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Broken Wings by Snapegirl

Format: Novel
Chapters: 34
Word Count: 217,340
Status: COMPLETED

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

Genres: Drama, Angst, AU
Characters: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Snape, Crabbe Jr., Draco, Umbridge, OC
Pairings:

First Published: 06/04/2009
Last Chapter: 07/11/2009
Last Updated: 07/11/2009

Summary:
Desperate to escape his guilt and nightmares after the third task, Harry transforms into a hawk by accident and ends up breaking both wings and suffering partial memory loss. He is found by Snape, and while the professor nurses him back to health discovers the truth about Severus and who are really his friends and enemies at Hogwarts.





Chapter 1: A Way Out
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Harry drew his knees up to his chest and rested his head upon them, listening intently to the owls chirruping and hooting softly to each other in the Owlery.  The book he had borrowed from the library on Animagus transformations had said he needed to be calm and in a secluded place to concentrate upon finding his chosen animal. 

The book had also said that he would instinctively be drawn to the species of animal he had an affinity for.  He slippedout  the large World Encyclopedia of Animal Species that he had snitched from Dudley's room over the summer, it had been gathering dust on his cousin's bookshelf, he would never miss it.

He had begun studying the Animagus book over Christmas break as a way to focus on something other than the awful nightmares he still had over the last task of the Triwizard Tournament, where Cedric had died, killed because he was in the way of the real target-Harry.  Harry, whose blood had been forcibly taken from him to resurrect the hellspawned wizard Voldemort from the dead. 

Harry still had nightmares of the blood ritual performed, of the way loyal Pettigrew had cut off his arm to enable the wicked sorcerer to regrow a body so his fetid spirit would have a receptacle to dwell in.  When Pettigrew had pulled the bloody glistening creature out of the cauldron . . .the size of a five-year-old child, but wearing the cold cruel face and eyes of a serpent . . .eyes that had seen the far side of death's doorway and yet still bore all of the evil he had done in life . . .Was it any wonder Harry woke up screaming bloody murder?

Of course, his relatives had been patently unsympathetic, yelling at him to pipe down and go to sleep, he was bloody annoying, waking up in the middle of the night whimpering and wailing like a puking whiny little brat.  Harry had learned to sleep with a corner of his pillow or sheet stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams.

Or, most nights, he didn't sleep at all, couldn't bear closing his eyes again and seeing Cedric falling, a look of astonishment and disbelief on his open honest face . . .his life snuffed out before it had barely begun.  Bring my body back, Harry.  Bring my body back. Over and over he heard Cedric's last dying request and then he would jerk awake, howling in denial, shivering and sickened to his soul. 

So he had taken to studying his texts, figuring anything was better than hearing that in his head.  And the Animagus instruction text was interesting and allowed him to focus solely upon that aspect of magic, an aspect he desperately yearned to master.

His godfather had told him that James had become an Animagus in his fifth year, he, Sirius, and Pettigrew had all learned how to transform then.  So, Harry reasoned, he should be able to as well.

He had told no one of his decision, after what had happened to Diggory, and after the Ministry had almost expelled him over defending Dudley from dementors, he trusted no one.  It was better if his friends didn't know what he was up to, in fact it was better if he didn't have any friends, then they could not be killed for being associated with him.  Not that they want all that much to do with me lately anyhow.  All Ron talks about is Quidditch and making the team and trying to decide whether he wants to snog Lavender or Hermione more.  And Hermione is obsessed with OWLS and studying and wouldn't know if a bloke fancied her if he got down on one knee and announced it in front of the whole school.

Between the Prophet running daily articles about his being crazy and people whispering about him behind their hands and all, was it any wonder he preferred the solitude of Owlery? Dumbledore had been avoiding him all term, Sirius had his own problems to deal with and Harry didn't feel comfortable placing an extra burden upon him. 

He had taken to sleeping alone in the common room, or here in the Owlery, on some old blankets he'd snitched from the supply closet.  That way the only ones he disturbed with his fevered dreams were nocturnal animals and dust bunnies.  No need to add fuel to the firestorm already burning. 

He flipped the pages in the animal encyclopedia again, and again his thumb came to rest upon the pages labeled birds of prey.  This was what kept drawing him.  Raptors.  Magnificent birds who soared upon the winds and only left the sky to hunt and sleep.  He stared longingly at the pictures of hawks, falcons, eagles, his own snowy owl gazed out at him from a glossy eight by ten picture. 

His eyes were drawn again to the hawks, one hawk in particular, a species not even native to the British Isles.

The red-tailed hawk.

There was a picture of the brown hawk with the distinctive red plumage flying in a brilliant stretch of sky.  Harry's fingers tightened upon the book and he trembled, looking at the picture, examining it intently as if trying to absorb it into his flesh.

So beautiful.  So wild and free.  It can go wherever it wishes, as it wants, it can fly wherever the wind takes it. 

I wish . . .oh, I wish . . .I had that kind of freedom.

Crushing loneliness assailed him then and he shook his head, determined not to indulge in despair. 

He needed to find the key to unlock his Animagus form.  It was the only way out of his dreary miserable life. 

He bowed his head and concentrated, willing his magic to awaken, willing himself to focus. 

Please, please, I need this.  I need to get away, I need to fly, to feel the wind beneath my wings.  I don't want to be Harry Potter anymore. . . I'm sick of being the Boy-Who-Lived, the crazy savior that no one gives a damn about.

I just want to be . . .free.

And something deep inside of him awakened at long last, called forth by need and desperation.

He felt himself shivering, stretching, his body at once was burning hot and yet bitterly cold. 

The book slipped from his hands, because he no longer had hands to hold it. 

He had wings, and talons, and a great hooked bill, his eyes were sharp, he could see the individual grains in the wood beneath his feet and the pinions on the brown owl closest to him.

He opened his mouth to speak and what emerged was the high kree-eee-ar of a red-tailed hawk.

The owls rustled upon their perches, eyeing this newcomer with suspicion and mistrust. 

The young hawk that had once been a boy named Harry sensed the irritation and unease and sought to escape from it. 

Ignoring the glares and warning hisses, the red-tailed hawk walked awkwardly to the large open casement and perched upon the edge. 

The sky was just darkening from rose-gold to indigo, and the hawk suddenly felt a tremendous longing to spread his wings and soar into the vastness.

The wind swept about the tower, whispering a seductive refrain.  Come and fly.  Come and fly.

Unable to resist the siren lure, the hawk spread his wings and launched himself off the tower.

His wings caught an updraft and for one heart-stopping instant he soared above the earth, unfettered and free.

But then a crosswind slammed into the newly fledged Animagus, and his wings faltered, the hawk instinct overwhelmed by an instant of pure human terror.

An instant was all it took.

The wind picked up the light-boned avian and flung it across the sky.  Panicking utterly, Harry tried to flap his wings to stay aloft, but without the hawk instinct to guide him he had no idea how to fly anymore than a baby knows how to walk.

He found himself falling, screeching in terror, the wind slammed him hard against the stone of the tower.  He felt something crack and there was a shooting excruciating pain in his wing.

Kree-eee-ar!

Then he was tumbling over and over, his left wing hanging limply, until he struck the ground with a sickening thud.  He felt something give way in his opposite wing before he couldn't stand the pain any longer and blacked out, sinking into a deep black pool, his single bid at freedom shattered in one split second.

* * * * * *

He blinked, once, twice and slowly opened his eyes, to discover he looked upon a world of darkness.  He gasped, opening his mouth to cry out a question, and hearing the faint distressful call of an injured red-tail. 

"Quit moving, you fool bird," ordered a soft voice, silk yet with hints of ice.  "You'll hurt yourself worse if you struggle.  Be still!"

The hawk stopped moving then, for he was in tremendous pain and frightened, yet somehow the voice sounded familiar.  And familiar was good.  The hawk settled, hunching his head into his chest, feeling ill and yet secure, his feet were gripping a cloth-covered forearm, held against a strange warmth that made an odd sounding ka-thump, ka-thump!

The noise should have frightened the injured bird, but it was strangely soothing. The hawk huddled deeper into the cloak that had been hastily wrapped about his broken body and fell into a half-aware state.

He could tell by the vibrations and the echo of footsteps that he was being carried down somewhere, but that was all.  The hawk shivered, making small noises of distress as the Potions Master carried him back to his lab, for every movement jarred his broken wings and was agony, try though Snape did to walk quickly and carefully.

"Hush.  I would Apparate if I could, but the Headmaster has set up Anti-Apparition wards and that means we have to walk," murmured the silky voice, and the ice was gone from its tone.  "Relax, we'll be at my lab soon enough, and then I can see what you've done to yourself.  You must be some falconer's pet, escaped, for red-tailed hawks are not native to Scotland or England."

Is that what I am? wondered the hawk dazedly.  Yes, it must be.  For I cannot remember anything else except flying and then falling.

The hawk meeped, a shudder running through him as he recalled that sickening plunge and the awful pain that followed, and nestled deeper into the dark rescuer's chest, trusting that the voice would make the grinding pain cease, one way or another.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well, there you have it.

You'll learn more about how Snape found him next chapter and see how he takes care of Harry, who even in bird form is NOT the easiest patient.

Also, please note this is an AU fic and follows canon very loosely in some spots and not at all in others, so expect changes and differences.  Enjoy!



Chapter 2: A Frightened Fledgling
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The young hawk felt himself set down on something hard and unyielding, his talons scrabbled for purchase for a moment before he relaxed and stood.  Since he could not use his wings for balance, he listed a bit, and shooting darts of pain made standing still an agony.  He opened his beak and made soft screeing noises of distress, unable to help himself, the pain was almost unbearable and he was frightened of the tall figure that loomed over him, since the cloth shrouding him had now been removed.

His large amber eyes darted all over and he hunched up, trying to make himself smaller in hopes that he wouldn't be noticed.  Tremors shook the eyas's frame as the  black cloaked creature pointed a stick at him and muttered something.

"Hmm.  My diagnostic results tell me you're in a bad way," murmured Snape, eyeing the young hawk in concern.  Few people of his acquaintance would believe him capable of concern over a mere animal, but the fact was that Severus had a deep liking for birds of prey, understanding them better than he did most people.  Like himself, the raptors were proud and solitary, and formed deep attachments to very few, yet when they did bond, they were fiercely loyal unto death.  A hawk or falcon mated for life and when the mate died, the remaining partner did not seek another, but remained alone, mourning the lost one in dignified sorrow.  And nothing was fiercer than a hawk protecting nest and fledglings.  Yes, there were many parallels between a hawk and Snape's own behavior at times--he defended his Slytherins with a fierce protectiveness, like a hawk with young eyasses and he had loved Lily with endless devotion and still did, despite the fourteen years since her death and her marriage to his most hated rival. 

Snape had discovered the young hawk by chance, as he was out walking for his evening constitutional before returning to his quarters to mark the day's exams and homework.  He had noticed an odd shape lying in the grass near the pathway next to the Owlery, and upon going closer to investigate, discovered the injured avian. 

At first he assumed the hawk was dead, but upon closer examination, he saw that it was breathing, though in very bad shape.  Fortunately, Severus knew something about caring for raptors, he had studied their physiology and habits extensively as a young student, though he had never been able to afford one for a familiar.  An owl was too dear for his mother's meager salary, all her money had gone for school books and a decent set of scales and robes for her son each year. 

That was not a problem anymore, but Severus still did not have his own owl, since his duties as Dumbledore's agent made having a particular owl too conspicuous as well as too vulnerable, should the newly resurrected Dark Lord become angry, he could target Snape's familiar.

When he had seen the injured red-tailed hawk, however, he had completely allowed his juvenile longing to own one of the magnificent birds along with a hidden compassion for the poor thing to overcome him and immediately removed his cloak and wrapped the half-unconscious bird in it and then carried it down to his lab.  His forbidding scowl and swift stride on the way there had quickly squelched any questions or comments from curious students.  

"You've broken both wings and torn ligaments in your shoulders in several places," Severus spoke in a soft conversational tone, trying to calm the agitated bird down before trying to administer a pain reliever and a bit of Calming Draft.  "The right wing has a shattered ulna and the left one is worse off with a snapped humerus, and torn segments in both pectoralis minor and major muscles. Which means I'm going to need splints and tight wraps for at least a week or two, since raptors don't respond well to magical bone  repair elixir and I can only give you minute doses every few days."

The bird was also suffering from shock.  That Severus treated with a softly spoken Anti-Shock charm, and then he rewrapped the bird in his cloak again, trying to prevent it from spreading the damaged wings in panic. 

Then he quickly summoned two bottles of potions to him and a small syringe without a needle and filled it a quarter of the way with pain reliever.  He estimated the young hawk weighed nearly a pound, it was slightly underweight, and should be able to tolerate the amount of potion Severus had measured out.

But now came the hard part, getting the medicine into the bird. The quickest method was to insert the syringe into the hawk's bill and allow the bird to swallow the potion.  Severus moved slowly and deliberately on the bird, wrapping an arm about its body and bringing up his hand to cover the bird's eyes. 

The hawk shivered violently as the large hand, he dimly recalled that the creature before him was called a man, and that appendage a hand, came towards him.  His first instinct was to fly, but his wings were useless and so he fell back on the other time-honored method of discouraging predators. 

He waited until the hand hovered just above his head, the long fingers almost brushing his forehead, and then he lunged and his beak closed on the pale flesh in one swift motion, biting as hard as he could.

"Ahhh!" Severus yelled, the sound startling the hawk enough so he released the Potion Master's bleeding hand. 

Severus quickly grabbed up a cloth lying on his desk and wrapped it about his hand, which had a nice slash in it from the frightened bird's razor-sharp bill.  He glowered down at the hawk and growled, "Bloody impertinent damned bird! You're lucky I'm in the mood to save your life, otherwise I'd chop you up and use you in a potion.  Hawk parts are in great demand in the East for some of their elixirs. I could export your liver and eyes for a goodly sum." He cast a healing charm upon himself, mending the slash rapidly, fixing the injured bird with a baleful look. 

It was odd, but Severus could have sworn after he had spoken that the bird looked faintly ashamed, cringing and looking down at the shiny surface of the lab table as if it were regretting its actions. 

Snape shook his head at the ridiculous fancy and mentally berated himself for not hooding the bird sooner.  Since he did not own a hood, he summoned a clean cloth and used a Sticking Charm to bind it securely to the hawk's head, covering the raptor's frightened eyes. 

Immediately the bird stilled, the darkness calming it considerably and it relaxed. 

Severus gave the eyas a few minutes to settle before once more attempting to medicate the bird.  He applied pressure to the bird's beak, forcing the hawk to open it, and then carefully fed the eyas the potion, making sure the hawk was swallowing it and not spitting it out.

Five minutes later, Severus refilled the syringe and gave the injured bird the Calming Draft, and after that, the eyas began to doze. 

"There! You should be soaring Hypnos's realm in a few minutes, and leave me free to splint and wrap those wings properly," Snape muttered.  "Although after what you just did I ought to start heating up a cauldron and save myself the aggravation."  But his tone belied the harsh words and his fingers gently eased away the cloak, exposing the broken wings. 

Some twenty minutes later he had nearly finished with the right wing, using a set of very light balsa wood stirrers and gauze to immobilize the wing, augmenting the procedure with a Sticking Charm to ensure the splint and bandages remained on for the duration of the hawk's convalescence. 

He gently laid the bird on its side and began repeating the procedure upon the opposite wing when his fireplace suddenly turned a brilliant emerald and Dumbledore stuck his head through.

"Severus, I must ask you a very important question-have you seen-?"

"Not now, Albus!" snapped the Potions Master irritably.  "I am in the midst of a delicate . . .experiment and cannot be interrupted.  Can't it wait?"  He found himself strangely reluctant to reveal his unexpected visitor's presence, though he was almost certain Albus would rejoice to see the reclusive wizard with a pet at last.

Dumbledore shook his head gravely.  "My apologies, Severus, but it cannot.  Have you seen Harry Potter recently?"

"Not since my fifth period class, why?" Snape replied sourly.  You interrupted my surgery to bother me about bloody Potter, Headmaster? The little brat can go hang for all I care right now!

"Because he is missing, Severus."

Severus ground his teeth together.  "And you thought to find him here?"

"I had hoped he was serving detention with you, despite the late hour," Dumbledore admitted, his blue eyes drained of their usual sparkle. 

"Regrettably, Potter has not earned a detention with me in several weeks.  His participation in class has been somewhat better than abysmal," Snape reported.

"Ah well, I had hoped . . ." sighed the Headmaster.  "We shall simply have to keep looking."

"Indeed," Severus sneered.  He cast a worried glance at the hawk, who was beginning to stir, the Calming draft metabolized swifter in birds than humans and it was wearing off.  "Have you checked Hogsmeade? Or the Quidditch pitch? Potter has been known to wander unsupervised at night, much like his damn father."

"I had Rolanda search the pitch and Minerva went to Hogsmeade.  I simply do not understand where he could have gone."

Who cares? Severus fought to keep from snapping.  This was typical of Potter, his reckless behavior and disregard for school rules had now thrown the staff into a tizzy, and no doubt the arrogant boy was hiding somewhere, smirking at the glorious prank he'd pulled on everyone, thought the Potions Master angrily.  "He is an irresponsible teenager, Albus, no doubt he cooked up this scheme in order to get more attention from the press and whatnot.  The more headlines in the Prophet, the more fame he draws to himself."

"Severus, I don' t think . . ."

"Forgive me, Albus, but I'm at a critical stage and I need to concentrate utterly," Severus interrupted, the hawk was starting to rustle its tail feathers. 

Sensing he was going to get nothing useful out of the other wizard for the time being, Dumbleddore withdrew, saying as he did so, "When you are through, Severus, I would appreciate you assisting us with our search."

Severus clenched  a fist, for though softly spoken, he knew Albus had issued an order, not a request. 

"Very well," he said curtly. "I shall come as soon as I may."

"Thank you, Severus.  Perhaps you may succeed where we have not, my boy, all things considered," Albus declared and then withdrew from the Floo Network.

"When the bloody Dark Lord starts reciting haiku, Dumbledore!" he grumbled under his breath, then returned to tending the wounded eyas, swiftly splinting and wrapping the opposite wing and then giving the bird a minute dose of Bone Mend Elixir to help speed the process. 

He carefully placed the injured bird on a spare perch he used for Arrow, the school owl he used to send letters to members of the Order, and summoned a length of leather lacing from a drawer and fashioned a pair of makeshift jesses and placed them upon the hawk, ensuring the bird would remain on the perch. 

The young hawk gave a soft cry and Severus gently ran a finger down the speckled breast, whispering, "Hush.  It's all over. Rest, I'll be back soon to feed you." He whispered a charm to increase the temperature in the room so the hawk would not become chilled, then he snatched up his cloak and stalked out the door, mentally condemning bloody Harry Potter to the bowels of the abyss for making him leave the red-tailed hawk at such a critical juncture.  But then, that too was typical of a Potter, always ruining the few precious moments in Snape's life.  Whatever else happened, he could always count on Potter to spoil things, one way or another, Snape thought caustically, gently closing the door behind him.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Eyas--name for a young hawk.

jesses- thin straps, traditionally made from leather, used to tether a hawk or falcon

I will be using several terms of falconry in this story, though I shall make an effort to explain them either in the text or notes as necessary.

More from Harry the hawk's perspective next chapter!



Chapter 3: Intruder
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The injured red-tailed hawk drifted, his sleep interrupted several times by odd loud bangs and staccato noises and high-pitched voices coming from the corridor beyond the lab.  The pain in his wings and shoulders was dulled considerably from the agony it had been before, but he still experienced sharp twinges and throbbing.  Still, he could endure it, and for some reason that was important, that he not surrender to pain and cry out.  In the depths of his hazy memory, a voice that sounded like muted thunder yelled, Quit that bawling, Dudley didn't hit you that hard, you freaky brat! Had it coming to you, you unnatural creature!

The eyas trembled, the voice scared him, he disliked it immensely, though he had no memory of why or anything other than that single phrase.  He tucked his head beneath a wing, or tried to, since his wings were strapped tightly against his side. Making an irritated trill, he settled for resting his head along his side and fluffing his feathers a bit about his neck.  It pulled a bit on his sore shoulder muscles, but it was more natural to sleep that way, and he soon faded into an odd gray realm, aware and yet not aware.

He was yanked out of the gray realm by a creaking and then the soft sound of several large things walking.  He hissed, not liking the fact that they were coming towards him, and he soon discovered he couldn't move, something bound his feet securely to the perch beneath him.  He froze then, immobility and silence being his last defense against a threat.

The footsteps halted a few meters from his perch and he heard the tinkling and scraping of several . . .bottles, his memory supplied the word and the corresponding picture as well. 

"Draco, we really shouldn't be in here," hissed a deep voice.  It sounded worried. "If Snape comes back and catches us . . ."

"You worry too much, Crabbe.  Snape is off hunting for missing Potter like the rest of the staff.  He won't be back for another hour," said another, this one a bit higher in pitch and dismissive.  "Besides, we need the toad skin and the frog liver to make the prank work.  You were the one who wanted to see Weasley get warts like a toad and croak like a frog for all of Saturday."

"I know, but . . .this is Snape's private stock, and if he ever finds out we've been stealing his potions . . .we'll be lucky to get expelled."

"Relax, Vince.  Go and get the mini silver cauldron and then go and stand lookout by the door with Goyle if you're so unicorn-hearted."

"I'm not, Malfoy!" objected the other.  "I just don't fancy having Snape tear my arse to shreds is all."

"Why don't you cry about it?" sneered Draco.

The other moved away and the eyas heard the distinct clink of a cauldron being removed from a shelf. Then the footsteps halted and he heard a gasp emerge from the one called Crabbe.

"Merlin's pants! Draco, come and see this!  I never knew Snape kept pets!"

"He doesn't, you idiotic moron! He's above such things. There, I have everything.  Now quit gaping and let's get out of here . . ."

"But Draco, it's a bird . . .a hawk or something.  Look!"

"Probably a stuffed model," the other said dismissively, but leaned closer to inspect the bird.

Unable to remain still any longer, the young hawk gave a sharp cry of warning.

Draco nearly fell over.  "Bloody hell, it's alive!  Wonder where it came from?"

"It looks hurt.  See the bandage on its head and wings."

"Crabbe, that's not a bandage, it's a hood, you dunderhead! Don't you know anything?" Draco snorted.  "It's to keep it calm, otherwise it could go crazy and bash itself to death.  I've never seen a hawk close up.  Wonder if it's feathers feel the same as an owl's?"

"Draco, I wouldn't touch it.  It might bite."

"Please, Crabbe.  I know how to handle birds, I've got a bigger one than this little piece of dung.  I know what I'm doing."

The eyas felt a hand stroke his breast, and he shivered, for there was something about the hand and voice that he distrusted and he tried to edge away, but the jesses did not permit him to move along the perch.  The hand ruffled his feathers and then a finger touched a sore spot beside his left shoulder and the eyas screeched in anger and pain.  Enough was enough!

"Ye-oww!" screamed Malfoy, jerking his hand back.  "The bastard bit me! Hard.  I'm bleeding!"

"I told you not to touch it, Draco."

"Aw, shut up! Get me a rag, quick! I'm getting blood all over my robes." He gave the perch a violent kick, causing the hawk to wobble and slip off the perch.  "Vicious thing, I hope you die!"

The eyas found himself dangling upside down, for the jesses had just enough length in them to allow the bird to hang a foot or two away from the perch.  Unable to fly back up, the hawk began to revolve helplessly, small cries of fear and distress emerging from his throat.  Help! Help!

"Draco, we can't just leave it like that," protested Crabbe.

"You going to pick it up, Crabbe?" Malfoy challenged.  "Want to lose a finger? No? Didn't think so.  Come on, move your arse.  The bloody bird can rot, it probably would have died anyway."

"But Snape . . ."

"Will think the stupid thing fell off itself and committed suicide.  Move it, Crabbe! Unless you want get another three weeks of detention plus a disciplinary report sent home. Or be stuffed and used as an example to the first year Slytherins on what not to do."

The footsteps retreated and the lab door clicked shut, leaving the eyas crying and struggling frantically at the end of the tether, banging inadvertently into the wooden pole, jarring the newly bound wings painfully. The awful pain spurred the bird into even greater gyrations, panic overwhelming him utterly.  Only this time there was no dark rescuer to aid him and he soon battered himself into unconsciousness.


 



Chapter End Notes:

Hope you enjoy this one.

Next I'll have more of Snape's perspective plus a talk with Hagrid.



Chapter 4: Alike
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Severus stalked down the corridor like the wind of death, muttering imprecations about Harry bloody Potter, the Boy Who Lived to Make Him Insane, and considered it the worst timing in the world that Potter had to go missing or whatever right then.  And of course Dumbledore would insist he help search for the annoying brat, despite the fact that it was Friday night and Severus was supposed to be free on the weekends to grade and maybe relax a bit with a book and a small glass of port.  Or nurse an injured hawk back to health if he so chose.  Instead he was dragooned into searching the grounds for the damn boy.

Severus reasoned that the grounds were a good place to start, since Dumbledore would have set most of the staff to looking inside the castle already.  And the Headmaster knew Snape was familiar with the grounds, since he wandered them frequently in his quest for potion ingredients.  The Potions Master's long stride soon took him down the stony trail to Hagrid's hut, which bordered the Forbidden Forest, he wished to speak with the gamekeeper about the injured hawk as well as ask him if he knew of any familiar haunts Potter liked to visit.

Severus knew many of the staff tended to disregard the bluff man, thinking him a little dim if friendly, like his big boarhound Fang.  But Severus knew there was more to Hagrid than met the eye.  The gamekeeper saw more than anyone would guess, and if Potter had a hiding place somewhere on the grounds, Hagrid probably knew of it.  The way he had known of the spots young Snape used to frequent, seeking solitude from his chattering classmates and relief from the constant persecution of the Marauders.

Unlike the Headmaster and probably the rest of the staff, Snape was unwilling to admit that Potter's disappearance was anything more than a schoolboy prank, such as his father used to pull, skipping out of class when there was a quiz or test that day.  The boy had only been missing a few hours and Severus knew that if any Death Eater had captured Potter, he would be summoned through the Mark to witness the Dark Lord's triumph over his hated enemy.  A triumph which would end in Potter's death, but not before the snake-faced wizard tortured him first for being a thorn in his side.  And if that ever happened, Severus knew his days of spying were over, for he was pledged to defend Potter at all costs.

Pledged by his wizard's oath, given to his best friend Lily, witnessed by Albus Dumbledore, a promise more binding than even the life debt he had owed James Potter. The oath had been given just before the Potters had gone into hiding, Lily had forgiven him for following the dark road, and then she had asked him to swear the oath. 

He had done so, knowing full well it was his path to redemption.

But Potter was not a guest of Voldemort, of that much Snape was certain. 

Therefore, Potter was here somewhere, probably using that confounded Invisibility Cloak. 

Scowling, Snape tapped upon Hagrid's door. 

It was opened almost immediately, and the gamekeeper gave the Potions Master a genial smile.  "Hullo, Professor Snape.  What can I do for you?"

"Has the Headmaster informed you that Potter has gone missing yet?"

"Harry, missing? Fer how long?"

"I would assume a few hours.  Apparently, he never returned to his common room after dinner and his friends must have reported his absence to the Headmaster, who has decided to mount a search for the blasted little . . ." Severus trailed off angrily, too furious to insult Potter properly.  "Would you know where he . . .likes to go when he is finished with classes, Hagrid?"

The big man scratched his head.  "Normally, he hangs out at the Quidditch pitch with Ron Weasley, that's his best mate, and sometimes he goes down by the lake too."

"Those places have been checked already," Snape sighed impatiently.  Every minute he was searching for Potter was another minute wasted, another minute he could be spending with the rescued hawk, making sure it was eating and drinking and kept warm and calm.  "Anywhere else you can think of? Perhaps somewhere near the Forest?"

Hagrid's forehead crinkled.  "Ah . . .there might be one place . . .a little glade I showed ‘im just this year." He coughed softly and avoided Snape's eyes suddenly.  "Y'know the one, professor . . .yeh used to use it too, when you wanted to get away from Black and that lot, remember?"

"You showed Potter my secret glade?" Severus cried, incensed.  "The one where Lily and I used to study?"

"Yeah, I figgered he could use a place t'hide, seein' how things were with him after Cedric's death an' all.  I didn' think you'd care, you haven't been there since Lily died, and I thought it'd help Harry to go there, where his mother used to be . . ."

"Did you happen to mention that I used to go there too?"

Hagrid flinched at the fury in the Potion Master's tone.  "No, I jus' tol' him about Lily.  He was upset an' lookin' like he needed some time by himself, th' way you usta, Professor, when you came back from home at the beginning of term."

Severus stiffened.  Of all the adult wizards at Hogwarts, only Hagrid had ever guessed that his home life was not as it should have been when he was a student.  Severus had never spoken about it, conditioned since he was small to never tell anyone what happened at Spinner's End.  Yet somehow Hagrid had known something was amiss, and had offered the lonely boy an open invitation to come for tea anytime and showed him a secret place where he could go and escape for a few blessed hours.  Later, he had shown it to Lily, and they had spent many pleasant hours there, hidden away in the woods amid the great trees and emerald foliage, talking, researching new spells, and inventing new potions, writing formulas on scraps of parchment. 

It had been an almost sacred place to the young Severus, and now Potter had learned of it.  He knew that Hagrid meant well, the man loved tending to the strange and injured wild things that came to him, and he extended that same compassion to those among the students he felt were in need as well.  Like Severus.  But why on earth would Hagrid ever equate the Boy Who Lived, the prince of the wizarding world, worshipped by thousands as the last best hope against Voldemort, with the miserable abused child Snape had been?

 Hurt by Hagrid's inadvertent betrayal of his privacy, he snapped, "What do you mean, he is like me? Potter is pampered and spoiled, he lives in an affluent Muggle neighborhood, unlike me, who dwelled in a rundown row house.  I'll bet he never had to work a day in his life, never knew what it meant to go hungry and cold because his bloody father drank away all the money he made and treated him like pond slime . . ." breathing hard, Severus wrenched his temper and the subsequent awful memories back beneath his icy mask.

"Professor, y'can be mad at me all you want, but don' take it out on Harry, please.  Things ain't always what they seem, you oughta know that better than anyone.  And I'm tellin' yeh, something's not right with Harry."

"Such as?"

"Well, let's see . . .he came back and he wasn't the way he usually is, he hardly smiled and he didn' seem to want to be with his friends, he kept goin' off by himself, I figgered it was ‘cause of Cedric's death and his return, but he didn' want to talk about it, he even started refusing t'stop for tea on Saturdays, sir, an' that jus' ain't like Harry.  He usta love havin' tea with me."

Severus, who had also been one of those students Hagrid invited to tea, couldn't resist asking, "Did you feed him blueberry scones with sweet butter too?"

"Aye, and he used to go back for seconds, he was always hungry, like he never had enough to eat at home."

Severus snorted.  "Impossible.  Potter's relatives were not impoverished, they could afford to feed ten of him."

"Maybe, but what if they didn', Professor? Y' didn' see him like I did when I went to fetch him to Hogwarts that first year," Hagrid pointed out.  "He looked like he was nine ‘stead o' eleven and a good stiff wind would blow him away.  Those Muggles, they were all fat as hogs, but not him, he was like a ghost, pale and scrawny, jus' like-"

"Don't say it! Potter and I are nothing alike!"

"No? I think you're wrong," the big man said firmly.  "Y' won't admit it, but you're more alike than you know, Severus Snape."

"Don't be ridiculous, Hagrid! He's his bloody father all over again, arrogant and rich and spoiled beyond belief, drunk on fame and glory . . ."

Hagrid shook his head in disappointment.  "Never thought I'd see the day when you let prejudice blind you, sir. You're acting like Sirius Black, seeing only what you want t'see an' not what's really there."

"I'm what?" Severus gasped.  "How dare you compare me to that-that mutt, that rotten attention-seeking bastard who nearly killed me and then waltzed away with a slap on the wrist? How dare you?"

"B'cause that's who ya sound like righ' now, Severus," Hagrid said, his tone soft with disapproval, and suddenly Snape felt every inch that scrawny unloved student again, whose only real friends had been a pretty red-haired girl, books, and the big man and his numerous pets.  "I usta t' tell Sirius that he was wrong t' make fun of you ‘cause you were Slytherin, that not everyone was a piece, that all o' the Houses had good an' bad members in them, an' that he shouldn't judge a person by the cut of his robe or his hair, but he never wanted t'listen.  Slimy Slytherin, he'll go dark jus' like You-Know-Who, like all of ‘em, he usta say and then he'd laugh.  But he was wrong, wasn't he?"

"You know he was."

"Aye, else you wouldn't be standing here arguing with me.  That bein' so, I'm askin' yeh t'look past the fact that Harry's James Potter's son and see what y' couldn't before . . .that he's a kid in need of help.  Do what Black never could, or never wanted to, Professor, see the truth.  You're a mite smarter than Sirius, sir, so it oughta be a snap."

"Damn straight I am!" he muttered, then flushed red, because it had been a long time since he had allowed anyone to scold him as if he were eleven again.  He sure as hell was smarter than Black, of all people, and his pride smarted at the insinuation that he was not seeing the truth, for a spy's main duty was to gather information and be able to see that which was hidden. 

Have I been that blind? Is Hagrid right? Could I have missed the obvious signs of neglect and depression because I refused to see that he wasn't James's son only, but Lily's as well?  Have I become as impulsive and stubborn and idiotic as Black after all? Merlin forfend!

"You said Potter looked depressed? When did you first notice this?"

"Ah, ‘bout two weeks into the new term," Hagrid reported. 

Snape frowned.  Now that he thought about it, Potter had seemed more subdued and less cheeky than was his wont.  As he had told Dumbledore, he hadn't taken any points or given the brat detention in weeks, an almost unheard of occurrence. Usually the incorrigible child managed to smart off to him and annoy him the first day in class.  But this time . . .Potter had been quiet as a mouse, and polite, and unresponsive to Snape's sharpness and sarcasm.  Abnormal behavior indeed, and the spy mentally kicked himself hard for not noticing that telling detail.

Snape, you need to retire and commit yourself to St. Mungos if you can't observe better than that, you oblivious idiot! A first-year would have noticed something off right away given Potter's previous behavior, and you, who have been a master spy for sixteen and a half years, missed it.

While Severus mentally walloped himself soundly, the two walked out behind the cottage and into the forest.  Though he hadn't been back to his secret glade in years, as Hagrid had commented, Snape found his feet still knew the right path to it.  Fourteen years and still he had not forgotten, would never forget, the best refuge he had ever had, one in which only Lily had ever been allowed to intrude.

A familiar bitter ache was rising in him then, and he sought to distract himself from its sharp pangs by questioning Hagrid more about Potter.  "Did he say anything to you about what went on over the summer?"

"No, Professor.  Jus' that he was glad to be out of the house.  He didn' talk too much at all, but I could tell something was botherin' him, I think he blames himself fer everything.  Cedric's death and the return of You-Know-Who, it hit him awful hard, sir."

"Mmm. I'd imagine so." Severus murmured, seeing a classmate die so violently in front of you was bound to leave a scar, and then being used in a blood ritual to bring back the wizard equivalent of Hitler from the dead would upset anyone, and not even Potter was immune to such tragedy.  And if Hagrid were right, and his home with the . . .Dursleys was similar to Snape's own had been with his alcoholic father and downtrodden mother, that atmosphere on top of the events of last year might very well have combined to throw the boy into a deep depression. 

In which case, Potter missing suddenly took on a whole new chillingly terrible aspect.

Obsidian eyes met brown ones, and Snape knew Hagrid too suspected what Severus had just concluded, though neither spoke.

Both of them were intimate with the depths of despair and had travelled the twisted road of self-destruction as young teenagers, Hagrid after being unjustly expelled and cast out of his one true home to live as a scorned failed wizard and a half-giant, mocked and derided, until Dumbledore had literally saved his life by giving him a position and some self-worth as gamekeeper.

 And Snape too had embraced the darkness after his mother had died in sixth year and Lily had rejected him so harshly and Black had nearly killed him in the Shrieking Shack, and no one seemed to care at all if he lived or died a slow painful death from a werewolf's bite.  Only his savior had been the man beside him, who had found him unconscious from a strong Sleeping Draught, and had recognized the signs.  Hagrid had taken him into his cottage and cared for him for a week, much as he would a wounded wild animal, and in truth Snape had been no better than that emotionally, and he had kept the boy's awful secret upon Snape's insistence, sharing also his own dark time with the lanky teen, becoming one of the few Snape trusted. 

Severus suspected Hagrid had something to do with Lily's change of heart towards him, but the other would never say so and Severus would never ask. It wasn't important why Lily had forgiven him, only that she had.

And she would hex you seven ways to Sunday if she ever knew the state you allowed her son to get into, Severus Tobias Snape.

"Do you think . . .?"

"Maybe.  Not before this, but now . . ."

Leaves and dead branches crunched beneath their feet and then Snape halted, tugging aside a large curtain of seemingly dense creeper to reveal a pristine sunny glade. 

Empty.

Severus felt his heart grow cold.  He swore softly for several minutes. 

Then he gathered himself back under control and said, "Where else in the Forest could he have gone?"

"Maybe to Thestral Rock? Sometimes kids who've seen death are drawn there," Hagrid said.  Like you were.

But that too proved unfruitful.  Severus cast locator spell after locator spell, and all of them came back undetectable.  Yet that in itself was a hopeful sign.  If Potter were dead, the spell would come back with an echo attached to the signature, indicating faded magical core, and the dead had no need of concealment. 

"Nothing.  Wherever he is, he's concealing himself well," Severus concluded sourly, hating to admit he'd been bested by a mere student.  "Perhaps he merely wished to find a place uninhabited by foolish noisy Gryffindors. Or skive off from my latest potions assignment."

"Y' don't think he's . . .?"

"There was no echo. Potter is hiding, he will come out when he is ready, or perhaps when he is hungry, like a frightened cat," Snape drawled.

"Oh.  Yeah, that makes sense.  Should we stop searching, then?"

"For now.  It grows late, we have been looking for two hours at least, and wandering the forest at this hour is risky even for us.  We can resume tomorrow, if Potter has not turned up by then." Severus said, surprising himself by the words that had just come out of his mouth.  Since when did he start caring about Harry bloody Potter? Since Hagrid punctured your bubble of irrational enmity with a few sharp words, his conscience whispered.  You promised to watch out for Lily's son, and even if you did not, it is your duty as a teacher to make sure your students are safe . . .even from themselves.

"Come let's go back, Hagrid. I shall tell the Headmaster we found nothing." Snape ordered, turning back down the path that led out of the forest.  "I also have a favor to ask you.  Do you have any equipment to train a young hawk?"

"I think I still do, but why?"

Severus told him, and Hagrid's face lit up at the prospect of saving yet another poor wild thing from grim death.  He eagerly agreed to give Snape his set of training jesses, sturdy perch, leash, hood, glove, and lure.  As well as a book on falconry he had used while rehabilitating a goshawk he'd found one year in the meadow, the victim of a Muggle weapon. 

"A gun, I would say," Severus said quietly, from Hagrid's description of the wounds.

"Filthy things.  But I saved her, and she flew free after a month.  Most beautiful sight I ever saw." Hagrid sniffled, brushing a few tears from his eyes.  He always grew maudlin when discussing pets and animals he had lost or set free.  "I got a coney too for ya, Professor. Fresh caught today, was gonna make some stew with it, but I can always snare another. Though if the little fella is in pain, you'll need to grind the meat up fine and mix it with a little honey, make a paste, and feed it with a spoon or your finger, if he'll take it."

Severus nodded.  "A spoon, I don't trust my finger near him just yet, he's already bitten me once."

Hagrid was not surprised, being bitten was a hazard when caring for any wild animal.  "And plenty o' water too.  He'll be thirsty after all your potions."

They had reached the cottage and Hagrid went inside to gather the falconer's kit, smiling happily.  He was glad Severus had finally allowed himself to feel compassion for something again and he had an instinct that the hawk and the Potions Master would become very good friends. Young injured hawks like the one Severus had found often imprinted upon humans who rescued them, bonding to the man as they would an elder hawk.  Birds of a feather, aye.

Severus waited on the porch, tapping a boot impatiently against the cobblestone walk, impatient to get back to his new charge.  And then he felt the wards on his lab activate, and he snarled a vicious oath.  Someone unauthorized had taken something from his private potions stock, and when he traced them, the student was going to wish he or she had never been born.   The ward was tingling madly in his head, buzzing like a nest of enraged hornets, and he stuck his head inside the door and called, "Hagrid, send me the kit over later, there is an emergency back in my lab, some wretched student has broken in there, and I need to get back immediately-"

"Here, Severus.  It's all in this cloth pack," the gamekeeper thrust a large leather bag into his hands, wincing at the dark fury in the other's eyes.  "Don' kill him, Professor. Y'don' want to go to Azkaban, trust me." An involuntary shudder went through the big man's frame as he recalled his own three month stay there years ago.  It was not something one could ever forget, and he was happy Severus had escaped that dreadful fate.

Severus bared his teeth in a predatory smile.  "Killing is too good for the likes of whoever did this, Hagrid.  I detest thieves as much as I do lying little brats. Perhaps I'll only nail their hide to a wall in my office, maybe make a necklace of their thieving fingers, feed their liver to my hawk, the possibilities are endless . . ."

He spun around, black cloak billowing like a bird of prey to catch the quarry that had dared invade his eyrie, tossing a belated thank you over his shoulder.

Hagrid watched the tall figure stride back up to the castle.  "Fool kid had better start makin' out his will.  He ain't in any mood to cross tonight, eh, Fang?" The big man scratched his dog's ears, and continued to stare out into the night, pondering the fate of Harry James Potter, lost boy.


 



Chapter End Notes:


eyrie--a hawk's home, whether a nest or a rock face.


I have portrayed Hagrid a bit differently here than usual, in a role of mentor to Severus and given him a bit darker past, because I thought the things he endured--expulsion, prejudice--had to leave a mark on him, and account for his near worship of Dumbledore.

Also this story takes place BEFORE the Occlumency lessons and Umbridge's takeover of the school, though Umbridge's takeover will occur during the course of the story. Therefore, Snape's anger and bitterness towards Harry is not as pronounced and he is more inclined to take Hagrid's advice.

What did you all think of their conversation?

And yes, the wrath of Snape shall fall upon those who invaded his lab!

Next: Snape discovers the intruders and promises retribution, but first he must save a battered Harry!hawk from the brink of death.



Chapter 5: Vigil
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Few students now attending Hogwarts had ever seen their Potions Master truly furious.  Angry, often, sneering and sarcastic enough to strip paint off a wall, a daily occurrence, but truly consumed by fury-never.

Until that night, the night of Harry Potter's disappearance.

Not that there were too many students about in the halls that evening to witness Snape's dissolution from calm cool rational human into something that could have made a Norwegian Ridgeback think twice about flaming, but those who saw immediately offered up heartfelt thanks to whatever Power they worshipped that Snape was unaware of them.  They flattened themselves against the stone walls or behind statues, never thinking twice about the survival reflex, like frightened mice spotting a falcon circling.

It was not that Snape was frothing at the mouth or that the fury was evident upon his features, for the man's face was granite, expressionless, the thin lips compressed into his trademark sneer.  All save for the eyes.  Those dark pools fairly bubbled and burned with fury, and there was an aura of imminent danger surrounding the tall wizard that fairly screamed Run for your life and don't stop until you are buried in a hole so deep no one will find you!

Those students abroad in the halls didn't question that impulse, they just obeyed.

Lucky for them.

Snape strode past them, sensing they were there, but his focus was not upon them, it was all turned inward, seeking the bloody miscreants who had dared to invade his private stores.  It was not the theft alone that caused him to explode, but also the sheer audacity and disregard for his privacy.  Snape was an intensely private man, it was almost requisite in his field, being who and what he was-a double agent.  He held too many secrets to ever be comfortable with anyone dropping by unannounced for a visit, he had been too hurt and scarred by his past to ever trust fully, he had learned well that people often betrayed and hurt you when you least expected it, and so he held himself aloof, guarding what was his jealously.

One of those things was his potions.  As a child, he had never had anything to really call his own, except his wand, his books were secondhand, so were his clothes,  he could never afford a pet or a broom, not that his tyrannical father would have permitted either of those things in his home, and Severus's shabby room had been subject to daily ‘inspections' by Tobias, checking for any hint of forbidden magical apparatus.  His father had poked his abnormally large nose into every nook and cranny, without regard for his son's feelings or common decency, hoping to catch him out, looking for any excuse to have at him for being born a wizard.   

Severus's stomach still twisted as he recalled a memory of Tobias tearing apart his drawer of underpants-picking up a pair and sneering mockingly that his son needed a new hobby or else no girl would ever see what Severus had beneath these, little enough though it was. Severus had thought that was the most humiliating experience he ever endured, until the day when James Potter and Sirus Black had hung him upside down and allowed half the school to see his underpants and mock him, resulting in Lily coming to his rescue, only to be hit with the lash of Snape's tongue as his pride crumbled to dust and humiliation consumed him.

Nothing had been sacred back then, he thought with a bitter twist to his mouth. 

Which was why he valued his privacy above almost all things as an adult.

And now it had been violated.

Even Filch scurried out of Snape's path after one swift glance into the obsidian eyes, though the caretaker did mumble something about bloody students leaving their library books all over, as he had just been cleaning the Owlery and found two books upon the floor.  The gnarled old man hurried to the library and dumped the items into the drop bin where they would be magically reshelved since Madam Pince had retired for the evening. Then he returned to his own quarters, not wishing to discover what idiot had gotten Snape so riled. 

Only a fool or Albus Dumbledore would have dared approach Snape in his current state, and as fate would have it the latter hailed him just as he was descending the staircase into the lower level of the castle.

"Severus! Any sign of Harry?"

"No."

Snape did not slow.

"Are you certain?" Dumbledore had to run to keep up with him.

"Yes."

The old man's face fell, disappointment etching its way across the hopeful countenance.  "Ah. I see.  I had hoped . . .we have not found anything either, or heard anything . . .Well, if you think of anything please let me know.  My office is always open," Dumbledore blathered on, totally oblivious to his Potion Master's ire, so focused was he on his missing savior.

"Later," Severus bit out, words of one syllable were safer right then.

He quickened his steps, avoiding the hand the Headmaster sought to put on his shoulder.  If anyone touched him right then he could not be responsible for their safety and as Hagrid had reminded him, he did not want to spend the rest of the term in Azkaban. 

Dumbledore turned and walked away, still pondering where in Merlin's name Harry had disappeared to.

He reached the door to his lab and there he paused, gulping several breaths of air, seeking to re-establish his finely honed control.  The control he had perfected long ago, to prevent him from becoming like those he detested-his father, the Dark Lord, James Potter, and Sirius Black.  One hand came up to massage his temples and he chanted a calming mantra under his breath.  Then he counted breaths until he was able to take one without longing to hex those responsible into hell.

Right then, Snape, you've had your little tantrum, now go in there and check on the hawk and find the students and punish them only.

He opened the door.

The first thing that met his eyes was the rather blocky form of Crabbe, pointing a wand at his hawk-his hawk-who was hanging upside down limply, and whispering, "Ennervate!" and then, "Please, please don't be dead, because then I won't live to make it to sixteen even if my birthday's next week."

Severus froze, battling another surge of fury, yet still managing to hear the boy's quiet remorse as he helped the now awake hawk back up on the perch.

"I'm sorry, we just came in here to get ingredients for a prank, not . . .not to hurt you.  Didn't even know you were here, wish I'd kept my trap shut and not said anything to Draco.  Sometimes he can be such an arsehole . . .thinks he knows everything . . .I told him to let you alone, everyone knows hurt animals bite sometimes, my dog bit me good once when I tried to clean out a cut on her paw." The hawk meeped faintly.  "Can't help it, I guess, since you can't cry you bite instead, so we know how much it bloody hurts . . .Sorry, I hope you're all right. I'd better get out before Professor Snape . . ."

He turned around slowly and came face to face with his Head of House.

Crabbe's face turned the color of old whey and he gasped, "Ahhh . . .P-Professor Snape . . ." He stumbled backwards, nearly banging into the hawk's perch, saved only by Severus's hand fastening upon his shoulder and pulling him upright.  "Oh shit! I . . .I . . .mean . . ."

"Mr. Crabbe.  You have two seconds to tell me what you were doing to my bird," Severus said in his silkiest voice, the one that all his Slytherins knew meant doom.

"H-helping it, sir! It . . .it had fallen off its perch and . . .knocked itself out .  . .so I . . .just wanted to help it . . ."

"Indeed? I am curious, Mr. Crabbe, as to how a sleeping hawk became agitated enough to fall off a perch at this time of night, when my lab is off limits to students and no student should be here without my express permission.  Care to enlighten me?"

Snape's eyes, pitiless shards, bored into the scared boy, flaying him down to the bone in a single honed glare.

He knows . . .oh my God, he knows . . . we're all dead. . .Merlin have mercy, but I'm finished . . .Crabbe knew at that instant that it was hopeless, Snape knew everything, he really could read minds, and there was no point in trying to cover up, since expulsion would be the least of his worries.  Da's gonna kill me . . .if Snape leaves him anything, that is . . .

"Well? I'm waiting."

Crabbe felt the temperature in the room plummet a good ten degrees.  He gulped hard.  "Sir, please . . .I can explain . . ."

"Do so.  Quickly!" Severus growled, his eyes pinning the other, though most of his attention was focused on the bird, who was making soft cries and swaying on its perch.  He moved quickly to steady it.

Crabbe opened his mouth, and the whole tale spilled out of him, like a Veritaserum-laced confession. He knew better than to lie, every Slytherin knew you never ever lied to Severus Snape.  Or if you did, it was only once, and never again.

Snape listened dispassionately for five minutes, then determined that he would have to abandon his usual policy of punishing offenders immediately since he could feel the hawk beneath his hands shivering violently.  The three little wretches could wait, the hawk could not. 

"Mr. Crabbe, you will inform Mr. Goyle and Mr. Malfoy-" here Snape's voice became midnight ice, and Crabbe shook.  "-that all of you are to remain confined to the dormitories until tomorrow morning. At nine o'clock, you shall be present in my office, where you shall reap the folly of your stupidity."

"Huh? Y'mean, you're not gonna expel us tonight?" blurted the boy. "But you always . . ."

Severus bared his teeth at him. "Do not presume to tell me how to discipline, boy!" rasped the Potions Master.  "Do as you're told! Now!"

