the candy was removed to a small dish, where he cast another spell on it, trying to determine whether or not the candy had been tampered with. What he discovered made his blood run cold.

He swore furiously.

"Professor? What's the matter? Is Harry . . .will he . . .be all right?" Hermione asked, her voice quivering as she fought to keep from bursting into tears.

"He will be, if I can get an antidote into him in time," Snape replied shortly.

"Antitdote?" Ron repeated. "But that means . . .he's been poisoned!"

"Thank you, Mr. Weasley, for stating the obvious."

"But with what? And how?"

"The poison was inside the chocolate frog he ate. And it is a well known poison, sometimes called the inheritance poison. Otherwise known as arsenic, Miss Granger." Severus plucked a hair from Harry's head and muttered another spell to detect poisons.

The hair glowed red, revealing that Harry was indeed poisoned by arsenic.

Severus turned to the two young wizards. "Leave, both of you. I need silence to work and your hovering and whimpering is distracting me."

"No!" Ron snapped. "We're staying here."

Snape glowered at him. "You have three seconds, Weasley, to get your backside out of this infirmary before you end up disembowling toads and cleaning the floor with your tongue for the rest of the year in detention  One."

Ron blanched, but stood there stubbornly.

Hermione tugged his sleeve. "Ronald! Come on. You heard him."

"No. I'm not leaving Harry. Anything could happen with that greasy-yeeow!" he yelped as Hermione stomped on his toes.

"Two."

The girl dragged her friend out the door, ignoring his protests.

Severus turned and summoned two potions to him, a bottle of pills, a damp towel, and a basin.

Then he went to wake his son, hoping that he was in time, whispering a heartfelt prayer as he did so. The next twenty-four hours would be crucial.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well, what did you think? Were you surprised? Care to guess who was behind this? Hint: There's more than one person.

Also, a way to detect arsenic poisoning is by examining hair follicles, I did not make that up. Usually it is used only in cases of long term gradual poisoning, but since Severus used magical detection, the hair showed Harry was poisoned.

Next: Can Severus cure Harry?



Chapter 19: Antidote
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"Ronald Bilius Weasley, what the bloody hell were you thinking?" Hermione exploded as soon as they were far enough down the corridor not to be overheard. "Professor Snape was trying to save Harry’s life and you were arguing with him? What is wrong with you?"

"Me? What’s wrong with you, Hermione, letting Snape be alone with Harry? For all we know, he could have poisoned Harry and is going to finish the job!" Ron yelled, glaring right back at the furious little witch.

SMACK!

Ron put a hand to his suddenly stinging cheek, where Hermione’s handprint now showed vivid red against his freckled skin. "Hey! What the hell was that for?"

Hermione glared up at him, her brown eyes snapping with temper. "That’s trying to knock some sense into your hard head, Ronald! Honestly, when will you quit believing that Snape is out to kill Harry and start using your head and looking at things the way they really are?"

"What way is that, Miss Know It All?" Ron rubbed his cheek and ground his teeth. "A few days ago you thought Snape was an evil git too!"

"Yes, but that was only because I thought I saw him hexing Harry’s broom at the Quidditch match. Now though, after what happened in the forest, and the way he watched out for Harry during the Quidditch game yesterday . . .I’m starting to think I was wrong."

"What do you mean, watched out for Harry during the game?"

"Oh, will you open your eyes?" she cried exasperatedly. "You’re so determined to think the worst of him just because he’s a Slytherin and strict with you that you can’t see what’s right in front of your big fat nose! Didn’t you see the way Snape was looking out for Harry? He called a foul on his own House team twice because they tried to knock Harry off his broom. Twice! And where ever Harry flew, Snape watched, as if he were making sure Harry was okay. Nobody who wants to kill someone is concerned for their safety that way, Ronald. Plus Harry vouches for him and so does Hagrid."

"Then why wouldn’t he let us stay while he treated Harry?"

"Because we’d be in the way, dimwit," she scolded. "Most Healers prefer privacy to work and the antidote he was going to give Harry was probably going to make him sick and I really don’t need to see my best friend puking all over and whatever."

"Oh. Err . . .yeah, I wouldn’t want to see that either," Ron admitted, flushing. "You really believe that Snape’s not after the Stone?"

Hermione sighed. "I . . .yes, I do. Too many things don’t add up. Come on, let’s go back to the common room and I’ll explain more if we can find a quiet corner. Or maybe we should go to the library, no one will disturb us there . . ."

She turned and walked swiftly back down the corridor, Ron trailing in her wake. He absently rubbed his cheek and thought that Hermione had as good a smack as his mum, surprisingly. Then he prayed to God and all the angels in heaven to make Harry get well, because he didn’t know what he would do if his best friend died.

* * * * * *

 

 

Severus hated to bring Harry back to consciousness, for he knew that the boy was going to be in severe pain from the poison, but he needed Harry awake to administer the charcoal pills and the antidote, so he could judge the boy’s reaction. Only then could he tell how much more of the antidote he needed to administer, because it was not something he could give a set dose to, especially to a child Harry’s age.

"I am sorry, little one," he murmured regretfully, not even realizing he had used the nickname he had given Harry when he was small. He pointed his wand at the boy and whispered, "Ennervate."

A white mist shot out of his wand and into the young wizard’s mouth and nose.

A moment later Harry sputtered, coughed, and groaned. Then he opened his eyes. "Sev’rus?" he whimpered, looking scared and younger than his eleven years. "Am I . . .dying?" He grimaced as the pain in his head and stomach resurfaced. It was sharp and awful, unbidden, tears sprang to his eyes, and he gasped and curled into a ball.

"No, son. You are not dying, not if I can help it." Severus reassured him firmly. "You’re in a great deal of pain because you’ve been poisoned, but I have an antidote here that will fix you." He moved over and rubbed Harry’s back. "It won’t be pleasant, but it will cure you," he said, though he was not as certain as he sounded. "Now, let’s sit you up a little." He gently eased the boy to a sitting position, flinching inwardly as Harry moaned and started to cry.

"Hurts. . .Sev . . .it hurts . . ."

"I know, shhh. Chew these for me, please." He shook five charcoal tablets into his hand and gave them to the boy.

Harry popped them into his mouth without argument, desperate for anything to ease the agonizing pain in his stomach. They tasted terrible and he nearly gagged, but Severus rubbed his back and instructed, "Chew and swallow, don’t think about the taste. Just chew and swallow, Harry."

It was hard, but Harry did it, managing to get the pills down. "What . . .was that?"

"Charcoal tablets," Severus replied. "They’ll help absorb some of the arsenic. They’re a Muggle medicine, but since this is a Muggle poison, I decided to use both methods to treat you. How do you feel now?"

"A bit better." There was still a burning sensation in his gut, but it wasn’t quite so bad now. He could sit up straight, at least, though his stomach was still cramping painfully. "How . . .did I get poisoned?"

"The poison was inside a chocolate frog that you ate. It was a good thing you only ate half of it, for there was enough arsenic inside it to finish you if you’d eaten it entirely," Severus told him honestly. He put an arm about the boy and hugged him gently.

"I don’t understand. Why would someone want to kill me?" Harry whimpered, sniffling.

"Because you are living proof that dark magic is not all powerful, child. But they won’t succeed." Severus told him. He gave Harry five more charcoal tablets.

Harry made a face, but chewed and swallowed them without protest. The pain in his stomach lessened a little more.

Severus waited five minutes, then reached for the first bottle on the table next to Harry’s bed. "This next elixir is going to make you vomit, but you need to expel most of the poison from your system, and that is the quickest way, I’m afraid."

Harry groaned. "Oh no, my stomach already hurts so much."

"Harry, you’ll feel better afterwards." He poured a dose onto a spoon. "Come, open up."

Harry obeyed, the potion was tasteless.

But its effect was nearly immediate.

Harry spent the next several minutes vomiting, Severus held him over the basin, murmuring soothingly. He wiped the boy’s mouth with the damp towel, Harry coughed and spat, his throat burned and his eyes streamed.

Severus gave him a cup of water to rinse out his mouth. Once he had done so, the Potions Master asked how he felt now.

"Like hell, but my stomach does feel better."

"Good." Severus recast the Poison Detection spell and saw to his relief that most of the poison had been expelled.

He gave Harry another two charcoal tablets to chew and re-dosed him a few minutes later, much to the boy’s dismay.

Afterwards, he gave Harry the antidote, which consisted of several ingredients, including green tea and raw eggs. "Ugh! That was totally disgusting, Severus!"

"Get used to the taste, child, because you’re going to be taking a lot more of it. Here, swallow this pain reliever, it should help with your headache and muscle spasms."

Harry took it, for the pain in his head was quite bad and he still felt dizzy. But at least the horrible stomach cramps were lessening. "The poison . . .is it gone now?" His tongue felt thick and fuzzy and his arms and legs felt weak.

"Not quite. I’m going to dose you with the antidote for an entire day, by then it should have neutralized any molecules of arsenic in your system. The antidote also contains a mild fiber-based laxative, son."

Harry nodded blearily, he was still weak and ill, but he trusted Severus to cure him, no matter how unpleasant it might be, he knew the dark angel was only trying to help him. But it was going to be a long twenty-four hours.

At first, Harry was too dizzy and weak to get to the bathroom without Severus’s help, but as the arsenic was removed from his system, he managed to get back and forth from the bed to the toilet on his own.

He took the antidote three more times at Severus’s instruction, and spent the rest of the time in bed, sipping water and clear chicken broth to prevent dehydration and green tea, to cleanse his system.

The Potions Master monitored him closely, making sure the antidote was working properly before giving his ward another dose. To his vast relief, Harry responded well, and had no side-effects from it. He sat beside his son, who looked quite miserable, and stroked his hair and rubbed his back soothingly. "You’re going to be fine. A few more hours and you’ll be in the clear."

Harry nodded, happy to hear that, for he was sick and tired of being in bed or in the bathroom. Still, he reflected wryly, it was better than being six feet under. He laid his head on Severus’s knee and thought about how lucky he was to have a skilled Healer like Snape taking care of him.

"Severus? How did you find me?"

"I didn’t. Your friends, Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley, discovered you in your room and brought you here. They were quite upset and I practically had to throw Weasley out on his ear before they would leave and give us privacy."

"Oh. Yeah, Ron’s like that sometimes." He shifted slightly, stretching out a bit more and nestling closer to Snape. "When can I see them?"

"When I am sure you are fully recovered from the poison and not a minute before. Right now you need rest and quiet. Are you hungry? I think it would be all right if you ate a little. Perhaps a piece of whole-grain bread and some broth and an egg?"

"Yes, I’d like that."

Severus rang a bell and a tray appeared with the food he had suggested upon it. Harry still hadn’t figured out how that occurred. But he was too hungry and tired to pester Severus with questions like that. He ate slowly and cautiously, half-afraid his stomach would protest the solid food he was putting in it, but surprisingly, he was fine. Severus gave him more green tea to drink after, and Harry made a face and asked why he was drinking so much of it.

"The tea acts as an antioxidant and also cleanses your system of dangerous substances, like the arsenic. The bread you ate has lots of fiber, which also absorbs arsenic, as does the sulfur in the egg."

"But I thought you said the poison was out of my body soon."

"It is mostly, but better safe than sorry. I want you to eat plenty of oatmeal for breakfast and greens at lunch tomorrow and eggs as well. Those foods are rich in fiber and sulfate."

"Like I need any more fiber," the boy grumbled.

"Hush and quit complaining, child," Severus scolded lightly. "I know my treatment was uncomfortable for you, and I’m sorry for that, but at least you are alive."

"Sorry," Harry apologized, not wanting to seem ungrateful. "You’re right. Umm . . .Severus, how did the arsenic get in the chocolate frog? I mean, the box was sealed and I had eaten from it before. Even Ron and Hermione ate from it and we weren’t poisoned then."

"That is most likely because the person who planted the frog in your room had not struck then. If I had to guess, I would say that whoever planned this injected the frog with the arsenic, and then placed it back in its box and sealed the box with a Mending Charm. Then no one could tell it had been tampered with."

"Oh. I get it now." But he still wondered who had put it there in the first place. It had to be someone with access to Gryffindor Tower, someone who knew the passwords, but who among his Housemates wanted him dead? Or perhaps the person hadn’t known anything about the frog being poisoned, he or she could have just been handed the thing and told to put it in Harry’s trunk with the others. Innocent dupe or premeditated murderer? "How can I protect myself, Severus?"

The Potions Master sighed heavily. That question had been plaguing him as well. "Were these different circumstances, I would have you move into my quarters until the end of the year, but since that would be drawing unwanted attention to us, I cannot do that. What I can do is to give you a ring with an Anti-Poison Charm on it for you to wear. I should have thought of that earlier," Severus shook his head irritably at his oversight. "Also, eat nothing outside of the Great Hall, the food there cannot be tampered with, either by magic or Muggle methods. I would like to examine that box of chocolate frogs also. Again, go nowhere alone, I cannot stress that enough. Whoever is behind this likes to strike when it is dark and you are by yourself, so do not give him the opportunity. Or her. You only have a month before finals, I would suggest you use your free time wisely and study for them."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Merlin, what do you want me to become a bookworm like Hermione?"

"That would not be such a bad thing. I was a bookworm once myself."

"And you still are," Harry smiled.

"Yes and I’m proud of it. Knowledge is priceless."

Harry yawned. "Sorry. But I’m just so tired all of a sudden."

"Yes, and well you should be. Go to sleep, Harry. I will keep watch."

"Okay, Sev." A second later he had fallen asleep, for his body was worn out from battling the effects of the poison and then enduring the antidote and other potions.

Severus waited until he was certain the boy was sleeping deeply before shifting him from his knee to the pillow at the head of the bed and tucking him in. "Sleep is the physician of pain," he quoted softly. "Sleep well, my Harry." He cleared up the tray on the nightstand and the empty vials before sitting down on a chair next to his peacefully sleeping child.

This was the third attempt on Harry’s life and Severus cursed himself for not anticipating that the killer might turn to poison, the most subtle of all methods. He should have known that, he was a spy, he’d seen the methods Voldemort’s gang liked to use on their targets. Generally they preferred torture and curses, but one or two had used poison on occasion. I’m sorry, Harry. I nearly failed you again. I’m a terrible guardian, how many more times can Death be placated before He refuses to leave? God in heaven, thank you for letting me save my child. He put his head in his hands and rubbed his temples.

At least there hadn’t been any other emergencies or children hurt so far, so he was able to devote most of his time to Harry and not have to keep up appearances as well. And Pomfrey should be returning this evening, then he could allow her to take over her infirmary again and he could speak with Albus about this latest attempt on Harry’s life. Albus was aware of the other times, but hadn’t done much, by Snape’s standards, to protect Harry at all, and that angered the Potions Master. I know you feel that appointing me his unseen protector is enough, old man, but you’re wrong. Harry needs a Goddamn team, not just me, with the way trouble finds him. He heaved a long sigh. Ah well, Sev. The Lord helps those who help themselves.

He massaged his temples for a few minutes longer, and then went to a cabinet and found a vial of Headache Remedy and swallowed it. No sense in courting a migraine. No sooner had he done so, then Minerva appeared in the doorway, her normally stern face creased with worry and sorrow.

"Severus, I have just heard from Miss Granger that Harry was brought here this morning unconscious and she told me he had been the victim of a poisoning! Is he all right? Do you need to bring him to the Poison Ward at St. Mungos?"

Severus shook his head, beckoning her into Pomfrey’s office, where he gestured her to a seat and he sat opposite her in the desk chair. The top of the medi-witch’s desk was covered with charts and medical release forms, which Severus moved aside so he could see Minerva clearly. "No, I did not need to take him to the hospital, since he was poisoned with arsenic, and I know how to treat that."

"Arsenic? But that’s a Muggle poison!"

"A wizard one too, Minerva, poison is universal, except certain magical ones, which are exclusively our province, like silvermort."

"But he will be all right?" she gave her colleague a half-pleading glance, she was clearly very concerned for her student.

"Yes, the poison should be flushed out of his system by tomorrow morning. I have been giving him low doses of Nimue’s Cure, and he has responded favorably to it."

"Nimue’s Cure? But Severus, that antidote is too potent to be administered to children under twelve, and Potter is only eleven, and a small eleven at that!" she exclaimed.

Severus shot her an irritable glance. "I’m aware of the restrictions on Nimue’s Cure, thank you, Minerva. Rest assured I know my dosages, I trained for two years in St, Mungos for my Potions Mastery. Nimue’s Cure can be given to a child younger than twelve if one knows the proper dosage and weight and has need of an immediate counteractive for acute poisoning. I was monitoring Potter quite closely, and he showed no side-effects that I could determine. I also used charcoal tablets to bond most of the arsenic and a Vomit Inducer as well before I gave him the antidote. Your precious Boy- Who-Lived is still among us," he said that last with patented sarcasm, for Minerva’s questioning of his expertise had struck a nerve.

Recognizing this, and regretting her hasty words, the Transfiguration teacher apologized. "Forgive me, Severus. I didn’t mean to insult you, but I am very concerned about him. He seems so vulnerable and this isn’t the first time an attempt has been made on his life. He’s being targeted, and you and I know both know why."

Severus nodded heavily. "Yes. The survivor of the Killing Curse, the only one to ever thwart the Dark Lord, must not be allowed to live. I have my suspicions as to who is behind all of this, but as yet I have no concrete proof." His eyes narrowed and lit with a shrewd burning fire. "But I shall catch the one responsible soon, and when I do he shall rue the day his father met his mother and gave birth to a monster."

"When you do catch him, Severus, leave enough for me, I want a piece of him," Minerva declared, her greenish-golden eyes blazing with protective fury.

Severus dipped his head to her in respect. "Hell hath no fury like a lioness protecting her cubs."

"Or a snow leopard," she added knowingly. "He might not be a serpent, yet you have marked him as your own."

Snape raised an eyebrow, had he been that obvious? He snorted. "I protect the boy because Albus ordered me to, and for no other reason."

Minerva chuckled. "Your stone face could fool almost anyone else save me, Severus. Protest all you want, but the moment you followed Potter into the forest as Wraith, he became yours, as much as Malfoy is."

Snape scowled, Minerva knew him too well. "All hail the wisdom of the Lioness of England," he shot back. "He is James Potter’s brat, and I detested that man."

"But not his son. For Harry is also Lily’s child, and you were her best friend." Minerva said softly. "I always wondered why she never married you."

"Better that she did not. I was no good for her," Snape said shortly. "I played a deadly game, there is no room for a family in the life of a secret agent."

"No? I beg to differ. My grandfather was a spy also, Severus, and he had a family."

"After his spying was done, yes. But not while he was active. A spy works best alone, any attachments make him vulnerable, give the enemy leverage to use against him." Snape recited, those rules he knew by heart, he had lived and breathed them for twelve years, and yet a pair of soulful green eyes and a promise had shattered those rules into dust eight years ago. "Enough. My personal affairs, such as they are, are not important. You came to inquire about Potter’s health. I trust I have answered your questions satisfactorily?"

Minerva was not so easily distracted, however. "Yes, you have. When will Mr. Potter be able to return to class?"

"Most likely by tomorrow afternoon, if my diagnostic reveals his body is free of the poison and he feels strong enough to cast spells. He is sleeping right now, rest is paramount to his full recovery."

Minerva eyed the Potions Master shrewdly. "You look like you could use a good few hours of rest also, Severus. Your eyes are burned holes in your head and I’ll bet my clan tartan you haven’t eaten or slept since those children brought Potter to you this morning."

Severus dismissed her concern with a sharp gesture. "What of it? I’ve gone for longer than this without sleep."

"I know, but there is no need for you to exhaust yourself like this, lad, when there are others who can help you. I would be willing to watch Potter for an hour or two inbetween my classes and I daresay Filius would also. It would take quite an accomplished war wizard to get past him, you know what a duelist he is."

"That won’t be necessary, Minerva. I am perfectly capable of looking after one sleeping boy."

"You are also perfectly exhausted, Severus Snape. You need a good eight hours of sleep before you keel over and well you know it," she scolded, waving a reproving finger under his nose.

He looked down said nose and huffed, "Do you come and badger Poppy this way also, Minerva? Or am I the only lucky recipient of your blasted mothering?"

"Oh, no. I lecture Poppy all the time, she’s a Slytherin too and all of you think you can keep going without rest until Judgement Day." Minerva said with a small smile. "Last year Poppy kept herself awake for three days straight treating that dragon pox epidemic by drinking a Stimulant Elixir, I threatened to tie her to her bed with a Sticking Charm. I can do the same to you, lad, and don’t think I won’t. You’re no good to anyone half-dead from exhaustion."

"Bloody hell, Minerva!" Severus exploded. "Will you stop treating me as if I’m twelve again?"

"I shall when you quit acting like one, Severus Tobias Snape, and start taking care of yourself." She fixed him with a stern glower, one that used to make him cringe when he was a student. "We need you too badly Severus, don’t you see that?" she added, and her gaze softened slightly. "Now I suggest you go and eat something and lie down for at least five hours, you stubborn young fool. Albus may think you’re made of iron and can go without for days on end, but I know better. And if you won’t take proper care of yourself, then I shall have to do it for you."

Severus opened his mouth to give her a blistering retort, then shut it with a sigh. He could see from her expression that she had made up her mind, and once Minerva McGonagall had done that, nothing save a direct command from God could move her. And while he also was stubborn as stone, he was also very tired and worn out with worry for Harry and he knew he could trust Minerva to alleviate some of the burden he carried.

"Very well, you interfering nagging harridan," he growled. "I shall allow you to watch Potter while I eat and sleep for a while. I wish you joy of it, the brat has done nothing but whine since I began dosing him with the antidote."

"Poor boy. You cannot blame him for that, Severus. I hope you did not scold him the way you usually do."

Severus shot her a dark look. "I gave him the response he deserved, Minerva. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall go and take care of myself, by your leave, Lady." He swept her a mock bow before Flooing back to his quarters to eat something hot, shower, and sleep for a few blessed hours.

Minerva chuckled, then went to sit beside Harry’s bedside with a magazine and read. One did not win an argument with Severus Snape everyday, after all, and she wanted to savor her victory. Eileen, you’d be proud of him. He turned out to be a better man than his father, despite the lonely path he chose to walk. I’m only sorry you cannot be here to see it, my friend. Although, if I know you, you are probably watching from heaven and wishing you could come back and shake some sense into his stubborn hide. Men! They’re all the same, whether they’re eleven or thirty-one. Good thing they have us women to set them straight, eh?

The Transfiguration Mistress chuckled to herself then bent over her copy of Shapechanger’s Digest, which was a journal written exclusively for those who could assume a form other than human, and had amusing stories, anecdotes and tips for shapeshifters inside it.

* * * * * *

 

 

The next morning, both of Minerva’s wayward boys were feeling much better for their long sleep and Snape insisted Harry eat breakfast with him before performing another diagnostic on him and releasing him from the Hospital Wing. Pomfrey had owled to say she would be another day away before returning and thanked Severus for being her deputy medic once again.

"You just want to make sure I eat my oatmeal," Harry muttered rebelliously, glaring at his oatmeal. It was one of his least favorite breakfast foods.

"Very good observation, Mr. Potter," said Snape, giving his ward a warning look. "I had better see that spoon in your mouth in two seconds or else I shall come over and feed you."

Harry made a face at his guardian. "You’re cruel."

Snape lofted an eyebrow. "Sometimes one must be cruel to be kind, child." He fought to keep from smiling, though he doubted if Harry would recognize the reference to an old Muggle song, it was before his time. "One."

Harry picked up the spoon and shoved some oatmeal into his mouth. To his surprise, it didn’t taste half bad. He swallowed and ate another spoonful. Then he looked over at his guardian, who was eating his own breakfast of ham and scrambled eggs and toast with boysenberry jam, and said, "I’ve been thinking, Severus."

"Praise the Lord, it’s a miracle," Severus said dryly, his mouth quirking.

Harry rolled his eyes at the other’s sense of humor. "I’m serious."

"So am I."

"Really!"

"Go on, child. I’m listening." Snape relented his teasing, Harry was not really up to it this morning.

"I’ve been thinking about the arsenic. Why would the person use that and not something more, uh, magical?"

"Because Dumbledore has set wards up to detect magical poisons. Whoever is behind this knows that, and so he had to resort to another type of poison. Arsenic was once a popular poison among the rich and famous long ago. Unscrupulous heirs used it to make certain their benefactors died in a hurry after naming them in their wills. It is easily placed in food and drink and there is almost no detecting it once it has been masked by other flavors. It also mimics several other symptoms of diseases and viruses, so it makes it difficult to identify right away, unless you’re using magic or have a way to examine the contents of the victim’s stomach. You can use it to poison someone over a long period of time and the person will appear to have died of natural causes. That is why it is sometimes known as the inheritance poison."

"Oh. I understand. Then whoever is behind this has to know something about Muggles, right?"

"Yes and no. Even wizards learn about poisonous substances, so it would not be surprising for a wizard to know about arsenic, and they could obtain some at any apothecary, it’s a common method for getting rid of rats. Filch keeps a small store in his office for just that reason."

"You think Filch is behind this?" Harry sputtered, nearly choking on his oatmeal.

Severus shook his head. "Do not blindly make accusations, Harry. You should never accuse without evidence. There is no evidence that Filch was behind this. For one thing, he would have needed access to Gryffindor Tower before he could enter, and I doubt he would be asking the password from students."

"But you said he had arsenic in his office! Maybe you should ask him if any of it’s missing."

"Simply possessing a substance does not make him a murderer. I have many poisons in my own lab, does that make me an assassin?"

"No, but . . .Filch always is looking for ways to get students in trouble. He is a nasty git and he doesn’t like me."

"Perhaps, but that does not make him a murderer. He is a bitter man, true, but his bark is worse than his bite."

"You sure about that, sir?"

Snape nodded. "Eat. The oatmeal isn’t going to disappear because you’re glaring at it, mister."

Harry groaned and picked up his spoon again. "I hate oatmeal," he muttered. But he knew Snape would keep nagging him until he finished it and he would hate to make the other man follow through on that warning. He had learned long ago not to test the Potions Master, for what Snape said, he did.

Once he had finished the detested oatmeal, which was a small portion, thankfully, Severus allowed him to eat some scrambled eggs with a little salt and drink some more green tea and eat two pieces of bacon. Harry loved bacon and normally would have eaten more, but his guardian warned him to be careful, that such greasy food might not sit well on his stomach, and so he limited himself. He had no desire to throw up again, he’d done enough of that yesterday.

"Have you eaten enough, Harry?"

"Yes, sir. I’m full."

"How do you feel? Are you nauseous at all?"

"No. My stomach feels fine now."

"Good. Come here."

Harry rose and went to stand in front of his dark angel. Snape ran his wand over the boy, casting another diagnostic. It came back normal, the arsenic was no longer in Harry’s system. "You’ll live," he said, and smiled at the eleven-year-old. Then he pulled the boy into a hug so tight that Harry squeaked.

"Ummm . . .Sev, I can’t . . .breathe."

Severus eased his hold a little, but it was a while before he let Harry go. "Do not ever scare me like that again, brat. Or else I shall be forced to take drastic measures, am I understood?"

"Like locking me in my room for ten years?" Harry joked lightly, resting his head upon Snape’s shoulder. "Or beating me senseless?"

"Why, yes, exactly like that," Snape replied, deadpan. "I’ve always thought you could use a good beating, you irritating brat."

"Who, me?" Harry gave him his best innocent puppy-dog look.

"Stop that," ordered the Potions Master, hiding a grin. "That won’t work on me."

Yeah, right, Harry thought, hiding his own smirk. "Okay . . .I’ll be good."

"For once," Severus smirked and tousled his hair. Then he let Harry go. "After I sign your release form, I shall accompany you to Gryffindor Tower and you will bring me the box of chocolate frogs so I can examine them. Then Professor McGonagall will escort you to class and afterwards you are to stay with your friends at all times."

"All right, sir." Harry agreed.

"And here is the ring I promised you as well." Snape tugged a large silver ring off of his right hand. Its band was carved in a serpent’s likeness and it held a large moss agate in its mouth. "This ring is enchanted to repel almost any poison, Muggle or magical. If you consume something laced with poison or touch a poisonous object, it will be absorbed into the stone and you will be unharmed. I am sorry I did not give you this earlier, Harry." He made as if to put the ring on Harry’s finger.

But Harry drew away. "I can’t take your ring, sir. Then what will you do if you’re poisoned someday?"

"Harry," Severus began exasperatedly. "There is less chance of me getting poisoned than you. I am careful, I know spells to detect such things and my quarters are warded against any wizard or witch, and I do not eat anything save what I prepare myself or what is served in the Great Hall. Do not worry about me, child. Now give me your hand."

"But Severus, what if–"

"Harry, enough. You will take the ring and wear it. No arguments, young man." Severus ordered sharply and Harry wilted and gave in.

Severus put the ring on him and spoke a word to shrink it to fit the small wizard’s finger. "There. You should wear this at all times. However, if you need to remove it, you will say Aufero. To put it back on you say Inicio. It will adjust to your finger."

"Thank you." Harry said sincerely. "For everything. I was so scared . . .but I knew you wouldn’t let me die," he whispered, feeling himself choke up.

"Never, son," the dark guardian reassured. He drew the boy into another hug, and Harry wept softly onto the velvet clad shoulder. Severus held him a long time, knowing the boy needed this emotional release.

At last Harry pulled away. "Sorry."

"No need to apologize. You needed that. Do you feel better now?"

Harry nodded, though he knew he should feel ashamed for crying like a baby.

Severus gently wiped the tears away with a handkerchief. "There now. Let me finish filling out your release form and we can go up to the tower."

"All right." Harry agreed, wondering how on earth he was going to explain the ring on his finger to the other Gryffindors, especially Ron. Then he shook his head angrily. He didn’t owe anyone an explanation. The ring was there to keep him safe. Who gave a damn if it was a serpent and Slytherin colors? Snape had saved him once more and he would never again listen to Gryffindor prejudice regarding Slytherins.

As soon as Snape finished filling out the release form and had Harry sign it, they went together to Gryffindor Tower, where McGonagall awaited them.

 

 




 





Chapter End Notes:




How was that? Did you like Minerva in this chapter? Please let me know, I'd love to hear from you!

Next: Finals await the Golden Trio and so does the Sorcerer's Stone. Quirrell's accomplice shall be revealed!



Chapter 20: Catspaw
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Harry was greeted enthusiastically by Hermione, who threw her arms about him and hugged him, crying, "Oh, Harry, I'm so glad you're okay!" much to Harry's embarrassment when they met just outside the Great Hall for lunch. People stared and some of the Slytherin girls and boys snickered behind their hands and one older Hufflepuff girl laughed and said, "Aww, how sweet! A firstie romance!"

Harry went scarlet and hissed, "Uh, Hermione, please let go! I'm fine, see?"

Ron was trying manfully not to crack up, and Hermione was oblivious to everything save for the fact that her best friend was alive and well before her. Harry was quietly wishing he had his Invisibility Cloak and knew a Forgetful Charm. But he had to admit, very softly, that it was nice to know that someone else cared enough to miss him if he died. Besides Severus, that is.

"We were so worried about you, Harry," Hermione continued, releasing him at last. "You were nearly dead when we brought you to the infirmary and Ron started an argument with Professor Snape over you and wouldn't leave till I dragged him out by his ear, and I really thought the professor was going to hex him."

Harry gaped at her. "Ron started a fight with Snape over me?" He turned to his other friend, who was looking rather sheepish and staring at the ground. "What the hell, mate? Snape saved me, he brewed an antidote that neutralized the poison, and you start a blasted argument with him?"

"I didn't know that when we brought you there, Harry." Ron said, apologetically. "I still thought Snape was out to, uh, you know, get you. I didn't want to leave you alone with him."

Harry scowled. "Ron, you stupid dumbass, how many times do I have to tell you, Snape is not trying to kill me?" He punched the other hard in the shoulder. "The man was up all night and all day with me, making sure the antidote cleansed all the poison from me. Holy Mary, now does that sound like somebody that wants to murder me? I'm going to tell you once more, drop your vendetta against Snape once and for all, or else it's over between us." And Harry fixed the redhead with an uncompromising glare reminiscent of his guardian angel.

Ron actually winced. "Okay, okay. Christ, Harry! Hermione already shredded strips off of me yesterday. She explained everything to me, how Snape's actually protecting you and all," he lowered his voice and looked about, they were alone in the Entrance Hall. "I'm sorry . . .it's just hard for me to trust a Slytherin, there have been so many who went dark from that House."

"And some have went dark from our House too, Ron," Harry said quietly. "Evil knows no boundaries. You shouldn't judge all Slytherins based on a few rotten apples."

"He's right. People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," Hermione added.

Ron gave her a blank look. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means don't judge others unless you're willing to judge yourself too, since nobody's perfect," Harry translated.

"Oh. Why didn't you just say that, then?" Ron rolled his eyes. "Anyway, like I was saying, Hermione told me how she figured out Snape was on our side after all. She said she started changing her mind when he brought you back to the school after the night in the Forbidden Forest, and the Quidditch match when he called a foul on his own team ‘cause Flint nearly knocked you off your broom."

"And I started thinking about how you insisted Snape wasn't the one who hexed your broom during the first Quidditch match, that he was performing a countercurse." Hermione continued, whispering. "Hagrid told me that countercurses required the caster to not blink or lose focus on the one they were protecting, so Snape could have been doing that and not a jinx. Of course, that means somebody else is trying to steal the Stone and . . .and kill you." The girl looked sick as she hissed that last.

"I know. Last night proved that for damn sure," Harry sighed. He showed them the ring Snape had given him. "The professor gave me this ring, it will protect me from being poisoned again. And he wants me to stick close to both of you, he says there's safety in numbers. But he doesn't know we know about the Stone, or that the creature in the forest was Voldemort. I think we have to watch people closely, because somebody here is helping Voldemort."

"Malfoy probably," Ron muttered angrily.

"Not necessarily." Harry disagreed. "I know he's an arrogant little twit, but that doesn't mean he's evil. We can't accuse without evidence. Besides, I think whoever it is isn't a student, but an adult."

"But who? Surely not one of the teachers . . .?" Hermione said.

Harry shrugged. "Who knows? Come on, let's go and eat. I'm kind of hungry." He led the way into the hall, not wanting to tell his friends that if he didn't show up for lunch, Snape would come after him and drag him to a table by his ear and stand over him while he ate.

Sure enough, he saw Severus standing near the staff table, scanning the hall for him. When he entered, Snape frowned and jerked his head at the Gryffindor table, indicating Harry was to sit down and eat. Harry gave him a nod and quickly sat down near the end next to Neville, with Hermione and Ron on his other side.

Food appeared on all their plates, though Harry nearly groaned when he saw a rather large portion of spinach sauteed with garlic on his plate next to a small piece of ham, a hard boiled egg, and another large piece of whole grain bread. But at least the bread had butter on it. His glass also had iced green tea flavored with honey instead of his usual pumpkin juice.

Everyone else was eating mashed potatoes swimming with gravy and glazed ham and fried chicken.

Ron frowned in puzzlement when he saw what Harry had for lunch. "Harry, why are you eating spinach?" The other made a disgusting face.

"Doctor's orders. Or I should say, Snape's orders," Harry amended glumly. "He told me I have to eat food with lots of sulfur and antioxidants and fiber for lunch and dinner today to make sure I'm completely free of the poison. So that means spinach and whole wheat bread and eggs."

"Poor you!" Ron said sympathetically. "I hate spinach." He began to eat his chicken with relish.

Harry surveyed his plate, then began eating slowly. Spinach was tolerable in his opinion, and this wasn't half-bad, at least it had seasoning and the garlic added flavor. He had gotten used to eating vegetables when he was growing up with Severus, and actually liked some of them, though he would never admit that to anyone, since kids were supposed to hate them. He glanced at Hermione and saw she also had a salad along with her fried chicken and potatoes.

"Vegetables are good for you, Harry," she said, eating her salad happily.

"Merlin, you sound like my mum!" Ron groaned. "Girls!"

"My gran was like that too," Neville spoke up. "She used to make me eat brussel sprouts when I was little."

Ron gagged. "Gross!"

"I like brussel sprouts," Hermione said.

"Figures," Ron muttered.

Harry ate his ham, not wanting to admit that he also like brussel sprouts, oddly enough. With butter, salt, and pepper. He made sure he finished at least half of his lunch, eating all of the spinach and the bread and most of the egg, for he knew across the hall a certain professor was watching.

* * * * * *

 

 

The next month was a killer as everyone crammed for final exams. Harry played in the last Quidditch game of the season, against Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor won, much to his delight. He had caught the Snitch handily about ten minutes into the game, arrowing out of the blue like a comet, making the startled Hufflepuff Seeker spin around on his broom, trying to see what had flown past him at such a speed.

Wood declared him a prodigy and a miracle, the best Seeker he'd ever seen, and invited him to an even bigger after-hours party. Harry declined, however, recalling what had happened last time, and instead chose to celebrate quietly with Hermione, Ron, and Hagrid at Hagrid's cottage.

They had butterbeer and fizzy chocolate sodas and some other sweets that Hagrid had purchased from Hogsmeade, though no chocolate frogs, he figured that would not be wise considering Harry had nearly died from eating one, though the youngster admitted he still liked them. "Only I don't think I could eat one just yet. Maybe in a few months, though."

"Thas' what I figgered, so I got ya some chocolate bonbons and Screamin' Butterscotch Taffy instead." Hagrid said, gesturing at the other sweets.

The Screaming Taffy yelled when you pulled a piece of it, but it was delicious, though Hermione ate only a small amount of it. "I don't like talking food, and besides, taffy's really bad for your teeth and I've got braces, my parents would kill me if I ruined all their work by eating some magical taffy." Hermione's parents were dentists.

"You've got braces? I never noticed," Harry said, astonished.

"They're clear, so you wouldn't unless you look close," Hermione said, and smiled widely so he could see them. "My mum put them in, they're new, since I got sick and tired of kids teasing me in school, calling me train track mouth and all that."

"How long have you had them?"

"Since I was about eight, but I'm getting them off next year," she answered, sipping a butterbeer. "Then I'll have to wear a retainer for a year or two, and after that my teeth will be fixed, finally!"

 

Harry thanked God his teeth weren't crooked.

"Are you all studying hard for your exams?" asked the gamekeeper.

All three nodded, though Ron made a face. He wasn't looking forward to finals at all and thought they were a waste of time.

Harry was thinking of Voldemort, however, and ways he could try and get past the Cerberus and whatever else guarded the Stone. "Hagrid, when you won that dragon egg off that person in the pub, what did he look like? Was he pale?"

Hagrid's forehead crinkled. "Well, I can't really say, Harry. He wouldn't let me see his face, he had a hood over it. He wouldn't take off his cloak either."

All three looked very alarmed and the gamekeeper raised an eyebrow. "That's not too strange, y'get a lot of them sort down at the Hog's Head in the village. Some of the blokes there like t'keep a low profile, see? An' if he was a dragon dealer . . .he wouldn' be too keen on me seein' his face, like."

"Hagrid, did he ask about Hogwarts?" Harry frowned.

"Yeah, I tol' him I worked here . . .he asked me a lot o' questions about me job, wanted t'know what kinds of creatures I'd taken care of . . .he couldn't give the egg t'just anyone, see . . .I tol' him I'd always wanted a dragon, an' that after Fluffy, a dragon shouldn't be too hard t' raise . . .He kept buying me drinks, really friendly, he was, and innerested in all my pets . . ."

"Did he ask about Fluffy?" Hermione asked.

"Sure, there ain't too many people who can raise an' train a Cerberus, even at Hogwarts," Hagrid said proudly. "They're touchy, an' they get their feelings hurt easy, and they need lots of space and they eat lots but they're very loyal an' they'll defend ya to the death or whatever ya tell them t' guard. I said Fluffy was a piece o'cake once ya learned how to calm him down, he likes music, see, and if you play him a lullaby he'll go straight ter sleep jus' like a little baby-"

Hagrid broke off, looking absolutely horrified.

"Blast! I shouldn't have tol' you that! Forget about it! It's not important."

"But Hagrid, you told the man about it. What if he's the one trying to steal the Stone?" Harry protested.

"Harry, listen to me. The Stone's well protected, now quit sticking yer nose in stuff that's none o' yer business. Study for your finals, that's what ya should be concerned about. Not the Stone. You have any idea how much trouble you'd be in if any of the teachers ever found out ya knew about the Stone? You could get expelled, all of ya, that's classified information, that is. Now do yerselves a favor and jus' forget about it. I tol' ya before, there's no place safer than Hogwarts to hide something, unless it's Gringotts."

"But Hagrid, what if-" Harry protested.

The big man shook a finger at him. "Harry, stop, I mean it. Mind your own business. Unless you want me t'get Professor Snape an' maybe he can put it so's you understand?" Harry shook his head, gulping. "No? Then quit askin' me about it and worry about your exams. Leave stuff like that to the adults, that's their job, an' their concern. Got me?"

"Yes, sir," Harry said, but he knew he wouldn't be able to take Hagrid's advice. He knew too much to just forget about it, and the worst part was he didn't dare confide in Severus, for he had no illusions about how furious the Potions Master would be if he ever learned Harry had been snooping and gathering top secret information about a secret magical object. He'd really go off on me then, and I'd probably end up with a sore bum and locked up in his dungeon forever. But there's something not right about this whole thing, and now whoever it was that talked to Hagrid knows about Fluffy's weakness . . .Harry's mind raced. The stranger in the pub tempting Hagrid with a dragon egg and then just happening to question him about Fluffy was too much of a coincidence to not be a set-up. In all the mystery novels he'd ever read, the murderer had usually had an accomplice, or at least a dupe, to help him commit the crime.

But who was the mastermind? And who was the pawn?

Those questions kept turning around and around in his brain, try though he did not to think about them. He wished suddenly he didn't have such insatiable curiosity or a mind that loved solving mysteries. He picked up a chocolate bonbon and ate it, then changed the subject to something safer-discussing the victory that Gryffindor had won, the first time in seven years they had managed to win the Quidditch cup over Slytherin. Harry stroked Hedwig while he related his winning maneuver again, and Hagrid and Ron beamed proudly.

* * * * * *

 

Despite his fear that the Stone would be stolen right from under their noses while they slept, nothing happened over the next three weeks of note, except Hermione developing a migraine and having to get a Headache Remedy for it from Madam Pomfrey. She was stressing too much over her exams, the medi-witch said, and recommended she take a break from her books and take a long walk in the sunshine.

Harry and Ron accompanied her, for they too were sick of all the homework and review sheets their teachers were giving them, and together they walked around the lake, skipping stones across the water and throwing crackers for the squid to eat.

They were so intent upon their little bit of free time that none of them noticed the great feline that padded along behind them some hundred yards away, silent as the ghost he was named for. Wraith purred softly, relieved to note that his reckless charge was taking his advice for once and not roaming about alone. The poisoning, awful as it had been, had done one good thing, the big cat reflected, sitting down in the shade of a large yew tree. It had scared Harry enough so he started being mindful of his own safety at last. But Wraith would not relent in his vigilance. Not until the one who was behind this was gone to hell and facing the final judgement.

The snow leopard remained alert while the three played along the lakeshore, none of them realizing that this was the last peaceful interlude they would know for quite some time.

Between his exams and his fear that Voldemort would come bursting into the school at any time, Harry hardly got any sleep, and he began to pick at his food, his nerves robbing him of his appetite. Severus summoned him to his office the night before finals began and made him eat dinner with him, practically counting every bite.

"You will never be able study if you don't eat properly," he scolded. "I want you to promise me you will eat a good breakfast every morning of your exams, mister. Your brain needs energy to work properly, and therefore you need to eat a well balanced meal. Have I your word?"

"Yes, sir," his ward sighed, wishing he could tell his guardian the other reason he was so peckish lately. But he didn't want to die at eleven, so he kept quiet and ate dinner. Afterwards, he played a game of chess with Snape, who managed to beat him without half-trying, as usual. Then they spent a half-hour going over some of the potions material Harry wasn't grasping, until Severus escorted Harry back to the tower just before curfew. "You'll do well. Just clear your mind before you start looking at the exam paper, and then read each question thoroughly and completely before putting down an answer. Don't rush and above all, get a good night's sleep." He gave Harry's shoulder an encouraging squeeze before bidding him good night and watching as the boy climbed through the portrait hole.

* * * * * *

 

The exams weren't half as bad as Harry had feared, though the large classroom they took the written portions in was swelteringly hot and all the students removed their robes before they sat down. All of them used special quills for their finals, bewitched with Anti-Cheating Charms and a never-ending supply of squid ink. He followed Snape's instructions, clearing his mind before taking each test and reading each essay topic and question completely and throughly before answering it.

Some subjects, like Potions, also had a practical lab in addition to a written exam, and they had those in their regular classrooms. Flitwick called them in individually to see how well they could make a pineapple tapdance across a desk, and then demonstrate a charm of their own choosing. Harry earned himself bonus points for demonstrating a Summoning Charm, and he silently thanked Severus for teaching him that one.

McGonagall graded them on how well they could transfigure a snuffbox into a mouse, with points given if the mouse had fluffy fur and taken away if it looked wooden.

Snape terrified them all by breathing down their necks while they brewed, trying to remember how to make a Forgetfulness Potion. Harry thought that was Severus's little idea of a joke, giving them that particular elixir to brew, and he knew that one by heart, which was one advantage of being the ward of a Potions Master since he was four.

Neville looked like he was about to be sick, however. He kept muttering, "I can't fail potions, Gran will murder me."

Harry felt sorry for him and considered offering the plump boy some extra help next term, since it was too late now.

Their last exam was History of Magic and everyone let out a cheer when it was over and ran outside. Everyone except Hermione, Ron, and Harry. Hermione was trying to remember if she'd gotten a question right on the Goblin Wars and Ron was tying his trainer, when Quirrell went by, twitching and jerking more than usual and muttering to himself.

Something about the Defense professor's manner made Harry uneasy, and he moved off a little ways behind the man, his ear cocked.

"I can't . . .yes, yes . . .I understand, Master . . .it shall be done . . .tonight . . .does he know?" More wringing of his hands and a nervous tic followed. "No, no, of course not . . .it must be done . . ."

Quirrell hurried away then and Harry could not follow, but the wizard's words sent a sudden chill through him. What did he mean, tonight it must be done? Grading his exams? But no, he acted like he was talking to someone, he called someone Master. Could it be Voldemort? The more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Quirrell had always acted a little odd, and Harry's scar had started throbbing and aching ever since the first day he'd had class with him. In fact, it was tingling now. He could also recall Severus saying that Quirrell was a waste of breath as a Defense instructor, and he didn't know what Dumbledore had been thinking to hire him.

"We have to go and talk to Dumbledore," he blurted suddenly, startling his friends, who looked at him in puzzlement.

"How come, Harry?" asked Ron quizzically. "You think you did that bad on your exam? He won't let you take it over, y'know. Fred tried that last year, ‘cause he was failing Arithmancy. Besides, our grades won't be out till next week and then we can see how awful we did. I'm just as glad, I won't get lectured and grounded by my mum till I go home, she won't get the results till then."

"Speak for yourself, Ron. I'm hoping I got at least a ninety- five in everything or maybe even a hundred or better," said Hermione.

"Know-it-all," Ron coughed.

"Harry, you want to do well on your exams, right? Not like some people."

"Uh, yeah," Harry replied, thinking that if he didn't do well, Severus would kick his arse. It had never been spoken between them, but Harry knew that he would face Snape's wrath if he failed anything, not that he thought he had. Now that he didn't have to worry about being dumb like Dudley and faking poor marks, he could ace his classes, and let his natural intelligence shine. "But Ron, that's not why I need to see Dumbledore."

"Why then?"

"Because I have to warn him about Quirrell. I think he's going to steal the Stone tonight. I overheard him talking to himself just now . . ." Harry quickly told them what Quirrell had said and both his friends looked properly horrified. "Hagrid must have told him or Voldemort about how to put Fluffy to sleep, and he knows how to get past him and probably the other protections as well. We need to tell Dumbledore right away and hope he believes us. Anybody know where his office is?"

Both of them shook their heads, they had never asked where the Headmaster lived or if anyone had ever been to his office before.

"Maybe we could-" Hermione began.

"What are you three doing inside? Looking for trouble?" came a familiar voice from across the hall.

Snape emerged from the staff room, holding several potions manuals in his arms, they had just arrived and he needed to peruse them to see if they were suitable for his sixth and seventh year Advanced classes. He eyed the trio suspiciously.

"No, sir. But we need to speak with Professor Dumbledore. Would you direct us to his office, please?" Hermione said calmly, surprising the boys with her poise under pressure.

The Potions Master frowned. "You need to speak with Professor Dumbledore? Why?"

Harry gulped, for Snape was eyeing him sternly and he felt a sudden urge to yell I didn't do anything, honest. We're trying to prevent a robbery, Severus. Instead he located his courage somewhere in the vicinity of his feet and said, "Uh . . .it's a private matter, sir. It's complicated."

"Really?" Snape's eyebrow went up and he curled his lip in a slight sneer. What are you up to, boy? Because I know you're up to something. "Professor Dumbledore is not here. He received an urgent owl from the Minister of Magic and he left immediately to answer it."

Harry felt as if the bottom had fallen out of the world. "He's gone?"

"Potter, did you suffer hearing loss in the recent future? What part of ‘he left immediately' do you not understand?" demanded Snape irritably.

"But we need to talk to him, sir!" Harry said frantically. "Can you owl him?"

"Professor Dumbledore is a very great wizard, he has many demands on his time, Potter. He cannot be at your beck and call every minute, celebrity or not."

"But this is important."

"More important than the Minister of Magic, Potter?" Snape sneered. What has you so flustered, Harry? He wondered, wishing he could end this pretense and simply ask the boy what was the matter.

"Sir, it's about the Sorcerer's Stone," Hermione interjected, feeling that they would get somewhere by telling the truth for once.

Snape looked as if she had socked him one in the jaw. Clearly that was the last thing he had expected to come out of her mouth. "The Sorcerer's Stone, Miss Granger? How do you know about that?" he snapped, giving her a stern glower.

"Uh . . .we know that . . .I mean we think that . . ." she stammered, wilting under that patented glare.

"Quirrell's trying to steal the Stone, sir!" Harry said quickly, throwing all caution to the wind. He had weathered Severus's death glare before and it did not affect him as much as it did other students. "Please, you've got to believe us, we need to talk to Professor Dumbledore right away."

"You are accusing a faculty member of attempted theft, Potter?" Snape growled, looking mightily annoyed. "Of all the cheek! Do you think I am stupid, to fall for your little prank, boy?"

"No, please! You don't understand!"

"Don't I? You three, inside on a beautiful day after your exams, are clearly up to no good. Now then, you've had your pitiful little joke, Potter, stop before I take points."

"But the Stone is in danger!" Ron added.

"Enough! The Stone is well protected, you needn't concern yourselves with it. Now go outside and play your little jokes on your classmates and forget this conversation ever occurred, because if you pursue this matter, you will all regret it. Now go!" He pointed imperiously towards the doors.

Ron blanched and scurried away, Hermione lingered a little longer, as if trying to think of a way to convince the Potions Master that they were serious, and Harry stepped up to Snape and hissed, "Severus, I'm not kidding, I heard Quirrell whispering to himself that he was going to try and steal the stone-"

"Harry, no one can get to the Stone, it's far too well protected," Severus said out of the corner of his mouth. "Do not concern yourself with it. I shall go and check on it myself." Then he said loudly, "Mr. Potter, if you do not cease this foolishness, you will be one very sorry little boy. Now move your over-privileged backside outside unless you want to spend the last week of school scrubbing all the toilets a dozen times over with a toothbrush. Move!" he barked, then he turned Harry about and sent him off with a firm swat to the seat of his jeans, forgetting for one instant that Hermione was still watching.

Harry went, feeling his face flush at Snape's dismissal. Dammit, Severus, I was serious! And do you have to treat me like a seven-year-old in front of Hermione? Bloody Christ!