Crabbe jerked as if he'd been lashed and whimpered, "Yes, sir, right away, sir.  I'm sorry, sir!" Then he fled, moving quicker than a cheetah after an injured antelope.

Now Severus relaxed a fraction.  Time enough later to come up with something suitable to impress upon the three the wrongness of their actions.  Right then he had more important things to worry about.

 

* * * * * *

Snape pulled on the heavy falconer's glove, which was padded inside and reinforced with charms to prevent the hawk's talons from piercing his skin when it gripped his fist, and then undid the makeshift jesses.  He gently coaxed the hawk onto his hand, and it stood, shivering, in the soft glow of the Lumos globes. 

Kree-uk.  Kree-uk.

"Shhh.  It's all right.  I'm here," he whispered, drawing his wand.

The diagnostic this time showed some head trauma as well as bruising and the bird was running a temperature and had fractured yet another small wing bone.  It was minor thing, yet when taken together with all the other damage the hawk had sustained . . .Severus swore inwardly.  It did not look good.  Not at all.

"All right, fledgling.  Let's see if I can make you comfortable," Severus said, keeping his tone even and soft, since hawks had excellent hearing and loud noises and voices startled and frightened them.

He quickly cast a minor pain relieving spell, since one dose of the potion by the same name would be all the bird's system could tolerate that day.  Then he gently removed the cloth, allowing the bird to see its surroundings. 

The hawk was lethargic, its beautiful eyes clouded, small tremors shook it.  It huddled into itself as if trying to hide. 

"You need a Fever Reducer next, but you'll need food before you can take it.  It's not pleasant on an empty stomach."

He removed the coney from the bag, it was already skinned, and he carefully used a sharp little knife to cut off strips of meat, dice them, then mash them fine in a mortar with a metal pestle, adding a small amount of honey as per Hagrid's instructions.  He then took a small plastic spoon, used for measuring potion ingredients, and put some of the meat mixture on it.

"I know you must be starving, birds have such high metabolisms," he told the hawk.  "So here's dinner." He proffered the spoon to the hawk.

The bird stared at it.

"Come on, try it," Severus encouraged, not caring in the slightest if he sounded rather like a mother trying to encourage her picky toddler to eat. He moved the spoon closer to the hawk's beak.

Still the hawk did not take it.

The apathy frightened the Potions Master.  An animal that refused food was most likely preparing to die. 

"Taste it. Just a bit." Snape encouraged, then, greatly daring, he smeared some paste on his finger and rubbed it on the hawk's beak. 

The hawk blinked.

Then it opened its mouth and swallowed some of the mixture.

Severus felt his heart start to beat hopefully.

"Want some more? That's not enough for a growing fledgling like you.  Come, eat.  You'll never grow strong enough to fly else.  Come on."

The hawk lowered his head and slowly licked up more of the paste.

"Good boy.  Rabbit and honey, very nutritious," Severus said.  Merlin, I must sound utterly cracked, but I don't care.  He's eating, and that's all that matters. 

Once the eyas had finished the whole spoonful, which was not much, since the spoon was about the size of a measured teaspoon, Snape gave the red-tail another one. 

The hawk ate that as well, and then another, until Severus decided it was time for the Fever Reducer.

He summoned the leather hood from the bag Hagrid had given him and gently worked it over the bird.  The hawk hissed slightly in displeasure.  "Hush.  I know you want to see, but I don't want you to fight me when I give you this potion. You won't like it, but you need to have it."

Hooded, the young hawk remained still, allowing the Potions Master to pry open his beak once again and give him a dose of Fever Reducer.

The hawk shook his head afterwards, making a disgusted noise.

"Awful, isn't it? But it'll help.  How about some water?" He filled the syringe with fresh water and let the hawk drink slowly.

Once the hawk had drunk his fill, Severus pulled on the glove and encouraged the bird to step up on his wrist.  Then he gently walked back to his quarters with the hooded hawk, the bag with the falconry equipment and the rest of the rabbit and the bowl of food floating beside him. 

No student and only three staff members knew exactly where Snape's quarters were.  It was how he preferred it.  Only Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Poppy knew where the ward was that revealed his quarters and the password to allow them entry.  Severus did not need a password, the wards were keyed to his magical signature and would let him pass without a problem.

Once inside his rooms, which consisted of a rather cozy lounge area, a bedroom, and a small bath, Severus waved his wand and caused the perch Hagrid had loaned him to set itself up near the fireplace, atop an old copy of the Prophet Severus happened to have lying about. He affixed the cup with the meat mixture at one end along with another cup of water.  Then he stoked up the fire, knowing the hawk would need the warmth. 

"There! Welcome to your new home.  It's sure to be an improvement over your last one," Severus remarked dryly. 

The eyas was still trembling.  Severus gently stroked its breast and the back of its neck until it settled. 

"All right, step up here." Snape placed the bird on the perch and then fastened the jesses to the eyas's ankles, also attaching a creance line to the swivel the jesses were tied to.  The line would allow the hawk to reach the floor if he happened to fall off the perch, thus preventing an accidental hanging upside down again. 

The eyas huddled wearily upon the perch, tucking his hooded head down, and Severus decided that there was little else he could do for the bird then save leave it to sleep. 

He caressed the soft feathers on the hawk's breast, which were a cream with deep reddish brown speckles.  "Sleep.  You need it.  You also need a name, but . . .I'm too tired to think of one right now.  Maybe tomorrow." If you survive the night, the pragmatic part of his brain whispered.  Rationally, Severus knew that the hawk could die, the bird was badly injured, and could easily develop an infection and that would finish it.  But a part of him, the optimistic little boy part, hoped that the hawk would live. 

He looked up at the clock on his mantle.

 

It read 8:00.

Sighing, the Potions Master removed his professor's robes, hanging them upon a hook beside the door and also his boots.  Then, clad only in shirtsleeves and trousers, he sank onto the couch.  "Twixie," he called.

A female house-elf popped into the room.  "You called, Master Severus?"

"Yes, please fix me a cup of double strength Black Bohea tea and bring me some soup and a sandwich. Oh, and a large glass of ice water."

"Right away, Master." Twixie bowed, then vanished.

She returned promptly with all he had requested as well as a small plate of blueberry scones slathered with sweet butter. 

Severus raised an eyebrow at the unexpected treat.  "What's this?"

"Your favorite dessert, Master Severus," the elf answered with a mischievous twinkle in her huge blue eyes.  "To sweeten your temper some."

Severus snorted.  "Who says my temper needs to be sweetened?"

"No one, sir. Except . . .we had heard that something valuable was stolen from your lab, sir, and I thought . . .this might help you feel better."

"Figures.  Bloody house elf grapevine," muttered the professor, then he said, seeing the elf flinch, "Thank you, Twixie.  That was . . .unexpected." The last thing he needed was a house elf bashing herself into a table in a fit of remorse.

"Master Snape is most welcome. Enjoy your dinner, sir." She eyed him sternly.  "And mind you eat it all, sir.  You are too thin." Then she vanished with a pop before Severus could say anything else.

"Damn nosy elf! Thinks she's my mother or something," he grumbled, though he knew Twixie meant well.  She was one of the few elves at the school who was not intimidated by his sarcastic manner, she was good friends with Hagrid as well.  There were times Snape suspected Hagrid had ordered her to keep watch over him, for despite the fact that Severus was grown and capable of looking after himself, Hagrid occasionally tended to fuss over him as though he were sixteen again. 

He began to eat hungrily, he rarely ate much in the hall, the antics of the students and the inane chatter of some of his colleagues often made him lose what appetite he had.  He much preferred to eat in peace in his quarters, small light meals, not the heavily sauced affairs they tended to serve in the hall.

Tonight there was wild mushroom soup in a light wine broth and a sandwich of toasted cheese with tomato and bacon.  The Potions Master devoured it and the scones and the tea.

Twixie returned at 8:45 for the tray and the empty dishes, giving him a nod of approval, he was curled up on the green leather couch, reading the falconry book, which was titled The Care and Training of Hawks by Altair Peregrine

He looked up when he felt a green afghan settle about him.  "Twixie, what on earth?"

"Damp down here, Master Severus.  Keep warm."

"Did Hagrid tell you to do this?" he demanded.

"No, sir.  Don't need him to tell me what I already know. Good night, sir."

Then she was gone.

Severus groaned softly.  What the hell was going on? First bloody Potter went missing, Malfoy stole ingredients from his personal stores, and now the house elf decided to treat him like a little child.  Snape rubbed his eyes.  Maybe this was a bizarre nightmare and he would wake up the next morning to discover everything had been a dream.

He glanced over at the sleeping raptor and abruptly decided he didn't want that to happen.  Not if it meant losing the red-tailed hawk.  Sev, you maudlin idiot, you've barely had that animal a few hours and you're already attached, Merlin help you!

The book he'd been reading had mentioned that sometimes young birds imprinted on humans, if a human were taking care of one instead of its mother.  He wondered if it worked in reverse as well, because the mere thought of losing the hawk made him feel ill. 

Sleep deprivation.  That's why you're going all soft, Snape.  You need a decent night's sleep, so you can wake up fresh and punish those little brats like they deserve.  He yawned, it had been a long day and he was tired.  He shut the book and drifted off to sleep just as the clock on the mantle struck 9:30.

 

* * * * *

12:00 AM

 

Severus woke up abruptly, his throat aching and dry.  He rolled over and reached for the glass of water he had placed upon the walnut coffee table and drank thirstily.  Then he rose to check upon the hawk, hoping it was beginning to recover from its ordeal.

To his horror, the hawk looked half-dead, drooping and shivering violently.

"Oh, Merlin! No!" he cried, feeling his heart plummet to his feet. 

His diagnostic revealed that the hawk's fever had returned, which meant something was wrong with the bird's immune system, perhaps all the trauma had compromised it or something. 

He removed the bird from the perch, the eyas was so weak he could barely stand, and Snape cradled the bird against him.  He undid the hood, the hawk was too weak to fight him and he sensed that the bird wished to look about. 

The bright yellow irises were dull with fever and the bird made a soft trilling noise.  Severus scratched the hawk gently behind the head and the hawk leaned trustingly into his hand.  That would have pleased him if the bird wasn't so sick, and probably desperate for any kind of tactile contact.

"It's all right.  You need water and some more potions.  Damn it all, you're shaking like the Whomping Willow."

He summoned the syringe and filled it with water, the hawk was so sick it didn't fight when he opened the beak and gave the water to the eyas.  Severus followed the water with a bit of food, just enough to keep the hawk from getting an upset stomach when he gave the raptor another dose of Fever Reducer.  Medicine over with, Severus sat down, the hawk still on his arm, and just stared at the critically ill bird.

There was nothing else he could do, save wait and see how the hawk responded to his potions.

The bird shivered, and Severus summoned a towel and cast a Warmth Charm upon it, then swathed the bird in its folds.  "Better now? My mother used to do that to me when I was sick with the flu and had chills.  I hope it helps you as much as it did me."

The hawk looked up at him with its uncanny intelligent eyes and meeped. 

Severus's lips quirked in a faint half-smile.  "If I didn't know better, I'd say that translated as a thank you." He shook his head.  "Ah, I'm losing it." He leaned back into the cushions, the bird resting securely against his chest. 

Has it come to this then? This hawk, whom I fought so hard to save, is going to die on me like everything else I've ever cared about? He shut his eyes.  In his mind's eye, he saw the hawk flying free in the sky, climbing up an updraft and soaring with the wind, freedom incarnate.  He had hoped he could rehabilitate the hawk, help it regain flight status and perhaps train it to hunt for him, or even just be a companion.  Hagrid had often said the best thing about an animal was that they loved you no matter what and they would never betray you.  Though he would rather be Crucio-ed than admit it, he was lonely, and having a pet filled the void considerably. 

He placed a hand inside the towel and felt the hawk's heartbeat beneath his palm. It was steady, yet he wondered if it would continue to be so.

His eyes stared into the raptor's amber orbs, and he could see the bird was frightened.  Help me.  Save me.

"I'm trying. I am."

The hawk nestled against his hand, and the teacher whispered soft words of reassurance.  "I'm here, silly bird.  Always.  Don't be afraid."

The bird seemed to heave a sigh, then it drifted off to sleep while Severus kept watch.

1:00 AM

Golden eyes blinked, then focused. The hawk lifted his head and looked about.  He had stopped trembling so violently and felt a tiny bit better than he had an hour ago.  An hour ago he had felt so awful that he wished he could die.  The only sound in the room was the gentle ticking of the clock and the soft breathing of the sleeping wizard.  Everything hurt, he ached inside and out, yet somehow being held in the arms of the Black Protector made him feel better. 

He liked the way the towel oozed warmth through his freezing body, and the way the long fingered hand scratched him in just the right places.  He couldn't ever recall enjoying being touched that way before, the other hand that had touched him had hurt him, bad enough so he had bitten it.  But this hand . . .it soothed and preened and he loved when it ruffled his feathers.

It was the same with the voice.  He found normal human voices to be grating upon his sensitive eardrums, they were too loud and shrill, but the Black Protector's voice was unlike the others he had heard. 

The Protector's voice was like velvet and silk, deep, and it had an almost hypnotic quality to it.  It flowed over his ears smoothly and it was not shrill or loud at all.  Listening to that voice soothed his agitated nerves, made him feel warm and safe and that he belonged somewhere. 

And it had been a long time since he had felt that way.  A very long time, if ever.

The eyas put his head down, leaning against the hand resting on his chest.  He still felt ruddy awful,  he was still frightened, but at least he wasn't alone.  This was where he belonged. The hawk's eyes closed and he slept.

 

2:00 AM:

Snape dozed, but his dreams were unpleasant.  He woke, and immediately looked at the hawk resting on his lap.  The hawk looked a little better, now it only hovered at the entrance to the Underworld instead of being halfway through the door. 

He fed the hawk more water from the syringe, relieved that the bird was still breathing.  Perhaps, just perhaps . . .

Don't get your hopes up too soon, Snape.  You've sat vigil like this before, remember? That night . . .the night when Mum died.  Do you remember? Taunted his conscience.

He remembered. That night, it had been cold, one of the coldest nights anyone in north Yorkshire could recall.  The temperature had plunged below freezing and any sheep not penned or safe inside a barn or shed froze to death.  Such a night stole the breath from your lungs before you had even breathed it, and though Eileen Prince Snape was inside four walls swathed in nearly every blanket Severus could find, the night still entered and stole her breath away, early on a Tuesday morning.

Severus had been sitting beside her bed, holding her hand, which seemed absurdly small all of a sudden in his own long one. His mother's dark eyes met his, bright with a strange flame, an otherworldly shimmer, and he had known then that all his prayers and hopes were in vain.

All of his potions weren't enough to keep death at bay. 

It was here, in the room, its icy chill permeating through the layers of blankets and the Warming Charm he'd cast. 

Go away! You can't have her! He challenged the silent specter angrily.  It's not time for her to go.  I don't want to be alone.  Come back later!

But death remained, oblivious to the taunts and pleas of the boy beside the bed. 

Eileen began to cough, and Severus whispered, "Mum . . .here, sit up . . ." He eased her to a sitting position, wishing there were something else he could do.

"Thank you.  Severus . . ." she trailed off and squeezed his hand.  "There are so many things I wanted to show you . . .to teach you . . .but there wasn't time . . . I'm sorry . . ."

"Don't, Mum.  Please.  You should never be sorry."

"No? Ah, Sev . . .I have so many regrets . . .but one thing I never regretted is you, my son . . .remember that . . ."

"I promise."

Eileen smiled, and one pale hand came up to caress her son's cheek.  "So little time . . .and yet time is endless. . . .I'm so tired, Sev.  All I want is to rest . . ."

"Not yet."

"Let me go, Sev.  You knew this day would come, I told you it would when I first learned the test results."

"I can't . . ." he stared at her anguish screwing up his face.

"You must," she insisted. 

"No! I love you! Please stay! Please!"

"I wish I could . . .but they're calling me . . .calling me home . . .Love you, Severus . . .remember . . ."

She slipped away even as he watched, clutching her hand in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable.  But the night had come anyway and taken her and he could do nothing . . .except remember that love brought pain and that lesson stuck, until he was afraid to love anything, lest it be snatched away by death's embrace.

That had been one lesson he had learned all too well.

He cradled the injured hawk to his chest and stared down at it with the same expression he had worn when he was sixteen.  "Don't go . . .Stay with me . . ."

Those same words, echoing down the years, holding in them the same desperate plea.

Would it ever be answered?

Severus closed his eyes.  He had seen too much death since that long ago night.  He should be used to it.  Yet a part of him never was.  "Live," he said hoarsely.  "Damn you, live! Just once, let there be something that does not turn to dust in my hands.  Live.  I will heal your wings, and you'll fly again. Together, we shall hunt and fly.  I will never cage you, never hurt you.  You will be as free as I can make you. I promise you that.  Just keep breathing."

Amber and obsidian met.

The hawk trilled a soft lullaby.  I will try.  For you, I will. Because now I know . . . that someone cares.

And it was enough.  This time.

 

3:00AM       

 

Severus didn't recall falling asleep, but he knew he must have, because here he was, opening his eyes.

The towel was no longer radiating warmth and for a terrible instant he froze, unable to make himself look down.  He did not want to see it-lying so still, cold and lifeless, gone to wherever good hawks go.  It wasn't fair, it had barely begun to live, and now it never would, he thought bitterly.  But that was typical of his luck, just when he thought he had found a familiar he lost it. 

His fingers brushed feathers.

Still warm.

His hand stilled.

And felt the fluttering of a heartbeat as he laid his palm against the red-tail's breast. 

It took him an endless instant to comprehend what he was feeling.

The hawk had survived. 

It was no longer shivering with fever. 

He looked down and saw the hawk nestled against him, curled up for warmth.

He stared, only this time his vision was blurry.

But it didn't matter.  All that mattered was that the hawk was alive.

For some reason that pleased him immensely. 

He smiled down at the sleeping avian, and for the first time in fourteen years, allowed himself to hope that this one would stay. 


 



Chapter End Notes:


Yes, utter mush at the end, but that was how I felt after nursing my very sick beagle back to health, he was ill with pneumonia and the vet wasn't sure if he'd make it. So I sat up all night and held him and I think it really did make a difference, since he's still here with me.



Chapter 6: Detentions and Dreams
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Despite the late night vigil he had endured, Severus still managed to rise at seven thirty.  After taking a shower and dressing, he gave the hawk more potions and make sure he was eating the ground rabbit mixed with honey from the bowl and drinking water as well, before summoning Twixie to bring him his own breakfast.  Hawk and Potions Master ate in companionable silence, then Severus hooded the bird and told the hawk to take a nap, he had some unfinished business to take care of.  He left the red-tail dozing and headed to his office.

It was eight thirty and he had a few essays left to grade as well as their detention schedule to arrange until the three wretches showed up.  Severus knew they would be prompt, they would not dare exacerbate his temper by not showing up on time. 

The three filed into the office just as the clock struck nine, looking as though they had spent the entire night wide-awake in a state of nerve-wracking terror.  Severus did not doubt that was the case and felt no sympathy for them.  They were lucky he was in a semi-good mood, thanks to the hawk's survival. 

"Sit, gentlemen," he ordered icily.

The three, pale and ill-looking, dropped into the chairs in front of his desk like stones. 

Severus pointed his wand and the door shut soundlessly and locked.  He waved it once and shields of privacy activated.  Then he loomed over the three miscreants like a vengeful bird of prey, causing them to shrink back into their chairs as far as they could.

His wand vanished, at least it seemed so to the three trembling boys, though actually Snape had performed a swift bit of sleight of hand and tucked it up a sleeve.  "So, Mr. Malfoy.  You thought it acceptable to sneak into my potions lab after hours and steal ingredients from my personal stores, correct?"

Draco gulped, wondering how much longer he was going to be a member of Slytherin.  Or Hogwarts. Or the human race, for Snape was mad enough to dissect him with a look.  "Professor, it wasn't all my idea.  Crabbe here thought it would be a good idea to make a potion to prank Weasley, Potter's best mate-"

"Whaddya mean it was my idea, Malfoy?" cried the other boy.  "You were the one who was ticked at him for saying your da licked the Dark Lord's arse, not me!"

Draco glared at his partner in crime.  "So? You were the one who had the book, Vince!"

"Enough!"

Snape's voice crackled over the two like a whip and they all jumped. 

"Yes or no, Mr. Malfoy-answer the question."

"Y-yes, sir.  But-sir, we weren't really stealing the ingredients, we were going to-"

"Spare me your pitiful excuses, boy! You were caught redhanded by my ward.  Disgraceful! Not only are you guilty of theft, but also an invasion of my personal privacy, and deliberate injury to my familiar as well.  Or will you claim that was an accident too, Mr. Malfoy?" spat the irate professor, his dark eyes glittering savagely.  "Perhaps it was mere bad luck that you stumbled into the perch and knocked my hawk off and didn't notice because you were too busy concentrating on fleeing from the room, yes?"

Draco knew then he was doomed.  "Y-your familiar? B-but you never had one before, sir . . ."

"And that matters how?" Severus leaned in until his nose nearly touched Malfoy, who looked as if he were going to wet himself, so potent was Snape's displeasure. "I would expect this kind of idiotic insanity from Gryffindors, not from members of my own House, who should know better than to steal from me, your Head of House.  Did you think I wouldn't know? Are you really truly that dense?"

All three shook their heads no.  Abruptly, Severus turned and spun away, his hands clenched, and walked the length of the office, ostensibly too cool his temper somewhat, when the fact of the matter was, he was a good deal calmer than he appeared.  He was still furious with the three, but not to the point of throttling them any longer.

He let them stew for an endless three minutes before whirling back around, his black robes billowing impressively, and one finger stabbing at them.  "Were you in any other House than my own, gentlemen, you would be packing and on the first available train home this morning, your careers at this institution finished."

Draco's mouth hung open.  "You'd expel us over a prank, sir?"

"A prank? A prank? You steal from your Head of House and nearly kill his familiar and you dare call it a prank? Something to be brushed under the rug and forgotten? Or laughed about in your dormitory?" Snape's eyes were like twin pools of midnight magma. "We shall see who laughs last here, Malfoy!"

Crabbe wished he could hex Draco's tongue out, for every time the blonde opened his mouth, he dug his grave deeper.  "Merlin, Draco, you arsehole, just shut the bloody hell up!" he hissed to the other boy.  "I don't want to die today."

"He wouldn't dare hurt us . . .our fathers . . ."

  "Will be informed of your little escapade as soon as you can set quill to parchment, gentlemen. For you will all be writing letters home informing them of your disgraceful behavior, which goes against every standard of pureblood behavior codes.  They shall be receiving two letters, one from you and the other confirming it from myself."

Abruptly Draco lost his superior attitude and began to whine, "Professor Snape, no! You can't . . .my father will kill me  . . ."

"Please, sir . . ." began Goyle.  "I only watched the door, I never touched anything . . ."

"Coward!" Crabbe cried.  "Don't try and look so bleeding innocent, Greg!" He cast his eyes up at Snape.  "Sir, please don't make me tell them . . ."

Snape, though he knew perfectly well of the stringent codes the Death Eaters held with their families, did not relent.  Normally, he would never inform his Slytherin's families of their misdeeds, preferring to handle such discipline himself, but in this case he made an exception.  "You should have thought of that, gentlemen, before you followed Mr. Malfoy into the lab, now shouldn't you? But instead you acted like Hufflepuff sheep and Gryffindor idiots and now you shall reap the rewards of your behavior."

"Yes, sir," Crabbe and Goyle muttered sullenly, shooting glares at Malfoy.

"I repeat, you all ought to be expelled, we do not tolerate thievery at this institution, and by the time I am done with you, you will wish I had snapped your wands. You are now on detention with me, Filch, and Hagrid until the end of term. You shall serve detention separately, five nights a week, and it shall include all Hogsmeade privileges revoked and suspension from Quidditch, in Mr. Malfoy's case." Draco whimpered, Snape ignored it.  "It shall be served in the following manner, first you will all scrub and disinfect the Owlery-without magic and using Muggle cleaning materials-soap and water and toothbrushes-supervised by Mr. Filch.  You will also be assisting Hagrid in caring for his animals, doing whatever he tells you, including shoveling manure and feeding the blast-ended skrewts, in this way you might have an inkling of what it means to properly care for another living creature, instead of callously leaving it to batter itself unconscious," here Severus leveled a razor sharp glare at Malfoy.

"Sir, the bloody bird bit me!" whined Draco.  "I'm probably scarred for life!" he held up his bandaged finger.

"Spare me the dramatics, boy. You would not have been bitten at all had you stayed out of the potions lab.  The hawk was provoked, much like the hippogriff was in your third year, I suspect, so don't expect any sympathy from me, mister!" growled Severus.  "Your behavior is inexcusable, Malfoy, and this time you will learn that your family name cannot shield you from consequences. If my hawk had died, boy, I'd have taken payment out of your hide, am I understood?"

Draco nodded rapidly, unable to speak, for the look Snape gave him was terrible. 

"Good." Snape sneered.  "You will also work with me on harvesting several rare potions ingredients, several of which use animal excrement and toad ovaries and crayfish eyes, stinkweed, and bubotuber pus.  Some might even require a trip or two into the Forbidden Forest.  Those tasks should last till the end of term.  You are all required to be in the common room at nine o'clock, no socializing, studying only until lights out.  Mr. Crabbe, since you at least tried to help my familiar, instead of leaving it to die like Mr. Malfoy, you shall be let off a week early as clemency."

"WHAT!" shrieked Draco, unable to keep still.  "Unfair, sir!"

"Silence, Mr. Malfoy! My punishments are not up for debate.  You, since you were the one who masterminded this whole escapade and endangered my bird, shall also serve two weeks as Slytherin House's unofficial house elf, cleaning the common room and the dormitories and fetching items for the entire House, who will all know of your misdeed, and we shall see if that does not teach you respect for rules and your Head's personal privacy.  During that period, you will not be seen or heard or spoken to by anyone in Slytherin.  It will be as if you don't exist.  You are not above anyone here, Mr. Malfoy, Lucius's son and my godchild or not.  Best you learn that quick."

He summoned three pieces of parchments off his desk and handed them to the boys.  "Here are your detention schedules. Follow them exactly and if you are one minute late, you will do an hour extra of detention the next day.  Bring me your letters after class this evening.  We shall be having a House meeting at eight. That will be all, gentlemen.  Dismissed."

The three chastened boys slunk out of the office like whipped puppies, though as soon as the door closed, Snape could hear their voices raised in an argument.

"I told you we never shoulda done it," moaned Goyle.

"Oh, stuff it up your arse, Goyle!" spat Malfoy.

"Why don't you, Malfoy?" snarled Crabbe.  "It's mostly your fault anyhow, you smart-arsed prig.  I told you not to touch the hawk! Now thanks to you, my da's gonna shred my arse when I get home, never mind what the professor's already done!"

"Shut up, Crabbe! At least you don't have to play bloody house elf to the entire House.  I'll be lucky if I can even serve the whole detention once everyone in the House knows, they're going to be out for my blood . . ." moaned Draco. 

Despite his strict demeanor, Snape was well-respected by his snakes and Malfoy's misdeed would not be tolerated by them, who would see it as an affront to their Head's dignity and honor.  Life was going to be extremely unpleasant for one Malfoy for the rest of the term, Severus thought in satisfaction, then he finished marking his essays and headed up to the Headmaster's office to inform Dumbledore of the discipline he had meted out and also to discuss Potter's possible mental state with the Headmaster. 

As a teacher, it was his duty to inform the Headmaster of any suspicion of mentally instability and depression that might lead to suicide in a student, whether Slytherin or any other House, and while he disliked Potter, he could not ignore the boy's plight.  Dumbledore needed to be made aware, but afterwards what he did about it was his own business. 

Severus was still hoping the damn child would come out of hiding and stop driving the whole school insane with his antics.  The only time he had ever seen the Headmaster this agitated had been after the werewolf incident at the Shrieking Shack in his sixth year, when he feared Lupin's exposure.  Severus's lip curled as he recalled the way the Headmaster had fawned over the werewolf's fate, ordering Severus to keep his mouth shut or else risk expulsion.  Not a word had been spoken about Severus's near demise by the teeth of said werewolf.  It was then that Severus realized that no one gave a damn about him, Black and Potter and Pettigrew were not going to be punished at all for their malicious stupidity, and the only thing bothering Dumbledore was whether or not his precious Gryffindor was kept safe.  That was the last straw, the thing that had snapped Severus's fragile emotional state into bits, and if not for Hagrid, the Potions Master would not be standing here this morning.

"Acid Pops," he murmured to the stone gargoyle that guarded the stairs to the Headmaster's office. 

The gargoyle slid aside and Severus stepped up on the revolving staircase.  He would inform Dumbledore of his suspicions and then go about his business, for there was no doubt in his mind that Dumbledore would not  ignore Potter, his beloved Golden Boy, the way he had Snape.  No, when Potter returned from wherever he had gone, as he assuredly would by tonight, Dumbledore would play the doting grandfather and welcome home the prodigal wizarding savior with open arms and lemon drops, Severus thought bitterly.  He'll kill the fatted calf, so to speak, and we'll all celebrate his return and no one will say so much as a cross word to the bloody prince for scaring the daylights out of everyone. Just like his father, Potter can do no wrong. Unlike me, whose single foolish mistake has damned me for all time.  I followed Lucius, Avery, and Mulciber out of a desire to finally belong, to keep from being the outcast, not because I ever really believed in all their pureblood nonsense.  But they offered me something no one else ever had, a place to belong, it was only six months later that I realized they too only wished to use me for my potions expertise and my magic, and that was all.  It was then I knew that I had only one true friend, who had never betrayed me, and so I went to Hagrid, confessed my idiocy and he told me to speak to Dumbledore.

That had been the beginnings of his days as a spy, a role he was still playing today.  A thankless dangerous task for which there was no reward save one-the destruction of Voldemort. And unless the bloody Boy-Who-Lived turned up that goal would be nearly impossible to fulfill, Severus thought irritably.  He knocked once on the door to Dumbledore's office. 

"Come in, my boy."

Severus did, wondering as he did so if the Headmaster had a doorward upon the office that let him know who visitors were before he opened the door.  Either that or the old man could see through walls, and while Dumbledore was powerful, Snape doubted if he possessed such abilities. He sensed that it suited the Headmaster's purpose to be considered clairvoyant by most of his students and staff.  But Severus knew that assumption was a lie, else he would have known how depressed and lonely Snape was back when he was sixteen and Potter as well. Clever Dumbledore might be, but Snape had stopped worshipping the ground he walked on long ago.

"Ah, Severus.  Was there something you wished to speak to me about?"

Severus nodded, thinking of course, otherwise why would I be here?  "Yes.  First I am here to inform you that three members of my House will be serving  probationary detention with me, Filch, and Hagrid." He then went on to describe what they had been caught doing and who they were.  As predicted, the Headmaster seemed quite delighted that Severus had found a familiar.

"That is very good, my boy. I have always said you needed a familiar to keep you company.  You are alone too much, Severus."

Alone is safer, Snape frowned, but he merely nodded curtly.  "There is one more matter that needs to be discussed, Headmaster.  Concerning your missing celebrity."

Albus straightened, the vague look suddenly leaving his face to be replaced by one of shrewd cunning and hope.  "You have found where Harry is?  Why did you not tell me immediately?"

Because Potter should not be the only student you are concerned over, the Potions Master had to bite his lip to keep from snapping.  There are two hundred and ninety-nine others as well.  "No, Albus, I have not discovered where that wretched brat is hiding.  Instead I have come to bring you a theory as to why Potter has disappeared.  Hagrid recently informed me that he noticed Potter seemed depressed and upset upon returning from break."

"Harry? Depressed?" Dumbledore's eyebrows rose into his hair. "I hadn't noticed."

Nor would you, because you are too busy considering the next move in the game rather than the pieces, Severus thought acidly.  "Hagrid knows the signs.  As do I," he said bluntly.  "Potter's behavior changed radically at the start of this term."

"Yes, you did say he had been behaving in your class."

"Very abnormal."

"Now, Severus, the boy does know how to behave, you simply do not know how to react to it," began Dumbledore.

"Albus, there is a difference between making a conscious choice to behave and being apathetic. Potter had also been avoiding his friends," Severus declared. He could not believe Albus to be that oblivious.  He quickly detailed the other warning signs as well as the fact that Potter had not reappeared by now in Gryffindor Tower.

"But you believe he is somewhere upon the grounds?"

"It is only logical.  He can only walk to Hogsmeade, since he is underage to Apparate, even if the wards were removed.  His broom is still among his possessions, so he has not flown anywhere."

"What about kidnapping?"

"Possibly, though Potter is so annoying no one would keep him past two hours," Severus said dismissively.  "And before you suggest it, no, the Death Eaters do not have him.  That I would know."

"Why then has he not returned?"

"It is beyond me to fathom the reasons a hormonal teenager like Potter does anything.  I simply wished you to be made aware of the fact that Potter might be emotionally unstable." He rose to his feet, duty done.

"Care for a spot of tea? Lemon drop?"

"No, thank you. Now, I must be going, Headmaster.  My familiar needs my attention.  Good day."

He swept from the room, leaving a rather shocked Albus Dumbledore to ponder if his potions professor was right in his assessment of his least favorite student.

* * * * * * *

But Snape did not go immediately to his quarters, instead he headed out to Hagrid's to inform the gamekeeper that Potter was still incognito and also to see if the big man would be willing to look after the hawk, much as it pained him to give the bird up. 

Hagrid was clearly concerned about Potter's absence, and in an attempt to soothe his nerves, Severus performed the battery of locator spells and detection charms once more, with the same results as before. 

Hagrid shook his head.  "I jus' don' understand it.  Why won't he jus' come back?"

"Perhaps he had a fight with Weasley and Granger, or over Granger, and he is sulking," Snape tossed out.  That would be like a Potter, to sulk like a four-year-old over a girl, the way his father had done over Lily, without regard for dignity. 

Hagrid shook his head.  "I dunno, Severus. It jus' don' seem like Harry."

"Humph! Be that as it may, I have another favor to ask you." He told Hagrid of the crisis that had occurred with the hawk last night and his misgivings about being able to care for the animal.  "I don't . . .I don't want him to be neglected, and with my current schedule . . .as well as my other duties . . .it might not be safe for him to be with me."

Hagrid eyed the other man shrewdly, sensing the struggle taking place within the Potions Master, the longing for companionship warring with the fear that another whom he loved would be taken from him.  "Are ye sure that's what y'want, Professor? You've been takin' good care o' him till now.  Good as I could have."

"This isn't about what I want, it's about what is best." Severus said, trying to maintain his façade.

"And it's best for ye to be alone?"

"You know what I am, Hagrid.  I cannot afford any weakness next time I am called, or else . . ."

"Severus, it's not weakness to care for another creature.  There is great strength in friendship, whether that of man or beast. An' if you're summoned, I'll care for your hawk till you return."

"It would be better if you took him."

But Hagrid shook his head firmly.  "If you saved his life again, Professor, then he's imprinted with you.  Even if I wanted to, he'd never be happy with me.  He'd pine over you, an' that wouldn't be good for his recovery.  He needs you." Then he added softly, "Take a chance again, Severus.  This one won't leave you, hawks are loyal forever."

Severus set his lips in a firm line and abruptly rose from his chair at the gamekeeper's table and paced across the one room cottage.  Was Hagrid right? If the hawk had imprinted upon him, as the gamekeeper assumed, then it would be cruel to deny the eyas his choice.  An unhappy bird would not heal and might even die out of longing, some birds could will themselves to die, and Severus had not spent all night wrestling with death only to have the hawk self-destruct. 

Somehow during that long night, the hawk had managed to slip past his carefully guarded barriers and touch his heart, the heart he had thought dead and buried long ago in a grave with a certain red-haired witch.  And though every instinct screamed at him to let the hawk go, that involving himself with the bird left him vulnerable , gave his enemies something to use against him, he could not.  For much as he was loathe to admit it, Hagrid was right.  The hawk needed him and he needed the hawk.  You're a fool, Severus! A stupid sentimental fool! A part of his mind scolded scathingly. 

Yet even though he damned himself for listening to the impulse of a lonely heart, he found himself turning back to Hagrid and nodding slowly.  "All right.  The hawk stays.  For now."

Hagrid's beard split in a genuine smile of delight, and he clapped the slender wizard so hard on the back he nearly knocked Snape into the table. "Good fer you, Severus! Yeh won't regret it.  Trust me."

Snape concealed a wince and snorted. Damn you, Hagrid! But inwardly, a tiny corner of his heart rejoiced.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile the hawk who was once Harry Potter dozed and dreamed upon his comfortable perch back in the Potion Master's quarters.  The Calming Draft Severus had dosed the red-tail with before leaving that morning served to send the hawk into an odd dream-like state, though instead of the usual dreams of raptors, soaring upon an air current, swooping down upon some luckless rodent, or devouring a tasty rabbit, the transformed wizard dreamed of what had once been.

"Boy! Get your lazy arse up and start making us breakfast! I have a Ladies Aide meeting to attend!" the shrill voice of a pinched-face woman called, and he stirred in his cramped dark nest and squinted as the door to the cupboard was thrown open.  "Up and stir yourself, you good-for-nothing brat! Unless you want your uncle to persuade you?"

"Coming, Aunt Petunia!"

And he jumped up, nearly banging his head upon the door frame, to hustle into the kitchen and begin the daily round of chores.

Then the scene faded and was replaced by another.

"Harry, haven't you finished your homework yet?" asked a small bushy-haired girl, her face drawn with disapproval.  "Snape's essay is due tomorrow and you haven't even written a foot."

"Ah, leave off, Hermione," ordered a tall redhead.  "Won't matter if he completes it or not, Snape will just give him a zero or whatever anyhow, the greasy long-nosed git."

"Not necessarily, Ronald.  If you would both put some effort into your assignments instead of slacking off and obsessing over Quidditch, maybe Professor Snape would give you an E every now and then."

"Oh, right.  Like that'll ever happen.  Snape grading Gryffindors fairly.  Only way that'd ever happen is if Snape got his brain switched with a normal person's. Or exchanged that lump of ice in his chest for a real heart," sneered Ron.   

Hermione gasped.  "Ronald Weasley1 How could you say that?"

"Because it's the truth.  Sometimes I wonder if he's even human . . ."

The hawk stirred uneasily.  And what about me? What am I?

Abruptly, the scene changed again, and this time he heard a cold hissing voice ordering, "Kill the spare!"

"NO!"

But it was too late. 

"Avada Kedavra!"

The green light exploded and struck the chest of the dazed Cedric and then he was falling, falling to the earth, his eyes wide in shocked disbelief.

"No! Cedric!"

The hawk thrashed about on the perch, making sharp keening noises.

"Blood of the enemy, forcibly taken."

And he felt the sharp thrust of the dagger, cutting into his flesh, and blood dripping down into a stone bowl, while all around him, dark figures in hideous whitewashed iron masks watched and laughed mockingly.

He struggled, but ropes bound him, and he was helpless, he threw back his head and screamed . . .

Kree-eear!

The hawk woke, trembling with fear from some nameless terror, his amber eyes whirling.  Oddly, the darkness which had comforted before now made him uneasy, and he brought up a talon, trying to remove the hood.  I need to see!

His talon scraped at the leather, but the hood was fastened correctly and would not come off.  Small screeing noise emerged from the young hawk as his talons clawed at the charmed leather.

That was the sight that met Severus's eyes when he returned from Hagrid's after an obligatory cup of tea and a blueberry scone.

For one moment, the wizard stared in disbelief, then moved forward to calm the agitated avian.

"Easy there.  Easy. What's wrong?"

The hawk relaxed a fraction upon hearing the familiar soft tread and the silky voice. He quit clawing at the hood and turned his head towards the sound of the Potion Master's voice. 

"Relax. You never fought the hood before," soothed the tall man, gently stroking the hawk and unfastening the hood.

Bright amber eyes gazed up at him, and the eyas looked relieved . . .if such an expression could be said to exist in a bird's eyes. 

I can see again, thank Merlin! Thought the hawk and for some reason immediately felt better.

Severus tugged on the glove that rested on a hook lower down on the perch, unsnapped the jesses, and clicked his tongue.  "You're acting like a startled hare. What on earth is the matter with you?" He held out his wrist and the hawk stepped on it.

Scared.  A green light.  And Cedric . . .dying . . .

Astonished, Severus watched as the young hawk crept up his arm and huddled in the crook of his elbow. 

Gently, Severus brought up his other hand and scratched the bird on the back of the head.  "You are a very strange hawk, do you know that? Cuddling up to me, of all people." The hawk buried his head in the soft robes, chuffing softly. 

The Potions Master shook his head in bewilderment.  Nothing in the falconry book had said anything about a hawk suffering from separation anxiety.  "If I didn't know better, I'd say you had a bad dream or something.  But that's ridiculous, hawks don't have nightmares.  I don't think you're capable of remembering that way, you're only a bird, after all, and most birds aren't known for their intelligence-Ow!"

The hawk lifted his head from Snape's shoulder and squawked indignantly.

"What the hell was that for?" snapped the wizard, rubbing the sting away from his shoulder.  The bird had nipped him, though not hard enough to break the skin.

You called me stupid! I'm not, I just had a bad dream, the eyas hissed.

"Merlin's Grace, but you're acting like I insulted you. Or are you just hungry?"

The hawk clicked his beak meaningfully.  Both, you silly arse.

"Stop that.  You're oversensitive," grumbled the professor, and he rubbed a hand down the hawk's back, soothing the ruffled feathers.  "Maybe you're not such a bird brain after all, hmmm? Not if you're my familiar.  Figures, out of all the hawks in Britain, only I get stuck with a temperamental oversensitive  fledgling who is too smart for his own good."

The hawk looked him right in the eye and screeched.

We suit each other.

Severus felt the corner of his mouth quirk upwards in a reluctant crooked smile.

"Ah, well.  I suppose we shall do well together." He summoned the rest of the coney, which he had cast a preserving charm on, and spoke a charm to dice a small portion, which he then fed piece by piece to his new familiar.

To his surprise, the hawk took the pieces delicately from his hand, without nipping.

"Huh.  Looks like your former master, whoever he was, taught you some manners at least."

Yes.  I wasn't raised in a barn, the red-tail thought, giving his wizard an indignant look before returning to gulping down his lunch eagerly, though a part of him wondered what a barn was.

Afterwards, Severus returned the eyas to his perch so the hawk could clean his beak and scrape it against the wood, filing it down somewhat, an instinctive behavior to keep the beak from overgrowing.  But once that was done, the hawk made it plain he wished to sit upon Severus's fist, and the Potions Master obliged, allowing the hawk to sit upon his shoulder while he worked at his desk, writing three sets of letters regarding his misbehaving Slytherins.

The soft scratch of quill on parchment was quite soothing and the hawk dozed, head tucked against his speckled breast, nestled against a curtain of black hair.


Hope you enjoyed this chapter.

Next: The relationship between wizard and familiar takes on a new turn as Severus experiments with a potion of communication. And Harry starts remembering more about his past, though he won't regain his full memory until several chapters later.


Chapter 7: Hawk Speak
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Once the disciplinary letters were written, Severus had nothing to do, an exceedingly rare occurrence, but curl up on the couch with the falconry handbook for a few hours.  It was a lazy Sunday, and most of the noisier students were catching up on their missed sleep, so the halls were quiet.  He read carefully through the chapters on the proper feeding and care of falcons, even though he knew most of it from watching nature shows on TV when he was a child.  He also read about training the bird to return to you when you flew it for the first time.

Flying a hawk for the first time, whether after an injury or to test how well the bird had absorbed training techniques, was an exercise fraught with a degree of uncertainty.  A hawk or falcon was not a tame bird, they always retained their wild instincts, and could choose not to return to the falconer's gauntlet (another name for the heavy glove) or the lure.  There was always that element of risk, and Snape worried that the bird might fly away forever when he tasted the glorious freedom of the skies again.  He suspected that was what had happened to the hawk before, he had gone in pursuit of prey, most likely a hare or a duck or some other creature and was so caught up in the hunt that he refused to come in when summoned.

Of course, there were spells to compel a falcon to return to a wizard's hand, but Snape was reluctant to use them.  He did not like compelling the bird to do something, it smacked of the Imperius Curse, and he detested that spell, having seen the results of it all too often at Death Eater meetings.  Severus Snape valued his independence and to have his will stripped away was one of the ultimate horrors.  End result, he had learned to throw off the Imperius, ensuring he was never a victim.  So he did not want to use magic to compel the hawk, it would be cruel to bind the creature that way-the red-tail deserved to be free, and indeed, he had promised that very thing as he had sat through that long night.  You shall be as free as I can make you.  Snape valued his word, and a promise made was a promise kept, even to a mere familiar. 

He read the ways in which an amateur falconer could encourage a bird to keep returning to his fist, using mainly rewards of food, and establishing a bond of trust between the bird and the man.  Snape thought the hawk trusted him, look at the way the red-tail had come to him, without hardly any coaxing, and it genuinely seemed to prefer his company.  The hawk had dozed contentedly upon his shoulder while he wrote the letters, then Severus had placed him back upon his perch while he made himself a quick snack of some fruit, and fed the hungry bird more pieces of rabbit drizzled with honey.

The familiar was healing rapidly, much to Snape's relief, there was no signs of the high fever and infection in the hawk's system any longer.  Now he just had to feed the hawk properly and often and a regular diet plus minute doses of the Bone Mend Serum would serve to heal the wings to flightworthy status.

Severus looked forward to the day he could remove the splints and bandages and see the hawk fly, his breath had always caught when he watched the science and nature specials with the clips of raptors gliding gracefully upon the wing.  When he was a student, one of his fondest daydreams, besides marrying Lily, had been discovering his Animagus form was a beautiful hawk or falcon.  But he had never had the opportunity to take the extra Animagus course McGonagall had offered and afterwards had been too busy being Dumbledore's secret agent and Potions Master to study Animagi transformation.  But seeing his familiar fly would be the next best thing.

If only he could be certain the red-tail would return to him.

He reached up a hand to scratch the bird, who was perched upon the sofa back, and was rewarded with a sleepy keer-awk and a rub across his fingers. 

Smiling, Severus lowered his hand and resumed reading. 

Perhaps I'm worrying over nothing.  After all, why wouldn't he return to me-who has saved his life and fed him? He seems very intelligent, surely he wouldn't forget what I've done for him?

Even so, it nagged at him, until he came to the end of a chapter titled Miscellaneous Potions You Can Use to Enhance Your Bond.  There, second down from the right, after a potion used to rid a hawk of annoying parasites, was a potion designed to give a wizard the ability to communicate with a hawk for four days.


Hawk Speak Elixir

Pure spring water 15 oz

3 T of red clover honey

Feather or down of the type of bird you wish to speak with

Ground scarab

3 sphinx hairs

5 oz of essence of silvertongue lark's blood

Snape read exicitedly, the potion was not as complex as it sounded, though some of the ingredients, especially the sphinx hairs and the silvertongue blood, were expensive.  Silvertongue larks were magical animals that lived in the forests of Russia and  America and were known for their beautiful songs and their ability to speak the tongue of any being they encountered after listening to a sample of their speech.  They were highly prized and had been hunted to near extinction back during the Dark Ages, and had only now started to make a comeback. 

The elixir was time consuming, however, it needed to steep for a full twenty-four hours for full effectiveness, and a cauldron of it made enough to last several weeks.  There were very little side-effects, though if taken for more than a month every week, the potion could cause the user's throat to get raspy and small patches of down to appear on the skin. 

But it was guaranteed to give the drinker the ability to speak and understand avians for four days, after that another dose would be needed.  The elixir was not well-known, however, because of the costly ingredients and most wizards didn't think it worth it to spend hard-earned Galleons on a potion that allowed you to communicate with birds. 

Merlin, this might be just what I need to convince my familiar to stay with me, rather than flying off first chance he gets.  Plus, it's wearying to talk to oneself and never get an answer back.

He mentally calculated the necessary ingredients, decided a quick trip to the apothecary in Hogsmeade was needed, and quickly scribbled the ingredients upon a piece of parchment before rising to his feet.

"Come, young one," he coaxed the sleepy hawk to his shoulder and fastened the creance line to the jesses once more.  The hawk made a soft grumbling noise, clearly not wishing to be disturbed.  "Hush.  The perch is safer, not to mention easier to clean.  Sleep, I'll be back soon, and once this potion is made, we shall be able to speak to one another."

The hawk blinked sleepily.  Huh? Oh, that's nice.  Have fun.  I'm taking a nap.

Satisfied the eyas would sleep till his return, Snape left his quarters and slipped out of the school through one of the secret passages, taking his broom and flying to Hogsmeade.

He returned some twenty minutes later with his purchases and set about beginning to brew the potion.

Half-an-hour later, the Hawk Speak Elixir was simmering in a large silver cauldron, where it would remain for twenty-four hours.

* * * * * *

"Dinner, Master Severus," announced Twixie, holding a covered silver platter in her hands.

Severus glanced up, he'd been so intent upon his book that he had not even realized what hour it was.  "Already?"

"Indeed.  It is half past six, Master." Twixie said, bowing as she placed the plate upon the table.  She removed the cover with a flourish.  "Salmon broiled in a butter sauce with chopped walnuts and wild rice and carrots, sir, with a side of bread and a glass of water with lemon."

Severus inhaled the aroma of fresh fish and thought it smelled heavenly.  "Thank you, Twixie.  You may go."

"Mind you eat it all now, Master.  You pick like a bird," the elf scolded gently, frowning up at the tall wizard.

Severus arched an eyebrow at her.  "Oh? Says who?"

"Me." From his perch the hawk screeched.  "See, he agrees with me," she declared in a satisfied tone.  "Enjoy your dinner, sir."

Then she vanished with a pop, leaving Severus rolling his eyes before he began to eat the delicious flaky fish sprinkled with crunchy nuts, which was one of his favorite meals.

He was hungrier than he had thought, for he soon had finished the plate, and then returned to his book, reading until it was time for the House meeting he had called at eight.

For some unexplained reason, the Potions Master took his familiar with him to the meeting, carrying him easily upon his left hand, unhooded for once, since the bird seemed to prefer to see where he was going. 

There was a stir when he entered the Slytherin common room, the members of his House couldn't fathom why he had called a second all-House meeting when they had already had one a few weeks before. All the students were sitting or standing on the available furniture, which consisted of heavy walnut tables and chairs and long low black leather couches.  The floor was carpeted in thick green throw rugs with the Slytherin serpent upon them and the walls covered in thick tapestries to keep out the damp.  The fire was going full blast, but despite the homey touches, there was a decided air of anxiety present in the room. 