Hermione gave him an astonished look as he caught up with her and they started out the doors. "Did he just . . .swat you? Because I was sure I saw . . ."

"Uh . . .yeah, he does that sometimes . . ."

"So does my dad, if I'm pestering him too much," Hermione said thoughtfully.

Harry blushed and looked away.

Hermione eyed him speculatively and muttered, half to herself, "Curiouser and curiouser."

Ron met them halfway down the path. "You okay, Harry? He looked like he was about to skewer you. Did he give you detention? Or take points?"

"No. But we have to get back inside. If the teachers won't believe us, we have to guard the stone and watch Quirrell ourselves." Harry said decisively.

"Umm . . .let me think. You think Snape's still watching the entrance, right? Okay, the twins told me of a secret way," Ron said, and beckoned them off the path and through the shrubbery.

Five minutes later they were back inside the castle. They quickly slipped up the stairs to the third floor, only to discover a stern Minerva McGonagall standing before the door where Fluffy was kept.

"And what, may I ask, are you three doing up here? The third floor is off limits to students and I thought I heard Professor Snape tell you distinctly to go outside."

"But Professor, we're just trying to help," began Hermione.

"And prevent a robbery," added Harry.

"Now that is quite enough, Mr. Potter. You've had your little prank on Professor Snape and frankly I am not amused. I would suggest you stop this nonsense and go out and enjoy the sunshine, because if you persist in following in your father's footsteps, I shall take points, yes, from my own House again, Potter. So do not test me."

She gave them a thunderous look, so that Hermione squeaked and backed away and Ron did likewise. Harry remained for a moment more, then decided that discretion was the better part of valor and followed his friends down the stairs, fighting the urge to swear and stamp his foot like a five-year-old. Now what? It seemed there was nothing left to do but to go outside and try and enjoy what was left of the afternoon.

* * * * * *

 

 

Later that night, however, he plotted rebellion. "He's going to do it tonight, I heard him," he whispered to Ron and Hermione up in the stairwell inbetween the two dormitories, there was a small alcove where they could all squeeze into and discuss plans. "He was communicating with Voldemort, I'm sure of it."

"Don't say his name, Harry!" hissed Ron, his face white.

Harry lost his temper. "Why not? He's coming here, or maybe he's here already, somewhere in the school, plotting with Quirrell to make himself a bloody immortal. So what's it matter if I say his name? Huh? Voldemort! Voldemort! Voldemort!" he shouted. "There! Where is he? I don't see him anywhere, do you? See, he's just a bloody dark wizard after all, not the devil! Now quit acting like a scaredy-cat, Weasley, and start acting like a Gryffindor. Maybe the hat ought to've put you in Hufflepuff instead?"

Ron socked him one in the shoulder. "That's a low blow, Potter!"

"Stop it, the pair of you!" Hermione ordered angrily. "What are we going to do?"

"I don't know about you two, but I'm going through the trapdoor tonight and trying to prevent Quirrell and Voldemort from stealing the Stone."

His friends just stared at him, as if he had said he was going to hang himself from the Astronomy Tower.

"You bleeding cracked, mate?" Ron demanded.

"You . . .you can't do that, Harry! Didn't you hear what McGonagall and Snape said? You'll get expelled for sure if you go anywhere near the third floor." Hermione squeaked.

Harry clenched his fists, his green eyes blazing. "And if Voldemort steals the Stone, we won't have a school to be expelled from, don't you get it? Hogwarts will be gone, he'll blow it up or take it over and we'll all be dead or slaves to him and his followers. And I'd rather be dead than risk that. It doesn't matter if we lose points any more, or win the House cup, that won't stop Voldemort from taking the Stone and becoming immortal and once he does that, he'll rule all of Britain. My parents died to stop that from happening. I won't let their sacrifice be for nothing. I won't let him win, and kill Severus and . . .and all of you . . .not if I can stop it. I'm going through the damn trapdoor tonight and if you're not coming with me, you better find a deep hole and hide in it, because one way or another somebody's gonna die tonight, and if God is merciful it'll be that wicked bastard."

Such was the determination and conviction in his tone that the other two found themselves quite speechless. They had never seen this side of Harry before and it impressed the socks off them.

"We'll help you, Harry," Hermione said softly. "You won't have to do this alone, right, Ronald?"

"Uh, yeah, we'll be right beside you, mate," Ron said in a small voice. "And I just hope we don't all die."

"We won't," Harry reassured him. "Believe it, Ron. We'll kick Voldemort's arse all the way across the Atlantic and save Hogwarts. If you go into a fight believing you'll win, then you'll stand a good chance of coming out alive," he quoted one of Severus's mottos, that he had told him one evening during a Defense lesson. "Don't and you stand an excellent chance of dying. But that's not going to happen, right? Because we're going to win."

"We sure are!" Hermione declared firmly, with a proud lift to her head, like a young lioness who had just sighted prey on the savannah.

"Yeah, we're gonna kick Quirrell's skinny arse all the way back to Arabia," Ron said quickly. "And . . .V-Voldemort's too."

Harry grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "That's the spirit."

"We're all bleeding insane," Ron moaned then.

Harry nodded. "Yeah, well so are most heroes."

* * * * * *

The clock in the common room struck midnight and Harry, Hermione, and Ron crept down the stairs into the common room, Harry had the Invisibility Cloak tucked under his arm and a flute Hagrid had lent him in a pocket of his robe. Hagrid had said he didn't need to be a musician to play it, for which Harry was very grateful, since he'd failed music class in primary school.

"Good thing we got your cloak, Harry, and it covers all three of us," Ron said eagerly, having lost most of his misgivings somewhere inbetween the afternoon and the evening, and was now looking forward to this latest adventure. "Only we need to watch out for is Filch, Peeves, or Mrs. Norris."

"But what about Quirrell's accomplice?" queried Hermione worriedly. "We never did figure out who helped him get into the tower to put the poisoned frog into Harry's trunk. We'll need to watch out for whoever that is too."

"How d'you know it wasn't Quirrell who did it?" Harry said, not wanting to admit that he'd forgotten about the accomplice until now.

"Because Quirrell doesn't know the password to Gryffindor Tower," Ron said. "And after you almost died in the Quidditch match, I heard McGonagall tell the Fat Lady that no one who wasn't a House member was to be admitted to the tower, except of course, the Headmaster."

"And Quirrell wasn't a Gryffindor, he was a Ravenclaw." Hermione recalled. "So it couldn't have been him."

"Where are you all going at this time of night?" came a quiet voice from the far right of the room.

The three jumped about a foot.

"Neville! You scared us! How come you're up this late?" Hermione asked.

Neville came over to stand in front of them. He was wearing an oddly determined expression on his moon face, and there was a faintly confused look in his eyes. "I . . .I was waiting for you. You're sneaking out again, aren't you? Going to get yourselves in more trouble and cost us more House points?"

"No, no we're not, Neville," Ron said quickly. "We just couldn't sleep. Don't mind us. Just go back to bed. Sorry we woke you."

"No, you aren't," Neville's voice suddenly hardened, now he sounded suspicious and not timid. He gave them all a hard glare. "You're just sorry I caught you." He moved to block the portrait hole. "Why don't you go back to bed then?"

Harry scowled, they didn't have time for this. Quirrell was probably charming Fluffy as they stood here arguing. "Neville, get out of the way. Now. If we get caught, it's on our heads."

But Neville remained stubbornly in front of them. "No. I-I can't. . . .Don't you understand? You'll die if you go there . . .he told me so . . .he said he would kill you, Harry and then the threat would be ended forever . . ." Longbottom's eyes were wide and unfocused, his words tumbling over themselves to get out. "He made me come here . . .he told me if I didn't do what he wanted . . .he'd make sure my parents had an accident and died . . .and so would Gran." Neville began to tremble uncontrollably. "Keep them here, boy . . .delay them just long enough . . .please, please . . .I had to do it, Harry . . .he looked at me . . .he went inside me . . .and I couldn't keep him out . . .I couldn't!" Tears were trickling down Neville's cheeks now, but he made no move to wipe them away.

"Harry . . .he's been bewitched!" Ron cried in horror. "By Voldemort."

Neville whimpered. "No . . .no . . .don't speak his name . . .he'll come for you . . .no one is safe . . .we're all going to die . . .unless we obey him . . ."

"Neville . . .move away from the door," Harry ordered quietly. "We're going to stop him, and then you'll be free."

"I won't! You'll have to fight me!" he declared, lifting his fists.

"Neville! Get the hell out of the way!" Ron growled, clenching his own fist.

Harry grabbed him by the shoulder. "No, Ron. He doesn't know what he's doing. Voldemort's using him. Or Quirrell. Neville, it was you who put the chocolate frog in my trunk, wasn't it?"

Neville nodded. "Yes . . .but I didn't know it was poisoned, Harry!" he wailed, sobbing. "I just thought it was a present, Quirrell said it was a reward for . . .for doing well in class. I didn't know . . .I swear to God, I didn't . . .! Then Quirrell came back and said . . .he showed me . . .ahh . . .You-Know-Who was there . . .and he . . .he . . ."

"He hurt you, didn't he?" Harry said sadly. "Made you into a catspaw."

"Yes. I can't let you leave."

"Now what do we do?" Hermione groaned. "I really don't want to hurt him."

Harry drew his wand. "Sorry about this. But it has to be done." Then he cried, "Petrificus Totalus!"

And Neville toppled over on the ground, frozen stiff and unable to move a muscle.

"Merlin, what'd you do to him, Harry?"asked Ron.

"I cast a full Body Bind on him. It'll wear off in a few hours." Harry answered.

"Poor Neville. We're sorry." Hermione apologized.

"Yeah. Hope it didn't hurt too much, mate." Ron added, looking at the other with a mixture of pity and shock. Out of all people, he never would have suspected shy timid Neville of trying to harm Harry, even unknowingly.

Harry knelt beside the stricken boy, whose eyes held a strange mixture of fear and relief in them. "I know it wasn't your fault, Nev. I forgive you. You were the catspaw, not the mastermind. Don't worry. We'll stop him." He patted the other on the shoulder, then swirled the cloak about himself, Ron, and Hermione.

Together they stepped from the portrait hole and into the corridor. Down the stairs they went and across the main entrance to the stairs that led to the third floor, the same stairs which Harry had fallen down that fateful night of the duel that never was.

Together the three started up them, silent as wraiths from beyond the grave, to try and catch a thief and a murderer.


 



Chapter End Notes:


So . . .were you surprised??

Thanks for all the awesome reviews, they really make me want to keep going with this one! So don't stop reading or reviewing, please!

Next: The trio encounters all the protective traps and tricks as they try to find the Stone before Quirrell does.



Chapter 21: Tricks and Traps
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By the time they reached the third floor, with its portraits of weeping women and ravaging monsters, the three were panting and gasping, for it was not easy trying to walk up an entire flight of stairs together and still remain huddled underneath an Invisibility Cloak. But they managed it, and crept down the corridor towards the door with the brass ring. Harry half expected Snape to appear out of the shadows and order them all back to bed, but the dark guardian was absent, and Harry hoped that he was merely guarding the Stone and not injured and dying.

As before, the door was locked, but a quick "Alohomora!" from Hermione allowed them entrance.

They could hear the sweet strains of a harp playing and the loud snores of Fluffy as they nipped inside, carefully shutting the door behind them.

Fluffy was sprawled on the ground next to the harp, all three heads snoring rhythmically. Puddles of sticky drool collected near the mastiff and bulldog heads, and the wolf head sniffed as it slept.

"Hell, Quirrell's already been here," Harry muttered, removing the flute from his pocket.

Sure enough, the trapdoor lay open near the Cerberus's head.

"The harp . . ." Hermione whispered. "It's stopped playing."

The dog's snores had been so loud that neither boy realized the sweet music had halted until they paused to listen. The enchantment on the harp had ceased and the wolf's head twitched and then awoke abruptly. Its golden eyes looked right at Harry and it snarled and howled, waking up the other two heads, and then the massive dog was lunging at them, startlingly quick for an animal of that size.

Hermione screamed and Harry was nearly bowled over, for the cloak was no protection against a dog who relied more on smell than sight to find an intruder.

"DO something!" Ron yelped. "Quickly! I don't wanna become puppy chow!"

Harry put the flute to his lips and blew, praying that Hagrid had been right, and the flute could play its own tune.

As soon as the air filled it, the sweet notes of a lullaby drifted across the room and the dog halted its mad rush and looked quizzical, all three head cocked.

The lullaby continued and Fluffy yawned sleepily, displaying fangs half the size of Harry, then it turned in a circle three times and lay down with its heads on its giant paws. In another minute the dog was sleeping soundly, dreaming of chasing mammoth deer and unwanted intruders.

"Merlin, that was close!" Ron hissed, moving over to peer through the trapdoor. "It's really dark down there. I can't see the bottom. What if there isn't one?"

"There must be." Hermione insisted.

"I'll go first," Harry said, pulling the flute away from his mouth. It continued playing on its own and would do so for about a minute. "Here, Hermione. Keep playing." He passed the flute to her and started to lower himself over the side. "Ron, if anything happens to me, go back and send an owl to Dumbledore. Get Hedwig, she's at Hagrid's, tell him and any other teacher you can find. Okay?"

Ron nodded, his face set. "Will do, Harry. But nothing's going to happen. We're going to kick Quirrell's bleeding arse."

"Right." Harry managed a grin before he made himself let go.

He fell for what seemed like an eternity into blackness before his feet hit the bottom and he pitched forward onto something soft and slightly warm. He quickly stood up and yelled, "I'm okay! There's something soft down here, just jump!"

About three seconds later, Ron landed next to him. "Lumos!" he cried, and the tip of his wand lit up to reveal a rather large stone cavern with a mass of curling ivy all over it. "Nice of them to put this here."

"Yeah, guess they didn't want to break a leg," Harry said, moving out of the way so Hermione could come through.

Hermione tucked the flute in her pocket.

As soon as the flute ceased playing, Fluffy stirred and growled, but by then Hermione was through the trapdoor and landing next to them with a soft thump. "How odd. A bunch of vines that look like . . ."she trailed off as she saw several vines move and wind themselves about Ron and Harry, climbing rapidly up the two boys.

"Ahh!" they yelled, struggling against the dreadful pressure. "Get them off! Get them off!"

"We're being eaten alive!" yelled Ron.

"Stop moving!" Hermione yelled, remaining perfectly still as the vines slithered about her sneakers, though inside she was trembling like a Christmas pudding. "This is Devil's Snare!"

"Who cares what it's called?" yelped Ron. "I just want it to stop strangling me . .. ack!"

The vine was now twining about his shoulders and a small tendril had wrapped lovingly about his ear.

"Be perfectly still. Now . . .what did Professor Sprout say about Devil's Snare?" she mused, sounding as if she were still back in the classroom, safe and sound.

"It can kill you in five minutes?" Harry suggested, trying hard not to move as the vines squeezed him.

"No . . .no . . .it likes the damp and dark . . ."

"Who cares?" yelped Ron.

" . . .and it hates sunlight and fire!" Hermione cried triumphantly. She pointed her wand down at the writhing mass of green and purple vines. "Close your eyes!" She warned. The two obeyed, shuddering. "Lumos maxima!"

A dazzling ball of light emerged from her wand and the Devil's Snare withered where the light touched, shrinking away and withdrawing into the furthest corner of the chamber. In two minutes, Harry and Ron were free and brushing dead leaves off themselves.

"Oh, thank you Merlin!" Ron gasped.

"Thank you, Hermione!" Harry corrected. "We're lucky you pay attention in Herbology."

Hermione blushed in pleasure.

"C'mon. Looks like the way out is this way," said Ron pointing to a long stone passage off to the right that had been hidden by the mass of Devil's Snare.

"We must be miles and miles beneath the school!" Hermione remarked in awe, gazing up at the rough hewn stone walls.

Harry gulped." Uh . . .let's not talk about that, okay? I don't like small dark places." He took several deep breaths and centered himself. He wasn't horribly claustrophobic, but he didn't like being trapped inside a closed space, he'd lived too long in a broom cupboard.

He walked quickly down the passage, lighting the way with the tip of his wand. He thought this passage reminded him a bit of Gringotts, it was made of the same stone, and he prayed that there was no dragon guarding the Stone. Because he had no idea how they would trick a fully grown dragon.

There came a breath of wind from somewhere ahead and Harry stopped and let it wash over him. It felt wonderful, and he tilted his head back, it ruffled his sweat soaked hair, making it stick up. "Feel that? A breeze."

"Great!" Ron said, cocking his head. "What's that sound?"

A strange humming noise was coming from up ahead.

"Bees?" Hermione guessed.

Ron swallowed hard. "Anything but that. I'm really allergic."

"Damn!" Harry swore, but forced himself to continue.

At the end of the passage was a door. This time Harry cast the Unlocking Charm and the door, marked with a stylized F with wings, slid open.

Harry peeked about the doorframe.

"Is it bees?" Ron called worriedly.

"No, it's birds. Hundreds of them!" replied his friend, walking all the way into the room.

"Birds? Oh, the poor things, trapped here!" Hermione cried and ran into the room, followed a moment later by a cautious Ron.

Hundreds of birds fluttered all over, some were small like starlings, others were larger, about the size of ravens. All of them carried something shiny about their necks.

Harry walked across the room and over to the big brass bound door opposite. He tugged on the knob. "Locked. Blast!" He chanted the Unlocking Charm. Nothing happened.

"Huh? What the hell?"

"What's wrong?" asked Ron.

"It's . . .the door won't unlock, even with the spell."

"It's probably been spelled against it," Ron said, frowning at the knob. "Looks like we need a key, a big silver one, from the look of the doorknob."

"That makes sense. But where . . .?" Harry jerked his head up as a small bluebird flew past, and he saw for the first time what the shiny objects were tied around their necks. "Ron, they're carrying keys!"

"Brilliant!"

Hermione was also studying the birds. "They're not real birds at all. They're models!" she gasped.

"Huh?"

"You know, taxidermy models, they've been enchanted to fly around the room with the keys."

"Oh, I get it." Harry felt silly for not figuring that out. "But we need to get a key and if they don't need to land . . .we need to fly."

"Know a spell to grow wings, Hermione?" asked Ron, trying to jump up and snag a bird.

It zipped out of reached.

"No, but I know where we can get some brooms," she pointed to several broomsticks beside the door they had entered.

All three mounted the brooms and soared into the air.

Harry, accustomed to his superfast Nimbus, thought his broom sluggish and slow, but it flew, and he started trying to see what keys the birds had about their necks on different colored ribbons.

There were all sorts of keys, large, small, encrusted with gems, brass, plain, but no silver.

Harry bit his lip hard. They had come too far only to fail now. "Where is it? It has to be here." He scanned the birds, using a technique Severus had taught him for finding the Snitch, how to see but not focus on any one thing. Suddenly, his eyes, which were sharp as a hawk's, caught a flash of something metallic. He turned his head ever so slightly and saw a hummingbird hovering, a large ornate silver key about her neck. The key was so heavy, however, that she flew tilted to one side.

"There! I see the one we want!" he called to the others, who were swooping and trying to catch a bird to no avail. "It's a hummingbird, she's flying a little crooked."

Ron dove down and nodded. "Hummingbird's fast, though. Think you can catch it, Harry?"

Harry set his jaw. "If I can catch a Snitch, I can catch this." He narrowed his eyes. "I just need to focus. Ron, keep the other birds away from me as best you can, along with Hermione."

"Right." Ron spun around and flew at the flock of birds, yelling.

They scattered, including the hummingbird.

Harry soared after it.

It flew very fast, but Harry was not the youngest Seeker in a century for nothing.

He managed to coax his broom into top speed and stayed on the hummingbird's tail, never letting it out of his sight.

Ron and Hermione kept the rest of the birds busy, waving their arms and flying into them so they didn't flock about the hummingbird.

The hummingbird was listing more to the side now. Harry swooped under and then around, flipping over to hang upside down, one hand reaching . . .reaching . . .until he felt the bird's feathers brush his fingers and he closed his hand about it with a snap.

"Gotcha!"

He righted himself and cried, "I got it! Come down!"

They landed and walked over to the door, Harry still holding the struggling hummingbird. Once they reached the door, Harry slipped the ribbon from about the bird's neck and released it. Then he stuck the key into the lock and turned it.

There was a snick and the door opened.

"Three down and who knows how many more to go?" Ron said, trying to sound cheerful.

They slipped through the door and into a strange square room with black and white checkerboard tiles. Suddenly, bright light shone down from a huge globe in the ceiling and they could see the whole room was one vast . . .

"Chessboard!" Ron exclaimed. "It's a huge chessboard." In front of them were lifesize onyx chessmen, some larger than he was. He stared across the room. Lifesize white pieces stood poised for play, carved from white marble.

"Now what do we do?" asked Hermione.

Ron was studying the chessmen. "I think . . .we need to play our way across the room to the door."He pointed to a small wooden door at the far end.

"How?" Hermione looked uneasy.

"I think . . .we have to become chessmen," Ron said, looking very eager.

"What?" Harry shook his head. "Ron, I can't play chess. You stomp my arse every time."

"I never learned how either," Hermione admitted softly.

"Guess you don't know it all, now do you?" Ron smirked. "Lucky you've got a chess master here to show you how its done." He marched up to the black king and tapped it.

The king turned and looked down.

"In order to play, we have to join you, right?"

The king nodded.

"Okay. Give me a minute." Ron studied the board again. "Since you two are clueless, no offense, I'm going to put you where you won't get hurt too much. Hermione, you're going to be a castle." he pointed to a castle and Hermione walked up and stepped into it. "Okay, Harry, you take the place of that bishop next to her."

Harry walked over and the bishop picked him up and set him on his shoulder.

"What about you, Ron?"

"Me? I'm going to be a knight." He walked over to a black knight mounted on a rearing stallion and climbed on it.

The chessmen seemed to accept Ron's leadership, for the king gestured to him and Ron turned to Harry and said, "Looks like I'm the commander. But white always moves first. Look."

Up ahead a white pawn had moved.

"Now it's our turn."

Harry shivered. What would happen if they lost? If this was Wizard Chess . . .would they be killed?

Ron was focused and intent, directing the pieces with the ease of a born chess player. All the pieces obeyed him silently, moving up and back as he indicated. "Harry, move four squares diagonally to the left."

Harry's bishop obeyed.

But then their other knight was taken and Harry reeled in shock at the brutality. The white queen smashed her mace down on the black knight and he fell to the board, broken and defeated. Then she reached down and dragged him off to the side.

"Christ!"

"Had to let that happen," Ron said, matter-of-factly, though he looked shaken. "That leaves you free to take their bishop, Hermione. Go on."

Hermione moved, and the bishop toppled over and was removed from the board.

They played steadily, and each time the white pieces took a black, they smashed them to cinders without mercy. Harry couldn't tell any more if they were winning, he just wanted the game to be over. He waited for Ron to tell him where to go next, then prayed for a checkmate.

Ron was in his element, moving all over the board, taking out the white pieces bit by bit.

"We're almost there!" cried Hermione.

"Yes, but . . ." Ron frowned. "I got to think . . ." He looked about at the remaining pieces, his own and the white queen's. He swallowed hard. "It's the only way . . .otherwise we'll lose."

"What are you talking about?" asked Harry.

"I have to let the queen take me, Harry. Once she moves, you can checkmate the king."

"No way!" Harry cried.

"Ron, you can't!" Hermione wailed.

"There's no other way!" he snapped. "It's how you play the game. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a piece so you can win."

"You're not a chess piece, you're my friend!" Harry shouted, horrified.

"You want to stop Quirrell or not, Harry?"

"Of course I do, but not like this."

Ron set his jaw. "I knew what I was getting into before I followed you. You said it yourself. Now quit acting like wimpy crybaby, Potter, and do what I told you. Are you a real Gryffindor or aren't you?"

"You stupid noble damn idiot!" Harry snapped, blinking hard.

"Save the lecture, Potter. Finish the game." Ron ordered. He stepped forward.

The white queen spun, and her scepter smashed into the side of Ron's horse, knocking it and him to the ground. He crumpled to the floor and lay still.

"Ron!" screamed Hermione, terror written all over her face.

Harry couldn't bear to look. I should have gone alone. This was my idea. Then he took his friend's advice and moved three spaces to the left. "Checkmate."

The king took off his crown and threw it at Harry's feet.

"Well played." The white king bowed and so did all the other chessmen. Then they stepped aside and the way to the door was clear.

"C'mon, Hermione," Harry called.

"But what about Ron? We can't just leave him there."

"Yes, we can. I don't think he's dead, just knocked out. Let's go. Don't make his sacrifice nothing."

Hermione sniffed. "When this is all over, I'm coming back for him," she said, then turned the handle of the wooden door. "I hate chess."

"I hate Quirrell," Harry snorted. "Bloody damn traitor."

They found themselves in yet another stone passageway. Harry leaned against the wall, trying to calm himself. He felt as though the walls were slowly smothering him. "Talk to me, Hermione. What do you reckon's next?"

Hermione nibbled her nail and after a moment, answered, "Well, I think all the teachers contributed here, plus Hagrid. Fluffy was his, then Sprout's was the Devil's Snare, Flitwick charmed the birds and the keys, McGonagall transfigured the chessmen to make them alive, so the only two we have left are Quirrell's and Professor Snape's."

 

"Oh, joy." Harry groaned. He wondered what Snape had invented for a challenge. He pushed himself away from the wall, breathing hard, his face ashen.

"You okay, Harry?"

"Yeah. Come on. I'll be better once this is over with. Until Snape gets a hold of me, that is." He winced. "Then I'm dead."

"You're exaggerating, Harry. He won't kill you, not really."

"No, but he'll . . .shake me to pieces and remember that smack he gave me before? I'll probably be getting a few more of them, most likely."

Hermione was looking at him speculatively again. "Harry, that's not the way a teacher would normally punish a student. That's more like what a father would do. Is Snape . . .he's not related . . .?"

"No, he's not my dad," Harry chuckled. I wish he was, heaven help me. Except when he's about to tear strips off me. "Though he acts like he is, sometimes. It's complicated. But I trust him with my life, Hermione. That's part of the reason why I'm doing this. He saved my life. Now it's my turn."

 

"I can understand that," Hermione said softly. "I'll tell him it was my idea."

"He'd never believe it." Harry laughed. "But I'll worry about that later. First we have to get to the Stone."

They had come to the end of the corridor.

There was another large iron-bound door. It was unlocked.

Harry shoved it hard with his shoulder.

The room beyond looked like a giant tilled field, with furrows such as a plow would make in rows of dirt. Harry half expected to see a scarecrow and corn husks. "Huh? What's this? What are we supposed to do here? Plant our way across?"

Hermione looked uneasy. "I . . .there's something weird going on here."

"Took you that long to notice?" teased Harry, then he stepped onto the dirt.

Suddenly the soil heaved and bucked and all along the furrows the earth exploded to reveal warriors in dragonscale armor armed with swords, spears, and shields.

"Blessed hells!" Harry yelped, then reacted on instinct and cast a Shield Charm.

And a good thing too, for one of the warriors tossed a spear at him and it struck the shield and bounced off.

"Harry! Look out!"

"I see it. Hermione, do you know how to cast a Shield Charm?"

"Uh, yes. I think."

"Do it. I'll cover you." Harry ordered.

He pointed his wand and chanted a quick Body Bind, and one warrior fell over, stunned.

"Warriors that spring out of the earth . . .now why does that sound familiar?" he mused. Then he recalled, with a flash of nostalgia, Severus reading to him from a large book of Greek myths when he was sick one time. In it there had been the story of the Golden Fleece, which had been guarded by magical warriors that grew from the teeth of . . ."Dragons! These are dragon's teeth!" Harry gasped.

"Huh? What do you mean?" Hermione asked, encased behind her own glowing shield.

"Haven't you ever read the Quest for the Golden Fleece? Cadmus makes an army from the teeth of a dragon, and Jason has to battle them," Harry informed her. "That's what these are. Dragon's teeth. They live for battle. And for killing."

"Oh, bloody wonderful. This must be Quirrell's little trap. What do we do? I don't know any spells that can take down an army."

Harry was thinking hard. "Sometimes the best way to defeat an army is by distraction."

"What?"

"It's simple. Right now they're focused on us and want to kill us. But what if we focused their attention on something else?"

"Like what?"

"Each other." Harry bent and picked up a handful of small pebbles. Then he pulled up the hood of his cloak and vanished. "Watch this! How to create chaos in the ranks in ten seconds."

He ran in and out of the furrows, throwing pebbles with deadly accuracy.

They struck the warriors on the face, back, arms, and bottom, stinging sharply.

Enraged, the first warrior turned to his neighbor and smacked him in the face. The other retaliated by drawing his sword.

Soon the line of disciplined warriors was turning on each other, thinking they had been attacked by someone behind them or to the left or right, and in five minutes the field was trampled and the dragon's teeth warriors were too busy pounding each other to a pulp to be worrying about one small girl and her invisible friend.

Harry grabbed Hermione's hand and dragged her under the cloak. "C'mon. Let's get out of here, quick!"

They raced across the field, dodging warriors as they went, until at last they came to a stone archway and yet another door, this one painted black.

Harry turned the handle and went inside, his wand out.

But there was nothing dangerous in this room, just a long low table with vials of potions and a scroll.

Hermione shut the door and the clash and screams of the warriors battling faded away. "That was awfully clever, Harry. Where did you learn tactics like that?"

"From a real Defense teacher," he answered softly. Thank you, Severus. He walked up and examined the vials, they were of all different sizes. "This must be Professor Snape's challenge. What do we have to do, identify these?"

No sooner had he said that, then purple fire encased the door they had just came through, and black flames swathed the door on the opposite end of the chamber. They were trapped.

"Nice one, Severus," Harry scowled. "What the heck does a Fireproof Potion look like?"

"I don't know. But maybe this will give us a clue." Hermione unrolled the scroll and read the following poem aloud:

"Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,

One among us seven will let you move ahead,

Another will transport the drinker back instead,

Two among our number hold only nettle wine,

Three of us are killers, waiting hidden in line.

Choose, unless you wish to stay here forevermore,

To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four . . ."

---Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling 

She continued reading, the rest of the poem gave hints as to how to determine which bottles contained what substance.

Harry started laughing.

Hermione halted and gave him a worried look. "Harry? What's so funny? This is serious. Three of these potions are poisons. If we drink the wrong one . . .we could die."

"I know, but . . .this isn't magic, it's logic. Severus . . .he used to say that sometimes the greatest wizards in the world couldn't put two and two together and get four. That just because you were powerful didn't mean you had common sense, in fact it was usually the opposite."

"That's very true. Dumbledore can't even match his socks."

"Right. And I'll bet Voldemort can't either. But I've done puzzles like this before. Loads of them. When I was sick in bed . . ."Harry trailed off, recalling all the clever little logic problems his guardian angel used to write out for him, with sweets for rewards.

"So have I, but this looks tough. Let's do it together."

They bent over the parchment.

"One, two, three . . ." Harry counted.

"But not the one on the right . . ."Hermione mused.

"Or this one . . ."

"So it's got to be . . ."

"I've got it!" Harry yelled in triumph.

Hermione looked annoyed. "Okay. What's the order, Mr. Know-It-All?"

Harry grinned and pretended to sniff haughtily. "Well, Miss, it's like this: The smallest bottle will get us through the black fire. To the Stone." he indicated a very tiny crystal one.

"But there's only enough for one of us," Hermione said.

"Right." Harry sighed. "He did that on purpose. This round gold one will send you back through the purple flames." He picked it up and handed to her. "Drink it. Go back and help Ron, then get the brooms from the bird key room and fly back through the trapdoor. Go to Hagrid and send Hedwig to Dumbledore, like I told you before. Maybe he can get here in time to help me."

"Harry . . .no! You can't go in there alone. Voldemort's in there!"

"I know. But someone has to do this, and it might as well be me. I won't let you be the sacrifice, Hermione. Too many people have already died for me. This time . . .this is my fight."

"No! You'll die!" she sobbed.

"Shhh. Anything's possible. I could get lucky. Quirrell won't be expecting me. If I can take him by surprise . . ."

"But . . ." she threw her arms about him then and kissed him, very lightly, on the lips.

"Hermione!"

"For luck." She smiled up at him. "You're a great wizard, Harry."

"Me? Yeah, sure. You're more brilliant by far."

She shook her head. "No. All I have are books and cleverness. But you . . .you have true magic. And a true heart. Go. Kick Voldy's arse. I'll be waiting for you. Be careful, Harry!"

She hugged him again, then let him go.

He stood there, beet red, thinking My first kiss and this has to happen now? When I'm about to face a resurrected dead guy and a crazy teacher?

Hermione took the round gold bottle and unstoppered it and drank.

She shuddered and whimpered.

"Hermione, are you . . .oh, God, it was poison!"

"No . . .but it's like ice." She started to walk forward towards the purple flames.

"Quick, before it wears off!" he urged.

"Good luck, Harry!" She turned and waved, smiling through her tears. Then she stepped through the flames and was gone.

Harry took a deep breath. He picked up the smallest bottle and turned to face the black flames. "Okay. Here goes nothing." He drank it down.

Ice spread through him in a dizzying rush and he felt frozen to the marrow of his bones.

"Get ready, Voldemort! Because tonight you're going to pay," he growled savagely. Severus, I hope you can forgive me. If I live through this, feel free to kick my arse, you're going to anyhow. But this is my debt to repay. Then he walked through the black fire.

Flames dark as night surrounded him, licking at his body, but he felt nothing save freezing cold. He walked through midnight and came out on the other side, to see Quirrell standing before a familiar mirror and facing him, wand out, a look of hatred upon his face, was his guardian angel, Severus Snape.

"If you want the Stone, Quirinius, you'll have to get it over my dead body," Severus announced silkily.

Quirrell laughed, high and shrill. "So be it, Snape! Let us see who is the real Defense Master, shall we?"


 



Chapter End Notes:


So, how did you like this one?

Next: Snape faces off against Quirrell and Harry against Voldemort! Get ready for some major fireworks!



Chapter 22: The Dark Angel and the Deceiver
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Harry nearly fell backwards into the black flames, he was so startled to see his guardian there, and preparing to duel Quirrell to death, apparently. He took a deep breath, considering whether or not he should reveal his presence. An instant later, he decided against it, and tugged up the hood of the Invisibility Cloak and vanished. He knew from Severus's many lectures that concentration and focus were paramount during a duel, and if Snape saw Harry there, he would lose focus and be distracted, worrying about his ward instead of Quirrell. And he did not want to be responsible for getting Severus killed. Enough people had died for him already.

So he peered about the chamber, it was round and the mirror was set upon a raised dais with two stairs leading up to it. Snape was standing in front of the mirror, it was the very same one that had promised Harry his dream of a home and a real father over Christmas break. Dumbledore had called it a funny name-the Mirror of Erised, but to Harry it would forever be known as the Mirror of Dreams.

Besides the mirror, the chamber was empty. Harry looked but saw nowhere the Sorcerer's Stone could be hidden. Yet surely it must be here, else why would Snape be guarding this room? Harry bit his lip. Perhaps there was a Misdirection Charm or even an Invisibility Charm on it? Harry was not positive as to what it actually looked like, Hermione's book had not been specific about its appearance, saying it could appear to be a deep red jewel about the size of a golf ball or on occasion a golden amber one that was slightly smaller.

He backed up against the wall, sensing the further away he was from the two master wizards the better, especially when they began flinging spells around. Come on, Sev, kick his arse good. You're probably years better than he is at being a war wizard, look at what you taught me in just a few months.

Quirrell drew his own wand, a sharp sneer upon his sallow pallid face. "I have waited a long time for this, Snape. Always lurking in the shadows, threatening everything I do, protecting that wretched Potter brat and his little friends. He would have died long before now and my task here would be mostly complete had you not stuck your interfering long nose into my business."

"The welfare of any student at Hogwarts is my business, you whimpering cowardly arse-licking bastard," Snape snarled, his black eyes glittering. "You who would stoop to killing a child, Quirinius, you dare stand here and proclaim yourself a teacher? You are nothing but a joke, a cruel farce masquerading as a normal human being."

Quirrell drew himself up to his full height, which was not that impressive, Snape topped him by at least six inches, and snapped, "You dare to speak so to me-me who has been chosen to be the vessel for the greatest wizard the world has ever known? I shall make you writhe, Snape, make you beg for mercy before I am done, and my Master shall see and reward me greatly for my services."

"Will he now? All hail Riddle, the Great and Terrible Wizard," mocked Severus. "Who creeps through the forest sucking the essence of unicorns to preserve his pitiful life, who made a dark bargain long ago with the Prince of Darkness, and who now must pay the debt that is due! Step aside, lackey, and let your Master show himself! He shall find I am somewhat tougher to kill than a mere eleven-year-old!"

"My Master shall chew you up and spit you out, Snape! He shall rip out your guts and eat your liver while your heart still beats!"screamed Quirrell. Fire bloomed upon the end of his wand and he yelled, "Inferio maximus!"

He flicked the large fireball at Snape, who moved like the serpent that was his House symbol.

One minute the black cloaked warrior wizard was in front of the mirror, and the next he was not.

For one instant Harry thought he had Apparated or turned himself invisible, but then he saw a shadow behind the mirror.

The fireball struck the enchanted glass and bounced back, and Quirrell scurried backwards with a sharp cry of disbelief, nearly getting toasted by his own spell. He quickly waved a hand and the fireball was snuffed.

"Lazy, Quirinius. Somebody didn't do their homework," Snape scolded, coming out from behind the mirror and snarling a sharp, "Boreas frigidarius!" And an ice storm was born, shooting out of Snape's wand with a howl of primal fury.

Quirrell was borne backwards by it to slam up against the far chamber wall. Icicles formed upon his turban and his robe and he was drenched and shivering within a heartbeat. He chanted a quick Warming Charm, but it was like holding a candleflame in the middle of a hurricane.

His hand was almost too frozen to grip his wand, but he managed to call up a warm southern desert breeze a minute later and banish Severus's ice storm. "Nice t-try, S-Snape. But it'll take more than that to defeat me."

"Keep saying that to yourself, Quirrelly. You might actually come to believe it." Snape rotated his wand counterclockwise and hissed a phrase in Latin and from the vortex sprang a swarm of yellowjackets, which flew immediately to the attack.

Quirrell spent several minutes beating frantically at the angry insects, looking like he was dancing a rather unusual hornpipe, yelping and hysterical. At last he shouted a strange spell and the bees were blown backwards and banished. But he had several large red welts upon his face and arms where the yellowjackets had stung him.

Quirrell aimed his own wand then and shouted something that sounded like, "Metallica" and another word Harry couldn't quite make out. A barrage of knives arced from his wand and streaked towards Severus.

Harry cringed, waiting for the flying knives to impale his guardian.

But Severus chanted a greater version of the Shield Spell, and the knives struck the blue globe and fell harmlessly to the floor. "Pitiful, Quirinius. My fifth year students could give more competition. How about we play a little game of cat and mouse? You can be the mouse-" Here Severus gave the trembling Quirrell a truly evil sneer, and snapped his fingers, and Quirrell was suddenly a very large rat with watery blue eyes. "-and I'll be the cat."

Then Snape's form blurred and when Harry looked again he saw something that truly astonished him.

For Snape had become the snow leopard that had saved him in the Forbidden Forest.

Harry had only seen the big cat once, but he would never forget the way the magnificent animal had come to his rescue.

I should have known. He always knows when I need him most.

Wraith sprang off the dais, claws outstretched, and the rat that was Quirrell just managed to dart away, avoiding the great leopard's strike by mere inches.

Quirrell scurried about the chamber, trying to climb the walls , looking desperately for a place to hide, but there was none.

Wraith stalked the gray rat leisurely, his golden eyes glittering, giving the other wizard a chance to surrender, but Quirrell was too stupid or too frightened to transform himself back, and panicked, running in circles until Snape decided to end the charade and sprang upon the rat.

He pinned the rat to the ground effortlessly, snarling victoriously, and bent his head to break Quirrell's neck.

But Quirrell blurred, becoming a small green viper, and slipped away.

Wraith roared in fury and lunged after it, but the viper became a man then, and chanted the spell that broke an Animagus form, returning Severus to his original form in mid-leap.

Even then, the Potions Master was not caught totally off-guard. Instead of smashing face first into the floor, Snape tucked his head into his chest and rolled, reducing the sudden impact and ending up on his feet.

By then Quirrell was growing desperate, for Severus was much better at Defense and combat spells than he was, and he was running out of offensive spells to cast. Master, help me. I was always your loyal servant.

From somewhere deep within his soul, a dark voice chuckled. Are you willing to pay my price, little bug? 

Yes, yes. Anything, only let me defeat Snape, Master! Quirrell babbled, backing away from Severus, who was advancing on him again, his face set in a menacing sneer.

Very well. I shall give you what you desire.

Suddenly, Quirrell's demeanor changed, and his watery blue eyes lost their fearful look, instead becoming an odd reddish color.

Harry felt his scar suddenly flare and burn and he clutched at his head, unable to halt a cry of agony. He fell to his knees, clawing at his head, and his frantic movement knocked the hood of his cloak off, revealing him to the two battling wizards.

"Ah, now I have an audience for your demise, Snape!" chortled Quirrell.

But Snape did not hear him. He was staring in disbelief at the child huddled on the ground, the child he had sworn to protect, who had somehow gotten past all the safeguards, and was now in mortal peril. "Harry?"

It was but an instant of a distraction, a second later Snape was once more focused on his opponent.

But that second was all Voldemort needed. He took control of Quirrell's mind and body, using the other wizard to cast a spell of his own invention. It was an insidious evil bit of magic designed to cause acute pain and eventually death to its victim, known as the Green Venom Spell. "Viridinus Veniculum!"

A jet of green venom, like that from a spitting cobra only three times more venomous, shot from Quirrell's wand and struck Severus.

Most of it was deflected by his hastily raised Shield Charm, but a few insidious droplets managed to land on Snape's arm, where it began to eat through his robe in a matter of a second or two. He did not notice it right away, for he was intent upon throwing hexes back at his enemy, and only knew something was wrong when he felt a sharp burning pain in his arm and then his arm went dead, for the spell paralyzed the victim before it ate away the flesh.

Severus had a few seconds to realize that something was dreadfully utterly wrong before the venom began to affect his nervous system and he collapsed to the floor, writhing in agony, horrible moans coming from between his clenched teeth, for he would not give Quirrell the satisfaction of hearing him scream.

Harry managed to master his pain long enough to look up and see his guardian on the floor, his flesh glowing with an unnatural green patina, and howled, "NO-O-O! SEVERUS!"

Voldemort, for he now possessed Quirrell utterly, laughed chillingly. "Fool! Did you really believe you were my match, little wizard? Clever little serpent, you betrayed me and now you pay the price. Now you shall die as you have lived, in the shadow of greatness, forgotten and unmourned forevermore. My Green Venom will make sure of it!"

Through the awful pain in his heart, Harry heard Voldemort's last sentence. Green Venom? He's been poisoned? Oh God, Severus! I told you to keep the ring. He darted a glance at the silver ring with its moss agate upon his hand. Then his eyes sought his beloved dark angel, who had suddenly become so much more than just a protector.

No! I won't let you take him away too! Not him too! Harry thought frantically. He yanked the cloak over his head then and raced over to kneel beside the stricken Potions Master. Please God, please. Don't let me be too late. He clasped the ring in his opposite hand and whispered, "Aufero!" The ring slid off his finger.

Then Harry grabbed Snape's hand and slid the ring back on the rightful owner's finger, whispering, "Inicio!" The ring shrank to fit Severus's finger and it began to glow a soft gold, as it absorbed the magical poison into itself.

Severus groaned, but Harry could tell that his agony was not as acute, and the ring was neutralizing the green venom. "Severus? I'm so sorry . . .!"

The dark eyes focused on his voice, and then the Potions master spoke, in a voice softer than a whisper, "Don't . . .waste time . . .son . . .Get the Stone . . ."

A moment later, the dark eyes went blank and Severus passed out.

"I will," Harry vowed fervently. "I promise you that."

He turned to see where Quirrell was and found the deceiver in front of the mirror, arguing stridently, "There must be a way to retrieve the Stone through the mirror. It is the key, else why would Dumbledore have moved it here? But how? I did not risk all only to be thwarted now by a feeble old man and his traitorous Potions Master!"

Harry threw off the cloak, the time for hiding was past. He leveled his wand at Quirrell and shouted, "Turn and face me, you bloody bastard!"

Quirrell did not so much as twitch. "Hush, boy! I must figure out the secret. I see myself holding the Stone . . .but where is it. . .?"

"Somewhere you'll never find it, you miserable two-faced son-of-a-bitch!" Harry spat, moving over and confronting Quirrell.

"Tsk. Tsk. Such language! Of course, you never learned better, without any parents, now did you?" purred the Defense Master, his eyes burning with an odd crimson fire. "A pity you didn't join them ten years ago on that Halloween night, isn't it? An oversight I plan to remedy, boy. As soon as I figure out how to get the damn Stone from the mirror! Perhaps one must break it?"

Harry knew he had to buy time, time for Severus to heal, time for Dumbledore to return. So he growled, "Can't figure it out, can you? Guess you're too dumb and Severus was right after all. The only thing you know how to do is murder kids. It was you who tried to kill me, right?"

Quirrell turned to face him. "Why, yes. Only you seem to have more lives than a cat, Potter. It was I who pushed you down the stairs the night I discovered you alone near the Charms classroom. It should have worked too, and you would have died from an unfortunate accident. Instead that meddling black bugger Snape found you and you were saved. Then I tried again, at the Quidditch match, but again Snape interfered, with his blasted countercurse. The arsenic-laced frog should have finished you, though, I even got your little friend to put it inside your trunk, the dimwitted idiot, but again Snape recognized the symptoms and thwarted me."

"Looks like Snape's a better wizard than you'll ever be, huh?" Harry taunted, desperate to keep the other's attention away from the mirror.

Quirrell spat. "Snape is pond slime, all he knows is potions and a few measly countercharms. I know true power, the power of blood and souls, of the shadow that shall blot out the light and cover all the world in endless darkness."

"What power is that? Seems like you can't even manage to off one first-year without screwing it up."

Quirrell thinks the Stone's in the mirror, but he doesn't know how to get it out. What do I want more than anything at the moment? To find the Stone and protect it. So if I look into the mirror, maybe it will show me where it's hidden. But how can I do that without Quirrell knowing?

He edged about the purple-robed wizard, trying to look into the mirror.

"Oh, I shall kill you soon, Potter. Never doubt it. But first, you shall help me."

"The only place I'll help you to is hell, Quirrell!" Harry cried defiantly.

The other chuckled. "Do you hear him, Master? He is disobedient and defiant. But we shall break him of that nasty habit, shan't we? Oh, yes. But first . . .the Stone. How can I get it? Master, help me . . ."

To Harry's horror, a deep voice replied. "Use the boy, fool! He can get it . . .!"

"Of course. Why didn't I see that? Come here, Potter!" Quirrell made a beckoning motion and Harry found himself moving forward, unable to help himself.

Quirrell put both hands on his shoulders and Harry fought to keep still, though the man's touch made him shiver in revulsion. "Now. Look in the mirror and tell me what you see."

I have to lie. I'll look, but I'll lie about what I see, that's all. There was an odd smell coming from the teacher's turban, like something rotting and moldy. Harry wrinkled his nose, closed his eyes, then opened them and gazed once more into the mirror.

Show me what I need to know, he pleaded silently.

The mirror glowed a brilliant blue, then its glass surface went opaque and filled with mist. I am the Mirror of your Dreams and I shall show you what you most desire.

Yes. Please do.

He saw himself then, looking rather pale and frightened, but then the reflection smiled at him and reached a hand into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a blood-red stone. It winked and put the Stone back into the pocket-and as it did so-Harry felt something heavy inside his real pocket.

Somehow, some way, he'd gotten the true Sorcerer's Stone.

"Well, boy? What do you see?" Quirrell snapped, shaking him slightly.

Harry screwed up all of his courage and said innocently, "I see myself shaking hands with Dumbledore and winning the House Cup for Gryffindor."

Quirrell cursed furiously.

"Out of my way, you useless thing!" he shoved Harry hard, knocking him to his knees.

Harry scrambled up, feeling the Stone bump against his leg. He had to get out of here.

"He lies, fool! Can you not tell?"

"Potter, come back here!" Quirrell ordered and again Harry found himself unable to disobey.

"Let me speak with him, face to face . . ." the raspy cold voice ordered.

"No, Master! You have not the strength . . .!"

"No? You dare question me?"

Quirrell screamed. "Ahhh! Forgive me, Master! Forgive me!"

"Do what I say, worm!"

Harry was frozen. All he could do was watch as Quirrell slowly unwound his blue turban, which he was never seen without. What was going on? Quirrell was practically bald in places. But he slowly turned until Harry was staring at the back of his head.

Harry felt his gorge rise. He would have vomited, but he couldn't open his mouth. He wanted to scream, but somewhere along the way he had lost his voice. Where the back of Quirrell's head should have been, there was a face, a face that was at once the most terrible and evil face he had ever seen. It was chalk white with burning slit pupiled eyes and a slit for a nose, like a viper's.

"Harry Potter . . .we meet again."

Harry tried to take a step backward, but he couldn't move.

"See what you made me . . .by your refusal to die . . .wicked brat! I am but a shadow of myself . . .forced to share this weak vessel, kept alive only by regular infusions of unicorn blood. But once I have the Stone and can create the Elixir of Life, I shall be immortal. And then the world will know me once again and tremble at the mere sound of my name! Now . . .why don't you be smart and save yourself a great deal of pain and give me the Stone in your pocket."

Harry gasped. Voldemort knew. Somehow, he knew. Harry sucked in a breath.

"Shove it up your arse, Voldy."

The face snarled, becoming even uglier. "You pathetic fool! Give me the Stone, and I'll make your death quick . . .Why die for a piece of rock? I killed your parents, you know. They were brave . . .but also stupid. They died on their knees, begging for mercy!" Voldemort laughed then, a high shrill sound that sounded like bones grating.

"LIAR! FILTHY STINKING SODDING LIAR!"

"How touching . . .I admire your courage, Potter . . .but it will not save you . . .I killed your father first, but your mother I was going to spare, save she refused to give you to me, and she begged me to spare you on her knees . . .poor pretty Lily. . .And so I killed her for her defiance . . .As I shall kill YOU! Give me the Stone, Potter! NOW!"

Harry backed away, suddenly able to move. "NEVER!"

"Seize him!" Voldemort screamed.

Harry turned and ran towards the flame shrouded door, praying the potion he'd swallowed was still active, otherwise he'd burn to a crisp. But even that was better than letting Voldemort get the Stone.

Quirrell gave chase, tackling Harry about the waist and knocking him to the floor.

"Give me it, you little bugger!" he began to bash Harry's head against the floor.

Harry reached up and tried to yank Quirrell's hand away, and felt his scar explode in pain. He felt as if his head were about to implode. He howled.

Then Quirrell screamed too and stopped banging him against the ground.

"What are you doing, maggot? Seize him and take the bloody Stone!"

"Master . . .I cannot . . .he burns . . .burns . . .see my hands . . .look!"

Quirrell's hands were raw and blistered, as if he'd stuck them into a fire.

"Kill him, imbecile! NOW!"

Quirrell raised his hand, ready to cast the Killing Curse, but Harry reached up and touched his face.

Quirrell's face began to smoke and blister.

He wailed shrilly in unspeakable agony.

"ARGHHH!"

Suddenly Harry understood. For some reason, Quirrell couldn't touch him without suffering unbearable pain. He needed to keep hold of the professor, touching him skin to skin, to prevent him from casting a deadly spell.

He grasped Quirrell by the wrist and hung on, feeling his scar split apart, his hands felt like ice, though he could see Quirrell's wrist withering and blackening beneath his hand.

And Quirrell's screaming echoed in his head.

Hold on. Just hold on. For one minute longer. Just one more. For Severus. For Ron. For Hermione. For my Mum and Dad. 