Draco, Crabbe, and Goyle were standing beside the fireplace, looking sullen and brooding.  They held envelopes in their hands, which Severus knew contained the letters to their parents.  He would mail them tonight along with his own. 

All eyes turned to the tall wizard as he entered, and most of them widened when they caught sight of the beautiful injured bird riding upon his arm. 

"Wow! What a cool bird, sir!" exclaimed Marcus Flint, his eyes alighting longingly upon the hawk.

"Absolutely awesome!" agreed another boy.

"But he looks hurt, what happened to him?" inquired a fourth-year girl.

"This is my new familiar, a red-tailed hawk, who has broken both wings in an accident," the professor informed the House calmly.  "I have recently acquired him and he is still adjusting to the castle and being around so  many people, so I shall ask you to conduct yourselves with decorum and use quiet voices, as he is easily startled."

The hawk gazed curiously around at the students, his amber eyes taking in everything. 

"What's his name?" asked another girl.

"At the present, Miss Warley, he does not have one.  But I shall endeavor to come up with one."

"Sir? We could help if you'd like? All of us could suggest a name and write it down and then you could pick one, if you want," Anne Warley suggested diffidently. 

Severus blinked in astonishment.  He had not reckoned on his House getting actively involved with naming his familiar.  But he liked to encouraged inter-House cooperation and so he nodded his assent.  "That would be most helpful, Miss Warley.  You may begin collecting names after the meeting.  In fact, my familiar is part of the reason I have called this meeting . . ." he went and stood before the fireplace, in front of the majority of students, and then he told them of their Housemate's misdeeds and punishments.

There was a moment of shocked silence.  Then the murmuring started, as nearly all the Slytherins were furious with how Malfoy had dishonored his House and Head, as well as causing more injury to Snape's familiar. 

Malfoy flinched as several death glares were sent his way, and a group of sixth-years were threatening to hang him upside down by his toes and beat him unconscious the way he had done the poor hawk.  One of them was quite large, and looked as if she could wield a stick quite handily. 

"Come on, it was an accident . . ." he began, but the Slytherins were in no mood to listen to his whining excuses.

"Yeah, right, Malfoy," sneered the Quidditch Captain. 

"Don't insult our intelligence, you bleeding ferret," growled another.

The hawk upon Snape's arm stirred in alarm and hissed angrily.

"See, even the hawk knows you're full of it," snapped Anne, her blue eyes flashing daggers at the scion of Malfoy Manor. 

He handed the now sweating and fearful Draco a long white apron.  Some of the Slytherins tittered at that and demanded he put it on immediately.

Severus soothed the hawk with a touch, then said, "During Mr. Malfoy's period of playing house elf, I shall ask you to refrain from casting any curses or truly harmful hexes upon him, as he needs to be able to perform his daily duties. The best thing to do is to simply ignore him." There were groans at that statement. 

"Damn! I wanted to see how well he could walk with all his leg bones crushed, Professor."

"Or the head of a rooster, the arrogant prat."

"Does he have to do our laundry, sir? ‘Cause I've got heaps of it," said a third-year girl with a diabolical smirk.

"Yes, Miss Stevens, that is part of his duties." Snape replied.  "I will also require you to maintain your silence about this matter outside of the House."

All of them nodded in understanding, knowing that Snape's reputation would be ruined if word ever got out that he had been the object of a theft by one of his own. 

"Dismissed.  Lights out at eleven.  Miss Warley, you may place the list of names for my familiar in my office mailbox, I shall let you know what I have decided in a few days."

He held out his hand for the letters from the three miscreants and then swept out the portrait hole, heading up to the Owlery.

As he was leaving, he heard some of the Slytherins beginning to order about their new ‘house elf', plainly delighted to get revenge on the arrogant boy, since Malfoy had a tendency to lord it over most of his House members, especially those younger than him.  Though Severus doubted if much of that tendency would remain once the term was over.

 

* * * * * *

  24 hours later:

The Potions Master decanted the silvery liquid into several short squat vials, labeling them neatly and setting them on the shelf in his storeroom.  His familiar watched interestedly while he did that, and then Severus gulped the contents of the last vial.  It tasted strange, but not as bad as some things he had brewed.  He felt his tongue tingle and his ears twitch as the potion was absorbed into his system.

The book had stated that you wouldn't know if the potion worked until you tried speaking with a hawk, and gotten an answer, since your voice would sound normal to everyone save the bird.

He cleared his throat and said, experimentally, "Hello.  My name is Severus."

The hawk immediately swiveled his head around, the amber eyes going wide. You can talk! Err . . .I mean . . .I can understand you much better now.  How come?

Severus fought to keep from grinning. The potion was a success.  "I have taken a potion that allows me to communicate with you.  What is your name?"

For some reason this question agitated the bird.  Umm . . .I can't . . .I don't know! The hawk cried, alarmed.  He tried to recall what his name had been, but there was nothing in his memory save a great gaping hole.  I can't remember . . .I had one once . . .but now it's . . .gone . . .Ever since I hit my head, I . . . can't remember . . .

Both of Snape's eyebrows rose into his hair.  "You seem to have developed amnesia."

Huh? What's that?

"A condition where you lose your memory for a time.  It happens when you've hit your head too hard, like an accident." He reached out a finger to scratch the hawk behind the head and the familiar leaned into his hand with a sigh.

Ooh, that feels good.  More please.

The Potions Master obliged.  "Don't worry, your memory should return to you after awhile.  In the meantime, let me tell you where you are and who I am.  You are currently in my potions lab at Hogwarts School, I am a professor and Potions Master.  My name is Severus Snape, and I have adopted you as my familiar."

The hawk cocked his head.  This is a school for wizards, right? I seem to remember someone saying that last night.

"You can understand human speech?"

Only a little and then only if I concentrate.  Talking like this is much easier, the hawk declared smugly.

The bird craned his head around to examine the wings strapped to his side.  How long will my wings be like this?

"Almost two weeks.  Why? Are you in pain? I can give you a potion if you are."

No, not really, though sometimes they ache.  Just wondering, is all.  I miss the sky.

"In two weeks you shall be able to fly again," Severus told the hawk confidently.  "In the meantime you need to eat, drink, and rest to build up your strength."

Makes sense. But it's boring doing nothing but sleep.  What do you do all day, Severus?

"I teach potions, grade papers, and brew, for the most part.  I also have another job, which is kept secret, as it is so dangerous.  But I cannot speak of that here. Most recently, I have also been taking care of you."

Oh.  I'm sorry, I don't mean to be a burden, the hawk apologized.

"You aren't," reassured the wizard. "Whyever would you think you are?"

Because . . .you sound like you're a busy man and . . .a long time ago . . .I think I remember someone saying that I was nothing but a burden . . .a loud fat man . . .I didn't like him.

Severus frowned.  "Perhaps your former master mistreated you, and that was why you flew away? Do you recall anything else?"

No. That's all. The hawk sidled up to the Potions Master for more petting.  Nice.  Yes, like that.  Right there, it's itchy.

"I would give you a bath, but your wings shouldn't become wet."

No matter.  Between your hand and my bill, I should be able to keep my feathers clean, the hawk ran his beak down his breast, gently teasing and reordering the feathers. 

Severus watched the raptor for several minutes before gathering up the courage to ask, "If your memory should return, where would you go?"

Go? Why would I need to go anywhere? I like it here.  Unless you do not want me? There was a plaintive note in the hawk's cry.

"No, I would like you to stay," Severus hastened to reassure the eyas.  "Only . . .I wished to give you a choice."

Ah.  But that isn't necessary.  Here, I am wanted.  There . . .I wasn't.  That much I know.

Severus fought to keep from heaving a sigh of relief.  The hawk would stay.  Hagrid had been right after all.  "You're a smart bird."

But of course. I am a hawk, his familiar replied, preening. 

Severus chuckled.  "Now, don't be arrogant."

I'm not.  Statement of fact.  Any hawk is smarter than what it hunts.

"Indeed.  I shall attempt to come up with a name for you.  Some of my Slytherin students have volunteered to help me, so it may take a day or so for me to select one. Names are important and I don't wish to call you any old name."

Thank you, the hawk said, touched by the other's consideration. 

Snape looked at his clock and realized it was nearly time for him to go back to class.  "I have another lesson to teach in a few minutes.  Would you like to go back and take a nap in my quarters?"

The hawk considered.  No, I'm not sleepy.  Can I . . .come with you . . .do you think? I promise I'll be quiet.

"Are you sure you wish to do that? I cannot talk to you during class, I must concentrate upon my students.  Some of them are such dunderheads, they will blow things up if not watched."

I understand. 

"Very well.  Come, step up on my wrist." Snape held out his gloved left hand and the hawk obediently hopped up on it.  "I only hope you are not bored to death."

Why? Boring is looking at an empty room all day. The eyas clicked his beak, bobbing his head excitedly.  Potions class! How exciting!

Severus gave the hawk a wry glance.  "You are a very strange bird."

Is that bad?

"No. It's just . . .never mind.  I like you this way."

The hawk made a soft chirruping noise, happy that his new friend accepted him.  That had not always been the case, he thought with a shudder, recalling a loud voice yelling and an arm waving at him, demanding, "Why the hell can't you ever be normal, you bloody freak?"  He wasn't all sure what that had meant, but he did know he would rather remain here, with the silky-voiced Potions Master, than return to that.

They arrived at the potions classroom precisely at two o'clock, Severus placed his familiar upon the back of his chair, then moved to the front of the room to begin today's lesson.

The hawk watched avidly as the students began getting ingredients out from cabinets and lighting up the fire beneath their cauldrons, chopping and dicing and shredding.  It was odd, but he could almost recall doing that very thing.  Or watching another do it, a boy with red hair.  How strange.  Perhaps Severus is right.  For how could I remember doing what those . . .kids are doing when I am a bird and don't have hands?

Severus paced about the room, keeping a weather eye on his class, making sure they were all paying attention, interjecting icy sarcastic comments here and there at those students caught babbling or daydreaming instead of working.

Another image formed in the hawk's mind then, of the Potions Master glowering down at him in disapproval.  A shiver went through him then.  I don't understand.  Severus has never spoken to me that way.  He could recall the Potion Master's voice, and it had always been silky and soothing, not hard and sharp.  Why would he be angry with me? It doesn't make sense.  The young hawk fluffed his feathers and resolved not to think about it.  Perhaps the fall had damaged his memory and now he imagined things, if that were possible.

He shut his eyes, dozing lightly, he found that the soft hiss and crackle of the flames and the stirring of the mixtures and muttering of the students relaxed him enough to sleep without fear of dreams.  He did not want to dream of the loud man again, or worse, the flash of light, and the boy . . .Cedric . . .falling and someone screaming . . .Do all hawks dream such things? Or is it only me? The eyas wondered, opening his eyes a slit and watching as Snape stalked about the room, his black cloak swishing and hissing about his ankles, his boots making barely a sound over the flagstones.  Even half asleep, the hawk could make out each individual fiber on the black robe, and a few specks of dust as well, so keen was his sight.  The dark fabric was soothing to his eyes, unlike the bright red and yellow some of the younger wizards were wearing upon their robes.

Those were unnaturally bright, they made his eyes ache, and reminded him of prey-a robin or a yellowtail.  He shifted on his perch, settling himself more comfortably. 

Snape crossed the room and paused beside the desk, giving the familiar a concerned glance.  "All right?" he muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

Yes. Fine.

Pleased, Snape whirled around and said, "You have five more minutes, then bottle your solutions and bring them to me."

There were murmurs of "yes, professor," and one daring boy with a shock of dark hair dared to ask, "Professor Snape, what's a hawk doing here? Are you going to teach him how to make potions too?"

Several students sniggered at that comment.

The eyas drew himself up and hissed, sensing they were jeering at him.

Severus scowled at the witty youth, saying sternly, "I have no doubt, Mr. Manning, that my hawk could brew a better Wit-Sharpening potion than you or half this class, given the level of intelligence you displayed today."

Damn straight! So there!

The boy blushed and studied his shoes, not daring to comment further.

At last the class was ended and Severus dismissed them.  There was a mad scramble for the door, and the hawk winced at the sound of so many feet thundering across the stone floor.  Must they be so bloody loud? He screeched irritably.  Why can't they learn to walk quietly, as Snape does?

But in a few moments the stampede was over, and the eyas found himself perched upon Snape's wrist again, being carried back to their home.  "That was my last class of the day, thank Merlin.  Now we shall go and have supper."

Good.  I'm starving!

* * * * * *

 Ten minutes later, the eyas was nibbling small pieces of rabbit from Snape's fingers, careful not to bite too hard. He was quite hungry and ate more than he had previously, causing the Potions Master to remark that he would soon need to get another rabbit from Hagrid, or perhaps a few mice.

Mice are good.  Small but tasty. He could not recall ever eating one, yet somehow he knew that he would enjoy them. 

Afterwards, he allowed Severus to gently feel along his wings, poking and prodding to make sure they were healing correctly. 

"Good, they are mending nicely," said the wizard, pleased.

I shall fly soon?

"Yes. In a week and about five days."

That answer made the hawk extremely  happy, and he walked up Severus's arm and perched upon his shoulder.  He began to preen the long black hair tenderly, for such is a sign of affection among hawks.

Severus eyed him askance.  "What are you doing?"

Fixing your feathers.  You need to distribute the oil in them, else you won't be able to keep out the rain, see? The eyas continued grooming.

"Excuse me? Are you telling me that my hair is . . .greasy?"

Hmm? No, a duck  is worse.

The Potions Master sputtered, unsure whether to be insulted or amused.  "My hair is like that from hours of brewing, you impudent bird. Not because I don't wash it."

Whatever.  My grooming will only help, the hawk said, nibbling and combing his beak through the ebony locks.  Hold still, there is a knot here. He began to work on untangling it.

"Ow! Dammit, bird! I can comb my own hair!"

Not half as good as I can. The hawk said, ignoring the other's attempts to draw away. Be still! I've almost got it.

"And you've almost ripped half of my hair out besides," grumbled the professor. "Leave off, will you?"

The hawk ignored him, nipping his ear when Snape attempted to move. Stop moving! There! Done.

Severus grumbled irritably, rubbing his ear.  "Bloody insolent bird! Who do you think you are, my mother?"

You needn't get all ruffled, I was only trying to help!

"How, by making me bald?"

The hawk made a derisive noise. You complain worse than a newly hatched chick.

"I do not!" snapped the wizard.  "How would you know anyhow? You're hardly more than a chick yourself."

I just do. The eyas settled himself on the Potion Master's shoulder, gripping lightly with his talons. 

"Impudent brat!"

Quite.  But you like me that way.

"Really?"

Yes,  the hawk replied, able to hear the affection beneath the sarcasm.  If I were a meek little sparrow, you would eat me alive.

"Bite me again and I'll use you in a pie," threatened the other lightly.

I'd taste awful! Blech!

Reluctantly, Severus chuckled.  "You are something else, hawk."

Naturally.  I'm your familiar.

"Merlin help me!" muttered the professor, hiding a grin.  Then he pulled out the partial list of names Anne had gathered and began to read them over, one hand gently caressing the soft downy  feathers. He would never admit it, but it felt good to have a friend who was not intimidated by his sharp tongue and who could give as good as he got.

What's that? asked the eyas, peering at the parchment.

"Names my Slytherins suggested for you."

Oh.  Well, make sure you pick a good one.  Something with character, don't make me sound like a wimp.

"You've some nerve.  Just for that, I think I ought to call you Sweetie Pie."

Aghk! That's disgusting! Who names their bird that?

"Adolescent girls with budgies and parrots," Snape smirked. 

That's . . .that's evil! If you call me that, I'll . . .I'll mess all over your robes, Snape!

Severus gaped at him.  "Why you little .  .  .! Do that and there'll be hawk stew for dinner tomorrow."

I don't care! I'm a hawk, not some revolting little fluffy parakeet! Give me something dignified, please! How would you like it if people went around calling you Sevvy Sweetums?

"I would hex them into next week," snarled the professor, shuddering.

I feel the same way. C'mon, Severus, you wouldn't want a familiar with such a sickeningly sweet name.  Your reputation would be shot to hell as a tough nasty professor. Have mercy!

"Very well.  I'll only call you Dearheart in private."

Severus! I think I'm going to puke!

"Only kidding," smirked the Potions Master, and he gave the hawk a very wicked look, his dark eyes gleaming.  "Personally, I think Pretty Baby suits you better."

That's it! I'm gonna peck out your eyes! shrieked the eyas indignantly.

"Calm down, bird brain!" Severus ordered, his shoulder shaking with muffled laughter.  "Do you honestly think I would allow such a revolting name to be associated with my familiar?"

Well, you sounded like you meant it, sulked the hawk, hunching up and turning away from the Potions Master.

"Stop that.  You're as thin skinned as any teenager."

The hawk remained with his back to the professor, stiff with indignation.

Severus sighed.  "Quit sulking.  You'll make yourself molt."

Still, the hawk would not look at him.

"Oh, for the love of . . .Fine, I apologize, Mr. Dignity. Satisfied?"

Promise you won't call me anything horrible.

"Agreed.  I'll give you a name suitable for a deadly hunter. Now look at me."

The eyas turned around, nipped once at Snape's finger in reproof, then allowed the wizard to scratch his head and neck. 

"Hey! None of your attitude," scolded the black-robed teacher.  "Or else you can hunt your own dinner."

Don't have an attitude. You were making fun of me.

"Hush. You're oversensitive."

Am not.

"You are.  You drive me crazy."

Good, said the bird, and sniffed self-satisfyingly.

"Pain-in-the-arse."

Takes one to know one.

"Bird . . .don't push it."

The hawk gave him a strange, almost gleeful look.  "Now who's oversensitive?"

Severus glared at him, but his hand never ceased rubbing, and the eyas leaned into his long fingers in bliss. Ahh! You know, Snape, you might be a snarky pain in the tail, but you have magic fingers.

"Humph!" was all he replied, though the ghost of a smile flitted across his face. Then the professor added, "You know, you annoy me almost as much as Harry Potter, if that's possible."

Who's he? Sounds like someone I'd like to meet.

"A student of mine who has now been missing for three days.  Dumbledore's Golden Gryffindor, the savior of us all, the Boy-Who-Lived."

The hawk cocked his head.  That name . . .why did that name sound familiar? He could almost remember . . .and then it vanished.   Sounds important.  Are you still looking for him?

"Yes.  But the damn brat is hiding, probably laughing up his sleeve at how he's fooled us all."

He must be clever, if he can fool you.

"Cleverly inclined to mischief.  He won't think he's so smart once I catch up to him," growled Snape.  "Annoying little wretch, making all of us insane with worry . . ."

Sounds like you care for him, remarked the hawk.

Severus choked. "What? Me? Care for Potter? I just . . .I promised his mother I would look out for him. And that's all."

If you say so, his familiar chirruped, sounding so unbearably smug that Snape felt like plucking all his feathers out. 

Care for Potter indeed! You cared for his mother, rebuked his conscience.  That was different.  Now shut up!  He resumed scratching his mouthy familiar, the repetition soothing his temper like nothing else could.  For if he began to care for Potter, he would be crazy with worry, wondering where the boy was and if he were hurt. And the last thing he needed was to lose another whom he cared for. So, no, he didn't care for Harry Potter, not at all.  The very idea was preposterous.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Hope you all enjoyed this.

Yes, our nameless familiar will get a name next chapter.


Next: A very angsty chapter, as Severus is summoned to Voldy to account for the whereabouts of Harry Potter and Harry!hawk finally learns what the true nature of Severus's double life is like. He didn't know about Severus's spying before, but he will now.



Chapter 8: Birds of A Feather
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"Open," Snape ordered, the syringe with the Bone Mend Elixir in his other hand.

Do I have to? That stuff tastes disgusting! whined his familiar, sounding very much like a recalcitrant five-year-old.

Severus gritted his teeth exasperatedly.  They had been arguing in circles for almost five minutes now, and he was getting fed up.  It was times like these that he regretted being able to talk to the bird, it had been much easier before, when all he had to do was hold open the hawk's beak and make him swallow the potion.

"Look, you need this potion to get better, now stop whining and just take it! It would have been over and done with minutes ago if you'd stop being so bloody stubborn!"

I'm not.  You wouldn't want to taste it either, it coats your tongue and tastes like sour grapes, ugh!

"Do you want to fly again or not?"

Yes.

"Then open up and take this, or Merlin help me, I shall open your damn beak myself and shove it down your throat."

Hawk and wizard locked gazes for one endless minute.

Then the eyas gave in, looking away.  Fine.

He opened his beak.

"It's for your own good," Snape reminded him, inserting the syringe.

Blech! Where's the water?

"Here," Severus held the cup so the hawk could drink.

The bird drank for almost two minutes, washing away the dreadful taste.  Then he lifted his head and grumbled, You're mean.

Snape rolled his eyes.  "I know, I'm a horrible nasty wizard for giving you potions to mend your wings, aren't I? I should have just gotten a hammer and finished you off right away."

Might've been better than taking that, sulked his familiar.

"Stop it.  You remind me of one of my students, they complain endlessly too whenever I need to dose them for a fever or a cold.  Make me want to shake them."

You fix students too?

"Those in my House, yes.  If I have the proper potions on hand.  It's quicker than sending them to the Hospital Wing, Poppy is overworked taking care of the other three Houses as it is, and I learned basic medicine as part of my Potions Mastery.  I can diagnose and treat common ailments and set and splint broken bones and fix cuts and lacerations, I can even stitch wounds if necessary, though most times a spell takes care of that.  That was how I knew how to splint your wings."

Oh.  You're pretty smart, for a wizard.  Where's my breakfast?

"You have atrocious table manners too, like half the teenagers I know," scolded the professor.  "Then again, you're a hawk, and never needed any."

For some reason, that comment stung, and the hawk meeped an, I'm sorry, Severus. But I'm hungry.

"Here." He set a dead mouse, a rather large one, in front of the hawk.

The eyas immediately began to eat, tearing into the rodent with talons and beak.  In about ten minutes, the entire mouse was devoured, including the fur and bones. He would cast up the inedible parts later, they served to clean out his crop, which was where a raptor stored food before digesting it.

Delicious.  Thanks.

"You're welcome." Severus quickly wiped down the lab table with a cloth soaked in disinfectant before taking the hawk up on his wrist and returning to his quarters to have his own breakfast.

He had just begun eating his usual breakfast of fruit, toast, porridge, and a side of bacon when there came a knock on the door of his quarters.  "Come in."

The door opened to admit one Albus Dumbledore. 

"Severus, I was growing worried when you didn't come down to breakfast these past three days.  I was afraid you were ill."

Severus raised an eyebrow in astonishment.  And you came to make sure my corpse wasn't rotting on the floor finally? "No, I am well, Headmaster.  I have been eating here because I am taking care of my familiar." He indicated the young hawk, who was upon his perch, eyeing the Headmaster curiously.

"Oh, yes, I see." Dumbledore turned and examined the bird.  "My, you're a handsome fellow, aren't you?"

The eyas immediately straightened and gave a self-satisfied cheep.  I am, aren't I?

"Don't let it go to your head," Severus muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

"And you look very well considering the accident you had," the Headmaster went on, pulling out a small owl treat and offering it to the bird. 

The hawk took it gently.  Mmm.

"He has nice manners for a wild hawk," remarked the Headmaster, gently stroking the hawk.

"Oh, I doubt he was wild.  He belonged to someone once, he's too used to being around humans for him to have been raised in the wild.  And red-tailed hawks aren't native to Britain," Severus replied. 

"Yes, of course.  Well, it's good to see you are bonding with your familiar, Severus.  I think you'll find having one reduces stress a great deal and you can tell a familiar many things and never worry about them betraying your secrets.  I talk with Fawkes all the time, though I'll confess sometimes I wish he could answer me."

No, you don't, especially if your phoenix was as mouthy as my hawk, thought the Potions Master wryly.  "You might not say that, Albus, if he did start to speak with you.  Sometimes it's better for familiars to be seen and not heard."

Thanks a lot, Severus!

"I would say he doesn't agree," Dumbledore chuckled. 

"He's a cheeky thing, all right."

"Has he a name?"

"Not at the moment.  I have been trying to come up with one that will fit him."

"One will come to you," Dumbledore said sagely.  "Naming a familiar is important. Rather like naming a child."

Severus nodded, though he was uncomfortable with the reference.  He had never considered himself to be decent father material, given his sharp manner and his inability to display affection properly.  "He will have one soon, however."

"Good.  I wish you much joy with him.  He suits you, my boy." He gave the hawk one last scratch before turning to his Potions Master and asking, "Have you given any more thought as to where Harry might have gotten to? It has been four days now and no one has been able to locate him.  I am quite concerned, Severus.  You are absolutely certain he is not being held hostage by the Death Eaters?"

"Albus, we've been over this.  If Potter were captured by any of them, they would not be able to resist bragging about it, nor hiding it from their master.  And if he had Potter, all of us would be summoned to witness his final victory over the boy.  He would make it very public, you can be assured of that." Severus's face twisted in a grimace.  "No quick and easy death, Albus.  That much I can tell you.  Wherever Potter is now, it is not with You-Know-Who's followers."

Albus sighed.  "Not that I really wanted him to be there, but at least we would not be, ah, what do the Muggles say-chasing a wild duck?"

"Goose," Severus corrected.  "Chasing a wild goose."

"Do you think it's possible that he is hurt and unable to seek us out for help?" fretted the Headmaster.

"If that were so, then why have all our locator spells failed?" Severus scowled.  "I am no novice at them, and I have them keyed to the boy's mental signature, and that cannot be counterfeited.  Hurt or not, it would register, and it hasn't, which suggests to me that he is somehow masking himself from us.  He does not wish to be found, Albus."

"But why? Surely there is nothing so bad that he cannot share it with his friends or . . .one of his teachers?"

"No?" Severus sneered.  "I assure you, Headmaster, there are things that are that bad." You would never understand because you have never been depressed to the point of contemplating ending it all, Albus Dumbledore.  You have never teetered upon the edge of the abyss and looked into the teeth of your worst nightmare and known it to be yourself. You have always been loved and admired, well-liked, you cannot imagine what it is to be despised for what you are by your own father and outcast in the one place that should have been a sanctuary.  Oh no, not you! You, like your Golden Boy James Potter, lived a charmed life until the Dark Lord came. "If Hagrid was correct, and his instincts usually are dead on target, Potter was depressed and perhaps he has gone away to deal with it on his own. He will return when he is ready."

"You are certain of this, Severus?"

"I am never certain where Potter is concerned.  The boy could drive a saint to blasphemy.  But given the evidence I have, my theory seems logical."

"Be that as it may, I shall not cease looking," the Headmaster said determinedly. "I have the Order searching as well, but so far nothing."

"You mean that mutt Black hasn't been able to trace him either?" Severus, said, unable to keep the satisfaction from his voice.  It was petty, he knew, but he still detested the other wizard for everything the other had done to him during school and gotten away with.  "He once bragged to me that he had the best nose in Britain."

"Err . . .well, he hasn't been able to find Harry either.  Looked for him all day yesterday and came up with nothing."

Severus snorted.  "Figures.  Black always was overrated."

Maybe they should try a bird instead,  suggested the hawk.  No one can track like a hawk.  I'll bet I could find anyone you wanted, once I knew what he looked like.  If I can spot a mouse from over a hundred yards away, I could find Harry Potter.

Dumbledore looked at the bird.  "Talkative fellow, isn't he?"

"Yes.  He has an opinion about everything." Severus said dryly.  "Have you ever tried looking from a bird's eye view, Albus? I mean, using a bird to try and track someone?"

The old wizard looked thoughtful.  "Why, no, I never have.  I mean, we use owls as messengers, but I never thought a bird capable of finding people.  They'd have to be trained to it, and I don't know of anyone who would be willing to take the time or patience to train one, most birds aren't all that smart, you know.  Even our post owls, while brighter than ordinary ones, aren't intelligent enough to do that sort of work. No, Severus, it would never work.  Finding people requires a degree of intelligence birds lack, but it was an interesting idea."

Hey! You calling me dumb? screeched the eyas angrily.  For all your superior intelligence, ancient one, you haven't been able to find one lost kid.  I'll bet I could find him in two seconds, you bloody arrogant ignoramus, and I wouldn't need a human to train me either!

"My, he has quite a temper, doesn't he?" observed the old wizard.  "Well, they say like master, like familiar, eh, Severus?"

Severus did not reply, he was too busy biting the inside of his lip.

Oh, yeah? Then I pity yours, because he's probably as big of an arsehole as you are! And here I thought you were a nice old geezer, petting me and giving me treats! Ha! Last time I fall for that ruse. 

Dumbledore eyed the bird askance.  "Perhaps he's cranky because he can't fly."

No, old man, what I am is seriously pissed off!

"Severus, perhaps you ought to hood him," suggested the Headmaster, eyeing his Potions Master, who seemed to be having a coughing fit.  "I can do it, since you, ah, seem to be having difficulties at the moment."

Try it, you great booby, and you'll be learning a whole new way to cast spells!

The hawk clicked his razor-sharp beak meaningfully.

At that, Snape mastered himself and said, "Albus, it's not safe for you to approach him when he's in a mood.  He tends to snap and you wouldn't want Poppy to have to reattach a finger, now would you?  Let me handle him."

Dumbledore, who had been on the verge of trying to hood the hawk, quickly backed away.  "You would know best, Severus.  He is your familiar."

That's right, and you don't know how thankful I am for that!

Severus rose and walked over to the very annoyed hawk and clucked his tongue.  "Hush! There's no need to make a spectacle of yourself." He began to scratch the hawk's breast.

You heard what he said! I'm not stupid, Severus, I'm probably smarter than half the humans in the school, you said so yourself.

"Yes, I know.  Now settle down, please." The Potions Master ordered, still petting the bird.  Then he added, in a tone only the hawk could hear, "I nearly asphyxiated when you called him an arrogant ignoramus. I wasn't aware you knew such insults."

I remember what I hear, unlike some people, sniffed the eyas and glared pointedly in Dumbledore's direction.

"Well, I really must be going.  I shall see you at dinner then, Severus?"

"Yes.  Good day to you, sir," Severus managed to say in a semi-normal tone.

Yeah, go toddle off and look for the other half of your superior brain.  If that's what that Harry kid has to deal with, no wonder he doesn't want to be found.

Severus waited until the door had shut and he was certain he could not be overheard before indulging in an insane fit of laughter.  He laughed so hard he gasped.

Though he felt compelled to admonish his feisty hawk a little.  "You really shouldn't speak that way about the Headmaster.  It's disrespectful."

So's saying all of us birds are dumb. My idea was great and he just . . .took it like it was some kind of joke.  I resent that.

"The Headmaster is somewhat . . .traditional in his views.  He is also my employer and therefore I am going to ask you to restrain yourself around him."

Poor you.  Does that mean I can't rearrange his beard? Or accidentally bite off a finger?

"It does.  Your behavior reflects upon me, and if you don't want to be hunting grubs in the rain and living in a shack, you'll be polite to the . . .old ignoramus . . .hard as that may be. Learn to swallow your tongue, as I have had to."

Kree-awk! You're no fun, Severus!

"Agreed?" Snape demanded sternly.

Okay.  I don't want you to be homeless.  But, once I can fly again, if I just happen to be hovering and he comes along . . .well, we birds are too dumb to aim properly, and we just cut loose anywhere . . .so . . .

"Bird, you are impossible!"

Like master, like familiar.

And Snape found himself convulsed with laughter for the second time in one morning.  It was a record.  He hadn't laughed that way since before Lily had died.

* * * * * *

 

But the Potions Master wasn't laughing Friday evening, when he felt the long-dormant Mark upon his left wrist burn.  He had just returned from detention with Goyle, supervising the Slytherin dicing up some pickled rat liver and crab ovaries, and had just settled down with a cup of tea, the hawk perched companionably upon his shoulder, intending to finally reveal the name he had chosen for his familiar, when the Mark flared.

Gritting his teeth against the awful burning, he clamped a hand over it and swore. 

Severus, what's wrong? Are you hurt?

"No.  Not . . .the way you mean."

You're in pain.  Are you sick?

"No.  How do you know that?"

I can feel it from the way your muscles tense and your breathing's quick and harsh, the way it is when you're scared or hurt.  It's what prey feels like just before a hawk strikes to kill, the familiar explained, knowing instinctively what it felt like to hunt and kill, though he couldn't recall having ever hunted anything.

"It will pass once I . . .answer the summons."

What summons? From the Headmaster?

Severus snorted.  "Hardly.  Albus would wet himself were he to cause me such pain.  Knowingly, that is," he added with a cynical smile, for unwittingly Dumbledore had caused him more pain than a thousand Dark Marks. 

Then who's doing this to you? Tell me and I'll take them apart! I'll rip out their liver, pluck out their eyes! Nobody hurts my wizard!

Severus made haste to calm the frantic hawk, who would have been bating had he been able to fly.  "There is nothing you could do to stop him, brave one.  This is the price I pay for being a secret agent."

A secret agent? I don't understand.  Who are you . . .oh! You're a spy, watching that dark wizard who killed all those Muggles and all, right?

"Yes.  And as a spy, I have a pretense to maintain as a loyal Death Eater. Now, on your perch, quickly.  I haven't much time, it is best to not delay when the Mark burns." Severus urged the hawk, carefully placing the bird on his perch and fastening him securely, though he left him unhooded. 

Do you have to go, Severus?

"Yes.  Do not worry.  I shall return." Severus reassured him, his lips clamped tightly.  He did not bother mentioning that what condition he returned in was dependent upon the whim of the monster who summoned him.

Then he departed his quarters, seeking egress out of the castle, and once beyond the gates, he Apparated to where the Dark Lord awaited him.

 

* * * * * *

 

As Severus had predicted, Voldemort was not in a good mood.  That was putting it mildly.  Several burn marks upon the floor of the old library of Riddle Manor attested to that when Severus arrived.  Wormtail was cringing and sobbing in a corner, having clearly been chastised by the irate wizard already.

Severus gulped back bile, this was a very bad sign.  "You called, Master?" he asked, moving quickly to perform the customary obeisance, kneeling and kissing the hem of Voldemort's robe like a good little lackey.  He had long ago subsumed his desire to retch and spit upon the other's robe, else he would have been dead and buried.

"Ah, Severus.  I had wondered what kept you away so long." Voldemort purred, his red slit-pupiled eyes glittering with a curious longing. 

"My apologies, Master.  I would have come sooner, but the old fool has kept me busy teaching the little morons-"

"-and searching for Harry Potter, yes?"

"Yes, my Lord." Severus felt the hair on the back of his neck tighten. 

"And have you found the boy yet, Severus?"

"No, my Lord.  Not yet."

Voldemort's eyes narrowed.  "And why not, my little apothecary? Surely your skills are enough to locate one small fifth-year, are they not? Why then does he still remain missing? Almost a week and no sign of him."

Severus felt the blood chill in his veins.  Voldemort only used pet names when he was furious and about to deal some serious punishment, rather like an insane father who told his children he loved them before beating them to death. 

"Potter has . . .some small ability at concealment, Master.  And an Invisibility Cloak."

Voldemort's scaly hand fastened on Severus's collar, yanking the other man up on his toes.  "Not good enough, my dear Snape! I have been searching for him as well and he is nowhere to be found.  Which suggests that he is being hidden somewhere.  You wouldn't happen to know where he is, little apothecary?"

"No, Master."

"For if I cannot find him, then he must be somewhere within Hogwarts.  And therefore, you should know where he is, being my premiere agent.  Why don't you?"

"I am sorry, my Lord.  There is no excuse for my negligence," Severus began, knowing nothing he could say would mitigate Voldemort's temper, and any attempt to protest his innocence would only make the fiend angrier. 

"No, there is not." Voldemort hissed coldly.  "You have failed me, Severus Snape.  I want him found.  Found so that I may face him once and for all and kill him, as the prophecy demands.  Am I understood?" The hand tightened on the collar of Snape's robes.

"Yes, Master," Snape managed to get out through the crushing pressure. "Forgive me."

Voldemort licked his lips.  "You have disappointed me greatly, my child. I trusted you and you betrayed me.  Such is not done.  Not at all."

Severus flinched at the eagerness in the other's gaze.  This was going to be a bad night.

Voldemort drew his wand.  "I shall teach you better, little apothecary." He smiled, the smile of a sadist who was going to unleash some merry hell upon another captive soul. 

"Crucio."

 

* * * * * *

Snape had to give the bastard points for creativity.  Voldemort knew how to use the Cruciatus to target individual spots upon a person to cause maximum pain and still have them breathing at the end of it.  He was an expert on judging just how much pain one could handle before passing out and ruining his fun.

Unfortunately, Severus could withstand a great deal of pain, having been conditioned in his childhood, and he did not break as easily as Wormtail.  So Voldemort had a longer time punishing him, which only whetted his appetite. Causing pain was his favorite pastime, and it had been too long since he had indulged himself.

But at last the beast was sated, and Voldemort trained his wand upon himself, siphoning off the Potion Master's emotional anguish, drinking it down like a draught of firewhiskey.  Since his "resurrection", Voldemort discovered that he needed more than just corporeal sustenance, he also needed to feed on despair, pain, and fear, much like a demon.  He found the Potion Master's pain tasted sweet and filled his craving adequately.

He nudged the prostrate wizard with the toe of his slipper.  "Do not fail me again.  You are forgiven, Severus."

He waved his wand and Severus was Disapparated back close to the gates of Hogwarts. 

* * * * * *

 

Severus never knew how he made his way back to his quarters without passing out.  Yet somehow he did it, that indomitable stubbornness enabling him to do the nearly impossible, and walk upon legs that were threatening to collapse beneath him, wracked by spasms of terrible pain.  He had drank a pain reliever, which he always carried upon his person, before beginning the attempt, it had muted the worst of the tremors, enough so he could limp across the grounds and into the secret passage, and finally through the door of his quarters.

He just managed to shut the door before crumpling to the ground, his vaunted will unable to keep him upright any longer.

The hawk was dozing upon his perch when he caught the sound of the door opening.  He opened his eyes, looking towards the entry, and saw to his relief Severus come into the room. 

Then he saw the tall form sway and fall, landing with a thud upon the carpet.

Severus! What happened? He shrilled, terror shooting through him at the sight of the Black Protector lying so still upon the floor.  Severus!

The red mist clouded his brain, but through the hazy agony he could hear a hawk shrieking.  Hawk . . .where? Yes, my hawk . . .Snape thought blearily, trying to focus past the shaking and spasms that tore through him.  His familiar was calling him.  He managed to lift his head and hiss a reply, hoping to soothe the hawk enough so he didn't try and jump off the perch and risk damaging himself further.

". . .be all right . . .don't worry . . ."

Don't worry? How can you say that? You're . . .shaking and twitching like a rabbit about to die! What did he do to you?

" . . .the usual . . .Cruciatus . . ."

Cruciatus? The . . .the Torture Curse? The hawk cried, horrified.  He knew that curse, had recalled a man with one eye speaking about it . . .demonstrating it upon a spider . . .but to actually see the effects upon someone . . .especially one he cared about . . .Bastard! Sodding miserable bastard! I'll kill him for this! I will! I'll kill him!

Severus was in too much pain to wonder how a mere familiar knew about the Cruciatus Curse, he was barely conscious, and all he could think of was that the hawk was going mad from the sound of it and he needed to get over there before his familiar hurt himself.  His wings were halfway healed, the last thing the raptor needed was to break them again. 

He tried to heave himself up, but found his legs would not work, and his arms had almost no strength in them.  Damn! I need . . .to calm him down . . .Slowly, he propped himself up on an elbow.  Then the other.  Then he began to drag himself across the carpet. 

"Calm down . . .don't wan' to break your wings again . . .d'you?" he slurred, pausing as another tremor wracked him.

Me? What about you? You can't even walk!

". . . Hazard of th' game . . .th' most dangerous game . . ."

He gasped, coughed, then resumed his creeping pace across the floor.

Why do you do it? Why? The eyas trembled upon his perch, wishing desperately that he could fly.

" . . .have to . . .promised . . .only way to keep Lily safe . . ."

Who?

"Lily Evans . . .I loved her . . .then I lost her . . .I was a fool . . .she married Potter . . .and I promised her I would keep her and her son safe . . .swore an oath . . . didn't need to, would have done it anyway, but she didn't trust me, thought I was a Death Eater . . .Dumbledore never told her I was his spy . . ."

Dumbledore knows about this? About what the bastard does to you?

Severus bit his lip till it bled.  Then he gasped, " . . .'Course he knows . . .He knows what . . .that one does . . .used to be his teacher too . . .But I knew the risks . . .this was the only way to get good information . . .and I was the only one who could do it . . .still am . . ."

He could see the hawk now, walking up and down the perch, eyes whirling in alarm.

Tell him to get someone else.  Nothing is worth this! Nothing!

" . . .can't . . .I am bound to his destruction . . .even if I wanted to . . .couldn't leave . . .not free . . ." Severus sucked in a breath and crawled a bit further.  "The only thing I'm good for . . .the perfect spy, I have no family, no one will care if I die, everyone I loved is gone . . .he can't hurt me any more than this . . .d'you see?"

He had almost reached the perch. 

No! I don't.  Severus . . .they're killing you . . .and you're letting them . . .!

"I'm not dead yet, silly bird . . .this is the only way . . ."

No, you're wrong.  You're not alone. I care for you.

Almost there.  His hand grazed the wood of the perch. He paused, gasping for breath, feeling as if all his muscles had turned to water.  "I know.  Birds of a feather . . .Hagrid was right . . .both of us are broken . . .you on the outside and me on the inside . . .broken apart . . ."

What do you mean? You aren't broken, Severus.

"I am . . .you just can't see it . . .when Lily died . . .my heart shattered . . .and now I have nothing . . ."

Not true! You have me.

His hand curled around the perch and he pulled himself up, leaning against it.  "Yes. I have you.  Two broken creatures have found each other. Such . . .irony." He twisted his mouth in a bitter grimace. "Come down.  Before you hurt those wings."

Hang my wings! The hawk cried, then jumped the three feet to Severus's shoulder.

Severus suppressed a wince, for even the hawk's light weight caused his shoulder to explode in agony.  "I . . .didn't spend hours fixing them only to have you ruin it all now."

I know.  Severus . . .you fixed me.  I can fix you. The hawk began preening the black hair, making odd crooning noises. 

The Potions Master slumped to the floor.  "Fool bird . . .you cannot mend a broken heart . . ."

I can try, insisted the hawk. 

Snape's mouth twitched into what might have been a crooked grin.  "You shouldn't bind yourself to me . . .soon you will be able to fly again . . .fly free as you were meant to . . ."

Because of you.  You saved me.

"I did . . .one thing right at least." He could feel himself sinking slowly into a gray shadowy realm, where the pain would be dimmed for a time. But he fought against it.  There was one more thing he had to say.  "Finally picked a name for you," he rasped.  "Sorry . . .I took so long.  Had a time deciding, but finally . . .I think Freedom's a good name.  Hawks are meant to be free. . ."

Freedom, the hawk chirruped, trying out the new name.  It felt good.  It felt right. Yes.  I am Freedom.  And I shall fly free upon the wind soon.  I like it, Severus.

He peered down at the dark head, which was lolling to one side.

Severus? Severus? Panicked, he nipped the wizard's ear hard.

The Potions Master groaned.

Severus, don't leave me.  Please! Don't die! Don't die . . .not like Cedric! Please!

There was no response.  Terrified, the bird called Freedom knew only one thing.  He needed help.  I need to call someone.  He needs help badly.  But who? Think! You're smart.  Think! Who will hear you down here?

The hawk closed his eyes.  And recalled Severus sitting on the couch, calling out a single name and getting a response every time. 

He opened his eyes, drew in a breath, and screeched, TWIXIE!

Then he prayed that house elves could understand hawks.

A minute passed.

Two.

Freedom despaired.

Then there came a soft pop and a familiar voice cried, "Master Severus? Why is your familiar screaming for me?"

The house elf turned about, looking for the tall wizard, and gasped, one hand going to her mouth.  "Dear sweet Merlin! Master Severus! Not again! I shall fetch Mr. Hagrid!"

Help him!

"I am! Mr. Hagrid will know what to do," the elf said, then she vanished.

Freedom huddled miserably upon the black-robed shoulder, grooming his wizard's hair, offering what comfort he could and wishing he knew how to fix a broken heart.


 



Chapter End Notes:


So, what did you think?

Note: In this version Snape returned to Dumbledore before hearing the prophecy . . .which is not exactly the same as in the books, but you'll learn more about that later.

In case you were wondering, Twixie could hear and understand Freedom because she is a magical creature.

Next: Can Hagrid and Freedom (Harry) fix the poor broken Potions Master?



Chapter 9: The Best Medicine
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Twixie popped straight over to Hagrid's hut, wringing her hands agitatedly.  This was not the first time she had seen Severus injured after one of his meetings with the Evil One, as the house elves called Voldemort, but she hated when one of the wizards in her charge was hurt so dreadfully, it made her feel guilty, like she could have done something to protect him.  Twixie took her duties very seriously and she was fond of Severus, who was quiet and polite and did not rely on her to do everything for him the way some wizards did their elves.  The elf that had served Gilderoy Lockhart had been required to give an opinion on every piece of clothing in the professor's wardrobe and match outfits several times a day and fix the dandy's hair at least ten times an evening.  All the elves were very grateful that one was never returning to the castle.

Thus, when she heard the hawk screaming her name, she did not hesitate to answer the bird's distressed call, nor stop to think of fetching anyone other than Hagrid, whom she knew was one of the few Severus trusted to see him in such a state and who had also asked her to look out for the Potions Master.  She popped right into the gamekeeper's home, in front of the hearth, where Hagrid's dog, Fang, was lying eating a meaty bone. 

"Mr. Hagrid! You must come and help Master Severus quick!" she yelled, her large blue eyes filling with tears. 

Hagrid nearly dropped his tea kettle, he was so startled.  "Twixie? What's happened to Severus, lass?"

"Oh, Mr. Hagrid, his familiar called me, the poor bird was in such a state, and I came and Master Severus was lying on the floor, I think he had just returned from another of those meetings.  I told him and told him not to go back to the Evil One, but he never listens to me! Says it's his duty!" she wailed, bursting into tears.  "Poor Master Severus.  You must go and help him."

Hagrid set the tea kettle down upon the table with a clatter.  "There now, lass.  Severus will pull through, you'll see.  Go an' fetch Madam Pomfrey, we'll be needin' her potions and salves.  I'll go up and see what I can do fer Professor Snape meanwhile."

Twixie nodded, blowing her nose upon a huge handkerchief Hagrid handed her. "Right away, Mr. Hagrid, sir!" Then she vanished with a sharp pop.

Hagrid quickly left, after admonishing Fang to watch the house, moving quickly up the path to the castle.

He knew there was a quicker way into the castle through a secret tunnel, but it was not big enough to permit him to use it, so he had to take the longer route through the castle proper and the dungeons until he reached Severus's quarters, which were warded against anyone save himself, Dumbledore, and Poppy.  He paused before a tapestry of a silver snake speaking to a dark-haired wizard, moving it aside to reveal what appeared to be a blank stone wall.

Then he muttered the password, "Semperoccultus".  The stone wall vanished and a door appeared in its place.

Hagrid wasted no time in turning the handle and entering the professor's quarters.

Poppy was already there, her wand out, but was clearly having difficulties examining the comatose Snape due to the hawk perched upon his shoulder, who was screeching and hissing at her, his amber eyes blazing. 

"Hagrid! Oh, thank Merlin you're here.  I can't get this bird to leave the professor alone, and every time I try and approach him, the hawk snaps at me."

"Yeah, the hawk is Severus's new familiar an' seems a mite overprotective.  Don' fret, Poppy, I'll have ‘im calmed down in a bit." Hagrid reassured her.  He walked over and pulled on the gauntlet near the perch, it expanded magically to fit him, then he knelt down next to the hawk and said softly, "Easy there, lad.  No one's gonna hurt yer master.  We're tryin' t'help him.  Come now.  Come up here." He held out the glove, and pulled a bit of dried beef from a pocket as well. 

The hawk glared at him distrustfully, blinking.  He had not met any of the staff save Dumbledore since he had awoken in Severus's lab, and his instincts warned him to be wary of strangers, especially ones that tried to grab him away from his badly injured wizard, as that woman in the starched cap had.  It was the nature of a hawk to defend their own, even if their own happened to be featherless and two-legged, and Severus was vulnerable, making the hawk instinct to protect override the human logic Freedom possessed.

Hagrid continued speaking to the bird in slow even tones, clicking his tongue gently.  "Come, laddie.  Don' worry.  Yer master will be all righ'. We won't hurt ‘im none.  Relax." He proffered the strip of beef.

Freedom studied the big man intently.  There was something familiar about his voice, he had heard it before.  The voice and the hands, he remembered the hands soothing another creature, a large winged horse-like thing.  A hippogriff.  That's what it was.  And it bit Malfoy.  I remember this one crying over the hippogriff too.  He cares for the wild creatures.  Freedom cocked his head, remembering another vivid picture of the big man hatching a baby dragon.   I know you.  You were . . . are a friend.  I can trust you.  You will not hurt Severus.

Abruptly, he snatched the meat from Hagrid's hand and then allowed the big man to take him on his wrist.  Amid the many confusing images swirling in his head and his concern for his wizard master, Freedom knew one thing, the big man-Hagrid-Twixie had called him, could be trusted.  He settled upon the gamekeeper's wrist, and Hagrid stroked him.

"That's a good hawk.  Calm now.  Let's set you down here, fer now, since I got to help Poppy with Severus, all righ'?" Hagrid crooned, bringing Freedom back to his perch. 

The hawk watched as the Witch-With-the-White-Hat knelt down and began waving her wand over Severus.  She did not look pleased.  "Worse than last time, I'm afraid.  Let's get him in bed, Hagrid, and then I can begin to treat him.  He's in shock from the bloody curse and his pain levels are off the scale.  Another would have died.  Damn that bloody monster! And damn Albus too for sending him back again!"

Hagrid bent and gently lifted Severus in his arms, careful not to jar him.  "Y'know, Severus chose to return, Dumbledore only asked him."

The medi-witch shot him a glare.  "He would never need to do more than ask, Hagrid.  You and I both know why.  Dumbledore might be a great wizard, but sometimes his Grand Design blinds him to the sacrifices others make.  Severus is not the only spy he has."

Hagrid carried the Potions Master into the bedroom and gently set him down upon the bed Poppy had turned down with a wave of her wand.  "I know.  But he's th' best at what he does."