Harry gritted his teeth. He could feel his power being pulled from him, as Voldemort fought to get free, but Harry had a death grip on Quirrell and would not release him.

Spots swam before him and his vision blurred, but still he hung on grimly, defiant, brave, and indomitable to the end.

All at once his vision dimmed and he found himself walking down a misty tunnel into a realm of golden light.

He looked up and saw two people he knew, though he could barely remember their faces.

"Hello, Harry."

They smiled at him.

He blinked. "Mum? Dad?"

"Yes, that's right." James answered.

"Where am I? Am I dead?"

"You are inbetween worlds, son." Lily replied. "Alive yet not. On the stairway to heaven."




 





Chapter End Notes:




Phew! That was very intense to write! What did you think? Hope I didn't disappoint!


Next: In the stairway to heaven, truths are revealed and a choice must be made
.



Chapter 23: Stairway to Heaven
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Harry rubbed his eyes, he was being bathed in a warm golden glow, and he no longer felt pain, only blessed peace. He was still wearing his school uniform, but other than that nothing about this place was recognizable. His parents, he only knew who they were because of the picture Severus had shown him long ago of Lily and Hagrid had shown him another of James, were standing before him. They were wearing ordinary clothes, his mother had on a green dress that matched the color of her remarkable eyes, and his father was wearing gray slacks and a red pullover and glasses as well. Both of them were smiling welcomingly, and a large marble staircase abruptly appeared behind them.

The staircase wound up and up into golden light and mist and Harry could not tell where it went. Except Lily had said something about the stairway to heaven. But surely you only went to heaven if you were . . .dead? He rubbed his eyes again and thought that he didn't feel dead. Then again, what did being dead feel like anyhow?

"If I'm not dead, then what am I doing here?" he asked, honestly puzzled.

"This is an inbetween place, a sort of gateway, if you will," James told him. "Uh, why don't you sit down here, next to us, and we'll try and answer some of your questions, all right?"

He beckoned Harry over to a seat on one of the lower stairs and Harry walked over and gingerly lowered his bottom onto the marble step.

To his surprise, it was very solid, and not at all misty, like he had expected. James sat on one side of him and Lily on the other. Lily was staring at him with a sort of yearning in her eyes, and suddenly Harry could feel her love for him, it was as vast and deep as the ocean and she wanted him to hug her.

So he did, tentatively at first, but she felt so real and warm in his arms that he soon quit feeling awkward and hugged her tightly.

"Harry, Harry. My little baby is almost grown up," she murmured, rocking him gently.

She smelled of citrus and sunlight, Harry thought in wonder, and felt tears come to his eyes. This is my mother. I can almost remember her holding me. And her voice . . .I remember her singing me to sleep . . .

"Lily. You know the rules," James reminded her regretfully.

She sighed, stroked Harry's hair once more, then drew away. "Yes, I know. Funny that you should remind me of them, James, who never followed a one when you were in school."

"That was then. I know better now."

Harry looked from one to the other. What was going on? "Uh, did I do something wrong? Are you, like, not allowed to touch me?"

"No, though we should limit the physical contact between us because . . .as we said before, you're not really dead, and any contact with us draws you further into the Realm Beyond, what some people call heaven and others Nirvana," James explained. He gave Harry a quick one-armed hug.

"Oh. Are you . . .angels or something?"

Lily laughed, her laugh was like music, sweet and beautiful. "In a manner of speaking. We are guardian angels of a sort, sent to advise and watch over certain people who need us."

"Like me?"

"Uh, well, we weren't assigned to you specifically, son. We're here by request. You see, you hover on the cusp of life and death right now, and that's the only reason we're permitted to speak with you this time."

"How come?"

"Because we could affect the choices you make in your life," Lily said softly. "And man was given free will for a reason, Harry. So that he could choose his own destiny. Still, we are permitted to tell you a few things. First, that we love you and you made us very proud today, standing up to that twisted soul and his pawn."

"Your mum's right, Harry. I couldn't have done it better myself." James praised, and Harry felt a warm glow suffuse him. "But for every good deed there is a price."

"A price? Like my life?" Harry guessed. "Or someone else's? Please, don't let Severus die. He . . .he's done everything for me, I don't want his death on my conscience."

Lily patted his arm. "I know, Harry. Severus is quite alive, child."

"He is?" Harry heaved an immense sigh of relief. "That's wonderful, Mum. I thought I might have been too late in giving him the ring when Quirrell cast that Green Venom spell on him."

"No, Snape is a tough old python," James said without a trace of jealousy or dislike in his tone. "And I never thought I'd say this, but he's done a good job of raising you, kid. I have to admit, that when Lily told me about the promise she made him swear, I thought she was making a huge mistake."

"He argued with me over it for three days straight, until he realized I wasn't going to give in, then he accepted it. I knew that Severus would be the ideal guardian for you. And I was right, wasn't I, dear?"

"Yes, Lily. Happy now?" James rolled his eyes. "Severus is probably better father material than I would have been."

"Really? Why would you say that, Dad?" Harry asked.

"Because I'd of spoiled you rotten, most likely." James admitted, chuckling. "The way I was spoiled by my mum and dad. I never really learned how to say no, to my friends or myself, which is why I ended up getting in trouble so much at school. I was a spoiled brat, actually, though I learned better eventually. But Severus doesn't have that problem."

"No." Harry agreed. "If anything, he's pretty strict."

"But he loves you, son," Lily said then.

"Really?" Harry felt a sudden quiver of hope run through him. "I mean, I always hoped he did . . .but he never said anything . . .so I wasn't really sure . . ."

"Ah. Shall we show you how deeply Severus cares for you, Harry?" asked James. "Look."

He spread his hands and a clear globe appeared inbetween them.

Harry peered into it, and saw the familiar whitewashed walls and curtained beds and tray tables of the Hogwarts infirmary. In the bed was a slight boy with a shock of dark hair that Harry recognized with a jolt as himself. Beside the bed, on a wooden chair sat Snape, his arms wrapped about his lean frame, pale and drawn, his hair hanging limply in his eyes.

"That's me."

"Yes. That is you as you presently are, unconscious in a bed in the Hospital Wing with Severus beside you," James nodded.

Harry continued to gaze into the globe and suddenly he could hear and see all that was said in the room, spoken and unspoken.

* * * * * *

 

 

"Is there anything else I can do for you, Poppy?" Severus asked softly, hope and despair mingled in his voice.

"No, Severus. You have done all you can . . .and so have I. I dare not give him a more powerful stimulant, his heart won't be able to handle it." The medi-witch looked exhausted, her cap was askew and her hair straggling from its usual neat bun.

Severus looked stricken at those words, as though the Healer had taken a sword and thrust it through his heart, which in a way, she had. "Nothing . . .nothing more at all?"

"No," Poppy said sorrowfully. "All we can do now is wait. And pray, if you're so inclined to. He's in the hands of the Trinity now." She shot him a sympathetic glance, then bustled off to tend some other patients, who had gotten on the wrong end of some magical fireworks.

Severus bowed his head, then returned to his silent lonely vigil at the bedside of his ward, who had defeated Voldemort, or at least his vessel, but at such great cost. Harry had drained his magical reserves down to nearly nothing, as well as his life force, sending himself into a kind of catatonic shock. He clung to life by a slender thread, and not all of Severus's skill or Pomfrey's healing art could mend him. Even Albus had tried transferring a bit of his own power into the boy, but it had been rejected.

Severus leaned forward, one lean hand reaching out to clasp the small bandaged one, for Harry's right hand had sustained minor burns. His lips moved, but no sound came out, his throat had a lump so big in it that he could not speak. Come back to me, Harry. Come back. Don't go, child. Not yet. Stay with me. You have so much to live for, a whole lifetime. Please stay.

Over and over he pleaded wordlessly with the child's fragile spirit to remain, hoping that somehow Harry would hear him. But Harry remained inert and still, his spirit wandering another realm.

Then he began to pray, his words barely audible. "Please Lord, don't take my child from me, I beg of you. If you need a life, take me instead. I offer myself freely. Just let him live . . .please . . ." Begging was foreign to the proud wizard, but he found he would humble himself in whatever way was necessary if only his son were spared.

He felt as if his heart were splintered into a million little pieces, worse than even that fateful Halloween night when Lily had died. THAT had been a tragedy, this would be . . .unspeakable.

He trembled, trying to contain the torrent of grief that surged up within him. He lives still . . .he breathes, his heart still beats, Severus . . .and yet, for how much longer? It has been three days . . .He sucked in a breath. He had not eaten or slept in all of that time, he had done nothing save brew a Stimulant Draft for Poppy and then sit beside Harry's bedside.

He felt a light touch on his shoulder. "Severus, you should rest."

"Later, Minerva."

"Sev, you haven't slept in days. You can't keep on like this. You nearly died as well. Destroying your own health won't help him, Severus Snape . . ." Minerva told him firmly yet compassionately.

He knew she was right, but he didn't have the courage to admit it. So he said instead, "Then what will? There is nothing more I can do, save be by him if he . . .passes on. Do you not understand? It is my fault he is lying here . . .barely a breath away from Heaven's gate! That should have been me, damn it all! I was his protector, I swore a sacred oath to put my life before his always . . .I was supposed to have killed Quirrell . . . and I failed him . . .failed him just like I failed Lily . . ."

The Potions Master did not look at her, but in his voice was a raw bitter ache and a savage self-loathing.

Minerva felt her heart contract for the man before her, who was hurting so badly and yet did not know how to ask for comfort. Worse, did not believe he deserved comfort. "Sev, no. You did the best anyone could have done . . .better than I could have, better than Albus even, why do you think Lily chose you? She knew. Merlin's beard, you fought bloody Riddle himself for Harry and survived! How many other wizards have done that?"

Severus gritted his teeth. He could feel his control shattering, and sought to hold onto it.

"But it wasn't enough!" he rasped. "It never is . . .everything I do, it's never enough . .!"

"You're wrong, Severus. You gave that child there something no one else ever did. You gave him your heart and your love and someone to depend on. And that is enough for anyone." Minerva said quietly, tears running down her cheeks.

Then she did something no one else would have ever dared.

She took the guilt-ridden, distraught, Potions Master in her arms and held him.

Severus stiffened. Then he tried to draw away. "No . . .don't . . .I don't deserve . . ."

"You do. God help me, yes you do, my boy," the witch said, hugging him tighter. "I should have done this long ago."

Severus found his face pressed up against Minerva's tartan shawl, breathing in the sweet scent of heather and soft wool, and suddenly his self-control snapped. He was weary unto death of suppressing his emotions, sick to his very soul with fear and anguish, and he could not bear it any longer. His son was dying and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. So he did the only other thing he could do. He buried his head in Minerva's shoulder and sobbed, terrible hoarse sobs dragged up from the depths of his being. Then the tears came, and he wept himself to exhaustion on the tartan, and all the while the Transfiguration teacher held him, murmuring softly and stroking the raven hair in featherlight touches, her tears mingling with his own, though in truth she was not sure who she was crying for-Harry or Severus.

* * * * * *

 

Harry blinked, and drew back from the globe, as the image of the Hospital Wing vanished, and he felt his own eyes well up with tears. Now he knew the truth, irrevocably and irrefutably. Severus loved him, loved him as much as James or Lily ever had. For no one sobbed so brokenly over a person if they did not love that one best of all.

"He really does love me," he sniffled.

"Yes, dear," Lily said, and smoothed a stray lock of hair from his forehead. "Severus has always had a great capacity to love, but has been hurt so much in the past that he was afraid to show it. But it was always there. And what he loves, he loves forever."

Harry nodded, unable to speak right then, too moved by what he had seen.

At last, he said, "If Quirrell is dead, does that mean Voldemort is too?"

"No, son." James answered, shaking his head. "Evil never really dies, it simply assumes a new form, and sleeps until it can find a way to cause death and destruction again. It has always been so, since the beginning of time. The battle between good and evil is eternal. Voldemort was defeated again, true, but he is not dead, since he was only partially alive in this incarnation."

"Can he ever die?"

James nodded. "Yes, but it is rather difficult to kill him. He feared death so much that he tried to trick it, and he made a bargain with Lucifer to extend his life in exchange for dark powers. He can die, but only if certain conditions are met."

"Like what, Dad?"

"I cannot tell you. That must be discovered by the one who is his adversary." James sighed heavily. "Now, you have seen for yourself that there is one who loves you unconditionally, and can take our place, if you will permit him. That is one reason you were brought here. The other . . .your spirit hovers on the brink of life and death, Harry, and so you must choose. . ."

"Whether I'm going to die or not?"

"No. Whether you are going to live," James corrected. "Dying is easy, son. It's living that's hard. If you choose to live, know that you also choose to put yourself in direct opposition to Voldemort. You will become his adversary, the one who could defeat him for all of time. And he will stop at nothing to destroy you. But you shall have your friends to help you and Severus to protect and guide you and love you. And together you may triumph over Voldemort."

"Or you could choose to follow us into death, sweetheart," Lily said gently, her green eyes luminous. "There will be no pain, and then you may accompany us up the stairway to heaven and become as we are, guardians and watchers, dwelling forever in the blessed peace and light of heaven. And someday, when it is time, you may also choose to be reborn again, and live your life anew. The choice is yours. Very few are given this choice, Harry. Choose wisely."

Harry stared first at one parent than the other. He did not know what to think, what to feel. On one hand, he had tasted already of the eternal peace and love that surrounded his parents' spirits, and he could feel a sudden urge to walk up that marble staircase and immerse himself fully in the blessed realm. He would be with his parents and never know pain or suffering again, for such did not exist there.

But on the other hand . . .he recalled the image of Severus weeping brokenly in McGonagall's arms over him. And he remembered Hermione kissing him gently and wishing him luck, and Ron grinning and teaching him how to play chess. He recalled the way it had felt to soar above the clouds on his Nimbus, and the thrill that came when he cast his first spell, and the sense of belonging he had felt when he had first seen Hogwarts.

Could he give all that up?

There was a price for everything, however.

Heaven's price was his life.

But if he chose to live . . .he must face Voldemort once again.

And he was terrified.

He closed his eyes.

Then he recalled something Severus had said to him once about being afraid.

"Everyone is afraid of something, Harry. But there are ways to conquer fear. First by acknowledging it and then by accepting it. Once you have done that, you will become fear's master."

So then. He was afraid of Voldemort. Why? Mostly because the wizard could kill him. Or, not just him, but those he cared about. Like Severus, Hermione, and Ron. He did not want them to die because of him. But he also knew that if they did die, they would go to heaven just like his parents. And they might not die at all if he was willing to do as James had said, and face Voldemort and defeat him by learning his weaknesses.

If I die now, there will have to be another person to be the adversary. And Voldemort might still win. And then there's Severus. If I die, he will be all alone again. I don't think I could bear that, seeing him so unhappy. I owe him too much. And not only that . . .I love him too, as much as I ever did James.

Harry made up his mind then.

He stood up, then turned to James and Lily, and cleared his throat.

"I've decided. I choose to go back and live. I'll pay the price and become Voldemort's adversary and defeat him if I can. But not because I want to be a hero or anything like that. It's because Severus needs me. And . . .and I need him." Harry coughed awkwardly. "Not that I don't want to be with you, Mum and Dad, but . . .well, you seem happy here and Severus . . .I don't want him hurt like that. And I want the chance to grow up . . .with a father who is alive and not a memory."

James clapped him on the shoulder. "We understand, son. You deserve a chance to live, and be happy. Severus does too. If you defeat Voldemort, you can have that chance."

Lily hugged him. "I'm so proud of you, Harry. You chose the harder road, the road less traveled by. But remember this, even the darkest night has stars, and hope shines brightest in the darkness."

James stood up and hugged him also. "It's time for us to go, son. But we'll meet again someday. Hopefully later than sooner. Trust your instincts, keep your wand handy, and obey Severus like you would me. We love you, and so long as you remember us, we will always be with you." Then he kissed Harry on the forehead, and so did Lily.

Harry found himself floating into the air and the last thing he heard were Lily and James saying, "Goodbye, Harry. May you know peace and light forever."

Then a brilliant light surrounded him and he shut his eyes. He felt something tugging and pulling at him, and he surrendered to it and allowed it to take him where it would.

The next thing he knew, he was back in his body, alive and well, and the first sight that met his eyes when he opened them was Severus, who was staring at him with tears running down his cheeks.

"Severus. Don't, please. I'm okay, really."

Severus nearly fell off his chair. For one moment he remained speechless.

"Harry?"

Then he was in Severus's arms, and Harry hugged him hard, crying and laughing all at once.

Severus held him so tightly he almost couldn't breathe, but it was all right. His dark angel rocked him back and forth murmuring over and over, "Harry, Harry, you're alive. You came back to me. It's like a miracle."

"I know." Harry murmured softly, his own face damp. Then he said something he had been longing to say ever since Severus had cured him of the arsenic, but had not had the courage to say until now.

"I love you . . .Dad."

For one endless minute there was no response.

Then Severus replied, in a voice filled with amazement and delight, "I love you too, my son."

And they clung to each other, unashamed.


 



Chapter End Notes:


I DID warn you . . .you should have gotten a Kleenex!

Next: Dumbledore fills Harry in on some facts concerning Voldemort, plus Severus has a delayed reaction to his ward's disobedience, and something unexpected occurs.



Chapter 24: Snape's Bargain
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Harry would have loved to stay in Severus's arms for the remainder of the day or night or whatever it was, but he was unsure if Severus still had to maintain his cover, and so he drew away, wiping his eyes and nose on his sleeve. There was no one in the infirmary, however, they were alone, since Poppy had stepped out to get a bite to eat.

"Harry. Use a tissue next time," Severus reproved gently, handing him one. "Because the next time I grab your sleeve I don't want to get mucus and snot all over me."

"Sorry. I forgot." Harry apologized and then used the tissue to blow his nose.

"The way you seem to forget a great deal of other things I said," Severus rebuked, and his eyes flashed.

Harry gulped. He knew what that look meant. It meant he was in a great deal of trouble. "I know you told me to . . .uh . . . leave the Stone alone, but . . .I thought you didn't believe me about Quirrell, so I wanted to make sure he didn't steal it."

"Harry, I told you I was going to check on it myself, how could you then think I didn't believe you?" Severus asked, scowling. "That's a poor excuse to go haring off on a forbidden adventure if I've ever heard one. And what's more, you dragged Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley into your crazy scheme. You not only endangered yourself, but them as well."

Harry hung his head. "I told them to stay behind . . .they chose to come, sir."

"Of course they did, for that is what good friends do, they support each other. You ought to be very grateful you have them."

"I am, sir," Harry said, and he meant it. "Are they okay?"

"Yes. Mr. Weasley sustained a slight concussion but he is fine now. Though I think his older brother Percival wanted to make mincemeat out of him for doing such a foolish reckless thing. I can sympathize with him totally." Now Severus's glower was even more pronounced and Harry winced. "What have I told you about risking your life, young man?"

"Uh . . . that I shouldn't."

"Exactly. And yet you deliberately disobeyed me and went rushing off like some damn knight in shining armor. Do you have any idea how I felt when I saw you down in that chamber? Do you?" Severus cried, all of his pent-up fear and worry and anger emerging now that he knew Harry was safe and unharmed. He reached out and shook his disobedient son hard. "You . . .almost . . .DIED . . .and if . . .that . . .had happened . . .I would . . .have . . .gone totally . . .INSANE!" He yelled, punctuating his lecture with a series of brisk shakes. "How many times must we go through this, you impulsive reckless brat?"

"I'm sorry . . .!" Harry gasped, feeling tears come to his eyes. He hated it when Severus was angry with him, even though he knew he deserved it. "I was only trying to help you!"

"Help me? Help me into an early grave is more like it. I have never been so terrified in my entire life, Harry James Potter. There I was, in a duel to the death with that blasted traitor and his dark master and I look up and what do I see? You, wearing that bloody Invisibility Cloak, and watching it all! Good God, boy! What were you thinking, that this was some kind of entertainment? Quirrell vs. Snape Death Match at eleven, perhaps?"

"No. I just . . ." Harry began, then stopped, because he knew there really was no excuse for risking his life that way and putting them all in danger.

"You just went off to play hero, like your father, God help you," Severus growled, shaking him again. "But do you know what happens to heroes, young man? They die, dammit! Is that what you want? To die an early death?"

"No, sir. I'm sorry I scared you."

"Good. You bloody well ought to be." Snape said, his jaw clenching. Then he spun the boy about and delivered a very firm spank to Harry's rear end. "That's for disobeying me."

"Ow! But if I hadn't, you would have died from the Green Venom spell," Harry protested. "I saved your life."

"And who gave you permission to do that, huh? Saving lives is not your responsibility, it's mine! I'm the father, that's my job, not yours!" He gave Harry another swat, harder than the first. "That's for breaking your promise to me. Never ever do that again!"

"Oww! Okay, I won't. I'm really sorry, Dad." He fought to keep from sobbing, for Severus's disappointment stung worse than his hand. "Sorry for breaking my promise to you. But not for saving your life," he added truthfully, then waited for another swat for his insolence.

But it never came.

Instead Severus turned him around and drew him onto his lap. "Oh, child. What the blazes am I going to do with you? I ought to tan your hide good, do you know that?" he scolded, but he found himself unable to do anything more than what he had done already. The boy was remorseful and Severus couldn't bear to punish him further that way, his nerves were shot. "You're going to give me heart failure before I'm forty, do you know that?"

"I don't mean to," Harry sniffled. "Not really." Then he added in a hurt tone, "I thought you'd be proud of me for defeating Old Snake Face."

Severus sighed. Now he regretted losing his temper. "Look at me, please." He tilted his son's chin up and waited until the green eyes were focused on him before he said, "I am astonished that a mere apprentice such as yourself managed to defeat such a powerful dark wizard. It certainly is something rare and unusual and I am thankful that you saved my life, son. However, don't expect me to pat you on the back for risking your neck unnecessarily. That I cannot and will not condone. I was perfectly capable of protecting the Stone from Quirrell."

Harry nodded, for he knew that Severus had been winning before his scar had caused him to scream and knock off the hood of his cloak, distracting his guardian at a crucial moment. "I didn't mean to distract you, sir. But my scar . . .it hurt so bad . . .I couldn't help it . . ."

"It did that before, right?" Severus asked, running his finger lightly over the lightning bolt shaped mark, which was slightly swollen.

"Yeah." He flinched at the touch.

"Does it hurt now?"

Harry shook his head. "No, sir. It's just a bit tender. It hurt the worst when . . .when I touched . . .Voldemort."

"Hmm . . .perhaps . . ." Severus looked thoughtful. "You could be overly sensitive to dark magic auras, son. That one's in particular."

"I guess that makes sense. Uh, do you mind if I ask you something about . . .about what I saw when you were fighting Quirrell?"

"Ask."

"I saw you turn into a snow leopard, and there was a snow leopard that saved me in the Forbidden Forest too. That was you, wasn't it?"

Severus nodded. "I had wondered if you would remember."

"It's kind of hard to forget a whopping big cat that saved my arse," Harry admitted with a small smile.

"That is my Animagus form, Harry. In it I am known as Wraith, the Ghost Cat."

"Wow! Can you become any other kind of animal besides the leopard?"

"No. The usual rule is one animal per wizard, unless you possess the talent of a shapeshifter, and that is even rarer than the ability to become an Animagus." Severus explained.

"Oh. Is that what you call it, when you can change into an animal?"

"Yes. The word derives from ancient Egyptian, where it was commonplace for their wizards to become animals at will, they were very attuned to the natural world, and their gods were both animal and human. Ani-animal, and magus-wizard, or wise man, depending on your translation."

"Can anyone learn to do it? Could I?"

"No, not just any wizard can become an Animagus. It takes a good deal of study, unless you have a latent talent for it, like Professor McGonagall does. As for you becoming an Animagus, young man, I shudder to think of the mischief you'd cause were you able to roam around in another shape."

"Aww, c'mon! I wouldn't get into trouble, sir."

"Harry, you are trouble's shadow, don't bother to deny it. Look at how many school rules you broke by doing what you did three days ago. Any other student would have had their bags packed and been expelled, young man. The only reason you weren't is because Professor Dumbeldore has a soft spot for would-be heroes. More fool him!" Severus snorted.

"You would have expelled me then?"

"I would have had you on probation for the upcoming year if I was Headmaster, and the first detention you earned would be your last." Severus said sharply. "As it is, I still owe you a punishment for this latest escapade."

"But . . .but sir . . .! You already yelled at me and smacked me and shook me half to death."

"So? And you think that is sufficient for what you have done?" his guardian demanded. "That is what I would normally do if you get into ordinary mischief. No, I need to think up a suitable punishment for you, young man. By all rights, I should tan the hide off of you, but I think I can come up with something worse than a mere spanking."

Harry gulped. He didn't even want to think about what Severus was going to come up with that was worse than a spanking. "Like what, sir?"

The Potions Master smiled wolfishly. "That is for me to know and you to find out, sooner than you would wish, I'd wager." He ruffled his son's hair. "Now then, I suggest you get yourself back in bed and rest, Mr. Potter, before Poppy comes in and has a full-blown fit at seeing one of her patients out of bed without her express permission."

"Oh. But it was your idea, Dad. You pulled me right out of bed," Harry said slyly. "So you could just tell her that and-"

"Oh, no. I won't cover for you, you disobedient little brat. Back in bed, young man."

Harry obeyed, but he pouted. "Fine, but how do you expect me to rest when I've got some God-awful punishment hanging over my head? It's . . .it's impossible."

"Oh, well. Next time you should think twice before you go breaking every damn rule in school and disobeying me, now shouldn't you? Then you wouldn't need to worry about getting in trouble and keeping yourself awake wondering what horrible thing will be done to you, yes?"

"You're mean, sir!" Harry mumbled, his lower lip sticking out.

Severus snorted, though his mouth twitched and Harry could have sworn he was trying very hard not to laugh. "I know. Like every other father who has ever punished a disobedient child. But you know you deserve it. Lie down and close your eyes, child."

"Can't. Not after that."

Severus fixed him with an uncompromising glower. "Must I count to three, like I did when you were five?"

At that, Harry flung himself down on the bed and squinched his eyes shut. He would never be able to sleep, not after Severus's declaration, he would go crazy trying to imagine how the Potions Master was going to punish him, he didn't want to be punished, even though he deserved it. His stomach ached from a combination of guilt and apprehension and he wished Severus would just come up with something and get it over with so he didn't have to worry himself into a million little pieces. He would even take the threatened spanking over this awful waiting, or scrubbing seven hundred cauldrons, or gutting a whole barrel of glimmerscales by himself . . .he squirmed and huffed, he was never going to fall asleep, never, and he wasn't tired anyhow . . .

"Harry. Turn over and be still, for heaven's sake."

He obeyed, though a rebellious part of him longed to snap that it was Severus's fault he couldn't sleep, not that he needed to, he'd been asleep for three days, Merlin help him! He opened his eyes a crack and muttered, "Can you give me a hint?"

"No. Eyes closed, mister."

Harry shut his eyes. A moment later he felt a familiar hand rubbing his back, over and over. It felt so good, Severus had always done that when he was little or sick and unable to fall asleep, and Harry found himself relaxing in spite of himself. The hand continued its rhythmic patting and rubbing and before he knew it, Harry had drifted off to sleep.

Ha! Looks like I haven't lost my touch yet, Severus thought, inordinately pleased. He smiled down at the child, his child, and then he rose and went to inform Poppy that her last patient was well on the road to recovery. After that, he would eat something, for he was suddenly ravenous, and take a very long hot shower, and then he would have to come up with an appropriate punishment for his wayward scamp of a son. And after that perhaps he would sleep a bit.

Poppy was ecstatic when he told her the good news, Severus could have sworn she was about to dance a jig right there in the office. She practically flew into the infirmary to have a look at the boy and his miraculous recovery, and Severus smiled and departed for his quarters.

But after he had eaten a hot meal down to the last crumb and showered and shaved, he found his bed looked terribly inviting and so he went and laid down on it, only intending to rest his eyes for a moment or so. Instead he fell asleep and slept for nearly fourteen hours straight.

* * * * * *

 

Meanwhile, Dumbledore decided to pay a visit to Harry, who was still in the infirmary, under the watchful eye of Madam "The Dragon" Pomfrey, as the students called her, for her uncompromising attitude towards unnecessary visitors and leaving the Hospital Wing early. Harry had received loads of gifts and cards from all his Gryffindor Housemates and some from other Houses as well, they were all piled atop his nightstand, and he was currently reading a copy of the Prophet and munching on some gingersnaps when the Headmaster entered.

Harry glanced up, he had been hoping it was Snape, so he could quit fretting over his well-deserved punishment, but the Potions Master did not return to the infirmary. He's probably doing it just to torture me, I'll bet, the eleven-year-old thought grumpily. "Hello."

"Hello, Harry. I trust you are feeling better?" Dumbledore greeted, smiling genially.

"Uh, yeah. Much. Thanks. Uh, sir, do you know where Professor Snape is? He, uh, had something he needed to discuss with me," Harry improvised swiftly.

"I believe that Professor Snape is sleeping, he very much needs the rest, for he was awake for three days straight watching over you, Harry."

"Oh." Harry blushed, feeling like a selfish idiot. There he'd been, concerned over himself, when he knew good and well that Severus had been awake for three days and must be exhausted. "Right. Guess I'll talk to him when he wakes up."

"That would be for the best, Harry. He gets cranky when he doesn't get his rest." The old wizard said, seating himself on the chair Snape had occupied. "As you can see, all of your friends and admirers have sent you tokens of their appreciation. What happened between you and Quirrell down in the chamber below the school is a complete secret, so naturally the whole school knows. Your friends Fred and George sent you some firecrackers, but Madam Pomfrey absolutely refused to have anything flammable in her ward, and confiscated them, I'm afraid."

Harry smirked. "That sounds like them, sir. What happened to the Stone, sir? I woke up and was going to ask Sev-I mean Professor Snape-that, but I . . .sort of forgot, since he was yelling at me about risking my neck."

"Ah. I think you'll find, Harry, that Professor Snape only yells at those he cares about, and he only loses his temper over things that truly upset him. You nearly dying upset him very much."

"Yeah, I could tell." And he only cries over someone he loves, his conscience whispered. "But what about the Stone, sir?" Harry pressed, not wanting to discuss Severus right then, or the fact that he had almost died.

"I see you're not to be distracted. Very well. Quirrell did not get the Stone, Harry. I came in time to pull his body off of you, though the Stone itself was destroyed in the process, I'm afraid.."

"You got Hermione's owl?"

"No. But I had just gotten to London when I had the strangest urge to return to the school. I could swear I heard your mother's voice in my ear, telling me that was where I was needed and I should hurry back. So I did, and I arrived just in time to prevent you from crossing over. I was very nearly too late. You had nearly drained yourself to nothing trying to prevent Quirrell from getting the Stone, you know."

"Actually, sir, it wasn't only Quirrell I was trying to prevent from getting the Stone. Quirrell was working for someone, his master was Voldemort, and he was using Quirrell's body to help him get the Stone so he could, uh, become immortal. But now that it's gone, I suppose he'll try and find another way, won't he?"

Dumbledore nodded gravely. "Yes, I fear so, Harry. He is a most determined dark wizard, though once he was much as you are, a young boy with a prodigious intellect and curiosity." The Headmaster shook his head sadly. "He too was once a student of mine. But he was too ambitious and proud for his own good and in the end he walked the lefthand path into night and never looked back."

"Pride goeth before a fall," Harry quoted softly.

"Yes, indeed. And the greater the pride the greater the fall. Voldemort fell quickly and deeply and he has never bothered to return to the light. He believes he has found a way to cheat death and rule over all, but in the end all he will have are empty promises and illusions."

"Sir, when I was fighting him, he said something about my mother, that she died to save me, that he would have spared her except for that."

"Yes, he would have, though not out of any sort of compassion, Harry. He . . .liked beautiful magical witches, he enjoyed dominating them . . .he would have kept your mother alive to admire and to be his . . .trophy, if you understand what I mean."

Harry looked slightly sick. "Yeah. I get it, sir. But why was Quirrell unable to touch me? Why did my skin burn him?"

"Your skin did not burn him, Harry. Say rather the magic within your skin did that, and it burned not only Quirrell, but Voldemort as well. You see, your mother died to protect you, and she worked a great magic in doing so. The power of sacrificial love is one of the greatest forces of all, Harry. When done willingly, nothing on earth is as strong, and Voldemort cannot comprehend such a power. Love is foreign to him, because true love requires that you give of yourself, surrender a part of yourself, to another, and that Voldemort will never do. That love created a kind of resonance in your very flesh, Harry, it left no visible scar but nevertheless it marked you. That was what protected you from the Killing Curse as a baby and it was also why Quirrell, who had given himself up to darkness like Voldemort, could not bear your touch. It was agony for him touch one so pure, so innocent, and so good."

Dumbledore glanced away then, giving Harry time to wipe away his sudden tears and dry his eyes. Then Harry asked, "Do you know about the Invisibility Cloak, sir? It was my father's, but I never knew who sent it to me."

"Ah. Yes, James inherited that cloak from his grandfather. He left it in my possession before he and your mother went into hiding and I decided to give it to you as a Christmas present. I thought it would be good for you to have an heirloom, though I fear Severus scolded me for giving you it, saying it was an invitation for mischief, and has now confiscated it. He has said he will return it to you at a later date, when you have learned the proper respect for it."

"Which will probably be never," Harry sighed. He had really liked that cloak.

"Oh, no, he won't keep it forever. Professor Snape would not want to have anything of your father's in his possession for too long. They quite detested each other during school, though your mother was best friends with Severus and eventually she made the two of them tolerate each other."

"One more question, sir. How did I get the Stone from the mirror?"

"Ah, now that was the question I was waiting for," Dumbledore rubbed his hands together like a little boy with a carton full of sweets. "That was my idea. One of my better ones, I have to admit. You see, only one who wanted to find the Stone-not use it-could get it. Only one who not motivated by greed or power could obtain the Stone. And so you did. Now, I suggest you start eating those sweets, they do look scrumptious. May I?"

He took a Bertie Botts. "Maybe I shall get lucky this time and get a grape one. When I was a boy, I was unlucky enough to get a vomit-flavored one, and since then I have lost my liking for them." He popped it into his mouth. "Alas! Earwax."

"Here, sir. Have some fudge. I think Mrs. Weasley made it."

"Thank you, my boy, but I must be going, before Poppy comes and strings me up by my toenails for disturbing her patient's rest and Severus flays me as well. They were both very insistent that I wait until you were stronger to visit you, but my schedule was so full, that this is the only time I could spare."

Then the Headmaster was gone, leaving Harry alone to ponder on all that he had told him.

* * * * * *

 

Harry managed to wheedle Poppy into allowing him to see Ron and Hermione for fifteen minutes later on that morning, since he had been a model patient and read quietly and drank all of her nasty elixirs without too much of a fuss.

Hermione rushed up and hugged him, much to his embarrassment and cried, "Oh, Harry, we were so worried, everyone thought you might die . . .even Professor Snape was concerned, he watched you for three days, and I'm so glad you're okay!"

She looked like she was either going to burst into tears or kiss him again, and Harry quickly patted her on the back and said, "Hey, I'm fine. A little tired, but I'm fine."

"Good." She sniffed.

"Girls!" Ron rolled his eyes. "Crying all over you all the time."

Hermione glared at him. "I didn't hear you complaining when I was crying over you, Ronald Weasley! Of course it was only a few tears, since you weren't half-dead like Harry, but you said you didn't mind!"

Ron went scarlet. "Uh . . .err . . .It was kind of nice. Sorry. It was loads better than Percy." He winced.

"Why? What did he do?" Harry asked.

"He . . .practically went ballistic. He was threatening to borrow one of Snape's cauldrons and boil me in it first, he kept shouting that I was his little brother and his responsibility and I was a bloody crazy ass to risk my neck on some crazy superstition, and he'd never forgive himself if anything happened to me. Then he . . .uh . . .he smacked my arse with a damn ruler for scaring him out of half his life. He borrowed it from Snape."

Harry stared. "The ruler?"

"Yeah. He'd dragged me down there by my ear," Ron rubbed it. "To get the cauldron or whatever and saw the ruler on Snape's desk and said "May I borrow this for a minute, sir?" and Snape gave it to him and just looked at us and all he said was, "I want it back when you're through, Percival. I might need it soon." And Percy thanked him, the git, and then he dragged me back up to the tower to his room, he's got his own since he's prefect, and then . . ." Ron trailed off, looking embarrassed and ashamed at the same time. "You ought to be glad, Harry, that you don't have an older brother."

I've got something worse than that. A Potions Master, Harry thought, and said, "Ow. Bet that stung. I'm sorry I got you in trouble, Ron."

His friend shrugged. "Don't be. I wanted to come. Hell, it isn't the first time I've gotten my bum tanned, though usually it's Mum or Dad who do that, not Percy. Now, tell me what happened after I got knocked out. Hermione told me about the potions challenge, but what happened after you walked through the fire?"

So Harry told them everything else that had happened, up until the time he had passed out. He didn't mention anything about seeing his parents on the stairway to heaven though, for that was too private and the only other person he might have shared it with was still asleep.

Or so he thought, until a soft voice said abruptly, "Miss Granger and Mr. Weasley, good afternoon. I believe visiting hours are over for the day, are they not?"

All three of them started like hares caught unaware by a clever fox.

"Professor Snape!" exclaimed Hermione.

"We didn't . . .see you . . ." Ron stammered.

"Obviously." The professor arched an eyebrow. He looked much better than when Harry had last seen him, his hair was tied back and he was alert and rested and clearly not minded to wait while Harry and his friends finished their discussion.

Harry threw a furtive glance at Snape's hands, but saw nothing like a ruler in them. Not that he thought for an instant that Severus would ever use one on him, but still . . .he had to check.

"If you will conclude your little chat fest, Mr. Potter and I have something that needs to be discussed," Severus said, and Harry winced at the frosty tone.

"Uh, sure, sir," Ron said quickly, and got to his feet so quickly he nearly knocked his chair over. "See you later, mate."

"Bye, Harry." Hermione said, then reached over to take a chocolate frog from the table and whispered in his ear. "Good luck, Harry. I think you'll survive. He really cares about you, you know."

Then they departed and Harry looked up at Severus.

"Come with me, please. Poppy has signed your release form," was all the Potions Master said.

Harry rose and only then realized he was still wearing pajamas. "Uh . . ."

Severus waved a hand and the pajamas were transfigured into his school uniform. "Come. My office."

Harry followed, trying not to drag his feet. He was relieved and apprehensive at the same time, though he was grateful Severus had decided to put him out of his misery. They did not speak until they were inside Severus's office, and Severus had gestured him to a seat in front of him. Harry sat, then gazed at the desk and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that no ruler was there.

 

Severus stood over him, his hands on his hips, wearing an expression of vast disappointment that made Harry cringe and long to crawl under the desk. "So. You know why you are here, don't you?"

"Yes, sir. So you can punish me for . . .for risking my life and disobeying you."

"Good. Then we have an understanding. That is the first reason you are here. But there is also another reason I have called you here, which I will tell you afterwards. First things first. I would have you know that I thought long and hard about what you deserved and how best to go about punishing you without being cruel or unnecessarily harsh, son. This is not something I enjoy doing, but you need to be taught a sharp lesson. The first part of your punishment is this, I have confiscated your cloak and your broom. You will not be getting them back until you prove to me that you can act responsibly, meaning that you will think before you act and not going rushing off to save the damn world or whatever. I shall probably have them for a few weeks."

"But, sir . . .how can you do that . . .?" Harry began, for the loss of both his broom and cloak was a great blow. "I'm going home in a few days . . ."

"Hush. Don't interrupt. Second, you will be making ink from the sacs of fifty squids, which is not as easy as it sounds, and also making an antibacterial soap for me, Madam Pomfrey is running low on it."

"Yes, sir," Harry said respectfully. That didn't sound too bad, making soap and ink. Except he knew better.  Severus's punishments were no joke.

"And last, you will be scrubbing every inch of my lab with a toothbrush. By the time you are done with those tasks, I hope you will have learned the meaning of obedience and realized what kind of pain you put me through, young man, by nearly dying for the fourth time! Oh yes, and you will also promise me that you will never do anything so reckless again. Understood?"

"Yes, but . . ."

"But what? You're fortunate I did not follow through with my first impulse and tan your backside."

"Yes, sir, I know. But I don't think I can promise you not to risk my life ever again." Harry began.

"Why the bloody hell not?" snarled Severus. "Do you plan on making a career out of being a damn hero then? Because I'll tell you right now, I won't-"

"DAD!" Harry yelled, and Snape halted in mid-sentence. "Please, just listen, okay, before you start yelling. Please?"

Severus reined in his temper and said shortly. "I'm listening. Start talking, brat."

Harry told him about the stairway and James and Lily and the choice he had made, to return and live as a normal boy, with Snape as a father, and then he told him of the price required.

Severus went still for several minutes. Then he whirled about and snarled several very potent and terrible swear words for ten minutes. Harry was amazed the office didn't burst into flames, for Snape was very creative and inventive in his swearing, and the words fairly sizzled off his tongue.

At last he turned back to Harry, leaned down and took his son by the shoulders and said, very softly, "Do you have any idea what you have done, Harry James Potter?"

Harry gazed at him. "Yes. I chose to come back for you, Severus. Because I wanted a real father and I knew you were the only one who could give that to me. And if killing damn Voldemort is the only way I can have you, I'll do it and to hell with everything else. They can have their damn champion, but all I really want is to be your son. If. . .if you want me, that is?"

"If I want you?" Severus repeated hoarsely. "Incorrigible brat, I would never want anyone else! I love you, Harry. And I always will, no matter how many times I long to beat you senseless."

Then he drew Harry into a hug. Harry buried his face in the familiar black robe and asked, "Then you forgive me?"

"Yes."

"And will you help me fight Voldemort?"

"It would be my pleasure, son. I owe that slimy bastard much for all the pain and suffering he has caused me and everyone else." Severus told him sincerely, rubbing his back. "And I promise you, Harry, that we shall both be alive at the end of it."

Harry drew in a shaky breath. "That sounds good to me, Dad."

Severus nodded, then stepped away from him. "Which brings me to the other reason I called you here. You can start on your punishment tonight, after we go and see Professor Dumbledore. I have been thinking seriously of adopting you legally, Harry. After what has occurred this year, and what I know of your relatives, I think it best if I gained legal custody of you. In the wizarding world, that is done by documents, witnesses, and a Blood Adoption Charm. Then I would be your father in truth, child, and not just in name only. Would you like that, Harry?"

Harry grinned. "I can't believe you asked me that, sir. Of course I'd like it. It's what I've always wanted. When can we do it?"

"Now. Let us go to Dumbledore's office. I shall ask him to call Professor McGonagall and Hagrid to witness it, and he must perform the spell." Severus took a handful of Floo powder and tossed it into the fireplace in his office. "Come along, son. This is another way we wizards get from place to place, by Floo powder."

Harry goggled, but did as Snape instructed and spoke the words, "Headmaster's office," before jumping into the green flames.

There was a whirling sensation and Harry found himself stumbling out of a fireplace in front of a comfy couch, followed a moment later by Snape.

Albus was seated upon it, crosslegged, and Harry could see his ankles, tucked into his purple boots. Hermione was right, his socks don't match. The Headmaster had on one striped red and gold sock and one blue and green one, and not only did they not match each other, they clashed with his purple robe. He wondered suddenly if Dumbledore would have been able to solve Snape's logic puzzle unaided.

"Severus! Harry! To what do I owe this unexpected visit?" he greeted them, as if it were perfectly normal to have people popping in unannounced out of the fireplace.

"We wish to discuss a very important matter, Headmaster," began Severus, looking stern and serious. "Concerning myself and this incorrigible scamp here, who really ought to be expelled for breaking school rules . . ."

"Now, Severus-"

"However, I will suspend that request, Albus, in favor of a more fitting punishment." Snape continued, obviously enjoying himself.

Dumbledore raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And that is?"

"I want to adopt him. That way I can keep an eye on him and rein him in when he gets too unmanageable. I think I can manage to keep him in line, despite his penchant for trouble."

Dumbledore didn't say anything for several moments.

"While I would normally rejoice for you, Severus, in this case I must ask, are you sure it is wise? You know my reasons for not placing him in a wizarding household eleven years ago."

Severus's jaw tightened. "I do. And you know that I never agreed with it."

"You or Minerva. But I did what I felt was best, then and now. I know you have become fond of Harry and I am very happy that is so, but I do not think adopting him is the right way to go. The blood wards have proved sufficient until now, I see no reason to change that-"

"Well, I do!" Harry cried, unable to keep still any longer, furious at the old wizard. "Sir," he added quickly at Snape's thunderous look. Before Severus could interrupt, Harry continued. "You don't know what went on there, with my relatives. They never wanted me, they treated me like a servant for years, starved me and locked me in a broom cupboard. Is that the kind of people you want me living with? They lied to me about everything, I never knew about magic or wizards until Hagrid came and got me off that rock, and whenever I was sick or hurt they never cared. They told me to shut up and stop plaguing them and they sent me to my cupboard. I would have died if it weren't for Severus. He took care of me whenever I was sick or hurt, he saved my life a dozen times over, and he's been more like a father to me than my so-called relatives. He wants this, my parents want this, and I want this! After all we've done, protecting the Stone, I think you owe it to us, sir!"

"Harry James Potter!" Severus growled. "You do not shout at the Headmaster that way."

Harry jumped as he felt Snape's hand swat his bottom in reproof. He winced, then said, "Sorry. Guess I got a bit carried away. But that's what I saw in the mirror, you know," he continued in a more respectful tone. "Myself and Severus, as a family. A real family, not the fake one I've got now. That was what the mirror promised me, my dream come true. Why shouldn't I have it, sir?"

Dumbledore gazed at the slender boy before him and the tall Potions Professor and realized he had been outmaneuvered neatly. Severus alone he might have convinced to rethink his decision, but he saw immediately that Harry would not be swayed, he had the conviction and stubbornness of both his fathers. "Harry, understand that I thought your relatives, Muggles though they were, would care for you and protect you the best. I thought to keep you safe there, where Voldemort and his followers never would think to look. I set special protections over the house when I brought you there. I never thought they would . . .treat you so terribly, your mother was your aunt's sister, after all."

"Well, they did, sir. They treated me like a freak and they never liked me. I think they were afraid of magic and wizards and I was both. The point is, I don't have a real home there. The only home I've ever had has been with Severus."

"I understand that, my boy, truly I do," the Headmaster began, the twinkle in his eyes dimmed. "But Severus has other obligations, duties he has agreed to-"

"If you mean my duties as a spy for the Order, Albus, I think you can consider them over with. I fought Quirrell and Voldemort as well. My position is compromised now." Severus cut in, laying a hand upon Harry's shoulder to keep the boy from interrupting yet again.

"Perhaps. Voldemort has been banished back to the spirit realm, to dwell there for who knows how long. And Quirrell is dead. I think you could resume your old role without too much awkwardness if you tried. You are the best agent we have."

"Flattery will get you nowhere, Albus," said the master spy sharply. "Others can do what I have done. But I shall make a bargain with you. I will remain your eyes and ears for as long as I can, until I am compromised, if you agree to perform the adoption ceremony for us. That is all I want from you. Give me Harry for my son and I shall remain your secret agent. I have never asked for anything in all the years I became your spy, Albus Dumbledore, mostly because I felt I didn't deserve to have anything more. But now . . .I want this as much as he does, and that is my price."

"It would seem I am caught between a rock and a hard place. Very well, Severus. You shall have your adoption. On one condition. No one here can know of it, save myself and those you choose as witnesses. You cannot be seen to have any connection with Harry Potter as a supposed follower of Voldemort. You may do as you please outside of school, once the adoption goes through with the Ministry, I shall see that it is done secretly, the blood wards will be transferred to you, and Harry may live with you then. Is that agreeable to you?"

"Harry?" Severus turned to his son.

"I want to tell Ron and Hermione," Harry insisted.

"That is not possible, my boy."

"Make it possible then, sir!" Harry flared. "I've been forced to lie all year to everyone, including them, and I hated it. I'll do it if I have to, but Ron and Hermione deserve to know the truth. Make them swear any oath you like, but if it weren't for them, I'd have never gotten the Stone."

Dumbledore conceded. "As you will. I shall require Wizard's Oath from them, but you may tell them the truth afterwards. Now then, are we all agreed?"

Severus and Harry nodded.

"Call your witnesses then, Severus."

"I will Floo Minerva and Hagrid immediately." Severus said, and did so.

Seven minutes later, both Minerva and Hagrid were in the room.

Hagrid caught Harry up in a huge hug. "Congratulations! I always said ya needed a dad, Harry, and Severus will be a good one."

"I quite agree," Minerva said, beaming at both of them. "You both are just what the other needs." Then she turned to Dumbledore. "Are you going to sulk or perform the ceremony, old man? I told you a long time ago you were making a mistake leaving him on those people's doorstep. Now's your chance to fix it."

Dumbledore rolled his eyes. "No need to lecture me like I was fifteen, Minnie."

"Really? Then why are you acting like a fifteen-year-old, sulking because your friends won't play by your rules, hmmm? Perform the ceremony, Albus. It only takes a minute or two and then we'll leave you be."

Dumbledore rose and shuffled through some sheaves of parchment upon his desk, at last locating the one he wanted. Then he drew his wand and a small silver knife and turned to Severus and Harry. "This document here will give you, Severus Tobias Snape, legal and binding custody over one Harry James Potter until he comes of age at seventeen. You will be required to provide him with all the basic necessities, including but not limited to food, clothing, shelter, and protection, as well as moral guidance and magical education. Do you agree to this?"

"I do." Severus said, moving to stand before the older wizard, his hands upturned. "I also further state that I shall give my son all of the love and compassion he has been denied these past eleven years, as well as reasonable discipline."

Dumbledore inclined his head. Then he turned to Harry. "Do you, Harry James Potter, agree to said terms, knowing willingly that Severus Snape shall have legal custody of you and all your assets until your seventeenth birthday?"

"I do." Harry said, then added, "And I'll give my dad all of my love and try and obey him as much as I can."

"Well said, Harry. Now, if you will sign here, and Severus, you sign here," he indicated the spaces upon the adoption certificate where they were to put their signatures. They did so, as did Hagrid and Minerva. "Finally, to make this adoption binding by magic as well as legal law, I shall now cast the Blood Adoption Charm. Severus, your hand, if you will."

Dumbledore took the sharp silver knife and pricked the base of Snape's thumb, hard enough to draw blood.

Then he did the same to Harry, and pressed their hands together, mingling their blood while waving his wand over them and chanting a strange phrase in Latin. A green light shot out of his wand and wrapped about their wrists for a moment, and Harry felt a strange shock run through him.

Then it was over and he drew his away, discovering that the cut Albus had made was healed.

"Now you are bound, by blood and magic, one to the other, for as long as you both shall live. Flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone, you are one." Albus intoned.

"Heard and witnessed," Minerva said.

"Heard and witnessed," Hagrid repeated, beaming.

"Congratulations, Severus, on your new son," Albus said then, and he clapped him on the shoulder. "And you also, Harry, on your new father. I wish you joy." He hugged the youngster briefly and then asked, "Lemon drop, anyone? Tea? Cakes?"

All of them had tea and cakes, but they did not linger, for Minerva had exams to grade and Hagrid had gardening to do.

"And this disobedient wretch has a few chores he must begin for me," Severus informed them. "Come along, Harry. The squids are waiting for you."

Harry made a face and shot a pleading glance at the Headmaster.

Dumbledore chuckled. "Do not make puppy dog eyes at me, Harry Snape. I cannot interfere with parental authority."

"Darn!" Harry groaned. "I thought it was worth a try."

The others just looked at each other and smirked knowingly.

"Now, Harry James Snape," growled his father. "Don't make me say it again, or else I shall drag you all the way to the dungeon by your ear, young man."

"Yes, sir. Coming, Dad," Harry replied, then followed his father out the door, grinning from ear to ear, despite the disgusting and tedious task he was sure awaited him. So what if Severus punished him? That was a father's job, after all, and he knew that while Snape might scold and smack him on occasion, he would also hug and forgive him afterwards, and love him no matter what.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well how did you like this one?

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to leave me a review they are greatly appreciated!

Next: The farewell feast at Hogwarts, with a few unexpected surprises. But that is NOT the end of the story!



Chapter 25: Farewell Feast
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It was five days till the end of term and normally the students would be happily engaged doing nothing more strenuous than packing for the summer or making tentative schedules for next year (if they were obsessed with school, like Hermione), or hanging out with their friends or sleeping. Unless they happened to be Harry Potter. Harry got to spend most of his days down in Snape's dungeon, scrubbing it with a toothbrush, or making Hogwarts' premiere fine squid ink and antibacterial soap, which cleansed skin and cuts without stinging.

Ron, Hermione, and most of the other members of Gryffindor House pitied the young wizard, stuck with Snape for practically the rest of the term, serving detention. Percy was one of the few who did not feel sorry for Harry at all, and said so. "It's no more than you deserve, for running about and nearly getting yourself killed, you know. You must have broken at least a dozen major school rules, even though you saved the Stone."

"Okay, you've made your point, Percy, now can you just let it go?" Ron had remarked crossly. "Harry doesn't need a bloody lecture, he gets enough of them from Snape, I'm sure." Ron and Hermione had sworn Wizard Oath never to reveal Harry's secret adoption by Snape, but both of them seemed happy for him.

"Mind your tone, little brother," Percy warned. "I'm his prefect, I can lecture him if I want to."

"Percy, you're such a bossy perfectionist pain-in-the-arse!" Ron snapped.

The elder Weasley glared at him. "I mean it, Ron. One more comment like that out of your mouth, kid, and I'll go down and ask Snape if I can borrow his ruler again, got me?"

Ron gulped and did not say anything else. His bum had been sore for nearly a day after Percy had spanked him for his part in regaining the Sorcerer's Stone. He certainly did not want another one so soon after the first one.

Harry did not say much either, for he knew that Percy was right to scold him. He had been brave and daring but also reckless and that was why he was paying for it now with all of those punishment chores.

The first task he had been given had been to extract the ink from fifty sacs of small freshwater squid, the offspring of the giant squid that lived in the Black Lake. Snape had caught the squid for him and left them inside of a barrel of water, still alive. Harry had to kill them, cut open the squid's body and remove the ink sac, located near the anus, and then squeeze the ink from it into a large cauldron. The squid had to be alive since the best ink was made from "fresh" squids, not from ones that had been dead and sitting in a pail of water.

At first Harry had balked at killing the squid, for he had never voluntarily killed anything before. Severus had given him a small metal mallet to do the job and he had looked at it and at the squid swimming in the barrel and cried, "Dad, I can't do this. You just want me to . . .bash them on the head?"

"Harry, it's no different than if you went fishing and killed a fish that way."

"I've never been fishing."

"Nevertheless, you could always put the squid on the table and watch it suffocate if you're too squeamish to give it a merciful death with the mallet. Personally, I prefer the mallet, it's much quicker and the squid feels hardly any pain." Severus pointed out.

Harry gritted his teeth and decided to use the mallet. He didn't want to make anything suffer needlessly, even a squid.

Extracting the ink from the squid was a nasty, smelly, and tedious process, requiring him to cut the squid up and use a small silicon strainer to strain the ink into the porcelain cauldron Snape had given him. The ink was then mixed with linseed oil and a small amount of water. By the time he was done with ten squid, he was spattered with ink from head to foot, he smelled like raw fish and his back and hands ached from wielding the mallet and squeezing the ink sacs dry.

Severus dismissed him after he had done twenty-five that night, since he was still recovering from his ordeal down in the chamber. The ink also needed time to settle before it could be decanted into the jars Severus had provided. "Be back here at eight-thirty tomorrow morning. Now go and take a shower and use this ink remover on yourself before you do," he handed Harry a jar of some yellowish liquid that smelled strongly similar to turpentine.

"Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir," he made as if to hug his father, but Snape stepped backwards quickly.

"Don't even think about it, brat."

Harry smirked. "Aww, come on, Dad. Don't you want a hug from your only son?"

"Not when you smell like dead squid, you sly scamp. Eau de cephalopod is not a fragrance I wish to advertise. Now get, you smell like the reject from a cat's last meal." he waved Harry out of the lab, his nose wrinkling.

Harry went, snickering. I'll get him back tomorrow morning. It's his fault I smell so awful, after all.

He arrived at the lab promptly the next morning, and found the same apparatus and the rest of the barrel of squid waiting for him.

Severus was sitting at his desk, a mug of strong coffee at his elbow, marking final exams. "Begin, Mr. Snape," he ordered without looking up from his papers.

"Yes, sir," Harry removed his robe and rolled up his sleeves. Then he thought of something. "Uh, sir? Do you have an apron I could use?"

"Bottom drawer of the lefthand cabinet at the back of the lab," the Potions Master answered. "Glad to see you're thinking straight today."

Harry smiled slightly and went to get a black apron from the cabinet.

This time, he was quicker in performing the disgusting task than yesterday, though he still managed to get splattered liberally with some ink and squid juice. But he finished the task with some twenty minutes to spare and decided to have some fun with his new father. He waited until Severus had set aside the stack of papers he'd been grading before moving silently up beside him and throwing his arms about the tall man.

"Hey, Dad. I'm finished!"

Severus gasped and spluttered, for Harry was very aromatic and he made certain to rub against the older wizard's robes so the smell would be transferred to the other's clothing. "Harry! Get off of me, right now, young man." Severus ordered, too late, of course.

Harry released him, grinning like a Cheshire cat. "Oops. Forgot I still had my apron on."

"You incorrigible brat!" growled his father, pretending to be furious. "Think that's funny, do you?"

"Uh . . .yeah," Harry admitted, before he exploded into laughter.

Severus gave him a pretend Snape glare and scooped up his too-clever son, tossing the giggling boy over his shoulder.

"Hey! What are you doing?"

Severus walked over to a huge cauldron, nearly the height of a man, which he had recently filled with warmed water, in preparation for Harry's second task, and plunked his smug son right into it and said, "Scourgify!"

The cauldron filled with soapy bubbles and Harry was buried almost to his neck in sudsy water. He sputtered and splashed, caught totally off guard by Severus's prank. "Dad! No fair!"

"Very fair. You need a bath, brat, and since you keep forgetting to take one, I'm giving you one myself," Severus said, smirking evilly. Then he chuckled, for Harry looked like a rather grumpy cat, stuck up to his ears in frothy bubbles, glaring indignantly at him. "At least you won't smell like squid now."

Harry stuck his tongue out. "Very funny, Dad."

"Hilarious," Snape agreed, and laughed even harder. "Next time don't try and play pranks on your father. After eleven years of teaching I know them all and then some, thanks to James and his friends, who used to take great enjoyment in teasing me."

Harry coughed, then started to laugh too, for he had never thought the stern professor had a sense of humor. It seemed he was mistaken. After a moment, he began to feel slightly cold and uncomfortable, so he asked, "When are you going to let me out of here?"

"When you behave," Severus answered.

"Okay. Okay. I'll be good."

"I'll think about it," Severus declared wickedly.

"Huh? No fair! Dad, please!"

"But son, you imitate a dolphin so well."

"Dad!"Harry protested.

Severus chuckled, then banished the water and dried Harry off with a brand-new towel. "Don't be such a smartass next time," he lectured, cuffing the boy gently across the back of the head.

"Yes sir, Poseidon," Harry said, then ducked the towel end Snape flicked at his bum.

* * * * * *

But after he had finished bottling the ink and cleaning up the squid remains, it was time for the next punishment chore, making the antibacterial soap.

If Harry had thought extracting the squid ink was hard, the soap-making was ten times harder. Snape gave him a large pile of ashes collected from the fireplaces all over Hogwarts and told Harry to boil them in a large cauldron with a small sluice in the bottom of it, which hung over a chute that connected to another cauldron. "Watch the wood ash carefully and stir it until you see it start to become a brownish liquid. That's called lye and it's one of the prime ingredients in soap. It will start to flow out of the bottom of the cauldron and collect in the other one."

Harry's arms soon grew very tired stirring the wood ash and the fumes from the boiling process made him cough. And that was only the beginning.

Once the lye had been collected, it then had to be mixed with water and another large cauldron full of rendered lard and stirred and stirred endlessly over a simmering fire. The lard mixture could not be too hot and had to be stirred a great deal to prevent it from scorching. The lye smoke stung and burned his nose and throat, and he coughed incessantly until Severus summoned a gentle breeze to draw away some of the acidic stench.

"Harry, where are your goggles?" asked the exasperated Potions Master, handing his son a towel to wipe his streaming eyes.

"Oh. Over there," Harry indicated the pair of goggles upon his work station. "I forgot to put them on."

He summoned them with a wave of his wand and put them on.

Once the soap mixture had sat for at least two days, Severus gave him special lichen to add to it, plus some fruit extract oils, like lemon and orange and strawberry, to scent it and give it antibacterial properties. He also cast a spell over it to make the soap very soothing and non-stinging when used upon open wounds and burned or abraded skin. Pomfrey used the soap exclusively in the Hospital Wing and it was also put in all the dispensers in the bathrooms of the school.

Harry sniffed the soap as it was hardening and the pleasant citrus tang reminded him of several times during his childhood when he had been summoned to Snape's lab so the dark angel could fix various cuts and scrapes gleaned from Dudley and his gang of bullies. "You used this on me when I was little."

"Yes, it is very versatile, and ideal for cleaning out cuts without causing more pain to an injured child."

Harry straightened up with a groan, for he was quite stiff and sore from bending over a cauldron stirring for so many hours, since Severus had him making several batches of soap. "Yeah, but it's a bitch and a half to make," he complained.

"Language, young man. Otherwise you'll be eating some of it," reproved his father.

"Sorry. But it's true." Harry rubbed the small of his back.

"Just remember, you would not be making it at all if you hadn't gone adventuring, foolish child. Now quit whining and go tend cauldron number four."

Harry muttered, "Wicked damn vampire bat," under his breath and started over to stir the fourth cauldron.

"What was that?"

Harry paled. "Nothing, sir."

"That's what I thought," Severus snorted.

When he returned to Gryffindor Tower that evening he was quite sore and felt like he was about the Headmaster's age.

"Rough detention, Harry?" asked Ron as Harry downed a Muscle Relieving Potion and then drank a cup of mint tea.

"The worst. Never get Snape mad at you, Ron." Harry said feelingly, since there were still people about in the common room. Then he leaned over and whispered in his friend's ear, "I'd have taken Percy's punishment over my dad's, believe me. I feel like a hundred unicorns and centaurs have stomped me. And it's still not done yet. I still have two more days to serve before the end of term feast."

Ron shook his head. "You still glad he's your dad now, Harry?"

Harry nodded. "‘Course I am. He's strict as hell, but well, I did deserve it. He really cares for me, Ron, more than anything. That's why he punishes me like this, so I'll quit being so impulsive and getting myself into scrapes that might kill me."

"Is it working?"

"Hell, yeah. Next time I discover a dark wizard's infiltrated the school, I'll tell him first, so he can kick the git's arse." He rubbed his neck gingerly. One thing he knew for certain, he would think long and hard about terrifying Severus out of his wits by leaping into danger, if this was what came of it.

But at last all of his punishment chores were served, and the last evening at Hogwarts had arrived. All of the students and staff were gathered in the Great Hall for the final farewell feast, and the final points were tallied up in the House hourglasses and assigned. Harry was a bit late for the feast, he'd just finished putting away the last mop in the supply closet he'd used, and he arrived to find the Hall decked out in silver and green banners and streamers-the colors of Slytherin House.

He slid into his place between Ron and Percy, with Hermione across from him. The tables were piled high with delicious food, turkey, baked tarragon chicken, honey-glazed ham, mounds of crunchy potatoes, buttered beans, rolls, gravy, vegetables, a feast fit for kings. Harry was starving, he'd last eaten at midday, when Severus had fed him a tuna sandwich and a glass of chocolate milk.

"Glad you could make it, Harry," joked Fred. "Thought for a minute old Snape was going to keep you chained to the wall of his dungeon."

"No, even he's not that cruel," Harry said, smiling a little.

"Hush. Dumbledore's going to give the end of the year address," Hermione scolded, seeing the old wizard step up to the podium.

"Oh joy," Percy muttered, rolling his eyes.

"Another year has gone by! Great Merlin, but time does fly." There were good-natured groans at that unintentional rhyme. Dumbledore cleared his throat, then continued. "Forgive the ramblings of an old man, I know you're all waiting to sink your teeth into this fabulous feast. What a year it has been! I hope your brains are a little fuller with knowledge . . .though you have all summer to forget and start the new year as empty as you were the previous year. . ."

More snickers followed this statement.

"However, there is the House cup to be awarded. The points stand thus. In fourth place, Gryffindor, with three hundred and twelve points, in third place, Hufflepuff, with three-hundred and fifty-two, Ravenclaw is second with four hundred and twenty-six points, and Slytherin is first with four hundred and seventy-two."

A storm of cheering and screaming broke out from the Slytherin table, and Draco smirked nastily at Harry from across the room.

"Yes, well done, Slytherin," Dumbledore said, sounding rather bored. Then his tone changed to one of eagerness. "However, recent events must be taken into consideration."

The room went still. The Slytherins quit smiling and looked very confused.

Up at the staff table, Severus leaned over and hissed to Minerva, "What is that devious old fox up to now, Minerva?"

Minerva gave a slight shake of her head. "I have no idea, Sev," she whispered out of the corner of her mouth. "But he's got that look in his eye, the one that means he's plotting something."

"Christ have mercy," Severus muttered. "He had better not do what I think he's going to, the damn meddling old man."

Albus cleared his throat, and his blue eyes were twinkling madly. "I have a few last-minute points to dish out. Let's see now . . ."

"First, to Mr. Ronald Weasley . . .for the best game of chess Hogwarts has seen in many years, I award Gryffindor fifty points."

Ron went beet red and the rest of his House cheered so loudly the stars upon the ceiling quivered. Percy was saying proudly, "That's my little brother . . .a chess master, he beat McGonagall's giant chess set, the heroic little imbecile . . .!" Then he reached over and thumped Ron on the back. "You did good, Ronnie, but if you ever scare me that way again, I'll make sure you won't sit for a month," he said softly, so that only his brother, Harry, and Hermione could hear.

"Whatever, Perce," Ron shrugged, grinning in embarrassment.

Dumbledore lifted his hands and there was silence.

"Second, to Miss Hermione Granger, for cool logic and critical thinking in a crisis, I award fifty points."

Hermione covered her face with her hands, Harry figured she was crying, overwhelmed by it all. The Gryffindors were stamping and screeching, they were now a hundred points up, challenging Ravenclaw for second place.

Harry darted a look up at the staff table.

The teachers looked shell-shocked, all except McGonagall and Snape.

Minerva was frowning and Severus looked like he wanted to spit fire.

Then Dumbledore called his name. "Third to Mr. Harry Potter, for sheer nerve and outstanding courage in the face of extreme danger, I award sixty points."

The room went insane. Harry wanted nothing more than to hide under the table. The noise grated on his sensitive eardrums and he couldn't help feeling that there was something wrong with this last minute gifting of points. True, they had done what Dumbledore had said, but they had also been very disobedient and broken every rule ever set for students and almost died. He had plenty of time to think while serving his punishment with Severus, and he had come to the realization that his adventure that night had been foolhardy and could have easily ended in tragedy as well as triumph.

And yet here was Dumbledore, rewarding him for it.

Harry shook his head. It wasn't right. Gryffindor was now tied with Slytherin.

He snuck another look at the staff table.

Snape looked thunderous and Minerva did not look happy either, oddly enough.

But the Headmaster continued, oblivious. "There are all kinds of courage, however. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to an enemy, but an even greater one to stand up to your friends. To Neville Longbottom, I award ten points."

Neville was nearly smothered by his well-meaning Housemates.

The Slytherins were looking as if someone had come and drenched them with a lakeful of freezing cold water.

Harry was silent, alone out of Gryffindor he was not clapping and cheering. That's wrong. Neville only stood up to us because he was under a compulsion spell from Voldemort, he was forced. And we might have saved the Stone and I might have defeated Quirrell and Voldemort, but we could have also been killed and endangered the whole school. We shouldn't be rewarded for that. Slytherin worked hard all year to earn those points, it isn't fair to steal their victory.

He rose to his feet and made his way up the hall, ignoring the cheers and catcalls, and tugged on Dumbledore's sleeve.

"Yes, my boy?" Dumbledore was beaming like a kid at Christmas. "I think a change of decoration is in order." He made as if to clap his hands.

"Wait, sir!" Harry cried. "I don't deserve those points."

"Whyever not, my boy?"

"Because I broke school rules to earn them. It's not right, sir."

Dumbledore looked startled. "But you also saved us from a great danger, Harry."

"I know, sir. But Professor Snape did too, he would have defeated Quirrell if I hadn't distracted him. Why don't you reward him as well as me, he's more deserving of it than I am." Harry pressed.

"Harry, professors don't get points for doing their duty."

"Maybe they should." Harry said stubbornly. "The point is, sir, I don't want to be rewarded for this. I didn't do it for that, I did it because I felt I had to and if you reward me for it-for breaking rules-kids will think it's okay to do the same thing. And it's not. They could die doing what I did, sir."

Dumbledore looked astonished. "I see Severus has already begun to rub off on you, Harry. What do you suggest I do?"

"Take my sixty points away and let Slytherin win the cup," Harry said calmly. "They earned it . . .the right way. They deserve it."

"Alas, I cannot do that, Harry. The points are already tallied."

Harry scowled. "Then award more points to Slytherin, sir. So that we're tied and we both win the cup. That's fair, sort of."

The Headmaster considered. "That has never happened before, Harry."

"So? There's a first time for everything."

The hubbub had finally subsided. Dumbledore raised his arms for silence. "It has been brought to my attention that Slytherin also deserves some points, for playing an amazing game of Quidditch , I award ten House points to Seeker Gavin Thorne."

There was a roar at the Slytherin table.

Everyone else just looked utterly confused. What the hell was going on?

"The score stands tied between Gryffindor and Slytherin," Dumbledore went on. "This has never happened before, however there is a first time for all things. It is my decision that the House cup be awarded to both Slytherin and Gryffindor, for both are equally deserving of it."

Then he clapped his hands and half the room was decorated in the crimson and gold and lions of Gryffindor House.

"I don't understand." Minerva was muttering. "What kind of game is Albus playing now, Severus?"

"One not of his choosing," Severus answered proudly. "Harry was speaking to him a moment ago, and whatever he said made Albus reward Slytherin as well as Gryffindor. A good thing, for my snakes have worked hard all year to earn those points."

"Your son is a good boy, Severus," Minerva said, so quietly that only he could hear. "You ought to be very proud of him."

"I am." Snape replied, and it was true.

"Make sure you tell him that," Minerva reminded gently. "Don't be like my father, and hoard praise from him until he despairs of ever receiving any from you."

"I won't. I promised Lily long ago that I would treat him as I would have wished to be treated by my own father. I have tried as best as I could to live up to that promise. I will make sure he knows he has done very well." Then he stood up and offered her his hand, congratulating her on her House winning the cup, and Minerva did likewise.

A new precedent had been set that year, and it was one that would continue for many many years thereafter, thanks to the honesty and justice of one small boy, who had taken his father's words to heart and in so doing had brought a kind of peace between two rival Houses.

* * * * * *

They were still talking about the unexpected shared victory days later, when they got their exam results. Both Ron and Harry had done better than they had expected, they had passed everything, though Harry's best marks were in Potions, Transfiguration, and Charms, with Defense a close runner up. Hermione, of course had aced all her exams, getting the highest grades in her year.

"Congratulations," Harry said, and she blushed.

"All I care about is that I didn't fail anything and now Mum can't ground me over the summer," Ron heaved a sigh of relief. "Guess I'd better start packing."

"You mean you haven't?" Hermione gaped at him. "I've been packed since last week."

"Girls!" Ron shook his head, then went back up to his room to pack.

Hermione and Harry smiled at one another. "Are you all ready to leave, Harry?" she asked. "To go and spend the summer with your . . .uh . . .dad?"

"Yeah, but first I have to go back to the Dursleys for a bit. Just until the papers are finalized by the Ministry. Dad says it shouldn't take too long, maybe only three days and then he'll come pick me up and I can spend the summer with him."

"Where does he live? I've always wondered."

"I don't know. He said it wasn't safe for me to know that right now, until everything was set. So I'll find out in a couple of days, I guess."

"I'll send you an owl in a week, so don't forget to write, okay?"

"Sure. Maybe you can even come to visit or something."

"That would be great. Do you think he'll mind?"

Harry shook his head. "No. He said you were good friends."

Hermione beamed, for one did not hear those words from the strict professor every day. "I hope you have an excellent holiday, Harry."

"Me too. It should be great, once I leave the Dursleys, that is."

"Were they really that bad?"

"Uh . . .bad enough. I only have to put up with them for a few days though, so I can handle it. And besides, they don't know I can't use magic outside of school," Harry said with a wicked smirk. "I'm mostly packed, why don't we go down to Hagrid's for a last cup of tea?" he suggested. "I'll tell Ron to meet us there when he's done."

Hermione smiled.

Harry returned a few minutes later and they walked together down the familiar path to the gamekeeper's hut.

On the way there, Harry spotted a familiar spotted feline pacing a few yards ahead of them. "Look there, Hermione," he pointed.

Hermione followed the tip of his finger and gasped.

"Oh my heavens! It's a snow leopard! How gorgeous he is! Does he belong to someone?"

Harry chuckled. "No, he's nobody's pet. He's wild, roams the forest and goes where he pleases. He protects students though, looks out for them, he saved me that night in the Forbidden Forest. His name, Hagrid says, is Wraith."

"Wraith. It fits him." Hermione said, gazing at the great cat in awe.

Wraith had paused and turned to glance over his shoulder. He saw the two watching him and turned about. His brilliant golden eyes met Harry's and Harry smiled. Wraith purred, then paced forward until he was standing barely three feet from the two apprentice wizards.

"Hello, Wraith." Hermione whispered. She half-reached out a hand to touch the silky white and ebony pelt, but froze at the last minute, recalling this was a wild creature.

"You can touch him, Hermione," Harry said.

"But you said he's wild."

"Wild at heart, but he'd never hurt you."

Hermione remained where she was, however, until Wraith shoved his head under her hand and purred loudly, as if to say, There silly girl, now you have my permission to stroke me. Tentatively, she stroked the thick fur, marveling at its silky soft feel. "Oh! It's like petting silk and satin, Harry. Thank you," she told the cat, who dipped his head briefly.

"C'mon, Hermione. Let's get going."

"Right."

They continued down the path, Wraith returning to walking some ways off to the side of them as an escort.

Harry concealed a grin, wondering what Hermione would have thought if she knew that Wraith was actually her Potions professor.

They reached Hagrid's cottage without mishap and Wraith vanished into the trees, content to wait until they emerged from the cottage to guard them again.

Ron arrived soon after their second cup of tea, he'd been helping his brothers pack too.

"So, ya all set to return home?" Hagrid inquired genially. "Bet ya can't wait to see the back o' this place."

"No, I love it here!" said Hermione stoutly. "But I do miss my home and my parents too."

"Me too," Ron agreed. "You should come and stay for a bit, both of you."

"Okay, maybe I will," said Harry.

Hagrid was rummaging in one of his cabinets. "Now where did I put that . . . ah! Here it is!"

He pulled a rather dusty black photo album out and cleaned it with a rag before presenting it to Harry. "I forgot to give you this before you went after the Stone. It's your mum and dad's wedding album They'd have liked you to have it."

Harry took the album reverently. "Thank you, Hagrid." he leafed through it, a lump coming into his throat. The album was all he had left of them and he loved watching the wizard photos moving. The others were quiet and respectful while he perused the album, then he thanked Hagrid again and finished his tea. "I'm going to walk a bit. I need to be alone, okay?"

Hermione and Ron nodded, and Harry left the gamekeeper's hut quickly, walking towards the lakeshore.

Almost immediately, Wraith rose from where he was lying a few yards away and followed.

Harry walked for awhile, recalling with bittersweet longing the way his parents had been when he had last seen them. He sat down by the lake and put the album on his knees and looked out over the water, thinking about how different things might have been if James and Lily had lived.

He felt the snow leopard's head bump his back and he turned around and put an arm across the great cat's neck and hugged him hard. Wraith's chest rumbled in a worried sort of purr.

"I'm okay. Just . . .thinking. It's been some year, huh?"

Wraith huffed.

"I'm kind of sad to see it come to an end, but I still have the summer to look forward to, right? It should be one of the best summers I've ever had." Harry leaned his head against Wraith's shoulder, and together they relaxed by the lakeside, soaking up the peace and serenity of the golden afternoon, until a loud whistle blew, summoning the students back inside to gather their belongings and make their way to the carriages and boats and from there to the Hogwarts Express.

Harry hesitated, reluctant to leave, until the snow leopard blurred into a tall black-cloaked wizard, who embraced the slender boy for a long moment before saying, "Go on, Harry. I will see you soon, in three days. Hurry now, your friends are waiting and you don't want to miss the train."

"I know." Harry didn't move though, his face was still pressed up against the velvet robes and he inhaled the familiar spicy scent that was uniquely Snape's own, drawing it into him, to sustain him over the next three days. "Bye, Dad. See you soon," he managed at last.

"It's only three days, son. By then the paperwork should be official and the blood wards transferred and I can come get you as Uncle Toby." Severus promised. "I'll owl you if anything changes, not that I think it will. Off with you now, brat, before you end up walking back to Surrey."

Severus ruffled his son's hair, then sent him on his way with a light pat on his behind. Harry went, wishing the three days were over, so he could begin his new life with his new father, the dark angel. Only three more days. I guess I can live with that. It's not so long, really. Besides, what could happen in three days?






 







Chapter End Notes:






Well, what did you think of the twist at the end of the feast?

No, this is NOT over!

Next: Despite his resolve to make the best of things, Harry finds his summer starting out on a dreadful note, as the Dursleys go on vacation, leaving him alone with Aunt Marge.



Chapter 26: A Firm Hand
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Warning--implied child abuse in this one!

The Dursleys were going on vacation, Harry learned as soon as he set foot back on Privet Drive. To Paris and Normandy in France. Dudley wasted no time in bragging about the trip to his less fortunate cousin, which Vernon had been awarded as a perk because he had just gotten a promotion and signed a huge account.

"Dad has tickets enough for me and Mum, but not you, freaky Harry," sneered Dudley nastily. "So guess what you get to do? Stay home all by yourself, aww . . .poor wittle baby!"

Harry gave Dudley a sharp glare. "Shut it, Diddydumpling. I don't care if I am home alone." It would be three days of blessed peace and quiet, of nothing to do but relax and watch TV for once, until Snape came to get him.

"Don't call me that, reject!" Dudley shoved him hard, nearly knocking Harry into the wall of his bedroom. Aunt Petunia had instructed Harry to go up and help his spoiled whale of a cousin pack for his trip.

"Why not? Your darling mum does," Harry teased, wincing as his shoulder protested.

The Dursleys were still as horrid as ever, nine months away hadn't changed that, he thought glumly. Except Harry didn't need to suck up to them as much any more, now that he would be spending summers with Severus. Harry knew his relatives would be jumping for joy when they learned that Harry was no longer their responsibility over the summer or the holidays, thanks to his Uncle Toby's decision to adopt him. They had barely batted an eyelash when he had told them of his mother's distant relative from America, who had paid for him to have corrective eye surgery. "Too bad there isn't surgery to correct your freakiness too, boy," Vernon had remarked coldly, eying his nephew in disgust. "Maybe you can ask this uncle of yours to get you a lobotomy too, huh?" He guffawed and Dudley followed suit, giggling like a demented hyena.

Harry had not bothered to reply to that, instead he acted like he didn't understand Vernon's insinuation, and left to help Petunia prepare dinner. She hadn't made any derogatory comments about his new eyes, except to say that this man better not expect them to reimburse him. Harry had reassured that Tobias Knight would never think of doing that. "He owns a winery in Napa Valley, he has enough money to pay for surgery and then some." Harry improvised swiftly.

"Is he . . .one of them?" Petunia asked, stirring a pot of potatoes.

"A wizard? Yeah. He went to school with my mother," Harry answered, ignoring Petunia's flinch. It was ridiculous, the way she was so magic-phobic, she couldn't even say the words "magic" or "wizard", much like the way most wizards refused to say Voldemort's name aloud. Sometimes, Harry longed to just yell "Boo! I'm a wizard and can do magic!" right in her pinched face, but he knew better.

He had learned early on as a child that nothing brought the wrath of Vernon and Petunia down on his head quicker than using those forbidden words. The one and only spanking he had ever received from Petunia had been because he had innocently told their next-door neighbor that he could do magic sometimes, he'd been five. Petunia had been mortified, though their neighbor, the funny old cat lady Arabella Figg, had just laughed and said children had such good imaginations these days. But Petunia had not been amused and she had made her disapproval plain upon Harry's bum as soon as she had dragged him inside, spanking him soundly on his bare bottom and then throwing him in his cupboard. Harry had cried himself to sleep, and when he had woken up he had found himself in Severus's lab, snuggled in the dark angel's lap. That had prompted one of the many discussions between the wizard and his ward about the true nature of magic.

Petunia had shuddered, then hissed, "Do not use that word, boy! You know it's filthy and obscene!" She reached out and gave his ear a pinch. "Now get out of my sight and help Dudley pack."

So he had gone dutifully upstairs, reasoning the sooner they were packed, the sooner they would leave, only Dudley was in one of his nasty moods and all he wanted to do was torment Harry. Only Harry had changed from the diffident boy he had been forced to become under the thumb of the Dursleys and he decided to have a little revenge upon his bullying cousin.

 

Dudley looked like he was going to sock him one in his already sore shoulder, so Harry wriggled his fingers threateningly and said, "How'd you like to go to France with frog's legs, Duddy? I heard they're a delicacy there."

Dudley went backwards so fast he crashed into the wall, his hands covering his bum, his plump face ghost-white. "N-No, please! No more magic . . .Harry, don't!"

"How about a weight loss spell?" Harry waved his arms theatrically and cried, "Bibbitty boppitty abracadabra wallalacazam!" Dudley squealed like a murdered pig. "Look, you're a size smaller already. You can fit in the airplane now, Big D!"

"Change me back! Right now!" his cousin was bawling. "Or else I'm telling Dad."

"Okay, quit freaking out," Harry said quickly, not wanting to get in trouble with Vernon his first day home. He pointed his finger at his cousin, who was shaking and said, "Shazam! There, now you're back to normal."

Dudley stopped trembling and gave his cousin a look of fury. Then he shrieked, "MUM! HARRY TRIED TO MAGIC ME WITH SOME FREAKY SPELL HE LEARNED AT THAT CRAZY SCHOOL!"

"You stupid sodding tattletale!" Harry cried, knowing he was in for it now.

"Harry James Potter! Get down here this instant!"

Harry groaned, wishing he'd kept his temper.

"Now you're in for it, freak!" Dudley chortled. "It's back to the cupboard for you!"

Harry flicked a finger at him as he went past, and Dudley flinched. Then he continued down the stairs to face Petunia's wrath.

* * * * * *

 

Harry didn't end up back in his cupboard, though for his "attempt upon her precious Diddykin's life", Petunia decided he couldn't be trusted at home alone by himself and said he needed a babysitter. "So we don't come home to a pile of rubble from you experimenting with your evil powers, boy!"

A babysitter? What does she think I am, seven? "Sorry, Aunt Petunia, it was an accident."

"That's what all your kind say," she snorted. "Now, who can I get to come over and put up with you on such short notice...?"

"Uh . . .Mrs. Figg?" Harry suggested helpfully. She was batty and had too many cats, but Harry liked her, she had often watched him when the Dursleys had gone on vacation when he was small.

"She's in the hospital, had some kind of angina attack. Probably from having so many cats. So she's out." Petunia rubbed her chin thoughtfully. Then she smiled coldly. "Well, there is one other person . . .and I know she's not busy . . ."

"Who?" Harry asked warily, feeling dread settle in his breastbone.

"Marge. She can come here and keep an eye on you while we're away." Petunia declared. "You won't be able to try any of your tricks with her here, you wretched boy. I'll tell her she can bring Ripper too."

Harry felt his heart sink to the bottom of his shoes. He'd really done it this time. Marge, who was Vernon's sister, a huge woman with a loud mouth and a nasty disposition, was bad enough, and now he not only had to endure her, but her bulldog too, who had enjoyed biting him when he was six, and had chased him up a tree once.

Good one, Harry. Now you get to spend three days with Mrs. Grinch and her psycho bulldog. Way to go, Mr. Snape.

"But Aunt Petunia, I don't really need a sitter, I'm eleven, I can take care of myself . . ."

"Quiet, boy! You're mentally unstable, due to your freaky heritage, and you cannot be trusted to behave yourself without an adult around to keep an eye and a firm hand on you." Petunia said crossly. "I'll phone Marge right now . . ."

Harry watched her dial the number, wishing he really could use magic outside of school, so he could Obliviate or Confund Petunia. Then he prayed that Marge would have something she had to do, like attend a confederation for nasty women or an association for psycho pet owners, and had to refuse Petunia's request.

But no such luck. Marge was not doing anything important and agreed to come and stay at Privet Drive for two weeks and keep an eye on Vernon's delinquent criminal nephew.

* * * * * *

 

 Harry bid a relieved yet reluctant farewell to his relatives the next morning, putting their suitcases and travel bags into the boot of the car at four AM, and enduring a sharp lecture from Vernon about behaving for Marge, who would be arriving sometime around ten or eleven in the morning.

"I had better not have any complaints about you from my sister, boy. Or else you can spend the rest of the summer locked up in your room, peeling paint off the walls. Clear?" He gave Harry a wickedly cold stare.

"Yes, Uncle Vernon."

"Now get back inside and start cleaning the kitchen. I don't want Marge seeing the house a wreck." He shoved Harry towards the house and then started the car.

Harry went and watched them drive away from the front window, barely able to suppress a cheer. Bon voyage, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon! Hope you don't come back for a long time. He turned away and went into the kitchen to clean it up, since he didn't want Marge to start picking on him first thing.

After that he decided he was going back to bed for awhile, he had a few blessed hours before the Nazi showed up. But just as he was about to head back upstairs, a barn owl tapped at the kitchen window holding a letter.

Harry opened the window and greeted the owl, fed it a piece of buttered toast from his own breakfast, then took the letter it had brought. Maybe it's from Severus.

He opened it, recognizing Snape's elegant handwriting upon the envelope. The parchment was so new it crackled when he unfolded it.

Dear Harry,

There has been some sort of bureaucratic delay in filing your custody papers, typical of the Ministry, the damn parchment-pushing procrastinators! They won't be filed until the end of the week, which means I cannot remove you from the Muggles any sooner than Saturday at the earliest. I apologize, I know I said it would only be three days and if I could speed up the snail's pace they work at, I would. God knows they need somebody over there to light a fire under their backsides. Merlin grant me patience!

I'm sorry for the delay, son. If it weren't for the fact that the blood wards were paramount for your safety, I would say to hell with it and get you now, but I refuse to risk your life. I will see you as soon as possible, Harry. Try and stay out of trouble until then.

Love,

Dad

 

Harry snarled a word that would have earned him two minutes with Snape's infamous "mouthwash". Then he sighed and folded the letter carefully and went back upstairs to catch up on his sleep, for he would need all his energy and fortitude to deal with Marge and her spoiled bulldog.

* * * * * *

 

The first three days were not so bad, Harry made sure to stay out of Marge's way, mostly, save for preparing meals and doing the occasional dusting and cleaning. Marge was a huge woman in her early forties, Vernon's older sister, and his only sibling. She had big pouffy hair dyed a shade of dark blond that made her look like a circus sideshow member, though Harry would never dare to tell her that. She thudded when she walked, and she dressed in loud prints and bold colors, like screaming green and eggplant and blazing hot magenta and brilliant yellow. She also wore high heels and ropes of pearls about her neck, wrists, and gold rings on nearly all of her stubby fingers.

Her bulldog, Ripper, accompanied her everywhere, and was a slobbering, drooling fat animal with a nasty temper. Harry, who normally liked animals, detested him, for the dog had bitten him badly on several occasions as a small child. He huddled right next to his obese mistress, eating the scraps that fell from her plate and farting and growling at Harry every time the boy went by.

All of that he could have tolerated, though Marge did tend to make snide little comments to him. When she had first arrived, she had said, "I see you're still here, boy, living off the goodwill and charity of my brother like the slinking little rat you are. Still go to St. Brutus's, boy?"

St. Brutus's was a juvenile detention center for children with criminal backgrounds and tendencies. Vernon and Petunia had told everyone they had sent Harry there, so no one would question where he really went to school. As a result, he now had a reputation as some kind of juvenile delinquent in the neighborhood.

Harry nodded shortly. "Yes, ma'am."

"Humph! Figures, hope they discipline you right there. Boys like you need a firm hand. They use a cane at St. Brutus's, boy?" she inquired nastily.

"Oh, yeah, they've beaten me with one loads of times," he lied, wishing he could tell her to shove it where the sun didn't shine.

"Good. Teach you some respect. You mind your manners with me, boy, else I've a cane right here that I can use on you," she threatened, indicating her paisley painted walking stick.

"Yes, ma'am," Harry said through clenched teeth, cursing the Ministry roundly in his head.

At mealtimes he fed Marge and Ripper first, eating only after she had gone, for he had no wish to sit at a table with her, she was a most unpleasant woman, with a shrill laugh and fingers that pinched. She was forever grabbing his arm, to tell him to fetch her this or that, and Harry was sure he was going to have bruises by the end of the week.

The dog was just as bad, he chewed up Petunia's Aubosson carpet in the den and peed on Vernon's golf clubs, which were in a stand in the hall. Then he managed to knock over the trash and eat God-knows what out of it and get sick all over. Marge was beside herself, weeping and wailing over her "precious little angel!" and blaming Harry for not watching the dog. But Harry was used to that, whenever something went wrong at the Dursleys, he was blamed. And he was stuck cleaning up after the animal too, naturally.

Merlin, Dad, hurry up. I know it's not your fault, but I really need to get out of here, before I either go round the bend or commit murder.

Four days had gone by since Marge's arrival, and by then Harry was heartily sick of the woman's complaints, demands, and nasty comments. He wished he'd stowed away in the car, even living homeless at the airport was better than being Marge's servant. She was even worse than Vernon, the overbearing opinionated beldame. He had secretly nicknamed her Mrs. Grinch, for she was as mean and nasty as the character in the old Dr. Seuss book he'd read when he was six. He found himself humming the tune to the Christmas special often when he encountered her in the living room or the kitchen, for she was continuously in the fridge, stuffing her face, just like her brother and Dudley, she was a compulsive eater.

But the final straw occurred the afternoon of the fifth day, when Harry discovered Ripper in his room, shredding up the carpet, peeing on his brand-new Mystic trainers, and horror of horrors, chewing on the end of his Nimbus 2000. Harry had managed to keep his trunk of school supplies with him in Dudley's second bedroom by allowing Vernon to padlock it (he didn't know Harry could unlock the trunk with a charm), and he had put his Nimbus in a corner next to the armoire, he had been meaning to hang it up on the wall, but hadn't had time to find some hooks.

And now here was the damn bulldog, gleefully chewing his prize broom to splinters.

"Hey!" he yelled. "Get off that, you blasted mutt!"

He raced up and tried to yank the broom out of the bulldog's mouth, but Ripper snarled and refused to let go.

"Stop, you demented bugger! Give. . .it . . .back!" Harry struggled and wrestled, to no avail.

Ripper continued to gnaw and growl, his bulldog jaws locked tight on the Nimbus's handle.

Harry continued to tug, dragging the bulldog around the room, for the stubborn canine would not relinquish his hold. "Dammit to hell!"

Hedwig flew in the window just then and screeched loudly.

"Help, Hedwig!" shouted Harry. "He's wrecking my Nimbus."

The snowy owl flew down, screeching and nipping at the fat dog, and even piercing him lightly with her talons.

Ripper yelped but his jaws remained fast, no matter how hard Harry pulled on the broom or Hedwig nipped and scratched him. Between Harry yelling, Hedwig screeching, and Ripper snarling, it was chaos in the bedroom and the commotion brought Marge huffing and puffing to investigate.

"What the bloody hell is going on in here?" she thundered, upon seeing the owl and the boy trying to wrest Ripper's chew toy from him. "You let my dog be, boy!"

"Tell your dog to give me back my Nimbus!" Harry cried, incensed. "He's ruining it and it's expensive! Make him let go!"

Marge gasped. "That piece of junk, expensive? Don't lie to me, boy! You think I'm stupid? I wasn't born yesterday. You got that thing in some rummage sale. Now leave off, you little hooligan, and let my baby alone!"

Harry saw red then. He gave a mighty heave, twisting hard, and he heard something snap and suddenly, Ripper released the Nimbus and Harry tumbled backward onto the bed, clutching his broom to his chest.

Ripper was shaking his head and panting, his jaws flecked with pinkish slobber and one of his teeth was a little crooked. He bared his teeth and growled at Hedwig, who was still diving at him.

"Filthy bird!" yelled Marge, swiping at the owl with her cane. "Get out of here before I make you into soup!"

Hedwig cried out in pain as one of the fat woman's blows struck her.

"Stop it!" Harry yelled. "Leave her ALONE!"

"You be quiet, boy! This thing's rabid, it needs to be destroyed immediately, it's clearly ill, attacking my defenseless Rippy-poo that way!"

"Hedwig's not rabid, she was trying to help me!" Harry came up off the bed then, setting the Nimbus down to confront the repulsive matron eye to eye. "You hurt my bird, and I'll . . .I'll make all your stupid dog's teeth fall out, you bloody bitch!"

Now, as threats go, that wasn't much of one, at least not compared to what he could have really done if he had wanted to. But he shouldn't have threatened Marge like that, he knew better than to get her riled. Seeing her try and hurt his owl, however, pushed him beyond the limits of his tolerance, and so he allowed his temper to run away with him.

Marge remained speechless for about two seconds, her bosom heaving up and down like a ship's sail billowing in a storm-tossed sea, if ship's sails were colored bright magenta, lime, and orange. Then she found her voice. "How DARE you speak to me like that, you little smartass bastard! Who do you think you are? You're nothing but gutter trash, like your drunken bum of a father and your whore of a mother, a lying, conniving, thieving wretch!"

"SHUT UP!"

Harry could feel his magic stirring, roused by his sizzling temper, and he struggled to contain it before it exploded. Severus had always stressed that he should never use his magic without proper focus and concentration, lest he harm himself or others with unexpected magical results. He felt a terrible pressure in his head and he whimpered as it built.

Marge was still ranting and he turned away before he unleashed something that might have killed her, for much as he loathed her, he did not want her dead. He pointed a hand at the window and unleashed some of his pent up power as a gust of wind that rattled the side of the house and cracked the windowpane slightly.

"You destructive selfish freak! You broke that window on purpose!" Marge shrilled. "That'll cost to repair it that will, and Vernon's going to be furious!"

Harry ignored her, breathing hard, trying to get the rest of his power back under control.

Marge was not minded to be ignored, however, and she reached out and yanked Harry back around by his ear. "Now, you listen here, boy-"

"Get off!" Harry yelped, struggling in her grip.

"I've had it up to here with your sly ways and your refusal to behave. I'm in charge here and by God, you'll obey me or else." Marge's pig-like brown eyes were slitted and they fastened on Harry with a vindictive spark burning in them. "You need a good lesson in manners and I'm going to see that you get one, you little hoodlum! And then I'm going to kill that rabid bird as well!"

"NO! Hedwig, fly!" Harry yelled, struggling against Marge's grip. But it was no use, the woman had a grip like iron and he could not free himself.

Hedwig took wing and flew away through the partially opened window and the last glimpse Harry caught of her was of her soft tailfeathers.

"Devil spawn!" Marge spat, shaking Harry so hard his teeth rattled. "I'll teach you to respect your betters."

Harry knew then that he was in serious trouble and prayed he would survive.

* * * * * *

 

Severus felt his bracelet vibrate and he quickly set down the book he had been reading and clasped the bracelet. He was still in school, setting up his lab for next term, making sure he had all of his potions stocked for next year while waiting for the adoption to officially go through.

An image formed in his head, of Harry lying bruised and battered atop a worn bed, tears seeping from under his lashes. Name of the Trinity, son! What the blazes happened to you?
With a quick wave of his wand he performed a Fetching Charm, and Harry's limp body appeared upon his living room couch.


"Dear sweet Merlin, Harry!" he cried in shock, for the poor child was badly bruised and cut all over his lower back and Severus was almost certain there was worse under the boy's trousers, which were only half on.

Harry moaned and stirred. "D-Dad?" He opened one eye cautiously, afraid that Marge was still lurking nearby.

"I'm here, child." Severus laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Who did this and why, Harry?"

"Aunt Marge . . .said I was a devil spawn . . .tried to kill Hedwig . . ."

Severus swore. "I told you, Albus, that something like this would happen one day." Then to Harry he said, "Lie still, son. I'm going to get some potions and soap and water and then we'll see about fixing you up."

Harry made a noncommital grunt and pressed his cheek against the soft green leather.

Severus returned a few moments later, laden down with a Pain Reliever, some antibacterial soap, bruise balm, and a serious wish to strangle the woman who had dared beat his son so badly. "Harry, I need you to wake up," he called, shaking his son gently.

Harry whimpered, then woke. "Wha's going on?"

"Your so-called aunt beat the bloody blazes out of you, child. Drink this, please. It'll help dull the pain."

Harry swallowed obediently, for he hurt terribly. He sighed when the potion started to work, dulling the sharp pain in his lower body.

"Relax, son. I need to take off your pants and shorts," Severus told him, gently peeling them off.

 He swore again when he saw the welts and bruises left by something he was almost certain was a cane or a switch. Seeing them made him flinch in remembered pain, for he too had known the awful pain of being beaten, though his father had preferred a belt or a stick. He had never intended for Harry to know that sort of pain ever, but now he had, and Severus shook his head, regret and anger mingling as he gazed at his son.

He heaved a sigh and reached for the basin of warmed water with some of the Hogwarts soap inside of it and a very soft cloth. "Harry, I'm going to wash those cuts, I apologize if I hurt you, but it has to be done. Would you like another dose of my Pain Reliever?"

"No, I'm okay. Go ahead." Harry said, then he gritted his teeth and grabbed handfuls of the pillow.

Severus was as gentle as he could be, but even so it hurt and Harry found himself wriggling and sobbing into the pillow after a time. "I know, child. I'm sorry, it's almost over," he murmured. His poor son's backside and thighs were striped raw, Severus found himself shuddering involuntarily as he tended to them, dark memories resurfacing. And this is why I don't discipline my child with belts, switches, or rulers and why I will never smack him more than three times.

Severus applied the numbing bruise balm and a quick healing salve next, but even so he knew his son would not be able to sit much for the next day or so. Harry whimpered and sniffled a bit when Severus rubbed the salve on. "Ow! Not so hard, Dad!"

"Sorry. I'm hardly touching you, son." Snape patted him on the shoulder, then continued applying the salve, wishing the woman that had done this flayed alive and boiled. That anyone could hurt a child this way was disgusting, it made him feel ill.

Harry winced and tried very hard not to move, but it was hard since his whole lower back and bottom felt like a blow torch had been applied to it. It felt much better now than it had previously, but it was still mighty uncomfortable. He was embarrassed as well that Severus had to see him like this, and wondered anew how the Potions Master always seemed to know when he was sick or hurt. Was it some sort of resonance from the Blood Adoption? But no, it had been there before, and he had never thought to question it, until now.

"There! How do you feel now?"

"Better," Harry said, and it was true. He was numb and it felt so good. He propped himself up on an elbow and looked at Severus, who was wiping his hands on a soft towel. "What now, Dad? Did the adoption officially go through?"

"No, not yet. Which is why I'm going to have to send you back to that awful woman for another day. But rest assured, I shall make it so that she will not dare to lay a finger on you, and I shall keep you here until tomorrow morning, so that I can reapply my ointments and such." He drew a light sheet over Harry's lower half. He then sat down next to his son and asked, "What happened to cause this. . . .incident? Will you tell me, Harry?"

 Harry hesitated. Then he nodded. "It all started when the Dursleys left on vacation and had Aunt Marge come and watch me. That was partly my fault, since I was sort of teasing Dudley, pretending to do magic on him, since he was always such a nasty git to me, and he told his mum and then Aunt Petunia decided I needed a babysitter and called Aunt Marge. . ."

It took him some time to tell of everything that had occurred during the five days and towards the end Harry found it very hard to speak of how Marge had beaten him without breaking down, he still felt ashamed about how he had cried and begged for her to stop, he who had faced a cold-blooded murderer like Quirrell and an evil soul like Voldemort, couldn't take a beating without crying like a baby. By the end of the whole sorry tale, Harry had tears running down his cheeks and was biting his lip hard.

"I'm such a coward . . .I didn't fight hard enough . . .and all the while she was hitting me I was . . .bawling at her to stop . . ." Overcome, he put his face into the pillow and wept.

Severus rubbed his back and stroked his hair until he had calmed down and stopped crying, then he said, "Harry, you are no coward. You have plenty of courage, you're a Gryffindor, not to mention my son. Anyone would have begged that woman to stop, you are not to feel ashamed for doing so. What she did to you is inexcusable and abusive, you did not deserve any of it, and you are to be commended for your self-control over your magic, considering the circumstances. You could have easily blown the vile woman out the window instead of just cracking it a little. But you demonstrated unusual self-control and I'm proud of you for that. Most adult wizards could not have maintained that degree of discipline."

He shifted slightly in his chair. "Yes, you should not have talked to an adult that way, but she also had no right to beat you like that, no adult has the right to do that to a child, no matter what that child has done." He could see that Harry still felt ashamed however, and he understood totally. So he drew in a deep breath and said quietly, "I know what you're feeling right now, son. How you are ashamed for letting a mere Muggle wallop you that way, and embarrassed that you let her see how much she hurt you, scared that it will happen again and you can do nothing to prevent it, oh yes, I know."

Harry felt his mouth hang open. "But how . . .how could you know . . .that's exactly how I feel . . .? Can you read minds?"

"No, Harry. I do not have that ability, I am merely quite good at anticipating reactions and intuitive. But I know how you're feeling from experience." Severus grimaced, as if in remembered pain. "For I have been where you are now, Harry. When I was a child, I too was beaten and abused, by my drunken father."

"You? No way!"

"Me. Many's the time I had to go to school wearing long sleeved shirts and I never bathed or swam in public, since I didn't want anyone to see the scars my dear old dad left upon me. He was a Muggle too and he hated the fact that I had magic and took after my mother instead of him. He tried, like Marge, to beat the strangeness out of me. Of course it didn't take. But I can remember many nights when I cried just like you did now, and called myself a coward because I was too afraid to hex my own father. Once I was like you, a child that was helpless and powerless in the face of a monster, and it was then that I vowed that never again would I be a victim, and that's one reason I'm a defense specialist."

Harry stared at him wordlessly. To say that he was shocked speechless was putting it mildly. But surprised as he was at Severus's revelation, it also gave him hope, hope that he might recover from this and grow up to be a confident and assured and compassionate individual. He was awed that Severus had endured what he had for so many years, Harry doubted if he would have been able to do that. He was a wreck from just one time.

"How did you finally get out of it?" he managed after a time.

"I grew too old for him to hit without me hitting him back," Severus said simply. "I left home as soon as I was of age and never looked back. I have not seen or spoken to him in over ten years, for all I know he is dead and gone to hell now. But that's ancient history, Harry. I came to terms with what happened to me a long time ago, and I promised my mother before she died that I would be a better man than my father."

"You are, sir." Harry said then.