"Yes, but even the ‘best spy' has limits.  And if Severus breaks, what then? Albus will have a guilt trip and then go and get a new spy," Poppy snorted.  Then she banished the Potion Master's clothing, which was stained with blood, so she could examine him thoroughly.

She cast an Anti-Shock Charm on him first, and was relieved to note some color coming back into his waxen cheeks.  Then she cast a simple Freshen-Up Charm on him, cleansing his skin of the blood.  One of the marks of the Cruciatus was that it tended to burst blood vessels and leave fantastic bruises and bloody weals on the skin of its victims as well as damaging nerves. 

Poppy's lips tightened as she saw the marks upon Snape's pale skin.  The bastard had been targeting pressure points again, with a surgeon's preciseness, to cause the maximum amount of pain in the shortest length of time. She wondered sadly why he had singled Severus out for this kind of punishment, for the Dark One did not normally inflict such damage on his pet Potions Master, he was too aware that none of his circle possessed Severus's level of ability with potions or was able to get so close to Dumbledore.  Poppy was well aware of the dangerous game Severus played, he had revealed all to her one night in a delirious ramble, and afterwards had sworn her to secrecy. 

The medi-witch shook her head.  There was no fathoming the reasoning of a madman.  Her only concern now was healing the damage he had wrought.  She removed a vial of Nerve Reliever from her kit and spelled it directly into Severus's stomach, that would take care of the worst of the spasms he was suffering. 

Immediately afterwards, he ceased twitching spasmodically.  Then she spelled a second potion into him, this one a Class Six Pain Reliever, which was the strongest available.  Some of the lines upon his face smoothed out afterwards and he sighed.

"Sleep.  That's right." She gently brushed the dark hair away from his eyes, tucking it behind his ears. Then she began casting spells to mend the damage to his ribs, they had been cracked, his lungs and kidneys, all of which had been injured during the curse.  When she straightened to get the jar of special salve from her kit, which she had made up especially for Severus, since he was most often the one who needed it, she found Hagrid behind her, the hawk upon his wrist.

"Hagrid, what do you mean, bringing that bird in here? It's unsanitary."

Freedom clicked his beak at her in annoyance.  You've got some nerve, lady! I'm perfectly clean, and I don't have lice or diseases either.

"Ah, Poppy, he's Severus's familiar, an' he belongs with his master, see? Was goin' nuts ‘cause he couldn't see where the professor was, so I brought him in here to watch.  He'll behave now that he can see you're takin' care o' Severus."

Poppy eyed the bird curiously.  "You're acting like he can understand you."

"He can some.  Hawk's are smart birds, smarter than owls." Hagrid told her earnestly.  "How's he doin'?"

"He's had major trauma to his nerves and muscles, typical of the Cruciatus, some damage to his ribs, lungs, and kidneys, which I've mended, plus he's running a fever.  You'll note the marks on him too. He'll need potions for several days and to be kept warm and quiet.  After I apply the salve, I'll spell a Fever Reducer into him, and then he needs to be watched.  He really ought to be in the Hospital Wing, where I can monitor him myself."

Hagrid shook his head.  "Y'know he prefers t'be here."

"Yes, I know.  Else his cover might be blown.  Merlin forbid anyone should ever see Severus Snape in a moment of weakness." Then her expression softened.  She grabbed the salve and began applying it deftly, watching in satisfaction as it healed the bruises and red weals in minutes.  Severus never stirred, not even when Hagrid turned him over so Poppy could treat his back, where the worst of the bruising and lacerations were. 

The big man flinched and muttered angrily, "Sodding bastard! Oughta be staked out and torn t'pieces by manticores and burnt by dragons!"

Freedom hissed angrily in agreement.  Right, and I would rip out his heart if he were here, the stinking buzzard!

"Aye, were he here now, I'd break my Healer's Oath and commit murder," Poppy declared, her brown eyes hard.  "He must be stopped."

"Harry will stop him," Hagrid stated quietly.

Poppy sighed, spelling a set of shorts and hospital pajamas on her comatose patient.  "There's another one I fear for.  The boy's too young, too much of a burden is placed upon his shoulders.  Albus asks too much.  Expecting a fifteen-year-old to go up against such a monster.  Lily is probably turning in her grave to see it."

"Yeah, but th' prophecy . . .he's the one," Hagrid whispered.

Poppy snorted.  "Like Severus, I don't trust prophecy.  It can be interpreted too many ways.  But Albus believes and what Dumbledore believes so does half the wizarding world.  Best he be careful though, lest he get what he wished for."

"What d'you mean?"

"I mean that the prophecy might come true, and Harry might defeat You-Know-Who, only to lose his own life in the doing.  Then Albus will have blood on his hands all right, for all his greater good!"

"I . . .I never thought o' that." Hagrid mumbled.

"Start thinking about it then.  Albus, though he is a good man mostly, is not God, and he makes mistakes, some of them terrible ones." She pointed to Severus.  "That's one of them.  We would have lost him if not for you, Hagrid. And that would have been a real tragedy. I only hope he doesn't make the same mistake with Harry." She sighed.  "I've seen too many lives ruined by well-meaning people fighting that monster to have much tolerance for it a second time, Hagrid.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, or so my father used to say."

"He was a Muggle, wasn't he?" Hagrid asked, setting Freedom upon the headboard.

"He was, like Severus there, I am a half-blood. Like Harry Potter too.  Only my father was a damn sight better than poor Severus's." The medi-witch spelled a Fever Reducer into the slumbering Potions Master, then tucked the covers about him and cast a cooling charm over them.  She wiped sweat from her brow.  "Hagrid, surely you aren't going to have that bird in here the whole time?"

"An' why not? Poppy, that bird loves Severus, and sometimes that's th' best medicine of all, better than even potions and spells, knowin' that somebody who loves ye is nearby." Then he added, "'Sides, if anything ever happened t'that hawk, Severus would never forgive us."

Poppy gave in then, for she understood the bond of master and familiar and Hagrid could be stubborn as a stone when he had something in his head, especially when the something concerned an animal.  "Very well.  But mind you watch Severus and don't be playing around with that hawk, y'hear? He should sleep for a good four or five hours yet but if his fever gets any higher, call me.  Severus has Floo powder, or you can send Twixie.  I've left vials of Pain Reliever, Fever Reducer, and another dose of Nerve Reliever as well as a Muggle thermometer. You know how to use one from last time, right?" Hagrid nodded.  "Good.  Give him water and infused chicken broth when he wakes up, but no solid food for a day or so, his system won't tolerate it. And tell him he is to stay in bed until I come back to check on him, which won't be till tomorrow morning, I have a ward full of sick students."

"I'll take care o' him, Poppy, don' worry."

She smiled at him.  "I know.  You always have." She straightened her cap and apron then said, "Well, I'm off to inform Albus of his spy's condition.  Merlin's Grace, but I'd like to shake some sense into him!"

She departed with a soft swish of her gray robes and Hagrid chuckled and pulled up a chair to sit beside Severus's bed.  "Poppy likes t' grumble, but she's a good soul," he told the hawk.  "She loves Severus like a son, y'know."

Freedom bobbed his head affirmatively, then hopped down to nestle beside the sleeping Potion Master, making soft kreeing noises, much as a mother would make to her nestlings to soothe and comfort them.  I see that now.  Together we shall help Severus heal.  Friends are the best medicine.

 

* * * * * *

Severus stirred, coming up out of his drugged sleep with a sharp gasp.  The first thing his eyes saw was his familiar, Freedom's eyes gazing into his own.  He almost smiled.  But the pain he was feeling wasn't conducive to that expression, nor was he accustomed to smiling much any longer.  Though once he used to smile quite frequently at Lily.  The second thing he realized was that he was lying on something soft, not the cold floor of the lounge in his quarters.  Very slowly, he turned his head, for even moving that much bloody hurt, and then he saw Hagrid.

The big man's eyes lit up when he saw that Severus was awake at last.

"Awake, are ye? Welcome back, Severus, lad."

Snape moistened his lips then managed to ask, "How long have I been . . .asleep?"

"Bout five or six hours now.  Poppy said you'd be out that long.  Not gonna bother askin' how yeh feel, ‘cause I can tell it's ruddy awful. Would you like something t'drink?"

Severus nodded, wincing.  This was probably the worst he'd ever felt after a session with Voldemort.  That he could remember anyhow.  He gritted his teeth as Hagrid gently slid an arm behind his head, helping him lift it enough so he didn't choke when Hagrid pressed the rim of the glass of water to Snape's lips and he swallowed.

The water tasted deliciously cool and bore a faint tang of lemon to it. 

"How's that?"

"Better," Severus said, speaking more clearly now that his throat wasn't dry.  "How did you find me?"

"Your familiar called Twixie, she called me, I called Poppy, an' here we are," Hagrid answered simply.

"Freedom called Twixie?"

"Sure did.  That's some hawk yeh got there, Severus."

I had to do something, Severus.  I thought you were dying and I . . .I didn't want to be alone again.

"Shh.  I told you I wasn't dying, foolish bird," murmured the Potions Master gruffly, though he was quite touched at the familiar's devotion.  Grimacing, he managed to lift a hand and brush the hawk's feathers. 

Freedom dipped his head so Severus could touch him easily, and Hagrid's jaw dropped.

"You can understand ‘im?  But how?"

"A potion.  It lets me communicate with hawks for four days."

Hagrid's bearded face split into a broad grin.  "But that's wonderful, Severus! Now yeh have someone to talk to that can answer you. That's grand, that is!"

Severus felt his mouth twitch slightly, for Hagrid's enthusiasm was infectious.  "It is, unless he's being a mouthy pain-in-the-arse."

Hey, remember this mouthy pain-in-the-arse saved your life.

Severus raised an eyebrow.  "Oh, really? Hagrid, how bad was it?"

"Bad enough, lad.  Poppy said ‘twas worse than last time.  She left me potions for you to take an' said you're not t' get out of bed till she comes back.  Gave me strict orders ‘bout it, an' I'm gonna make sure yeh follow ‘em."

Snape snorted, though the way he felt, he wasn't up to bucking either of his caretakers at the moment.  He might be proud, but he was not stupid.  And for Hagrid to start calling him ‘lad' again, the way he'd done when Severus was a student, meant he was very upset and concerned, since he had stopped doing that when Severus became a professor.  Which meant that his hawk was right. 

Severus moved his head slightly, and murmured, "Thank you, Freedom."

You're welcome.

Severus looked back at Hagrid.  "Who else knows besides you and Poppy?"

"The Headmaster. Poppy tol' him soon as she finished fixing you, an' he came here t'see fer himself.  Looked mighty upset, tried t' touch you, but your hawk-Freedom is it?-he nearly took Dumbledore's finger off. Can't figger out why."

Because it's HIS fault Severus is like this! hissed Freedom angrily.  He sent him back to that miserable viper!

"I agreed to go," Severus argued.  "You know why. You promised you would behave.  That is not what I call behaving."

I didn't really bite him.  Just scared him a little.

"Next time restrain yourself.  If you are able.  I have to work under him, and I do not want the Ministry ordering me to put you down because you are a menace, the way they made Hagrid do with Buckbeak, his hippogriff."

"Dumbledore would never order you t'kill your familiar, Severus," protested Hagrid.

"Albus might not, but there are others who would, should they learn of his tendency towards biting people's fingers," said the Potions Master severely. "Umbridge, for one.  She is a Ministry official through and through and I do not trust her."

I never even touched the old coot! I was defending you! And they'd kill me for that? Freedom squawked.  There's something seriously wrong with the people in charge here!

"Calm down.  No one is killing you.  Unless it's me, for making me deaf by screeching in my ear."

Oh.  Sorry.

"However, you are correct, the Ministry is not the brightest when it comes to policy regarding anything unusual or different and especially not when it comes to non-humans.  So, for your sake . . .and mine . . .keep your beak away from the Headmaster."

Okay, Severus, said Freedom meekly, and Snape gave the hawk a sharp glance.

The bird's sudden acquiescence made him suspicious, for the hawk was no meek familiar, but then he sighed, too tired to ponder about the hawk's behavior.  Perhaps the threat had scared some sense into the bird, though Severus doubted it.

"You'd do well to leave Umbridge be too, Freedom," Hagrid told the hawk.  "She don' seem like th' type to take t'animals.  Gives me th' creeps, she does."

Freedom just nodded, the mere mention of that name made him shiver, though he didn't know quite why.  But if Severus didn't like her, or Hagrid, than he was certain he wouldn't either. 

Abruptly, Hagrid recalled that he was supposed to give Snape the potions Poppy had left.  "Anyway, Dumbledore tol' me to tell yeh when you woke up that he was sorry you were hurt an' to get well soon.  An' you're due for more potions."

Snape glanced at the vials sitting upon his nightstand.  "A Pain Reliever, a Fever Reducer, and a Nerve Reliever, correct?"

Hagrid nodded, unsurprised that the Potions Master recognized the potions simply by looking at them.  Severus was known to be one of the best Potion Masters in Europe and he had an eidetic memory.  "Aye, lad.  Which one d'ye want first?"

Snape considered.

Let's see how well you take your medicine,  Freedom gloated.

Severus glared frostily at him, then replied, "The Nerve Elixir first."

"Right." Hagrid uncorked the vial. "Now, let's sit you up a bit." The big man gently eased Snape to a half-sitting position, supporting his head with one hand.

Snape tried to hold the vial himself, but his hand shook and he almost spilled the draft all over himself. He cursed silently, God but he hated being so helpless!

"Easy.  Let me help," Hagrid whispered, tilting the bottle, his hand over the professor's.

Severus gulped the potion down, grimacing, for it tasted terrible.  But he already had expected that.  No healing draft tasted good, since most herbs and ingredients for healing were bitter extracts. 

Which was why most witches dreaded giving medicine to their little children.

Hagrid gave him water afterwards, then Severus indicated he wished to take the Fever Reducer next. 

Half a glass of water later, he took the last potion.

He felt a sleepy lassitude drift through him, as the potions dulled the sharp pain again. 

Hagrid gently laid his head back down on the pillow.  "Would yeh like some broth? Poppy says you can have that an' water, but no solid food yet.  You'll sick up else."

"I know.  Later.  Tired."

An instant later the dark eyes closed and the Potions Master slept.

* * * * * *

Twixie came and brought Hagrid dinner and spelled him at Severus's bedside while the gamekeeper ate and also fed Freedom another two mice.  Then the big man returned to Severus watch, knowing that victims of the Cruciatus Curse often suffered nightmares after it. 

Sure enough, sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Severus began to thrash and moan, startling Freedom from his sleep upon the headboard. 

Hagrid awoke instantly and saw what was happening.  He went over to the bed and called Severus's name, knowing it was not good to touch him when he was like this.  "Severus? Come on, lad, wake up!"

Severus!

After a few minutes, the Potions Master woke, the voices of his friends penetrating the nightmare labyrinth he wandered in, the maze of bones and faces of all the innocents and those he loved that had died at the hands of the Dark Lord, all of them reaching out to him, screaming and begging for rescue, while he watched helplessly, eternally tormented.  "What? Where?"

"You were havin' a nightmare, but you're all righ' now."

"Oh." Severus scowled, furious at himself. 

Hagrid peered worriedly at him, noting the flush had returned to the pale cheeks.  "Looks like yeh got a fever again.  Let's take your temperature."  He picked up the thermometer Poppy had left and Severus opened his mouth.

A few minutes later, Hagrid removed it and nodded.  "Yup. 103 degrees.  I'll call Poppy, we need a stronger Fever Reducer."

"No," Severus said hoarsely, his dark eyes glassy but coherent.  "I have a stronger one here, in the bathroom cabinet, and Dreamless Sleep too."

"Oh.  Shoulda known that," rumbled the big man, and he rose to get the new potions.

After dosing his patient, he returned to his midnight vigil, gently bathing the Potion Master's face with a cool wet cloth.  Freedom hovered, watching worriedly. 

But Severus settled into sleep and slept peacefully until Poppy arrived the next morning to check upon him. 

His fever had broken by then and she pronounced him slowly mending, allowed him to walk as far as the bathroom, but after that told him to remain in bed and gave him more potions.  She also insisted he eat some chicken broth infused with a Nutrient Potion and a small piece of toast, as well as juice. 

Severus grumbled, but he obeyed, because he detested being so weak and he knew the quickest way to heal was to rest. 

Poppy raised an eyebrow and declared that his new familiar must be a good influence upon him, because normally he was hell on wheels to deal with when he was sick. 

Snape gave her a death glare for that comment, but Hagrid just chuckled and said, "Told you so, Poppy.  The best medicine fer what ails ya is a good friend.  Or a familiar."

"Hmmm.  Next time Mr. Potter shows up in the Hospital Wing, I'm fetching Hedwig from the Owlery. Then maybe he'll stay put for once.  He's always trying to get up too soon, like the professor. Thank you, Hagrid."

Severus scowled at his mentor, grumbling under his breath about being compared to "that damn brat, of all the nerve!"

The other two ignored him, for they knew what they had said was nothing but the truth. The Boy-Who-Lived and the snarky Potions Master were more alike than either of them would ever admit.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well, do you agree with Hagrid?

How did you like Poppy here?

Semperoccultus-the password to Snape's quarters means "always hidden". Next: Now that both our men are mending, it'll be time for Snape to remove the splints and for Freedom to finally fly. But is the bond between them strong enough to bring Freedom back to Severus once he flys free?



Chapter 10: Freedom's Flight
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Poppy insisted that Severus remain on bed rest all weekend and into Monday, so he had to cancel his afternoon classes with the fifth year Slytherins and Gryffindors, not that he really minded so much, since that particular class drove him to the edge of insanity sometimes, but he would never let her know that.  He grumbled and acted like it was a big imposition for him to be stuck in bed, resting and having nothing else to do but catch up on some recreational reading and talking with Freedom, whose wings were nearly healed. 

Poppy ignored his protests, saying sternly, "You'll do as I say, Severus Snape, and like it, because you know perfectly well that I'm right, and you would do the same to a student under your care."

Here she had him, for he was a medic, and would have prescribed the same treatment--rest, healthy food with lots of protein and vegetables, a potions regimen of Pain Relievers and Strengthening Elixirs and a willingness to cooperate with the Healer. 

"I can get you to do all those things save for the last one, Mr. Snape.  Your attitude leaves something to be desired," Poppy scolded lightly. 

That's for sure! He's always had a snarky attitude with people, Freedom said cheekily.

"Mind your own business, bird," Severus growled under his breath, then he turned back to the medi-witch.  "If I must stay in this blasted bed, I shall, and you needn't give me that look, Madam, I'm no longer a first year."

"Have I your word?"

The professor heaved a long suffering sigh.  "You do."

Poppy smiled.  "Good.  Now take this, it'll help with the tremors in your hands." She held out a vial of a white liquid, it was a healing potion designed to halt seizures and tremors resulting from strokes or other trauma. 

Severus looked at it in distaste, but he swallowed it.  The tremors were an after effect of the torture curse and sometimes took as long as a week or two to vanish completely, another reason why he was secretly glad he didn't have to return to class until Wednesday morning.  Shaking hands were a handicap he could not afford with his volatile fifth period class. 

Poppy left him alone then, and Severus summoned a book from his shelf and commenced reading.  It was an old favorite A Tale of Two Cities, despite what his students thought, he was not always reading about potions or ways to drive students crazy, and he liked reading classical Muggle literature and some mystery novels as well.

Freedom was perched upon the headboard, as was his wont while Severus was on bed rest.  Good book?

"Yes, though I have to admit, I haven't read it since I was fifteen.  Lily, who was my best friend in school, and Potter's mother, gave it to me as a birthday present," Severus said, opening it to the first page.

D'you mind reading it aloud? The hawk asked plaintively.

"Why?"

Umm . . .because I like to hear the sound of your voice, the hawk admitted.

Severus gave the bird an odd look.  "You like to hear the sound of my voice?"

Uh, yeah. It's like silk . . .very soothing.  You don't have to though,  the bird added, embarrassed suddenly.  Had he been human, he would have been cherry red.

"You are a very strange bird," his wizard chuckled.  "Very well. Funny, but Lily used to like to read aloud too . . ." He cleared his throat and began.  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ."

And so he passed the time, reading aloud Dickens and later Tolkien to his familiar, who listened attentively and interjected his own witty opinions whenever he felt like it.

They ranged from, Somebody should have plucked out that hag Madam DeFarge's eyeballs to Eagles are so overrated, Tolkien should have created a race of giant hawks to rescue Gandalf from the top of Isengard, we would have ripped Saruman a new arse.

"Merlin, but you are a bloodthirsty little beast! Where did you hear such language?"

You.  You told Hagrid that's what you wanted to do to the Dark Lord. And I'm not bloodthirsty,  I'm a hawk.  I hunt to survive.  What do you expect?

Severus did not answer, for the truth was he was no longer sure.  There were times he sometimes forgot he was talking to an animal and not a human, until Freedom reminded him of the fact with certain comments. 

Hagrid, Poppy, and the Headmaster all visited him off and on over the weekend.  Freedom was icily polite to Albus, he did not make any rude noises or try and nip the old wizard since promising Severus he would behave. 

Albus was puzzled by the bird's apparent coldness and said so.  "Funny, but animals usually like me."

Severus sighed.  "He's temperamental, Albus.  Most hawks are, you know.  They imprint upon one person and that's all.  They can take or leave anyone else."

"I see.  Well, I have brought you the latest copy of the paper, Severus.  And a box of chocolates.  I always find chocolates make me feel better when I am ill."

Severus thanked the Headmaster politely, waiting until the old wizard had gone before eating any.   

And that was not the only surprise.  Some of his Slytherins got wind that he was sick, Poppy had told certain people that Snape was suffering from a severe case of wizard flu, and the students, mostly girls, sent him Get Well cards and sweets.  One even had the temerity to send him a package of Blood Pops. 

Severus snorted.  "Ah.  It would seem the old rumor that I am a vampire is alive and well."

Why would they think that? queried his familiar, grooming his talons.

"Because I usually prefer black, am pale, tend to wander about at night, and am sharp tempered." Severus said with a smirk.  "Some students fear me, and vampires are feared too."

But that's ridiculous! Don't vampires drink blood? And everyone's seen you eat at the staff table and walk outside in the sun.  It makes no sense.

"Rumors are not founded on logic, Freedom, that s why they are rumors," Severus told him.  "Don't worry, I am used to that particular one.  Along with the greasy git and the dungeon bat. It helps my persona as a supposed Death Eater."

Oh, the bird said, then resumed grooming, but Severus's words upset him.  He dimly recalled yet another time, when a red-headed boy pointed at Severus when his back was turned and laughed, "Too bad Snape couldn't do us a favor, the bloody greasy git, and drop dead one night next to his cauldron!"  For some reason he could recall almost agreeing with the other boy, and that really bothered him, because Severus had saved his life and was kind to him and never shouted or tried to hurt him the way the loud man or the fat boy did in his dreams.

Of late, his dreams had become more and more disturbing, but he did his best to push them aside, for he needed all his strength to get his wings healed completely. 

He nibbled gently at the bandages that bound his wings and was promptly scolded by Severus.

"Freedom! You know those have to stay on another five days! Now leave them be."

Fine! I wasn't going to just rip them off.  But I want to fly so bad, Severus.  I feel like a . . .a rat, creeping along on the ground like this.  I need the sky.

The longing in the hawk's tone was unmistakable.

Severus beckoned the hawk to him.  "Come here." Freedom hopped down to his shoulder, careful not to grip hard, since Severus was only wearing cotton pajamas.  One long-fingered hand gently rubbed the hawk's breast.  "I know, but you must be patient a little longer, my friend.  You will have the sky again.  Just wait."

It's hard.  Sometimes I feel as if I shall go mad.

"I know how you feel.  Trapped in this bed for three days is not pleasant either, no matter what I read or how many visitors I get," the wizard said, a sympathetic note in his voice.  "But such is life.  All we can do is grit our teeth and bear it."  He continued stroking the hawk until the bird lowered his head and dozed lazily. "The splints should come off soon, my rebellious fledgling, and then we can begin short training flights with a lure to strengthen them again before you fly free for real."

I can't wait, murmured the hawk sleepily, nestling against Severus's head.

"Neither can I," Snape admitted, for he had longed to see a red-tailed hawk fly ever since he was a small boy.

Five more days and the waiting would be over at last.

Severus dozed as well, and when Twixie came in to see if he wanted anything for lunch, she found her master and his familiar sound asleep, dreaming of soaring upon the wind.

* * * * * *

But at last Severus was well enough to resume his teaching duties, and he allowed Hagrid to take Freedom on short excursions outdoors while he taught, getting the bird accustomed to the air and open sky and sun again.  Freedom drank in the sun and the feel of the wind ruffling his feathers and his longing to fly increased tenfold.

He grew restless, and began to eat ravenously, his appetite sparked by the promise of flying, Severus now fed him a half a rabbit for a meal, or two mice, or a duck quarter.  Every morning he now pestered the Potions Master with the same questions, Will the splints come off today? Can I fly now?

And every day the answer was, "No."

Until a sunny Saturday morning in late January.  Severus cast a diagnostic over the hawk, the way he did nearly every morning. 

Well? Can I fly today?

"Yes.  Now hold still while I remove the Sticking Charm on your wings," Severus ordered, waving his wand.

The bandages fell away and the splints dropped off to lie on the table. 

Freedom gave a soft cry of delight.  My wings! I can MOVE then again!

He half spread them, crying aloud in joy.

Severus grabbed the jesses.  "Easy.  Don't go anywhere.  Let me see those flight primaries first." He gently extended first one wing and then the other, making sure all the hawk's feathers were whole and not missing or broken.

Freedom huffed and nibbled at his hand.  They're fine.  They just itch.

"Hush." Severus poked at them gently, verifying that they were whole.

Freedom began to preen them vigorously. 

Once the bird had finished cleaning the wings, Severus took him on his fist, grabbed up the lure and a falconer's whistle, a bag of small pieces of meat, plus a 50 foot creance line, and said, "We're going out, and I'm going to let you fly a short distance on the line and then come back to me.  You need to build up strength in those wings before I let you fly alone."

Aww, but Severus! I'm not a dog. I don't need a leash.

"Right now you do.  The line is there as much for me as you.  If you start to falter, I can help you before you fall."

My wings are healed, so why should I fall?

"Not quite.  Now quit complaining.  Let's go outside."

Severus walked briskly out the secret tunnel near his quarters and from there to the secret glade that he used as a refuge during his schooldays.  The little glade was still the same, surrounded by screening vines on one side and oaks but otherwise it was open to the sky. 

Freedom trembled upon the Potion Master's wrist, his wings unfurling slightly.  They were a deep brown, with a creamy white underside barred with black.  The wind swirled through the trees lazily and the hawk tilted his head and for the first time in two weeks allowed the wild urging to fly stir in his blood.  Severus, when can I fly?

"Wait a bit." Severus said, snapping the creance line to the swivel attached to the jesses.  Then he hung the whistle around his neck, a falconer usually used the whistle to call the bird he hunted in, or to reinforce certain positive behaviors.  "I want you to listen to me carefully.  I think flying for fifteen minutes at first is enough, you don't want to strain those wing muscles too much, and when I blow this whistle twice, I want you to come down and land on my wrist.  Then I'll examine you and if you seem all right, you can return to the air for another fifteen minutes.  All right?"

Freedom considered, then nodded.  Okay.  Now can I fly, Severus?

In answer, Severus lifted his arm and tossed Freedom up into the air.

The hawk instinctively spread his wings and in a second had caught an updraft and was flying straight up into the sky, shrilling a red-tail's distinctive kree-eear in rapture. 

Severus felt his mouth start to turn upwards in a smile at the bird's pure unadulterated pleasure, and he carefully played out the creance line, it would go to a maximum length of 50', which was all Severus wished for Freedom to fly that day. 

The hawk paid the line barely any attention, save to notice that it was there, he was too involved in feeling the wind beneath his wings again and experiencing the adrenaline surge that always came when he flew.  His broad wings were made for swooping and gliding and circling lazily on air currents above prey. 

His amber eyes could see everything that happened below him in the glade, down to the mouse that crept from its burrow behind Severus and was nibbling an acorn, unaware that a predator lurked above. Freedom tensed.

Though the young hawk had never hunted anything, the instinct to do so was strong in him, and he circled and watched the mouse for an endless two minutes, the urge to attack growing in his breast until he could not ignore it any longer.

He plummeted from the sky, talons outstretched, in a dive so unbelievably quick that Severus nearly missed it. 

"Freedom!" The Potions Master cried in alarm, thinking the hawk was falling at first, whirling about in a panic, only to realize that the hawk was not in danger, but hunting.

The mouse squeaked and tried to bolt for cover, but few things can match a diving red-tail, and Freedom's talons soon made an end of the foolish mouse. 

Freedom stood over the dead mouse, one talon raised and screeched in triumph.  I did it! I killed a mouse myself! Did you see, Severus?

"Well done!" praised the Potions Master, coming over and smiling quietly down at the bird.  "Will you eat it now or shall we save it for later, as a snack?"

Freedom considered the question for about two seconds before he began tearing the mouse apart.  The flight, short as it was, had made him very hungry, and he was quite proud of himself for having caught his own dinner for once.  I can hunt! I can fly! Just like a real hawk, he thought in satisfaction, gulping down the warm meat. 

He polished off the mouse in a matter of minutes, then scraped his talons and beak clean on a nearby oak tree. 

Then he launched himself into the air again and flew delighted circles above Severus's head until the Potions Master blew the whistle twice. 

Though he was reluctant to leave the sky, Freedom obeyed the whistle, because he could feel his wings beginning to grow heavy.  He glided down in small spirals until he landed with a light thump on the Potion Master's outthrust fist.

But the edge of his talon got caught in the leather gauntlet and he almost fell off.  He flapped his wings hard, and Severus caught him with his other hand before he could have an accident, pushing him gently upright until he managed to secure himself properly upon the gauntlet.

"Easy.  Don't be in such a hurry."

The hawk looked a bit embarrassed ducking his head slightly.  Merlin, but that was dumb! he hissed. My talon got caught.

"I know.  Even so, you did very well for your first time." Severus cast a diagnostic, then told Freedom that everything was healed and normal. Freedom chirred in happiness.

Does that mean I can fly whenever I want?

"Not quite yet, my friend.  You need to build up strength in those wings muscles again before I let you fly free. That's why I have the falconry equipment, so that I can help you exercise those primaries and so forth."

Severus gently felt along each wing, trying to see if there was any swelling along the wing joints, but the muscles felt fine.  "We'll have short flights like this one every day, perhaps during the early morning is best, that ought to build up the muscle tone you've lost by being injured."

For how long? Freedom demanded.  Having rediscovered the sky, he was not eager to relinquish it again, even if what Snape said made sense. 

"A week should be sufficient," came the wizard's reply. 

Freedom clicked his beak irritatedly, but did not protest.  He knew better than to whine about one of Snape's dictates, the professor detested whining.  All right.  So long as I can fly for a little bit, I guess I can wait that long.

Snape's eyebrow rose.  "Thank you, Majesty, for your approval," he said sarcastically.  "Not that I need it.  As your falconer and caretaker, I am responsible for your health, and I will not risk you tearing tendons because you are too impatient to allow your wings time to adjust to flying."

The hawk huffed.   I said I'd be careful, Severus.  No need to go all overprotective on me.

"I was not being overprotective, merely stating a fact," Severus said abruptly.

Sure you were.

Severus ignored that comment, then decided to tell Freedom a bit more about the glade, hoping to settle the hawk somewhat.  He kept glancing towards the sky.  "This glade we're in is special to me.  It was a safe haven for me during school, when I was the target of bullies, and I also shared it with my best friend, Lily.  We used to come here to study and I always found my way here when I was upset, just sitting here made me feel better.  There is something serene and calming about this place, and that hasn't changed since I was a boy," the Potions Master remarked, sitting down upon the soft grass.

Freedom relaxed, allowing the strange serenity to infuse his soul, which still had raw hurting patches deep inside it, and half-dozed in the sun, letting the rays penetrate all through his feathers and into his muscles. 

Severus watched the hawk, a crooked smirk upon his face, secretly pleased that the hawk was able to take to the sky again.   When he had thrown the hawk from his fist, he had been quietly praying that the hawk would be able to remain aloft, and to his everlasting satisfaction, Freedom had.  It was one of the few times that Snape could ever recall being proud of himself.  He was a born perfectionist, and he was his own worst critic.  There had been a kernel of doubt within his heart, he had feared that something unforeseen would occur and Freedom would never be able to fly right, or at all.  But the hawk's breathtaking ascension had laid to rest that doubt once and for all, and Severus quietly permitted himself a tiny smile of triumph. 

It felt good, to have saved a life, instead of watching one perish.  For once the burden of guilt he bore felt lighter, and he hoped this night he would dream of Freedom flying, instead of those he had failed to save from the Dark Lord's clutches.

* * * * * *

 During the next week, while the fifth-years prepared for their upcoming OWLS, and also spawned tons of rumors as to the whereabouts of the missing Harry Potter, each morning Severus would take Freedom to the glade and fly him for short intervals, though as the week went on, he allowed the hawk longer flights.  Sometimes Hagrid accompanied him on these trips, delighted with the hawk's recovery. 

He taught Severus how to use the lure to coax the soaring hawk back down to the earth.  The lure was a long leather string which had a bit of wood with feathers attached at the end of it.  Hagrid tied a bit of raw meat to it as well and coaxed the hawk to investigate by spinning it in a circle, since raptors hunted by spotting motion along the ground.  "Y'should always feed him a little before you fly, but not too much. Yeh want ‘im a little hungry, so he'll come in to the lure and be glad for the treat you give him as a reward."

It was paramount that the hawk receive positive reinforcement each time he answered Severus's whistle or lure, for a hawk, unlike a dog, would never stay where it wasn't wanted, or where it was mistreated.  Not that Severus ever entertained thoughts of mistreating his familiar.  During the weeks he had acquired the hawk, he had become unusually fond of the bird, until he found it hard to remember what it had been like before Freedom had come into his life.  Lonely and bitter, he thought, and then pushed away that introspection, preferring to concentrate on learning how to man Freedom, which was a falconer called it when you acclimated and trained a bird to hunt for you.

Because of the bond, and the Hawk Speak potion, which Severus repeatedly dosed himself with, Freedom was quick to learn whatever the pair wished to teach him.  He loved the treats of rabbit, pigeon, and chicken, but he discovered he enjoyed Severus's approval even more than the food.  The wizard's quiet "Well done!" or "Good job!" or affectionate rub across chest or crest fulfilled some unnamed need deep inside the young hawk, a longing he never even knew he possessed until now. 

Before Severus, no one ever really noticed if I did well or not, or if they did, I can't remember it. And in the dreams he could remember, the loud man was now joined by a shrill woman and a whiny fat boy and they were always yelling at him and saying he was a good-for-nothing freak who deserved to be dead.  He had tentatively shared one of the episodes with his wizard master, and Severus had surmised that the people might have been Freedom's former owners, and if that had been the case, Freedom should be glad he was no longer in their care. 

"And lucky that I don't know who they are or where they live, or else they would quickly find out what happens to ignorant wicked slobs who mistreat my familiar," Severus said grimly, and his eyes spat icy contempt and dark fury and the hawk was very glad he was not Snape's enemy. 

Freedom learned to "wait on" Severus, which meant circling over the wizard, waiting for his whistle to stoop at the lure, later Severus would use this same behavior when hunting live quarry, conditioning the young tierce to be patient and not strike too quickly at prey, therefore ensuring a successful hunt.  Most hawks caught a quarry two or three times out of five attempts, but the ratio went up when working together with a falconer. 

Freedom loved flying at the lure, binding to it tightly and then gobbling the tidbit at the end.  Sometimes Severus would cast it wide, requiring Freedom to soar up high and then stoop, or close to him, requiring the hawk to glide and circle more precisely.  Several times at the beginning of the week, Freedom would miss the lure, being too impatient, but by week's end, the hawk was stooping to the lure like a shot, and hitting it every time.

Severus made a kind of game to it, using a longer lure and seeing how many times the hawk could bind it in a ten minute span while spinning it quickly or slowly, farther and nearer.  Freedom's accuracy was astounding, the hawk even managed to catch the lure in midair a few times, making Hagrid grin.

"That's a canny hunter ye've got there, Severus.  Not many hawks can do that on the fly, young as that one is."

Severus felt an unaccustomed jolt of pride at Hagrid's words, almost like a parent would when he hears someone praise his child for performing brilliantly at sports. "Yes, he's an excellent flyer.  I think he's nearly ready for me to loose him."

Freedom glided lazily above them, waiting for Severus to cast the lure.  The repeated exercise and fresh air had caused the hawk to gain weight and his deep brown feathers were glossy and shiny with good health. 

Hagrid peered up at the hawk and nodded.  "Yup.  Nice bloom on'im too.  He's come a long way, Severus."

"That he has," agreed the wizard, eying the raptor fondly. "A very long way from the half-dead bundle of feathers I found in the grass that evening."

Hey! Quit talking and cast already, Sev!

"Keep your feathers on," Severus called back, rolling his eyes. He began to whirl the lure about his head and then down towards the ground.   The bird now referred to him as Sev, ever since the Potions Master had confessed one lazy morning that Lily used to call him that.  It had been years since he'd been addressed that way, but Snape found he did not mind the bird using the shortened form, because he considered Freedom as much of a friend as he ever had Lily. 

He blew the whistle, signaling that Freedom could stoop.

The hawk closed his wings and dived, opening them an instant before he reached the feathered lure and grabbing it solidly with his talons.  Ha! Got it in one again!  He quickly bent his head and ate the tidbit of raw chicken at the end of the lure, his reward for hitting the target successfully. 

Hagrid and Severus exchanged glances.  Yes, the young tiercel was ready to fly free.

"Tomorrow," Severus announced.  "Tomorrow, I'm going to release him." He frowned.  "I just hope he decides to return instead of flying off."

"Oh, he'll return to yeh, Severus.  That bird has the tightest bond with you I've ever seen."

"How do you know? I have never had a familiar and no one here has ever had a hawk either."

Hagrid shrugged.  "Dunno.  But my gut tells me Freedom won't leave you.  Not even for the open sky.  He might fly away, but he'll always come back.  His home is here, with you."

Severus hoped Hagrid was right.

* * * * * *

Snape slept restlessly that night, dreaming of removing the creance line and giving the hawk his freedom, only to watch the bird fly away, never to be seen again.  You see? taunted a small insecure voice.  It does not matter how much time and effort you put into something or someone, they all leave you in the end.  Eileen, Lily, and now Freedom.  And then you are alone, like always, Severus Snape.

He woke feeling slightly nauseous, but a quick glance at the bird lying beside his head soon restored his equilibrium.  Since regaining the use of his wings, Freedom often chose to sleep near Severus at night, instead of on his perch in the lounge.  Usually, the bird slept on the headboard above, but occasionally Snape found him nestled on the extra pillow beside his head, like a hen roosting.

Lying down was not something a hawk did very often, but when they did, it meant they were very relaxed and calm, and trusted utterly that they were safe and not likely to be attacked. 

Seeing the bird display such trust in him soon had Snape banishing the butterflies in his stomach and falling asleep again a few minutes later.

Hawk and wizard both awoke at precisely the same instant, and Severus greeted his familiar with a cordial, "Good morning.  Are you ready to fly free at last?"

Freedom mantled, stretching out a wing and a foot on the same side, then repeating it for the opposite side, before replying, I've been ready for that weeks ago, Sev! Hurry up and get dressed, the sky is calling.

Severus managed a small smile at the bird's enthusiasm and obeyed his familiar for once.

Freedom ate the pieces of pheasant Severus gave him before coming quickly to his fist and sitting quietly. 

"I'm going to hood you for a bit, just in case something startles you.  I don't want you flying into a wall," Severus said, removing the hood from its place upon the shelf above the perch.

I'd never fly into the wall on purpose! What d'you think I am, dumb?

"No, but Peeves has been lurking about lately, and he is fond of making loud noises and scaring the snot out of first years.  And other unsuspecting people and birds."

Humph! I'm not afraid of no ghost! Freedom said indignantly, then gave in at Snape's stern glare, lowering his head submissively and allowing the professor to place the hood over it.

The act of hooding the hawk gave Severus time to compose himself, for he was starting to feel nervous again, but he made himself walk out of his quarters and down the path to the glade. 

It was quite early in the morning, the first rays of the sun had just barely tinted the sky a rosy pink and the air was crisp and a bit chilly.  Snape wrapped his black cloak about himself and walked briskly into the center of the glade.  "We're here," he informed the silent tiercel.

Then he slipped off the hood, and Freedom looked about.

A quiver of longing raced through the unbound hawk.  Can I fly, Severus?

Snape swallowed hard.  This was the moment of truth. 

He cast the hawk from his fist. 

Freedom soared into the vast vault of the sky, higher and higher, until he vanished into the trees. 

The Potions Master gasped, for watching the hawk fly was like seeing a piece of his soul take wing.  It was breathtaking and humbling and at the same time terrifying, for now the hawk was free to do as he chose. 

Severus shielded his eyes with a hand, but he could not see where the red-tail had gone.  He felt his stomach turn over and he suddenly wished he had never agreed to allow the hawk off the line.  What if Hagrid were mistaken and the bond was not enough to call the bird back? There would be nothing Severus could do if the hawk chose not to return.  He gripped the lure in wooden fingers and fought to keep from pacing about the glade. 

Thirty minutes.  I'll give him thirty minutes before I call him in.  And then we'll see what's more important to him, my friendship or flying.  His hand clenched upon the leather strap.  I gave my word, and I could not be foresworn.  All I can do is wait.

* * * * * *

 Freedom caught an updraft and rode it straight into the heart of the sun, or so it seemed.  It was pure bliss to simply fly as high and as fast as he wished and not have to be tethered to anything.  All that mattered was the wind and he allowed himself to become one with it, and it danced and swirled about him, making him giddy. 

He circled and glided, enjoying the sensation of being free to go where he wished for once, with no one to summon him back.  He peered down and saw Hogwarts far below, and the dot that was the Black Lake shrouded in morning mist.  The castle looked so tiny from up here and the lake was a mere dot in a green landscape.  All was still, the larks and sparrows and robins had halted and frozen when he had taken wing, and now the only sound was the soft whisper of the wind and the slap of water against the shore as the wind ruffled the surface of the lake. 

The red-tailed hawk began to circle over the lake, his sharp eyes had caught a hint of a tentacle upon the surface, as the giant squid awakened to bask in the sunshine.  An imp of mischief stirred in Freedom's breast, and the hawk mentally calculated how fast he would have to be to tag the squid before it went beneath the water again. 

He circled higher, then began flying as swiftly as he dared on a diagonal trajectory.

He skimmed over the dark water, his talons barely scraping the surface, giving a hawk's sharp cry of warning, and then he rose into the air like a streak of light and his talons closed ever-so-gently over the squid's tentacle. 

Got you! Surprise!

The squid splashed in shock, jerking back beneath the water.

Freedom shrilled a victory cry and climbed into the sky again, his wings shimmering like some magical creature as the sun hit the droplets of water upon them. 

Kreee-aar!

He knew it was foolish to announce his presence like that, he would warn all the prey in a ten meter radius that a red-tail hawk was lurking, but he couldn't resist.

He was so full of joy it was impossible to keep it contained and he had never been one for dignity anyhow. 

Up and up he flew, in a dizzying ecstatic spiral, his heart thundering in time to his wingbeats, riding the wind expertly.  He did not know how he knew how to do it, but he allowed his conscious mind to slip away for a bit and then instinct took over, and suddenly the wind was his to command.

He looped and dove, startling a flock of geese migrating south, they honked at him in disapproval, calling him a rude brat, but he merely flipped his tail at them and shot away, laughing insolently. 

I am Freedom and I can fly faster than any of you! Catch me if you can!

He blurred, flying at his fastest speed, which was close to fifty-five miles per hour, since he was an Animagus, he could fly faster than an ordinary hawk, shaped as he was by magic, and he was also slightly stronger as well. 

He slingshot around a gray mountain peak and then headed back towards the castle, eyes alert for anything moving upon the ground. 

Suddenly, his eyes caught a flicker of movement, and he homed in upon it.

It was a rabbit, just emerging from its burrow, pink nose twitching.

Freedom rode an air current down slowly, circling silently. 

The rabbit sniffed, then began to hop cautiously away, nibbling on some bitter grass. 

Freedom, recalling his lessons from Severus, hovered, allowing the rabbit to get a good distance from his home before he stooped. 

But the rabbit was quicker than the lure and it bolted. 

Freedom's talons just grazed its back, ripping away a tuft of fur, and then it was gone, racing back towards its burrow.

Freedom pursued, but it was too quick and the last glimpse he had was of its bushy tail vanishing down the rabbit hole.

Aww, blast! Missed!

The tiercel beat his wings hard, flying back up some thirty feet, a little disappointed at having been outsmarted by a rabbit, but his delight at being able to fly soon squelched those feelings.

He flew loops about Gryffindor and Ravenclaw Tower, and buzzed the Owlery, waking some of the owls, who hooted at him crossly to go and play somewhere else, you blasted nuisance!

Freedom ignored them, they were just being grumpy crosspatches and unappreciative of the beautiful day. 

He slowed, cruising leisurely, suddenly tired from his mad dash across the sky.  The sun was marvelously warm upon his back and he hovered, allowing it to seep into his bones.  He felt wonderfully relaxed and calm, though his stomach was grumbling a little. 

Then a shrill whistle, almost too shrill to be heard by the human ear, split the air.

Freedom jerked and spun about on a wingtip.

Huh? That sounded like Severus. 

Only then did he recall that he had left the black-robed wizard alone in the glade. 

He climbed higher, heading for the dark green splotch that was the Forbidden Forest.

* * * * * *

Severus put the whistle to his lips and blew.

He waited a minute, his eyes scanning the sky.

No Freedom.

The sky was empty save for the occasional cloud scudding by.

Severus felt his heart sink. 

The hawk was gone. 

He blew again.

Still nothing.

Two minutes went by. 

Bitter disappointment raged through him, making his stomach churn.

I should have known it was too good to be true.  He's not coming back.  He's off miles away from here, flying free as he was meant to, and he's forgotten all about me.  He doesn't need me, he can hunt for himself, he'll find a wild hawk for a mate and never care about the stupid wizard who mended his wings, except to tell his fledglings about me one day . . .

Snape shook his head, his jaw clenching.  I was a fool, hoping that he would stay with me.  

He cast his gaze upward again, a part of him still daring to hope . . .

And then Freedom burst into view, his beautiful wings glistening as the sun shone upon them. 

Severus whirled the lure overhead, praying the hawk would remember his training and what they had shared.

The red-tail circled.

Then he stooped, blurring past the lure, to alight on Severus's fist in a thunder of wings.

Hi, Sev! I had such an incredible morning! It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

Snape stared at the hawk, too relieved to say anything. 

Freedom turned his head, looking the Potions Master right in the eye.

Uh, Severus? Are you okay? You have the weirdest look on your face.

"You . . .came back."

Of course.  Why wouldn't I? I belong here, with you.  Freedom cocked his head in puzzlement.  I'm starving! Got any rabbit?

Snape blinked dazedly, the sudden revelation making him slightly lightheaded.  Freedom had returned to him.  The bond had held.  The hawk had chosen him over the wild.  He was Snape's true familiar. 

Severus! Hello! Got any rabbit or chicken in that pouch of yours? Because all that flying really worked up an appetite and I don't feel like hunting right now, so can you please give me some?  Before I pass out from hunger?

Severus fumbled with the pouch at his waist, at last removing several large chunks of chicken.  He held them out to the hungry hawk and then he did something he rarely ever did, something that would have stunned half of the student body at Hogwarts. 

Severus looked at his familiar and grinned, and it transformed the cynical face into one, that, for an instant, was joyful and innocent, as he had been long ago when he had loved a certain red-haired witch.

A heartbeat later it was gone, and the snarky mask was back in its place, but Freedom had seen and would remember it with astonishment, though he would not understand why until two weeks later.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Lots of new falconry terms!

Tiercel-a male hawk or falcon

stoop-the act of diving from on high to the lure or prey

wait on-a hawk circling over the falconer, waiting for the signal to strike at the lure or prey

bind- to grab hold tightly with talons, as to a fist or prey

canny-smart or knowing-Scots dialect

bloom-refers to a hawk's good health, shiny feathers and alertness

I hope you all enjoyed Freedom's flight as much as he and Sev did.

Thanks to all my wonderful reviewers, guess I can't say that enough!

Harry will regain the bulk of his memories in two or three chapters, but won't transform back for awhile because it's fun being a hawk and he's going to learn some rather upsetting things about his former life.

Next: Severus takes Freedom to a staff dinner, where his familiar meets Umbridge and learns of the Ministry policy to ignore the return of Voldemort and other disturbing things.



Chapter 11: Hawk For Dinner
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After Freedom's flight, Severus was no longer fearful the hawk would leave him, and so he allowed Freedom to hack, which in falconer parlance meant to give the bird total freedom to come and go as he pleased, without restraint. Severus removed the jesses, instead making a small silver bracelet which he bound about Freedom's right ankle. The bracelet had Freedom's name and on the back Hogwarts, SS. This was just in case Freedom happened to run into any unscrupulous hunters during his treks into the wild, the men would know this was a captive hawk and not a wild one. Unknown to the tiercel, Severus had also spelled a Fetching charm into it, so if Freedom were ever in danger the charm would activate and bring Freedom home to Severus. The Fetching charm was not considered Apparition, since it was used to transport objects and animals mostly, though it was in the same group of transportation charms. Severus never wanted to go through the anguish of having the hawk so badly injured again, and this was one way he could prevent that.

The hawk could be seen at various times of the day upon Snape's person, usually riding on his shoulder, where Snape had attached a reinforced leather pad so Freedom could perch without fear of harming his wizard or putting holes in Snape's robes. Severus also wore a modified gauntlet upon his left wrist, one that left his fingers free to hold a wand or stir a cauldron, but which Freedom could sit on if he chose.

While Snape was teaching, however, Freedom often chose to be out hunting or flying, since many times the potions Severus's classes were brewing were not good for a hawk to be exposed to. Freedom did not mind, he loved being able to fly whenever he chose, and could often be seen circling lazily above the turrets of the castle, stooping occasionally to catch the occasional mouse or unwary bird.

He was an astonishingly good hunter for such a young bird, though he didn't need to hunt all that much, since Severus would always have food for him if he happened to miss his quarry. Still, he enjoyed the pursuit of duck or mouse or rabbit, and preferred to catch his own breakfast or lunch if possible. Dinner he always had with Severus in the Potion Master's quarters, he preferred the quiet of the suite of rooms to the noisy Great Hall.