Severus gave him a rare smile. "Thank you, Harry. I know I'm a strict bastard sometimes and I have a tongue that could cut glass and a sharp temper, but never doubt that I love you. I may not say it enough, but I do feel it."

"I know." Harry smiled back at him. Then he asked, "What about Aunt Marge?" he suppressed a shiver when he spoke her name.

"I will be taking care of her, son," Severus said, in a voice that chilled the blood in Harry's veins. "She will learn what it means to harm a defenseless child and she will never forget it as long as she lives." There was midnight and fire in Snape's voice now and it made Harry thank God he was not Snape's enemy.

"You're . . .you're not going to kill her, are you? Because then you'd be arrested."

"No. Much as I'd like to throttle her, I only kill if I have no other choice. Nor will I torture her. But she will rue the day she ever took a cane to you, Harry Snape, that much I will promise you!" He reached over and began to run his fingers through Harry's messy hair and Harry yawned and laid his head down. "Sleep well, son. I know you're exhausted."

And Harry did, knowing he was safe at last.

 

* * * * * *

 The next morning, after Severus had reapplied more salve and fed Harry breakfast, he sent him back to Privet Drive, told him to remain in bed, then went down to confront the wicked woman who had taken such delight in whipping his child.

Marge was sitting with her feet up in the recliner, watching some TV show, Ripper beside her, when Severus appeared in the room out of the air. He was wearing his glamour of Uncle Toby, but even so he managed to look quite intimidating.

Marge screamed. "Who . . .who are you? How did you get in here?"

"Mere doors and locks cannot keep me out," Snape said darkly.

Marge went white as snow. "You're . .. you're one of them."

"One of them?" Severus sneered. "If you mean a wizard, then yes I am. Call a spade a spade you spiteful harridan. I'm here to discuss my nephew, who it seems you have beaten to within an inch of his life." The Potions Master leaned forward menacingly.

"I . . .I . . .was angry, the boy deserved it," Marge whined. "How did you know about it, anyway? He run to cry on your shoulder?"

"The very walls have ears and eyes for one like me, woman." Severus hissed. "And there is no child who deserves that kind of punishment, no matter how disrespectful he is or how much you dislike him. NO ONE!" Snape thundered and Marge half-fainted and Ripper peed all over the recliner and then ran away to hide behind the sofa.

"But he . . .he was insolent and he backtalked me and . . .and he hurt my dog . . ." whimpered the other, sounding like a schoolgirl trying to make up a good enough excuse so the teacher wouldn't punish her.

"Even so that still does not give you the right to harm him thus! A bar of soap and some extra chores would have been sufficient, not giving him twenty with a cane, you miserable harpy! We have strict laws governing the treatment of underage wizards by a parent or guardian. Shall I show you what happens to those who break those laws?"

Marge trembled. "No . . .no, I'm sorry . . .I'll never touch the brat again."

"Damn straight you won't." Severus growled, then he became Wraith in an eyeblink.

Marge screamed hysterically.

 

Wraith keened a battle cry and Ripper whined and tried to dig a hole into the couch, petrified.

Marge panicked, coming to her feet and trying to run out of the house.

Wraith let her get as far as the end of the walk before he caught her.

The neighbors were roused out of their Friday morning lie-in by a hysterical fat woman running screaming down the street, yelling about snow leopards eating her, though no cat could be seen. What was even more strange was she kept insisting the leopard had scratched her and rubbing her backside and sobbing, but Mr. Evans across the street saw nothing but a few tiny holes and no blood.

"Lady, if a snow leopard had scratched you, you'd have a hell of a big chunk ripped out of you. And there's nothing there."

"He said . . .he said you wouldn't be able to see it . . .that no one would believe me . . .but I swear, I'm telling the truth!" Marge wept.

"Who said? The leopard?"

"Yes . . .only he's not a leopard all the time, he can become a man too . . ."

Mr. Evans shook his head. He had always thought the Dursleys were rather odd and here was the proof, a crazy lady who saw phantom snow leopards that changed into people.

"I think you need to go back home and lie down. Maybe take a sedative."

"No! No! You have to believe me!" Marge cried, stamping her foot like a spoiled little girl.

"Lady, if you don't go back home in five minutes, I'm calling the police . . .Always knew those Dursleys had bad blood in them . . ."

Eventually, he managed to persuade the woman to return to her brother's house, though she refused to see Harry at all, and kept to herself on the bottom floor, never venturing upstairs again. She also found sitting down extremely uncomfortable for three days.

At last, on a bright Saturday morning, Uncle Toby returned to collect his son, showed Marge the documents granting him legal custody, and the woman crossed herself and told him to take the devilspawned brat and leave.

"Good riddance, that boy had more bad blood running through his veins, from being born to such people, than you could shake a stick at. His mother was no better than she ought to be . . .ulp!"

Suddenly she found herself staring into a pair of very angry eyes as Snape said, "Do not ever say that about Lily Potter again, or else I shall make your tongue fall out. She was a far better woman than you will ever be. Is that understood?" He shook her slightly.

 

"Yes, sir." Marge quivered, her eyes bugging out.

"Good . . .you learn quicker than most of your kind . . ."sneered Severus. "I will take the boy with me and you will have no further doings with him. You will inform your brother when he returns that guardianship has now passed to me and Harry need not be returning here ever." Severus released her, giving her a look of utter loathing, as if she were dirt or pond slime.

Then he swept up the stairs to help his son pack and leave Privet Drive, taking him to a new home deep in the Highlands of Scotland, a place known only to the Potions Master and his late mother, Eileen Snape, where Harry could heal and they could be at peace, now that the adoption was finally legal and the blood wards had been transferred.




 





Chapter End Notes:




So . . .how did you like Sev's revenge upon the horrid beastly woman?

Note: Wraith REALLY did scratch her, but he made sure the Muggles couldn't see it and therefore they all think Marge is nuts.

Next: Harry settles into his new home for the summer. I may post the next  one sometime later on tonight, because femalefarrier begged me to!



Chapter 27: The Peaceful Glen
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Harry and Severus Apparated deep into the Highlands, past most human habitation. Long before Severus was born, Eileen Prince had discovered a very special glen deep in the heart of the secluded Scottish Highlands. She had Apparated there by accident and then discovered it was a place of amazing beauty, peace, and magic. It was also occupied by ancient witch who would never reveal her name to the young girl, saying only that she could call her Angel. Angel lived in a small croft that she called Malachite Cottage, and she told Eileen that only one who was pure of heart could find this place, it was a refuge for those who were weary and hurt and animals who desired sanctuary. Eileen apprenticed herself to the ancient witch, and learned much of healing and mind arts from her and potion-making, skills which she later taught to her son. When Angel declared it was time for her to meet the Creator at last, she left the cottage to Eileen, and all of her spellbooks and potions recipes. "Use them wisely and well, daughter of my heart. The glen will be there to succor you and yours when you most need it."

Then the ancient witch went off into the forest and vanished, never to be seen again. And Eileen was heir to Malachite Cottage and the Peaceful Glen.

Severus told Harry this story as they walked up the dirt track to the cottage, for the Peaceful Glen was quite large, bordered on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by a large river called Silmareen, which had trout and salmon in its depths and a stretch of rapids and a ten foot waterfall at the end of it. The woods at the eastern end held all sorts of wild animals, both ordinary and magical, and there was a meadow in back of the cottage that grew many species of plants and flowers useful in potion making. The glen was a potion-maker's paradise, and Severus spent his summers here, after school and his spying duties for the Order were over. His mother had begun bringing him here when he was a child, around eight or nine, saying it was touched by the spirit of peace and renewal, and God knew Severus had needed that, growing up in the shadow of his tyrannical father.

"This place is a refuge for all sorts of animals, magical and not, you may see some of them as you walk about here," Severus told him, pointing out the red deer standing in the shadow of a large oak, and the onyx fox running past them. The onyx fox was a magical creature that could blend into shadows and mist and was as intelligent as a human. "You need not fear any danger from dark wizards here, evil cannot enter the glen. I have warded it myself against them, but beside my wards are also my mother's and the first witch who dwelled here, Angel."

"Angel?" Harry sounded amused. "That was her real name?"

"It was the name she gave to my mother. Whether or not it was her true one we have no way of knowing. She kept many secrets, my mother always said, but she had a kind heart and she was a brilliant potion-maker. My mother swore that if she had wanted, she could have been the premiere Potions Mistress in all of Britain, but Angel never wanted that. She told my mother that such was only a piece of paper, and true knowledge and skill was found in the head and the heart and she needed no committee of pompous wizards to tell her what she knew already."

"Did you ever meet her, Dad?"

"No. She died before I was born." Severus replied, cresting the hill and starting down the winding track towards the clearing where the cottage was. The top of its golden thatch was just visible inbetween the stand of live oaks and juniper bushes. "There is Malachite Cottage, Harry. It looks small, but it's much bigger on the inside than the outside, and is equipped with all the modern amenities."

Harry was glad to hear that, for he had walked about a good quarter of a mile and he was hungry, thirsty, and needed to use the bathroom.

His first glimpse of Malachite Cottage did not disappoint, however. It was set back from the trees, a medium-sized stone and whitewashed cottage with a thatched straw roof that reminded him of something out of the pages of an old Irish country tale. The cottage had a stone chimney and large round windows with boxes of larkspur and heather below them. The dirt track led directly up to the stone porch stairs, which boasted a large wooden door painted a deep evergreen. It was recessed, and a set of windchimes made from an old brass bell and strings of malachite, feldspar, and quartz crystals hung to the right of the door. The chimes tinkled pleasantly as the wind blew.

"Malachite is known for its spiritual healing properties," Severus explained as they approached the porch, Hedwig flying serenely up above. "That is why the cottage has malachite embedded in it, next to some of the smaller stones. Malachite is known to soothe and relieve an angry or wounded spirit. Thus the name, Malachite Cottage is quite appropriate, don't you think?"

Before Harry could reply to his father's question, the door burst open and a small girl raced out of it, barefoot and wearing some kind of odd dress that appeared made of leaves and acorns. Harry gaped as the child, at least he thought she was a child, raced lightly over the stones and jumped up to embrace Severus.

"Master Sev, you are finally here! You are late, you know." she mock-scolded, and Severus hugged her.

"I had some important business to tend to first, Rellah Woodberry. In fact, one reason is standing beside me now," the Potions Master said, setting her on her feet. "This is my son, Harry James Snape. You might know him better however, as Harry Potter."

Rellah peered at him and cried, "Harry Potter! The famous little wizard who defeated the wicked Tree Blighter?"

"The same." Severus said. "But I have adopted him and now he is a Snape, Rellah. And a resident of Malachite Cottage."

"Very good, Master Sev." Rellah walked over to Harry and bowed. "Master Harry, I am Rellah Woodberry, at your service. I am Malachite Cottage's woodkin." She stuck out a hand, which was small, brown, and callused.

Harry shook it. "Pleased to meet you, Rellah. But you can call me Harry. I'm not anyone's master."

Rellah laughed, a sound that reminded Harry of birds twittering. "You are Master Sev's son, and family members are always addressed thus by a woodkin. It is proper etiquette."

Now that Harry had a chance to look closer at her, he saw she was not human at all, though she resembled a human child at first glance. Rellah's skin was nut-brown and her hair was a blend of gold and red and green that hung in riotous curls down to her waist. She had large pointed ears that stuck out of her hair, which was entwined with flowers and acorns. Her face was elongated and had high cheekbones and a sharply pointed chin. Her eyes were the color of a new spring shoot, large and liquid. She was wearing an odd tunic like garment that appeared made from leaves and hemmed with real acorns and crystals. Her feet were bare, but she did not seem to care. She wore a belt at her waist with several pouches and a pair of sharp scissors.

"Uh, what's a woodkin?"

Rellah raised an eyebrow. "Have you never heard of us before? What do they teach at that fancy school?"

"He was raised by Muggles, Rellah," Severus told her.

"Ah. Then ‘tis no wonder you don't know of my kind. No matter, I shall educate you now, Master Harry. Woodkin are related to house elves and dryads and sylphs, we are wood sprites who are pledged to guard certain stretches of woodland and in my case I am housekeeper and cook for Malachite Cottage. Malachite Cottage has always had a woodkin in it and always shall. My clan struck a bargain with the White Lady who first built Malachite Cottage, we would be allowed to dwell here, free from the iron-touched cities and taint of dark magic, and those who desired to enslave us, if one of our clan agreed to tend Malachite Cottage and cook meals for her, since she often forgot to eat when she was in the middle of brewing or experimenting with new spells. It was a small price to play for our safety, and ever since then, a Woodberry has served as caretaker of Malachite Cottage and those who live here. I have served two generations of Snapes, Mistress Eileen, Master Sev, and now you."

The little creature spun on her heel and beckoned them into the cottage. "Come along, sirs. I have soup on the hob and bread and cheese for you as well as fresh berries and apples. You both look half-starved, don't they feed you proper at that school?" She sniffed. "Humph! Wizards! Not a one of you knows how to eat properly. Think you can live off the air and mystical thoughts, do you? No wonder you all look like scarecrows."

She tossed her bright hair and skipped inside, leaving the door open for them to follow.

Severus chuckled at the woodkin's frank words. "Beware, Harry. Rellah loves to feed people, and she'll feed you till you burst if you let her. She is a most excellent cook and a better friend. She can teach you much about herbs and plants, if you are willing to learn."

They followed the woodkin into the cottage, which seemed to exude a peaceful aura. Harry felt it as soon as he set foot across the threshold. The front hall was made of interlocking tiles of gray slate and no sooner had he entered it, the door shut behind him and a gentle ambiance bathed the hallway. Harry stood for a moment, breathing in the sweet scent of flowers and the aroma of freshly baked bread and some kind of delicious soup.

"Welcome home, Sev!" came a woman's contralto, and Harry jumped about a foot.

"Hello, Mum. It's good to be back home," Severus said to the large portrait hanging on the wall.

Harry saw then it was a picture of a pretty woman with pale skin and midnight hair and eyes. She looked to be about the same age as Severus, and was dressed in a deep blue robe. She smiled at her son and darted a glance at Harry, who was staring at her curiously.

"And who is this you've brought with you, Severus? A student?"

"Mum, this is both my student and my adopted son, Harry James Snape." Severus told the portrait. "Formerly known as Harry Potter."

"Hello, Harry! You are Lily and James's child, aren't you?" Eileen queried. "Sev, he has his mother's eyes."

"Yes, ma'am." Harry said respectfully.

"Oh, please don't call me that. It makes me sound like an old woman," Eileen laughed. "You may call me Eileen, or since we are related, Grandma, though that sounds a bit odd too." She shrugged. "No matter. Welcome to Malachite Cottage."

"Thank you."

"I am so happy for you both.  I always said you needed a son, Severus." She beamed at them. "Not to mention a wife."

"Mum, please," Severus said with a pained expression.  

"All right, I'll stop. But you really are too much alone, Sev.  This cottage could use a woman in it, but . . ." She sighed. "Run along now, boys. You know how Rellah fusses if you miss meals," she shooed them down the hall, which led into a large and homey kitchen, where bowls of soup and a loaf of warm crusty bread and a plate of fruit awaited them.

It looked and smelled heavenly, and Harry sighed in longing. But he needed to find a bathroom desperately. "Uh, Dad? Where's the loo?"

"Go through the alcove on the right and it's the first door on the right," Severus directed.

Harry rushed off where Severus had indicated, amazed that the little one room cottage was so big, even though Severus had warned him that was the case. The bathroom was tastefully done in shades of cream and a warm honey brown, and Harry discovered the same antibacterial soap was here as had been at Hogwarts. The bathroom was quite large, containing a sunken tub as well as a shower and a sink and toilet. Everything was sparkling clean and smelled like a pine forest with a hint of lemon. Harry noticed that lights appeared when he had entered the room, and supposed it was part of a spell, like the one that had lit the hall at the cottage entrance.

There was a wooden cabinet affixed to the wall, when Harry opened it he found several jars and vials, all neatly labeled in Severus's handwriting. The potions in the cabinet were mostly medicinal in nature, Harry supposed this was a wizard equivalent of Muggle medicine cabinet., though instead of Tylenol and Advil there were Fever Reducers and Pain Relievers and several kinds of bandages and plasters, Pepper Up Potion and Stomach Soothers, and remedies for common digestive ailments. Harry was familiar with all the potions here, he had been dosed with all of them at one time or another.

He shut the door and dried his hands on a towel then headed back down the hall to the kitchen alcove.

Severus raised an eyebrow when he entered, then asked, "Would you like me to apply more salve to you after lunch, son? It must be wearing off by now."

"Uh. . .yeah, okay," Harry agreed, coloring slightly. He was recovering from the beating Marge had given him, but his behind and thighs were still sore and tender, which made sitting uncomfortable.

Severus pointed his wand and performed a quick Cushioning Charm upon the maple chair Harry was about to sit on, so the youngster could sit without too much pain.

Harry sat down gingerly, wincing. He silently cursed Marge to depths of hell, and hoped she was suffering just as much from Wraith's claws and teeth, which had been applied judiciously to her fat arse and thighs, equaling the damage she had done to Harry. Though he didn't like to admit it, some more of his father's salve was just what he needed. But first, he wanted to enjoy his first lunch in his new home.

Rellah was perched upon the back of a chair, nibbling on an apple, clearly delighted to have her wizard master and his new son back in the cottage again. "I have made you some wild mushroom and bean soup, sirs, and fresh oat bread. There is also fresh butter, wild honey, and of course, boysenberry jam. That's Master Sev's favorite."

Harry found the wild mushroom and bean soup delicious, swimming in a rich broth with all kinds of spices and small bits of bacon and barley. It was hearty enough for a meal. The bread was the perfect compliment to it, especially when slathered with creamy butter and honey and a dab of jam. For drinks there was fresh spring water with a lemon slice and for dessert there was the fresh fruit.

Harry ate until he was stuffed, having worked up a hearty appetite walking to the cottage. "That was delicious, Rellah, thank you. You're an incredible cook."

Rellah flushed, her nut-brown skin tinged a dusky rose. "Ah, you are too kind, young sir. I am a poor cook compared to my sisters and aunts."

Severus snorted. "So you say, Miss Woodberry, but I've never tasted anything half so good."

"I try." The woodkin said modestly. "Welcome home again, sirs. Now I must get to airing out the bedrooms. Please excuse me." She finished the rest of her apple then blinked away in a cloud of green sparkles.

"She doesn't liked to be thanked," Severus explained, chuckling softly. "She believes it is only her duty, though I say she goes above and beyond it." He gestured at the bread. "This was made by hand, she has a talent for cooking, like most woodkin. She uses only the freshest ingredients from my herb garden and her recipes contain mostly vegetables rather than meat, though she does use the occasional fish or chicken and sometimes ham. I have missed Rellah's cooking, I must admit. The food at Hogwarts has too much heavy sauces and puddings and it's no wonder first years end up gaining fifteen pounds and getting indigestion when they first arrive at school."

Harry nodded in agreement. The rich food at the school had made him sick at first too, since his stomach wasn't used to such heavy fare. Severus had given him a potion for his upset stomach during the first few months and told Harry to eat small portions.

But the lunch Rellah had served was filling and light enough to not cause his stomach any trouble digesting it. He finished his portion and went back for seconds of the bread, it was still warm and slightly nutty and sweet. "I could eat this bread all day long," Harry told his parent, sighing in bliss.

"Yes, I know," Severus took another piece himself. "Rellah's oat bread is wonderful and it comes from an ancient clan recipe, or so she says." He waved a hand and put the dirty dishes into the sink when they were through. "Rellah normally washes them, however, if you're in trouble for something, you'll do dishes and laundry and housecleaning without magic."

"Yes, sir." Harry said, though he wasn't planning on getting in any trouble.

Severus rose. "Come into the den, Harry, I'll reapply the salve in there, it has a rather large green leather couch, similar to the one in my quarters at school." He summoned the jar of bruise balm and the quick healing salve with a snap of his fingers.

Harry followed Severus down another alcove off the kitchen on the lefthand side. The den was a large oblong room with a huge fireplace and the promised green leather couch with plaid green and blue throw pillows and a large matching blanket. The floor was covered in a heavy throw rug with scenes of horses and dogs hunting. A walnut bookshelf stood behind the couch with all kinds of books in it, including some spellbooks, elementary ones.

Above the mantle of the fireplace was an empty picture frame. Harry was about to ask what had happened to the picture when Eileen appeared in it. She waved hello to Harry and settled down to watch her son and new grandson.

"All right. Off with your pants and shorts, child."

Harry obeyed, too sore to worry about embarrassment. He lay face down on the couch, his backside in the air, and waited for Severus to apply the salve. He quite forgot that Eileen's portrait was able to see him.

"Bloody damn hell, Severus! Who did that to the poor boy?" Eileen exclaimed.

"A distant family member who loathed magic and Harry in particular." Severus answered through gritted teeth. "She won't do it again, I made the punishment fit the crime."

"Good for you, Sev! Otherwise I might have had to come back from the dead and haunt her to death!" Eileen declared angrily. "Wretched woman, to hurt a child like that!"

 

Severus nodded tightly. He scooped a measure of the quick-healing salve onto his hand and began to smooth it over the dreadful welts.

Harry winced and wriggled. The salve was cold and his skin was still tender.

"Hold still, son." Severus ordered.

"I'm trying. But it's damn tender," Harry complained.

"Think of soft rain and fluffy clouds and kittens purring," Eileen suggested. "That'll keep your mind focused on something other than how much it hurts."

"It will?"

"Yes. Didn't you teach him meditation yet, Severus?"

"No, Mother. There was hardly time inbetween my classes and patrolling the school and saving Harry's life three other times," Severus answered testily, now applying the bruise balm. "I'll teach him this summer."

Harry was concentrating hard on the things Eileen had suggested, trying to block out what Severus was doing. Purring kittens . . .and rain . . .Ow! The rain is falling outside, it's warm and gentle and I wish I could have . . .Ow! Okay, let's count the raindrops, Harry . . .one, two, three . . ."
 

"That will be a good idea, son. The poor boy needs all the help he can get." Eileen said sympathetically.

Severus was finished in a matter of minutes, and then he told Harry to stay there for a bit to give the salve a chance to dry. "Good job, son," he said quietly and Harry smiled in spite of himself.

"How many rooms are in this place, sir?"

"Quite a few. There are two bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, the den. I also have a study and potions lab here as well. You may wander at will here, though I do ask that you refrain from touching my things and not read the spellbooks with the midnight blue binding, they are far too advanced for you. You may go outside as well, and I will show you how to find certain herbs and other useful plants."

"I wish I could fly my broom," Harry said wistfully. "I'm still grounded, aren't I?"

"You are."

"Till when, Dad?"

"When you've shown me that you can be trusted and listen to my orders. In two weeks, we'll see. Provided you behave yourself. But there are plenty of other things to see and do in the meantime."

"What did he do to get his broom taken away, Sev?" asked the portrait curiously.

"Harry? Would you like to tell your grandmother what you did?"

"Uh, I nearly got myself killed fighting Voldemort and Quirrell."

"Voldemort!" Eileen exclaimed. "You fought him? How old are you, child?"

"Eleven," Harry answered. "I'll be twelve the end of July."

"Even so . . .Severus, what were you thinking, to let a little boy face that madman?"

"I didn't permit him, Mum. I was passed out at the time the brat went after him. That was when he nearly died for the fourth time." Severus went on to tell her about the other attempts upon Harry's life.

"Oh, Sev. It's good you brought him here then. He'll have time to heal and time to grow." Eileen said thoughtfully.

"My thoughts exactly." Severus agreed. "All right, son. You can put your clothes back on." He gently assisted Harry with that and Harry hugged him and thanked him.

Then Severus showed him the bedroom that had once been his as a child when he stayed here, and was now Harry's. It had a large bed with a soft blue comforter upon it, a dresser and closet and another bookcase. There was a window that faced the east side of the glen and Severus told him that in the morning you could see deer at the window.

He enlarged Harry's school trunk and suggested he start unpacking it plus the other suitcase which held his clothes. "You'll be in charge of keeping your room neat, and I'll inspect it every other day to make sure it's not a pigsty. If it is, you'll be in trouble. How do you like this room?"

"It's great, Dad." Harry said, then turned to removing his clothes from the suitcase.

"I'll leave you alone to get settled then. If you need me, I'll be just down the hall, in my room. Rellah will call us when it's time for dinner."

Then the Potions Master left and Harry was alone in his new room, drinking in the peace and serenity of Malachite Cottage. Hedwig flew in the half open window to perch on his shoulder and he stroked her and whispered, "Well, girl, things are finally looking up. I think we're going to love it here."

Hedwig made a soft chirrup of agreement and nibbled his ear. Things were always better with the spicy cat man around.


 



Chapter End Notes:


So, how do you like Malachite cottage and those who live in it?



Chapter 28: Wild Parsley, Rosemary, and Meditation
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Once he had finished unpacking and putting everything away in his new spacious bedroom, which also had a picture of Merlin upon the wall of it that glowed and waved his wand, Harry wandered outside to see what was in the back of the house. He discovered a small stone walkway and a wall that ran the length of it filled with various kinds of flowers-he could identify marigolds, snapdragons, larkspur, and a small rosebush, as well as lavender and pansies. He followed the path down to a small white wooden gate, and when he pushed that open found a large herb garden and a slightly smaller one for vegetables.

Harry could see squash and tomatoes growing on vines and stakes, cucumbers, carrots, string beans, onions, and he thought he recognized potatoes and peas as well. Against the low stone wall were two apple trees heavy with red and yellow apples and a small peach tree as well, though it did not have any fruit on it yet. Inbetween the two apple trees was another gate, leading out into the broad meadow and forest beyond.

Harry ventured as far as the gate leading into the meadow, but he did not go through it yet. He had decided to wait for his father to show him about the glen rather than trying to explore it on his own and possibly getting lost and having to wait until Snape rescued him. That would be the ultimate in embarrassing.

He returned to the cottage to explore it some more and peeked into Snape's study, it looked similar to the Potion Master's office back at school, save that most of the potions on the shelf behind the desk Harry didn't recognize and there were rows of spellbooks with a midnight blue binding and silver script-those were the ones Severus had told him were off limits and too advanced for him to study. Harry was content to heed that warning, he had no wish to end up getting punishment chores his first week here and he wanted his broom back.

He peered at the stacks of parchment and notebooks upon Severus's mahogany desk, one looked like part of a potion recipe and the other partial instructions for a spell called Windwalker, something else Harry had never heard of. He hadn't known that Severus could invent new spells, but then supposed that given the man's intelligence, it shouldn't be too surprising.

He left the study and went down the hall on the opposite side, where he found a potions lab, neat and sanitized to Snape's perfectionist standards. A third room down the hall contained a small library. Harry perused the books leisurely, finding a good many Muggle novels and magical histories among the potions texts and there were even a few cookbooks and one that looked like a book of logic problems. Ah ha! I'll bet that's where you got the idea for the potions challenge, huh, Dad! You're too clever!

He chose an interesting magical history book called The Dwellers in the Forest: a treatise on sylphs, sprites, and woodkin. Upon opening it, he discovered it was a sort of memoir written by none other than the one Rellah had called the White Lady. In it she had detailed her long friendship with the magical non-humans of the glen, their customs, and clan councils, and the treaty she had made with the Woodberries.

He took the book outside and sat down in one of the chairs on the back porch, winced, then summoned a pillow from the den and placed it on the chair before sitting down again. Much better. He began to read, losing himself in the fascinating tale of Angel and the forest people, who had dwelled in this place for thousands of years and regarded it as the last peaceful refuge for themselves and other rare magical creatures.

"I have discovered that the woodkin have a very open philosophy concerning friends, if you do good to one of them, you are named Amith'ala, a person to be trusted, and if you save one's life, you are considered Heta'amitha, a heart-friend, and respected by all their clan. But if you make an enemy of one, beware! The woodkin and other forest dwellers have VERY long memories and they do not forgive easily. They detest liars and those who harm children and animals and users of dark magic. They have their own magic, which some wizards and witches regard as inferior to our own, but they are sadly mistaken. Their magic is fully as strong as our own in their forests or even outside of it, and does not require the use of wands or words. A woodkin uses his or her magic as intuitively as a fish uses gills, and it can easily incapacitate any one of us or even an army if necessary.
"Voldemort, may worms gnaw his gizzard out, once tried to dominate this area and he failed. His Death Eaters and allies could not set foot in the forests protected by the sylphs, dryads, and woodkin. Or rather, they could enter, but never leave, since the woodkin made sure they wandered aimlessly in the middle of nowhere, trapped and lost inside the forest until the woodkin decided to release them. And by the time that happened, the war was over and they had lost months or years trapped in a woodkin's Wanderlust Loop. Others fell victim to the sylph's bows and paralyzing arrows, they might be tiny, but a scratch from one packs quite a wallop. Definitely not people you want to anger.

"But they can also be fun to be around, they like to gossip and play music and throw a party, and a woodkin revel is quite an experience! They have a drink called dandelion wine, very light, very fruity, and very potent. If offered, only drink a glass. Otherwise you'll have the mother of all hangovers the morning after. I have found the woodkin to be very wise and knowledgeable, a better guide through forest and field you will never find, and they are gardeners and gatherers beyond compare. I have learned ten fold about herbs and plants by attending to a woodkin called Saylla, her clan's Healer, than I ever did in class at Hogwarts. Now I am a much better potion maker, thanks to my woodkin friends. Letting them occupy the glen and the forest was the best decision I have ever made."

Harry paused there, wondering if that was how Severus and presumably Eileen as well had become such brilliant potion-makers and Healers. It would make sense, and he wondered why Severus did not teach more of the woodkin methods in class. He made a mental note to ask his father about it later over supper. He was just about to return to the book, marking his place with an index finger, when Rellah came out onto the porch.

"Is it time for supper already, Rellah?" Harry asked.

"Hmm? Oh, no, young master, I'm just gathering some herbs I need for my chicken and potatoes. ‘Tis a lovely day out, with a nice fresh southern breeze." She lifted her hand to the sunlight and her skin appeared to glow slightly, as if she were absorbing it into her flesh. "Good book, Master Harry?"

"Yes, it's actually about your . . .uh . . .people. It was written by Angel."

Rellah looked amused. "The White Lady was a very good friend to us for many years, almost like kin. I am interested to hear what she has to say about us."

"Nothing bad," Harry was quick to reassure her. "It's all good, she said she learned a lot from a woodkin named Saylla, I think, about herbs and potions."

"Saylla is my grandmother. I was just a little sapling-child then, but I do recall her taking Angel, she was much younger then, and showing her the bounties of the forest and field." She cocked her head at Harry. "Are you interested also in learning such, Master Harry?"

"Yes, please. If you have time."

Rellah giggled. "Time is one thing I am never short of. Unless it is suppertime." She turned to enter the herb garden, dancing lightly down the path.

"Uh, do you . . .I mean would you like some help?"

"Certainly, if you wouldn't mind." The woodkin called, her head buried in a patch of basil. "Pick me double handfuls of wild parsley, please. And then some rosemary, five sprigs."

Harry rose and entered the herb garden, looking about at all the plants, and chewing his lower lip nervously. He had thought they would have labels or something, like Professor Sprout's did in the greenhouse back at Hogwarts. But there were no labels on anything, it seemed that Rellah and Severus needed none.

He looked up and down at the rows of herbs and was at a total loss. On Privet Drive he had weeded and planted flowers for Petunia, but never dealt with herbs at all until he came to Hogwarts and then they had learned mostly about magical plants, not ordinary ones. He stood there, feeling like the world's biggest imbecile, when Rellah looked up and saw him staring around with a pensive expression on his face, emptyhanded.

"Is something wrong, Master Harry?"

"Uh . . .I forgot I don't know what parsley looks like when it's planted. Or rosemary either." Harry admitted, feeling himself flush.

Rellah blinked. "You don't know herbs, sir? Do they not feed people at that silly school?"

"Uh, yeah, but the students don't prepare meals. I don't know who does, but it's not us."

"That would be house elves, I believe. There is a clan bonded to Hogwarts." Rellah said, then she came over to Harry. "Perhaps if they allowed students to help cook, you would learn useful herbs quicker. Come along, young master, and look here." She beckoned him down to a small patch where some light green plants grew. "This is rosemary, see the thin spikes. And smell it, rosemary has a distinctive smell." She broke off a few sprigs and let him sniff them. She plucked five sprigs from the plant and tucked them into a gathering basket. "And this is wild parsley." She moved over to another plant with distinctive curled leaves, and picked two handfuls of that as well and put it in the basket. "Smell," she ordered, shoving the parsley under his nose. The parsley was much milder than the rosemary, sweet almost. "If you cannot recognize a plant on sight, sometimes you may by smell. Over here are some small onions and here some thyme."

She took Harry all over the herb garden, picking the herbs she would need to flavor her roasted chicken and potatoes for supper, showing him by example every herb she used, and then lecturing him on what it went best with, a sauce or a rub or dried.

"I wish I had a parchment and a quill to write all this down," he said, half to himself.

Rellah snorted. "What, your mind is not good enough to remember my little instructions? What are they teaching these days, that they don't train you to listen and remember when a teacher is talking? Have you not been paying attention, sir?"

"No, but I just . . .I'm not used to remembering everything someone says." Harry explained. "Don't you ever write recipes down, Rellah?"

"Indeed not! I have all the recipes I need up here," she tapped her head pointedly. "What need have we of ink and scribbling? A woodkin remembers."

"Uh, well, I'm just a human boy and I don't have that good of a memory yet."

"Hmm . We'll have to work on that then. You're plenty smart, Master Harry. You can learn to remember like a woodkin if you put your mind to it. Now listen, and I shall go over the herbs once more."

She repeated her lecture again, along with the examples, and Harry tried hard to concentrate and remember what each herb looked and smelled like. It really was not hard, it just required more concentration than he was used to. But at last he was certain he knew the difference between wild parsley, rosemary, and thyme. "Thank you, Rellah."

"‘Tis naught, young master. Every wizard should know herbs, that way if you ever find yourself alone in the woods someday, you can tell what is good to eat and what is poisonous. I shall teach you some more tomorrow. Now I must cook supper." She vanished back into the cottage, leaving Harry in the middle of the herb garden.

The roasted chicken and the new potatoes with fried onions, rosemary, and salt and pepper was delicious. Rellah also had a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes with a dressing of vinegar, olive oil, and some basil. More oat bread was on the table along with butter and honey. There was fresh lemonade to drink and for dessert there was an apple crumble with fresh cream.

Everything tasted so good, Harry went and ate seconds of it, and Rellah preened.

"Eat up, young master, you are too thin. I can practically see your ribs," she urged and put more green upon his plate.

Harry grinned at Severus and ate them, they were very tasty. It was strange, but he could never recall being hungry at Hogwarts, unless it was after some major spellcasting. But here, his appetite was raging. He supposed it must be the fresh air here or something.

"Harry helped me pick some herbs for supper tonight, Master Sev," Rellah informed the Potions professor, who had put off his typical black school ensemble to wear a casual Mystic blue shirt and navy slacks.

"Ah, so Rellah has taken you under her wing already, Harry?"

"Yes, sir."

"You'll find her a good teacher, but be warned, if you don't pay attention, she'll tweak your ear."

"Oh, go on with you, Master Sev! I only tweaked your ear a few times because you were mooning over that red-headed lass instead of listening to my lecture on the properties of rose thorns," scolded Rellah, her eyes twinkling mischievously.

Severus blushed faintly and Harry eyed his father speculatively. Dad, you were interested in a girl once? Someone with red hair? It was funny to think of his father as a boy, much less one who acted like every other boy with a crush on a girl. "Who was she, Dad?"

"None of your business, Harry. Finish your dessert."

"Killjoy," he muttered. Then he recalled the other thing he had wanted to ask Severus. "Dad?"

"Yes, Harry?"

"I was reading a book today out on the porch, it was written by Angel about the woodkin and she says that she learned a whole lot about potion-making from them."

"That's right. And she passed what she'd learned onto your grandmother, who then taught me."

"And that's why you're an ace at potions, huh?"

"Yes, in part. Also because I truly love my subject and have an aptitude for it."

"Well, I was wondering why don't you teach us some of the stuff you learned from the woodkin?"

"It is not that I wouldn't want to, Harry, but I am limited in my curriculum because of Ministry policy. They consider half and non-humans to be inferior to them and refuse to allow them a vote in the Ministry. They most certainly would never dream of learning what a woodkin knows." Severus explained. "Or me teaching other than the accepted methods and subject matter."

"Oh. I always knew the Ministry was dumb." Harry smirked.

"Bunch of addlepated hidebound old men," Rellah said scathingly.

"Come, Harry. I'll put some more salve on and then we can work on a few meditation techniques, if you want."

"Uh huh. Sounds good."

Harry found he was less sensitive now he had the salve applied more than twice, and managed to lie still while Severus applied it.

"Better now?"

"Yes, much. Thanks." Harry sighed in relief and put his clothing back on.

Severus sat next to him on the couch and said, "I want you to lie back and get comfortable, Harry. You should feel relaxed when you meditate. The first step to meditation is breathing. I want you to focus on inhaling and exhaling. Inhale through your nose with your mouth closed, then exhale through your mouth slowly. Good. Don't do anything but breathe for a few minutes."

That was harder than it sounded, just breathing, even though he did it involuntarily every day. He tried to do as his father had suggested, focusing on drawing air into his lungs and then releasing it. After about a dozen breaths, Harry felt relaxed enough to almost fall asleep. He turned to look at his father, who wore a peaceful expression on his normally serious face, and said, "Now what?"

"Now I want you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in a safe place. It can be anywhere of anything, a room, a house, a bed. When you've found your safe place I want you to put yourself there and allow it to surround you . . .like a warm soft blanket. All right, try and do what I said."

Harry closed his eyes. A safe place? What could that be? I haven't known too many of those, Dad. Not really. Just your lab, but that's not really a safe place. Hmm . . .I guess here is the safest I'm ever gonna get, and it's so very peaceful. Harry imagined Malachite Cottage, and the room he was in now, and Severus sitting next to him. No, that wasn't quite right. Severus always made him feel safe, true, but there was one thing that always made him feel not only safe, but loved. So he imagined himself into Snape's arms, he wrapped the phantom arms about him and let himself be hugged, and he nestled into the familiar shoulder and knew there was no way anyone could hurt him so long as his father was holding him, for his father's love protected him now and always.

"Harry?" Severus voice was low and hypnotic, it slipped into his thoughts like a thief in the night. "Do you have a safe place to go to in your mind yet?"

"Yes, sir." Harry said, and smiled.

"Good. Focus on it, so you know every nuance and detail. Then allow it to surround you. Let the peace you feel there fill you. Can you feel it?"

Harry was silent for a moment. Then he murmured, "Yes."

"Good. I want you to stay there for about seven minutes and then walk away and come back here."

"Okay, Dad." Harry allowed the peace that infused Malachite Cottage to fill him as he curled into Severus's embrace. He was surrounded by warmth and love and he allowed it to flow through him, healing wounds in his soul and spirit he didn't even know were there.

"Harry, time to come back."

Harry sighed, then reluctantly stepped free of Snape's arms and released the image in his mind.

When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring into the fireplace, blinking sleepily, yet he felt utterly awake and calm. He gazed at his father curiously.

"How do you feel now, Harry?"

"Great. I feel relaxed and . . .and calm. And a bit tired, but not really. Does that make sense?"

"Yes. What you just did is called finding your center. It's the first step in meditation, son. Now, whenever we start meditation sessions, I'm going to tell you to find your center and then breathe. You should come out of the sessions relaxed and calm. Meditation is a good way to relieve stress and anxiety or negative emotions, if done properly. You can also block pain with it, if you know how, though that's a more advanced technique which you won't learn until later on." Severus sat up, smiling slightly. "I think we should have sessions every night or every other night. Does that sound acceptable to you?"

"Yes. I think this will really help me control my magic and my temper better."

"It will, believe me. That is why I practice it."

"You must have done it an awful lot back when we were in school then."

"Every day," Severus said with a quiet laugh. "And sometimes twice in one day. I don't have the patience to teach first and second years who don't pay attention and keep blowing up their cauldrons. It's too bad I couldn't just teach fourth through seventh years and those few who earn O's on their OWL's in Potions."

Harry threw him a blank look and Severus elaborated. "OWL's stand for Ordinary Wizarding Levels, they're a series of standardized tests designed to see how advanced you are magically and how well you've learned each of the disciplines taught at Hogwarts. You don't take them until you're a fifth-year, however, and your scores determine your placement into the more advanced classes given during sixth year. Sometimes they're also used to determine which career best suits you, though it's not always a sure indicator."

"Oh. Why don't you see if maybe Dumbeldore could find you an assistant, Dad? Somebody who wants to teach potions but not at an advanced level like you. Then you could teach the serious students and the assistant could take the kids who are hopeless or not interested or just want to pass and move on to other things."

"That is an excellent idea, Harry. Now why didn't I think of that?"

"Because you're too stubborn to admit you might need help, Severus," Eileen put in from her place above the mantle. "You were like that as a child, always Mr. Independent, and I don't think you've changed all that much now you're an adult."

"Shows how much you know," the Potions Master grumbled.

"Excuse me?" Eileen demanded, her dark eyes flashing. "I didn't catch what you said, mister."

"Nothing, Mother," Severus said quickly, feeling like he was ten again and had just mouthed off at his mother in a fit of temper.

"That's what I thought." Eileen sniffed, giving her son a disapproving glower.

So THAT'S where he gets it from, Harry thought upon seeing Eileen's face. He snuck a look at his father, who looked a little abashed, and couldn't help grinning a little. Eileen might be only a magical portrait, but it appeared she had not lost her ability to make her son feel guilty and ashamed over his quick tongue.

 

Still, discord didn't sit well with him, and so he said, in an effort to alleviate the strained silence, "I'm kind of the same way, Grandma. I never really had anybody to depend on growing up with the Dursleys so I don't always admit I need help either."

Eileen shook her head. "The pair of you are like two peas in a pod, I swear it." She looked at Harry searchingly. "Are you sure you're not really a Snape?"

"Not by blood, but by adoption. Does it matter?"

"No, child. Only sometimes you remind me so of Sev when he was that age that I felt I had to ask. You are more alike than you know."

Harry felt pleased by that comment. "Thanks." Suddenly he found himself yawning uncontrollably, even though he could have sworn he wasn't tired. "Sorry. But all of a sudden I feel like I want to go to bed."

"Meditation takes a lot out of you first time you do it," Severus said. "For the first few sessions you'll be tired, but it's worth it in the end. Go to bed, Harry."

Harry nodded, then hugged his father hard. "Night, Dad."

"Good night, Harry," Severus said and gave the boy a quick kiss on the forehead. "Pleasant dreams."

"You too," Harry called then retreated down the hall to his room.

Hedwig was asleep on her perch, he head tucked under her wing. Harry gently stroked her as he went by on his way to the bed. He climbed into the lovely blue bed and within minutes was fast asleep.

Back in the den, Severus was discussing Harry with Eileen. "... I know he has been damaged emotionally, Mum, and that's why I brought him here, to see if the cottage can't work its magic on him the way it did me. I hope I'm doing the right thing. Sometimes I think I had it easy, when all I had to worry about was myself."

"Love is hard, son. But it is also precious and you should treasure this time with Harry. Soon enough he won't come to you to be hugged, he'll be too "old" for that kind of thing. His aura is damaged, but not so badly that it can't be healed. All he needs is time."

"And time is what we have right now. A good three month's worth."

Eileen smiled. "That should be more than enough time to allow him to heal, Sev. Just reassure him and love him and he'll be fine."

"Thanks, Mum." Then Severus sought his own bed as well, and slept deeply and peacefully till the dawn. Malachite Cottage had that effect on everyone who dwelled within its walls, its serenity was evident even in dreams.


 



Chapter End Notes:


So how was that?

Thanks to all my reviewers, old and new! You make my day.

Who would like to see Ron and Hermione come for a visit?



Chapter 29: The River Wild
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In the two weeks that followed, Harry received quite an education about herbs, plants, potion ingredients, and woodcraft. Both Severus and Rellah were experts in woodslore, and between the two of them, Harry learned all about herbs, seasonings, how to move quietly through a stretch of woods or meadow, and how to tell the difference between a harmless mushroom and its deadly cousin, amanita.

"Many plants here are poisonous to one of your kind, young master, if picked out of season, or improperly." Rellah told him one afternoon as she led him through the great meadow, which contained dozens of plants and wild flowers and certain herbs. "See here, a common dandelion." She knelt and pointed to a rather tall specimen growing near the toe of Harry's trainer.

Harry knelt to examine the plant also, for Rellah would not pluck a plant as mere teaching exercise, only if she were going to cook it. "The dandelion stem is edible, you can eat it in a salad or sauteed with oil and garlic and salt as a side dish. It is quite tasty. The leaves and roots of it are also useful ground as a tea, it cures some digestive ailments, such as bloating and diarrhea and is also good for your kidneys and spleen. It has a high vitamin content and can be used as a wash to cure boils and abscesses, and also good for colds and coughs and pneumonia. If you were a girl, it would also ease monthly cramps and bloating and pains when you are bearing a child. But the flowers of the dandelion are poisonous to you and should never be eaten. Repeat back to me what I just told you, sir."

This was standard procedure for these botany lessons. Harry would listen closely to what the woodkin said, and try to memorize it, and then she would have him repeat it back to her to see what he retained. Gradually, he managed to remember over half of what she said on the first try, and the rest he picked up on the second repetition.

He repeated what she had said on the uses of the dandelion, and was rewarded with one of her brilliant smiles. "Well done, Master Harry. Now here is a marigold. Marigold flowers are good for upset stomachs, they are a prime ingredient in the Stomach Soother Potion your father makes, and can also be made into an ointment to soothe burns and rashes, it is an ingredient in that salve Master Sev used to heal you from that awful whipping . . ."

Harry flinched unconsciously when Rellah mentioned that incident, even though he was all healed from it now. He had soon discovered that there were no secrets in Malachite Cottage, and Rellah had been outraged when she had come into the den one evening to ask if they wished dessert and seen Severus tending to Harry. "What sort of woman could do such to a child? It is . . .inconceivable! I hope you punished the harpy good and proper, Master Sev, for should I and my kin ever find her, we would cast the curse of a thousand bees upon her!"She was truly furious, Harry saw, her grass green eyes burning and her small frame trembling with anger.

"Fear not, Rellah, I have paid her back tenfold for what she did to my son."

"Excellent, Master. Now move over and let me tend to the child, my hands are much gentler than your clumsy human paws." And she quite firmly shoved Severus away and finished applying the rest of the salve to Harry herself, and Harry had to admit he barely felt anything when she worked on him.

Severus supplemented their botany lessons with ones on basic potions and drafts, teaching Harry how to use the herbs and plants Rellah had drilled him on in the salves and potions. One of the first salves they made together was the quick healing one, which used marigold flowers and dandelion root, among other things.

One on one, Harry found Severus an excellent teacher, who was quick to point out a mistake but also willing to give praise when praise was due, and showed him many tips and shortcuts when grinding roots and cutting them that were incredibly useful and time saving. "You know, Dad, now that I know how to cut up a milka bean the right way and all, I'll be much quicker finishing my labs and also any detentions too."

"Yes, which means I'll just have to assign you more work during a detention," answered his father, and Harry groaned. "So," his father said, reaching out and tweaking his son's nose gently, "I would suggest you not do anything, Mr. Snape, to earn detention with me. Or with any other professor. Because that will also mean a detention with me."

"A double detention! But . . .but that's-"

"Don't say it. It's fair, Harry, since most parents would punish their child if they got into trouble at school at home. Since I am a teacher there, however, you will simply receive your additional punishment that much sooner. Knowing that, I would hope you are deterred enough to stay out of trouble, fledgling."

"Fledgling?" Harry raised an eyebrow. "What's with the nickname, Dad?"

"You remind me of a fledgling phoenix, always having near-death experiences yet managing to rise above them and be reborn anew." Severus explained, coughing slightly, for that was the first time he had ever given anyone a pet name before. "I thought it suited you, but if you don't like it I'll stop using it."

"No, it's okay," Harry said quickly, not wanting Severus's feeling to be hurt. "It's just this is the first time anyone's ever given me a nickname . . .you can't count The-Boy-Who-Lived .. .but I don't mind it, honest."

"Actually, this is the first time I've ever given anyone a nickname before, son," Severus admitted shyly. "I promise to only use it when we're alone, if it embarrasses you."

"No, it's not a really dumb nickname, like the ones my aunt used to call Dudley. I like it," Harry reassured him. It was true. He didn't mind being compared to a phoenix and Sev used to call him "little one" when he was small.

"Good. Now, can you chop those dandelion roots for me, fledging? I need them fine, since I'll be stewing them for a Decongestion Draft."

"Sure, Dad." Harry took out the sharp knife and began cutting the roots neatly and swiftly.

The two worked companionably until Rellah called them for lunch, and by then Severus could leave his potion to steep with a timer on it and enjoy Rellah's cucumber, tomato, and cheese sandwiches with herb mayonnaise on her signature oat bread. Harry soon learned that the woodkin could be requested to make a certain food for dinner, lunch, or breakfast, but most times Harry found it easier to eat what Rellah felt like making, it was all delicious and he wasn't the type to be picky when it came to food. Compared to the Dursleys, this was paradise.

* * * * * *

In addition to the potions classes and botany and meditation, Severus also took Harry out on several nature walks, teaching his son to be appreciative of the natural world and learn his way around the glen and familiarize himself with the wild creatures that lived there.

"Some of these animals, like the wyvern, can be dangerous when roused, but most are content to live here peacefully, so long as you don't threaten or disturb their lairs. There is a sort of truce between the wild things who live here and us wizards, but it is wise to give them a wide berth, for they are easily roused to anger and can harm you seriously if they feel threatened or insulted."

During these walks, Severus often transformed into Wraith, for there was no greater protection than the huge snow leopard pacing beside him. Almost all creatures, ordinary and magical, would avoid Wraith whenever possible, and even a wyvern, which was the deadliest creature that laired in the glen, would pause before attacking the leopard if there were easier game to be found. Severus showed Harry some interesting animals, including the lair of the onyx fox, who had a recent litter of kits, and Harry watched them, hidden with a Concealment Charm, as they played and tumbled all over each other, fluffy and funny and adorable.

He also had a chance to see some red deer close up, one morning as he peered out his bedroom window, which had a fine view of the meadow beyond the cottage. There was a graceful doe with a slightly awkward fawn at her side and further away a watchful proud buck. The deer did not seem frightened of browsing too close to the cottage, and Harry was tempted to go out and throw dry cereal to them, as he had read of other kids doing. But he didn't want to frighten them, and so he stayed where he was.

Later on that day, he asked Severus if the deer were calm enough to feed. "I saw them out the window this morning and I just wondered if they would freak if I went out there with some cereal for them."

"The deer here have never been hunted by humans," answered Severus. "They have no reason to fear you, Harry. You certainly can feed them if you wish, though they might not take food from your hand at first."

"They'll eat out of your hand?" Harry exclaimed.

"Some will, yes." Severus said.

Harry waited eagerly for the coming of dawn and when he saw the deer grazing again, slipped out the back porch with a small bag of honey oat squares Severus had given him. He walked across the herb garden and out the gate, moving quietly in just his socks. The deer jerked their heads up when he approached, but they did not run.

Harry tossed the cereal on the ground and after a few minutes, a doe picked her way towards him, her nose twitching eagerly. She gazed at Harry without fear, then lipped the cereal from the ground daintily.

"Like that, do you, girl?" he crooned. "Want more?"

This time he threw the cereal closer to him.

The doe walked over and ate it too.

She was almost close enough to touch and Harry nearly stopped breathing. He put some cereal on his palm and held it out to her, frozen like a statue.

For an instant he figured she wasn't bold enough to come all the way near him. But a second later he felt the delicate tickle of the deer's muzzle against his palm, and she licked the cereal off his hand.

Harry grinned in delight. That a wild thing had chosen to eat from his hand was the most incredible thing.