While flying about the castle, however, he overheard several disturbing rumors concerning the still missing Harry Potter. The most prevalent of these said that Harry had finally gone completely over the edge and either offed himself or gotten himself captured by followers of You-Know-Who.

Draco Malfoy insisted that Potter was too much of a coward to end his own life, and said he was probably hiding somewhere like a terrified baby, praying that You-Know- Who, if he really had returned from the dead like Potter claimed, never found him. "Always knew he'd crack under the pressure," Malfoy boasted. "Comes from being a half-blood, inferior stock, you know."

Freedom considered dive bombing the arrogant twerp, then wondered what kind of trouble the boy would be in if Snape or Poppy ever heard that remark, since they were both half-bloods. Malfoy would doubtless be scrubbing bedpans in the Hospital Wing without magic for a fortnight, and that was in addition to the detention he was still serving for almost killing Freedom and breaking into Snape's lab.

But neither of them were around at the moment, and so the hawk decided to teach the arrogant prig a lesson, he had never really forgiven Malfoy for pushing him off the perch when he was helpless.

He swooped down on the boy as he made his way to the greenhouse for Herbology, making Malfoy screech and cower, one hand thrust over his face.

"Ahhh! Crazy bastard! Get off!"

Freedom snatched several hairs from the boy's head, a playful if rather painful gesture.

Malfoy drew his wand, yelling he was going to hex the damn hawk into pieces, but Crabbe yanked his arm down.

"You crazy, Draco? You forgetting just whose familiar he is? Snape will kill you quick as blinking."

"I don't care! The bloody bird's a menace!" shouted the irate pureblood. "It ought to be stuffed and mounted on a wall."

Freedom circled, having no trouble overhearing the sneering threat. Stuffed and mounted, eh? And you're no better than a portable post for bird droppings, Malfoy!

He zoomed straight towards the blond, thinking wicked thoughts.

An instant later, Draco felt something wet upon his shoulder.

"What the . . .arghh!" He brushed frantically at his robes with a handkerchief, but that only served to spread the mess all over. "You bloody son-of-a-bitch! Just you wait, hawk!" He shook a fist at the sky, where a tiny dark dot could be seen high above.

Crabbe was covering his mouth with a hand, snickering uncontrollably.

Draco glared at his friend, furious. "What are you laughing at? Think it's funny, do you, Crabbe?"

"Uh . . .well . . .you have to admit, you did have it coming, Draco. After all, you nearly killed him."

"Shut up, Crabbe! You turning into some kind of pansy-arsed hawk lover now thanks to Snape's stupid detentions? Want to go all touchy feely and help the animals now?"

Crabbe glared at the other. "So what? It's better than hexing them till they die or whatever."

Draco rolled his eyes. "God, but you're going soft, Vince! Your da won't be too pleased if he hears that."

Crabbe paled, then said, "He isn't pleased with anything I do these days, Malfoy, so what does it matter? Come on, let's get to class, before we're late and Sprout takes points."

They resumed walking towards the greenhouse, while above a certain hawk mused upon their words and thought that perhaps Crabbe wasn't as bad as he had first thought, despite being best mates with Malfoy. At least he seemed capable of remorse and was taking the lesson Severus taught him to heart.

Perhaps not all Slytherins were bad, he mused, then wondered why he would have thought that. The Slytherins he had met in the common room during the all-House meeting had seemed nice enough for humans, properly respectful towards their Head of House and indignant and angry at his own mistreatment at Malfoy's hands as well as willing to mete out justice to one of their own.

And yet . . .and yet . . .a picture flashed into his brain-the same red-haired boy who had made the nasty comment about wishing Severus dead had told him, "Don't associate with Slytherins, that's the House You-Know-Who came from, and nearly every dark wizard since has been a Slytherin."

But that was wrong, for he had seen for himself that the Slytherins were not all of a piece, that there were good members as well as bad. And Slytherin might have had the worst of the bad wizards, but it also has one of the best, my wizard, Severus Snape. He risks his life to protect us and no one even knows . . .of the students, I mean. If they did, would they call him the greasy git, or the bat of the dungeon still? Somehow, I think not.

But he knew that what Severus did had to be kept secret, else his life would be in jeopardy, more than it already was. And Freedom was not willing to risk the Black Protector's life for the sake of a reputation. Someday though, perhaps it would be safe for Snape to reveal what he had been doing all these years, and then maybe he would at last be appreciated instead of reviled. Freedom wondered how long it would be till that happened, then decided it didn't really matter, time was relative to a hawk.

He flew across the lake and back, playing among the air currents, until he felt his stomach growl, then he headed back to the castle, his internal time sense telling him it was almost time for dinner and Severus should have finished with his last class.

Freedom flew gracefully through the halls, he was by now such a familiar sight (no pun intended), that students hardly remarked upon him any longer when they spotted him. A few of them were wary of him, those who had an unnatural fear of flying creatures or who thought that as Snape's familiar he was bad tempered, but most knew the hawk wouldn't bother them and treated him the way they would a school owl.

He knew his way back and forth to the dungeons and Severus's quarters by now, since hawks possessed a homing instinct similar to a pigeon's, and he had no fear of getting lost, even in a castle the size of Hogwarts. His sharp eyes soon caught sight of the Potions Master emerging from his classroom, even from over three meters away, and he quickened his flight, making an odd sort of chuffing noise to greet the professor and also warn him that he was coming in for a landing.

Severus looked up and held out his wrist in invitation.

Freedom glided in for a neat-footed bind a second later.

"Good afternoon. I hope your day has gone better than mine has," Severus confided in a bare whisper. "The little dunderheads were really testing me today. I narrowly averted a fire and three exploded cauldrons and have now issued five detentions and taken a total of sixty points, twenty from each of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. Plus I had to lecture three of my own House for doodling in their notebooks and talking about their significant others instead of paying attention to my assignments. Teenagers!"

Sounds like the day from hell, the hawk said with a sympathetic screech.

"And it's about to get worse, unfortunately," Severus said, unlocking the door to his quarters. Once he and the hawk were safely inside, the Potions Master slipped off his professor's robes, which were of heavy duty cotton made to be stain and tear resistant and also spelled to repel most spilled potion ingredients, and hung them up on a hook on the wall, then toed off his boots and padded over to the couch to sit down.

"Twixie," he called.

"What can I do for you, Master Severus?" the house elf asked, popping into the room.

"I would like a tall glass of ice water with lemon. I have nearly lost my voice today from scolding those blasted brats." He shook his head in disgust.

"Right away, sir."

The elf vanished, and Snape rubbed his temples, knowing that part of the reason his voice was so hoarse was from the Hawk Speak Elixir. As yet, no down had appeared on him, but he knew that would probably occur next, but he did not wish to halt taking the draft, he enjoyed speaking to Freedom too much. Much as he hated to admit it, Hagrid had been right, talking to one's familiar was a great stress reliever.

Twixie reappeared with the water and then said quietly, "Master Severus, you told me to remind you that the staff dinner is at seven tonight."

"So I did. Thank you. You may go, Twixie."

Twixie vanished, Severus sipped his water and scowled. "Bloody Albus and his bloody staff dinners once a month. Bad enough we have to listen to Trelawney ramble on about the conjunction of Venus into the House of Mars or some other idiotic twaddle, now we are inflicted with Umbridge's Ministry doctrine as well, delivered in that sickening sweet little girl voice that makes me want to vomit, it's so nauseatingly fake. She's about as sweet as a lamia, Freedom, and just as dangerous, since she actually believes in all that rot the Ministry touts, that the return of the Dark Lord is but a hoax and Potter is crazy and delusional. Potter may be many things, but one thing he isn't is crazy. Umbridge, like her master Fudge, blinds herself to the truth, she's terrified of it, and thinks if she ignores it, it will go away. Humph!"

Severus, I'm hungry.

"Hunting not go well today?"

I caught a shrew. Not enough for me.

"Here." Severus summoned his game bag to him, and removed a large haunch of rabbit, tossing it to the hawk.

Freedom caught it deftly, then settled down to eat it near his perch, upon the old copies of The Daily Prophet. Yum! Rabbit!

While the hawk ate, Snape sipped his water, considering glumly if there was any way to avoid going to the blasted dinner. He supposed it was too late to start brewing an extra large batch of potions for the Hospital Wing, or come down with a contagious disease. Barring his untimely death, he was going to have to attend, and suffer through Dolores the magical facist, Trelawney the idiot seer, and Albus and his damnable twinkling eyes. He'd almost rather get Crucio-ed again.

Freedom soon finished off the rabbit and then flew up to perch upon Severus's shoulder. That was excellent, thanks! How long does this dinner usually last?

"Not more than two hours, thank Merlin. Two hours is the maximum any of us have been able to tolerate Sybill babbling and seeing omens in the folds of the tablecloth or the silver hairs in Dumbledore's beard. And now we have Dolores as well to contend with, and her attitude towards Muggleborns and mixed bloods like Hagrid makes Lucius Malfoy look like a grubby boy repeating what his older sister told him to." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Tonight will not be good."

What if I come with you? I could talk to you when things get boring and you could leave early too, just tell the Headmaster that I'm still a little sick and you need to go back to our quarters.

Severus pondered. "Very well. You may come," he said at last.

Freedom seemed delighted.

Then Severus said sternly, "And it goes without saying-be on your best behavior. No biting or flying at them, simply stay on my shoulder and observe, are you clear on that?"

Yes, Sev. I'll be good. But can I at least insult Umbridge?

Snape chuckled wickedly. "Of course. I would never go that far and deprive you of everything fun."

Freedom nibbled at his talon, his amber eyes glinting in delight.

The Potions Master allowed himself half-an-hour to unwind before going to shower and dress for the dinner. Though the dinner was not formal, Severus nevertheless did not want to appear at it dressed casually. He did, however, decide to wear ordinary black trousers and a soft short-sleeved white collared shirt beneath his second-best set of professor robes.

These robes were a bit more precisely tailored than his everyday ones, they hugged his slim frame to advantage, showing off his trim waist and well-muscled shoulders, for Severus had good body tone despite teaching from stirring and lugging around cauldrons day in and day out, plus he walked to keep fit. The robes also had a bit of silver and green trim on the sleeves and the left breast was stitched with a silver cauldron with an emerging dragon, the emblem of a Potions Master.

A quick spell and his boots were newly shined and he drew part of his hair back in a neat tail, so that it was not hanging in his face. That was an affectation he donned for the students, in keeping with his persona of terror of the dungeons. But he was just Professor Snape for this dinner and he could forgo that image tonight, with only his colleagues to see him.

He tugged on his gauntlet and Freedom flew up to his accustomed perch upon Severus's wrist, then the Potions Master tossed down a handful of Floo powder and called, "Staff room!"

Seconds later he stepped out of the green fire and entered the staff room, which had been enlarged slightly to accommodate the long table where the house elves had placed a huge feast.

There was a whole glazed ham, roasted capon, beef swimming in gravy, some kind of shrimp in a butter sauce, Yorkshire pudding, what looked like noodles with butter, a rice pilaf, baked potatoes with all the trimmings, a loaf of bread, salad, and carrots and string beans.

Severus eyed the spread and felt his stomach turn over. He was not that hungry and just seeing all of this food made him feel slightly ill. Or perhaps it was laying eyes upon Dolores Umbridge, who was seated to the left of the Headmaster, dressed in some kind of frothy frilly dress and jacket combination in a hideous shade of lemonade pink that made Severus want to cover his eyes and run from the room. Merlin have mercy, but does the woman have NO fashion sense? My grandmother Prince, who was renowned for her awful taste in clothes, would not have been caught dead in that. Where did she get it, off of a lampshade?

If the dress, Severus was being generous calling it that, weren't bad enough, Umbridge had rouged her cheeks and lips in yet another shocking pink color and she had her brown hair piled atop her head in a style that would have looked good on a beehive. She was chattering and sniffing to the Headmaster, who was looking a bit glazed over, his blue eyes not sparkling with their usual verve.

He glanced up and saw Severus step out of the fireplace and his eyes shone with unadulterated relief.

"Ah, Severus! Come and join us, my dear boy!" Albus said, beckoning him over to sit next to him.

Snape reluctantly walked over, Freedom eyeing the pair distrustfully. "Good evening, Headmaster, Miss Umbridge." His tone was cool and only slightly condescending when he spoke Umbridge's name.

Umbridge gave him a disapproving glare upon catching sight of the hawk on his arm. "Ahem-ahem! Must you bring your familiar to dinner as well, Professor Snape?"

Severus met her stare steadily. "There is no rule against it."

Freedom looked at her and Umbridge actually looked nervous. Clearly she did not like birds, or maybe it was only hawks that flew free on their master's wrist she didn't like.

"Freedom is always welcome here, Dolores," Dumbledore remonstrated gently but firmly, sounding rather like a grandfather admonishing a pert granddaughter. "He adds character to the meal."

Umbridge cleared her throat again, then gave Severus a saccharine smile that made him long to gag. "Such an unusual familiar, Severus. You don't mind if I call you that, do you?" She fluttered her eyelashes at him. "After all, we're all colleagues here."

Severus did not answer, he was trying hard not to say the first thing that popped into his head, which was Only those I respect and like may use my first name, you prissy old maid. The fluttering of her spiky eyelashes nearly threw him into a panic. She must be desperate, if she were making eyes at him. The mere thought of her in that way was enough to turn him into a monk, he thought, shuddering.

Luckily he was saved by the arrival of Flitwick, Sprout, and McGonagall entering the room at that minute.

"Welcome, Filius, Pomona, and Minerva!" Dumbledore said, beaming at them like long-lost relatives.

Hagrid arrived next, as well as Professors Vector and Sinistra, the teachers of Arithmancy and Astronomy. After them came Charity Burbage, Muggle Studies, and Madam Hooch, flying coach, who informed the Headmaster that Bathsheba Babbling, the Ancient Runes teacher, could not make it, she was suffering from a migraine.

Lucky her, Severus thought longingly.

Sybill Trelawney was the last to arrive, since she refused to Floo from her tower and insisted upon walking to the staff room. She breezed in on a sigh, her overlarge spectacles making her look like a drunken owl, she was wearing an array of colors that would have looked good on a tent bazaar and her bangles and necklaces tinkled and clashed together annoyingly.

"Forgive me, Albus!" she gasped throatily. "But I was occupied with my tea leaves . . .the omens were very odd . . .they said we would have an uninvited guest for dinner, but I see no one here that I don't know."

"Sit down, Sybill," Dumbledore said calmly. "Perhaps your vision will become clearer after a glass of sherry?" he floated a glass over to her.

Next to Severus, McGonagall snorted into her napkin. "Things will become clearer all right. Albus, you silly fool, you ought to know better than to get her started, last time she had a hangover, we never heard the end of it for three months." She turned to Severus. "You do have a Hangover Remedy made up, don't you, Severus? Because I cannot go through that again."

Severus smirked, nodding. "I suppose endless renditions of Witch Doctor and Greensleeves is enough to drive anyone over the edge."

Minerva rolled her eyes. "Severus, don't get me started. You at least got to hide in your apartments, mine are right below hers, and I had to endure her . . . caterwauling every night."

"The perils of being Deputy Headmistress, Minerva," teased Severus.

"Oh, be quiet!" she ordered, chuckling. "Someday, Mr. Snape, I am going to give you an apprentice, a wet-behind-the-ears potions apprentice to mold, and let him drive you crazy."

"Ha! I'd like to see you find anyone willing to work with me."

"Oh, I'm sure I can find someone if I look hard enough."

"I'll scare him away within a week."

Minerva sipped at a glass of white wine, her eyes bright with amusement. "Then I shall have to find someone who is not afraid of a grumpy man that likes to skewer you with his eyes." She eyed Snape's familiar thoughtfully. "That looks like an intelligent bird, Severus. What have you called him again?"

"Freedom," answered Severus, drinking yet another glass of water. He had a small glass of wine as well, but rarely drank in mixed company.

Freedom permitted McGonagall to scratch him lightly, ruffling his feathers gently. He was perched upon Severus's chair back, watching the staff members alertly. Strangely, he found he recognized over half of them, and not from his recent flights through the school. Flitwick he recalled charming a feather and saying, "Remember-swish and flick!" and he also remembered Professor Sprout handing out earmuffs and demonstrating how to repot mandrakes. They disturbed him, for he knew instinctively that the memories were not ones a hawk should have, at least not a normal hawk. He wished the memories would stop, sometimes they came so quickly he was overwhelmed, and they gave him a headache.

Just then he flashed back to a memory of Umbridge, standing before him and saying in a tone sweet as poisoned honey, "I do not tolerate the telling of lies in my classroom. You will now write lines for me, two hundred times, I must not tell lies, using this quill here." She handed him a quill, long and black with an unusually sharp point. "It carries its own supply of ink," she informed him, and something about the way she said that caused his flesh to creep.

Before he could remember anything further, he was yanked out of the memory by Dumbledore tapping on the side of a glass with his fork. "Attention, please. Before we all begin to eat this delicious array of food-quite a lovely feast and just wait till you see dessert-ahem . . .there are a few announcements I would like to make. The first concerns our missing student, Harry Potter. As you know, Mr. Potter has not yet been found, though how he is continuing to hide from us all is quite a conundrum. And most worrying. If any of you have reason to suspect you know his whereabouts, please speak with me immediately. Dolores has brought it to my attention that the Ministry now has a new policy regarding student absences. If a student is absent from school without a signed note from a parent, guardian, or a Healer for more than two months, that student is considered an academic drop out, and as such cannot attend Hogwarts without a thorough investigation into the student's background. It is my fervent hope that Harry will reappear before that deadline, and I would like to ask all of you to please continue searching for him. It is my firm belief that he is still somewhere within the confines of the castle and the grounds, or perhaps in Hogsmeade under a glamour."

"But why would he do such a thing, Headmaster?" queried Professor Sinistra. "I don't know the boy, except by reputation, but why would he choose to absent himself from class and his Housemates? Is it because he is bored or lazy?"

Severus eyed the Headmaster, wondering how he would respond. Before speaking with Hagrid, Snape might have assumed, as Sinistra did, that Potter was lazy and arrogant, assuming, like his father before him, that he was above such things as attending class and obeying rules. But he no longer assumed that, and felt that Potter's disappearance was indicative of a troubled personality rather than a prank or adolescent rebellion.

Albus looked at Aurora and said quietly, "No, I don't think it's because Harry is lazy or bored. I think there is a deeper problem here, but without the boy himself to confirm it, I cannot be certain, and so at this time shall say nothing."

"He must have some powerful magic to remain hidden from you so long, Headmaster," spoke up Charity. "How many weeks now has he been missing?"

"Nearly three."

More muttering followed and then Umbridge coughed and stated, "I find it inexcusable that Potter has been allowed to run wild like this for so long. The boy is clearly taking advantage of everyone and needs to be brought to heel. I have found him quite rude and shifty, telling lies to gain the attention of his peers. Perhaps this is a new scheme."

Albus looked pained at that, and Minerva incensed. She hissed to Snape, "I am his Head of House, and I have never known Potter to be either dishonest or rude. And he has never liked attention from either the press or his peers. Wouldn't you agree, Severus?"

Severus sipped at his water before replying. "To be honest, Minerva, the boy has been rather rude to me on more than one occasion, and I have caught him in a lie once or twice, but no more or less than any other student. There is something wrong here, and I do not think it has anything to do with a need to get attention from his peers. From one of us, perhaps . . ."

"Do you think he is getting help from one of them? Weasley perhaps, maybe even Granger?" Minerva pondered. "I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out how he has managed to go this long without food or water and thought perhaps his friends have been smuggling him things, but I've had the Owlery watched and no owls have left with any suspicious packages."

"Unless he had help from one of the house elves. There is one here, Dobby I believe his name is, that seems to be devoted to Potter, you might want to question him."

"Yes, that is a good idea, Severus. And I shall question Weasley and Granger again, although they were the ones who first informed me that Potter was missing."

Before they could say anything further, Dumbledore interrupted again. "And there will also be a slight . . .change in school policy, but I shall let Dolores tell you more about that." He gestured to Umbridge.

"Ahem! Ahem! The Minister of Magic was most . . .disturbed over the summer to have nearly expelled that Potter boy from Hogwarts. He has since decided that it is time for a change and has asked me to help him implement it." Umbridge smiled sweetly. "The Ministry is concerned that today's children might be influenced by lies about the return of a dead wizard and wish to take steps to avoid panic and maintain status quo."

Lies about the return of a dead wizard? Snape thought with a sneer. Shall I show you just what this dead wizard is capable of, Umbridge? Would you like to see the scars of his handiwork and then tell me he isn't real? His hand tightened on the water goblet.

Umbridge went on, totally oblivious to the fuming potions professor across from her. "To that end, he has appointed me High Inquisitor of Hogwarts. I shall be overseeing the school, replacing Headmaster Dumbledore where necessary and re-organizing the school according to Ministry policy."

Minerva raised an eyebrow. "Re-organizing the school? And just what do you mean by that, Dolores?"

"Just what I said, Minerva. The Ministry has seen that several practices here are outdated and wish to implement new ones. I shall become Inquisitor next Friday, and you all shall apply to me in regards to vacations, sick time, curriculum-speaking of which, I shall be examining you all in regards to your curriculum content and your teaching methods, making sure you comply with Ministry policy. I will give you a parchment list of accepted Ministry teachings for your students and expect you to comply with them. If I evaluate you and find you are substandard, I shall issue you a warning. That will be the only warning you will get. After that, any failure to comply with regulations will result in . . .dismissal."

All of the teachers stared at each other and then down at their plates in horror. Then they looked at Dumbledore, as if expecting him to tell them it was all an elaborate joke. But Dumbledore looked drawn and worried and Severus felt a cold chill run down his backbone. He cannot help us any longer. The old wolf has been brought to bay and now we must fend for ourselves. And I have more in my past to live down than any of them. Does she know, I wonder, about the six months I was a Death Eater before I turned spy at seventeen? I was never convicted of anything, but the Ministry is ever suspicious. Should Umbridge ever discover his past, he knew she would sack him without blinking.

Severus, what does that mean? Freedom hissed in his ear. Does it mean that Dumbledore is no longer in charge? But how could they do that? How could they just shove him away and put that . . .that hag from hell in charge? She doesn't know anything about running a school and everyone hates her. Even YOU hate her!

"I know, but the Ministry rules and after recent events, they are starting to think Dumbledore is mad, supporting Potter about the return of the Dark Lord. So they put a spy like Umbridge in the ranks and then bump her up into a position of authority. Idiots! Why can't they leave well enough alone?"

Dolores rummaged about in a overlarge pink satchel. "Ah, here we go! Your revised class syllabuses and content area requirements. These should make teaching much easier, after all, it's important that we all have structure, and this will help you." She summoned a house elf to deliver the parchments.

"Thank you, Dolores. And now, let us eat," Dumbledore declared happily, and said, "A bit of everything please." A portion of each food was transferred to his plate. He immediately began eating.

Severus longed to hex Umbridge until she begged for mercy after looking at the revised syllabus for potions. What does she think I'm teaching here, pre-schoolers? Oh, they may act like it on occasion, but this is ridiculous! I am not allowed to instruct them on antidotes or poisons, it's good we covered that last year, then. No drafts pertaining to illegal substances, Merlin have mercy, as if I want to teach teenagers that are high . . .The list went on for about two feet and by the time he had reached the end of it, he was ready to slip Umbridge a Mind-Altering Draft. About the only 'safe' potions he could teach were ones for toddlers, he might as well have them learning to brew tea.

He stuffed the offending parchment into a pocket and glowered down at his plate.

"Something wrong, Severus?" purred the witch across from him. "You look rather . . .perturbed."

"Do I?" he raised an eyebrow. "You are mistaken, madam, for I am merely pondering my new syllabus and how enlightening it will be for the children to learn Ministry approved methods," he drawled. "The new generation will benefit from the wisdom of learning how to see like an ostrich, always an important life skill."

He knew he should not bait her, but he was disgusted and furious, and he had never reacted well to pompous idiots telling him what he could and couldn't do.

"Why, yes, exactly!" the cow simpered.

Next to Severus, Minerva was quietly snickering into a napkin, laughing at the stupidity of the other witch, who didn't even know Severus had insulted her and her entire policy of re-education.

Severus concealed a smirk, then called for some chicken, shrimp over noodles, rice, and vegetables. He began to eat, hoping not to get indigestion, for the tension in the room was a palpable presence.

Guess you told her, Severus! Freedom remarked, delighted with his master's wit. Is she stupid or what? Everyone knows ostriches bury their heads in the sand!

"Indeed," Severus said out of the corner of his mouth, covering his word with the napkin. It was gratifying to know that a hawk was smarter than Umbridge. He resumed eating, noting that the twinkle had returned to Dumbledore's eyes.

Umbridge abruptly put down her fork and declared coldly, "Is there any way to muzzle that bird, Severus? He's disrupting the peace of my dinner."

Too bad, toad! Like you didn't ruin it already! Freedom hissed, hovering a few inches above Severus's chair, eyeing Umbridge the way he would a tasty mouse or a rabbit. You know, I eat toads for breakfast.

Umbridge turned a pasty white. "Control that animal, Snape!" barked the witch. "Before I do." Her wand was in her hand.

So was Snape's. It was pure reflex, he didn't even think about it. No wizard threatened his familiar. His icily polite veneer vanished and he gave the squat witch a warning glare. "Don't ever threaten my familiar, Umbridge," he growled.

"You dare to threaten me?" she gasped, her bosom heaving. "That creature is a menace!"

"That creature did nothing to you and yet you would curse him," Severus declared frostily. "Is this the famed Ministry justice, madam? Hexing a defenseless hawk because of what he might do? Such restraint you show, such maturity."

Before Umbridge could open her mouth to reply, Dumbledore cut in.

"Severus, Dolores, please! Put your wands away, this is a dinner, not a dueling arena! There is no need for you to get so upset."

Umbridge whirled upon him, her brown eyes snapping. "No need, Albus? He never should have been allowed to bring that vicious thing here, and now he threatens me, a known member of the Minister's cabinet!"

"Now, Dolores, you're overreacting. Severus did nothing of the sort. Freedom would never harm you, he is merely excitable. You are not used to birds of prey, I know." He reached over and patted her hand comfortingly, much the way one would soothe a frightened child or a crotchety old woman. "There is no need to be afraid, hawks only attack prey animals, like rabbits, mice, and . . .toads," he added with a sly wink. "Please, put your wand away, my dear, shouting only startles him more, and you would not want him to fly, now would you?"

At that, Umbridge pocketed her wand. "I detest flying things!" she snarled. "As well as monsters that have partly human shapes. Abominations, all of them!"

Severus flicked his wrist, and his wand disappeared up his sleeve. He held out his fist for the hawk, saying softly, "Freedom, to me."

The angry hawk hovered briefly then settled on the proffered fist. Better watch yourself, you evil viper. Draw a wand on me again and I'll show you how quick I can strike, harpy.

"Shhh. Quiet!" Severus ordered, stroking the hawk's feathers. "Control yourself, dammit!" he hissed in an undertone.

I am! She wanted to muzzle me, Severus! Someone ought to muzzle her instead! She's nothing but trouble. Dumbledore ought to kick her arse right out of the castle! The students all hate her, I've heard them talking. She can't teach at all, all she knows is a textbook, and her detentions are horrible too.

Severus did not respond, he was still trying to get his temper under control. He didn't know who he was angrier at, Umbridge or himself, for losing control like that. He hadn't let his temper rule him in years, yet the sight of Umbridge's wand trained upon his hawk had brought all his protective instincts surging to the fore and he had responded without thinking, or rather without thinking of the consequences to himself.

Gritting his teeth, he knew he would have to do some damage control, for he sensed Umbridge was not one to forget an insult, and once she was in charge, she could make his life hell, or at least very unpleasant. And if she went poking and prying into his background, trying to dig up dirt on him . . .

So he said, every word leaving a bitter taste in his mouth, "My apologies, madam. Had I known you were afraid of birds, I would have seated myself further away down the table. Albus is correct, my familiar is not vicious, he has never harmed a person."

But if I did, she'd be second on my list, right after the bloody Dark Lord.

"Humph!" Umbridge sniffed, eyeing the hawk angrily, then picked up her fork again and resumed eating her roast beef. "Never understood how some wizards could prefer birds to cats. Cats are much better companions, you can hug and cuddle a cat and they rid the world of vermin." She shot a nasty glare at Severus.

"So do hawks," Severus argued. "They keep down the population of mice, rats, rabbits, snakes, and toads. Without hawks we would be overrun by such creatures and starve to death." His words were innocuous, but the sarcasm running beneath was not. Fortunately, Umbridge did not catch it, she was about as subtle as brick wall.

Several of the other staff members did, however, and they silently congratulated their colleague on a clever hit, for Umbridge was universally disliked by the entire staff. They regarded her as a pushy arrogant upstart, one who was more interested in politics than education, and they resented her coming here and telling them how to do their jobs, when most of the staff had been teaching for over ten years.

"Both animals are necessary and useful to the environment," Minerva interjected smoothly, though she tended to agree with Umbridge, since she too loved cats, but it pained her to agree with anything that woman said. She turned to Severus and asked if he had read the latest alchemy journal, some young wizard claimed he had invented a potion that turned a lead ingot into gold.

Severus snorted. "Impossible. What formula did he use?"

Taking his cue from Minerva, Flitwick, who was seated on the other side of Umbridge, engaged Umbridge in a talk about what kinds of charms were best for the complexion, and so managed to get through the rest of the main course without further mishaps.

Until the dessert course arrived, full of all kinds of cakes and scones and pastries with whipped topping and comfits. Tea and coffee was served, the house elves set a cup of each beside the plates of each teacher, which proved to be a big mistake.

Trelawney, never comfortable around her fellow professors, had been searching for a way to make conversation with her seatmate, Rolanda Hooch, who was the complete opposite of the airy Sybill, and they mixed like oil and water. Rolanda was bored to tears listening to Sybill drone on about mystic symbols and portents and Sybill could have cared less about Quidditch scores.

"Ah, tea leaves!" exclaimed the Divination professor. "My favorite mode of divination."

"Really?" Rolanda yawned, wishing the dinner were over. "Perhaps you can predict who will win the next Harpies-Cannons match then, Sybill?"

Sybill gave her an irritated look. "My Inner Eye is not to be used for such trivialities."

"Oh? What, you only predict natural disasters or the end of the world?" Hooch shot back.

"I do not See on command, Rolanda, like a gypsy." Sybill declared haughtily. "The Sight comes when it wills and not merely when I wish it."

"Fiddle faddle!" laughed Hooch. "You're just saying that because you've never learned to control your Gift, if you even have one in the first place."

"Are you implying I am inferior?" snapped Sybill. She quickly drained her mug, and peered at the tea leaves left in the bottom, seething. "I see . . .I see . . .a great danger coming . . .the shadow of the Dark One shall rise to cover the land . . ." the seer croaked dramatically.

Hooch rolled her eyes. "Typical. There's always a great danger. Anything else? A knight in shining armor, perhaps?"

"Do not mock the Powers!" intoned the Divination teacher. Everyone was now staring down at her. " . . .but the shadow shall be vanquished . . .by sacrifice and truth and . . ." here the seer paused.

"Well? Get on with it," Hooch sighed impatiently. "You left out the part where someone close to me is going to die."

" . . .two hawks flying . . .together they shall find what is hidden and teach death to die!" she finished with a flourish of her beringed hands.

Hooch chuckled. "There! I knew someone was going to die. Good one, Sybill!"

Several of the professors nearest her snickered, for the prediction sounded like so much poppycock.

Umbridge had risen, however, and was eyeing the seer with a frown. "Do you always . . .predict with such . . .outlandish claims . . .Trelawney?"

Sybill looked up at the other witch, blinking owlishly. "I don't know what you mean. I but See what my Sight gives me to see. That is why I spend so much time in my tower, the air there is much clearer, free from interfering influences and minds . . ."

"Yes, yes." Umbridge waved her hand dismissively. "But you mentioned that "the shadow of the Dark One shall rise again" what exactly did you mean by that?"

"What I said," Trelawney repeated, confused.

There was dead silence at the table.

"You're telling me that you saw the return of . . .of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in your tea leaves?" Umbridge scowled.

"I . . .I Saw a great danger . . ." Sybill faltered, uncertain.

"He is dead, Trelawney! Dead and gone these past fourteen years, and he cannot return!" Umbridge shouted. "You are deranged, predicting such nonsense . . . shadows swallowing the earth, hawks defeating death . . .really madam, what kind of fool do you take me for?"

"I did see what I spoke of!" Sybill argued. Then she shrank back as Umbridge advanced upon her.

"You saw nothing! You were making it up, or else spouting sedition! There is no Dark Lord and no great danger coming, save for your possible dismissal for spreading lies to impressionable children!" Umbridge poked her finger into Trelawney's chest. "You are on probation, professor, and if you do not meet Ministry standards, rest assured you will no longer be employed here!" Then she gave Sybill a poisonous grin. "Am I understood, my dear seer?"

Sybill huddled in her chair, clearly petrified by the other witch, and nodded, her head bobbing up and down like a cork in the ocean.

For an instant, no one moved. Though most of the staff at Hogwarts regarded Trelawney as a half-mad eccentric who couldn't see her way out of a brightly-lit room, they detested Umbridge and her bullying ways.

"Hey now, Dolores, no need to scare poor Sybill to death," Hooch objected, glaring daggers at the pink-garbed witch. "Maybe she really did see a great danger."

Umbridge spun on her. "But you . . .you said you didn't believe her either. I heard you."

Rolanda shrugged. "Happen I was wrong. What of it? You need to stop taking yourself so seriously, old girl. Give you age lines before your time."

Umbridge drew in a breath, ready to let Hooch have it, but Dumbledore spoke up.

"Sybill, you look rather tired. Might I suggest you retire to your tower?"

"I . . .yes, I am feeling rather unwell . . .My head is spinning . . .the air here is so foggy . . ."

"Yes, you need a good lie down." He turned to Snape, who was looking at Umbridge as if he wished to skin her and flay her. Freedom too was glaring at her and Dumbledore made a snap decision. "Severus, if you would be so kind as to escort Sybill back to her rooms?"

Snape sighed in distaste, he had no love for the Divination teacher, but neither did he like to see her victimized by that bullying toad Umbridge. "Very well, Headmaster."

He rose and walked down to the end of the table where Trelawney was seated, looking like a terrified mouse facing down an enraged cat. "Come, Sybill." He held out his right arm.

Trelawney, desperate to get away from Umbridge, jumped to her feet, tripped over her chair and fell into Severus.

He staggered, but managed to keep his feet, gripping Trelawney closely to keep her upright. "Blazes, Sybill, you're an accident waiting to happen!" he growled.

Freedom, upon his opposite wrist, was knocked off, and flapped hard, trying to regain his balance.

Right in Umbridge's face.

Umbridge, whose height put her at Severus's chest, only saw the hawk's talons and wings coming at her. She shrieked, throwing a hand up to cover her face, startling the hawk even more, and Freedom soared up above the table.

"Get it away! Get it away!" Umbridge howled, backing away, her hand still over her eyes.

She bumped right into the table, which was laden with desserts, still screaming, falling over onto it. The resulting crash caused the three-tiered layer cake and several other whipped confections to fall all over her.

Severus whistled for his familiar, and Freedom took the opportunity to swoop low and return to his wizard's fist, gliding right over Umbridge's head.

Convinced the hawk was attacking her, Umbridge squealed and tried to scramble away across the table, her hands still over her face, her high heel catching in a blanc mange. She jerked free, only to end up sprawled face-first in a bowl of strawberry trifle.

Freedom landed upon Severus's fist, skreeing in triumph.

The Potions Master cast his smug familiar a reproving glare before making haste to escort Sybill from the room. The Divination teacher had her face hidden in his robes and she was shaking. Snape prayed she wasn't crying. "Come along, Sybill. You needn't try and bury yourself in my robes, the wicked witch is gone." His tone was only mildly sharp now.

"Vanquished by a bowl of strawberry trifle."

"What did you say?"

Sybill lifted her head from his robes and he saw to his everlasting relief that she was not crying, but laughing. "Oh, Severus! I . . .I never intended . . .but to see that vile woman . . .upended in that strawberry trifle . . .I shall never forget it as long as I live . . .!"

Snape permitted himself a smirk. "She got her just deserts, wouldn't you say?"

His irrelevant comment set Trelawney off again.

Severus winced, for she had a laugh like a hyena. "Hush. You'll wake the entire castle." He quickly ushered her across the entrance hall and up the stairs to her tower suite. There he left her, though he felt compelled to warn her to keep her head down. "She'll be looking for an excuse to sack you, Sybill, so watch yourself."

"You as well, Severus," she said. "Good night." She turned to go inside, then added over her shoulder, "You know, that was the first staff dinner I have ever really enjoyed in all my years here. You should bring your hawk for dinner more often."

"Good night, Sybill," was all he replied, but she could see a faint glimmer of amusement in his obsidian eyes.

As she shut the door behind her, she could hear him scolding his familiar, very softly, "Next time you pull a stunt like that, I'll clip your wings, you incorrigible bird!"

Wasn't my fault, Severus! I got knocked off your arm.

Severus headed down the stairs, shaking his head. "That last fly by was deliberate and don't bother to deny it."

All right then. I won't. Brilliant, wasn't it?

"Have you no sense of self-preservation? Do you want to end up before a committee for Dangerous Creatures?"

For what? Flying when startled? Freedom demanded impudently. She wasn't hurt. Except her pride, that is. Come on, Sev, you can't tell me you didn't enjoy that.

Severus sighed. "It was . . .very satisfying," he admitted at last. "But somehow I have a feeling that tonight will have unseen repercussions for all of us."

Like what?

"I don't know. But a woman scorned, especially one like Umbridge, is always dangerous."

You worry too much, Sev, the hawk chirruped, and nibbled Snape's ear affectionately.

"And you not enough," Snape threw back. "Someday that daring streak is going to get you killed, if you don't learn to temper it."

Okay, okay. Save the lecture, won't you? My head hurts, the hawk meeped plaintively. The headache he'd been fighting now returned with a vengeance.

Severus glanced at the hawk in concern. "What do you mean, your head hurts?"

What I said. I'm tired and my head aches.

"I'll cast a diagnostic when we get home," Severus promised. He was worried, animals usually didn't get headaches and if they did it was usually indicative of a more serious problem.

But the diagnostic revealed no major trauma to the hawk's head or blood vessels, Severus cast several diagnostics to make certain there were no embolisms lurking in the hawk's veins, but when everything turned up normal, he was at a loss. "Maybe it's just stress. Here, have a dose of Pain Reliever, then go to sleep."

To his surprise, Freedom made no protest, allowing Severus to dose him and then put him on his perch, falling asleep almost immediately.

Perhaps he'll feel better in the morning. The last thing I need is for him to get sick again. Bloody Umbridge! Maybe she hexed him while nobody was looking. But his quick "Revelario malus magicka!" came up with no harmful hexes or curses.

He sighed in relief then left his familiar sleeping and went to get ready for bed himself. He put no stock in Trelawney's prediction, yet he could not shake the uneasy feeling in his bones. Nothing good could come of Umbridge being in charge at Hogwarts. The woman was as power-hungry and single-minded as Voldemort, and battle lines had now been drawn. But it remained to be seen who would triumph.




 





Chapter End Notes:




What did you think of the dinner? Umbridge? Trelawney?

Next: Our hawk's headaches are indicative of a real problem--the return of most of his memories!



Chapter 12: Things Remembered
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That night was a difficult one for Freedom, who despite the Pain Reliever, was inundated with memories of his former life, memories of a neglected and troubled childhood at a place called Number 4, Privet Drive. The hawk shivered and flicked his wings in his sleep, as the memories that had been suppressed for so long began to return to him.

* * * * * *

"You'll sleep in here from now on, boy," growled the huge fat man with the bristling mustache, who I now knew to be my Uncle Vernon.

"But why?" I asked, I was all of about five.

"So you don't contaminate Dudley with your freakishness," he snapped, jerking open the door to the cupboard under the stairs, where Aunt Petunia kept the bucket to wash the floors and some old rags. "I heard about what you did at school today, ending up on the roof and having to be got down by a teacher. What do you call that, huh?"

"It . . .was an accident, Uncle Vernon!" I sniveled, for I didn't like the looks of the cupboard at all. It was dark and scary and probably full of spiders. "I was scared, Piers and Devon were chasing me and I just wanted to find a place to hide," I babbled, knowing even then not to mention that Dudley had been in on it too. Uncle would never hear a word against his son, nor Aunt either. "I'll never do it again. Promise!"

"That's right, boy. You won't." He poked me with one meaty finger. "Now get your skinny arse in there and stay there till we tell you to come out!"

My eyes filled with tears, I didn't know any better then, how crying never did any good. "No, please, sir! I'll be good! I'm afraid of the dark and it's cold."

"Get used to it. Now quit sniveling and get in . . .there!" Uncle Vernon ordered, then he picked me up by the back of my shirt and tossed me into the cupboard.

I landed hard, barking my shins on the wood floor, and then the door shut and I heard the click of the lock.

I got up, ignoring the stinging pain in my shins, and beat on the door with my fists, crying loudly. "Let me out! Please! I'm sorry! I won't do it again!"

I don't know how long I said that, over and over, till my voice was hoarse and I crouched there by the door, where the faint sliver of light could be seen, shaking and whimpering, like a dog lost in the dark.

Fear had snuffed my tears and I prayed that Aunt Petunia would come let me out, but she must have agreed with Uncle, because she never came, and I finally fell asleep, there in the dark, all alone except for the spiders.

That was when I learned that I was a freak, not fit to associate with decent folks, and I wished with all my heart that I could be normal.

* * * * * *

The cupboard under the stairs became my home for the next six years. I was thrown into it whenever Aunt Petunia or Uncle Vernon wanted me out of the way, like when Vernon had Important People over for dinner, or when Petunia was cross with me for burning dinner or when Dudley lied and said I'd broken something of his. Sometimes being sent to the cupboard was paired with a quick clip across the ear or a smack on the bum, but most times Aunt or Uncle just pointed, and I went there, like a bad dog in a kennel.

Dudley loved it when I was locked in the cupboard, because then he could jump down all the stairs and make dust and spider webs fall on me while I was there. I had grown used to that, though, and no longer fussed over it. The spiders weren't so bad, they didn't hurt me, and I'd managed to sneak a torch into the cupboard with a cracked top, but it lit enough so I could see and snuggle under the old ragged blanket on the thin mattress that was my bed. I read some of Dudley's old comics under the blanket, and the one dog-eared book I owned, given to me by Mrs. Figg next door.

It was called Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, and I had memorized it a long time ago.

It made me smile, how the silly man refused to eat green eggs and ham and went through all kinds of things to not have to eat them. I would have eaten green eggs, ham, or green liver sometimes. I never had enough to eat, I wasn't allowed to sit at the table with my relatives, and sometimes they forgot to feed me after they'd eaten.

I got used to eating light-a piece of toast, a small sandwich of a single piece of cheese and bread, sometimes a piece of bacon, or a tin of chipped beef when I could get it. I was allowed water and sometimes milk, so my hair wouldn't fall out, Aunt didn't want people knowing what went on at home, so she let me have milk and any vegetables Dudley hated, which was almost all of them.

Once, in the beginning, I asked her when I'd be let out of the cupboard and allowed to sleep on the floor in Dudley's room again. She sniffed and said, "When you stop doing all that freaky nonsense and acting like a normal boy. Then you can come out and be a part of the family again."

But that never happened, for some reason I just couldn't stop doing bad things, like regrowing my hair, or turning Piers's hair blue for a minute, or making the broom sweep by itself. So the cupboard became my home.

They let me out most days, to help clean. By the time I was eight, I could clean anything, and cook a five course meal too. And I knew not to ask questions or to cry anymore. Asking questions got me thrown in the cupboard, smacked, and starved for two days. Aunt and Uncle didn't like it when I asked about my parents.

All I knew was that they had died in an auto accident, killed because my drunken layabout father was driving home late and that was where I'd gotten the lightning scar on my forehead, from a piece of glass. Their names had been James and Lily Potter. Aunt was Mum's older sister.

Uncle Vernon had an older sister too, Aunt Marge. She hated me too, and so did her bulldog Ripper. Once Ripper chased me up a tree and kept me up there for three hours. Finally Aunt noticed I wasn't doing the weeding and came and found me. She told me that I must have done something to make the dog chase me.

I guessed that Ripper didn't like freaks either, though Mrs. Figgs' cats liked me okay.

"Finish the weeding and then come and start on supper," she said.

"Yes, Aunt Petunia." I went back over to the flowerbed in the front close to the walk.

Dudley came out soon after, eating a double-size Choco Crunch bar, and holding another in his hand. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Weeding." I answered, as if he didn't know.

"You hungry?"

I nodded, I hadn't eaten anything since morning, and then it had been toast with some butter and half a pear.

"Want this?" he held out the other Choco Crunch bar.

"Yeah. Thanks, Dudley!" I reached for the candy, wondering why he was being so nice to me.

"Oops!" he dropped the chocolate on the ground.

Before I could get it, he'd stepped on it, mashing it into the dirt. "Whoops! Accident!" he brayed with laughter. "See ya later, freaky."

I stared at the now flattened chocolate bar.

Then I knelt and picked it up, it was still wrapped, and slowly peeled away the paper and began to eat it.

See, I'm not picky, like that man who wouldn't eat green eggs and ham.

* * * * * *

I was running, I knew if I didn't run fast enough, they would get me.

I could hear them, Dudley, Piers, Devon, and a new kid I didn't know, panting and gasping behind me.

"Where'd he go?"

"Dunno!"

"He's gotta be around here somewhere."

I crouched lower in the bushes, wishing for once that weird talent of mine would help me hide from my cousin and his gang. But it never worked when I needed it to. So I just stayed real quiet and hoped they'd give up and go and play something else. Or with someone else.

A new kid, Mark Evans, had moved in across the street, and he was shrimp like me and shy, Dudley had pounded on him a few times. I felt bad, but I couldn't do anything, and at least if Dudley were after him it meant he wasn't after me. Terrible thought, isn't it?

But that's what happens when you're Dudley's plaything.

I almost thought I was going to get away with it. But I had to sneeze. Couldn't help it.

They heard and next thing I knew, Piers was dragging me out of the bushes by my hair.

"Gotcha! Now we can finish playing Tower of London."

That was their new game, playing like Dudley was a king, and the rest were noble lords, and one of them was an executioner, about to chop off the head of some traitor.

Guess who the traitor was?

Only today I saw, to my horror, that they'd actually managed to get hold of a garden hoe. "Get down on the ground, idiot!" Piers hissed, shoving me to my knees.

There was no one in the park, no one to see what they were doing, and I was too scared to call out.

Then Dudley came and shoved my head down on the seesaw and held me there. "Off with his head, Sir Piers!"

Piers laughed wildly. "Yes, Your Majesty!"

He brought the garden spade down on the back of my neck, cutting it.

I started to cry, I was too scared to keep the tears in, and all they did was laugh.

"Coward! Beg for pardon!" Dudley bellowed.

I did.

He let me go, shoving me so I fell on my back.

"Aww, poor baby!" sneered Devon. "Crying for his dead mummy!"

Then the other boy pointed at me and started laughing. "Look, the freak's wet himself!"

More laughter followed, and I just lay there, wishing I were dead like my parents.

I was nine that summer.

* * * * * *

The hawk called Freedom twitched on his perch, shaking as though with an ague. He did not want to relive these awful dream images, but he was helpless to stop them. He slipped into yet another one, this one was of Dudley's tenth birthday.

* * * * * *

"Blow out the candles, Diddykins!" Aunt Petunia sang, clapping her hands as if Dudley were five again.

He gave her a glare, he hated when she called him that in front of his friends. I watched from the corner of the kitchen and knew I'd pay for that later.

Dudley puffed out his cheeks and blew so hard that some of the candles fell over and the frosting was blown off the cake. Then all his friends and Aunt cheered like he'd done an amazing thing.

Personally, I thought it was pretty amazing he hadn't gotten short of breath blowing out the candles, since that was the most exercise he'd had since hunting for me in the shrubbery two months ago.

Aunt began to cut the cake, Dudley got the largest slice, of course.

Once everyone had a piece, there was still a good deal left, and I began to hope I might get a taste this year. Maybe just a bit of frosting off the side.

Aunt marched into the kitchen, where I was, and snapped, "You-get the rest of the cake and wrap it up. I'm sending it with Vernon tonight for his poker game. And mind you don't touch any of it, you hear?"

I ducked my head. "Yes, Aunt Petunia."

So much for that wish coming true.

I did as I was told, and managed to slip a tiny fingerful off the part where it had been cut a bit crookedly. Mmm! It was delicious.

Now Dudley was opening his presents, he'd gotten forty-five this year, one of them a new game system. He immediately ran upstairs with his friends to play it and left me to clean up all the shredded paper and the empty cups and dishes.

I quietly did so, looking at all the presents my cousin had gotten. He had so much and yet he was never happy.

I'd never understand him. I'd be glad if they even remembered my birthday, much less got me a present. But not Dudley. There was always one more thing he wanted, something else some kid had that he didn't, and he'd whine and complain till he got it.

Me, I knew better. All whining ever got me was a slap and an evening in the cupboard.

I tucked some scraps of paper in my pocket. I'd hang them on the wall of the cupboard, it'd give me something to look at besides the cracks in the wood. And then I could pretend I was somewhere else, a place where I was wanted and safe, and my birthday wasn't forgotten, like always.

* * * * * *

Freedom woke, disorientated, and glanced about. It took a moment for him to adjust his eyes, his hawk sight was so much keener than it had been in the dream, when he was . . .a boy. The hawk fluffed his feathers and began to preen his wings, trying to calm himself down. Such odd dreams he was having lately!

I don't understand. Why am I dreaming of myself as a . . .human? I'm a hawk! At least . . .I think so. What's happening to me? He nibbled sharply upon a talon. In the dreams, I am a boy, and the others in the dream are my . . .family. What am I? Who am I? Agitated, the hawk shook his head. He didn't want to wonder about that. He was content to be Freedom, a red-tailed hawk, and the familiar of Severus Snape. Those other questions frightened him.

Unable to settle, though he was sleepy, freedom spread his wings and flew from his perch.

Severus had left a small lamp lit in the hall, and with it Freedom could see well enough to navigate the suite and slip into the Potion Master's bedroom.

There was just enough light coming in for the hawk to see Snape asleep under the covers and he settled upon the extra pillow Snape had on the other side of the double bed.

The man's soft breathing filled the room and the hawk tucked his head beneath his wing and let it soothe him to sleep. One thing he did know, and that was that he was safe with Snape.

* * * * * *

Sometime later:

Freedom was awakened by a soft groan from the man lying next to him. The bird cocked his head worriedly. Snape muttered something unintelligible and whimpered, flinging out a hand, nearly striking the prone hawk. Freedom hopped up, alarmed. Apparently, he was not the only one to suffer from bad dreams this night.

Poor Severus! What are you dreaming of? The Dark Lord again?

Severus's mouth opened again, only this time what he spoke was understandable, though his tone was that of a small scared child. "Don't . . .please . . .don't . . .I'll be good! I won't do magic again . . .promise, Dad . . .!"

The man jerked suddenly, as if struck. Then he went limp, curling up, as if trying to protect himself from a blow.

Freedom stared, horror stealing through him. Snape's words mirrored those he had spoken to his uncle back in the dream. Could Snape have suffered like he did then? Like master, like familiar.

Severus began to whimper again, and Freedom couldn't stand it anymore. He flew onto the sleeping wizard's shoulder and called, Severus, wake up! It's just a dream. That's all. Wake up!

But the hawk's distressed cries could not penetrate the nightmare, and the wizard continued to moan and thrash. "I didn't mean to . . .really, sir! It just happened . . .Not that . . .please!"

Freedom didn't want to know just what Snape's father had done to him, though a part of him feared he knew all too well. The cowering and flinching were clear signs that he was reliving being beaten, and the thought of his master enduring that made him feel both sick to his stomach and furious. Not you too! He chirred, and then he bit Severus hard on the ear, screeching, Severus Snape! Wake the hell up, dammit!

"Huh?" Severus came awake, the sudden stinging pain in his ear and the hawk screaming finally penetrating the awful dream. "Freedom? Did you just bite me?"

Sorry, Sev. I had to. You wouldn't wake up. You were having a nightmare.

Severus rubbed his ear, which was sore, though the hawk had not broken the skin. He frowned and propped himself up on an elbow, speaking a word to activate the lamp on his nightstand. Light flooded the room, revealing an apologetic looking hawk standing beside his head.

"Bloody damn dream . . .I haven't dreamed about my father that way in . . .years."

You were moaning and crying out in your sleep, it frightened me. What did your father do to you?

"Things no father ever should," Severus said hoarsely. He reached out a hand to stroke the hawk, who rubbed his head alongside the lean hand comfortingly. "He was not a nice man . . .nor a particularly good father. He was a Muggle who hated the fact that I could do magic."

Why? Magic is good. At least sometimes it is, the hawk added, recalling the curses Snape had suffered.

"I know. But my father never understood that. All he knew was that by doing magic, I was disobeying him, and he . . .he never took disobedience well . . ." Severus shivered, wrapping his arms about himself.

He hurt you, didn't he?

"Yes. Enough, it was long ago, and I'm not going to think about it anymore tonight. I need to sleep, I have class tomorrow." He yawned, considered summoning some Dreamless Sleep from his potions cabinet, then shook his head. That potion always left him muzzy-headed in the morning. "I'm sorry if I woke you. How are you feeling?"

My head isn't hurting. But I had some strange dreams too, the hawk admitted shyly. About the family I used to live with.

"Mmm. Seems to be the night for it." Severus sat up. "I'm going to ask Twixie for some tea to help me relax. Perhaps there is one you could drink too. Would you like that?"

All right, Freedom agreed, though what he wanted most was to be free of these crazy dreams. I was a boy before I was a hawk. But that's ridiculous. How can I be two things at once? I won't even bother telling Sev that one, he'd think I was totally bonkers. I'm not sure if I'm not. What does going crazy feel like? Do you know it's happening?

Severus called Twixie and told her he wished to have a tea that relaxed and calmed him, so he could fall asleep easily and then he asked her if there was one a hawk might drink too.

Twixie considered. "I shall see what I can come up with, Master Severus. I'll be right back."

Ten minutes later, she was back, a steaming mug of chamomile lavender blend in a cup for Severus and a small bowl with a similar tea in it, though not steaming, for Freedom. "Here you go, sirs! Hope you enjoy it and have pleasant dreams. Good night!"

She popped away before Severus could thank her. He slowly sipped his tea, watching as Freedom drank his as well, perched upon the edge of the tray lying across Severus's knees.

They remained silent then, allowing the tea to work its own brand of magic upon their weary spirits, and once they were finished, tray, cup, and bowl vanished. Snape eyed his familiar. "Do you think you are ready to sleep now?"

Yes. May I stay here?

"You may. You know I don't mind the company." Severus agreed. He pulled the covers over him, and Freedom went back to roost upon the pillow. The Potions Master dimmed the lamp, then buried his head in the pillow and was soon fast asleep.

Freedom soon followed his example, and no more dreams came to plague them that night.

* * * * * *

But over the next few days, as Umbridge tightened her grip on the school, Freedom found himself at the mercy of more dream memories. After watching Umbridge evaluate Snape's potions class, she sneered and interrupted him during the whole lesson, making Freedom want to fly in her face and scratch her, he had an odd flashback to a different potions class, one where he had been a student.

* * * * * *

"But how can we get the boomslang skin for the Polyjuice Potion?" asked a bushy-haired girl, her name was Hermione and she was one of my best friends. "Professor Snape keeps it locked up in his office."

"And the only time his office is open is during class," red-haired Ron Weasley groaned. "What are we going to do?"

I thought quickly. "We'll . . .uh . . .distract him somehow. You know, make a cauldron explode or something. Then, while he's dealing with that, Hermione could sneak into the office and get the boomslang skin."

Hermione looked nervous. "Oh, but if we're caught, we'll be in so much trouble! We could get expelled!"

"I know, but we NEED the ingredients for the potion. Look, if anything happens, I'll say I talked you into it. He'll believe me, he's always happy when he can give me detention."

"Okay. I'll do it. But make sure it's a good distraction." Hermione said.

I did. I took a firework that I'd gotten as a Christmas present from the twins and lobbed it into Malfoy's cauldron when he wasn't looking. It exploded all over him, Crabbe, Goyle, and half my classmates.

We were doing Swelling Solutions and everyone who got splashed with the draft began to swell up immediately.

People began crying, well the girls did.

Snape went to his desk and pulled out a vial of some kind of blue potion and cried, "Settle down! Anyone who was hit, please come here so you can receive the Deflating Draft. And if I ever find out who did this . . ." There was murder in his eyes.

I shrank from his gaze and prayed that Hermione could find what we needed.

Snape was busy with the other students and didn't notice Hermione coming out of his office, a tell tale bulge under her robes. I gave her a thumbs up sign. Mission accomplished. I felt very proud of myself.

* * * * * *

Freedom shook his head abruptly, he was perched on the back of Severus's chair and must have dozed off. Umbridge and her pink clipboard were gone. Severus was scowling though and did not look happy. The hawk huddled upon the chair back, feeling suddenly ashamed.

I can't believe I did that. In Snape's class, of all places. I could have harmed students. I acted like . . .like Malfoy. Freedom thought regretfully. But that was not the worst thing. The worst thing was that his dream self didn't even care about that. All his other self had cared about was getting this ingredient for the Polyjuice Potion. And I did the same thing as Malfoy and stole from Severus. Only difference is I didn't get caught. He felt guilty and very confused.

Suddenly, he couldn't bear it in the stuffy classroom any longer and he spread his wings and flew out the door. Through the halls he glided, flying up to the Owlery, where a window was always left open.

He burst into the open sky and sunshine with a soft cry of relief. Here, out in the sun and the wind, no memories or whatever could find him.

He flew and circled for hours, diving at a passing rabbit or duck, but he did not hunt in earnest, he was still too upset to be bothered eating. But gradually, the long flight relaxed him, enough so he could return to Severus for a handout at lunch.

"You're quiet today," observed the professor, when Freedom didn't greet him with his usual bubbly verve. "Are you feeling sick?"

No. I'm just . . .thinking.

"You don't look that well." They were back in the glade, Freedom having suggested they go there. "Perhaps you need a tonic."

No, I'm just tired, Sev. Freedom answered. Tired and confused and ashamed.

"Why don't you take a nap then?" suggested the professor.

Freedom walked up to his wizard's shoulder and decided that it was safe to fall asleep there. But the guilt was lodged in his chest like a piece of bone stuck in his crop and he fluffed and preened, but couldn't sleep. At last he murmured, Severus . . .I'm sorry.

"For what?"

For . . .never mind . . .the bird ducked his head. How can I tell him I'm sorry for something I did in a dream? When I wasn't me, but a boy? He'll think I'm cracked. And he could be right.

"Something is bothering you, if you're apologizing to me over nothing," Severus said, puzzled. "What did you do, flyby Umbridge again?" The hawk did not reply and so Snape assumed that he was correct. "Try and exercise caution, won't you? She's very vindictive, and the last thing I want is to have to send you away in order to protect you. But what's done is done." He ruffled the bird's feathers. "Sleep, foolish bird. I forgive you for whatever it is."

You wouldn't if you ever knew what I'd done. But he did feel somewhat better after hearing that from Snape, enough so the guilt lessened and he could sleep. He dozed away the entire lunch, only waking when Snape had to return to class and said he should go flying.

All right, see you at dinner! Freedom launched himself from Severus's shoulder.

He lived to fly, to feel the wind beneath his wings, and after the round of dreams he had been having, flying made him feel ten times more alive and absolutely wonderful. He made a circuit of the castle and then his eye was caught by black, red, and gold figures on brooms.

Freedom had seen this before and had occasionally flown over to see what was going on. The young wizards used the brooms to fly and chase strange balls about. The hawk glided closer, and found it was Gryffindors practicing today. A rather large teen with dark hair that he knew was called Oliver Wood, was lecturing his teammates.

"You've got to tighten up your line, Bell and Spinnet. That way you can be prepared to catch the Quaffle when I throw it back to you. Fred and George, remember you have to keep the Bludgers away from Finnegan." He turned to Seamus Finnegan. "Seamus, I know you're the replacement Seeker since Harry's missing, but for Merlin's sake, at least try and catch the Snitch! You missed it completely and it was right over your head."

Seamus hung his head. "Sorry, Ollie. I'm trying. But sometimes I get to thinking about what Harry would do if he were here now . . ."

Oliver sighed exasperatedly. "If Harry were here right now, he'd be getting his arse kicked by me, for skylarking off and deserting the team. After I made sure he was okay, that is. Look, mate, I know you're worried about him-we all are. But you've got to put it out of your head now and just concentrate on the game. Focus, Finnegan. Think about what you need to do and then do it. Catch the Snitch and Gryffindor wins. Do it for Harry. Okay?" he clapped the other boy on the shoulder.

"Okay."

"All right. Let's do it again." Oliver ordered. "One more time, and this time, get it right." He flew back up to where three large rings were standing. He was the Keeper, and it was his job to stop the other team from scoring.

Freedom hovered, watching as the children chased the balls. It seemed like fun. His eyes lit upon the small golden winged ball that was fluttering just above the dark-haired Finnegan's head. That one reminded him of a pigeon.

The boy didn't notice it.

Silly human! Look up! Freedom thought, then dove at the fluttering ball.

Fast as the Snitch was, it wasn't fast enough to avoid the strike of a determined red-tailed hawk.

Freedom caught it neatly in his talons.

A surprised Seamus looked up . . .saw the hawk with the Snitch and nearly fell off his broom.

"Hey, Oliver!" called Katie Bell, who had seen the whole thing. "Look at that! The hawk-Snape's familiar-caught the Snitch!"

"He what? Birds don't play sports!"

"You should have seen it. It was amazing!"

"Yeah, but how do we get it back?" Seamus wondered.

Freedom released the Snitch then. It wasn't food, so he wasn't interested in keeping it.

The winged ball zipped away and Finnegan followed.

Freedom soared upward and waited for the golden ball to come with range again.

When it did, he stooped and caught it again in his talons, giving a soft victory cry.

Wood whistled. "Merlin! The hawk really does want to play Quidditch! Who would have thought?"

"Should we let him?" asked Alicia Spinnet.

"Let him?" Fred chuckled.

"How would you stop him?" George asked.

And so Freedom spent the rest of the afternoon playing a rather odd game of Quidditch with his former teammates, if he had only known, zigzagging across the sky in pursuit of the Golden Snitch.

Dinner that night was in the Great Hall, but Freedom didn't feel like attending, his head was starting to hurt again, and so he opted to remain at home. Severus fed him before going to dinner, concerned that the hawk was not acting like his usual sassy self. Perhaps I ought to take him to a Magical Creatures vet? Maybe there's something I'm missing?

But all the diagnostics said the hawk was healthy. It made no sense. If Freedom were human, Severus might have suspected the hawk was depressed, but he didn't think depression was an issue with an animal. He left his quarters, still pondering his familiar's sudden change in behavior.

* * * * *

Once again, the hawk dozed, and more memories assaulted him.

I could hear the chanting of my House as I sought the Snitch. "Go, go Gryffindor!" and then I saw it, fluttering just off to the side and caught it to win the game. When I landed my broom, all my teammates were slapping me on the back and carrying me on their shoulders, because it was the first time in over seven years that Gryffindor had ever beat Slytherin . . .

I was running away from a giant spider and all of his relatives, through the trees of the Forbidden Forest . . .

Soaring through the clouds on the back of a hippogriff, laughing, on a flight like none other . . .

A deadly serpent attacked me, fangs dripping with venom, and all I had to defend myself was a sword and my own courage . . .

Severus glowered down at me, scolding me and waving a copy of the paper in my face. "Do you realize what you have done? You risked the exposure of our world! Look at this!" He thrust the paper in my face. Muggles Mystified by Flying Ford Anglia! "Were you in Slytherin, and under my jurisdiction, you would be on the first train home . . .tonight!" he slammed his hand down on his desk so hard a goblet of pumpkin juice spilled and I quivered . . .

A troll dangled me upside down and a girl was screaming, "Ron! Remember, swish and flick!"

Then I was falling off my broom, because some strange dark things had come onto the grounds and filled me with terror . . .

I sat in the office with a handsome blond man, Gilderoy Lockhart, my Defense professor, whom I detested, helping him write fan mail. It was so boring I nearly fell asleep, though it was one of the better detentions I had served . . .

Lockhart and Snape faced off in a duel, and Severus blew Lockhart halfway across the room with a well-timed "Expelliarmus!" I found myself cheering, even though I didn't really care for Snape all that much . . .

Having tea with Hagrid, just sitting quietly and not having to talk, listening to him tell me about all the magical creatures he'd found and treated over the summer. It was pleasant, there in the hut, and I could relax and not have to deal with the endless chatter of my Housemates, asking how my summer was, when it was so awful that I didn't want to talk about it, let alone remember it . . .

Then came one of the oldest and darkest memories, of a time when a red-haired woman, my mother I think, was yelling at a tall hateful man, "Not my baby! Take me instead!"

"Step aside, woman! Step aside, now!"

I heard her scream and then there was a flash of green light . . .

* * * * * *

The hawk awoke with a screech, trembling so violently he nearly fell off his perch.

Severus nearly dropped the mug of tea he'd been holding. "Freedom! What on earth . . .?" He set the mug down and ran over to see what had made the hawk cry out like that. He had a break inbetween classes for the afternoon and had chosen today to spend it relaxing for an hour in his rooms instead of marking papers.

"Are you hurt? What's the matter?"

The bird peered up at him, his amber eyes whirling in consternation. A green light! I dreamed of it again, Severus. A green light . . .a woman screaming . . .I'm scared . . .

Severus reached for the bird immediately, and the hawk came to him, huddling into his chest. He ran his fingers through the brown feathers and murmured, "Easy. It's all right. I'm here. You're safe."

He walked back to the couch, cradling the trembling tiercel, and gradually, with repeated reassurances and stroking, the hawk calmed. "You said you dreamed of it again? You've dreamed of a green light before?"

Yes . . .it killed them, I think . . .a bright green light . . .

Severus was puzzled. "A green light? Surely not . . .the Killing Curse . . .?" But what else could it be? Nothing but that kills so quickly and it does give off a green glow. But how could Freedom know of it, unless . . .he witnessed it. Perhaps his former owners were Muggles and they were victims of an attack by Death Eaters? The Dark Lord has been sending out more patrols of late . . .and who but a Death Eater would cast an Unforgivable?

"Freedom . . .the family you lived with before . . .could they do magic, like me?"

No. They didn't have magic at all. They didn't believe in it. The hawk was still trying to rid himself of the awful scream he had heard in his head. He buried his head in the familiar black robes and reminded himself that there were no green lights here, only Severus, whose hand was rubbing him and whose voice was slowly erasing the scream in his memory.

"Ah. I see. And did you see . . .when the green light came, who cast the spell?"

It was . . .a man . . .a dark man . . .Please, Sev, I don't want to talk anymore . . .please!

"All right. Relax. You're safe." Severus continued to whisper, for his voice was getting hoarse as he had just brewed and drank a new batch of Hawk Speak. He scratched lightly at his arm, where faint bits of white down had appeared, and thanked Merlin that no one would notice because he always wore long sleeves.

He decided not to question the agitated familiar further, for he could picture what had happened on his own. Whoever had owned Freedom before had died, the victim of a Death Eater raid, most likely. That was how the hawk had ended up flying away and coming here.

The hawk had seen and it had obviously made an impression, if he were still dreaming of it weeks later. No wonder he was having bad dreams.

Eventually, Freedom's tremors died and he sat up on Severus's wrist and asked cheekily, Do you have anything to eat in this place? Because all of a sudden, I'm starving.

"One minute, Mr. Impatience," Snape admonished gently, then summoned the game bag to him, it had a preserving spell upon it, and removed a large wing and thigh of a duck. "Here. Eat that. It should tide you over until supper."

Duck! So greasy, but it tastes wonderful! The hawk seized the treat in his talons and flew back over to his perch to eat it.

Severus cast a cleaning charm over the hawk's perch, scouring away the old mutes and castings, which all looked normal, so there was nothing wrong with the hawk's digestive tract. And he was eating hungrily, another good sign.

Still, he wondered whether or not to make the appointment with the vet Hagrid had named. And how will I explain that my hawk is nervous because he's been having nightmares? I would be lucky if the vet didn't lock me away and call in some Mind Healers to evaluate me. Still . . .if he starts going off his food again, I will bring him and let the vet examine him . . .

* * * * * *

That night the memories were pleasant, mostly about Quidditch, though there were a few with Ron and Hermione, studying and playing chess together, laughing over some silly prank the twins had played.

I remembered the first Christmas at Hogwarts, the first time I'd ever gotten real presents, from Ron and Hermione and Mrs. Weasley and the Invisibility Cloak from Dumbledore . . .that had once been my dad's. . . .

Snowball fights with my friends after class . . .though once I missed throwing it at Hermione and instead it hit Snape, who was out walking . . .I was sure we were all in for it, detention for a week . . .He looked up, glared at me, and sneered, "Was that meant for me, or do you just have terrible aim?" he brushed himself off.

"No, sir . . .it was an accident . . .I meant to hit Hermione . . ."

"I ought to give the lot of you detention, you know . . ." His eyes glinted strangely. "But perhaps this will be a better lesson."

And all of a sudden, the air was filled with snowballs, and we ended up getting hit in the face and the chest. When we finally brushed ourselves off, the snarky professor was gone and we just looked at each other and Ron said, "That was weird. Wonder what's up with him?"

"Maybe he took a Happy Potion?" suggested Hermione, and we all cracked up, because the only way Snape ever looked happy was when he was taking points from Gryffindor. . .

Going to Hogsmeade and drinking butterbeer and eating toffee at the Three Broomsticks, shopping at Zonkos with the twins and Ron . . .

* * * * *

Freedom seemed much more his usual self that next morning, and left after breakfast on his morning flight, bidding Severus goodbye cheerily. He spent the day chasing sunbeams and gliding on updrafts, chasing small flocks of starlings playfully and catching several mice for lunch.

He was still puzzled over the fact that he had been at one time a human, but was now a hawk. How had it happened? That was a mystery, all right. Then he flipped his tail and decided it didn't matter much right then. He loved being a hawk, and his relatives as a human clearly didn't want or need him. He was far better off being Severus's familiar.

Though he did wonder who he had been and why it was that the only people who cared for him were his friends?

That night, the dreams were particularly bad.

He relived the death of someone named Cedric, killed by yet another of those green flash curses, he was forced to watch as Wormtail resurrected the Dark Lord once again and he tried to fight the twisted dark wizard, only to find their wands conjoined and no duel was possible . . .

Dobby deliberately dropped the cake on the Masons, and of course I was blamed and locked in my room for weeks . . .until the twins and Ron came to get me in their Dad's flying car . . .

Snape, walking around in class, his robe billowing, looking at my solution and sneering, "Clearly, fame isn't everything."

Sneaking back into the school, after Malfoy had seen my head at the Shrieking Shack and getting dragged down to Snape's office by my ear. "I should have known, you are just like your father, strutting around, breaking rules left and right, typical arrogant Gryffindor!"

I shouted at him then, terrified he would find the map, and not caring that I was being disrespectful, because for some reason he hated me and I didn't like him either . . .

The Shrieking Shack, where Snape was about to hex Sirius Black, before we could hear the whole explanation of how he had been framed, and Ron, Hermione, and I disarmed him and knocked him out. Served him right, the greasy git . . .

Potions class again, where it seemed I could do nothing right, and Severus was always on my arse . . .

Scrubbing cauldrons and pickling rat livers in the dungeons, while Snape hovered like a bloody bat, watching me in disapproval, always sneering . . .

* * * * * * *

Blinking, Freedom awoke, the first pale hints of dawn streaked the sky through the casement in the bedroom, Snape had charmed the wall to always reflect the weather outside that day. The hawk stretched and looked at the man sleeping beside him and for the first time felt . . .conflicted, bewildered, and confused.

How could the man sleeping here, the one who had found him and splinted his wings, healed him and saved his life, be the same as the one who had sneered and belittled him? How was it that the wizard who spoke so gently to him and soothed him with his voice and hands be the same one who had grabbed and shaken him and shouted at him?

How can I . . .care and . . .love this Severus? He wondered frantically. And yet hate the Snape that used to be my teacher? No, I don't hate him . . .how can I? He's my friend . . .my protector . . .but once I was a Gryffindor and he hated me for it . . .or hated my father, I'm not sure which . . .Ah, Merlin help me! I'm so confused!

The sharp comments, the detentions, some of them unfairly given . . .and yet, he also remembered how he had shivered with fever and Severus had been there, holding him in a warmed towel, sick and dizzy as he had been, he remembered that. Severus's smile when he returned to him for the first time after being allowed to fly free . . .Hell, I didn't even think he knew how to smile, he never did before, especially not at me. I don't understand. Who was I that he disliked me so as a boy? And how could he love me as a hawk without realizing who I was? Well, I mean, I still don't know who I am, but . . .am I so different as a hawk?

He gazed down at his wizard, the man who had been at once savior and unfair disciplinarian, and felt torn and broken again. He didn't want to lose the feeling of closeness he had with the professor, the first time he had ever felt such with anyone. He realized with a jolt that he actually liked the man, his sharp wit was amusing and he could be gentle when he chose, and he suffered terribly at the hands of a monster, all for the sake of love and a promise.

Damn you, Snape! Damn you for making me like you and . . .dislike you at the same time! I can't take this anymore! I need to fly, to clear my head . . .

Freedom cast off, flying into the lounge area, and towards the door.

Twixie! he called.

The house elf appeared immediately. "What's wrong, Freedom? Is Master Severus hurt again?"

No, he's asleep. I just need to be let out of here. I need to fly. So could you just . . .open the door for me?

"But of course. I will tell Master Severus where you have gone, so he shan't worry." Twixie said, and with a wave of her hand, the door to Severus's quarters swung open.

Thank you, Twixie! The hawk called and flew away down the corridor. Tell Severus so he won't worry. Would he worry if he knew who I was? Who am I? I don't want to remember . . .I don't . . .but I think maybe I have to . . .so I can understand why I feel the way I do about Severus . . .

The hawk flew on and through the open window of the Owlery. The owls were mostly asleep and didn't mind him coming and going, as long as he was quiet.

Freedom emerged into a gentle dawn, his heart heavy within him, and circled the tower, trying to remember who he had been, when he spotted two small shapes below him, walking slowly down the path to Hagrid's hut.

Huh? What students would be awake at this hour of the morning?

He flew down for a closer look and nearly stalled in midair.

For they were his friends from his dream-memories.

Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.

Silently, he followed them, hoping to learn more about his past and perhaps at last figure out his name, the name he had wished forgotten, the name that Snape detested, yet that now he must remember.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Hope you all liked it!

Next: Freedom learns some interesting things from Ron, Hermione, and Hagrid

Some of you have been asking when Ron and Hermione were going to appear in this story . . .well, here they are!



Chapter 13: Concerned Friends
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Despite the earliness of the hour, neither Ron nor Hermione could sleep any longer.  They were too full of worry and upset about their missing friend, had been for weeks, and it had just gotten worse.  Since they were both prefects, they had some leeway with their Head of House about wandering about the school and the grounds, and both of them had met up in the common room and decided to go for a walk down to Hagrid's.   All three of them used to visit the gamekeeper on a regular basis last year and in previous years, but this year, Ron and Hermione were too busy with their prefect duties plus class and all to be bothered going there much.  Harry had gone there, though, or at least that was where he said he'd been when Ron or Hermione had asked him where he went after supper.

They figured they could catch up on things with Hagrid and have tea and maybe he had an idea where Harry was, since no one else seemed to. 

"You don't think this is too early, going visiting?" asked Hermione.

"Nah.  Hagrid always says he's up with the sun.  And with some of the sick creatures he's got to care for, he probably is," Ron reassured her.  He heaved a huge sigh and brushed the hair from his eyes. If his mum were here, she'd tell him he needed a trim, but lately, he hadn't really cared about his appearance all that much.  "I just hope he's got an idea about why Harry disappeared.  It's been driving me bonkers, trying to figure out why."

"I know." Hermione looked troubled.  "I've been having trouble concentrating on my studies and you haven't gone to Quidditch tryouts at all, Ron. Speaking of which, why is Oliver Wood back here? Didn't he go off and get a contract with Puddlemere United or something?"

"Yeah, he did, but he's not renewed it yet for some reason and we, uh, asked him to coach us since he wasn't busy and he agreed," Ron explained.  "You see, things with the team have kind of . . .fallen apart since Harry left.  Everybody's upset and we haven't been able to get together and act like a team.  I was going to try out for Keeper, Harry said I should, but now . . .I just don't feel like it.  Ginny thought she could be reserve Seeker, but now she's too upset to even go practice, so Seamus is Seeker for now.  He's not the greatest, but . . .at least he's willing to play.  Things just aren't the same without Harry."

Hermione patted Ron's shoulder comfortingly. "Too right. Now I've no one to rag on for not doing their homework," she joked feebly.  "Oh, Ron, what if something dreadful's happened to him? Or is happening?  He could be kidnapped by . . .by You-Know-Who!"

"No, I don't think so, Hermione.  I asked McGonagall about that last week and she said no.  That they have it on good authority that Harry's not with them."

"But how would they know? I mean, it isn't as if You-Know-Who's going to send out a ransom note or whatever."

Ron shook his head.  "I don't know, but I trust McGonagall.  And if Harry really was in danger, they'd be sending the Order after him and they haven't . . .least not that I know of," Ron muttered.

Neither of them noticed the hawk soaring silently above their heads, listening to their conversation. 

"Then where could he be? And how has he managed to stay hidden this long?"

"Search me.  At first, I thought he'd used the Invisibility Cloak, but I checked and it's still in his trunk.  Along with everything else he owned."

"Ron! You went through his trunk?" Hermione cried, aghast.  "But that's private!"

"I know, but when he didn't turn up after a week . . .I thought maybe I could use the map to find him, only . . .it wasn't there."

"Do you think he has it, then?" Hermione queried, her brow furrowing. "And that's how he's been avoiding everyone these past weeks?"

"Possibly.  It would explain why nobody's seen him yet."

No.  The map . . .the map was burned, the hawk recalled, shivering.  It had been burned by Vernon, after he had brought Dudley home from the dementor attack.  Vernon had been furious that monsters from that "freaky school" had attacked his son.  He blamed Harry, saying he drew them with his odd ways, and Harry had been putting away the map at the time, holding it in his hand, when Vernon snatched it and threw it into the fireplace.

The hawk flew on ahead of the pair, alighting upon the roof tree of the small cottage. He felt exhausted, though he hadn't flown very far.  Seeing Ron and Hermione again had supplied the missing piece of the puzzle.

I'm Harry.  Harry Potter.

He knew that was his name.  He was the missing boy everyone was so anxious to find.

And with that realization, a door that had been closed in his mind now opened, and the rest of his memories came flooding back.  It was nearly too much.  He screamed aloud with the pain . . .too much information, too soon, images flashed into his head one after another. He huddled down on the thatch and felt as if his head were about to explode.

"What was that?" cried Hermione.  "Sounded like something screeching."

"Probably a bird or something," Ron shrugged dismissively.

He did not know how he managed to keep his perch, yet somehow he did, and after about fifteen minutes, the deluge of memories slowed, and he was able to sit up and examine them.  Or try to.

Below, inside the cottage, he could hear Hagrid greeting Ron and Hermione, inviting them to sit down for a cuppa.  "Jus' put the kettle on a few minutes ago. Glad you could stop by. Been keepin' all righ'?"

"Fine, Hagrid," answered Hermione.  "Except . . .we're really worried about Harry."

"I know, lass.  Everyone is.  But y'can't . . .y'can't give up hope."

"Do you know what might have happened to him?" asked Ron.  "Maybe he left ‘cause of something we said? Or did?  I . . .I haven't been a real good friend lately.  I was so busy going out with Lavender that I . . .didn't really pay much attention to him."

"Me either," Hermione admitted, ashamed.  "I was trying to study for my OWL's and do well in Defense Against the Dark Arts, even if it is taught by that cow, Umbridge.  And Harry . . .well he was kind of quiet when he came back from break, but I thought it was just ‘cause he missed being with Sirius or something.  And I was kind of glad . . .since at the beginning of the year he was kind of . . .angry and we quarreled all the time."

"Kind of angry?" Ron snorted.  "Hermione . . .he was like a cauldron bubbling over. Any little thing set him off.  Although, we weren't much better. It wasn't until Dad got hurt by that snake and almost died that I realized I'd been acting like a selfish git and taking things for granted again.  Like Harry's friendship."

"Did he, uh say anything to you before he, uh, disappeared?" Hagrid asked gently.

"No. All he said after dinner was that he wanted to go for a walk, to think about something.  I didn't really think much of it, he always seemed to want to be alone, and I was . . .uh . . .meeting Lavender in the library, we were going to . . .uh study some Charms . . ."

"What charms, Ronald? Love charms?" demanded Hermione suspiciously.

"What's it matter?" Ron snapped.  "Anyway, afterwards, we headed back up to the Tower and it was then I noticed Harry wasn't in his bed.  Or the common room."

"But you didn't really start to worry till after curfew," Hermione reminded.  "Then we went and checked the halls, and the Hospital Wing, we even looked at the detention logs outside the teacher's lounge."

The detention logs were posted on a chart on the wall and updated magically every hour, practically.  They listed the student's name, class they'd received detention in, time and date detention was to be served and what professor it was served under.

"And his name wasn't on them.  Then we thought maybe he was spending the night down here, and went to sleep.  But when we woke the next morning and he still wasn't back . . .that's when we went to McGonagall." Ron finished.

Hagrid sighed.  "I know it's been hard on ya, but don't blame yourselves.  I think . . .I think Harry went away t' clear his head, an' when he's ready he'll be back."

"Then you don't think he's in danger?" Hermione persisted.

"No.  Professor Snape and Dumbledore say not, an' I trust them." Hagrid said simply. 

Ron's eyebrows went up.  "Snape? You trust Snape?"

"Aye, I do.  An' so does the Headmaster.  The professor isn't all what he seems." Hagrid said mysteriously.

Ron snorted.  "Well, least he's not as bad as Umbridge.  Now she could be classed as a menace to society.  Have you seen the new rules she's been posting? She's starting to turn the school into a . . .prison!"

"Worse.  She's turning the school into a place where only people who think like her are free to express themselves.  It's like a dictatorship.  And her detentions . . .she hurts kids, Hagrid!" declared Hermione passionately.  "It's not like she just gives them stuff to clean or cut up or write lines without using magic.  She . . .she makes kids write lines that leave cuts on their hands for hours."

"Cuts on your hands?" Hagrid repeated.

"Yes.  I saw Fred and George's hands after a detention with her and the back of their hand was cut and whatever words are on the paper get cut onto the back of your hand." Ron said angrily.

"She's gone that far?"

"Yeah.  And we can't stop her because now she'll be in charge of the whole school."

"Does the Headmaster know? Professor McGonagall?"

"No.  We couldn't tell them. She said it wasn't against Ministry policy to write lines as detention. Besides, the Minister put her in charge, and she has authority over them now," Hermione said angrily.  "I detest that witch! And her class too.  It's awful, we don't learn anything useful in it and I feel like I'm wasting my time."

"Me too. I mean, all she does is quote us Ministry methods of casting spells, we don't actually cast anything, since she thinks we don't need to." Ron went on.  "It really sucks, but we have to take it.  I just wish there was a way we could skip it, but anyone missing her class for anything is grounds for detention. Terry Boot got one yesterday because he was sick, and Madam Pomfrey even gave him a note, but the dumb hag said it didn't count, that a sore throat wasn't  serious enough to miss class."

Hermione cleared her throat.  "We've been thinking a lot about this, ever since Harry disappeared.  It's not right that the Ministry forces us to have substandard teaching, we should protest or something.  Like they do in Muggle society.  Only Ron says that doesn't work as well here. So . . .we thought what if we had a different kind of protest? Like a secret group of our own, dedicated to learning Defense that Umbridge refuses to teach us? I wanted . . .we both wanted . . .Harry to help us and teach it, but since he's gone, we'll just . . .have to carry on ourselves till he gets back.  I've started a list of everyone in the school, among all the Houses, that wants to learn how to defend themselves, and now all we need is a place to hold the meetings and a way to call each other without anyone knowing except us."

"Well, y'might want to speak to Aberforth who owns the Hog's Head down in Hogsmeade.  He's Dumbledore's younger brother an' he might know of  a place you could go and a way you could contact everybody," Hagrid suggested.  "Only what ye're proposing is dangerous, y'know that, don't you? Umbridge . . .I seen her like before, an' she don't like it when people cross her.  She fancies herself Queen over here an' in her kingdom, her word rules.  So watch yourselves, hear?"

"Yes, Hagrid," said Hermione.  "We'll be careful.  And thanks."  There came the scrape of a chair being pushed back and then another.

"Guess we'd better head back on up to Gryffindor Tower.  Got to make sure all the firsties are up for class and breakfast and what not," Ron said. "Thanks for the tea, Hagrid."

"Yer welcome.  See you around."

Ron and Hermione emerged from the hut and started to walk back towards the castle, still pondering over their new scheme to form a secret Defense group and where their missing friend might be.

Freedom watched them go with weary eyes and made no move to follow.  He now recalled with searing clarity the night he had become an Animagus, and soared into the sky only to falter and crash into the tower and then the ground, breaking both wings and knocking himself out. 

And then he had been found by the last person on earth he would have ever expected or trusted to heal him. 

But Snape had healed him.  And done so efficiently and compassionately.  Freedom, who still couldn't quite get used to thinking of himself as Harry yet, knew that most people finding an injured bird like that would have given him up for dead or put him down as impossible to save, he had been so badly hurt.  He himself had tried to save birds with broken wings before and all of them had died despite his care.

I would have died too.  If he hadn't found me, or if he hadn't healed me from that infection or whatever the second time after I bashed myself senseless, when Draco shoved me off the perch in the lab.  I thought for sure that night I was done for. He recalled shivering so violently he felt as if he were about to fly apart and being so hot it was as though he were roasting at the same time, so sick he barely could lift his head, and then had come the silky voice, talking to him, and hands wrapping him in a warm towel.  The touch and the voice had anchored him, provided a lifeline for him to cling to, beyond the potions themselves. 

Stay.  Stay with me.  He cared for me and wanted me and so I stayed.

Freedom shook his head, still trying to come to grips with the fact that his snarky teacher had not only saved his life, but become a friend and made him a kind of confidante as well.  He knew things that he was certain no one else did about Severus Snape.   He had seen the man battered and sick . . .half-dead from torture at the hands of Voldemort.  He had seen Snape relaxed and calm, reading in his quarters, and also fiercely protective of his familiar, even to the point of meting out stern punishments to his own House.

And like me, he was also a victim of abuse and grew up with a father who hated him for what he was, like Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia did to me.  Oh, how he would hate it if he knew that I knew all about him.  Me, Harry Potter, the son of his worst rival, the Brat-Who-Lives-To-Annoy-Him, as he puts it.

Freedom spread his wings and soared into the sky, flying always helped him think clearer and right then he needed all the clarity he could get. 

He was torn between liking the man Severus was out of his classroom, the scintillatingly intelligent, thoughtful, witty man who loved the hawk he had adopted and at the same time resenting the hectoring, bitter, sharp-tongued professor who bullied him for reasons known only to himself.  The dichotomy tore at him. 

Snape had sneered and mocked him since the day he had walked into his potions class, disliked him without reason, and had treated him and his Housemates unfairly.  He had accused Harry of being an attention-seeking glory-hound and arrogant and disobedient like his father, whom he detested.  Snape had been wrong on all counts save the last, for Harry had to admit he had broken more than one school rule.  For a good cause, true, but nevertheless . . .Even so, Snape should not have treated him that way.  It had been undeserved.

And now Freedom did not know what to think or how to feel.  Or what to do.  He did not know if he should attempt to reverse his transformation, since he hadn't really studied up on how to do that.  He hadn't been expecting it to work at all the first time, but it had.  And he had become a hawk that was Snape's familiar.

He glided lazily on an updraft, eyes ever alert to the ground below.

He thought about how worried his friends were, and his teachers, hell even Snape had seemed worried, that he was missing.  He knew that he ought to try and shift back.  But he was reluctant and afraid. 

The truth was he enjoyed being a hawk.  As a hawk his needs were simple, he needed to fly and hunt and be a companion to Severus.  There was no pressure on him to be some great savior, a hero that everyone pointed at because of a scar, nobody whispered and talked behind his back about how he was crazy because he insisted that Voldemort had returned.  He didn't have to endure detention with Umbridge anymore, or living with the Dursleys, or Snape's cutting remarks.  He didn't have to remember that he had caused Cedric to die or had enabled Voldemort to be reborn.

How the hell can they expect me to save the world and defeat a bloody madman when I can't even fix what's wrong with my own life? He wondered bitterly.  For he was still broken inside, still hurting and depressed, that had not gone away when he had become Freedom, he had simply forgotten about it for a time.  But the return of his memories had brought back the crushing despair as well. 

I can't go back.  Not yet.  I need more time.  Time to heal . . .if I ever can.

Worse, he was afraid.

Afraid to face everyone.  He had run away, like a coward.  And he was still running.

Running to hide behind Severus, a part of him thought, sneeringly. Who made him feel safe, hard as that was to believe about the man, remembering what he did. But that was the truth. Freedom knew the master wizard would defend him to the death, regardless of how he might feel personally about Harry Potter.

Which brought him to the other reason he was reluctant to transform back.  If he did, Snape would lose his familiar.  The one creature he loved, who was his friend.  Despite all the man had done to him, Harry felt compassion for the lonely wizard.  He knew what it was like to have no friends, to have no one to rely on save himself.  That had been his life before Hogwarts and he had not forgotten all those long days locked in a broom cupboard, when he had wished for a friend to talk to. 

I think I'm the first real friend he's had since my mum died.  His mother, Lily . . .whom he barely remembered.  Lily . . .who Snape had loved and sworn to protect along with her son.  There was yet another shocking revelation.  He had seen the pain mingled with longing in the man's eyes when he had spoken of her.  And he knew then that Snape was a fraud.  The professor was not someone who did not care for people, but perhaps had cared too much.  And been hurt badly because of it. The ice was a shield, a way to protect himself.  Only Freedom had found a way in. 

He remembered that horrible night when Snape had returned from the meeting with Voldemort.  Of the wizard crawling across the floor . . .telling Freedom that he was a spy because he had no family, that no one would miss him if he died. 

Freedom remembered telling Severus that he was wrong, that he cared.  He had meant it then.  And he still did. 

How then could he betray that fragile trust?

Two broken creatures have found each other.

Severus's words echoed in his head.  And I'm still broken, Sev.  So are you.  Both of us are a screwed up mess.

The hawk spotted a loping cottontail in the grass, hovered, then dove at it. 

The rabbit bolted, but this time Freedom was able to snatch it up and kill it quickly.  He settled down in the grass to eat his breakfast.  A part of him knew he should be revolted, he had just killed a living creature and was now eating it raw.  But the hawk was pragmatic, you had to kill to survive, and eat to live.  He allowed the hawk mind control, and finished the rabbit without feeling guilty or disgusted. That was the beauty of being a hawk-no regrets.  No torturing yourself over what could have been, or should have been. Or what had been. 

I'll stay Freedom for a bit longer.  I still have time before the hag implements that new policy about unexcused absences.  I'm not ready to risk everything yet, not ready to destroy this new friendship . . .It's strange, after all he's done to me, I shouldn't care whether or not he's hurt, but I do . . .Merlin help me, I do. Losing me now might well break him and that's the last thing I want. The snarky bastard doesn't deserve that, no one does. And . . .I don't want to lose him either.  I'm still angry about the way he treated me before, and someday I'm going to ask him why and give him a good piece of my mind, but that's okay.  That can wait.  The toad is in charge and he's going to need all his wits to deal with her.  So am I.  She really hates me, I think she'd kill me, or have me killed if she could. 

He suppressed a shudder when he thought of Umbridge, who in her way, was as deadly as Voldemort and his followers.  Deadlier, because you didn't see her as a threat until it was too late. 

There's another thing I don't understand.  Why doesn't Dumbledore get off his arse and DO something about her? How come he's just sitting and watching while she runs the school into the ground? He's one of the most influential wizards alive, head of the Wizengamut, he got me off an expulsion charge, everyone bloody respects him as this great wizard, so why is he letting this upstart hag back him into a corner? Fudge is a wimp, I've seen how the man shakes when Dumbledore mentions Voldemort in the same sentence, surely he could convince the Minister to leave well enough alone and get Umbridge's sorry backside out of here.  So why doesn't he?

Yet another question he didn't have the answer to.  But he would.  Freedom vowed that he would have answers to all those questions before he willingly returned to his true form.  As a hawk, he could get those answers far easier than he would as a human.  All he had to do was be in the right place at the right time and listen.  

Like he had today.  Sorry, Ron and Hermione.  You'll just have to make do without me for a little while longer.  Until I figure out a way to get rid of Umbridge for good and what's up with Dumbledore and all.  That group sounds like a good thing though, trust Hermione to come up with it.  It's about time the students started to fight back.  Ha! Listen to me.  Like I can talk, when I'm still in my Animagus shape.

He flew over to the lake, which had warmed up some in the sun, and ventured into the shallows and began to wash and preen himself. 

He recalled a book he had read a few years ago, borrowing it out of the public library.  It had been a compilation of essays and quotes by various famous people about the nature of courage and he recalled that one part of it had said that there were many types of courage. Some were obvious, some weren't.  But all were necessary.  Perhaps it was time for him to display a different kind of courage, and fight against Umbridge with wits and cleverness.  After all, who would ever suspect a hawk of starting a covert war?

* * * * * *

He returned to Snape's quarters as dusk was falling, and the professor greeted him with a quiet smile.  "You seem much better than yesterday.  No more headaches?"

No.  I feel fine. Freedom answered, striving to sound casual.  He was sitting on Severus's wrist, as usual, only now it felt a bit awkward.  Severus reached out to stroke him and he jerked away. 

"What's wrong with you? You're acting all skittish."

Nothing.  I was just startled . . .is all. The hawk replied, forcing himself to settle. Startled because you'd probably keel over if you ever knew you were petting Harry Potter in hawk form. 

He allowed Snape to stroke him, admitting that it did feel nice, though normally nice and Snape were not words he would have ever put together in the same sentence. 

"Are you hungry?"

Freedom thought about it.  He had eaten the whole rabbit some hours ago, but already his stomach was clamoring for more food.  I could eat.

Severus summoned the game bag and took out some pieces of pheasant.  "Pheasant all right?"

Yes.  As a boy, he was not picky at all, and as a hawk he was no different.

He took the pheasant from the palm of Snape's hand and flew over near his perch to eat it, like always. 

Severus had his usual soup and a sandwich and a large glass of water.  He was drinking more water lately, the Hawk Speak left his throat unbearably dry as well as hoarse now.  He had Twixie bring him a pitcher of water as well. 

When Freedom had finished his meal, he fluttered up to his perch, debating whether or not to go and sit on Snape's shoulder.  Yesterday, he wouldn't have even questioned the impulse . . .today however  . . .He scraped his beak on the wooden perch, wishing suddenly he could go back to yesterday, when he was just Snape's familiar with crazy dreams.  He had not expected it to be so bloody awkward. 

Severus eyed the hawk in concern.  Usually, after a day apart, Freedom was eager to perch upon his shoulder or wrist, relishing the contact with his wizard.  Tonight, he seemed, distant, though Severus couldn't put his finger on why.  "Are you sure you're feeling all right?"

The hawk looked at him and blinked.  I feel fine, why?

"Because usually you like to sit on my shoulder after dinner."

Great! He noticed.  Now what? The hawk fluffed his feathers.  I . . .just don't feel like doing that tonight, I guess.

"Very well," Severus said, though Freedom detected a note of puzzled hurt in his voice.  "Are you certain you're not ill?"

Yes, damn it! Freedom exploded, struggling to reconcile the memories of the greasy bat Snape with Severus his friend.  I am fine, now leave me the hell alone! Please! He added belatedly.

Severus rose to his feet, staring down at his familiar in astonishment.  "Well, you're in a temper tonight.  What happened?"

I regained my damn memory and found out you were a damn git to me, is what happened! Freedom thought angrily.  He clicked his beak sharply, glowering at the Potions Master.  I don't want to talk about it.  Why don't you go and brew a potion or whatever?

One raven eyebrow rose.  "Just because you're in a snit is no reason to take your temper out on me."

No? That's what you do sometimes.  To your students! Freedom blurted, then could have bitten off his tongue. 

"And how would you know that?"

I saw you once. The hawk said, thinking, Whenever I was in class, you always snapped at me, that's how I know!

"On occasion, yes, I am guilty of that," Severus admitted. "But that doesn't mean you should follow my example."

Freedom did not reply, figuring it was safer if he kept his mouth shut.  Merlin, but he hadn't known his temper was going to run away with him.  He had nearly revealed his true identity.  Idiot! Get hold of yourself! There's no sense in you getting mad at him now for something that you can't discuss with him.

The Potions Master shook his head.  "So be it.  If you are determined to sulk, for whatever reason, I shall go and work in my lab."  He frowned down at his hawk.  Then he left, muttering loud enough for Freedom to hear, "Damn odd behavior he's been exhibiting.  Maybe he's going to molt, I've read that hawks get crabby just before that happens . . ."

Yeah, that's what's happening, Sev.  My brain's molted back to a fifteen-year-old kid's again, and I'm trying to deal with the fact that the person who saved my life twice and became a good friend was also the same bastard who humiliated me for four years.  So excuse me all to blazes if I'm a little touchy!

The hawk hunched upon the perch, feeling wretched.  He found he didn't enjoy quarreling with Severus, especially not when the man had no clue why he was so angry.  Dammit, Snape! Why did you have to go and be nice to me? It would be so much easier if you were a nasty git to me, like always.  Instead I like you now and it's driving me crazy and I can't even tell you why.  Ah, Merlin's bloody beard! Why does everything in my life have to be so complicated?

He walked back and forth upon the perch, trying to settle his nerves, but he found he couldn't find a calm center, and so he flew over to the back of the couch and perched there.  His talons punctured the leather and he winced.  Brilliant! Wait till Severus sees that, he's going to have a fit. 

Flicking his tail, the hawk hopped down to lay upon the green afghan that was Severus's favorite.  The soft material enfolded him and within moments he was asleep, weary from dealing with everything he had learned that day.     


 



Chapter End Notes:


So what did you think?

I will still refer to Harry as Freedom until he regains his human form, since most Animagi have one name as a human and another in their animal form.

Next: A trip to Dumbledore's office reveals some shocking news and a secret long kept hidden is revealed to Freedom.



Chapter 14: Prophecy of Lies
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Freedom woke in the middle of the night, trembling from yet another nightmarish vision of Cedric screaming. He lay still on the afghan for a moment, trying to calm down. He hated that he kept having these same nightmares over and over, he wanted them to stop, it had been months since Cedric's death, shouldn't he have gotten over it by now? But no, the dreams kept reoccurring, and he kept waking up drenched in sweat-well he would have been as a human-and shaking.

His hawk eyes picked out the familiar shapes of the fireplace and his perch beside it, dim shades in the faint light from the Lumos spelled nightlamp Severus kept in the small alcove between his bedroom and the small bathroom. Freedom suspected Snape had engaged the globe because he knew of the hawk's tendency to fly to his room at night and didn't want him crashing into the wall. Or perhaps he just wanted a light on to see his way to the toilet during the night. Whatever the reason, that night Freedom was grateful for the scant illumination, as it eased his panic somewhat following the dream.

He was a creature of the sunlight, he did not like the night like his owl cousins, and as a human he also had a very real phobia of the dark, legacy of being locked for hours and days in a small dark cupboard. No one ever knew of this, he had gone through great pains to hide it, when he slept in Gryffindor Tower, he always drew the bedcurtains tight for privacy and also to disguise the small hovering Lumos globe he positioned at the head of his bed, so that if he chanced to wake at night, he would not wake to smothering darkness. When they had faced the boggart during third year, he had actually been secretly glad Lupin had halted him before getting to it. The teacher had assumed his greatest fear would be Voldemort, but Harry had known better. It would have been suffocating all-encompassing darkness. He was ashamed of this weakness-still afraid of the dark at fifteen! How everyone would laugh if they knew! And if the Dark Lord ever got wind of it . . .he'd have a surefire method of breaking him. No Cruciatus would be necessary, just a dark room, he thought mockingly. So he made sure no one ever knew.