He reached in his pocket for more cereal and the doe nudged him gently, urging him to feed her more of this wonderful stuff. Harry did so, and when he looked up again, he was surrounded by three more deer, all of them waiting for him to share the cereal.

He grinned and made sure all of them had a share, though the others wouldn't venture as near as the first doe. Eventually, the cereal had all been eaten and Harry was going to leave, but then he summoned more from the pantry and continued feeding the deer until Severus came looking for him to eat breakfast.

Severus halted, biting his lip at the sight that met his eyes. There was Harry, surrounded by a herd of deer, throwing cereal and petting deer like a veritable Robin Hood. No one looking at him them would ever guess that he had grown up in a suburb and the only deer he had ever seen had been in picture books. The Potions Master smiled, and thought that Harry was another who belonged in the heart of the glen, for no wild creature would ever come to a person whose aura was not peaceful and calm.

Harry turned suddenly, saw Severus standing there, and waved to him.

The deer saw him also and some of them approached the tall wizard, for he was a familiar sight to them, nudging his pockets for cereal.

"All right, you greedy things," he scolded lightly, pushing their muzzles away gently. "Here, have some oat squares." He summoned the box to him and split the contents with Harry and together father and son fed the red deer.

That same afternoon, Harry and Severus explored the forest where the Silmareen ran, and saw a mother brown bear and her two cubs playing and fishing near the river. Severus put a finger to his lips and Harry, who was about to ask a question, went still beside him.

They watched as the mother bear waded into the river and caught a fine salmon for her children, who immediately began squabbling over it.

The cubs wrestled and bawled, until Mama Bear had enough of their fighting and came over and smacked the misbehaving cubs on the rump with a paw. The cubs yelped and immediately quit fighting. Mama lectured them for a minute or so with a stern growl, and the cubs hung their heads in shame. Then they went over to the salmon and each of them ate half of it.

Wow! I never knew a bear could discipline like a human, Harry marveled silently, watching as the mother bear caught another two salmon for herself and ate them before calling her rambunctious cubs to her side and ambling off into the woods. Harry turned to Severus, wide-eyed, and said, "Did you see what she did to them, Dad?"

"Yes. She gave them a smack and a scolding because they wouldn't quit fighting and share like she told them to." Severus chuckled.

"But . . .that's almost what you do to me."

"Yes. I have observed that animals discipline their young much more consistently and fairly than we do. I have never seen a mother or father of any animal species punish a youngster unjustly, or use undue force, or truly harm their youngster. That particular vice is reserved for us alone, the supposedly more intelligent species." Severus's lip curled. "Much of my disciplinary policy is patterned after those so-called dumb beasts. Sometimes animals are wiser than wizards, son."

"Yeah, I can see that. I always knew Aunt Marge was dumber than a bear." Harry grinned up at his father, who mussed his hair fondly. Harry turned to gaze at the river bank, here the Silmareen was flowing evenly, and saw to his astonishment what looked like a canoe stowed among the branches of a nearby willow. It was suspended from two ropes attached to a pulley, high enough to not allow a large animal to damage it, painted a soft forest green with gold trim.

"Dad, is that a canoe hanging there?" Harry asked, standing up and brushing the dirt and leaves off himself.

"It is. You can paddle down the Silmareen if you wish, the only real dangerous spot are the rapids just before the falls." Severus said.

"Can we try it, Dad?" Harry asked, giving the older man a pleading glance.

"All right. Let me show you how to lower the canoe," Severus agreed. He moved over to the tree and tugged on a rope end, lowering the canoe to the ground.

Inside the canoe were two benches and a long double oar.

Severus turned to his son and cast a quick Water-breathing Charm upon him just in case he fell overboard, then launched the canoe into the river, holding it by the anchor rope. "Harry, get in." Once Harry had climbed in, Severus followed, and pushed the canoe into deeper water.

The current caught it then, and Severus allowed it to take them a ways downstream before he began to paddle gently.

"This stretch of the Silmareen is relatively tame," he told Harry as he stroked. "But once you travel down her for about two miles, you'll come to the rapids and those are quite wild and dangerous."

"Have you ever taken the canoe through them?"

"Yes, several times, when I was a teenager and an adult. But they're very rough and not for a beginner like yourself to attempt yet." Severus cautioned. The river pulled then further and further downstream, and Harry could hear the rushing roar of the rapids approaching.

The canoe bucked and crested the white water, bobbing up and down like a cork, tossed lightly about by the wild water. The spray splashed Harry in the face, but he was not afraid in the least. He gripped the sides of the canoe and laughed when the slender craft balanced upon a swell then raced down the other side with a lightning swish. Twice he was almost certain the canoe was going to flip over, but Severus navigated the wild river expertly, making Harry gasp and smirk in delight, he loved the adrenaline rush the river gave him. After the rapids, Severus paddled the canoe to the shore and grounded it, then pointed his wand at it and Fetched it back to the willow tree it had originally been strung in. "Well, how did you like your first rapids run, Harry?"

"It was great!" his son exclaimed, tossing his hair back from his eyes. Both of them were slightly wet from the rough spray, but otherwise none the worse for the wear. "Who taught you how to paddle a canoe like that?"

"Rellah's water sprite cousins, who shoot the rapids nearly every day. But it takes a good deal of practice to do what I just did, so don't even think of attempting it on your own, young man."

"Okay, Dad." Harry agreed, for he didn't want to get into an argument over this. "When can we do it again?"

Snape laughed, his son's enthusiasm was infectious. "Another day, fledgling. You might not be tired, but I am. I'm not in the shape I used to be in five years ago, when I used to run the White Rage, as the sprites call the rapids, almost every day during the summer. Too many hours behind a desk and doing undercover work." He massaged his shoulders, he knew he'd be feeling the effects of this tomorrow. "Come, let's go home and see what Rellah's made for lunch."

Severus and Harry made their way back towards the game trail, walking leisurely, until they had come to the place with the canoe, and there he helped Severus reattach the canoe to the ropes and stow it back in the willow.

Then they continued on home, where Rellah scolded them for tracking dirt on her newly scrubbed floors, since they had forgotten to remove their shoes. But Severus cleaned up the marks with a wave of his wand, told Rellah to quit fussing, and started to make himself a sandwich, until the woodkin hurried over and bade him to sit down, that she would make the sandwich.

Not wanting to hurt the woodkin's feelings, as she was sensitive to such things, Severus sat down and Rellah had soon made both her menfolk huge sandwiches and also ice cold glasses of lemonade and water.

"Dad, can you teach me how to shoot the rapids?"

"Yes, but not at the moment. I've two potions brewing, a Memory Restorative and a Decongestion Draft, which need my attention. Later when they are finished, I shall teach you how to handle the canoe. In the meantime, I think you have summer homework to complete, yes?"

"Aww, I thought you'd forgotten!"

Severus eyed him incredulously. "Not in this life, mister. Now go fetch your assignments and start on them, fledgling. Soonest begun is soonest done, as my mother used to say."

Harry groaned, but got his books at his parent's warning glower. Sometimes it really sucked having a professor for a dad, he thought rebelliously as he opened his Charms text.

* * * * * *

The weather took a turn for the worst the next day, and it rained for three days, making it impossible for Harry to do anything except stay inside and work on his summer reading and homework. He sulked and grumbled, but Severus would have none of it and threatened to give him extra work if he didn't quit acting like a whiny five-year-old.

At that, Harry quit pouting and started working, though he was still irritable about being cooped up inside. Severus made him practice meditation every night, hoping to calm him down, and it worked for awhile, but Harry was possessed of a restless spirit, and was relieved beyond measure when the rain stopped on the morning of the fourth day.

"Thank you Lord!" he whispered when he woke up that morning. "Now maybe I can finally go outside and take a walk or something before I go off the deep end."

After breakfast he headed outside, Severus was in his lab again, finishing up some drafts, and told Harry he would see him around lunchtime. Harry slipped through the gate at the back of the garden and out to the meadow, and somehow his feet led him to the Silmareen.

The river was running a little higher than usual because of all the rain, but it looked calm enough to Harry's untrained eyes. The eleven-year-old stuck his hands in his pockets and sighed, for he badly wanted to do something fun and fast-paced. He glanced up at the canoe and back at the river.

I know I told Dad I wouldn't shoot the rapids without him, but what harm could it do to take the canoe into the shallows here? I mean, it's miles from the rapids and all I want to do is paddle over to the other side and back, just to see if I can. He bit his lip, trying to weigh if it was worth it, if Severus would get angry with him for taking the canoe out alone. But his father had never said he couldn't paddle the canoe in the shallows, he rationalized. How hard could it be? It's not deep, I won't drown if the canoe tips over. All I'll get is wet and I can dry off before I go back to the house.

He closed his eyes, recalling the wonderful adrenaline surge he had felt as Severus had shot through the churning white water, the same incredible rush he felt when he flew his Nimbus. He had missed that. And if he couldn't fly his broom, this seemed to be the next best thing, he reasoned. He was tired of studying, he needed to do something physical, something to release all the extra energy he seemed to have acquired.

He tugged the rope that released the canoe from the tree, working it slowly down until it touched the ground with a thump. Then he slipped the guide rope free and dragged the canoe over to the edge of the riverbank. Luckily, the canoe was quite light and moved easily at his sharp tug.

He shoved the prow of the needle-nose craft into the water, and the current caught it almost immediately. Harry hopped into it and sat down on the bench facing the river just as the canoe was tugged into the river. Normally, the Silmareen was a quiet river, it flowed gently until the rapids, but on this day it was filled with rain and the wind had picked up, making the current much stronger than usual.

Harry picked up the long oar with its double paddle and began to try and steer the canoe. But it was harder, much harder, than he had anticipated. Severus had made it look simple, but Harry had not taken into account that his father knew how to handle the oar and was taller, stronger, and broader than he was. His short arms barely reached from side to side of the canoe, and his first attempts at paddling were like the splashes of a polliwog in a pond.

The river carried the canoe downstream quicker than Harry realized, he was so busy struggling with the oar and trying to paddle to the opposite bank, that he misjudged the speed of the river, and as a result was borne along at a swift rate.

By the time he had nearly gotten a handle on the oar and was actually able to paddle somewhat, he heard the unmistakable sound of the White Rage Rapids.

Huh? Oh, damn! That's the white water up ahead. Got to turn around. He dipped his paddle into the water, trying hard to steer the canoe around, but the craft was harder to maneuver than he thought. It spun around in half a circle, refusing to go upstream. He paddled hard, but the canoe was awkward and fishtailed.

He could hear the roar of the rapids drawing ever closer, as the current dragged him onward despite his efforts. Ah, blast it! Turn around, you stupid boat! Come on, I don't want to go downstream. He tried to put both paddles in the water at the same time, but lacked the strength to propel the canoe back the way he had come, the current was too strong for a mere eleven-year-old.

He worked the oar frantically, but it was hopeless.

The current carried him right into the rapids, and then he had all he could do to stay balanced in the canoe and not flip out when the boat crested a wave. He shoved the oar inside the canoe, not trusting himself with it, and prayed to God that he could make it through the stretch of white water without capsizing or hitting a submerged rock.

For there were rocks here, quite large ones, and the white foam concealed some of them. Harry clung to the sides of the canoe, pale and trembling with anxiety, yet a crazy part of him was enjoying the wild ride. It was, without a doubt, the most insane thing he'd ever done save for face off against Voldemort. Oh my God! "Ahhh!" he screamed as the canoe hurtled into the air for a brief instant then slammed down into the water again. "Merlin, this is amazing! Wait till I tell Ron!" Harry cried aloud. He winced as the canoe bounced hard against a rock, but luckily it didn't tear anything and he was free of the object an instant later.

He managed somehow to avoid most of the dangerous spots by sheer luck, but it was towards the end of the rapids that he ran into trouble.

The canoe was cresting a rather large swell and riding down the other side when the nose struck the tip of a large rock.

Harry felt the canoe jump, then it stood on end, with the boy clinging to the bench and shrieking, before it capsized totally.

Harry released the bench just as the canoe went over, but the long oar struck him in the head, partially stunning him.

He lolled for a few moments beneath the canoe before the current snatched him away and whirled him like a leaf in a whirlpool further downstream. Harry tried to swim, but it was like trying to run in a hurricane, his arms and legs moved but they had no effect on the current. Unwillingly, he was dragged through the frothing water, battered against the rocks that he could not see, and half-drowned by the frothing raging water.

 

He coughed and tried to shut his mouth, but the river had him in its relentless grip and would not release him. The white water threw him from side to side and he was helpless to resist, he was pulled inexorably towards the falls, and there he was sure to end up drowned.

Water flowed into his mouth and he swallowed uncontrollably. He no longer knew which way was up or down or anything save that the white water was smothering him and he couldn't get a decent breath, water was everywhere, in his eyes, his nose, his lungs . . .he could feel his sight start to dim and a strange pressure fill his chest . . .

Am I drowning? Is this what it feels like? I can't breathe, so cold . . .Dad, where are you! I need you! Dad, help me! I don't wanna die . . .not like this, not from the Silmareen . . .it's not supposed to happen like this . . .

Blackness crept around his vision and he struggled futilely against it. The rapids threw him hard against a rock and his chin clipped it and he felt a terrible pain and then he felt himself swirling away into midnight, whirling down a dark tunnel with no end.

* * * * * *

 

 

Severus was just finishing decanting the Memory Restorative into a beaker when he felt the bracelet on his arm vibrate so violently that his wrist shook, sloshing the contents of the small cauldron all over his lab table.

What the bloody blazes? He set down the cauldron and touched a finger to the bracelet only he could see. Instantly he saw Harry, whom he had thought happily occupied with reading on the back porch or wandering through the meadow, floating face down in the frothing deadly rapids of the Silmareen.

The beaker with the Memory Restorative toppled over and smashed upon the floor as the Potions Master swore and Apparated away to the river bank, where his son was in dire peril.

Severus arrived in flash of blue light, just in time to see two water sprites emerge from the river and stretch a large silvery glowing net across it, large enough to contain the canoe and Harry should he manage to wash up against it.

"Harry!" Severus howled. "Hang on, I'm coming!"

He did not even pause to remove his clothing, he sprang up and into the air, changing in midleap to his snow leopard persona.

Wraith hit the water with a tremendous slap, nearly going under, but his strong shoulders pulled him up and he began to paddle furiously towards the pathetic scrap of blue and white that was his unconscious son.

The river was fierce, however, and the current unwilling to give up its victim, but Wraith was relentless. He pushed his great body through the surging waves in an unceasing forward motion, until at last his great jaws were close enough to fasten gently yet firmly on the boy's shoulder.

Holding the comatose boy in a grip that was firm yet did not break the skin, the snow leopard began the hard swim back towards the opposite bank, towing Harry along.

The leopard's powerful shoulders heaved and the strain of fighting the white water and keeping his grip on Harry was extremely draining, but Wraith would have no more given up than he would have killed a child. The great paws smacked the water, propelling the lean body foot by foot to the bank, the great jaws aching from maintaining his sideways grip on Harry's shoulder, but the leopard did not let go. To let go would mean letting the river claim his son, and that Wraith would rather die than permit.

Minutes passed like hours, but at last the leopard gained the shallows and heaved his limp burden up onto the bank then climbed out himself. He shook hard, spraying droplets everywhere.

Then he nuzzled his still child, grunting in alarm when he could not hear the rasp of breath. He gave a soft yowl of distress, then placed both front paws on the boy's back and leaned upon the limp form.

Water squirted in a stream from Harry's mouth. Wraith leaned again, placing a fraction of his full weight on his massive paws. Again water was pumped from the boy's lungs and yet again.

Then Wraith blurred and became Severus, who flipped the still unresponsive child over and began feeling for a pulse. It was there, blessedly weak, but there.

Severus placed his mouth over Harry's and breathed into the boy's lungs three times. Harry. Harry, come on, son. Breathe, damn you!

He drew back, waited, and suddenly Harry's chest rose and fell and color flushed the corpse-pale cheeks a dusky rose. "There you go, son!" Severus cried, as Harry began to cough violently.

Severus turned him on his side and held him while he hacked and vomited up the rest of the water he had swallowed. It took forever, or so it seemed, but Severus's hold never slackened. "Easy, son. You're going to be all right, I've got you, but you swallowed half the blasted river." He patted Harry's back as the youngster retched over and over.

But at last the young wizard managed to take a breath that was not waterlogged and the paroxysms eased. "Dad?" he whimpered. Harry knew two things. One that he was still among the living and two, that his throat and chest ached like ruddy hell. Actually, three things. The third was that somehow his father had rescued him.

"Harry. You're all right." Severus said, gently turning his son over. He gasped when he saw the awful bruise across the boy's chin, and felt the jaw gently. Harry yelped.

"Oww!"

"Hush. I need to see if it's broken." The Potions Master deftly probed again and his child yelped, but Severus could see then that the jaw was badly bruised but not broken, since Harry could move it. "You'll have a hell of a time eating tomorrow, and I'll have to ice and poultice that bruise, but it's not broken."

Harry groaned and shivered. Severus pointed his wand and uttered a quick drying charm and a wave of warmth crept over the boy, drying his clothes and skin in an instant. Nevertheless, Severus conjured a large blanket and wrapped Harry snugly in it before lifting him in his arms. He rose to his feet, his foolish child cradled close, and saw the water sprites hauling the canoe from the river's depths.

"Master Severus, we have retrieved your bark floater," one called, causing the canoe to hover in the air with a single gesture.

"And your stick," said the other, levitating the oar, which miraculously had not shattered despite the rough water.

Severus was at a loss for a moment to reply to the sprites, but then he recalled the manners Eileen had drilled into him. "Thank you, your service is greatly appreciated. But I must get my son home, he's bound to take a chill from this. If you wouldn't mind putting my canoe back beside the willow further upstream, please?"

"Of course, Master Severus," said the taller of the two, he was blue skinned with webbed feet and fingers and had short greenish hair and wore a scaled loincloth and a baldric about his slender waist containing a mesh pouch and a shell and a sharp knife made of a shark's tooth. "We would have caught your minnow-child as well, but we were occupied upstream and the river did not inform us of his presence until you were already here. Mistress of Waters have mercy, I hope he is not too badly damaged."

Severus shook his head. "He is badly bruised and chilled, but he should recover, God willing. May the river bless and keep you. I must be going."

The water sprite lifted a hand in farewell. "We shall return your floater to the willow, never fear. Farewell, Master Severus."

Severus nodded, then he lowered his head and concentrated.

An instant later the tall wizard vanished, to reappear a moment later on the front porch of Malachite Cottage.

"Dad?" Harry's voice was hoarse, but perfectly audible. "How did you find me? You always find me when I'm sick or hurt."

"You ought to thank your lucky stars for that, son. What in God's name possessed you to take the canoe into the rapids, young man?" Severus demanded, his tone laced heavily with anger and disapproval. "Do you have a bloody death wish or what?"

"No," coughed Harry. "I wasn't going to go near the rapids, Dad, honest. It just . . .happened somehow." He said slowly, for his jaw ached something fierce.

"Harry, for the love of Merlin, things never "just happen" around you!" Severus sighed. He opened the door with a softly spoken unlocking charm and stepped inside.

Eileen was watching as they entered and cried out in alarm when she caught sight of Harry in her son's arms. "Severus, what happened to him? His face . . .!"

"It looks worse than it is, Mother," Severus said softly. "His jaw is bruised, not broken. He got that when he decided to swim the rapids and drown himself in the Silmareen."

Eileen gasped. Her eyes narrowed. "Harry, you didn't! What were you thinking, foolish child? You could have died!"

"I . . .I just . . .I was trying to . . .paddle the canoe across the river . . .I didn't know it'd be so hard . . ." murmured the boy, feeling suddenly ashamed of his impulse to take the canoe out without supervision.

"It was just after a three day storm, couldn't you tell the river was high and agitated from the wind and rain, son?" Severus demanded testily. "Where was your head? Up in the clouds? Of all the idiotic stunts . . .!" He broke off as Harry began to cough harshly.

"Better put him to bed, Sev," advised Eileen. "He's probably taken a chill, if not worse."

Severus nodded. "My thoughts exactly, Mum."

"I'm fine," Harry protested, though he knew he wasn't.

"Oh sure you are. You're so fine, mister, that you're hacking up a lung," Severus drawled, his voice stiff with sarcasm as Harry began to cough violently, his small form shaking. "It's bed for you, young man, no arguments."

He carried Harry straight into his bedroom and set the trembling boy down on his bed. Harry coughed, nearly doubled over with spasms, and Severus was just about to summon Rellah to fetch him a Pepper-Up Potion and a Decongestion Draft when the woodkin appeared in the room.

"Master Harry, what have you been doing?" she exclaimed. "Did you get attacked by a spidren bear?"

"No, a rock," Harry muttered when he could speak again.

"A rock?"

"He hit his face into a rock in the Silmareen," Severus elaborated. "He was trying out for human fish of the year, Rellah."

"You were trying to swim the White Rage, young master?"

"My canoe tipped over," Harry said, wincing.

"Which he shouldn't have been using in the first place," his father said, scowling at his son. He spoke a word and Harry found his clothes vanished.

"Hey!" he yelped and tried to cover himself. He snatched the towel and wrapped it about himself, his face burning.

"Rellah, run him a hot bath, if you would." Severus ordered, ignoring his son's embarrassment. He quickly performed a diagnostic and found Harry suffering from various scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones, though his lungs were weakened after his submerging.

"At once, sir." Rellah vanished.

Severus turned to Harry and said severely, "You are very lucky the river walloped you so soundly, otherwise I'd blister your behind, Harry James Snape. How could you have been so foolish as to take the canoe out with the river at flood strength?"

Harry hung his head. "I didn't know, sir."

"All the more reason to wait for me. Did I not say I would teach you how to paddle the canoe?"

"Yeah, but . . .I was . . .I just wanted to . . .I don't know . . .do something fun . . ." stammered Harry, feeling more and more like a lame idiot.

"Fun? Getting your brains bashed out by a rock and nearly drowning is fun?" demanded Severus, moving over and picking his son up. "If that's the case, I'd hate to see your idea of boring, you insane brat."

"Dad, I can walk."

"Quiet." Snape ordered, carrying Harry down the hall to the bathroom, where Rellah had drawn a steaming bath with some magical bath salts in it that were supposed to reduce bruising and swelling.

Severus gently lowered Harry into the water, ignoring the boy's yelps and complaints.

"Ouch! Dad, it's too hot. It stings!"

"Hush. You'll get used to it. Stop squirming."

"Ow! I'm boiling here!" Harry yelped, for at first the hot water made all of the various scrapes he'd picked up sting sharply, but Severus held him in the tub firmly, ignoring his son's attempts to get out. "Ow! Dad, please!"

"Harry! Be still and relax," Severus ordered sternly. "The stinging is because of the salts in your cuts, but it'll stop in a minute, it's cleansing them."

His son sniffled, blinking back tears, and glared at him. "It hurts. You never said it would hurt."

Severus gritted his teeth. "Don't be a baby, you'll feel better in five minutes." He released his son and turned to Rellah. "Keep him in here for another twenty minutes. I need to brew a Breathe Ease Elixir, just in case. His lungs are weakened from swallowing half the river, he could, and probably will, develop pneumonia, he's had it before."

"I shall watch him, Master," Rellah promised, giving Harry a sharp scolding glance.

"Thank you." Severus walked away then, leaving Harry alone with the woodkin, who immediately set about rubbing shampoo in her charge's hair and washing it.

"Rellah, please! I'm not a baby, I can wash my own hair!"

"You hush that mouth, young master! You are in no shape to do anything ‘cept as your father says," the woodkin scolded, but her hands were featherlight as she massaged his scalp, careful of the bruise alongside his head. "Lie back," Rellah ordered, and cupped water in her hands and rinsed the shampoo away.

Harry flushed, he hadn't been washed like this ever, not that he could remember anyhow. The woodkin ignored his sputterings and blushes, summoning a soft sponge and some soap that smelled like honey and oatmeal and washing the boy quickly and efficiently.

Harry wished he'd drowned, he was so embarrassed. "This is your way of punishing me, right?" he mumbled, his face hot. "Treating me like a baby."

Rellah paused in scrubbing his back. "What ridiculous thing are you saying now, young sir? Punishment? I am trying to help you, silly child."

"How? I'm old enough to wash myself." Harry said sullenly.

Rellah snorted. "Humph! Not with a lump the size of a walnut on your jaw you're not. You move about too much and you'll get dizzy and then what? You'll fall and crack your head open and lose what little sense you've got. Forest Spirit grant me patience!" She returned to scrubbing his back, careful of the scrapes upon it.

Harry submitted to her at last, knowing he wasn't going to win this one.

Rellah was gentle and thorough, washing him without any hint of embarrassment, then she told him to lie back in the tub and soak until Severus returned.

Harry was content now to do that, for the water felt incredibly good on his battered body. So good that he nearly fell asleep.

"Harry. Harry, wake up." Severus ordered.

Harry sat up with a splash. "Huh?"

"You can sleep in your bed, fledgling. You're not a merman." He helped his son from the tub, drying him with warmed towels and then picking him up again and bringing him back to his room.

He laid Harry on his bed and rubbed bruise balm and quick-healing salve all over the boy, hissing softly at the myriad bruises all over the child's legs, back, ribs, shoulders and hips. Harry squirmed a little, but the water had leeched most of the soreness from him, and he could tolerate Severus's hands. Once the professor had finished applying the salve, he flicked a finger and Harry was dressed in warm flannel pajamas and tucked into bed.

"Drink these."

Harry groaned when he saw the vials of potions, he'd had them before and knew they tasted absolutely vile. "Do I have to?"

"You do. Drink."

Harry drank, grimacing and sputtering. But Snape gave him water after and then held out a cloth bag with ice. "Put this on your chin and hold it there for ten minutes. It should help with the swelling."

Harry obeyed, wincing. But the ice numbed the pain in his jaw considerably.

Severus sat down on the edge of the bed, anger warring with concern and said wearily, "What am I supposed to do with you, child? If it's not one scrape it's another. You are a born magnet for trouble, I swear it."

Harry felt his eyes well up with tears. "Sorry." He hated when his dad used that tone, it made him feel so very guilty and ashamed.

"Now you are, sure," sighed Snape, reaching out with one callused thumb to wipe away the tears that had trickled down his son's face. "You're always sorry after the fact. But that's not enough, son. You need to think before you act, before this impulsive streak of yours gets you killed. If I had been a minute too slow . . .you'd have been feeding the fishes."

"I know. I'm sorry." Harry sniffed miserably. "Forgive me?"

Severus sighed and didn't answer for a moment. Then he nodded. "Always, you reckless scamp. But next time you plan on swimming the rapids without supervision, warn me beforehand, so that I can die and get it over with." He removed the ice from his son's jaw, examined it, then handed Harry a muslin sack which smelled strongly of eucalyptus and was very warm. "Put this poultice on your chin and hold it there for ten minutes."

Harry obeyed, he could feel his eyelids growing heavy. Severus cupped the poultice under his chin as he started to nod off, muttering, "Angels and ministers of grace save me, boy, but if you risk your neck once more this summer I swear I shall beat you senseless."

"Yes, sir," he heard the boy mumble then the green eyes were shutting.

Severus leaned down and kissed his son on the forehead. "I love you, fledgling." He continued to hold the poultice on Harry's chin until the ten minutes were up, then he tucked the covers around the boy and slipped from the room.

He headed into the den, where he kept a bottle of single-malt Scotch for emergencies and poured himself a shot.

"Severus! What on earth are you doing?" exclaimed Eileen.

"Drinking, Mother. After the day I've had, I need a stiff drink. Or three. Or four."

"I suppose I can't blame you." Eileen said feelingly. "How is the little rascal?"

"Asleep. Bruised and battered and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he took sick with an upper respiratory infection. But otherwise he'll live. Unless I throttle him beforehand." He downed the shot in one quick flick.

"Feel better now?"

"Not really." Her son sighed. "That boy has more lives than a cat, I swear it. When I saw him floating in the river . . ." Severus's face darkened. "My heart nearly stopped." he suppressed a shudder.

"I know the feeling."

"Why? I was never so reckless, Mum."

Eileen eyed him and snorted. "How quickly you forget, Severus. Who was it that nearly blew himself to kingdom come when he was nine, trying to make a Fireproof Potion?"

"I . . .didn't really . . ."

"No? Your hair was nearly burnt off and my lab was partially on fire . . .what would you call that if not almost blowing yourself up, Severus Tobias Snape?"

Severus could feel himself flush. "It wasn't intentional . . .my hand slipped when I was adding the dragon tongue . . ."

"Never mind the excuses, boy. My point is that you were as bad as your son for giving me heart failure sometimes. Like every other child ever born."

"How did you survive it, Mother?"

"I meditated and counted to ten a great deal. And I reminded myself that strangling you was considered murder and I didn't really want to kill you . . .well, maybe just sometimes . . ." She laughed at her son's indignant expression. "Oh, Severus! You're going through what every other parent does right now. But it will pass . . .eventually. When he's seventeen perhaps . . ."

"Christ, Mother! I'll be dead by then!"

"No, you won't. Trust me. You're stronger than you know, son. This is a phase and it will pass. And one day when you have grandchildren you'll look back and laugh about it."

"Sure I will." Severus said sourly. "When I'm senile and toothless, right."

Eileen laughed.

He rolled his eyes. Then he set the glass down and capped the bottle. The drink had settled his nerves a little, though he knew he would not be able to rest easy until he had made sure Harry was truly recovered.

Heaving a sigh, he blurred into Wraith and returned to his son's room, where he stretched out on the bed beside his slumbering child and purred soothingly, keeping watch over his son, Harry's hushed breathing relieving his agitated spirit like nothing else could.

Once Harry was recovered, there would be consequences to be faced for his reckless decision, but for now Wraith was content to let his son mend and his temper to cool.  He put his head on his paws and yawned lazily, half-drowsing amid the blankets, allowing the peace of Malachite Cottage to ease his weary soul.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well, how was that for an action-packed river ride?

Next: Harrysuffers the consequences of his ill-advised canoe trip, but later tries to persuade Severus to teach him how to become an Animagus.



Chapter 30: Spirit Kin
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Harry dreamed he was running down a very long road and was hot, tired, and dusty. He came to the end of the road and halted in front of a crystal clear lake and tried to jump in and swim, but as soon as he did that, the water disappeared and he crashed into the ground, hitting his face painfully. As soon as he got up, the lake reappeared and he tried to drink, but once more the water vanished and he remained terribly thirsty and hot. He felt like he was burning up . . .there was furnace inside him and he was on fire . . .

All of a sudden he woke up and his throat was aching and dry as a desert. His jaw hurt like blazes too, so much so that he could barely open his mouth to moisten his lips with his tongue. He was terribly hot and he thought he could hear the heavy panting of some large animal. He swallowed hard, tears pricking his eyes, and slowly turned his head.

His eyes met a pair of huge golden ones and he nearly jumped out of his skin!

"Eee . . .ahhh!" was all he could manage, for there was a giant snow leopard standing over him, peering worriedly into his face.

Wraith huffed, wrinkling his nose, and Harry could swear the blasted cat smiled. The boy shivered, because for some reason he was cold as well burning hot, and reached up a hand to stroke the big cat's face.

Wraith purred, nuzzling Harry gently, sniffing him. Almost immediately, the cat rumbled agitatedly and then blurred into Professor Snape once more.

Severus placed a hand on Harry's forehead, and that single touch confirmed what his leopard senses had already told him-Harry was running a fever and was quite sick.

Harry groaned at the coolness of Snape's hand. "Dad?" he managed, it hurt to talk. "Why am I so hot?"

"You've got a fever, as I feared. How do you feel besides that?"

"Awful. I hurt everywhere and my jaw's killing me." Harry told him, not feeling like playing the stoic hero for once. He felt thoroughly miserable and he wanted Severus to do something to make him better. He could feel every bruise he'd gotten when he had banged into the rocks in the rapids and his lower jaw felt like he'd taken a Bludger to it. Probably looks like it too, he thought, wishing he could see himself, but there was no mirror in his bedroom, only the bathroom. And he did not feel like trying to get up just yet.

Severus ran a finger down Harry's chin, and the child whimpered, though Severus didn't even put pressure on it. "You need some more ice and another poultice," Severus said. "Plus a Fever Reducer." He summoned a vial of the green potion to the bedroom with a snap of his fingers.

Harry eyed the potion reluctantly, knowing it was disgusting and dreading taking it, as always.

Severus bent over him, casting a diagnostic. "Deep breath. Another. Good."

Harry did as he was told, but the last deep breath brought on a spate of coughing.

Severus frowned. "You've got a good deal of fluid in there, son. Not full blown pneumonia yet, but it's looking that way. Luckily, I've made up some drafts for decongestion and Breath Ease, so you can start them right away." He waved his wand..

Two more potions popped up on the nightstand, along with a glass of water and two straws.

Then Severus called, "Rellah, come here, please."

Rellah appeared in a cloud of sparkles. "What do you need, Master Sev? Is Master Harry awake yet?"

"Yes, and I need you to get me some ice for his jaw and make up a warm poultice again, if you don't mind."

"Not at all, sir." Rellah clapped her hands and a bag of ice wrapped in a towel appeared in her hands. "Here you go. I shall make the poultice quick as a mouse can scurry." And with that, she was gone.

Severus gently placed the ice on his son's jaw, which was swollen and discolored a lurid black, green, and purple.

Harry sighed in relief, for the ice numbed the worst of the throbbing ache.

"Hold that there for ten minutes, Harry. By then the poultice will be done and you should be able to open your mouth enough for you to drink the Fever Reducer with a straw."

Harry moved his head slightly to indicate he understood.

After ten minutes his jaw was pleasantly numb and Rellah returned with the poultice. The combination of the ice and the heat relaxed Harry's jaw muscles sufficiently to let him open his mouth somewhat and reluctantly take Severus's potions with a straw.

He made horrible faces after drinking each one, Severus ignored him, however, and simply handed him a glass of water to sip.

Once he had rid himself of the awful taste, Harry felt a little better. Then he tried to sit up and found every muscle in his body ached like hell.

"What are you doing?"

"Bathroom," he said softly.

"Put your arm around my waist," Severus ordered, assisting his son to his feet. He half carried Harry down the hall.

He waited outside the door just in case Harry needed help, but the boy was stubborn and managed to walk out the door into Snape's arms.

"Back to bed, fledgling," Severus said, and this time he ignored Harry's murmured protest and picked him up.

The boy was still thin as a reed, despite all the nutritious meals Rellah had been feeding him. Snape supposed it was Harry's body type and perhaps metabolism as well. For Harry certainly ate like a typical teenager now. He tucked his son back in bed, ordered him to keep the poultice on for a few more minutes and then sleep if he wished.

Harry did as he was told for once, though he did ask for toast, Rellah brought him some along with a cup of beef broth, and practically fed him it. Harry ate all he was given, then Severus reapplied all the salve to him once more and at last Harry was able to surrender to sleep.

The Potions Master smoothed the hair from his son's forehead and sighed. "I'll give him a Pain Reliever when he wakes up again. It's not wise to mix that and the Breath Ease. Will you look in on him, Rellah? I'll be brewing some more medicines in my lab, I'm going to need them."

"Of course, Master Sev." the woodkin agreed. She banished the empty vials and the straw and plate. "Don't worry about him, I'll keep watch on him."

Severus retreated to his lab then, and left Rellah to her cleaning and Harry-minding duties.

* * * * * * *

 

 

Harry was a very sick child over the next three days. His cough worsened, and Severus was now dosing him twice a day with his potions and feeding him a steady diet of soup, bread, and various cups of tea and juice. His fever went up an down and refused to leave, the only thing that seemed to be healing were his bruises, even the awful one on his chin. Otherwise he felt extremely weak and inclined to sleep, when he wasn't coughing phlegm out of himself.

He had a huge box of tissues and a small garbage bin next to his bed and by mid morning it was nearly filled with tissues. Severus was in and out of the bedroom, monitoring his son and when he wasn't doing that he was mixing up new drafts, stronger ones, to combat the congestion in his son's lungs. He would have neglected his own wellbeing, but the woodkin made certain the wizard ate and slept for a few hours, Severus had learned long ago that arguing with Rellah was futile, for she was as stubborn as petrified wood and immovable as a mountain when she set her mind to it.

But on the fourth day, Harry began to rally and was able to sit up in bed for longer than an hour and eat more solid food, though he couldn't chew very well yet and Severus gave him books to read and logic puzzles to solve while he was confined to his bed. Harry took his confinement better than he had in the past, when he used to whine and complain until Snape longed to shake him. Perhaps that was because he understood now that rest was essential to his recovery.

Sometimes Severus would change into Wraith and stretch out on the rug beside Harry's bed, and the boy would trail his fingers in the leopard's thick fur. He loved the softness of the frost and onyx pelt, and Wraith didn't seem to mind Harry stroking him over and over. He would purr loudly and nuzzle Harry's hand if he quit petting him sometimes. Once, Harry woke to find the big cat stretched out across the bed, his head upon the boy's knees, as if trying to keep his son in bed by any means necessary.

Harry was uncertain how much the leopard understood, so he always spoke to Wraith as if he was still Severus, and never acted as if he were a mere animal. When Wraith transformed back to Severus one evening, about five days after the river disaster, Harry finally got up enough courage to ask Severus about his Animagus form.

"Dad, when you become Wraith, do you remember everything like you do as a person?"

"Mostly. I know, or rather a part of me knows, that I am also Severus Snape, but the greater part of my mind is a cat's, meaning that I feel what and how a cat feels, and react that way as well. Though I retain enough memories to know who friends and enemies are and my family. I am not totally a snow leopard, Harry, I still feel human emotions and urges, and can think like a human if I have to."

"Oh. And can you understand English too?"

"Yes. I retain my language skills, though I can't respond the way a human can. An Animagus is a creature of two worlds, Harry, the trick and skill is to learn how to balance them so you are not driven crazy by the animal instincts and impulses and yet remain with human intelligence. That is why Animagi are so rare, son. Not everyone possesses the necessary discipline or patience to learn how to balance a dual nature. Or the magical aptitude. A strong gift is required to assume another form."

"Do you . . .do you think I could do it?"

Severus frowned and did not reply for a long moment. Harry fought to keep from biting his nails in impatience. At last his father said, "Yes, you have magic enough to transform, I think, but you lack the discipline over emotions and self-control you need to maintain the form without becoming overwhelmed." Harry looked crestfallen. "But that does not mean you cannot acquire the discipline and control. That is why I keep stressing you need to think before you act and quit being so impulsive. Because only through self-control can you master your baser instincts and your magic as well."

Harry sighed. "I understand, but it's so hard . . ."

"Yes, well nothing in life is ever easy, fledgling. Anything worth doing is hard, son. You simply have to decide if what you want is worth the effort. If it is, then you need to grit your teeth and keep at it until you succeed. I wrestled with my own demons when I was your age, Harry. I had the devil of a temper-"

"Had?" His son arched an eyebrow. "You still have one, Dad."

"True, but now it's controlled. When I was younger, it wasn't, and it brought me no end of trouble until I made up my mind to bring it under control. It took me years, but I finally succeeded and my temper does not rule me, the way my father's did him." He gave his son a semi-stern look. "Otherwise you'd have not been able to sit down for months, you incorrigible brat."

"Whatever you say, sir," Harry said, pretending meekness.

His father was not fooled. Those Sorted into Gryffindor were anything but meek. "Don't give me that, Harry. Your meek as milk facade might fool Dumbledore, but never me. What is going on in that head of yours, mister? Because I know you, you're planning something."

"I'm not, honest!"

Severus just stared at him. "And Quirrell was a saint. If it's anything to do with trying to summon an Animagus form, I'm going to tell you this once and only once. Do not try ANYTHING without me, don't go looking for information, or incantations, because you're not ready to cast that sort of spell yet. It requires a degree of concentration and control you haven't mastered yet and if you so much as speak a syllable of a shapechange spell, I will break my own rule and wallop you till you howl. An improperly cast Animagus spell can result in you becoming trapped in one form or inbetween forms and once that happens you could be stuck that way forever. It's happened to many a foolish apprentice before."

Harry gulped. "I understand, sir."

Severus fixed him with a sharp glower. "Don't test me on this, young man. I will not grant you any leniency, not with this. I cannot afford to, for as an Animagus, you must have full control over your emotions and your mind, without exception, otherwise your first transformation could be your last. So keep that in mind and if you are truly serious about learning to be an Animagus, you will practice controlling your impulsive streak and take the punishment I'm going to give you once you're recovered as a learning experience."

"Huh? But Dad, I almost drowned. Isn't that enough of a punishment?" Harry wheedled.

"If you were any other child, I would say certainly and more than enough. But you, fledgling, court death like a pretty girl courts kisses, and so I have to give you other consequences to ensure you remember to think before you act. It's your own fault, boy, so quit looking at me like I'm an ogre. You have a perfectly good head on your shoulders, if only you would use it for something except a battering ram. By the end of my punishment, you may be prepared to receive instruction in Animagus forms."

"You'd teach me?" Harry's eyes were shining.

Snape nodded. "If I thought you were ready."

"I will be," said his son, and his face was lit with a quiet determination. "Who taught you, Dad?"

"Professor McGonagall," answered the older wizard. "She tutored me relentlessly until she was sure I wouldn't kill myself transforming. Or once I had transformed, I wouldn't lose myself in the animal's mind."

Harry smiled to think of his father having McGonagall as a teacher. Then he resolved to do as Severus had said and practice controlling his impulses. The first one being the urge to whine about his upcoming punishment, whatever it was. Ever since he had discovered that his father was the magnificent cat that had saved him in the Forbidden Forest, he had longed to become an animal at will. And if discipline over mind and emotions was what it took to persuade Severus to teach him how to become an Animagus, Harry would do it. But first he would sleep, for he was still worn out from fighting the bronchitis he had developed.

"Okay, sir. I'll practice my control. Once I wake up." Then he yawned and turned over and slept.

* * * * * *

 

 

By the end of the week, Harry was fully recovered from his injuries and sickness. It was then that Severus revealed the punishment he had devised to keep his reckless son under wraps for the time being. He led Harry into his study, where he sat him down in front of his desk and stood over him, wearing what Harry called his "You're in Severe Trouble, Young Man" look, that always made his son feel like hiding somewhere in a deep dark hole.

"Since your actions have proven to me that you can't be trusted out alone without a keeper, Mr. Snape, you will now stay inside under either my eye or Rellah's for an entire week. You will have several chores to complete during this time, including scrubbing dishes and the bathrooms and assisting Rellah with whatever she requires. I believe a stint of peeling potatoes and hulling acorns and walnuts will teach you a lesson in patience. If you go anywhere out of our sight, you must tell us exactly where you are going, and you are not to be out of our sight for any more than ten minutes, unless it is bedtime. Speaking of which, you now actually have a bedtime, and it is eight-thirty sharp."

"Eight-thirty!" Harry blurted. "But sir, that's a bedtime for a little kid."

"Exactly. Which was just how you behaved, like a disobedient little child who needs to have adult supervision at all times. You don't like it? Next time don't go riding down rapids and nearly drowning. Be thankful I'm not making you hold my hand when we go outside to weed the garden and pick vegetables, young man."

"Hold your hand?" Harry repeated, aghast. He couldn't believe Severus had actually threatened that. Just the mere thought made him blush furiously, even though there was no one to see them save Rellah and some of her relatives. "No, sir, please. I'm not five, Dad."

"Then perhaps you ought to start acting like it. Am I understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"Now then, your first chore will be to come with me into my lab and wash and dry all of my beakers for me. After that, you'll do some spring cleaning with Rellah. Oh, and one more thing. Any sulky attitude and you'll double your punishment."

"Yes, sir." Harry said. "Guess this means no Nimbus."

"It does."

Severus turned and walked out of the study and Harry rose immediately and followed.

This punishment was awful, but Harry knew he deserved it and resolved to accept it with as good grace as he could manage.

But his eyes nearly fell out of his head when he saw the rows upon rows of beakers he was supposed to wash and dry.

"All of those?" he cried in dismay. "There must be like five hundred in here."

"No, one hundred and fifty-two. Well, I would suggest you get started, young man. Gaping like a dying fish never got anything clean. The soap is in the cabinet under the sink."

Harry bit back a groan and took some empty beakers and began to wash them, regretting he had ever taken the canoe out that day. And this was only the beginning.

* * * * * *

 

After lunch, where Severus relented a bit from his stern demeanor and actually smiled at his son, Harry was left to help Rellah, and the normally cheerful woodkin was rather curt with him and showed him how to hull acorns to make acorn flour, which was a prime ingredient in Rellah's famous bread.

Hulling acorns was tedious, but Harry soon discovered that the sameness helped him focus better on his task and he began to see the genius behind Severus's punishment. Bad as these chores were, they also were making him focus in a way he'd never had to before. Harry knew that such things were paramount to becoming an Animagus and he squelched the whiny selfish part of himself and concentrated on the task at hand.

The worst part of the punishment however was not the chores themselves, but being stuck inside for the most part and also having to report everything he did if he wasn't in view was really testing his resolve. He felt like he was in the bloody army. The impression was reinforced by Severus's "Report, Mr. Snape!" every time Harry had to go and do something, like fetch wood for the fire or go to the bathroom.

But he managed, by much gritting of his teeth and meditation, to accept his punishment with good grace and learn from it. That was, after all, the whole point of it.

At week's end Harry had scrubbed the house until it shone, peeled a whole bushelful of potatoes and learned how to preserve them from Rellah, ground and chopped myriads kinds of nuts till his hand were sore, washed all of Severus's beakers, weeded the garden with Severus, and done various other chores, all of them designed to develop focus, discipline and concentration. They were tedious and aggravating but they served to make Harry think about his actions and realize that he had indeed been foolish and reckless and to resolve to never do something like that again.

When Severus called him into his study that Sunday night, Harry said quickly, "Dad, there's something I want to say before you start talking. I know I already said I was sorry before about scaring you to death and all, but this time I want to tell you I'm sorry for being a dumbass and not thinking about how dangerous it could have been before I took the canoe out. Everything you said about me was true and I didn't like it, but I'll try and do better next time." He drew in a deep breath and added, "And I know that all those chores weren't just punishments, sir, they were meant to make me think, to teach me how to focus and concentrate, even though they were boring and a real pain in the bum. And umm . . .that's all."

The elder wizard raised an astonished eyebrow and was speechless for a moment. Then he smiled and said, "Now there's a true apology given by someone who is serious about becoming an Animagus. Now I can teach you."

Harry nearly shouted with glee. "Really? Thanks, Dad."

"I wouldn't thank me just yet," Severus chuckled warningly. "Because now you have extra reading to do." He indicated three large volumes on his desk. "I want you to study all three volumes before we begin ."

Harry took them. One volume was called Connecting With the Animal Within, another was called Animagi Through History, and the last was titled Betwixt and Between: A Warning for Would-be Animagi. "Should I take notes, sir?"

"What do you think, Mr. Snape?"

"Definitely," his son replied, looking at the books with an eager gleam in his eye that he had never had before.

Harry spent the better part of his days and nights immersed in the three volumes, proving that once he set his mind to it, he could devour books and retain information as well as Hermione. The first was a rough guide to figuring out what animal you were spiritually compatible with and a basic concept for discovering your Animagus form. The second was a history of Animagi, from their origins in ancient Egypt to the present, and the third was a series of cautionary tales that made Harry's blood run cold. For all the tales were of students who had woefully disobeyed their teachers or masters and attempted Animagus shape without being ready and had become hideously trapped either in a partial animal form, or in a combination of forms, or lost within an animal form forever.

After reading that book, he understood with crystal clarity the danger Severus had spoken of and vowed to follow Snape's instructions without fail, completely and utterly. They also had advanced meditation in the evenings, and Severus taught Harry how to painblock.

"You may need that skill one day, should you ever find yourself in a duel to the death. Also, when you shift for the first time, you'll hurt once you change back, and this will help you bear it. After the first time, though, it will be easier."

The ritual for finding an Animagus form was a simple one-you fasted and drank nothing save water and went alone somewhere to meditate for three days, chanting the same incantation over and over. If you were focused and had enough power, you would be able to summon the spirit of your Animagus form. It was an intensely private and personal moment and if you succeeded, you never forgot any detail of the spirit quest.

But it was another two weeks before both Severus and Harry determined that he was ready to attempt the ritual. "You must find a place that is safe before you attempt the trance, you'll know when you get there if it's the right one." Severus instructed on the morning of the third fast day. "Then remember to initiate a level two trance and start chanting and the rest is up to you, son. Good luck." He hugged Harry hard. "Remember two things, the first is don't forget to take off your clothes, because once you've connected with your spirit guide, you'll most likely transform and you don't want to rip your clothes to shreds. I'll teach you how to transform with clothes on later. And second, not every wizard succeeds at this, Harry, and if you don't you can try again next month. Either way, I'll be proud of you, fledgling."

The middle of the month when the moon was half full was considered a good time for a young wizard to seek his spirit animal form, according to the history book Harry had read.

Harry hugged his father back, feeling a warm glow spread through him at Severus's words, which were not ones he uttered lightly. "Thanks, Dad. See you soon." Then he turned and set off across the meadow.

He was feeling a little light-headed from not eating, but it really wasn't too bad, he was used to skipping meals and going without food for two to three days when he'd lived with the Dursleys, so he could ignore the clamoring of his stomach. He had a water bottle and his wand and that was all. He walked without knowing quite where he was going, through the meadow and into the woods, traveling parallel to the Silmareen for twenty minutes before his feet led him away and deeper into the forest.

From there he walked for another twenty minutes until he found a sun-dappled clearing that whispered of peace and serenity and called to him in a way he had never known before. There he stopped and began to remove his shirt, pants, underwear, everything. At first he was horribly self-conscious and kept starting at every little snap and crackle, wondering if some woodkin or sylph was watching, but he resolutely pushed that away and continued until he was bare. He carefully folded his clothes and placed them in a pile next to him before he sat down crosslegged, took his wand, and began chanting the incantation that would reveal his Animagus form.

"By water, earth, air, and fire, above and below, I call to thee. Come forth, spirit of my heart, show me the way. By flesh, blood, and bone, and the magic that is my life, I summon thee, soul kin. Come to me. Come to me."

He chanted this, all in Latin, three times, and with each repetition sank deeper and deeper into a trance -like state, until by the end of the third repetition he was not even aware of what he was saying, for he had gone deep withing himself, flying down a silvery path amid night time stars, to the heart of a forest deep within a mountain. And his wand blazed with rainbowed light that washed over his still form, haloing him in a corona of brilliant colors.

* * * * * *

 

He did not know how long he had been wandering, for time had no meaning here. A long way, he supposed, for he was feeling the pinch of hunger in his belly and his legs were sore from climbing, but these were minor inconveniences. He had come here, to this place, seeking something, something that he did not know, but would find nevertheless.
The earth was cool under his feet and the air had a strange bite to it, it tingled, like the first touch of frost upon an autumn day. There was a bite of winter in the air, but he shrugged it off. He could hear birds calling through the trees, and the quick pad of a fox or a mouse as it raced for cover, but all those noises he brushed aside. They meant nothing.

Abruptly, the trees were gone and he faced a sunlit meadow, where deer browsed at the edge and rabbits hopped. He gazed thoughtfully at the graceful deer and wondered if they were why he had come.

But no, the deer were beautiful, worthy of respect, but they did not ease the longing in his heart.

Come to me.

Come to me.

That refrain echoed in him, throbbing in time to the beat of his heart.

He waited, feeling something tugging, pulling, twisting inside of him.

Until he sensed more than saw something at the edge of his vision.

He turned his head and found his gaze captured by a sleek furred shape with burning green eyes.

"You. You are what I've come to find," he said, and knelt upon the ground.

"Yes. I am you and you are me. We are one."

Then the great snow leopard came forward and licked his face hard, drawing blood.

There was a moment's pain and then he felt the connection inside him flare to life.

"Come with me. Hunt with me, run with me, feel the earth beneath your paws, the hot scent of prey in your nostrils. You are grace and power and beauty, you are leopard. Come."