Now he shifted, the dream still sending residual tremors through him. Cedric's dying wish still echoed in his head, and he glanced towards the direction of the bedroom. No. You aren't going to go running to Snape like a coward crybaby, he told himself firmly. For Godsake, Potter, you're not five! But another part of him hissed, There's nothing wrong with wanting to be in the same room with another person after a nightmare. It's not like I'm crawling into his lap and hugging him. His mind giggled just imagining the expression on Snape's face if he ever did that as a human. He'd have me committed in two blinks of a hawk's eyes. After he picked himself up off the floor, that is! He shook his head, banishing the wicked, if hilarious, thought. All I want is to be near him . . .err . . .something alive . . .

He spread his wings and flew through the hallway. I'm his familiar and it's time I started acting like it again, he defended himself. And before if I'd had that nightmare, I'd have gone to him.

He fluttered into the room, making out the sleeping form of the professor curled beneath the blankets. Freedom noted in relief that the man seemed to be sleeping peacefully for once, Snape seemed to be plagued with nightmares as often as he was some nights. But not tonight, for which the bird was profoundly grateful. Severus's breathing was deep and even, Freedom listened to its soft hush and felt some of the fear drain away.

He glided over to the bed and settled down on the pillow, tucking his head beneath a wing. His heart rate evened out as he relaxed, Snape's breathing filling the room and washing over him in a steady stream, banishing the old fear back to a corner of his mind with every breath. Freedom felt himself drift off into sleep and the last thought he had before he succumbed was Thank Merlin you don't snore, Severus!

* * * * * *

Severus was pleased to discover the hawk on the pillow the next morning. When he had come back from his lab after eleven last night, he had found Freedom sleeping soundly upon the afghan and had not wanted to disturb him, lest he become irritated again, and left him there. Apparently, the bird had gotten over whatever mood he'd been in, if he was sleeping here this morning.

Severus inched one long fingered hand and cautiously began scratching the hawk behind the head. The sleeping bird leaned into the hand, making an odd sort of noise in the back of his throat, similar to a cat's purr. Nice. Mmm. More.

Snape smiled, then resumed the caress.

The bird roused a bit, opening his amber eyes and blinking owlishly.

"Good morning, Freedom."

The hawk shook himself and stood up, ruffling his feathers, though not drawing away from Severus's hand as he had done before. Morning, Sev. What time is it?

Snape raised an eyebrow. "A little after eight. It's Wednesday, and I don't have class till the afternoon, so I allow myself to lie in a bit. What makes you ask? You never did before."

The hawk opened his beak, yawning, or so it seemed. I don't know. Just wondering, he said swiftly, cursing himself for not remembering that fact. Really, how stupid could he be, asking about time, when animals never cared about clocks, since they had theirs in their head.

"No matter. Would you like a bath before breakfast?"

Freedom nearly jumped off the pillow at that suggestion, before he recalled that Severus would merely run water into the bathtub and leave the shower on a trickle, not get into the shower with him. Get a grip, Potter! He made haste to answer the professor. Yes, a bath would be fine.

"Good. I shall run it after I have done showering." The Potions Master told him, then disappeared into the bathroom.

Freedom busied himself with preening and cleaning his feathers meticulously while waiting for Snape to be done.

Ten minutes later, the professor returned to the bedroom, hair pulled back, dressed in a conservative pair of gray slacks and a white longsleeved shirt. "It's all yours, bird."

Freedom spread his wings and glided out of the room, calling a thank you over his shoulder.

The bath was just right, not too cold or too warm, and he splashed and played in the shower until he was tired and clean. Then he carefully shut off the tap with a talon and pulled out the drain plug before shaking himself dry and flying over to the counter to peer at himself in the mirror.

Wow! I look neat as a hawk. Much better than I ever did as a kid. I'm not scrawny and my feathers lie flat and of course my eyesight is wicked sharp. He examined himself from all angles. He was a dark reddish brown all over his back and wings, his tail was not quite the deep red of a mature red-tail's, being a lighter red with brown and barred with black. The color would deepen when he reached maturity. His front and stomach was a light cream color with brown speckles and the underside of his wings was the same, but they also had black barring at the edges. His talons were a deep golden color, as was his bill and his face was dominated by deep amber eyes.

He took several more glances at himself before starting to preen himself dry. When he was done, he took wing and flew out into the living area, expecting to see Twixie with a breakfast tray.

Instead he saw Severus kneeling in front of the fireplace, speaking with Dumbledore through the Floo Network.

"I apologize for disturbing you, Severus, but I need to speak with you on a certain matter and this is the only time I have to do so," Dumbledore was saying quickly.

"She is gone from the office?"

"Yes. Gone down to inspect something with Pomona's greenhouse and Hagrid's animals." Dumbledore told him. "So we have time for a spot of breakfast and all before she returns."

"Very well. I shall be there in a minute or two, Albus."

"Good. " The Headmaster's eyes twinkled in relief. Then he drew away and the green flames died.

What does the old coot want now? Freedom inquired saucily, landing lightly upon Severus's shoulder. No way was he going to miss this opportunity to listen and learn more about the Headmaster's secret agenda or whatever.

"If I knew, I'd not have to go and speak with him, now would I?" Snape asked. "I don't need to remind you to behave, do I?"

No . . .Sev, Freedom said, just catching himself before he called Snape "sir", which only his students did. Merlin, this playacting or whatever is bloody hard. I've almost screwed up so many times now. How the blazes did Snape ever manage to pull off something like this every time he went before Old Snake Face? I could never have lasted. A reluctant admiration for the spy flooded him, he had never realized before just how hard it was to pretend to be something you weren't and do it convincingly enough to save your life.

Severus tossed down a handful of Floo powder and called, "Headmaster's office!"

The flames flared green and he stepped through them, Freedom riding upon his shoulder.

The office was much as Freedom recalled it, a large circular room with several windows that faced the grounds and the Quidditch pitch, allowing the morning sun to come flooding in. Portraits of former Headmasters and Headmistress's were all over the walls, some were awake and some were snoozing. Fawkes' perch was behind the door, as usual, next to a black cabinet that contained a strange stone bowl.

The fireplace stood directly across from the Headmaster's desk, which was crammed full of papers and a silver ink pot upon which rested a gleaming scarlet phoenix quill. Behind the desk was a long low shelf with several books and the Sorting Hat atop it, plus a glass case containing the Sword of Godric Gryffindor. A small low table had been set up in front of the fireplace, with two chairs, and an array of tea and hot chocolate and breakfast foods had been set upon it. Two place settings were also on the table, as promised, the Headmaster had breakfast for Severus and himself.

"Welcome, Severus." Dumbledore greeted cheerily as the Potions Master and his familiar stepped through the fireplace. Then he rose and muttered several charms, waving his wand at the windows and the door of the office. Fawkes squawked upon his perch as the magic tingled across his feathers. "Sorry, dear one, but we must make certain we are not overheard."

"Silencing Charms, Albus?"

"As I said, the nature of our discussion must remain . . .private." Dumbledore said quietly, sitting down again. "But first, do eat something, Severus. Are you well? You sound like you have a sore throat."

"No. Side effect from my Hawk Speak Elixir." Severus answered, coughing softly. He looked at Freedom, who was examining the office with interest. "Would Fawkes mind sharing his perch with my hawk?"

"Not all. Fawkes would enjoy meeting Freedom."

Severus approached the phoenix, who trilled happily upon seeing the Potions Master. *Hello, Severus! It's a pleasure to see you again. And greetings to you, my brother-in-feathers!*

Freedom was startled, for he had never been able to understand the phoenix before. Uh . . .hello, Fawkes. Severus, I can understand him! And he says it's a pleasure to see you again.

"And you also," Severus said politely, looking astonished. He wouldn't have thought the phoenix paid much attention to those the Headmaster had in his office. "And why wouldn't you be able to understand him? You are both birds, after all. Come, sit here next to Fawkes while I speak with the Headmaster and eat."

Freedom walked down the professor's arm and onto the perch, which was quite large and Fawkes moved over to give Freedom some space. What about MY breakfast, Sev? I'm hungry too.

"All right. Here. Have some chicken livers, your favorite." Severus waved his wand, and a bowl with chicken livers appeared and hovered in front of the hawk.

Thank you! Freedom paused before looking at the phoenix. What about you, Fawkes? Don't you want some breakfast?

*Indeed. Albus is a bit late today.* the phoenix sang. He looked over at his wizard. *Albus, where is my fruit?*

The old wizard looked up and flushed, saying softly," Forgive me, I quite forgot you hadn't eaten." He pointed his wand, and a bowl of apples, pears, pieces of pineapple, and cherries appeared in front of the phoenix.

Fawkes shook his glittering tail and then delicately plucked a cherry from the bowl and ate it. *Perfect. Thank you.*

Once the familiars were eating their respective breakfasts, the two wizards were free to eat theirs and to discuss in low tones certain matters known only to the Headmaster and his master spy.

Dumbledore poured Severus a cup of Black Bohea and added two spoonfuls of honey and a lemon slice to it. "Here you go. I find that honey and lemon soothe my throat the best after a day of speaking to the Ministry."

Severus took it, sipped it, and said, "Thank you. I also find sometimes the oldest remedies work the best." He carefully cut a small piece of ham and ate it along with an orange and toast with a poached egg.

In contrast, the Headmaster ate everything served, eggs, toast, ham, bacon, and pancakes drizzled with syrup. He also had a large cup of hot chocolate.

For several moments they were silent, as they ate.

Then Dumbledore set down his fork and wiped his mouth, his blue eyes narrowing in concern over his half-moon spectacles. "Has he summoned you again since last time?"

Severus shook his head. "No. I would guess that he is too busy regaining his strength to bother. He knows that I need time to fulfill his request." The Potion Master's mouth twisted. "He wants Potter found. He takes it as a personal affront that he is missing and I do not know where he is."

On Fawkes' perch, Freedom flinched. Merlin, Severus! I'm so sorry!

Dumbledore too, looked pained. "Severus, if there were any way I could find Harry, I would have done so. Then perhaps you could placate him . . ."

"Placate a madman? That is like soothing a dragon, Albus. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn't, and you end up burned and bleeding."

"Severus . . .I am sorry . . ."

"Don't." The Potion Master's voice was hoarse yet sharp. "I knew the price required. I knew it long ago. It is a price I pay willingly. I will not be foresworn." His eyes gleamed with a terrible fierce determination.

Albus looked away, shaking his head. "Perhaps I was wrong, to ask it of you."

Yeah, you were! Freedom hissed, guilt combining with anger.

*Hush, little brother.* Fawkes rebuked softly, nuzzling the agitated raptor. *Both of our wizards travel a dark road. Nothing comes without sacrifice, whether your own or others.*

That doesn't mean I have to like it! The hawk trilled back. He let the bastard torture him, so he could get information about . . .Harry Potter. It's not fair! No one should ever have to go through that.

*Peace, young one. He is the best spy we have ever had, and Albus and I value him greatly. His sacrifice does not go unnoticed. And one day it will be worth it, when the demon reborn is destroyed for good.*

Freedom subsided, thinking, Yeah, that's my task, and I've never felt less able to fulfill it. How can they expect me to destroy someone as powerful as Voldemort? I barely know half the spells he does.

Severus raised a cynical eyebrow. "You say that now, Albus? After all this time? It is too late for regrets. What's done is done. I shall play the game for as long as I am able." He paused and drank the rest of his tea.

The Headmaster wordlessly refilled it.

"But you did not bring me here merely to ask about that, now did you?" Severus continued. "Umbridge's dictates grow more and more unreasonable, Albus. She runs the school with an iron fist, much the way the Dark Lord might. Why are you allowing her to do so? What purpose does it serve?"

Albus paused before he answered, and Freedom leaned forward eagerly. Now maybe he would get an answer to his question.

"Ah, Severus. I fear that I have made yet another grave error in judgment. I am not as good at you at soothing a dragon."

"What do you mean? What have you done, Albus?"

"You know what happened at the beginning of the summer, when dementors invaded Little Whinging, where Harry lives, and attacked his cousin and him?"

"Yes, and Potter cast a Patronus Charm to drive them away, breaking the Decree of Underage Wizardry, and since this was the second time he had done so, the Ministry decided to expel him." Severus recited. "What about it? You managed to sway the jury at his trial."

Albus shook his head, looking oddly like a small child caught in some mischief. "But I didn't. Not exactly. Cornelius was furious, he not only wanted to break Harry's wand, he wanted to strip him of his magic as well. Like they did to criminals in the old days."

Severus stared at the Headmaster. "But that . . .that hasn't been done in centuries. It was ruled as barbaric and unnecessary cruelty, because the wizard under the curse suffered hideous agony and usually died from it. And Fudge would do that to a mere fifteen year old? Is he insane?"

"No. He is . . .dissatisfied with his tenure as Minister, apparently he feels that he is not getting the recognition he feels is due him, and he resents Harry for getting more publicity-good or otherwise-and when he caught the boy doing something forbidden, he jumped at the chance to reprimand the boy as harshly as possible. And as publically as possible. Damaging Harry's reputation would only enhance his own. I tried my best to persuade him to be merciful . . .he is frightened of Voldemort's return, and does not want to admit he is back . . ."

"Blind ignoramus!"

"Yes. But in his blindness he causes more harm than good. He felt that he was being ignored, especially in matters of educational policy, and so I . . .made a deal with him. I agreed to let him and his officials oversee the school policy and amend it for this year if he would let Harry off the expulsion charges."

Severus groaned. "Ah, Albus, what terms did you set? Any at all? Or did you just agree and sign on the dotted line?"

"I . . .was so relived that he agreed not to harm Harry that I . . . well . . .I forgot to read the fine print, I'm afraid. I had no idea he would go this far, nor put someone so . . .rigid and unbending in charge of the school . . ."

"Bloody flaming hell, Albus!" Snape growled. "Why didn't you let someone else see the damn contract at least? Me or Minerva, you know we studied Ministry law after we graduated."

"I had no time. Fudge was pushing for an immediate trial, it was all I could do to hold him back. He was like a rabid dog, frothing at the chance to destroy the reputation of the Boy Who Lived. At the time, I made what I thought was the best deal I could. I never thought he would place such a person like Dolores in charge, nor give her total authority over the staff and myself. I thought she would just oversee things, and make suggestions, and that sort of thing . . ."

Severus longed to go and bang his head into the wall. Sometimes for such a venerable wizard, Albus could be as naive as a five-year-old. He had a habit of assuming that everyone had altruistic motives, when the truth was that most everyone was out to grab as much as they could for themselves and to hell with everyone else. Especially politicians like Fudge.

Freedom hunched upon the perch, shocked and miserable. My fault! All of this is my fault!

Fawkes nuzzled him, draping his head over the hawk and snuggling against him, trilling softly. *Not so, youngling. Do not blame yourself for the choices others make. My master is not as wise as he would like others to think, and like everyone, he too makes mistakes. And this was not even the worst one . . .*

Freedom buried his head in the phoenix's soft scarlet feathers and muttered, What do you mean, this isn't the worst one? What could be worse than letting a psycho bitch be in charge of Hogwarts?

Fawkes did not answer, simply began preening the young hawk gently, humming.

Freedom stiffened, only then realizing he had given himself away. Merlin! You know . . .you know who I am, don't you?

The phoenix met his eyes and made a soft note of affirmation. *But of course. I am a phoenix and can see hearts and souls. I know you, little Harry, my feathered brother.*

Are you . . .going to tell, then?

*What for? You have your reasons for remaining a hawk, I am sure. I shall not pry. I keep many secrets. What is one more? Besides, you are good for Severus. He needs you. And you need him.*

Freedom did not answer, he was too relieved that the phoenix would not betray him, and too embarrassed at Fawkes's frank speech to disagree. For deep down, he knew the magical bird was right. Severus and he did need each other.

Severus heaved a sigh. "Well, that's torn it. What are we going to do now? We must find a way to protect ourselves and the students before she swallows us all up, the greedy hag."

"There isn't much we can do, I'm afraid. I've . . .clipped our wings, I'm afraid. But there is one bright thing. There isn't more than five months left of term, if we can manage to endure her until then, she will be gone and never return."

"That's all well and good, but that doesn't keep me from longing to hex her to pieces every time she steps foot in my dungeon, Albus," Severus snapped. "Do you know she had the temerity to tell me how to brew a Calming Draught last time she came by! Me, who was brewing them when I was nine, and have been a Potions Master since I'm twenty! It was all I could do not to shove her face first in the cauldron and hold her down!"

Albus's eyes twinkled in amusement. "Ah, Severus. Forgive me for unleashing her upon you. But you could look at it as a lesson in self-control, my boy."

"Humph! I get enough lessons that way dealing with the bloody Dark Lord."

"If you do decide to try and halt some of her, uh, decrees, Severus, might I suggest you be careful? She has already taken against you somewhat after the staff dinner when your hawk caused her to . . .ah . . .have an accident with strawberry trifle . . " Dumbledore chuckled. "So beware, for if she decides to attack you, I cannot help you, I am bound by my contract."

"Fear not, I know well how to hide in the shadows. And when to hold my tongue." Snape sighed. "Bloody Potter! I swear, Albus, when the brat is found, you had better impress upon him the folly of vanishing for a month and making us all crazy with worry, or I shall!"

Dumbledore lifted one white eyebrow. "Really, Severus? Then you do not hate the boy like you seem?"

"Hate? No, I don't hate the brat. He annoys me to no end with his disregard for rules and his own safety, you know I am sworn to protect him, Albus. But the boy makes it bloody impossible sometimes with the way he flings himself into danger every other minute, and you're no help either, old man, encouraging him! He has an impulsive streak as big as the Black Lake, just like his idiot father, and instead of teaching him to rein it in, you're patting him on the head for getting involved in tournaments and slaying basilisks!"

"I have no choice, Severus. He must fulfill the prophecy, or else perish." Dumbledore said softly.

Freedom sat up straight upon the perch. Huh? Prophecy? What prophecy? I don't understand, Fawkes.

*Hush. You will. Listen.* the phoenix ordered sadly.

Severus scowled fiercely at his former mentor. "Albus, you know how I feel about that bloody thing! How can you insist the boy fulfill a false prophecy, one that you concocted to stymie the Dark Lord fourteen and a half years ago that backfired on you in the worst way possible?"

"What else can I do? You and I know that it is too late now to abandon it, not after what Tom did to James and Lily . . ." The Headmaster confessed in a harsh whisper, all traces of merriment gone from his face. "I have regretted that decision for years, Severus, you know I have . . .I but sought a way to buy time, he was moving too fast and we could not protect all the Muggles and Muggleborns or blood traitors he was targeting. You remember, you were reporting back a raid almost every night back then . . .and sometimes multiple ones in the same day or week. The Order could not handle all the attacks, nor protect everyone and people were dying every time I turned around . . .You nearly died when he found out you had been involved with Lily in your fifth year, Severus . . ."

"Don't remind me," Severus growled, shuddering. He had come as close to death as he ever wished to be that night. "But I still say there should have been another way."

"What way? He had always been obsessed with prophecy, even as a student. It was his weakness. He wanted to believe it was destiny foretold for him to rule Britain, or eventually the world. I thought if I played upon that weakness, exploited it, he would be made vulnerable . . .I wanted him thrown off balance, made afraid, that's why Sybill and I concocted the prophecy in the first place." Softly, the old wizard began to recite, " The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches;born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies; and the Dark Lord will mark him as his equal, but he will power the Dark Lord knows not; and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives."

Freedom sat frozen next to the phoenix, his heart gone still and cold within him.

"We made it deliberately ambiguous, so he would have difficulty interpreting it," Dumbledore continued, as if desperate to exonerate himself.

Severus said nothing, he had heard this confession many times, and this was nothing new to him.

"It was by chance that the Potters and the Longbottoms both had children born at the end of July, I did not even remember that when I came up with the dates, Sybill and I were looking at astrology charts for a reference and that date just coincided with what she described as a "great conjunction of planets, heralding the coming of a hero." I never thought he would actually accept it for truth . . .I thought he would figure out eventually that it was a waste of time . . .I never meant to harm anyone, especially Lily and James or their child . . ."

"But you did, and you made me the damn messenger!" Severus said implacably. "You made me a bloody accomplice in my best friend's death!"

"I know, but you were the perfect person to deliver it, you know. He trusted you . . .Severus, I never meant for them to die, the Fidelius Charm should have worked, they should have been safe . . .!"

"Instead they were betrayed by Pettigrew and the Dark Lord found them and killed them," Severus finished grimly. "All in the name of a false prophecy! A prophecy of lies that never should have been. And now you want Potter to continue fulfilling it, against all reason!"

Horror stole through the hawk then, and he could feel a scream welling up within him, a terrible howl of denial, that he choked back instinctively. I knew there was always something Dumbledore kept hidden from me . . .something . . .but this . . .how could he have hidden this? Lies, it was all lies! They died for nothing! NOTHING! You betrayed me, old man! I should kill you for it!

He longed to fly off the perch and attack the old wizard, to rend and tear him in repayment for the terrible thing he had done, the terrible mistake he had made that had cost Harry his family and turned him from an ordinary child into a savior that never should have been.

But he was trembling so violently he nearly fell off the perch, his mind a morass of denial and fury and bitterness. He barely felt it when Fawkes enfolded him in his wings and crooned a lullaby.

*Hush now, Harry-chick, hush. Yes, my wizard did a great wrong, but he has paid for it, and is still. Severus has never forgiven him for causing Lily's death, and you, child, you were to be his redemption.*

"You know why, Severus. It is too late now, Tom has already set events in motion, Harry has no choice but to fulfill it now. He has been marked, and survived a curse no wizard should have, Voldemort believes he is the one to be his doom, and you know a self-fulfilling prophecy is the easiest in the world to make come true. He must be told of the Horcruxes and how to destroy them."

"Yes, I know, old man!" spat an irate Snape. "So you've told me on more than one occasion. But you know also that if not for your meddling, they would still be alive. My Lily would be alive, not resting forever beneath the earth! And I would not have to live with guilt that I delivered the damn message that destroyed her."

"I know, my boy," Dumbledore said heavily, tears glinting in his eyes. "That was the worst mistake of my life and I may never be redeemed. Harry is our only hope now. You must find him, Severus. Find him and keep him safe."

"Another impossible charge, Headmaster?"

"No, not impossible. If you would only talk to the boy, Severus, come to an understanding . . .he is not his father, he will work with you if you but give him a chance . . ."

"But will he give me a chance as well?" Severus demanded darkly.

"He will, once you explain why you have done what you did. He has a great capacity to forgive, Severus, much like his mother . . ."

Maybe so, but I'll never forgive you for this, Dumbledore! Never! Freedom raged, though his cries were muffled by Fawkes's feathers.

"You had better pray, Albus, that he is found soon and that he never discovers the truth about that night."

"How could he? You, Sybill, and I are the only ones who know the prophecy was false. And Sybill would never tell, otherwise her reputation as a true Seer would be destroyed and you will not either, you gave me your word."

"Yes. And my word has always been good. He would loathe me if he knew the truth. Although not as much as I do myself."

The Headmaster flinched at the sharpness in the other's tone. He looked suddenly old and weary and every one of his hundred and fifty some odd years. "Find him, Severus. Please."

"I will do my best." The Potions Master rose. "I should be going. I have lesson plans to write out and papers to grade." He held out his wrist. "Freedom, come."

Freedom obeyed, flying straight to Severus, concentrating on controlling his temper. He felt horribly betrayed and could not look at the Headmaster at all, lest he lose all semblance of control and attack him. So he looked instead at Severus, whose eyes flashed midnight wrath.

As the professor moved towards the fireplace, Dumbledore placed a hand upon his arm. "Severus, thank you. For all you have done . . ."

Severus sneered angrily. "I didn't do it for you. I did it for her."

"I know. And I hope, that someday, you will forgive me."

Severus spun on his heel and grabbed a handful of Floo powder. "Someday. Perhaps."

Then he tossed down the Floo powder and said, "Snape's apartments. Semper occultus" he recited the secret password to his quarters before Flooing, since his fireplace was warded against any unauthorized entry.

He stepped into the green flames, taking a very distraught and disillusioned hawk with him, and leaving behind a regretful old man to deal with the consequences of a mistake made fourteen-and-a-half years ago that had altered the life of one young boy forever.


 



Chapter End Notes:


So . . .what did you think of THAT little bag of secrets?

And how did you like Fawkes? He insisted he be put in here!

Next: Freedom grapples with all he has learned and Sev reveals some more information about his schooldays with Lily.



Chapter 15: Lily's Eyes
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By the time they had Flooed back to their quarters, Freedom had calmed somewhat and was not longing to rip out the Headmaster's liver and spit on it. Instead he was contemplating slowly shredding him into pieces. The young Animagus had noticed that his current form tended towards violence as an answer to emotional upheaval, and usually sought to control that aspect of himself somewhat, unless he was hunting. Or now, when he was so furious he simply didn't care about civilized behavior. He felt the fury coiling within him, like a living thing, it pulsed and snarled, and suddenly he could not bear the confines of the four walls of the castle any longer. He needed to fly, to hunt, before he tore himself apart with hatred.

Severus, I need to hunt.

The Potions Master looked at his familiar in surprise. "Hunt? But I fed you just a half-an-hour ago."

The hawk shifted restlessly upon his wrist, fighting not to snap at the other wizard. Control, stay in control. It's not his fault, don't take it out on him, his mind ordered. The hawk gave a sharp screech, not the full-throated call of the red-tail, but a middling impatient sort of noise. I know, but . . .I need to be out, I need to fly.

Severus nodded, understanding his familiar's restlessness. After the conversation he had, he too was restless and longed to slam his fist through a wall repeatedly at his Headmaster's stupidity. "One moment. I shall let you out in a minute."

The wizard walked to the door of his quarters and opened it. Freedom sprang from his fist and was airborne in two seconds. He blurred and shot down the corridor at top speed, exiting the dungeons moments later. Severus watched for a moment, then shut the door and went back to his desk.

He had a pile of homework to grade and some seventh year independent study projects to approve for those in his NEWT class. He sat down at his desk, picked up his quill and an essay and then just stared down at the paper without reading it, his mind flying back to past in the flicker of an instant.

* * * * * *

Freedom burst through the alcove into the Owlery like a feathered whirlwind, startling some of the owls that were napping. They rustled and opened sleepy eyes and hooted in annoyance. He sent back a soft chirp of apology, then continued out the large casement and into the bright sunlight.

His wings caught the wind and he spiraled up into the sky, anger burning through him. He let the feeling fuel his wing beats, and drive him to greater heights than he had previously flown. Then he spun about and fixed his gaze upon the ground below, his amber eyes widening as he sought quarry to pursue and catch.

But nothing showed and so he sped up and flew beyond the castle and over the Forbidden Forest. There was always game to be had in the forest. He circled the closest part of the vast wood, allowing the wind to form a cushion of air beneath his wings, suitable for gliding, which conserved energy.

He still could not believe what Dumbledore had done. It was so unbelievable, so manipulative, that it boggled his mind. The man had created a prophecy as a diversion, a blind to fool his archenemy, but it had gone wrong and his parents had died and so had he, almost. Not only that, but instead of trying to fix the mistake he had made, he had taken Harry and placed him with his most unsuitable Muggle relatives, leaving him to grow up neglected and unloved for years until coming to Hogwarts, where he had been thrust into the role of savior to the whole damn wizarding world without so much as by-your-leave.

All the harrowing challenges he had faced-Quirrell, the basilisk, the dementors, the tournament and Voldemort-all of that had been Dumbledore's way of preparing him for his "great destiny"-killing the worst dark wizard in living memory. All of that had been done in the name of a prophecy that wasn't even real, that had been a lie, and he had been moved about like a pawn on a chessboard.

Anger seized him and he trembled for a moment. Damn you to everlasting hell, Dumbledore! Who the bloody hell do you think you are, trying to mold me to fit some kind of cracked vision, trying to make me into a savior so you could feel better about screwing over my family all those years ago? Fawkes said I was to be your redemption. Sod that! I'm through being your pawn! From now on, I do what I damn well please!

Right then, it would have pleased him to dive bomb the Headmaster, but since the Headmaster was not there, he settled for an unwary squirrel instead. Squirrels were sometimes difficult to catch, since they could scamper very quickly, but Freedom waited until the silly creature had moved some distance from a tree before stooping.

The wind screamed in his ears as he dove, wings clamped to his sides, like a bolt of lightning from the heavens.

At the last possible instant he pulled up and his talons curled and he struck hard.

The squirrel never even knew what hit it until the hawk's talons pierced it. It was dead in a minute and a half.

A minute after that, Freedom was rending it with his razor-sharp beak and talons, wishing it were Dumbledore. I thought he was my friend, that he cared about me, the hawk thought bitterly. But no, all he cared about was making me into the perfect hero, so he could erase forever the harm he had done. But that can never be. Nothing can ever bring my parents back, and nothing can give me back a normal childhood. It's all lost and I shall never forgive you, old man! Never!

The red-tail jerked his head back and screamed his rage and pain to the unfeeling sky and the forest.

Then he lit into the dead squirrel, ripping it to shreds and finally eating it, though the meat left a sour taste in his mouth and sat heavily in his crop.

He wished desperately that he had not been so eager to accompany Severus to the Headmaster's office. But how could he have known what dark secret the man harbored? Never in his wildest imaginings would he have ever guessed that the kindly old wizard, who had always been so thoughtful to him, was responsible for making him into an orphan and then continuing the charade to cover up his own heinous mistake.

God, oh God, I had enough to deal with before, and now this . . .I can't . . .I don't know what to think . . .I thought he honestly cared about me, but all I am is a pawn . . a pawn in his damned game to defeat Voldemort . . he lowered his head, feeling a sharp pain in the vicinity of his heart. And if he doesn't care about me, who does?

A picture of a tall spare man in black robes flashed into his head, but he brushed it aside. No. Not him either. He cares about me as his familiar, but if he ever knew the truth . . .The pain increased, and he realized that the only people who might have cared for him were long gone.

Desperate to ease the agony squeezing him in two, he launched himself into the sky and flew until he was exhausted.

Then he turned and headed back to the castle, so weary he almost couldn't lift his wings.

The awful throbbing ache was still there, and he wondered bleakly if it would ever go away.

He hovered over Hagrid's hut, debating on whether to keep flying or settle and rest for a moment.

The sound of the big man moving about inside, cups rattling, and then a familiar silky baritone decided him. Severus was visiting Hagrid, it seemed. And despite his misgivings of the man and how he had treated his other self, Freedom found that just hearing the man's voice made the knot of dread ease somewhat. Then too, he was curious, what had made Severus come down here at this hour, when he was supposed to be grading papers or whatever? It was not like Snape to shirk his duties as a professor.

The hawk spiraled down and came to rest upon the window ledge. He could rest his wings and hear every word that was said at the same time.

While he knew it was the height of bad manners to eavesdrop, he simply couldn't help himself, and after Dumbledore's revelation, he was certain nothing that was spoken of between Hagrid and Snape could shock him.

But he was wrong.

* * * * * *

Severus's hand tightened about the cup, and he frowned down at the steaming contents as if it were a potion gone wrong. He had been unable to concentrate any longer on his work, for once his discipline had failed him, and he had given up grading any more homework as a lost cause and decided to go and walk around the grounds. Walking usually helped him clear his head. Inevitably, perhaps, his feet took him down the well-trod path to Hagrid's cottage.

He had thought he wished to be alone, till he caught sight of the trickle of smoke coming from the stone chimney, and then he wished for nothing more than to have a cup of tea and listen to his mentor ramble on about whatever creature he had been tending that day. At least with Hagrid he need not have to sift through the man's words for a hidden meaning, the way he often did with Dumbledore. Hagrid was as straightforward as sunlight. He needed that, after the morning with the Headmaster. Discussing that damnable prophecy always brought the memories back, and he was tired of chasing them about in circles.

So he stepped up to Hagrid's door and knocked firmly.

A moment later, the big man appeared, smiling genially. "Hello, Professor Snape! What brings you here? Do you need something for your potions stores?

"No. What I need is tea."

Hagrid grinned, then beckoned the other man inside. "O' course. Come in, Severus."

Snape followed him inside, and before he knew it, was sitting at Hagrid's table and been given a steaming cup of Black Bohea with plenty of honey and lemon in it. Seemed that Dumbledore wasn't the only one who knew that old remedy.

Hagrid bustled about, getting a loaf of bread out, plus a tin of clotted cream, jam, and butter. Then he sat down across from his old friend and proceeded to butter a piece of bread and eat it. "So, what brings you here, Severus? Need a break from the dungeons and all that paperwork, eh?"

Severus met Hagrid's crinkled black eyes and gave a short nod. Then he took his own piece of bread and buttered it.

The big man knew from experience that Severus would talk when he was ready, and not before, so he began telling the younger wizard about his own not-uneventful day, freeing a trapped wild pegasus from a tangle of Devil's Snare in the forest and treating a vixen with a cut paw, as well as hunting for conies for the stewpot.

Snape made no comment, but he listened politely, and the slightly cocked head and attentive expression reminded Hagrid of that week Severus had spent in his home, after his disastrous attempt to destroy himself. Severus had at first refused to speak to him, and Hagrid had gotten in the habit of talking to him anyway, sensing that his voice somehow soothed the distraught boy. It was the same now.

By the time Hagrid had finished telling Severus about his day, the Potions Master had unwound enough to speak to his mentor about what was bothering him-namely the conversation with Dumbledore and the memories it had roused. Hagrid was the only one he trusted to speak so openly of them, for he had been there during Severus's schooldays and had known young Severus, Lily, and the Marauders.

"Every time he brings up that bloody prophecy, I remember her," Severus said softly, his dark eyes lit with a strange light, part terrible longing, part guilt, and part unwavering love. Hagrid knew of the prophecy, not the truth of it, of course, but he knew whom it referred to and how it had led to the Potters' deaths that long ago Halloween night. "Not that I've ever really forgotten her, nor do I think I ever shall, but . . .I could not concentrate on my bloody essays, every time I picked up my quill, I kept seeing Lily in my mind, staring at me with those brilliant eyes of hers . . .They say the eyes are the windows of the soul, and hers reflected everything she ever felt, I always knew what she was feeling by one glance into her eyes . . .She had never learned, as I had, to hide what she felt, but then she never grew up with Tobias . . ."

The hawk upon the ledge froze. He's talking about my mother! I know that he . . .said he loved her once . . .but I never knew she grew up with him . . .I thought they had met at school . . .Freedom tilted his head, listening in astonishment as Snape began sharing his memories of a bright red-haired witch who had been at once his heart's desire and his greatest regret.

* * * * * *

That was the first thing I noticed about Lily-her eyes. Even as a child, she had the largest green eyes I had ever seen, a deep emerald green flecked with lighter green, and they drew me like a moth to a flame. They were the first pair of eyes that I can say actually sparkled with laughter. Up until then, I had seen only anger and disapproval in my father's eyes, and a sort of weary helplessness in my mother's. But that day at the playpark, I saw true delight and curiosity when she looked at me, after I had come out of the bushes I'd been hiding behind and told her that she had magic.

I had been hiding there because a few of the older boys had decided they wanted to play "smash Snape's face into the pavement" again, I was an easy mark because everyone in town knew my father was a damn drunk and useless since he'd lost his job when the mill shut down and my mother was considered "odd" because she rarely mingled with any of the other women, and we were always just getting by. That meant we barely had money for necessities and half my clothes were patched, worn, cut down versions of my father's, they were usually too big and I looked like a walking advertisement for a ragbin most times. And that was enough to be labeled an outcast, as was the fact that I was smarter than half of them, who could barely add two and two and get four.

Lily was there with her older sister, Petunia, who looked at me as if I were an annoying stray dog, but that changed when I told Lily that I had seen her fly through the air when she had jumped off the swing.

"You musn't tell anyone, boy!" Petunia cried, glaring at me fiercely.

"My name isn't "boy"," I told her, giving her a glare right back. No way was I going to let a girl get the better of me. Even if she was older and bigger than I was. "It's Severus Snape."

Petunia wrinkled her nose. "Severus? What kind of weird name is that?"

"It's the name of a Roman emperor," I answered coldly. "And also a saint too." I got sick and tired one day of kids making fun of my name and did some research on it, so I could tell them off when they started on me. "What's it to you?"

Petunia sniffed, but before she could say anything, Lily looked at me and said, "Don't mind my sister Petunia. She's just bossy sometimes. Nice to meet you, Severus. I'm Lily. Lily Evans. We just moved here from Liverpool." She held out her hand to me and I shook it cautiously.

"Hello," I answered, wondering if this was the first time she had ever done magic before. She was the only child my age that I knew that also had magic. "Figured you might be new, since I've never seen you around before. Where do you live?"

"On Weaver Street, just before the old mill." Lily answered. "Where do you live, Severus?"

"Spinner's End," I replied.

Petunia made a face. "Spinner's End? But that's where all the poor-Ow!" she yelped as her sister elbowed her in the ribs.

"Don't be rude, Tuney!" Lily frowned. "He can't help where he lives."

I gave her a small smile. I liked her already. "I won't tell," I said.

"How do we know that?" Petunia demanded suspiciously. "You could be lying, and run and tell everyone and then we'll be labeled freaks and weirdos like we were back home."

"I won't," I insisted. Nobody knew better than me what it was like to be an outcast. "Look." I knelt and picked a small dandelion out of the grass. Then I concentrated and the dandelion changed colors-from yellow to red to blue and then back again. "See? I can do magic too. That's 'cause I'm a wizard, and you're a witch."

"A witch! How dare you call my sister that vulgar name!"

I rolled my eyes. "A witch isn't vulgar. It's just what we call a girl that can do magic. It means a "wise woman", it's not a bad word. Muggles!"

"What did you just call me?"

"A Muggle. It's what wizards call a person without magic." I explained.

"Well, I don't like it," snapped Petunia.

I shrugged. "It's what you are. My father's one."

"How about your mum?" Lily asked.

"No, my mum's a witch. She can do magic like us."

"Really?" Lily's eyes glowed. "Then we're not the only ones?"

I shook my head, amused. "No, of course not. There are lots more of us, all over Britain. They live in their own parts of it, see, and hardly come into Muggle places at all, unless they're married to one or are Muggleborn, like you."

"What's a Muggleborn?"

"A witch or a wizard born to Muggle parents. Your parents can't do magic, can they?"

"No. But I think sometimes Mum wishes she could," Lily said, smiling.

I wasn't surprised at that. Who wouldn't want to do magic? Well, my father didn't, but I wasn't counting the bastard. I went on to explain the difference between purebloods, half-bloods, squibs, and Muggleborns.

"What are you, Snape?" asked Petunia.

"A half-blood. My mother, Eileen, was a Prince from an old line of purebloods. But my father, Tobias Snape, is a Muggle."

"Where's he from?" asked Lily.

I almost said "hell", but remembered just in time that my mother had always said never to swear in front of ladies. So I said, "Harrogate, North Yorkshire."

"Does it make a difference, what you are?" Lily wanted to know.

"Not really. Well, some purebloods will say they're better than Muggleborns and half-bloods, but that's codswallop. Mum says that all purebloods have some Muggle ancestry and most half-bloods and Muggleborns are stronger in magic because they . . .uh . . .diversified their gene pool."

"Huh? Speak English!" ordered Petunia. "What's that mean?"

"Uh . . ." I thought hard. "I think it means something good, like when you cross plants and get a hybrid and it's stronger than the original sometimes. Mum said too many purebloods were intermarried and it weakened them."

"Oh. I get it. Like when you breed dogs, you can't breed too close, otherwise you get retarded puppies," Petunia said.

"Uh, yes. Something like that, anyhow."

"What can you do with magic?" was Lily's next question.

"Lots of things, when I'm older. Right now it only works sometimes. Accidentally, my mother calls it, like when you're scared or hurt or just want something really bad."

"Oh. Like I wanted to fly. Have you ever done that, Severus?"

"Uh, no. But once I jumped up a whole flight of stairs." I had been running from my drunken father and desperate to get away and my magic had given me strength in my legs and I jumped all the way upstairs. Not that it did me any good, because there was nowhere I could hide and I ended up getting beaten anyhow for using my freaky powers. But I wasn't about to tell them that. I never told anyone what went on at my house, I knew better.

"Cool!" Lily grinned. "What can your mum do with her magic?"

"She's a Potions Mistress. And when I'm older that's what I'm going to do too. After I've gotten my wand and gone to school that is."

"Wand? You use wands?" exclaimed Petunia.

I nodded. "All wizards do when they start school."

"Where do you get one?" Lily wanted to know.

"Ollivander's in Diagon Alley."

"Where's that?"

"Wizarding London," I said, then remembered that Mum had an atlas in her library of wizarding Britain. "Look, I've got a book at home that'll show you all these places, it's a magical atlas, sort of. I can bring it tomorrow, if you'd like?"

Lily nodded eagerly, and even Petunia looked interested. I smiled, for it seemed as if I had actually made a friend.

The next day, I met Lily and Petunia at the park again, the atlas and another book about basic spellcraft tucked under my shirt, which was so big it came down to my knees.

Petunia sniggered when I showed up. "Nice shirt, Snape. Looks like your mum's dress."

I glared at her angrily. "Shut up!"

"Well, it does."

"Petunia! Just go away if you're going to be mean," Lily ordered crossly, her green eyes shimmering with anger. "Remember what Mum said."

"Oh, be quiet, you little know-it-all. You're not the boss of me, Lily Elizabeth Evans. I'll go where I please."

The two locked gazes for a minute, then Petunia whirled and stomped away. "Like I wanted to learn about your stupid fantasy world anyhow! You're both tetched in the head, if you ask me!" She went to play with some other girls on the swings, and I dragged Lily behind the bush at the edge of the park and showed her the wizarding books I'd brought.

Her eyes glittered excitedly as she looked at them and then grew round with wonder as she saw that I had not been making up stories, that there was an actual picture of Diagon Alley and that it moved.

Then I had to explain about wizard photos and half-a-dozen other things besides. It was one of the best afternoons I'd ever had.

* * * * * *

We met in the park or at Lily's house, since I was too ashamed to let her see where I lived, almost every day. Since it was summer, the park was my only refuge from my father, and Lily was the first real friend I'd ever had.

One day we were sitting in a kind of culvert in the woods behind her house, and she was asking me again about Hogwarts. I'd told her everything I could remember about it from my mother's descriptions.

"Petunia says that Hogwarts isn't real. That it's just some make believe castle and I'm stupid to believe you, Sev." Lily said, her green eyes crinkling with worry.

"It's real. But only people like us can go there, Lily. You'll see when you get the letter from the Headmaster when you're eleven."

"Why eleven? Why do we have to wait so long?" she sighed impatiently. We were nine that year.

I shrugged. "I don't know. That's just how they do it here." I picked up some leaves and made them swirl about in pretty patterns.

Lily grinned. "Oh! Teach me how you did that, Sev!"

"Uh . . .I can't. 'Cause I don't know exactly what I did," I admitted. "My magic just does stuff when I think about it. Since I don't have a wand yet, I can't cast spells."

"Oh." Her face fell. "I can't wait to get my wand. Then I'll be able to cast spells whenever I want."

"Not quite, Lily. You're not allowed to do magic outside of school. Once you go to Hogwarts, the Ministry keeps an eye on you, and if you break the Underage Wizardry Restriction, they'll send letters home and you'll get in trouble."

"What about now?" she asked nervously.

"No, when you're little, they know you can't help it, so it's okay."

"What do they do to you if you break that rule? Do they send you to Azkaban? With the . . .dementors?"

I had told her about Azkaban yesterday and the dementors. I shook my head. "No, of course not! Azkaban's where they send the really bad people, criminals that use Unforgivable Curses and kill people and whatnot. They'd never send you there, Lily, you're just a kid and besides you'd never do anything to get sent there."

She was gazing at me with undisguised curiosity and then she said, "Tell me again, Sev, about the dementors."

"All right." I sighed and repeated what I'd told her the day before, how the dementors were kind of like corporeal spirits who fed on all the good thoughts and feelings a person had and they could drain a wizard of his magic and also suck out his soul by Kissing them.

By the time I was done, both of us were shivering, deliciously scared to death, and we nearly died when the bushes behind us rustled and Petunia stepped out of them. "Oh, gimme a break! You're making this up, Snape!"

"I am not!" I cried, angry that she had to come along and ruin our fun. Why couldn't she just leave us alone? "Everything I said is the truth. Why are you spying on us?"

She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at us. "I wasn't spying! I just wanted to make sure you weren't eaten by a demented thing or whatever you call them."

"It's dementor," I corrected.

"It's a stupid lie too!" Petunia cried angrily. "Lily, how can you believe any of this?"

Lily looked at Petunia and said quietly, "Because it's true. You saw the book and the pictures too, Tuney. And we can both do magic."

She turned on me then, her eyes flashing. "You stop putting nonsense in my sister's head, Severus Snape! She's already weird enough as it is."

"I am not!" Lily cried.

"It's not nonsense. You just don't understand," I said, using my most smug tone.

"I understand that you're making Lily into a freak just like you. Look at you, Snape. What's that you've got on, your mum's dress?" She pointed at my overlong shirt, which I knew was too big for me, but I had no money for decent clothes.

She was always making remarks like that, and usually I just ignored her, but not this time. This time I got angry and a branch snapped overhead and hit the sneering Petunia on the shoulder.

She yelped and burst into tears, the big baby. "You wicked brat! I hate you, Snape!" Then she ran away.

"Severus! Did you do that?" Lily demanded, and for some reason she was mad at me.

I swallowed hard. "Um . . .well . . ."

"You did, didn't you? You hurt her!"

"No!" I cried, scared that she would be afraid of me too if I admitted I had lost my temper.

"Don't lie to me, Snape! You made that happen!" She jumped to her feet.

"Wait! Lily, where are you going?"

She didn't answer, just gave me an angry glare and walked off after her sister.

"I didn't mean to!" I called after her. "She just made me mad, making fun of me that way!" But she didn't listen and I was left alone, wondering if I had mucked up our friendship. I kicked a rock, mad at Petunia, the insufferable snob and mad at myself, for letting my temper run away with me. Why couldn't I ever do anything right? Maybe my father was right, and I really was hopeless.

* * * * * *

But the next day at the park, I waited all day for Lily to show up, and when she finally did, I told her I was sorry and she said she forgave me and that Petunia shouldn't have teased me and we were still friends. I was very glad to hear that, and then I told her the good news, that my mother had agreed to tutor us in basic potions on Fridays, until we went to Hogwarts.

"She's free then, and we can use St. Mungos, she has a small lab she rents for when she brews for them. Do you want to learn, Lily?"

"Yes! Oh that's brilliant, Sev! Oh, I can't wait! I wish it were Friday already."

So did I. But since it wasn't, we decided to amuse ourselves till then reading another book--Newt Scamander's Book of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I read it about a dozen times already, but Lily never had, and so we went through it together, and that's when she asked how it was possible to keep all the magical creatures hidden from Muggles.

"Sometimes it's not, and that's when we have to Obliviate them," I told her.

"Obliviate? What's that?"

"A spell to make you forget anything you heard or saw. It's advanced magic, moslyt Aurors do it. It's for our own protection. If Muggles ever knew we really existed, Mum says they might attack and hunt us again, like they did centuries ago."

"Oh. Then I guess it's okay then." Her eyes shifted to a picture of a large silvery snake with three heads. "A Runespoor. Cool, but three heads must make it hard to eat, since you have to make sure each head gets a fair share."

I nodded. I loved discussing things with Lily, she always had a unique perspective on things.

Our potions lessons started that same week, and were a great success. Like me, Lily had an aptitude for potions, and loved brewing as much as me. Mum was happy to have found two such good students and joked that she would have to chase us out of the lab with a broom or else we'd waste away. I rarely saw Mum smile, because at home she hardly ever had anything to be happy over, since my father was there, but she always smiled when she had lessons with us.

"One day you'll grow up and get your own mastery and then I can say I taught two of the brightest students ever to stir a cauldron."

I wanted that more than anything. I wanted my mother to be proud of me so much. At least someone would be, because I knew my father would never be proud of me for anything, I was a disappointment and a freak 'cause I had magic and that would never change.

That's why I couldn't wait to go off to Hogwarts, where I'd finally be normal.

* * * * * *

The letter finally came, and Mum took Lily and I to Diagon Alley to get school supplies and I spent the rest of the summer teaching Lily how to write neatly with a quill. (I'd had lessons with Mum in secret since I was eight)

Finally it was September 1st and I was meeting Lily and her parents and Petunia at the platform. Mum hugged me before she left, saying quietly, "Remember, Severus, to behave and study hard and make me proud. Be the best you can be."

I promised I would. Then she said goodbye, she had to get to work, and I took my trunk and dragged it over near the edge of the platform, so it would be easy for me to get it on the train, I was small and the trunk was heavy for me. That was when I spotted the Evans family, Mr. and Mrs. Evans were checking over Lily's things, making sure she had everything, and Lily was having a discussion with Petunia, who looked even more annoyed than usual.

I snuck closer to hear what they were talking about.

"I'm sorry, Tuney, that you can't come with me," Lily was saying, her green eyes dark with regret. I nearly fell over. Petunia at Hogwarts? God help us all! She'd drive me crazy in two seconds, not to mention everyone else, with her snotty ways.

Petunia sniffed. "Like I want to go to some freak school. I'm glad you're going, you'll finally be out of my hair, Lily! Glad!"

Her sister shook her head. "You don't mean that. I saw the letter you got from the Headmaster . . ."

"How dare you! You went through my desk, you little sneak!"

"It was lying right out on the top and . . .Sev recognized the seal and we just wanted to see how come you'd get a letter from a wizard because you don't have magic. It wasn't really sneaking, not really . . ."

Petunia flushed hotly. "Was too! I said that Snape boy would be a bad influence on you. He's always poking his big nose into everyone's business."

"Tuney, it's okay, you don't have to be mad, it's all right to want to have magic . . ."

"Who said I want to have magic like you, brat?"

"Tuney . . .I know what he said, he said only those with magic could attend Hogwarts, but he was sure you'd find something just as valuable to learn. He was very kind."

"Oh, be quiet, won't you? Hurry up and get on the blasted train. I don't care anymore, Lily. Go to that stupid school, you and that Snape boy deserve it. Now you can all be freaks together!"

"We're not freaks, Petunia!"

"What are you then? Because you sure as hell aren't normal, Lily." Petunia hissed. "You never have been." She stalked away, and I saw Lily's eyes fill with tears.

I shot a nasty look after her older sister and wished I could hex her tongue out. Then I walked up to my friend and said, "Hey, Lily. Are you ready to go to Hogwarts?"