He could feel the longing swell within him, all the secret yearning of his heart. This was what he was meant to be, to do. He wanted this, oh yes, he did.

And yet, he must not surrender all, a small voice whispered.

He took a deep breath, willing the screaming urge to stillness.

"I will come with you. I will hunt and I will run but I will remain myself."

The snow leopard paused, then breathed upon him, once, twice, three times.

And with that he found himself transformed, his body reshaped, and reformed, to echo the inner spirit of the snow leopard that was his Animagus form.

* * * * * *

 

The rainbowed light faded abruptly and a fuzzy shape arose and stretched, yawning, from the grass beside a pile of clothes. The snow leopard cub squalled in triumph and crouched, tail twitching.

Then he pounced upon a leaf whirling in the breeze, graceful and clumsy at the same time.

I did it! I did it! Harry shouted delightedly and his snow leopard body raced around the meadow, jumping and pouncing at nothing, in a frenzy of delighted ecstasy.

He was so much more swift, his reaction a hundred times quicker than a human's. Scents were sharper, more pronounced, he was drunk on the smell of a buttercup. His eyes saw colors for which he had no name, since he had never seen them before with his weak human sight, and others that he had names for did not matter. He flicked an ear, and caught the squeak of a mouse, somewhere off to the left.

Suddenly he was ravenous, and crouched, belly low, and crept forward on silent paws.

He could smell the mouse, hidden though it was some ten feet away behind a small tussock. It's rich sweet scent filled his nostrils and he licked his lips silently and moved forward.

Closer and closer still.

The mouse did not move, perhaps it thought itself safe.

A quiver raced down his spine. He would teach it differently. He crouched low, almost dragging his belly on the ground, every muscle tense.

Wait. Wait.

NOW!

He sprang, claws unsheathed.

And missed, the mouse escaped by a hairsbreadth.

He gave a soft yowl of distress.

Then he padded back beside the clothes, sniffing and pawing at them.

They smelled . . .odd . . .but familiar. Mine. Mine.

He sat down atop them, his belly still grumbling annoyingly.

Then he recalled one place where he might get something to eat.

It was far, but there would be food.

He sprang up and trotted out of the meadow.

Some fifteen minutes later a rather worn and bedraggled snow leopard cub was standing on the back porch of Malachite Cottage, yowling impatiently and scratching at the door.

Suddenly he heard a soft huffing growl from behind him and he whirled, his fur all on end, to see a larger version of himself behind him.

His whiskers twitched and he hissed. Go away! This my place! Mine!

The bigger cat twitched his tail and gave a soft amused growl. Settle down, cub. It is both our place. Mine and yours.

He laid back his ears, and squalled angrily. No! Mine!

The big cat shook his head. Temper, cub. Come here.

The cub spat, but the command in the older cat's voice was impossible to ignore. He reluctantly crept off the porch and to the feet of the great leopard, whose paw was nearly the size of his whole body. Trembling slightly, he looked up into the big cat's face.  Was he in trouble? His ears lowered in apology.

Wraith bent his head and breathed gently upon the frightened cub. There now, little one. Do you not know me?

The cub sniffed. There was something familiar about this one. Something warm and comforting. He rubbed his nose into the bigger cat's chest and Wraith purred.

Yes. You are . . .my father.

Indeed. And you are sticky and full of burrs and need a bath. Wraith wrinkled his nose and suddenly the cub found himself pinned to the ground and a warm tongue washing him all over.

He wriggled and growled. No! Mrreow! I hate baths!

But he soon discovered it was futile to resist the older cat and the tongue groomed him throughly, much to his disgust.

There. Much better. Wraith rumbled, releasing his son at last.

The cub shook himself, indignant. Yuck! I hate baths! I'm hungry, Dad.

No doubt. I'll feed you in a moment. He gave the cub's head a last token lick and purred, Welcome home, Whisper.
Whisper? Is that my name?

It is. And I am Wraith.
Whisper cocked his head. My father. But . . .I had another name.
Yes. Can you remember what it is?

The cub thought hard. It was . . .It was . . .Harry. Harry James Snape.

And with that he felt himself shift and crackle and suddenly he was no longer a snow leopard cub, but an eleven-year-old boy. Blinking, he rubbed his eyes and looked around. "How did I get here? Wait . . .I remember . . ." He glanced around saw Wraith standing near him. "I was a snow leopard, like you, Dad. A cub." He was grinning from ear to ear. "I did it! I'm an Animagus!"

The snow leopard blurred and became Severus. "Congratulations, Harry. I had a feeling that would be your spirit form."

"You know what that means, right? It means we're spirit kin, according to the text I read." Harry said, pride and a heady sense of accomplishment sweeping through him. "I can't believe . . .I'm an Animagus!" He jumped to his feet, his green eyes glowing.

Severus chuckled. "And you're also stark naked in the middle of the garden, son."

Harry froze.

"Oh . . .err . . .I forgot . . ." he felt himself blush a deep red and then he turned and bolted inside.

Severus just stood there, pride warring with amusement.

Amusement won and he threw back his head and laughed. Oh, Harry! You really are something else!


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well . . .how did you like Harry's Animagus form?

next: While practicing his shifting, Harry makes a rather shocking discovery one morning in the meadow.



Chapter 31: Practice Makes Perfect
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Severus entered the house to discover Rellah wringing her hands agitatedly. "Master Sev, you best go and help your son, he ran through here like his backside was on fire, and when I followed and asked him where his clothes were he said ‘Somewhere in the woods. I'll get ‘em later' and then he started to put on some new ones and just fell on the ground. I asked him if he was all right, but he just snapped he was fine and I shouldn't worry, but I am worrying very much now. I think he has tried to do too much too soon after he was so sick."

Severus shook his head. "Rellah, he's just assumed his Animagus form, and you know how draining it is when you do that for the first time."

"Ah, yes!" the woodkin's eyes lit with startled comprehension. "He'll need a good dose of my Strengthening Tea, no doubt, and some rare meat and spinach . . ." She bustled off into the pantry to gather what she needed and Severus heaved a sigh and went towards Harry's bedroom.

He found his son still sitting on the floor, trying without success to pull his jeans on.

"Dad, what's wrong with me?" he cried, all his earlier euphoria vanished. Now he was perilously close to tears. "I can't . . .I feel so weak, my arms feel like wet noodles, and I hurt all over, like somebody pulled my arms and legs out of their sockets . . ."

Severus knelt and gently helped his son take his jeans off. Harry went red in embarrassment.

"Harry, remember when I told you once you changed back from your Animagus form, you'd be in pain?"

"Yeah, but I never thought it'd be like this. I can barely move. Ow!" He yelled when Severus began to massage his leg. "Oooh . . .no, don't . . ."

"Hush. It'll feel better soon. This is the price you pay for assuming another shape, son. The first few times you change back, it's going to hurt like a bitch. Close your eyes and find your center, Harry." He urged, rotating Harry's feet slowly, wincing as he heard the muscles in his son's ankles crackle.

Harry obeyed. Closing his eyes, he found his way back to the den of the cottage and into Snape's arms. Almost immediately the raw burning ache and throbbing pain lessened.

"Take deep breaths. Good. Now breathe out, five times." Severus counted slowly, helping his son to go into the trance-state so he could block the worst of the pain from his transformation.

Harry slipped into the second level of his meditation trance, and imagined himself in a room with cool blue walls and when he touched them, they were cold and he absorbed the cold into himself and sped it to all the screeching pain-filled muscles, numbing them and soothing them.

After ten minutes, he could feel the worst of the pain ebb, and Severus gently picked him up and put him on his bed. He didn't even register when the professor whisked off his underwear and applied some Muscle Reliever, working it well into the calves, thighs, shoulders, back and arms. Then Snape replaced Harry's clothing and turned him over, tapping his face and calling, "Harry, open your eyes. You can painblock without going to sleep."

Harry opened his eyes reluctantly. He still ached, but it was nothing like before. "Why do I hurt this way, Dad?"

"Because you've just reshaped all of your muscles and bones and organs into something much smaller and totally different than you and then back again. That is the price one pays for shifting shape the first few times. But with practice, your body will adjust until you won't hurt at all when you change. But for now, why don't we go into the kitchen, Rellah was very alarmed when you collapsed and wants to see you and feed you as well."

Harry let Severus go first, even with the Muscle Reliever and his painblock in place, he was stiff and sore as a ninety-year-old man. He tottered down the hall on shaky legs, grimacing. Ow! Even my bum hurts. He reached back and rubbed it, figuring it must hurt because of the tail he'd had as a cub. Even so, he wouldn't trade the exhilarating feeling he had felt upon becoming the snow leopard cub Whisper for anything. Buck up, Harry. No pain, no gain.

When he arrived in the kitchen, he found Severus already seated and Rellah busy dishing up some delicious smelling beef stew and crusty rolls. To his surprise, his normal place had been covered with a soft cushion from the couch and in front of his place was a large plate of rare roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, spinach, and a cup of some odd-smelling tea, at least Harry thought it was tea. "Huh? How come we've got different dinners?"

"Because, young master, you need to eat hearty after you've been shifting shapes," answered Rellah. "Especially the apprentices like you. Changing forms takes a great lot of energy out of you, and you're thin as a willow sapling t'start with, so you just sit down and eat what's there, hear?"

"Yes, Rellah," Harry said, pretending to be cowed, though he was hiding a grin. He peered at the tea. "Uh, what's this stuff?"

"That is my special Strengthening tea, Master Harry. ‘Twill put some starch back in you and give you some energy. Mind you drink it all." The woodkin was perched on her accustomed seat on a chair back, eating a piece of bread with honey. She did not tend to eat very much or very often with them, though he had heard Severus offer her a place at the table many times.

Harry made a face, then chuckled over the woodkin's antiquated speech. "Put some starch in me, huh? I'm not a shirt, y'know."

"Are you makin' fun of me, young master?" Rellah demanded, giving him a sharp glance.

"Who, me?" Harry tried to look innocent but failed utterly when he began to giggle. "Really, Rellah! I'm almost afraid to drink this .. . what if I go all stiff and starchy . . .?" he sniggered into his hands.

"Why, then I'd just hang you out on the line and beat some of the starch right out o' you, Master Harry," the woodkin replied slyly, her grass green eyes glimmering. "Quit makin' fun o' me, you rascal!"

"Okay . . .I'll try."

Rellah reached over and tweaked his ear, not hard enough to really hurt, but more of a warning.

Harry's eyes went wide. "Ouch!" he rubbed his ear. He shot a look at Severus, half-questioning and half-indignant.

"Don't look at me to get you out of trouble this time, fledgling. If you can't mind your mouth around a woodkin, you deserve whatever you get." Severus resumed eating calmly, ignoring the sound of Harry's jaw hitting the table.

"Thanks so much," Harry muttered. "I was just kidding, Rellah."

"I know that, young master. Otherwise I'd have really tweaked your ear," Rellah said, and gave him a sweet smile.

Harry flinched and quickly picked up his fork and started eating. He was starving, fasting for three days and then summoning his Animagus form really worked up an appetite. But he ate slowly, recalling the many times he'd made himself sick from eating too quickly after a period of enforced fasting at the Dursleys. He also sipped at the tea, finding it tasted pretty good, kind of like mint and orange and some other spices he couldn't name.

Severus paused and said, "You might want to take a hot bath and use that Muscle Reliever again before you go to sleep. Just like when I made you run laps during our Defense lessons, it'll help you unknot those stiff muscles. As a rule, new Animagi shouldn't attempt another change until after twenty-four hours have gone by since the last one. Once a day for about two months is the most you should shift, so your body has time to adjust to the change and you learn to control the animal instinct. Any more than that and you run the risk of something going wrong."

"Is there a limit as to how long I should stay a leopard?"

"Ah, there's where I disagree with conventional wisdom. A conservative teacher would say you should spend no more than four hours in your Animagus form, but I say it depends on the student. If you show a real aptitude for the form and are able to retain your sense of self, I say you should remain in the form for six hours or more if necessary. Practice makes perfect."

"Dad, please!" Harry groaned, nibbling on his pudding. "That is so overused."

"Your point?" Severus arched an eyebrow.

Harry shook his head. "Forget it. Were you this sore when you first changed?"

"Yes. Like I said before, that is the price a wizard pays for assuming another form at first. There is no getting around it. That is why a master monitors a student Animagus so closely during the first month of transformation. Whenever you shift, I shall be with you, watching and instructing, either as Wraith or my true form."

"How old were you?"

"Thirteen, a little older than you are now."

"And did . . .did Professor McGonagall . . .did she give you that same salve you gave me?"

"She did and a massage also," Severus replied without even a hint of embarrassment. "It is the responsibility of an Animagus instructor to see to the well-being of his or her student. Minerva takes her duties very seriously, like I do."

Harry nearly fell over, trying to wrap his brain around that little tidbit of information. He took a quick gulp of tea and nearly choked himself. Severus reached over and gave him a quick smack between the shoulderblades and tilted his chin up.

"All right now?" Harry nodded, flushing. "Next time don't drink so fast."

"Dad, if you have to be there all the time when I change, why weren't you there the first time?"

"What makes you think I wasn't?" inquired his father slyly.

"But . . .but you said I had to do it alone!"

"And so you did. You alone cast the spell to call forth your Animagus form and then transformed. But I was watching not far away, making sure nothing distracted you and when you became a cub I made sure you were adjusted to the cat's mind. Some people find it difficult to adjust between forms, the animal instincts tend to overwhelm them or they fight them, making the change more difficult. You, however, seem to be a natural at it. You had no trouble adjusting that I could tell, from the way you moved and acted."

Harry felt like he'd just won a million Galleons. "I did?"

"Yes. One in five hundred thousand have that ability. You are one, Professor McGonagall and I are others. I think you inherited your ability from your parents. Your father was a natural Animagus as well, his form was a stag. He was called Prongs."

"Wow! Sounds cool. Was my mum one too?"

"Yes, she was a fox, and she was also a natural. Her name was Flare. That would explain why you have an aptitude for shifting. Such things are often inherited."

Severus smiled slightly, recalling the pretty red vixen that had been Lily, running like a streak of wildfire across the grounds, challenging him to come and find her. He did not bother telling Harry that both his parents had been unregistered Animagi, and had learned to shift by sheer chance. Severus had been shocked when Lily had told him that James had shown her how to change and they had been doing so without any master's supervision. He had begged her to stop and tell McGonagall, but she had refused, not wanting to get James in trouble, and then they had quarreled and didn't speak to each other for two days until Severus apologized for his sharp tongue and Lily for her temper and agreed to let him instruct her properly. It had been during those lessons that he had finally realized he loved her as much more than a friend.

Ah, those were the days, when we were young and innocent, and hunted and chased each other through the forest for fun, before Voldemort returned and tainted everything.

Severus finished his supper with a pang of nostalgic longing.

"Dad, will you teach me how to hunt as a cub? I tried to get a mouse today, but I missed." Harry admitted sheepishly, drinking the remainder of his tea.

"I saw. That's normal, son. Snow leopards are born with the instinct to stalk prey, but not the ability to catch it, they have to be taught by their mothers or fathers. I shall give you some pouncing lessons tomorrow."

"Thanks, can't wait." Harry said, and grinned like an idiot, he was that excited. He could barely wait for night to fall and he ended up going to bed early, the hot bath and the salve had served to make him very tired.

* * * * * *

The next morning he was so eager to practice changing forms, despite his soreness, that he would have skipped breakfast but for his father, who caught him just as he was about to go out the back door and said, "Hold it, boy. You go nowhere until you eat something. Changing forms on a full stomach is a must."

"Aww, Dad! I'm not hungry."

"Eat anyway." Snape ordered implacably and marched his son back to the table.

Harry gave him a dark look from under his lashes and muttered something about certain people fussing worse than his grandmother. A second later he felt a sharp swat on his bum and he jumped.

"Did I just hear someone volunteer to scrub cauldrons instead of practicing shifting?"

"No, sir," Harry said quickly, rubbing his bottom.

"Sit and eat," his father ordered briskly, today's breakfast was oatmeal with raisins and nuts and maple syrup and English Breakfast tea.

Harry slid into his chair, pouting a little. Then he smelled the oatmeal and realized he was hungry after all and ate the entire bowl without further urging.

Severus took Harry back to the clearing in the woods where he had first discovered his Animagus self and had him go through meditation exercises first before allowing him to change into Whisper. Severus made sure Harry was centered and focused before bidding him remove his clothes and change.

Harry hesitated, a tad embarrassed about stripping down right in front of Severus, though he knew perfectly well the other man had seen him naked plenty of times.

Sensing his son's awkwardness, Severus turned around. "Go on, Harry, for the love of Merlin. I won't look, though God knows this wouldn't be the first time I've seen you au natural."

Harry blushed and didn't reply, he knew he was being ridiculous, it was only Severus, and yet he couldn't help feeling awkward. "When can you teach me how to change with clothes on, Dad?"

"When I'm sure you've mastered the basics. You can shift now."

Harry did so, concentrating hard on the way he felt when he was Whisper, the cub's endless curiosity and zest for life, how the ground felt beneath his paws, and the smell of the meadow and the rustle of leaves in the wind.

He pictured Whisper in his mind and then overlayed his own image on it and merged the two.

Suddenly there was a strange tugging sensation and the next instant he was the gangly cub, all big feet and long tail. He whirled about, pouncing at shadows, unable to be still.

A second later Wraith was beside him, watching his antics with indulgence.

Until the playful cub pounced on his tail and bit down.

Wraith let out a sharp growl of reproof and turned about. Whisper, no biting!

The cub let go of Wraith's tail with a squeak and rolled over on his back, all four feet in the air. Sorry. Don't be mad, Dad.

Wraith came over and nudged the rambunctious cub sternly. Come, troublemaker. I shall show you something far better to stalk than my tail. Up with you now, cub.

Whisper rolled to his feet and followed his father further across the small meadow. Where are we going, Dad? Is it far? Will we find mice there? I like mice, they smell good. Do they taste good too?

You'll never find out if you keep mewing, little one. Hush! Otherwise the only mouse you'll catch is the one in your dreams. Wraith rumbled.

Whisper hung his head. ‘Kay. Sorry.

Wraith led his son to a small patch of dirt just at the edge of the clearing where he knew a mouse lived, actually a whole colony of mice lived there. The large leopard slipped around the hole and crouched at the edge of the trees, his fur blending in with shadows like magic. Whisper tried to copy him, but found crouching and waiting to be very hard.

When can we pounce, Dad? Now? Now? He wriggled his rump and twitched his tail in anticipation. He could smell the mice but not see them.

Be still, cub! rebuked the older leopard and Whisper cringed and mewed an apology.

A second later, a pink nose poked its way up out of the burrow and a gray mouse emerged, whiskers twitching nervously. It paused for what seemed like an eternity before it ventured a few feet away from the burrow, sniffed, and froze.

A mouse! A mouse! Look, Dad! Look!

Whisper would have sprang at the mouse then and ruined it all had not Wraith put out a paw and pinned him to the earth.

Patience, son. Wait.

But Dad! There it is!

I see it. But it doesn't see me. Wait. A good hunter is patient. Spring too soon and you will lose all.

Wraith let the mouse get as far as ten feet before he launched himself at it in a leap so quick that all the mouse could do was squeak and try and run, too late since the leopard was already upon it. He killed it with a single claw and then brought it back to Whisper.

Here. A snack.

Whisper looked up at the big cat in awe. Mrrow! You're the best mouse catcher, Dad! Then he ate the mouse, while Wraith watched and purred softly.

Afterwards, the cub bounded over to his father and looked up at him with huge imploring eyes. Can I try this time? Can I? Ple-e-ease?

Can you remember what you have to do?

Of course! You be still, like this. The cub crouched down and was still as a statue. Then you wait and wait forever and ever and when you see a mouse you jump on it. Whisper's nose twitched eagerly as he smelled the mice down the burrow. His tail began to switch back and forth as he became more and more impatient.

Wraith purred calmness at him, and he struggled to remain still.

Suddenly his attention was drawn to a large fluttery blue and purple thing and without even being aware of it, Whisper sprang after it.

His claws just grazed it and it fluttered away.

Whisper raced after it, yowling happily. Butterfly! Butterfly! Come back silly flutter thing! Play with me!

The cub chased the butterfly all over the meadow, coming close but never catching it.

Wraith lay down, huffing faintly in exasperation. Cubs! They have the attention span of a gnat.

After some ten minutes of running and leaping, Whisper halted and trotted over to Wraith, who was snoozing lightly with his head on his paws.

Whisper sniffed and hissed. Ah ha! Mighty hunter stalks sleeping father.

He slunk down and crept forward.

Wraith slept on, unaware of the sneaky cub.

Whisper crept closer and closer, then he pounced!

Right onto Wraith's head.

The big cat woke up with a roar and jerked his head back.

Whisper landed on his father's back and mewed, digging his little claws into the thick pelt for balance.

Wraith snarled irritably, whipped his head around and lifted his cub off of his back. He set the mischievous little thing inbetween his paws and gave him a very disappointed glare. What's this, have I suddenly become a chew toy?

Whisper flattened his ears and gazed at the other's paws. No- o -o. Sorry, Dad, didn't mean it, sorry. It was a game.

A very silly one. You need a bath again.

Whisper backed away, squalling. He tried to run, but Wraith was very quick and caught him after five minutes.

The large cat lifted him by the scruff, carried him over to a sunny spot and lay down, corralling the stubborn feline between his forefeet. Whisper made a final bid for freedom, but Wraith nipped him and he stopped trying to get away and let the older male wash him, grumbling all the while over it.

Afterwards, Whisper lay sleepily against the snow leopard's chest while Wraith groomed himself, purring. Together, father and son drowsed in the afternoon sun.

But all too soon, Wraith ordered his son to think of that other name and remember a small skinny boy with jet black hair and green eyes-his other self. Change back, Harry. Now, son.

Aww, but I don't wanna. I like being here.

I know, but now it's time to change back. Like this.

And between one breath and the next Wraith had become a tall man in midnight pants and a green shirt. "Your turn."

Whisper huffed and growled, but in the end he too shifted forms.

This time Harry got his clothes on and managed to walk halfway back to the house before the muscle spasms hit and Snape had to carry him.

Harry turned his face into his father's shoulder to hide the tears that trickled down his cheeks, but Severus knew anyway and murmured comfortingly, "It'll pass, child. Trust me. The first and second time is always the hardest."

The young wizard took comfort in that, for Severus never lied to him, and gritted his teeth and let the tears fall, yet still a small smile curved up his lips as he recalled playing and stalking with Wraith, and suddenly the pain was nothing more than a nuisance he must endure.

He counted five breaths and painblocked and then smiled. Yes, he hurt, but oh it was so worth it!

* * * * * *

By the end of a week, the pain when Harry shifted forms was minimal, enough so he could bear it without using the salve and he only needed the meditation techniques. He loved his Animagus form and would have stayed in it all day if Severus would have allowed it. The older Snape made him change forms at various times of the day and occasionally the night as well, so he could get used to shifting with different temperatures and degrees of light. He even made Harry shift once during a light rainstorm, because you never knew when you'd have to change forms in a hurry.

Harry loved the nighttime the best, it was so much easier to stalk things and sneak up on Wraith and grab his tail. The older leopard was quite tolerant of the cub's silly endless games of stalk and hide, and would play with him for hours, but occasionally he grew tired of the youngster's jumping all over him like a cricket and scolded him with a soft growl. Normally, that reproof would be all the cub needed to bring him back in line, for the animal instinct was strong to obey an elder. But Whisper wasn't totally a snow leopard and sometimes his purely human side would take over and then he would get in real trouble.

Such as the time he had climbed halfway up a tree in pursuit of a squirrel, panicked, and couldn't get down. He had yowled loudly in terror, waking Wraith from his cozy nap and bringing the older cat bounding through the trees to rescue the disobedient furball.

After plucking the cub off of the tree, the big cat had brought him back to the meadow, carrying him by the scruff. Did I not tell you to stay in the meadow and no wandering off, youngling?

Ye-es . . .b-but Dad it was a squirrel and I wanted to catch it, Whisper whimpered, sounding remarkably like a human child caught out in some mischief.

So you deliberately disobeyed me and ran after it, and climbed a tree you know you shouldn't have been climbing as well, hmm? Wraith eyed the cub with one of his awful Looks and the little cat flattened his ears and looked pitiful.

The scolding would have been all the cub would have gotten then, but suddenly Whisper blurted defiantly, But nothing happened, Dad, so what are you overreacting for? I was only stuck in the tree for like five minutes, tops.

Nothing happened? You were damn lucky that I got to you first and not a wyvern or a manticore, because they could hear you screeching plain as day. When I tell you to do something, I expect you to obey, it is never for nothing and always for your own safety, you foolish child! Do you want to end up as a wyvern's midnight snack?

No. But-

Then next time do as I say.

Fine, Whisper mewed, but there was still defiance in his tone.

Wraith sensed it and decided that further consequences were necessary, and gave the rebellious Animagus a tap on the rump with his paw. It wasn't very hard, but the cub wasn't expecting it and the sudden sting made him jump and yowl.

Ye-ow! You spanked me! Owww!

That was a reminder. Now adjust the attitude.

Okay, okay. I'm sorry. The cub whimpered, rolling over and feeling very sorry for himself. He made small whining noises, hurt and ashamed and shocked, for Wraith had never lost his temper like that before. He sniffed and gave his father a sulky stare from his bluish-gold eyes. That really hurt, Dad.

So would you being eaten by a wyvern. Now quit being overdramatic, it was a smack not a beating.

So? It stung.

Come here, scamp. Wraith sighed, and nuzzled the cub and licked him, soothing the sting away. All's forgiven, now hush and take a nap.

‘Kay, Dad. The repentant cub sniffled and then snuggled into the big leopard's chest, listening to Wraith purring him a snow cat lullaby, and falling fast asleep.

When they returned to the house later on that day, Harry avoided looking at his father for the better part of an hour, hiding behind his Quidditch book. He had gotten his Nimbus back a week before, but he hadn't flown much since discovering he was an Animagus. The lure of the snow leopard shape was addicting, which was another reason why an apprentice Animagus was monitored so closely during the first two months of learning to transform. There was always danger that the apprentice might succumb to the shape entirely and lose themselves inside the Animagus form, and once that happened, it was nearly impossible for anyone to retrieve them, for a change had to be initiated voluntarily, with a wizard's full participation.

Severus however knew the warning signs of an apprentice obsessed with his Animagus form, they quit eating and sleeping and had no interest in anything save when they transformed. Harry displayed a healthy longing for his other shape, but was not obsessing over it, and he never refused Severus when he told him to shift forms. Protested, yes, but never an outright refusal.

He eyed his son, sensing that Harry was embarrassed over something, but not knowing quite what it was. True, he had scolded and smacked his son, but that was nothing new, and he didn't think that was anything for Harry to be embarrassed over. Still, he could tell something was bothering the boy. "Harry? Is there something the matter?"

Harry looked up from his book and sighed. "It's just . . .this is stupid, I guess, but . . .when I got in trouble today, I overreacted I guess . . .when you swatted me, I mean. I cried like a little four-year-old, Dad." Harry looked down at his socks, biting his lip. "I'm never like that. I don't understand . . ."

"Ah. You think your reaction was inappropriate for an eleven-year-old?"

"Yeah. I mean it was just a smack, sure it stung and all, but it's supposed to and I've had worse from Aunt Marge."

"Harry, you forget that as Whisper you are a mere cub, perhaps three to four months old. I don't know the equivalent in human years, but I'd say a three month cub equals a four-year -old. So it would only make sense that as Whisper, you have the reactions and emotional responses of a four-year-old. And almost all four-year-old's cry when a parent smacks them."

"I never did. I wasn't allowed," Harry told his father softly, still not meeting his gaze.

Severus leaned forward slightly in his recliner, they were relaxing in the den, and Harry was sprawled on the couch. "Harry, the way your . . .relatives-" Severus made it plain that he would have rather used another word entirely to describe the Dursleys. "-treated you was anything but normal. They shouldn't have been trusted to raise a canary, much less a child. It's perfectly normal for a child to cry and make a fuss over being punished, especially when four or five or six. Children don't know how to suppress emotions, and they shouldn't be taught to either. What those people did to you was wrong, son, and you shouldn't feel ashamed over reacting to my punishment by crying and whining, it didn't surprise me at all, for that's what a four-year-old would do."

"You told me to stop being overdramatic."

"Yes, because you were feeling sorry for yourself. I can't stand self-pity. But I didn't tell you not to cry, now did I?"

"No. But it still feels . . .weird."

Severus nodded. "I know. I hardly ever cried as a child, for the same reasons you didn't, Harry. Tears only brought more whippings, my father hated crybabies. Even so, I learned that what my father taught me was dead wrong. There is no shame in tears, son. It took me years to learn that lesson also, your mother helped me, in fact. So don't be embarrassed if you react like a four-year-old as Whisper instead of your true age. That's one of the drawbacks of having an Animagus form, there often is a discrepancy between the ages of the human and animal forms."

"Will I grow up as a leopard, Dad?"

"Yes, though you will age differently. By the time you are twelve I estimate you'll be between six and seven months old as Whisper. When you're thirteen you'll be eight months old and so forth. That's an approximation, by the way, since no one's actually tried to correlate ages between forms before. Your emotional growth should be similar."

Harry nodded, though he still felt slightly uncomfortable.

"You know, Harry, I used to tell Sev when he was little that tears were God's way of making sure everyone knew when you were hurt or sad, so then they could help you." Eileen put in from her place on the wall. "Maybe you're a little old for that advice, but I thought you might like to hear it."

Harry smiled up at the portrait. "Thanks, Gran." Eileen didn't always chime in to their conversations, but when she did, it was usually because she had something important to say, and Harry always listened closely to her, and so did Severus. He had to admit, it still felt kind of strange, having a father who cared so much about him and a talking portrait for a grandmother, but he wouldn't trade them for all the so-called "normal" families in the world.

He curled up contentedly on the couch and finished reading the Quidditch book Ron had given him earlier in the year. Perhaps he should write his friends and let them know what he'd been doing? Before he could think of anything more, he found his eyes closing.

Severus gently removed the book from Harry's hand and tucked an afghan around him. "Just when I think he's adjusting nicely, he goes and throws something like that at me and I'm reminded all over again that nothing was ever normal for him," Severus murmured.

"Or for you either, though I tried my best to shield you from Tobias," Eileen sighed sadly. "He's been hurt badly, Sev, but he's mending, slowly but surely. He'll heal. All he needs is your love and support and time. Those are what I wished I could have given you, son."

Severus turned and looked at his mother's picture with a fierce love. "You did the best you could with what time you had, Mum. Nothing in my life has ever been easy, but that is how it is. Like someone once said, Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Don't blame yourself for not being there for me, Mum. It was your time."

"Thanks, Severus. I was afraid you hated me for dying when you were only thirteen."

"Hate you? Never. I was resentful and angry for a little while, I'll admit, but once Minerva explained to me that you had no choice in the matter, I stopped feeling like that. I miss you, but I would never hate you, Mother. You were as much a victim as I was, and you were the one thing in that house that made living there bearable."

Eileen smiled at her son, looking like she were about to cry. "Oh, Sev. If there had been a way for me to leave more of myself behind than this portrait, I would have."

"Don't, Mum. Regrets don't serve any purpose. What's done is done. Tomorrow's a new day. I'd better put him to bed, he'll get a crick in his neck from sleeping in that position." He scooped Harry up and carried him off to bed, and Eileen watched until they were out of her sight, thinking how remarkable it was for Severus and Harry to be so close, when both of them had trouble expressing themselves. Then again, this was Malachite Cottage, where dreams were born.

* * * * * *

Three weeks later:

Harry stood in the meadow, eyes shut, trying to concentrate. Severus had told him the way to transform with clothes was to imagine yourself with them on when you shifted. Thus far, Harry had not been concentrating hard enough, and the only thing that transformed that time was a cap and boots. At least this time he was prepared and swiftly entered the third level trance. From there he transformed to Whisper, bounding everywhere, a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

Even though Harry took to his Animagus form like a duck takes to water, Severus never left him alone when he did so. Sometimes Harry felt as though he were five and needed an adult's permission to walk across the cottage or the meadow. It irked him, even though he knew why Severus was behaving that way.

This time he forced himself to concentrate hard, imagining himself with his jeans, shirt, shoes, and underclothes, focusing on how the clothing felt before he overlay the image with the snow leopard cub. Once more, he felt the tingling of the change and then he opened his eyes and found the world looking bigger through the cub's eyes.

He sniffed and smelled the delectable scent of a bird upon the breeze and wished he were old enough to hunt on his own. But he knew better than to test his father by running off again. Wraith appeared silently at the meadow's edge and Whisper sprang at him, mock-growling.

They tussled playfully for quite awhile, the larger cat careful to use the merest fraction of his strength when he played with the cub, cuffing him gently and rolling him over, allowing the smaller cat to climb up his back and gnaw upon his ears and chew his paws lazily. In short, Wraith allowed Whisper to take shameless advantage of him, retaliating just enough to make it interesting, but never truly hurting the little cub.

Even so, Whisper was panting and thirsty after twenty minutes of playing King of the Castle with his father, and Wraith took the cub down to the Silmareen for a drink, admonishing the irrepressible youngster to stay close and not fall in the river.

Once Whisper had drunk his fill, Wraith pulled the cub towards him and licked him, grooming his fur. Stay still. Wriggling and complaining won't get your bath over with any quicker.

Aww, Dad! Why are you always giving me baths? It's not like I roll in the mud like a dog.

No, but your fur gets matted and therefore needs to be groomed and if you won't see to it yourself, then I have to. Now quit squirming! Wraith growled, nipping the cub in warning.

Whisper whimpered and sniffled, even though the nip hadn't been all that sharp, he hated when his father punished him. But he stopped trying to get away and submitted to Wraith's ministrations.

Finally the elder leopard was satisfied that his son's coat was clean and untangled, and he released the little mischief-maker. Whisper shook himself and began to stalk a bug crawling along the ground, when he heard some unfamiliar yips and barking. His jerked his head up and peered around. Huh? What's that?

That is the sound of Ebony the onyx fox and her kits coming to drink, Wraith answered, yawning. We will have company soon, so be on your best behavior.

Okay, Dad.

In another three minutes a large midnight fox came through the brush, she was about the size of a beagle, followed by her three cub, all of them black as night, save for one who sported a white star on her forehead. The fox family drew up sharply when they caught sight of the two snow leopards.

Good afternoon, Wraith, Ebony barked politely, for she knew the snow leopard from his various rambles in and out of the forest. It has been a few moons since I have seen you here. I hope your hunting has been good.

It has, Mistress Ebony, Wraith replied, his golden eyes gleaming. You seem to have acquired a few family members since last we met.

Ebony sat up tall and proud, barking to her cubs to come and say hello to the big cat. Children, say good afternoon and hello to Wraith the snow leopard. He is an old friend of mine and will not harm you. The kits nervously crept forward until they were sitting next to their mother. Master Wraith, these are my kits. My son next to me is Shadow, his sister beside him is Glisten, and my youngest daughter is Starmist, for the white star upon her brow. They were born three moons ago and are quite big and clever for their age, if I do say so myself.

The kits panted, eyeing Wraith uneasily, until the snow leopard rumbled, Good afternoon, young ones.

Good afternoon, Master Wraith! The foxes yipped.

And who is your little one? Ebony asked curiously, for Whisper had become suddenly shy and was hiding behind his father's leg.

This is my son, Whisper. Wraith purred, then turned and nudged the reluctant cub until he was facing the onyx fox and her family. Manners, cub. Say hello to Ebony and her family.

Whisper wrinkled his nose and sneezed, then said softly, Hi, my name is Whisper. Pleased to meet you.

Ebony trotted over to sniff noses and said, Well met, young cub. You resemble your father a great deal.

Mama, I'm thirsty! yipped Shadow.

Me too, me too! barked the other two.

You may go and drink, but mind you don't jump into the river.

Yes, Mama, they chorused, then they raced down to the river to drink their fill.

Whisper watched them, especially after they started playing together, and wondered if he could play too. Dad, can I go play with them? Please? Please?

Wraith considered then nodded. You may. But be careful, Whisper. Remember they are smaller and fragile, so do not play too hard, son.

I'll remember. Then the cub sprang down the hill and joined the three foxes in some kind of game similar to stalk and hide.

The two adult animals watched their offspring playing for several minutes before Ebony said quietly, I know this is none of my business, but usually it is the mother who tends to the cub of your species, is it not?

Yes, most of the time. However, Whisper's mother is dead, and so it falls to me to raise him.

Ah. Forgive me for opening old wounds, my friend. Losing your mate is hard.

Yes. But we're managing so far.

You seem to be doing a fine job with him. Far better than my mate Swift could do if I was gone, Ebony laughed.

The two returned to watching their children playing. They were having a glorious time, running, jumping, wrestling and stalking. The fox kits tried to swarm the bigger snow leopard, but Whisper was too quick and avoided the sneaky kits.

They played until they were tired, then they all lay in a heap on the ground.

Wraith and Ebony eyed them indulgently, then all too soon, Wraith said it was time to leave.

Aww, Dad! Three more minutes.

Please, sir?

Please?

Very well, but only three more minutes.

Yay! cheered the young kits.

All too soon, it was over and Whisper heard his father's voice, bidding him to come home.

I wanna stay some more, Dad, begged Whisper.

No, son. It's time to leave. Come along now, you can play with the fox kits some other day.

Whisper dawdled and whined until Wraith gave him a pointed Look and then he came over to his father's side. Do we have to go? I was having so much fun!

Yes, but you'll see them another time. Now say goodbye.

Whisper obeyed and Ebony rounded up her brood as well. They all bid each other goodbye and best wishes and then Wraith and Whisper headed back towards the cabin. Harry had suddenly become aware that his stomach was grumbling and together father and son went inside to make lunch. Both were very pleased with the progress Harry had made so far, after all practice makes perfect.


 



Chapter End Notes:


So how did you like this one?


Next: Harry makes a shocking discovery
.



Chapter 32: A Shocking Discovery
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Ever since learning how to summon his Animagus form and transform a month ago, Harry discovered his sense of smell, sight, and hearing were amplified. Sounds were clearer and his vision, which had been excellent before thanks to the surgery, was now even sharper, especially his night vision. As for his sense of smell, that was improved fivefold from what it had been. His reactions and movement was changed slightly as well, he walked quieter and more gracefully than he had previously.

When he asked Severus about these things, the older wizard explained that most Animagi experienced a kind of "overlap" when it came to their animal form's senses, after they had been practicing for a month or so, their human senses became more acute and occasionally so did their movements. Now Harry understood better why Snape always seemed to hear the slightest whisper during class and how he managed to move like a ghost.

Though there were good points about his enhanced senses, Harry discovered there was a downside too, as he tended to startle at unseen noises now or abrupt movements, things which he wouldn't have registered two weeks ago were now quite distracting to him. The wind blowing through the trees now sounded like something screaming and he could hardly sleep at night sometimes. He could smell the dinner they had eaten last night still in the air and the whirl of a mote of dust was enough to make him jump if he saw it out of the corner of his eye. It was enough to drive him insane.

"How can I turn it off?" he asked Severus after they had returned from another ramble in the forest. He was rubbing his ear, for he could hear quite clearly the subdued roar of the Silmareen, even though the river was miles away from the house.

"You can't, I'm afraid. Heightened senses are an Animagus's gift. What you can do is learn to block most of the extraneous noise out." Severus said. "It's most acute when you first start shifting, then it fades a little, but your senses will always be sharper than normal."

"That's how you can hear people whispering in class without looking, right? And how you can move so quick without using magic."

"Yes. The snow leopard form gives me a heightened sense of smell, sight, and hearing and also grace and speed and I am somewhat stronger than a normal man." Severus informed him. "Come, Harry. I can teach you how to compartmentalize your mind, so that all the stimulus you're processing doesn't overwhelm you."

He led Harry into the den and walked him through the basic meditation exercises. Then, once Harry was centered and focused, Severus showed him how to take the sound of the Silmareen he'd been hearing and to put it in a small box in his mind, along with the other distracting noises. It took about fifteen to twenty minutes for Harry to do that and once it was done, he found the volume of noise and scents and so forth to be dulled slightly, enough so he wasn't startled all the time. It was a vast improvement.

"No wonder some Animagi go insane," Harry muttered, wiping a sheen of sweat from his brow, for it was nearing the middle of July, and even in these mountains, summer was swelteringly hot.

"And that is why a fledgling Animagus must always have a proper master to teach him," Severus said. "So things like that don't happen. Your mother and father were very lucky not to get themselves in serious trouble experimenting with their Animagus shapes."

"I wonder how they figured everything out on their own?" Harry mused.

"They didn't. I instructed your mother the way Professor McGonagall did me, and she in turn passed on my teaching to your father and his friends." Severus said, struggling to keep a sneer from his face as he recalled the rest of James's friends, the arrogant bully Sirius Black, whose Animagus form was a big black mutt, and the sly coward Pettigrew, whose form was a rat, and last but not least, Remus Lupin, who was a werewolf. "Had your father and his friends known where Lily was getting all her information, they probably would have dropped dead of shock."

Harry knew that Severus and his father had a somewhat checkered past, though he didn't know all the details and he didn't want to push Severus into telling him, since the memories were clearly unpleasant and Harry didn't want to ruin their summer dredging up things best left asleep. So, despite his curiosity, he kept his questions about his father's misspent youth to himself, resolving to ask Hagrid when he returned to school in the autumn. Hagrid had known all about James, Lily, and Severus when they were in school and would cheerfully share stories with Harry.

Besides getting extensive lessons on shifting, Severus also tutored Harry a bit more in certain defense techniques, teaching him the Burning Hex and its opposite the Quenching Hex. He lectured his son quite sternly about using the Burning Hex, stating that it was not meant to be used frivolously, and never as a prank, since it could easily create a wildfire and burn everything in its path. "You never use it to light a fire either. For that you use the Fire Spark Jinx-Pyro."

"Okay, Dad. I'll remember that when I need to light up a cigarette," Harry joked.

The look on Snape's face was priceless-a mixture of shock, alarm, and anger. "Excuse me?" he said in a soft deadly tone. "I had better never catch you smoking anything, young man. It's a filthy disgusting habit that will bring you nothing but grief and if I ever find out you have cigarettes, cigars, or heaven help you, marijuana stashed away, Harry James Snape, you will be the sorriest boy on the face of the earth."

The look he gave Harry then wiped all traces of mirth from the boy's face. "I . . .I was only kidding, sir. I've never smoked a cigarette."

"Don't start. Ever." Severus ordered crisply. "Otherwise you'll regret it, and not merely because of my punishment. It ruins your health, is very addictive, and you have no reason to take chances that way, considering what you're up against."

"Yes, sir. It was just a joke."

"Humph. In poor taste," snorted the Potions Master. Then he relented at Harry's abashed look and said, "Take it as a warning. Now, I believe we were discussing defensive spells. Another classic spell is the Disarming Charm, incantation Expelliarmus! Properly cast, it will knock an opponent's wand out of their hand, but it can be blocked, and if you're fighting a duel to the death, I would advise you not to use it, since most wizards know the counter, it's a standard taught in most dueling clubs and academies."

"There's such a thing as dueling club? Does Hogwarts have one?"

"They used to, when we had a competent Defense Master. I shall suggest to the Headmaster that we begin one again, when we return to school for the new term. Considering the threat we may be facing, we might need to teach more than Ministry approved spells." Severus said darkly.

"Will you be teaching it, Dad?"

"That is up to the Headmaster. I could do so, but he will most likely select the current Defense teacher to do so, though I will volunteer to be his assistant, that way if he is a complete dunderhead, I can teach the basics without too much trouble. There is nothing worse than a poorly tutored Defense student, they are a danger to friend as well as foe." He drew his wand, they were standing in the meadow just beyond the garden gate. "Let us practice the Disarming Charm. On three . . ."

* * * * * *

 

After the somewhat intense Defense lessons, Harry was glad to relax for a bit, flying on his Nimbus or shifting into Whisper for a romp or two in the woods before supper, or just reading in the den. He had read most of the novels in the library, for he found them relaxing, and when he wished, he could devour books as quickly as Hermione. He found several mysteries in there by authors he had never read before, like Steven Saylor, Peter Ellis, and Michael Jecks. Those were like sweets to him, and he gulped them down evening after evening, reading companionably with Severus. Contrary to popular belief, Severus was not always reading potions journals, he too enjoyed a good novel on occasion, and was currently reading an old Sherlock Holmes tale.

But some evenings, Harry was restless and could not settle down, and it was then that he wished he was allowed to roam the forest alone in his Animagus form. The night was in his blood, for leopards, like most cats, were mostly nocturnal and nothing made his heart race and his blood quicken like a good stalk in the moonlight.

Wraith had begun teaching him how to hunt, and he had caught his first mouse a few nights ago, and was eager to try to hunt bigger prey, like a rabbit. Not only that, but Ebony's kits were also roaming the forest during the evening hours, and Whisper loved playing with them. The foxes were lively and mischievous, full of tricks and cunning, and the little leopard always learned something new when he was with them, such as how to catch frogs with a paw in the shallows of the river, or how to disguise your scent by walking backwards through running water.

The onyx foxes were magical in nature and the kits could blend in with any patch of shadow, remaining hidden in plain sight from all but the cleverest hunter. Not even a wyvern could find an onyx fox that didn't wish to be found. The midnight foxes were allies of the woodkin and often served as sentries to the woodkin holts, warning the forest dwellers when danger was near by a special high-pitched bark.

Our dad, Swift, is sentry for the woodkin clan Woodberry, Glisten, the oldest female kit, told Whisper one evening. That's why he's almost never at the den, because he patrols the forest. There have been reports of a rogue wyvern, one who broke with her clan and now hunts where she should not, preying on anything she can catch.

Her brother Shadow trembled. Mama says that's why we need to stay close to her and not wander off, because the wyvern loves the taste of young fox.

Whisper mewed in distress. Does it like to eat snow leopards too?

Starmist yipped an affirmative. Yes, I'd say so, Whisper. Dad says a wyvern will eat whatever is slow and easy prey, and that includes snow leopard cubs.

After that, Whisper had scurried off to crouch beside Wraith, shivering and imagining he felt the wyvern's eyes upon him from above. Wraith had calmed his frightened youngster with his tongue and purr, reassuring that no wyvern would dare attack a fully grown leopard, especially not one as large as Wraith. And it would have to go through me to get to you, cub, so there's no need to fear. Wyverns prefer easier prey, they don't like to fight for their dinner.

That conversation had taken place yesterday evening, and once Harry had transformed back into a boy, much of his instinctive fear had vanished. Now he was very restless and eager to go out on another evening ramble. Severus was reading and showed no signs of wanting to go into the woods, but Harry could not settle and ended up pacing up and down.

By the fourth time the boy had walked back and forth in front of the fireplace, Severus could not take it and lowered his book to his lap and said irritably, "Is there a reason you're pacing like a trapped leopard in a cage, Harry?"

Harry halted. "Uh . . .I just can't seem to sit still tonight. I feel all . . .I don't know, jumpy and I want to run and run until I'm tired." He gazed at his father pleadingly. "Can we go and hunt, Dad? Please?"

"Harry, I'm tired and don't feel like stalking anything tonight," Severus demurred. "You've had a Defense lesson already and flown your Nimbus, you ought to be ready to spend the rest of the evening quietly, meditating perhaps?"

The eleven-year-old huffed a sigh. He didn't want to be calm, he was itching to prowl in the moonlight. "C'mon, Dad. We can hunt for an hour and then I promise I'll go home without a problem. Or if you don't want to hunt, can we at least go and visit Ebony and her kits? You could take a nap and I could play games with them or whatever." Harry persuaded, turning the full force of his emerald eyed gaze upon his father.

Snape was not immune to it, much as he tried to pretend otherwise. He frowned, thinking that he should just tell the boy no and that would be the end of it. He indulged the boy too much, he thought irritably. And yet, he could remember what it was like when he had first discovered he was Wraith, how he had longed to run and jump and play in the moonlight every evening, no matter how many classes he'd had that day or how much the Marauders had tormented him. Becoming a snow leopard had been a kind of escape from being Severus Snape, outcast of Slytherin. I must have driven poor Minerva utterly mad, asking to shift forms all the time. It's a wonder she didn't dose me with a Sleeping Draft or smack me upside the head for being such an annoying little brat. Yet he could never recall McGonagall being short with him, she had been patient with her newest Animagus, and Severus had worshipped her for that small kindness. He supposed it couldn't hurt to follow her example, and so he agreed to his son's request.

Harry punched a fist in the air and grinned like a maniac. "Thanks, Dad! You're the best."

Snape rolled his eyes. I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm becoming a pushover. "Remember, one hour and then we go home. No arguments. You owe me one, Mr. Snape."

"Whatever, Dad. I'll grind mallow root or something for you tomorrow, okay?" Harry was so excited he was practically dancing. He turned and raced out the back door, startling Rellah, who was polishing some silver candlesticks.

"Where are you going in such a hurry, Master Harry?"

"To hunt, Rellah."

"Good, bring me back a nice plump coney that I can braise in some red wine and pepper."

"Will do, see you later," Harry called over his shoulder, jumping down all the porch stairs at once and landing lightly on his feet. He waited impatiently for Severus to come outside, for the one iron clad rule Snape had for shifting was that Harry was never to shift without adult supervision for the first two months. If he ever caught Harry breaking that rule, he would ground his son for a month and not allow him to shift for the duration of the grounding, as well as giving him a couple of good whacks. Harry had no wish for his father to carry out that punishment, and so he controlled his impulse to shift immediately and waited until the professor had appeared on the back porch before exchanging fur for flesh.

Snape just shook his head at the happy cub frisking about his ankles, and walked across the garden, Whisper gamboling at his side, and through the gate and across the expanse of meadow before blurring into Wraith's form.

He was immediately assaulted by an overexcited little leopard, who jumped up and licked him under the chin before spinning about and trying to catch his tail. Whisper whirled in circles three times before falling over in a heap, his blue-gold eyes gleaming with delight. Dad, we need to catch a rabbit for Rellah. She asked me to. 

Oh? Then we shall have to find a large enough one for her rabbit fricassee. Wraith purred. But we have time for that. First, let us pay our respects to Ebony and her family, they ought to be down by the Silmareen, hunting crayfish and frogs.

Wraith led the way to the Silmareen, which was home to a delicate freshwater crayfish that the onyx foxes loved, and he was fond of also. Sure enough, the three kits and their mother were fishing, standing paw deep in the rushing water, peering intently into the depths.

Suddenly, Ebony darted her head beneath the water for an instant. Then she emerged triumphant, a silver and red crayfish in her jaws.

Yay, you got one, Mama! cheered Starmist. She had yet to master the art of catching a crayfish, but she could catch frogs sometimes.

Ebony crunched the hard shell of the crustacean, killing it swiftly, then she trotted to the bank and set it down. They would feast upon it later, when there was enough for all. She lifted her head at the snow leopards' approach. Welcome, Wraith and Whisper. The crawfish are running tonight.

Hi, Ebony! Hi, Shadow, Glisten, and Starmist. Whisper cried, frisking up to the elder fox and nuzzling her so hard he nearly knocked her over.

Easy, young one. You're a bundle of wildfire tonight, aren't you? Ebony remarked, keeping her feet through experience, for her kits often attacked her en masse to play.

Whisper, behave! rebuked the elder leopard. You know better than that, young one!

Sorry, Mistress Ebony, the cub apologized, embarrassed at being scolded so smartly in front of a guest.

No harm done, young cub. Why don't you go and help Misty, she hasn't caught anything yet and I think she's becoming discouraged.

Okay! Whisper padded down to the bank and after a moment's hesitation, stepped into the water.

Unlike most cats, the leopards did not mind water, and would swim in it if they had to, and Whisper trotted over to where the smallest onyx fox was fishing and hissed, Need a paw, Misty? 

Yes, thanks. Can't manage to snag one of the dumb water bugs tonight, the kit yapped, sticking her muzzle into the water and then shaking it when she came up empty.

Together, Whisper and Starmist watched the water, the Silmareen flowed gently here and they could see down to the bottom, amid the small rocks and mud where the crayfish dwelled. Several minutes passed before Whisper caught a glimpse of a crayfish claw and pounced, using a paw to scoop up the crustacean.

Starmist yipped and attacked the crayfish, biting it swiftly behind the head and killing it before it could pinch either of them with its claws. Nice one, Whisper. Toss it over on the bank.

Whisper did so, and soon it was joined by four others, plus a bunch of unwary frogs.

Then Ebony called the cubs in and together they feasted upon the river's bounty, offering some to the two cats first, though neither was hungry and they declined politely.

Whisper began to lick himself dry while the foxes enjoyed their meal, listening to their soft growls of contentment and the soft crunch of shell as they tore into the crustaceans. Soon all that remained was a pile of crayfish shells. Sated, the kits bounded up to Whisper and invited him to a game of tag.

The little cub looked questioningly at his father, who nodded, and then he joined his friends and they tore about the clearing, running with the boundless energy only a young animal had.

Ebony padded up to sit next to Wraith, wrapping her bushy tail about her feet. You look a bit tired, old friend. The cub wearing you out? 

Tonight, yes. He was too restless to stay in our den and convinced me to come here. I feel like taking a nap, the big leopard yawned. He lay down and curled his tail, which was almost the entire length of his body, about his face.

Go ahead, I shall watch the younglings.

I appreciate it, Ebony. Wraith shut his eyes and was asleep in seconds. But though he slept, he did not sleep deeply, and his ears were ever alert for any strange noise or sound, and he could wake at a moment's notice.

Some fifteen minutes later, he was awakened by Ebony barking angrily, Children, where do you think you're going? You know you're not to leave the river without asking. Come back here this instant! 

What's happened? Wraith cried, instantly alert. He sprang to his feet, looking about for his son. He saw neither cub nor kits in sight. Where are they?

Run off after a rabbit or something, I believe, the fox snarled. One minute they were wrestling, the next they were bolting after the rabbit quick as blue lightning. Just wait till I find them! They'll be feeling my teeth in their rumps, sure as the moon's round.

I take it my son is with them?

Ah, yes, I think he was leading them, he mentioned something about a rabbit for dinner. Ebony snapped exasperatedly.

That foolish little idiot! I told him we would hunt the rabbit together, growled the snow leopard. His tail lashed in fury. When I catch up with him . . .I just might give him the smacking of his life. He knows better than to wander away like that.

Don't worry, we'll find them, Ebony soothed and sniffed the air. She could smell the scent of all three of her offspring, plus Whisper. They went this way, Wraith. She trotted off into the woods, her small paws making no sound over the ground.

Wraith stalked after her, silent as a shadow on the wind, gritting his teeth. This would be the last time his son ever pulled a stunt like this one, he vowed. Especially now, with a rogue wyvern sighted somewhere nearby.

Meanwhile, Whisper and the fox kits were in hot pursuit of the large hare that had come down to the river to drink and had not seen the cub or the foxes until it was too late and they had already spotted him. Then he had bolted as fast as his furry feet could take him into the underbrush, with the pack of foxes and one large snow leopard cub hot on his trail.

He went this way, I can smell him! whined Glisten.

No, really? I thought he might have flown up a tree. Shadow barked mockingly.

Hush, you two, I'm trying to concentrate, snapped Starmist, who had the best nose out of them all. She cast about into the wind and then tore off to the left, yelping, Here he went, this way, c'mon! Yip-yip-yoo!

Whisper followed, his large paws making no sound, his pupils wide so he could see in the darkness as if it were brightest day. He could not only smell the hare, but he could hear it as well, it's breathing harsh as it ran full out, searching for a place to hide.

But the fox pack was clever and soon they split, Shadow moving around in front and driving the stricken hare back towards his sisters and Whisper. The hare had led them in a wide circle and now ran back towards the river, hoping to elude the hunters that way.

Only it had forgotten that the two adult predators were there, having just started tracking their disobedient offspring.

The hare ran full tilt into them and before it could gasp, Wraith had seized it by the throat and shook his head hard, once, breaking its neck mercifully. There's your rabbit, Rellah. Now I just need to find my son and then I can go home.

He set the dead hare down inbetween his paws, and sniffed the breeze. He could smell the scent of excited fox upon it and also one very naughty leopard cub. They're coming this way, Ebony. 

I know, I can hear them, the onyx fox growled, scuffing her paws in the dirt. They didn't have long to wait, for in about five minutes three foxes and Whisper burst into view, panting and yipping.

They skidded to a halt when they caught sight of their parents, glowering at them in extreme disapproval.

Uh oh, whimpered Shadow. I think we're in big trouble.

Whisper gulped and assumed a repentant expression. Boy, am I ever, he thought uneasily, eying his father, who looked mad enough to chew him and spit him out. Head lowered and tail tucked in, he walked over to where Wraith crouched over the dead hare, guilt written in every line of his body.

Uh, hi, Mama. Glisten whined.

Ebony growled angrily and nipped all three of her kits hard, making them yelp. Back to the den, all of you! What do you mean, running off like that into the forest? Anything could have happened to you. There's a wyvern somewhere around here and you just decided to wander off like three fluff-heads!

We're sorry, Mama, sniffled Starmist. We just wanted to catch the rabbit.

No excuses, you all know better. If I've told you once I've told you a hundred times . . . Ebony snarled. Just wait till your father hears about this . . .all of you are grounded until further notice . . .She herded her cringing offspring down the path to their den, barking a quick farewell over her shoulder to Wraith, who was glaring at his son with a look that could have frozen a fire.

Whisper trembled, for he had never seen the bigger cat so angry. Dad? I . . .I'm sorry. I didn't mean to run away, I just wanted . . .Owww!

He yelped sharply as Wraith's hard paw smacked him on the rump. It stung terribly and the cub immediately started bawling. Sorry . . .sir . . .oww . . .I forgot . . . 

You forget too much. We'll discuss further consequences at home. Come, his father ordered, lifting the rabbit in his jaws and pushing his sobbing whimpering son ahead of him.

They crossed the woods in silence, Wraith's disapproval hanging over Whisper's head like a dark cloud of doom. They had just reached the edge of the woods when Wraith halted and blurred into his human form. "Change, Harry. Now."

Whisper looked up at him forlornly before changing back into Harry. He hung his head, unable to meet Snape's gaze. "I didn't mean to run off, sir-"he began.

"Save your breath and the excuses," Severus cut him off. He thrust the dead rabbit into Harry's arms. Then he took his son by the shoulders, shook him hard, turned him around and smacked him twice. Harry yelled, for Snape had swatted him harder than usual, much harder. "Go straight to your room, young man, and wait for me. I'll be back after I've calmed down enough so I won't throttle you."

Harry nodded, wincing, tears in his eyes. Then he started back towards the twinkling lights of Malachite Cottage, sick with shame and apprehension. Merlin, but I am so dead. He's going to beat me senseless this time, I just know it.

He glanced back over his shoulder to see Severus blur into Wraith once more and stalk off into the trees, fighting to control his flashfire temper.

Harry walked slowly across the meadow, holding the hare by its feet, and sniffling. He halted to rub the sting out of his bottom, wondering uneasily if he was going to find himself over Severus's knee later on that night. He had never seen the man so furious, not even after the battle with Quirrell. Well, okay, maybe it had been equal to that time, but still . . .

He was so intent upon his own misery that he almost didn't notice the large shape lying in the grass in the middle of the meadow.

"Huh? What the bloody hell . . .?" he cried, coming to a halt in front of what looked like a gray horse, badly bruised, slashed, and bleeding. "How did you get here?"

The horse picked up its head and moaned, trying to get to its feet. It was then that Harry saw the wings, folded along its sides, badly torn and crumpled. The animal's eyes were wild and frightened, it was badly injured yet still fighting for life.

"Easy, fellow. I won't hurt you," Harry whispered, putting out a hand to stroke the winged horse's muzzle.

It snapped at him feebly.

Harry drew away. "What the hell did that to you? A person or an animal?"

The gray pegasus did not respond, save to tilt its head towards the sky, as if searching for someone.

Harry was at a loss. He wanted to help the poor thing, but Severus had told him to go straight to his room and he didn't want the older wizard to be any angrier with him than he already was. The horse was eyeing him warily now, Harry could see more blood and slashes along its side and on its rump, and blood soaked the ground beneath its hooves as well. It was probably in a great deal of pain, and Harry could not stand to see anything so badly mauled or whipped or whatever without trying to help. Dad's gonna kill me regardless, so I might as well go in for a pound as for a penny, whatever that means.

"Listen, horse, I won't hurt you. I only want to help, you're bleeding really badly and I can stop that with a spell if you'll let me, so don't kick my head in, okay?" he drew his wand and chanted the incantation to the Blood Halt spell, which Severus had taught him in case of an emergency.

The blood slowed and then trickled to a stop. Harry breathed a sigh of relief.

Then the winged horse rolled over, trying to gain its feet. It struggled hard for a moment and then was up, swaying on its hooves, but standing. Its head was higher than Harry's shoulder and now that it was on its feet, Harry could see the extensive damage done to its wings and shoulders. He felt his stomach churn, for the poor creature looked as though someone had literally flayed strips off it.

"Oh Lord, you're a mess. I don't know how you're still breathing. You need my dad, he's better at this kind of thing than I am."

The winged horse swung its head around and looked into Harry's eyes. To his astonishment, Harry found himself staring into a pair of indigo irises, and then he heard a soft weary voice in the back of his head say, There is no help for me, young one. All I ask is that you make my passing swift, for I cannot bear to never fly again.

"You can talk!"

Only to those who have the wit to understand me. You are more perceptive than most, boy. The winged horse dropped its head to its knees, breathing harshly. It's a pity I meet you now, when the Pale Horseman has summoned me to his side.

"The Pale Horseman?"

Otherwise known as Death. Quickly, boy. Do what you must, for I'd rather not be aware when the wyvern returns to feed.

"What wyvern?"

The one that hunts these mountains, that attacked me as I flew searching for a likely place to rest. Suddenly the winged horse stiffened, nostrils flaring. She returns, boy! In the name of Equus, Lord of Horses, make it quick!

Suddenly Harry understood what the pegasus was asking of him. "Dear God, you want me to . . .kill you . . .No! I can't!" he backed away, horrified. "That's wrong . . .no . . .!"

The injured stallion, for it was a male, let out a sharp neigh of despair. Please, I beg of you . . .she will tear me to pieces slowly, at least grant me a peaceful end . . .

"Who will?" Harry practically screamed in frustration. "There's no one here but us."

It was then that he heard the unmistakable sound of huge wings flapping.

Harry craned his head towards the sky, and bit his lip, the blood freezing in his veins.

For there, coming in fast from the northwest, was a gigantic blue and yellow mottled wyvern, similar in shape and size to her dragon cousin, only with two limbs instead of four, claws outstretched and mouth gaping wide, keening a challenge.

The pegasus stallion shrieked in terror and made as if to run, but his injured left hind leg gave way and he crumpled to the ground. Run, boy! Save yourself, it's me she wants.

But Harry remained stubbornly in front of the pegasus. "We'll see about that." He raised his wand, chanting the Shield Charm. "Protego!"

A brilliant corona of blue light burst from the end of his wand and covered both himself and the dying pegasus.

Harry concentrated hard, summoning all of his will and power, and thrusting it into the Shield Charm. He only prayed it would hold against the wyvern's strike.

The wyvern hovered, her huge yellow eyes burning with hatred. "Thief! Steal MY dinner, will you? I think not!"

Then she shrieked a battle cry and dove towards the wizard and the crippled stallion, talons outstretched, death come to claim her own.




 





Chapter End Notes:




Get ready for a battle next chapter! Sorry for the cliffie.

Oh and in case you were wondering, Harry can practice magic in the glen because Severus lives there and it is a known wizarding residence, which means the Ministry expects any underage magic performed there to be strictly monitored by the adult wizard and kept to a minimum.



Chapter 33: Wyvern Attack
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The mottled yellow and blue wyvern dropped from the sky like a fallen comet, talons outstretched to rend and tear the small boy who had dared to defy her and steal her rightful prey. She did not particularly care if she killed a human, even though the treaty the magical creatures had made with the White Lady so long ago still held and forbade the killing of humans. Anneska had been declared a rogue and outcast from her clan for nearly killing her leader's son in a duel over lair rights, and as a rogue she was denied hunting privileges, thus having to forage for food elsewhere. The pegasus stallion was the largest animal she had managed to bring down yet and she would be damned if some scrawny human was going to steal her kill. Especially not an apprentice mageling.

"Wizardling!" she screeched. "I shall flay you alive and eat your liver while your heart still beats!" Anneska detested the wizards who lived in the glen, for it was they who had declared certain places and creatures forbidden for wyverns to hunt and eat. She feared the elder black-robed one, but this young one was no threat.

Her talons slammed down into the glowing blue sphere, and the shield buckled under the force of the wyvern's strike, but it did not break. Anneska let out a sharp cry of rage and shot upwards, intending to dive once again upon the blue globe, perhaps if she threw enough weight and speed behind it, the protection would shatter.

Harry remained safely encased within the globe, the words to the Burning Hex upon his tongue. He had never cast the spell before, but he feared that tonight he would have to, and he was scared, scared of causing a wildfire and scared that he wouldn't be able to cast it and end up as a wyvern's dinner. Dad, where are you? I know you're out there, I'm sorry I made you so mad. Now could you please come back and help me?

The wyvern was diving again, he could see her silhouette against the rising moon. Sweating, he poured more of his magic into the Shield Charm.

Behind him, the stallion stirred, whickering, You should have run while you had the chance, boy. Still, I'm grateful for the assistance, even though you've doomed us both. It is a good day to die, as the Cheyenne would say.

Harry turned to look at the horse, who had managed somehow to get to his feet again. "Maybe so, but we're not dead yet."

The back door to the cottage slammed and Rellah came out onto the porch. "Master Harry? Master Sev? Are you there? What is making that awful racket?"

"Rellah!" Harry yelled. "Get back inside! It's a wyvern!"

"Stars and Shadows!" the woodkin cried. "Master Harry, where are you?"

"Here, in the meadow! Just go inside, Rellah, please!" The last thing he needed was for the woodkin to get killed trying to find him.

Then the wyvern slammed into his shield again and he could feel it start to unravel. "Damn, damn, damn it to bloody hell!"

Anneska tried to bite down on the globe, but it repelled her, and she growled and lashed her tail hard, its venomed stinger smashing into the blue shield over and over.

"Get away from my master, you poxy carrion eater!" shrilled Rellah, vanishing from the porch to reappear just in front of the garden gate. "It is forbidden to come and hunt here, by the treaty of the White Lady."

The wyvern swung her head about, streams of saliva dripping on to the ground. "I am a rogue and no longer follow any law save my own. Be off with you, tree hugger, before I use you as a toothpick!"

"Rellah, RUN!"

But the woodkin was glaring at the wyvern, her eyes burning and a look on her face that Harry had never seen before. "This is MY place, rogue! No one threatens my master, dragon kin! Take your smelly carcass away right blasted now, in the name of Diana the Huntress!"

Then Rellah thrust out her hands and what looked like a tiny glowing ball flashed from them.

The wyvern snorted. "Is that best you've got-AIEEE!"

The glowing ball smashed into the rogue, knocking the big beast head over tail, sending it flying halfway across the meadow.

Harry gasped. "Holy flaming hells!"

Rellah dusted her hands off on her apron. "That'll teach you. Even a wyvern isn't immune to a woodkin Repel Charm." She looked up and spotted the glowing blue shield. "Master Harry, are you all right? Where is your father?"

"Uh, he's . . .not here right now. It's a long story. And I'm fine!" Harry called back.

Across the meadow, Anneska was climbing to her feet, hissing and shaking her head to clear it.

Meanwhile, Wraith was pacing around in a clearing, trying to get a handle on his temper. He regretted raising a hand to his son while he was so angry, he had hit harder than he had intended. Not that Harry hadn't deserved it, but still . . .being angry when issuing punishments left the door wide open for possible abuse, and Severus had vowed long and long ago to never set foot on that road. Calm, Sev, calm. Find your center and let the anger go . . . Let it go . . .He exhaled sharply, allowing the pent up negative emotions to flow out with each breath, leaving behind only the sharp tang of regret and a firm resolve to choose his son's punishment fairly.

I think perhaps a two week grounding from his Animagus form and a few hours of laundry and scrubbing cauldrons should work . . .

"Wizardling! I shall flay you alive and eat your liver while your heart still beats!"

Wraith stiffened, for those words had been snarled in the hoarse cough of an enraged wyvern. He recalled Ebony's warning of the rogue wyvern and felt his heart go cold within him. An instant later he was racing through the trees, heading back towards Malachite Cottage. He was only two hundred feet from the meadow, but it seemed to take ages to reach it. Harry, I'm coming! Merlin help me, let him be all right.

The great snow leopard was a blur as he bounded over the ground, entering the meadow just as the wyvern got to its feet, slightly stunned from Rellah's Repelling Charm.

Wraith crouched low, a silent intruder, unseen and unknown even to the wyvern's keen sense of smell, for the wind was blowing the leopard's scent away.

In the next instant, Wraith was airborne, springing in one mighty leap atop the serpent-like creature, striking with all four sets of claws. No one hurts MY son! The great cat yowled, digging into the leathery hide and raking hard.

Anneska screeched, the fiery sting in her back and shoulders was terrible, and she writhed and jerked her head around, trying to dislodge the six hundred pound cat atop her.

Wraith clung, his jaws biting down hard on her neck, trying to sever her spinal cord. But the wyvern's neck was the best protected part of her, armored with overlapping hard scales that resisted Wraith's jaws. He gnawed down with all of his strength, but couldn't administer a killing bite quickly.

"Dad! Her tail! Watch for her tail!" Harry warned, seeing the wyvern's whip like tail with its bulbous stinger snap back and then forward.

Wraith released his hold and tumbled off the wyvern just in the nick of time.

The stinger crashed down onto Anneska, and the enraged female keened sharply. She was immune to her own venom, but the stinger had stabbed her in a delicate spot at the base of her neck. She flapped her wings hard, trying to fly up and attack her opponent from the air, but Wraith sprang at her again, his claws catching her across the snout and opening red wounds.

"You will pay for that, leopard-wizard!" spat the wyvern, and she snapped her head down and bit the furious leopard on the shoulder.

Wraith shrieked, as much from fury as from pain and pulled away, leaving a good bit of his fur and a long strip of skin in her jaws. The leopard circled, limping slightly, blood trickling down his foreleg to stain his snowy pelt crimson. But he snarled defiance nevertheless.

Come on, hellbeast! Try and finish me, you gutless piece of shoe leather! growled Wraith, referring to the practice some wizards had of making footwear out of wyvern skin.

Anneska saw red at the insult and lunged at the cat, who danced back out of the way, taunting the big lizard. "Your hide will be decorating my lair, cat-mage! And I shall sleep upon it and be warm!"

Harry felt sick at the sight of his injured father, and the wyvern's last comment broke something inside of him. "Eat this, you overgrown bat!" Then he pointed his wand and shouted, "Incendio!"

Fire blasted from the end of his wand and struck the wyvern full on.

Unlike her dragon cousins, Anneska was not immune to fire and Harry's spell, cast with all the force of his magic, fueled by guilt and love, caught her off guard. Before she could fly or jump away, she was engulfed in golden and white flames.

Her dying scream echoed into the silent night as the wizard fire reduced her carcass to ash.

Wraith quickly transformed into Severus, who pointed a finger and cried, "Aguamenti!" quenching the worst of the blaze so it would not burn out of control. But the majority of the wyvern carcass was still burning. Severus coughed, for the reek of burning wyvern was most unpleasant.

Harry stared at the smoldering remains of the wyvern, only then realizing he had actually killed something intentionally. Then the scent of roasted wyvern hit his nostrils and his stomach rebelled and he was violently sick. He threw up everything in his stomach, which wasn't much, then spent the next minute or two retching.

When he at last looked up, he found Severus beside him, one arm hanging limply, bleeding sluggishly from the wyvern's bite. Harry wiped a hand across the back of his mouth and cried, "Dad, your shoulder . . .!"

"It looks worse than it is, I can fix it," Severus reassured him softly. "Are you hurt, Harry? Did she get you, son?"

Harry shook his head. "No, but I thought she was going to . . .that's why I cast the Burning Hex . . ." He threw his arms about his father's waist and all of a sudden he was crying, sobbing hoarsely into Snape's chest. "I'm sorry . . .it's my fault you're hurt . . .!"

Severus put his good arm about the slender shoulders, holding Harry close. "There now, son. It's all right. I'll live." He patted the child on the back, but Harry continued to cry, fear and guilt combining into a hard ball in his stomach, babbling apologies inbetween sobs. "Harry, really, it's not a mortal wound, God help me, there's no need for you to make such a fuss."

Severus coughed awkwardly and ran his hand through his son's midnight hair, staring out at the pyre that was all that remained of the rogue wyvern. He was astonished that Harry had managed to cast such a powerful version of the Burning Hex on his first attempt. Most apprentices could manage a fire the size of a campfire their first try, but Harry had started a bonfire hot enough to roast a wyvern. Then again, seeing your father nearly getting eaten by said wyvern was probably a great motivator, he thought wryly.

"Master Sev, Master Harry, are you okay?" Rellah cried, running across the meadow to clutch both wizards in a hug. "Don't ever scare me that way again, y'hear!" she scolded, then she burst into tears as well.

Christ on the cross, two of them! Severus groaned inwardly, and tried to comfort the woodkin as well, patting her on the head.

After a few moments, Harry got control of himself, and drew away from Severus. "You sure you're okay, Dad?"

"Yes, my shoulder hurts like hell, but I'm not going to keel over and die from it. It's stopped bleeding now," he indicated the way his sleeve had stuck to the cut, forming a crude bandage.

"I shall see to it once we are inside, young master," Rellah promised, dashing away the last of her tears and eyeing her master severely.

Severus sighed and muttered, "As you will, Rellah."

Harry swiped a hand across his eyes, feeling his cheeks flush, but he was too relieved his father was alive to feel horribly embarrassed at overreacting like that. An instant later he recalled the injured pegasus and said, "Dad, you've got to come and help this poor pegasus, he got attacked by the bloody wyvern and she was coming back to finish him off when I found him."

He pulled the Potions Master over to where the gray pegasus stood, maimed and bloody. The stallion lifted his head and neighed softly. Thanks to you, wizards, for slaying that she-beast. I wish I could repay you fully but I fear I am not long for this world.

Severus cast a diagnostic and shook his head. "You've lost a great deal of blood and those lacerations are infected and your wings are badly damaged, but I think I can mend the worst of the damage."

"Dad, you can understand him too?"

"Yes, this is a Silver Arrow pegasus, and his breed has a limited telepathy, meaning he can speak to those who also are sensitive to mind magic."

Such as you and the boy. The stallion stared intently at Severus. Can you truly restore me to full health, wizard? Including my wings? For if not, please grant me death's mercy, for a pegasus who cannot fly might as well be dead. 

"You can save him, can't you, Dad?" Harry asked, and in his voice was the utter conviction of a child who believes his parent can do anything. "I'll help you."

Severus examined the stallion again. He could tell, even injured and half-dead, that the pegasus was a magnificent animal, a product of the finest breeding program, most likely, and possessed an incredible will to live. It seemed a terrible waste to have to put the winged horse down. The Potions Master's jaw firmed.

"I'm going to try my damn best, Harry. Fetch me a cauldron of hot water, soap, cloths, a small bowl, Pain Reliever Elixir and my quick-healing salve." He paused, then turned to Rellah and ordered, "I'll need several green sticks for splints, a roll of bandages and my suture kit, Rellah. I can mend most of the damage with potions and spells, but some of those membranes might require a few stitches."

"Coming right up, Master Sev," Rellah bowed and vanished.

Harry cast Summoning Charm after Summoning Charm, for that was the quickest way to get Severus the items he needed.

Meanwhile, the Potions Master rolled up his sleeves and cast a Disinfecting Charm over his hands and arms.

The gray stallion watched and neighed softly, Best see to yourself, wizard, before you work on me, I don't want you fainting on me.

"The name's Severus Snape, and I'm fine. I can wait, you can't."

That's a matter of opinion, Severus. The Pale Horseman rides away from me now, I think. Equus Horselord bless you for giving me aid. My name is Boreal, of the Silver Arrow lineage, late of Dublin, Ireland though I was born across the sea in Kentucky, in the United States. My sire was Firefox, two-time winner of the Skybolt International Championship, and my mother was Freedom, a wild pegasus who was never tamed.

"Huh? What's that mean?" Harry asked, puzzled.

"It means he was once a racing pegasus, Harry," Severus answered. "Sired by one of the greatest flyers in the history of the sport."

Indeed, my sire was unbeatable, he could outfly any pegasus ever foaled, declared Boreal proudly. Once I had hoped I could match his record, but now . . .He turned his head to gaze sadly at the wreckage of his wings.

"Don't give up, Boreal," Harry said, laying a hand on the gray stallion's shoulder. "My dad can heal mostly anything, he saved my life four times already. You'll fly again."

Boreal nuzzled the boy's shoulder. I pray to Epona, Mother of Mares, that it will be so. My wings are my life.

Rellah appeared with the rest of the items Severus had requested, and the Potions Master turned to his patient and his son and said, "Harry, cast Lumos Maxima for me, I'm going to need plenty of light. Now then, Boreal, we shall see if I can restore you to flight status. Rellah, give me the Pain Reliever Elixir first and the small bowl."

Harry chanted the Great Light spell, his wand lighting up like a searchlight, so Severus could see everything clearly, and watched as his father attempted to save the gray stallion.


 



Chapter End Notes:


What do you think of Boreal?

And how should Severus punish Harry for his latest escapade? Some consequences were mentioned, but I'm open to other suggestions.

Next: Severus attempts to live up to Harry's expectations and save Boreal.



Chapter 34: Saving Boreal
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The Potions Master began treating the pegasus by casting a Blood Replenishing Charm over him, restoring most of the blood he had lost, so that the winged horse could stand upright while he worked upon him. He also intoned an Anti-Shock spell as well, before turning to Harry and asking his son to hand him the vial of Pain Reliever.

Severus poured the Pain Reliever into the small bowl Harry held out to him. "I need you to drink all of this, Boreal. It will dull the pain considerably." He held out the bowl to the pegasus.

Boreal lapped at the potion, drawing his lips back at the taste. This is vile, wizard! I don't even want to know what is in it.

"Nothing harmful, I assure you. You'll feel better afterwards," Severus said, holding the bowl steady.

Once the potion had been swallowed, Severus poured a measure of water into the bowl and allowed Boreal to drink that. He waited a good ten minutes for the Pain Reliever to take effect before he swished a soft cloth in the hot soapy water in the cauldron Harry had summoned and began to wash the awful wounds along Boreal's flanks and back.

"I apologize if this hurts, but this is the best way I know to remove all the clotted blood and see where I need to cast healing spells," Severus explained as he gently cleaned out the slashes.

Boreal remained steady as rock, not even wincing. Do what you must, Severus. Are you a Healer by profession?

"No, a Potions Master and a teacher. But I learned healing from my mother," replied Snape. He swabbed out a few of the shallower lacerations, frowning. "Some of these shallower wounds were not made by a wyvern's talons. If I had to guess, I'd say they resemble whip cuts."

"Somebody whipped you?" Harry cried in anger. That anyone could dare raise a hand to the gallant pegasus was almost unthinkable.

Boreal was quiet for a time before he snorted angrily, Yes, my owner was displeased with my performance at the last race I flew in, though I came in second and won him a fat purse. He felt I should have won, that I was not living up to my so-called reputation. So he decided to ‘motivate' me into doing better with his riding crop.

"Bloody bastard!" Harry growled. "I'd like to give him some motivation with a whip."

"Harry, language!" Severus reproved. Harry blushed and muttered an apology. "Though my son is correct, Boreal. Any wizard who resorts to a whip on an animal ought to be staked out in the sun and eaten alive by army ants." He resumed washing a deep cut on Boreal's fetlock.

Eaten alive by ants? Yes, that would be suitable. Master O'Shea was not kind to any in his racing stable, he treated the pegasi he owned like you would a broomstick, there to win him money and earn him favors with pretty rich witches and that was all. He purchased me from my first owner, Master Jefferies, because I was Firefox's get and showed early promise. Jefferies did not want to sell me, he had planned on keeping me for himself, I would not bring a top price since my dam was not a registered pegasus, but O'Shea offered him five thousand Galleons and he couldn't refuse. Boreal tossed his head slightly, his indigo eyes flashing. I gave him what he paid for and no more. I am no wizard's plaything. And that was the first and last time he ever took a whip to me. I stomped him into the dirt and probably broke a few bones in addition to his magic stick and then I kicked down the door of my stall and flew away. I shall never return there. He has forfeited his contract of service with me by whipping me like a beast.

"Contract? You made a contract with him?" Harry repeated.

Yes, a verbal magic one. When a pegasus is sold, he makes a contract with his new owner, usually for a period of five years, in which he agrees to race for said owner and win money for him. In return the owner agrees to provide food and shelter and decent treatment to us. But O'Shea refused to do that, resulting in a breach of contract. Of course, he would never admit to that, but it is so.

"You have flown far to get here," Severus observed, cleaning out the last of the cuts. "I am sorry your welcome wasn't more cordial. Usually the Peaceful Glen welcomes all those who seek sanctuary. But that wyvern was a rogue, and I suppose you seemed like fair game to her."

The stallion shuddered, recalling all too well the terror and pain he had felt when the wyvern had attacked him. He had been exhausted from flying all the way from Dublin, fighting crosswinds and frosty air currents, and he had been searching for a likely spot to land and rest undisturbed, far from human habitation. The glen had looked like the ideal place, until the wyvern had come out of nowhere to rend and tear him. I was too tired to outfly her, Boreal admitted with a sigh. Had I been in top condition, she would never have caught me. I am a Silver Arrow and no winged lizard can match us in the air for speed and maneuverability.

Severus nodded, knowing it was not an idle boast. The Silver Arrow breed was known for its phenomenal bursts of speed and grace in the air, a Silver Arrow had won the Skybolt International twice in the past two years.

Once the wounds were clean, Severus cast a Disinfecting Charm over the cuts and also an Anti-Inflammatory Charm, to keep Boreal's legs from developing painful cramps, he had torn a tendon in his off hind and strained the muscles in his other one. Boreal swung his head around to see what Snape was doing, and neighed in surprise, for most of the lesser wounds were healed, leaving only faint scars, and then they too faded.

I feel much better now. Except for my wings.

Severus rolled up his sleeves. "Yes, now comes the hard part. Harry, I need you to hold your wand steady, I'm going to need the light to see what I'm doing." He turned to Boreal. "Boreal, I need to cast a Sleeping Charm on you, for I have no Pain Reliever brewed that is strong enough for this kind of surgery."

Boreal nodded his assent. Severus cast the Charm and the winged horse lay down and slept. Severus pinched a fold of skin to make sure, but Boreal was well and truly asleep.

Severus gently extended one torn and broken wing, enough to see that most of the damage had been caused by the wyvern's initial strike. "Hmmm . . .this bone is broken here and here, and the cartilage torn away as well. But that can be mended, like so." He focused hard and chanted a spell to mend torn tendons and cartilage, then he straightened the long wing bone, put splints on it, and then chanted a Bone Mending Charm.

Harry watched avidly, having never seen Snape work a healing on anyone or anything before, since when he had come to the Potions Master to be healed, he was always in too much pain or too sick to appreciate the precision and thoroughness Severus displayed. The professor was competent, never hesitating in his treatment, casting spell after spell without halting.

Soon he had the pegasus's wings splinted and had begun to suture the more badly torn membranes. The curved needle flashed like a star twinkling, in and out, as Snape guided it along the stallion's wing. Harry held his wand steady, sensing that Severus needed that more than anything right then. But at last the great gaping rents were sewn shut, and Severus rubbed numbing salve along the wings before binding them tightly to the stallion's side.

He checked the winged horse's vital signs again, they registered strongly, and he conjured a large blanket and wrapped the stallion in it, for the pegasus would be chilled after the surgery.

"Is he gonna make it, Dad?" Harry asked, shifting from foot to foot uneasily.

Severus nodded slowly. "Yes, I would say so. Barring any complications, he should recover fully and be able to fly within three weeks or so, just in time for your birthday." He waved his wand, and the items he'd used to treat Boreal vanished. "He needs to be kept warm and still for three to four days, after that he can walk about."

"Where can he go, Dad? We don't have a barn or anything like that here."

Snape rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Right. But perhaps . . . Rellah, can you shape wood, if you have a large enough piece?"

The woodkin nodded. "Yes, of course. Woodshaping is one of a woodkin's natural magics, Master Sev. Give me a large enough piece of wood and I can shape you a house."

"Good. Because I need you to shape me a stable for Boreal. He needs peace and quiet in order to recover."

Rellah smiled. "That won't be hard to arrange. All I need is a large log or two."

Severus summoned two large logs and Rellah closed her eyes and concentrated, the wood began to glow and then to flow about like sticky taffy.

The woodkin gestured and the wood reshaped itself into a rather large stable with two box stalls, complete with straw, a water bucket, and premium hay mixed with alfalfa and a bucket of rolled oats. "There, I think that should take care of the poor creature for now, eh, Master Sev?"

The Potions Master nodded wearily, only now feeling the effects of so much spellcasting plus exhaustion from the battle with the wyvern and his injured shoulder. "Rellah, can you manage to put Boreal here? I shall cast a charm to alert me when he awakens, though the Sleep Charm should last until tomorrow morning."

"Coming up, sir." Rellah clapped her hands three times and the pegasus was instantly transported to the spacious stall, which had a simple latch that the pegasus could flip with his nose, for Severus had deduced that it wasn't wise to lock up the stallion.

He leaned unobtrusively against the doorjamb of the stable, studying it for another instant before straightening up. He rubbed his eyes, they felt coated with sand.

Harry was gazing about at the stable in awe. "This is great, Rellah! You're a genius."

The woodkin flushed. "‘Tis was nothing, really, young master. A woodkin lives to shape and care for trees and wood." She turned and eyed her master sternly. "Master Sev, you need to go inside and let me tend that shoulder and eat something and drink a cup of my special tea before going to bed. You're out on your feet. Both of you are."

Neither Severus or Harry was minded to argue with that fact, and they allowed the woodkin to herd them indoors after closing the stable door. A Lumos spell was set inside so that if Boreal chanced to wake early, he could see and not panic, instead of waking alone and in total darkness.

Rellah steered Severus to a seat at the kitchen table, then summoned several of the same potions he had used to treat Boreal and a basin of warmed water and a cloth as well. Rellah peered at the wizard's right shoulder, noting the way Severus's sleeve stuck to the wound. She ran her hand over it three times and the sleeve unstuck itself, allowing Severus to remove his shirt without causing pain and reopening the wound.

"There! Now let's see." She set about cleansing the nasty gash, humming to herself as she did so.

Severus winced, but otherwise made no sign that he was in pain. As he had told Harry, he'd had much worse before. The woodkin handed him a vial of Pain Reliever and he drank it down, then she applied the quick-healing salve and wrapped a strip of clean linen about his shoulder, using her magic to secure the bandage.

"How do you feel, Master Sev?"

"Better, thank you, Rellah." He turned to look at his son, who had been relatively quiet ever since the aftermath of the battle. "Harry, why don't you take a shower and get changed? I am going to sit here for awhile and drink some tea. I will be in later to discuss your disobedience."

Harry nodded dully. "Yes, sir," was all he could manage, he was worn out from fighting the wyvern and his emotional outburst over his father earlier. Right then a hot shower and clean pajamas sounded like heaven and he couldn't even bring himself to be worried about his upcoming lecture and punishment.

* * * * * *

Severus took the time Harry was getting clean to drink some of Rellah's tea, eat a sandwich,  conjure a new shirt and put it on, and fill Eileen in on what had occurred that night. The elder witch listened without interruption until Severus had finished with his tale, then asked, "You're certain you're okay, son? Wyvern bites can fester if not treated properly."

"Yes, Mum, Rellah took care of it. The only thing bothering me right now is a lack of sleep and the fact that I still have to come up with a suitable punishment for my reckless fledgling."

Eileen raised an eyebrow. "Are you asking me for advice, Sev?"

"Yes, I suppose so. I was so angry at him earlier that I seriously considered turning him over my knee. He knew better than to wander off that way, even in his Animagus form. I know his control in leopard shape is not what it should be, but he must learn to think before he acts, he is a wizard who can transform into a cat, not an animal." The professor ran a hand through his hair. "I gave him a good couple of whacks before, however, and frankly I'm just not up to spanking him tonight. I . . .don't like punishing him like that, Mother, I'm afraid I'll lose control some day and not be able to stop, like . . ."

"Like Tobias, yes, I know." Eileen finished. "There are alternatives to a spanking, Severus. You know that, and I think Harry is hurt far more by your disapproval than if you smacked him a dozen times. You always cried harder when I scolded you than when I smacked you." She reminded him. Severus flushed, though he did not bother to deny it. Eileen's scoldings stung worse than Tobias's beatings. Those had only hurt his backside, but Eileen's had hurt his heart and his conscience, and left a far more lasting wound."In this case, I think he disobeyed more out of accident than any real wish to rebel against your authority. And he paid for it in more than three swats when that wyvern attacked him in the meadow. He got quite a scare, from what you tell me, and that alone should curb his impulsive tendencies for the time being."

Severus frowned. "You don't know your grandson, Mother. He's had several near-death experiences already and they haven't slowed him down too much that I can tell."

Eileen shook her head. "I wasn't talking about Harry alone, Sev. He was terrified over you, and that should make him think before he disobeys next time. Your injury had quite an impact on him, though a few hours scrubbing cauldrons wouldn't come amiss either."

"And a week's grounding from his Animagus form as well, I think." Severus said. "He won't care for that at all, but I think he needs some time away from it, before he starts obsessing. Thank you, Mother. I'm so tired I can hardly think straight."

"You should sleep, Severus." She blew him a kiss. "Tell Harry good night and give him my love. Good night, son."

"Good night, Mum." Severus left the den and headed down the hallway to Harry's room, reasoning his son must be finished with his shower and probably biting his nails in a frenzy.

Sure enough, he found his son sitting bolt upright on his desk chair, his nails chewed to the quick, the picture of a child who knows he has been very naughty and deserves to be punished. He stiffened when Severus entered, however, his eyes darting once to his father's face and then away.

Severus had put on his "Now You're In Serious Trouble" look again, and went to stand before his son, his hands on his hips.

"Dad, before you punish me, can I just say that I'm sorry again? I was stupid, I didn't think and I let the leopard instincts take over. I didn't mean to run off or make you worry again. Guess you must be sick of hearing that, huh? I'm sorry I'm such a screw up." His lower lip trembled. "Okay, can you just wallop me and get it over with? I really hate waiting." Blinking back tears, he stood up and turned around, leaning over the desk and presenting his backside to his astonished father.

Severus was speechless for a moment. I cannot believe this. He really thinks I'm going to beat him.

Harry waited, dread cramping his stomach, for the first smack. He was determined not to cry, no matter how hard his father struck him, he knew it was deserved, that Severus was sick and tired of him getting into trouble. He wondered why his father was taking so long. Perhaps he was fetching a ruler? Harry trembled, wondering if a ruler would hurt as much as Marge's cane. He shut his eyes, and clutched the edge of the desk with both hands.

"Harry, what makes you think I'm going to beat you?" Severus found his voice at last.

Huh? Was this some sort of trick question? "B-because last time I got in trouble, for taking the canoe out, you said that if I risked my neck again you'd . . .beat me senseless." Harry bit his lip hard. What was Severus waiting for? He knew his father was angry, he'd seen the look on his face when he'd come in.

"Good God, child, you actually believed that?" repeated the Potions Master. "You thought that I would take a stick or a belt to you?"

"You said . . ."

"I was speaking metaphorically, Harry. Like when you tell a friend your dad's going to kill you over something. I never meant for that to be taken literally. How many times have I beaten you, Harry Snape?"

"Uh . . .never, I guess."

"Then why would I start now? Stand up." Severus drew the boy up and turned him around. "Yes, you are in trouble, and yes, I am quite angry with you for disobeying me, but nothing you do will ever cause me to beat you. I am not my father, I will never be my father, and tonight I did something I never should have done-I struck you in anger. I apologize for that."

"I deserved it."

"True, but one should never punish a child when one is angry." Severus sighed. "Your punishment is as follows, a week without changing forms, I think part of your control problem stems from the fact that you are too attuned to your leopard form, you feel instinctively and that can be dangerous. A week without your other shape should correct that."

Harry groaned. "I can't become Whisper? Merlin, Dad! I'd have rather been beaten."

"Too bad. Furthermore, you will be scrubbing cauldrons for me tomorrow during the day, and cleaning out Boreal's stall. It is your job to make sure he is happy and mending, since you saved his life. You need to bring him water, food., and check on him every so often. Also you will have some laundry to do by hand, as a reminder to think before you act, young man."

"Yes, sir. I'll try and remember." He swallowed hard. "When the wyvern attacked you . . .I thought you were going to die, I was really scared, Dad. . . .because if you were gone, I'd have no family." he squeezed his eyes shut but tears came anyway and spilled silently down his cheeks.

"Oh, Harry! I cannot promise you that I will never leave you, for we all die someday, but I can promise that I will be around for a long time, hopefully for my grandchildren." he hugged the boy hard, letting him cry into his shirt for a bit.

After about five minutes, his son stopped and climbed into bed. Severus sat beside him and stroked his hair. "Go to sleep, son. I'm here. Just relax. Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it," he said, echoing Eileen.

Harry did so, falling asleep instantly.

Severus found he was just as exhausted and he couldn't even muster up the will to go back to his room and sleep there. So he expanded the bed to thrice its size and fell asleep next to his son, one hand upon his shoulder.


 



Chapter End Notes:


So, how did you like that one?

Was Sev's punishment fair?

Next: Harry and Boreal get to know each other and Harry gets some letters
.



Chapter 35: Consequences and Conversations
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When Harry opened his eyes the next morning, he discovered his father lying next to him. For one moment, he thought he was still dreaming. Yet when he rubbed his eyes and pinched himself, he realized he was awake and his father was sleeping next to him on his bed. It was a rather odd thing, to suddenly wake up to find someone asleep next to you, and not only that, but your parent. Harry took a minute and simply watched Severus sleeping.

The Potion Master's chest rose and fell evenly, reassuring Harry that his father was in a normal sleep, not sick or ill. He had never seen his indomitable father this way before, so relaxed, so peaceful, he looked somehow younger than his thirty-one years, all the stress from his dual occupation as teacher and spy erased from his features.

Harry stared and stared, thinking that perhaps he was seeing the true Severus at last, with all his masks off, and he smiled. You look happy now, Dad. And that's how it ought to be. I wish we could stay here forever, to hell with school and bloody Voldemort and you being a damn spy. You can never let your guard down when we're at school, and neither can I, not really. But here we can just be ourselves. Harry tilted his head to one side, a wry grin creasing his lips. Just me and my dad, what I've always wanted.

Then he recalled that Boreal was probably going to wake up any minute and he had better get dressed and wash his face. It was still quite early in the morning, around six thirty, and Harry stretched and yawned and slid off the end of the bed, leaving his father sleeping.

By the time he had finished washing his face and brushing his teeth, Severus was beginning to stir. Harry quickly shucked off his pajamas, reaching for a clean pair of jeans and Mystic red and gold shirt. He had just tugged the shirt on when he heard a soft cough from behind him.

"What the . . .I fell asleep here," Severus murmured, blinking owlishly. He sat up, amused at how quickly Harry whirled around to face him.

"Dad! You're awake," Harry exclaimed. "How are you feeling?"

"Ten times better than I was last night."

"Good," Harry said, turning back to grab his jeans.

He tugged one leg on and hopped awkwardly trying to get the other leg on until Severus grabbed his arm, holding him steady. "Harry, for the love of Merlin, why don't you sit down and put your pants on that way?"

"Uh, you were sleeping and I didn't want to wake you."

"What's wrong with the desk chair?"

"Umm . . ." Harry really didn't have an answer for that, so he finished pulling on his jeans, blushing. "Do you think Boreal is awake?"

"Not yet. The charm I cast would have alerted me if he was," Severus answered, rising. "I'm going to shower and shave and perhaps then we can have breakfast before Boreal awakens. Once I've examined him again, you can feed and water him and then you have some cauldrons to scrub, young man."

"Yeah, Dad. I know," Harry said with a faint insolent tone.

"A little cheeky this morning, aren't we?" Severus remarked, pretending to glower at him.

Harry smirked. "You like me that way."

"Incorrigible brat!" his father mock-growled, giving the smirking child a token swat before departing for the bathroom.

Twenty minutes later, both men were sitting at the table eating some of Rellah's honey and banana pancakes drizzled with syrup and topped with nuts and a bit of whipped cream. Plus a side of maple-glazed bacon. Delicious! Harry had seconds and thirds before he was full, and said that Rellah was the best cook in the history of the world.

Severus was midway through his second serving and teased, "If you keep on eating like this Harry, you're going to need a size larger jeans."

"You think I'm fat?"

"No, I was only teasing. You've a ways to go before you're even remotely plump, let alone overweight," Severus laughed. Then he pointed at a small vial of potion next to Harry's plate. "Drink your Nutrient Potion, please."

Harry grimaced, he hated the taste, but Severus insisted he drink it every three weeks, for his body was still a bit stunted from his years of malnutrition at the Dursleys. But he picked up the vial and tossed it back, like he was doing a shot of tequila.

He then gulped down almost his entire cup of tea to rid his mouth of the taste. "Why is it that stuff that's supposed to be good for you tastes awful?"

"Do you think apples taste awful? They're good for you. And so is milk and oatmeal and you like them." Severus pointed out.

"Well, this Nutrient Potion tastes like Dumbledore's old socks."

"That's because it has essential vitamins and minerals in it and no sugar. Now quite grousing and finish your pancakes. You have dishes to do before Boreal wakes up."

Harry didn't need to be told twice to finish eating, he loved those pancakes. When he was done, he picked up the dishes and brought them to the sink to start washing them by hand, it was part of his punishment.

Rellah looked like she was about to protest, but Severus frowned at her. "No, I don't want to hear it, Miss Woodberry. He's in trouble, therefore he does chores without magic, even if those duties normally are yours. Think of it as a day off."

Rellah huffed. "And what if I don't want a day off?"

"It's non-negotiable," said the Potions Master smugly and Rellah harrumphed and perched on the counter to watch Harry wash the dishes. She hated being idle.

* * * * * *

 

 

Soon after Harry had finished, it took him all of ten minutes, Severus heard the alarm alert go off, it sounded like a bell ringing to his ears, though nobody save the caster could hear it. Severus rose to his feet and turned to his son, who was wiping his hands on a dishcloth, "It would seem Boreal is awake. Let's go and see how he's doing."

Father and son went down to the stable that was just outside the garden gate, and found the Silver Arrow awake and pacing restlessly in his stall. Good morning, he whinnied to them as they entered. I feel much better today than I did last night, but I wish to be out in the open. I don't like being cooped up inside.

"I can understand that, however, with your wings bound and mending, you must stay quiet and rest for three days." Severus told him. "If you will follow me outside, I shall examine you there, but you must agree to return and rest afterwards."

The pegasus considered for a long moment, then snorted agreement. As you wish, Severus. Anything to help my wings mend faster.

Severus showed him the flip latch and Boreal was delighted with it. He flipped it up with a nudge of his nose and followed Severus outside. Harry started to come too, but Severus turned and said, "Now would be a good time to clean the stall and get Boreal some breakfast, Harry."

"Okay, but how much do I give him, Dad? I don't know anything about feeding a horse."

Fill my net with hay and the trough there with oats and leave me a full bucket of water, Boreal neighed. I know enough to stop eating and won't colic like a normal horse would.

Harry wasn't quite sure what the stallion meant by that, but he just nodded and went to do as he'd been told. He found there was hay in the next stall and a bucket of oats as well. He pointed his wand and transferred the hay from one stall to the other, and then he filled up the trough with oats. He made sure the bucket was filled with water.

His next task was to clean the stall. It wasn't that dirty, but Harry set to, pushing a wheelbarrow near the door and grabbing a shovel. It took him fifteen minutes to muck out the stall, since it really wasn't that dirty, he noticed that the soiled straw vanished when he tossed it in. At least that was something.

Then he located a large straw bale and lugged it into the stall. Since he had nothing sharp to untie the bale with, he used his wand to unravel the twine knots and then spread the golden straw out with a pitchfork found in the next stall.

By then he was sweating lightly and Boreal was entering the stable again, followed by Severus.

Harry stood off to one side to let Boreal walk up to the stall. Snape had removed the blanket the stallion had been wearing and Harry could see the great wings strapped in place along the silver sides. In the light, Harry saw the pegasus's coat was a light gray, shading to a darker coloring along the muzzle and the legs and he also had silvery white dapples along his quarters. Severus had groomed him during his exam, so Boreal's coat shone and his mane and tail, which were long and flowing, were free of tangles and straw.

"Uh, how'd I do?" Harry asked, a bit uncertainly, though he wasn't sure if he was asking Severus or Boreal.

The pegasus walked into the stall and stamped a hoof, testing the depth of the straw. Very good, young apprentice. This straw bedding is just right.

Harry smiled, happy he'd gotten it right. "I wasn't sure if I'd done it right, I've never owned or been around a pegasus before, or a horse either. I just watched National Velvet and The Black Stallion."

Severus nodded his approval as well. "A good job. Boreal is mending nicely. However, you have seven cauldrons to scrub down in my lab this morning. I'll be in the herb garden, doing some gathering, I trust you're old enough to do an assigned task without me hovering over your shoulder, son. However, if I come back by lunchtime and find you slacking off, you'll have seven more cauldrons to scrub and I'll stand over you and watch you just like I would a six-year-old."

"I'll do a good job, sir." Harry promised, for there was nothing he hated more than being watched like a hawk.

"I'll hold you to that, Harry," was all Severus said, and then he departed the stable for the herb garden, summoning a large basket as he did so.

Boreal lifted his head, he had been munching on some twists of timothy mixed in with his hay. Master Severus is your father as well as your teacher?

"Yeah. He adopted me, my parents died when I was a baby, and he's the only father I remember," Harry explained, leaning against the stall door. "Only we kind of have to keep our relationship secret, specially at school, ‘cause we have enemies that want to kill us-well, me, mostly-and Dad's a spy sometimes, and he has to pretend to be a bad guy so we can get intelligence information on the followers of Voldemort."

Boreal whistled angrily at the mention of Voldemort. Even I have heard of that one, Harry. His downfall was celebrated among my kind as well as yours. If he is dead. A dark wizard like that has ways of tricking death and returning.

"I know. That's what Dad said. And if he does return, I have to be prepared to fight him. But I'd rather not talk about it right now. I wanted to know if you minded me asking you a few questions?"

No, I enjoy speaking with you, Harry, and will be happy to answer whatever you wish to ask. But shouldn't you do as your father said and finish your chores first? Most masters get angry when their instructions aren't heeded, like a First Stallion would with an unruly colt.

Harry nodded. Boreal was right, much as he hated to admit it. "Okay. Guess I should get started. I did promise, and I don't want Dad to double my punishment, I'm already grounded enough as it is. I'll see you later though, Boreal."

I shall await your return. Goodbye for now! Boreal whinnied, and resumed crunching his oats.

Harry left him happily eating and went inside the cottage.

Yet he found himself oddly reluctant to begin his assigned task, and lingered in the hallway next to Eileen's portrait, heaving a ferocious sigh as he did so.

"Why such a loud sigh, Harry?" Eileen asked softly, noting that the boy seemed rather upset about something.

"It's nothing, Gran," Harry said quickly. He had started addressing Eileen as "Gran" instead of the more formal Grandma or Grand mother, and Eileen seemed to like