"Yeah. I guess." She gave me a watery smile. "C'mon, let's get on." She turned to say goodbye to her parents, then she followed me onto the train, biting her lip nervously.

* * * * * *

Freedom nearly fell off the window ledge, he was so stunned by that little tidbit of information Snape had provided. Bloody Merlin's ghost! Aunt Petunia used to wish she had magic? And she wanted to go to Hogwarts? Maybe that's why she's so angry that I have magic and she doesn't. Maybe that's why she never lets me mention it around her. 'Cause she's jealous or something. That would explain a lot.

Then he refocused on Snape and Hagrid, who had noticed him sitting on the ledge.

Severus whistled at him, and Freedom had no choice then but to obey, and he came in to sit upon the Potions Master's shoulder.

"How was your flight?"

Good. But I'm kind of sleepy, the hawk lied, and pretended to drift off, hoping Severus would continue the conversation. A moment later, he did.

* * * * * *

The Sorting did not go as I had expected, since Lily and I ended up in rival Houses, a thing which I knew was bound to cause problems for us. Lily swore it didn't matter, and maybe it didn't to her, but it did to several others, namely Potter, Black, Lupin, and Pettigrew. They'd had it in for me since we met on the train going to school, and Potter said that he'd rather leave school than be Sorted into Slytherin, and Black agreed with him. Then they laughed at me for saying they had brawn but no brains and claimed I wouldn't end up anywhere, because I had neither.

Lily got mad then and said we should move to another compartment, and Potter sneered and said, "See ya around, Snivellus!" Thus giving me my most detested nickname, and also showing what arrogant idiot he was.

I would have been satisfied to leave it there, but Potter and Black had other ideas. They wanted to teach "the upstart snake" his place, and they started ambushing me on my way to class sometimes, not realizing I wasn't quite the easy mark they thought.

Mum had taught me to defend myself, using Stinging Hexes and things like that, and for awhile I gave as good as I got. Until they started cheating and hexing me three and two on one, I could usually dodge or reflect at least two hexes back but Pettigrew used to like to attack me from behind, and then I ended up worse for it.

But they taught me one good thing. Always be prepared for anything and watch your back.

By the time our first year ended, they had a reputation as the worst pranksters and bullies in our year, and I hated them with a passion. So did Lily. Sometimes she helped me, if she was around when they hexed me, and once or twice she got Black and Potter or even Pettigrew back for tormenting me. I was their favorite target, but I wasn't the only one who ended up on the wrong end of their wands. Plenty of Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs were hurt or humiliated by their stupid pranks, the only ones who were safe from them were the Gryffindors.

Lily gave them the monicker "The Marauders" one day when she caught them hexing a Slytherin firstie when we were in our second year and the name stuck. The gits were even proud of it! They thought it sounded wonderful. I suppose they were too dense to realize that their "wonderful name" meant "a band of raiders who preyed upon the weak and helpless". But it suited them, for that's what they did, all right.

Only they claimed it was all in fun, and hardly ever got in trouble for their nasty pranks. I thought they were about as useful as a plague of boils and made it a point to outperform them in potions and nearly every other class that I could.

One time, Lily and I were making a new potion for extra credit, since Slughorn always paired us for most projects, he liked to see what we came up with, since we were among his best potions students, and we had nearly finished the draft when Potter and his gang came by and started with me.

Before I knew it, hexes were flying, and stupid Pettigrew did something to our cauldron and totally ruined the solution we'd been brewing for two days. I never saw Lily lose her temper like she did then.

"You bloody great imbeciles! What HAVE you done?"

"Aw, calm down Evans, it isn't like you can't make another one," Black said, giving her his famous smile.

"Do you know how long it took us to make that potion, Black, you dumb arse-licking son of a toad?" she screamed. "TWO DAYS! D'you hear me? Two days and now it's ruined! What were you thinking, that it was just some kind of joke? Huh? We were bored, so let's go prank Snape and Evans?"

"Blimey, Evans! We didn't know you were going to be here. We just thought Snivelly was here by himself. It was just a joke, don't get your knickers in a twist," began Potter.

Lily's eyes narrowed and burned like a dragon about to flame a wizard into ashes. "Oh really?" she said in a dangerously soft tone. I flinched. I knew she was going to kill them. And I didn't give a damn. They deserved every bit of misery she was about to unleash upon them. "Then let's see how funny you find this, Potter!"

She pointed her wand and to this day I don't know what hex she cast, but whatever it was hit all three of them and made them deathly ill for two days, with green pustules all over that itched and burned like hell and vomiting and the runs and well . . .it was quite nasty, had them in the Hospital Wing like that. And she also informed Professor Slughorn about out destroyed potion, so he took fifty points from them and gave them a week long detention on top of it.

After that, they learned never to muck up our potions, and they were very careful to never rile Lily up that way again.

And we won Slughorn's Best Potion Award for our Improved Bruise Salve.

* * * * * *

I'm betting I get my temper from her, Freedom thought, smothering a chuckle in his wing. She sounds like a real good friend to have in a tight spot. And I can't blame her for going all spare on Sirius and my dad either, I'd have flipped too if the potion I'd been working on for two days was ruined by some stupid prank. They deserved whatever she cast on them. He didn't much care for the way his father and Sirius and the others had behaved, they reminded him of Dudley and his friends, and that was not something he wanted to hear, but Hagrid did not jump to their defense, as he surely would have if Severus was exaggerating, and so Harry was forced to accept Snape's account as the truth.

Indeed, Hagrid was nodding through much of Snape's recitation, and once or twice he would add, "Aye, they were always in trouble of one kind or another, the scamps! Couldn't seem t'help themselves. Worse than a pack o'pixies."

He settled himself more comfortably on Snape's shoulder and wondered if the professor was going to say anything further about his mother during school.

After a few swallows of tea, Severus continued.

* * * * * *

Things changed radically during our fifth year, however. The rivalry between the Marauders and I had grown even more bitter, to the point that whenever we saw one another, our hands were immediately on our wand, ready to hex each other. I had taken to sitting in the desk with a wall behind me, so I could be sure no one could attack me from behind. And if that were not bad enough, we had OWL's coming up and I was trying to study for them with Lily in the library.

It was during one of those late night study sessions that I got up the courage to do something I had long dreamed of doing.

I kissed her.

I was prepared for her to smack my face for daring to accost her that way. I didn't know if she even liked me that way, as more than a friend.

But she stared at me for a moment, her eyes wide in silent surprise and then she grinned and said, "Really, Sev, what took you so long?" Then she kissed me back.

I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven. I kept praying this wasn't a dream or if it was, that I'd die right then and never have to face reality again, because I'd never be as happy as I was right then.

"You don't mind then?" I asked softly after we had managed to come up for air.

She laughed. "Severus, if I minded, you'd know. Trust me." She waved her wand in front of my nose and I pretended to shrink away. "I'd ask you to kiss me some more, but you know we'll get thrown out if Madam Pince catches us making out instead of studying. So . . .let's go over that last set of Ancient Rumes again?"

I groaned. "Do we have to?"

"No. I could just pack up and call it a night," she said mischievously.

"Never mind. What was number seven again?" I held her hand under the table and fought to keep from giggling like an idiot. I looked at my book, but I didn't see the words at all. All I saw was a pair of familiar green eyes, gazing into my own, filled with a passion that made me long to take her in my arms and kiss her senseless.

We started seeing each other regularly then, and after three months we considered ourselves a couple. It was very secret, since our Houses were practically at war with each other, and it would have gone hard for us if anyone knew we were together.

Not that I cared. I'd have endured a dozen Cruiciatus Curses for Lily's sake. She'd bewitched me thoroughly with her mesmerizing emerald eyes and I couldn't get enough of her.

* * * * * *

Freedom nearly backwinged himself off of Snape's shoulder when he heard that.

Holy flaming hell! Snape kissed my mum! And she kissed him BACK!

He wondered if he were dreaming then. Or lost in a parallel universe. He shook his head slightly, then went still as Snape's hand came up to stroke him gently.

"Maybe I ought to be going. Freedom's getting restless, maybe he's hungry still."

The hawk froze. No, I'm okay. I just . . .had an itch, but it's gone now. You can keep talking if you want. I don't mind. He would go mad if he didn't hear what else happened now.

"But it didn't last, did it?" Hagrid asked softly, his eyes bright with sympathy.

"No. As Dickens said, "It was the best of times and the worst of times" . . ."

* * * * * *

The pressure from our two Houses was intense, the Dark Lord was rising and many of the purebloods in my House were turning to him as a way to get power. And the Marauders were growing suspicious of Lily, and making it hard for us to continue meeting. So we decided to break it off for a little while, just until OWLS were over, give us some breathing space.

Lily started being with some girls from Gryffindor, Alice Stewart, Mary MacDonald, and another one, I can't recall her name now. Anyway, they encouraged her to ignore me, since I was a Slytherin.

My own Housemates weren't much better. Avery and Mulciber and Lestrange all wanted me to join their little clique, they were popular and had money and connections, everything I lacked, and I stupidly thought it might be good to be part of the popular set for once. So I started sitting with them after class and helping with their homework, they were complete dunderheads when it came to potions and charms, though all of them knew plenty of dark curses. All of them were violently anti-Muggle and Muggleborn, and I didn't like that one bit, but I kept my mouth shut. They were the way they were and nothing I said would change their minds, and I didn't want to have yet another bunch of wizards out for my blood.

Discretion was the better part of valor, and so I kept my head down and acted like I agreed with them. That's all it was then. An act. I was biding my time, waiting for OWLS to be finished so I could meet Lily again. But while I was lying low, Potter was trying to make a play for Lily.

He wasn't succeeding, Lily kept brushing him off, but it made me furious. How dare that bloody glory-seeker try and steal my girl away from me? Of course, no one knew she was mine, but that didn't matter. I was still mad as hell at the bounder, going after the only girl I'd ever had, when he had dozens falling at his feet every time he looked around. He was a big Quidditch star, their number one Chaser, and he never let anyone forget it. He strutted around the school like a cockatrice.

But I didn't have much time to worry about Potter, since the OWLS came and I was determined to get all O's in them. I was strongest in Potions and Defense, but it was after our Defense OWL that disaster struck.

* * * * * *

Freedom listened, stunned, as Snape related what had occurred on that long ago June day after his Defense exam, how he had been studying the test questions again under a beech tree when Sirius and James, bored and looking for some amusement, decided to hex him.

He listened while Snape told Hagrid about the entire fight, the hexes they cast upon each other, and how Sirius had used Snape's own spell against him, gleaned from his potions book, which Black had stolen from him once a week ago, but Severus had stolen it back, forgetting he had written the Levicorpus spell and its counter in the margin of the book.

"I had a silly habit of scribbling down ideas for potions and spells in the margins of my texts, since I usually didn't have a piece of parchment handy, and that time it cost me dearly." Snape grimaced. "So there I was, hanging upside down like a side of beef, and half the school, or so it seemed, was laughing at me again, and I thought I would die from embarrassment when Lily shows up and starts defending me and giving Potter and Black what-for."

Freedom opened his eyes and wondered why Snape had gone pale and looked ill. Surely his mother had helped Severus get away, given her previous track record? Freedom winced, for what Snape had described reminded him unpleasantly of the time Dudley had shoved him headfirst into the primary school toilet and nearly drowned him, then had the cheek to tell a teacher that his cousin had wet his pants. He'd been given the horrible name of Pee Pee Potter for the rest of the year and the teacher had sent him home with a note for his aunt that she should take him to a doctor and make sure he didn't have bladder problems. Petunia hadn't, she had just given him less to drink and lectured him about embarrassing the family and locked him in the cupboard. But he had never forgotten it, even now that memory made him blush furiously.

He could sympathize totally with how Snape felt then.

So it was quite a shock when Severus told Hagrid what he had said after Lily had defended him.

You called her a Mudblood? Severus, you stupid git, what were you thinking? He nearly cried aloud, biting back the comment just in time. But he nearly bit the wizard's ear, hard, for it.

Until Severus added, "As soon as I'd said it, I wanted to hex my tongue off. I don't know what the hell came over me, except that I was humiliated and furious and I just lashed out at the nearest person, which happened to be Lily. I was such a fool! With one word I'd destroyed our relationship. I was so upset at myself that I barely noticed when you came by and made Black and Potter let me down."

"Aye, I remember that. I was glad I could help, lad. What they did was wrong, dead wrong, and they shoulda gotten detention for it."

"They didn't. They got off, as usual. I went up to Gryffindor Tower later on that night, to apologize to Lily for my damn mouth, and I waited outside the portrait hole until one of her snooty friends, MacDonald, I think it was, told her I was there and to come out. I'd gone there to make peace, but instead we ended up quarreling . . ."

* * * * * *

"I'm sorry, Lily," I began, determined to make this right. I regretted my temper that night as I'd never regretted anything in my life. "I didn't mean it."

Her eyes were like two chips of emerald ice, so cold that they froze me where I stood. "Save your breath, Snape! I don't want to hear it!"

"Please! Listen to me! I didn't mean it!"

"Then why did you say it? You don't usually say things you don't mean. Is it because that's what all your new Slytherin friends say? Because I've heard them, you know. They think Mudbloods are scum of the earth, vermin, that we all should be exterminated. Is that what I am to you, Snape?"

"No! I never . . .it never mattered to me, Lily . . .you know that!"

"Then why are you friends with people like Avery, Lestrange, and Mulciber? Why do you hang around such evil people?"

"I don't . . .not really . . ."

"I've seen you, Snape, don't try and lie, damn you!"

"I'm not!" I exploded. "Just because I'm with them doesn't mean I believe what they do! You're the one who said let's try and be friends with other people in our Houses, Evans! And look who you're hanging around with-the bloody Marauders! You're a fine one to talk, making nice with Potter, who used to hex me till I bled!"

She blushed. "At least Potter and Black don't cast dark curses on people! Look what Avery did to Mary the other week! What do you call that? How can you be friends with someone like that, Sev? He's evil!"

I gritted my teeth. "Oh, and like Potter and Black are any better? They might not use dark hexes, but they don't need to. What they do is just as bad, humiliating people for the fun of it. You don't need a dark hex to hurt someone, Lily! It might not kill or maim or whatever, but it leaves other scars, dammit!"

"Don't start, Snape! I'm sick and tired of you and the Marauders! I'm tired of making excuses for you. You're so obsessed with them you don't even care that you're hanging around people whose greatest ambition is to kill Muggles and join You-Know-Who! Maybe they were right about you!"

I gaped at her, too shocked to utter a word in my defense. Surely she couldn't believe that? I loved her, for Godsake. I would never hurt her, not intentionally.

She gazed at me, her eyes shooting sparks, and I snarled, hurt by her willingness to believe the worst of me, "Fine! Believe whatever you damn well please! You know best, don't you, Evans?"

"It's over, Snape," she declared coldly, then she turned and walked back inside the portrait hole.

I just stood there, her words echoing in my head like a death knell. What had I done?

* * * * * *

That was the beginning of the end. After that I no longer cared much about anything, except my studies. I was moody, depressed, and my temper was as nasty as my father's at its worst. Everyone avoided me, which was fine with me. I was like a wounded dragon, ready to bite the head off of anyone who got too close.

I went home, and found that my mother was dying, and there was no magic that could save her. I tried, of course. Tried every remedy and elixir I could think of, every healing enchantment I knew. Useless. She died one freezing cold December night, just before Christmas. I was there, holding her hand, as she drew her last breath.

And with her went my last hope of anything resembling a family.

When I returned to school for second term, I was bitter and angry, torn all to pieces inside, but not knowing how to ask for help. All I knew was how to hide. So I did, and no one knew how close I was to the edge till after Black nearly killed me in the Shrieking Shack.

I went to the Headmaster, thinking surely he must act, I had nearly lost my life, the damn werewolf had nearly bitten me, and only Potter's quick reflexes had saved me, much as I hated to admit it. I owed the arrogant sod, and I wanted to see justice done. I thought Dumbledore would agree, but instead he told me to keep my mouth shut, that Lupin's secret must be kept, and swore me to secrecy.

"What about Black? He tried to kill me, damn it!"

"Now Severus, I highly doubt that. He says it was just a lark."

"Oh, brilliant!" I sneered. "Just a lark. It was really funny too, sir! I nearly died laughing!"

"My boy, you are overwrought. You ought to go and get some sleep. I shall settle with Mr. Black and the others."

I wasn't buying it, not for a minute. He didn't look the least bit angry, not the way he should have looked if he was really going to lay down the law. He looked concerned. But not for me. Oh no. He was concerned for Lupin, that someone might learn he had permitted a werewolf with an active curse to attend Hogwarts and endanger us all.

I was so furious I practically spit. But I managed, for once, to control myself, and all I said was, "Yes, sir."

I left, and only then did I realize just how much I was worth in the old man's eyes.

Nothing.

* * * * * *

Severus sighed heavily and rubbed his temples. "You know what happened after that, old friend. I walked the lefthand path into night and very nearly destroyed myself. I listened to Malfoy and Avery and became a Death Eater, servant to a monster. I let myself be used by him, I let hatred poison me, I was seduced by his promises, that he would appreciate me for my talents, and that I would never be forgotten and discarded. He played on my wounded spirit like an expert musician does a piano. And I very nearly succumbed."

"But ye didn't, Severus. You saw the lies in time and you came back to us." Hagrid said softly.

"It was a near thing. Only one thing kept me from falling. Do you know what it was?" Snape whispered, his face stark and pale. "Her eyes. I remembered that night, and her eyes, so angry and hurt, and I knew then if I became a true disciple I would never be able to look her in the eye again. Because then she would have been proven right."

Hagrid reached out and clasped the younger man's hand. "I am glad you did, Severus. For it would have been a terrible loss otherwise."

Severus met the gamekeeper's eyes and nodded. "I know. When I showed up at your door, half-dead from cold and fever, I was sure you were going to leave me to die. Instead you took me in again and cured me and then you told me to go to Dumbledore."

Hagrid shook his head. "Did ye really think I'd turn you away, Severus? After all I had done for ye before?"

Something unspoken passed between them, Freedom sensed it, but did not know what they were referring to.

Snape nodded, and looked away. "I was a Death Eater. You should have killed me."

The big man snorted. "Bollocks! Ye were a seventeen year old idiot who'd listened to the forked tongue of the devil himself. Like many another before ye. I thought you were dead, lad, lost to me. Then you show up in the dead of night, looking like death warmed over . . .half out o' your head with fever and the only sense I could get outta you was "Hagrid, I don't want to go back, help me," and what was I supposed to do?"

Severus's mouth twisted wryly. "Called the Aurors."

"Aye, and then I'd have been guilty of murder, because you'd not have lasted a day in Azkaban. Besides, I knew what it cost you t'come back, and I wasn't about to let that come to naught. So I saved you and I've never regretted a bit of it, Severus Snape. An' that's the truth of it."

"I can never repay you," Snape said quietly, humbly.

The half-giant flicked two fingers and cuffed the smaller man lightly on the ear. "Bite your tongue, sir! There's no debts between friends, damn yer stubborn hide. How many times do I got to tell ye that?"

"Until I believe it," the other answered lightly.

"Humph! Maybe I ought to jus' bang your head into a wall a few times."

Severus snorted. "That's been tried already. I have an extremely hard head."

"Bloody Yorkshireman!" Hagrid shot back.

"Quite." A glimmer of a smile quivered across Snape's lips. "Dumbledore accepted my pardon, and agreed to clear me of charges if I would be his spy, and I agreed. Then he gave me my first assignment-bringing that prophecy to the Dark Lord. I wish I had refused. Had I known what would come of it . . ."

Hagrid patted him on the arm. "How could ye know?"

"I should have suspected something. I was close to him, I should have known what he planned. I should have guessed the identity of the traitor in the Order. All my bloody intelligence and I still failed! I came back for her and she forgave me for everything and I swore to protect her son and it was not enough! Always too little too late! The last sight her eyes ever saw was the damned Dark Lord."

"No, Severus. The last thing her eyes saw was her son," Hagrid corrected. "You did all you could for her. The only way you'll fail her is if you don't keep that promise you made."

Severus was silent for a moment. Then he said, "I will find him, Hagrid. And I'll keep him safe. By whatever means necessary."

Freedom hissed at that. Whatever means necessary? Just what the hell's that supposed to mean? The Animagus clicked his beak irritably. I'm not some damn sack of Galleons that you can stick in a corner somewhere, Severus!

Over the course of the discussion, Freedom had come to the conclusion that Snape was more than just the snarky bat of the dungeons. He was a man of great courage and Freedom could grow to like and even respect the professor if not for one thing. Snape was going to have to stop thinking of him as a carbon copy of his father and start seeing him as just Harry, wizard and student, the boy with Lily's evergreen eyes.

Of course, he had no idea how to go about changing the professor's mind. As Hagrid had said, Snape was bloody stubborn. Perhaps if he saved Snape's life . . .? Right. As if. Still, it was food for thought. He had learned a great deal tonight about both his parents and Snape. They had all done things that were foolish and stupid, and yet managed to make something of themselves when given a chance. Not all Gryffindors were good and not all Slytherins evil, there was light and dark in everyone. What mattered was what you chose to do with it. James had chosen to stop being a bully, Lily had chosen to forgive her friend for a terrible mistake, and Snape has chosen to return to the light.

The young hawk knew that he too faced a choice. But as yet he didn't know what way he would choose. He only hoped that when the time came, he would make the right decision.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Sorry this took so long, but I was very busy with work and Father's Day. I hope you all like this glimpse into Snape and Lily's past.

Just a reminder, before anyone rags on me for not following canon--this is NOT a canon story, it's AU, similar in certain aspects, but that's all. So expect the unexpected.

Thanks to anyone who's been R &R ing this!

Next: Umbridge goes on a rampage and Freedom begins his own covert campaign to stop her from crushing Hogwarts under her pink high heels.



Chapter 16: Umbridge vs. Freedom
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After Hagrid and Snape's conversation, Freedom had to revise his thinking a bit.  Thus far, he had always assumed, based upon reminiscences by Lupin and Sirius, that the pranks they played during school had been harmless practical jokes, like the Weasley twins.  He had never thought that his dad, who Sirius had said was a fine upstanding man, would be a schoolboy bully, hexing kids and targeting Severus simply because he existed and was a Slytherin.  It made him wince, recalling the way Snape had told Hagrid of James humiliating him like that, hanging him upside down so people could see his underpants, and making him eat soap and all, just because they'd had nothing better to do after exams. 


He had always thought his father was this perfect person, Quidditch star, Head Boy, popular and good-looking, he had been proud when everyone looked at him and said he was James's image.  But now that image was tarnished and the halo had worn away to reveal a very human, very spoiled brat, of a young wizard.  He recalled Lupin telling him once that James had been born to elderly parents later in life and they adored him and gave him whatever he wanted, since they were quite rich.  Like Dudley.  Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon think the sun rises and sets on him, and even when they see him misbehaving, they always find excuses for him.  Like I started with him, or he's having a bad day, or he's a sensitive little bugger.  Ha!  The only thing Dudley's sensitive about is food and whether or not he has more video games and toys than everyone else.  Guess that's how my dad's parents must have treated him too, because he acted just like Dudley in school-a royal terror. 

Freedom had never thought too much about how Dudley behaved, and if it were wrong or not, until he went to school and heard other kids speaking about their siblings and parents, especially Ron, and a few other Gyffindors.  A part of him knew it was wrong, the way his relatives treated him, but that was how it was, and he just had to put up with it.  But only in school did he realize just how unfair the Dursleys' treatment of him was. 

He had always gotten mad when Snape referred to him as a spoiled arrogant boy, like his father, thinking the Potions Master was just saying mean things to him about the father he couldn't remember.  Only now did he see that Snape had spoken the truth.  James was not the icon Sirius and Lupin had made him out to be.  He had been a spoiled bully, always in trouble, and it made his son feel ashamed that he had behaved that way.  He had always thought his dad better than that. 

And Sirius wasn't much better, now that I think on it. One of these days, when he transformed back to his real shape, he was going to question his godfather about his so-called "wonderful" schooldays and see what Sirius said about the Shrieking Shack incident now that he heard Snape's side of the story again.  He hadn't paid much attention to it before, because he had been trying to save Sirius's life, but now he had a better picture of what had gone on and he wished to know if Sirius ever felt guilty for almost killing a classmate, rival member of Slytherin or not. 

 The both of them were rotten idiots during school.  Wonder what happened to make them change? Maybe my mum hexed them till they begged for mercy?  He could easily picture his fiery mother doing just that.

Though he knew she wasn't perfect either.  That night with Severus outside the portrait hole, she hadn't let Severus speak and had been so angry that she had broken off their friendship.  Reminds me of how Ron and I were during third and fourth year, always quarreling, not speaking to each other, I really hated that, but I was too stubborn to bury the hatchet until months later.  Guess I've got a bit of stubborn in me too.  But I would have forgiven Ron eventually, because he's my best mate, even if he does behave like a dumbass sometimes.  Mum should have forgiven Severus for behaving like a git, I mean they were practically an item. 

Then another thought occurred to him. But if she had stayed, Severus might have . . .make that WOULD have married her.  And then I might never have been born. He quickly abandoned that line of thinking,  for it was too farfetched for his taste.  As Snape had said to Hagrid, what was done was done.  At least Lily had realized her mistake later on and forgiven Severus before she was killed.  Freedom knew that her forgiveness had meant everything to the lonely wizard, who had truly loved his best friend. 

That was yet another shock to the young Animagus.  He would have never considered his greasy Potions Professor capable of loving anyone, much less of loving someone so devotedly, even after she had died.  It said something about Severus's loyalty, that he could love so deeply.  And he knew then that he had been mistaken in thinking Snape a cold heartless person.  His mother would have never been friends with such a person, and no one who was shallow would keep so many memories alive of a dead woman.  Nor would they have turned away from the dark path out of love and returned to the light.  A shallow person cared for nothing but their own gratification.  Huh? Gratification? Where the hell did I pick that one up? Must be hanging about with Snape too long, I'm starting to get a vocabulary like a professor.

He could just see Ron falling over in a faint if he ever heard Harry talking like that.  The hawk quivered with silent laughter upon Snape's shoulder.  Instead of being known as Harry Potter-the Boy Who Lived-he could be known instead as harry Potter-the Boy With the Best Vocabulary in Hogwarts.  He snorted at his own fancy.  He must be exhausted if those kinds of thoughts were going through his brain. 

Worn out with all of the new revelations, Freedom tucked his head under his wing and was soon fast asleep.  He never woke, not even when Severus set him gently down on the back of the couch.

He slept deeply until the dawn, when he awoke ravenous and devoured the entire rabbit Hagrid had given Severus for him the day before.

The Potions Master raised an eyebrow at his familiar.  "You act like I've been starving you."

Huh? Oh, well, I was just hungry, I guess, Freedom replied, cleaning his talons.  You have class, right?

"Yes.  I shall be in class all day.  What will you be doing?"

Flying, sleeping, hunting.  My usual things.

Severus eyed the hawk sternly.  "You will not get into trouble, understand?"

Trouble? Who me? The hawk gave him an ingenuous look.

Severus was not fooled for an instant.  "I wasn't born yesterday.  You will promise not to attack that . . .woman.  Because I-"

The toad bitch, Freedom supplied helpfully. 

Severus pressed his lips together firmly.  He would not smile at the name, no matter if he agreed with it one hundred percent.  "-do not want to have to defend you in front of a Committee for Dangerous Magical Creatures, am I understood?"

The hawk shot him an irritated look.  Killjoy.  You ruin all my fun.

"Freedom.  Either you promise me you shall behave or I shall snap a line and jesses on you and lock you in here for the rest of the day."

The hawk hissed.  No way! You wouldn't! That would be like . . .horrible, Sev!

Just the mere thought of not being able to fly made him twitchy. 

"Well then, best behave, fledgling.  I would not want to do it, but I will if you break your word." Snape warned.  Merlin, but I sound like I am talking to a teenager here, not an animal.  I must be losing it.  Then again, this hawk reminds me a great deal of a quarrelsome student sometimes.  He rubbed his hand across his eyes.  Typical, I am probably the only wizard in existence to get stuck playing parent to a hawk.  Merlin help me!

Freedom shot him a sulky look.  Fine.  I promise.  No need to get in a snit, Sev.

The professor quirked his mouth in a small smile.  "A snit? Oh, fledgling, you haven't seen what I'm really like in a snit.  And trust me, you don't ever want to."

Freedom was sure he didn't.  He had seen Snape in a temper before and had no desire to experience the sharp edge of the man's tongue any time soon. The wizard could strip your soul bare with two or three pointed comments when he chose. Severus's tongue was a most potent weapon, as Harry had learned to his regret.

The Potions Master stroked the hawk lightly then opened the door to his quarters and tossed the brown raptor up into the air.  "Fly free, my friend.  I shall see you at dinner."

The hawk hovered in front of him, then called a quick farewell and soared away.  Severus watched until he was out of sight, then went down to dungeon number two, which was the one he usually used for his potions classroom, to supervise his NEWT independent study class. 

* * * * *

 

Freedom flew through the halls purposefully.  He intended to keep his promise to Severus, but that didn't mean he couldn't make Umbridge's life miserable in other ways.  And right then he decided he was going to put phase one of his covert war into action. He was tired of sitting back and waiting for others to act, ever since he had found out how the Headmaster had manipulated him, he had felt like a chess piece, and he was determined to prove Dumbledore wrong.  He was nobody's pawn and he would prove it right now.

His first order of business would be to gather information on the pink-loving witch like when she ate and what her schedule was and how many students were fed up and disgusted with her policy changes.  In short, he was going to play Severus's role of spy.  He flew into the Entrance Hall, where he found Filch tacking up yet another new Restriction Decree plaque.  This one read:

Educational Decree #24

No Recreational Sports, Clubs, Teams, or Extra Curricular Activities

Will Be Permitted in the School

By order of the High Inquisitor

 

Freedom hissed in fury when he saw the plaque.  Merlin, but she's insane! Does she want to cause a riot or what? Why on earth would she ban all extra curricular activities and sports? That's our only form of entertainment! What does she want us to do all bloody day, study till our eyes cross?

He could only imagine how the Quidditch teams were going to take this.

Filch glared at him as he hovered nearby, waving the hammer at him.  "Away with ye, you great booby! Go hunt some mice!"

Freedom made a soft annoyed screech and the caretaker nearly fell off the ladder, thinking the hawk was about to attack him.

Below, Mrs. Norris, his scraggly tortoiseshell cat, growled warningly.  Leave my human in peace, hawk!

Ah, pipe down, kitty! I wasn't going to hurt him.  Keep your fur on! Freedom shot back, gliding lazily away from the pair.

Mrs. Norris laid back her ears and hissed at him, Someday, bird, we'll see who's quicker,  a cat's claws or a hawk's beak.

Right.  Keep dreaming, Scragglepuss, shrilled the red-tail.  Then he flew down the corridor where the Charms classroom was located.

A group of Slytherin sixth years and Hufflepuffs were just emerging from the classroom and they were arguing heatedly in soft tones over the newest regulation. 

"It's positively unfair, what she's doing to us!" moaned a tall Slytherin girl.

"I think it might even be illegal." A Hufflepuff boy whispered.  "I mean whoever heard of suspending Quidditch? Or Gobstones, or the Astronomy Club?"

"And how about the Herbology Society?" whined another girl.  "I mean, what's so dangerous about learning to grow a garden or study magical plant species?"

"She even closed down the Debate Club," retorted a Slytherin angrily.  "There's no law that says we can't have discussions. I hate her," he said very softly, and the others all nodded. 

"It sucks, but what can we do about it?" sighed a pretty Hufflepuff with blond hair. "Even the Headmaster has to answer to her."

"True, but what about the Board of Governors? They're in charge of the school, and they aren't answerable to the Headmaster or whoever's currently in charge.  The High Inquistor's answerable to them," a dark-haired Slytherin boy said firmly.  "The Minstry can appoint whoever they want to the position, but it doesn't mean she should be allowed to abuse her power like this."

"How do you know that, Owens?" asked a red-haired Hufflepuff with green eyes.

"My dad's a barrister, that's how.  And he's a trustee on the Board too.  I'm going to write him tonight, tell him what's been going on here. It's not right.  We shouldn't be treated like this, we pay good Galleons to go here and we should be getting the best education possible.  I haven't learned spit in Defense since the hag's started teaching it this year, and this was the year I was supposed to learn some really useful hexes and counterjinxes."

"But Owens, I heard that she has somebody inspect the mail," another Slytherin said fearfully. "That nothing goes out of here that she doesn't approve of."

Owens snorted.  "And you believe that? Tampering with mail is against the law.  If she was doing that, it'd take all her time, so I doubt it.  Even so, I'll make a few copies, just in case.  But one way or another, the Board's going to learn of her so-called educational decrees.  I'm sure they won't think they're so wonderful."

"I just hope it works," said a short-haired Hufflepuff, and then they split up, moving away to their different classes.

Freedom thought that was a great idea, trust a Slytherin to come up with it. He sincerely hoped it worked, and the Board could put some pressure on Umbridge.  But he knew from experience that the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly and he decided to speed up the process with a few ideas of his own, all designed to annoy the hell out of the hag in the office.  If he could make things uncomfortable for her, she might just resign. 

To that end, he turned to lurking about the window that the Headmaster's office boasted.  Luckily, it was open. Freedom slipped inside, Umbridge was not there at the moment. Fawkes trilled a welcome from his perch.

*Hello Freedom!  What brings you here? Albus is away presently and the fat buzzard is gone too, thank the stars! If I had to endure another moment of her drooling over those awful kitten plates . . .I might have hacked up my dinner all over her pink heels.*

Do it, Fawkes.  Actually I'm not here to see them, I'm here to give the fat buzzard-good one-a hard time. Freedom admitted.

The phoenix's normally gentle eyes sparkled with mischief.  *Ah, I shouldn't encourage rule-breaking, Harry-chick, but this once . . .do your worse, hawk!  I shall keep watch.*

Thanks, Fawkes! I'd never do this otherwise, but she needs to be put down good. He glanced about the office in distaste.  Since he had been here a few days before, the office had been changed radically.

About the only thing that he recognized was the desk.  Dumbledore's chairs had been replaced with brocade rosebud recliners, a small table with a lace doily between them, some of the portraits had been rearranged, to make room for Umbridge's cat plates.  It looked like a reject from a Victorian teashop, he thought derisively.  All that was missing were tea, sandwiches, and a maid in a frilly apron and bonnet. 

He landed upon the desk, examining the papers there with interest.  There was a copy of the Prophet whose headlines screamed Umbridge to Reform a Failing Institution!  And below that was a picture of a smiling Umbridge standing on the front steps of the school, waving her wand and smiling at Fudge. 

That's rich! SHE's the reason Hogwarts is in trouble!

Below that, in smaller print was an article that lauded Fudge on his appointment, criticizing Dumbledore for the way he had previously been running the school.   Though still very angry at the old wizard, even Freedom had to admit that Hogwarts under Albus was better, ten times so, than the school under Dolores Jane Umbridge.   Even Dumbledore had better sense than to ban sports and recreation.

Hmm . . .what do we have here? A letter to the Minister, guess you report back to him every week probably? Too bad you're going to have to rewrite this.

Freedom picked up the unfinished letter in his talons and threw it into the fireplace, which was burning merrily. He then flew back to the desk and proceeded to burn or shred every piece of correspondence upon the desk that he could findHe knocked over the inkwell, snapped quills in two, and tore apart the poufy cushion that was placed upon Dumbledore's chair. 

There! That ought to set her back a bit, as far as writing something goes. Fawkes, maybe you should, uh, go fly around the grounds or something before she gets back? Just in case she decides to blame you.

The phoenix cast a glance at the shambles upon the desk and trilled, *A capital idea, Freedom! And if you really want to get her riled, why not speak to our cousins-the owls? She would find it very difficult to send mail or receive any if her letters mysteriously . . .disappeared or were delayed.*

Wicked idea! Thanks, Fawkes! Freedom squawked.

The phoenix sang a small song of victory then flew out the window, his long tail trailing fiery sparks.

Freedom soon followed, heading over to the Owlery. 

To his delight, he found Hedwig there.  His familiar gave a startled hoot, then proceeded to examine her wizard Animagus thoroughly, preening and scolding him alternately.  Thank the winds you're all right! Do you KNOW how worried I've been? You silly foolish boy! Where have you BEEN?

Freedom tried to sidle away from the owl, but Hedwig wasn't having any of that, and she nipped him sharply on the back of the neck.  Oww! Hedwig, calm down! I'm sorry, I got knocked out and broke my wings, it's taken me this long to remember who I was.

Humph! And did it also take you this long to remember who I was and that I might be worried, mister? She pecked him again. 

Oww! Hedwig, please! He ducked and tried to fly off the ledge, but the bigger snowy owl hissed and crowded him against the wall and he didn't want to hurt her by fighting back.  

Of all the irresponsible, idiotic ideas you've ever come up with, Harry James Potter, this is the most fluffbrained! Hedwig continued to scold, giving him another nip when he attempted to interrupt her again. What possessed you to transform without a teacher? You could have died!

Freedom wisely decided it was better to just shut up and let her rant, before he ended up bald, and so he hunched upon the ledge, wincing at the other's shrill squawks and accusing eyes.  He had never thought his owl would care so much that he was gone, he had always thought the bird would be fine, sometimes she went weeks without seeing him.   

Finally she stopped hissing and gave him a smart cuff with one wing, then crooned, Well, better late than never.  What brings you here, fledgling?

Freedom eyed the bigger raptor uneasily.  If I tell you, are you going to go all nuts on me again? He ruffled his feathers, wincing.

That depends.

The young hawk swallowed.  Then he said, What do you think of the new High Inquisitor?

Hedwig and half the other owls, who had been watching the snowy berate him in amusement, made disgusted noises. 

Evil old buzzard!

Third cousin to a dodo bird!

She has no respect for us, calls us mobile letter carriers and not good for anything else!

She says birds are stupid! hissed an elf owl angrily.

She is the worst thing that ever walked into this school, remarked a very old Great-Horned owl sharply.

I agree, Freedom chuffed.  How would you like to help make her pack up and leave?

There was dead silence in the Owlery.

Then all the owls began hooting and hissing, demanding to know what they could do to chase Umbridge from their school. 

Well, you could stop delivering the mail to her on time.  Or at all.  And she's really afraid of flying things . . .like us . . . Freedom told them gleefully.

The owls listened attentively to his plan.  Then the very old owl, the matriarch of the Owlery, called Seraphina, hooted, The fledgling is right.  We may be the wizards' messengers, but we serve out of love and duty, not because we are trained to it.  Dolores Umbridge has forgotten that little fact.  I think it's time we reminded her of it.  What say you-whoo?

There was a chorus of hoots and squawks.

Very well.  It is unanimous.  Let the rebellion begin!

* * * * * *

 

The next morning, Umbridge noticed that her copy of The Daily Prophet was missing.  She was also steamed to return to her office and find it had been trashed, though all the portraits swore they had seen no one enter or leave the premises.  Perhaps Peeves had done it, suggested Phineas Black slyly.  Umbridge fumed, but there was little she could do to punish the poltergeist. 

The High Inquisitor looked about the staff table and observed that Minerva had a copy of the paper, as did Flitwick, Sprout, and Snape. 

"Ahem! Ahem! Might I borrow that when you are finished, Minerva? My copy seems to have been . . .misplaced," Umbridge muttered, scowling.

"Oh? That's a shame," Minerva purred.  "Yes, I'll give it to you when I'm finished, Dolores." She then proceeded to eat her breakfast leisurely while slowly scanning the paper. 

Severus shot a knowing glance at her, and smirked behind his copy.  By the time Umbridge got to read the paper, her breakfast would have gone cold.

And so it went, all throughout the rest of the week.  Umbridge soon discovered that any letter she sent never got to its destination, or when it did, it arrived illegible or torn or later than expected.  The same was true of letters sent to her.  She found she had to hand deliver notes to the professors, because otherwise none of them received her new policy rules. 

It was horribly annoying and infuriating, and Umbridge finally stormed up to the Owlery with several copies of a letter to Fudge and commanded half the owls to deliver it for her.  "And it better arrive on time, do you hear me? Otherwise there's going to be a few more gargoyles in the castle! Got me?"

The owls ignored her, turning their backs to her.

"What's this? Come here, I say, and take this to the Minister!"

Still the owls did nothing, remaining upon their perches.

Umbridge stamped her pointed shoe upon the floor.  "Do it! Now! Or else!" She waved her wand threateningly. 

Suddenly all the owls turned about and she was faced with over thirty pairs of unfriendly amber eyes.  They hissed and spread their wings.

Umbridge gasped and started to back away.  "Nasty dumb creatures! Stay back!"

The owls hooted, then launched themselves at her, wings beating hard.

Umbridge bolted, and her screams of terror could be heard down in the dungeons, where Snape was teaching his third years how to brew a Stomach Soother. 

Severus raised an eyebrow.

"Sir?" asked a third-year Ravenclaw.  "What's that noise?"

"Probably the wind," Snape replied, then motioned for her to continue adding crushed lavender to her solution, thinking that the witch had a screech to rival a banshee.

* * * * * *

 

If that were not enough, Umbridge also learned that it was dangerous for her to walk about outside without an umbrella.  For some unexplained reason, birds seemed to find her pink robes and hat an irresistible target.  She inevitably ended up splattered with bird droppings, courtesy of a bunch of owls and one clever hawk.  And the owls were not above swooping close by her when they flew and watching her dash for cover. 

"Bloody damn birds! They all ought to be stuffed and baked in a pie!" she whined to Filch after one disastrous afternoon. 

Filch merely bobbed his head, he was the only one of the staff who was glad Umbridge was in charge, for she had promised to let him punish the wretched little brats like they deserved. 

The owls also conspired to fly outside her window in the dead of night, hooting and screeching all night long, keeping the High Inquisitor from sleeping, until she finally got smart and cast silencing charms about the window after three days of sleepless nights. 

As a result of her missed sleep, she was grumpy and out-of-sorts, and took great delight in taking points and giving out detention right and left for cheeky attitudes (a student had looked at her wrong) and soon a new group of students were sporting sore bleeding hands and requesting murtlap salve from Hermione and one young Slytherin first year even had the guts to request it of Snape.

That proved to be a blessing in disguise, because Severus then demanded to know why Jonathon Melrose wanted it.  "Has someone cursed you, Mr. Melrose?"

"Umm . . .no, sir.  Not . . .really." the boy stammered, hanging his head.

"Then why would you need murtlap, young man?" Severus frowned, eyeing the boy sternly.  His sharp eyes noticed immediately that the boy had his right hand behind his back.  "Why are you standing with your hand behind your back, Melrose?"

"No reason, sir." Melrose bit his lip.

"You should have no reason to lie to me, Jonathon.  Show me your hand."

Gulping, the boy slowly slipped his hand out from behind his back. "Sir, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to get detention with Professor Umbridge!" he sniffled, knowing full well how disappointed Snape was when one of his snakes misbehaved. 

"What are you talking about-bloody damn hell, Melrose!" Severus cried, seizing the small hand and examining it intently.  "Who did this? Who?"

Melrose sniffled. Tears pooled in his eyes.  "Professor Umbridge, sir."

Severus's eyes were black as night.  "Umbridge used a blood quill on you?"

"I . . .she made me write with a black quill," Melrose told him. "Two hundred lines and when I was done, my hand was like this, sir!" Carved into the back of his hand were the words I will not be cheeky to my teacher.  "Can you fix it, sir? It stings something awful, Professor Snape."

"No doubt.  Come with me, Mr. Melrose." Severus led the eleven-year-old into his lab, where he summoned a shallow bowl and a potion in a green vial and a pitcher of water.  He poured some water into the bowl, emptied the vial of murtlap into it, stirred and then said, "Put your hand in there, Melrose, and soak for ten minutes.  That will take care of the pain and swelling. Bloody damn sadist!"

He pulled out a piece of parchment and began to write upon it rapidly.

Freedom, who had been on his shoulder the entire time, asked, What are you doing, Sev?

"Documenting this incident," Snape said softly.  "If I get enough of them, I could submit them to the Board of Governors and petition for a dismissal."

"Really, sir?" Melrose looked up from soaking his hand, his eyes shining hopefully.

"Indeed.  It is forbidden for a teacher to use a blood quill on students," Severus told him. "Such magic was outlawed centuries ago."  He continued writing grimly.

 The next day, his office mailbox was full of letters from his House and some from other Houses as well, all of them complaining about Umbridge and her miserable quill. 

Snape carefully made copies and wrote a letter to the Board of Governors, requesting that there be an inquest.  That was sent off with Seraphina. 

Two days or so later, Umbridge received a citation, warning her that such measures as a blood quill were unacceptable methods of discipline and she would be watched.   That letter reached her in a timely fashion, after Freedom informed the owls what it contained. 

Fawkes reported later that Umbridge blistered the air with swear words after reading it.  *Most unladylike.  I nearly self-combusted.*

* * * * * *

But Umbridge was not defeated so easily.  She was determined to keep her stronghold upon the administration by whatever means necessary.  Infuriated by what she thought was blatant slander, she sought to alleviate her frustration by ruthlessly examining her staff members. 

Trelawney, never the most adept of teachers, came under heavy scrutiny, Umbridge made her nervous, and she could barely teach when the other witch was in the room, writing away on her clipboard, coughing into her handkerchief, and asking Sybill in that half sweet, half poison tone, "Can you predict what I am about to do tonight, Sybill? No? Just one teensy little prediction? Come now, Seer, surely you can tell what I will have for dinner?"

Sybill, frantic, blurted, "I . . .nothing! You won't be able to eat anything!"

"Oh? Why not?"

"Umm . . .because . . ." her hands twisted in her scarves. "You will have . . . indigestion!"

Umbridge bared her teeth at the other witch in a fake smile.  "How very interesting! We will have to see if it comes true. A Seer should be able to predict reliably."

"Of course," Sybill sad weakly, sweating.

That night, Umbridge ate heartily, thus proving Sybill's prediction false. 

The next morning, a triumphant Umbridge climbed the stairs to Trelawney's tower suite and declared her a fraud and unfit to teach and sacked her.

"You are incompetent, useless, and I shall not have you wasting my precious time and ruining the reputation of this institution!" gloated Umbridge, her small eyes glittering.  "Now pack your things and get out!"

"Please, madam!" Trelawney sobbed.  "Hogwarts is my home! I have nowhere else to go! Please, give me another chance!"

"No," Umbridge said sweetly. "You have five minutes to leave, Sybill."

* * * * * *

 

Severus was having breakfast in the hall with Minerva, Albus, and the rest of the staff when Freedom flew into the hall, skreeing in alarm.  Severus! Come quickly! Umbridge has just sacked Trelawney and is throwing her out of the castle.

Severus was on his feet.  "Damn and blast that harridan!"

"Severus, what has happened?" asked Minerva, alarmed.

"Freedom has just told me that Umbridge has sacked Trelawney," answered the Potions Master. 

Minerva paled.  Then she spat something very uncomplimentary in Gaelic before practically running from the room. 

Severus looked over at the Headmaster, who looked grave and drawn.  "What now, Albus?"

The Headmaster rose, his face a study in resignation and sorrow.  "There isn't much I can do, except prevent Dolores from throwing Sybill into the street.  I am still master of this castle."

Snape nodded, and followed the Headmaster from the hall.

Freedom admitted reluctantly that it was nice to see Albus put his foot down, for once, and Umbridge was left sputtering while Minerva and Severus escorted Sybill and her belongings back up to her tower.  

All of the students who were in the Entrance Hall that had witnessed Umbridge shoving Sybill down the stairs and then flinging her trunk after her, muttered angrily behind their hands and shot the portly witch murderous looks behind her back.  Trelawney might be a joke as a teacher, but even she did not deserve to be treated so callously. 

It was about fifteen minutes before Minerva and Severus managed to get Sybill calmed down, Severus summoned a cup of tea and laced it liberally with a Calming Draught.  "Here, Sybill, drink this.  It will settle you."

Utterly wretched, the Divination teacher sniffed and took the tea cup with a hand that shook.  "Thank you, Severus.  But what about my class? My students?"

Minerva patted her shoulder.  "I am sure we can find a replacement, Sybill.  For now, treat this as an . . .unlooked for holiday."

"She . . .she said I was a . . .failure and incompetent!" Sybill cried, tears falling down her cheeks.

"Humph! She's a fine one to talk!" Snape growled. "All she knows is Ministry protocol.  Drink that, Sybill, for Merlin's sake, don't cry into it."

"S-sorry, Severus!" Sybill took a large gulp of tea.

Minerva flashed him a stern look.

Severus sighed, he was really not up to this.  He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the trembling Divination teacher.  "Come now, Sybill, it's not the end of the world.  Just think, while you are alone, you can use your Inner Eye to predict Dolores's possible death."

Trelawney gasped.  "Severus! I would never . . .well, perhaps I might make an exception . . .just this once . . ." She took another drink of tea and blotted her eyes with the monogrammed Slytherin crest handkerchief.

The two professors smirked at each other.  They were certain that Sybill would be quite busy with her crystal ball and cards over the next few days. 

The Potions Master smirked wickedly.  "Minerva, do you recall the name of that centaur who stargazes and uses astrology?"

Minerva thought for a minute.  "You mean . . .Firenze?"

"Yes. Do you think he would mind coming up to the castle?"

"No, he doesn't mind humans, not like some of his clan.  Severus, surely you're not thinking of . . .suggesting Firenze teach Divination?"

"Why not? None of can teach it half as well, if at all."

"But . . .Dolores . . .hates half-humans!"

"So?" drawled the professor, his eyes glinting like a wicked child's. "She's the one who sacked our resident seer.  Serves her right if her replacement is . . .not all she would wish for."

"Severus Snape, you are a wicked wicked man!" Minerva told him, frowning. Then she grinned.  "I could kiss you!"

Snape backed away hastily.  "Merlin, woman, restrain yourself!"

Minerva and Sybill looked at each other and smirked.  Then the Head of Gryffindor rose and said, "Let us inform Albus of your suggestion.  If we move quickly, Firenze can be in the castle tomorrow."

The two left Sybill staring dreamily into her empty tea cup, imagining grisly fates for the High Inquisitor, each one worse than the last.

* * * * * *

The centaur Firenze did come to be the replacement Divination teacher, much to Umbridge's dismay.  But there was little she could do about it, since Dumbledore still had the authority to appoint staff and as Firenze was the only candidate willing to apply for the position, he was accepted.  Umbridge avoided the golden-haired centaur as much as possible, saying loudly that she was not overfond of horses and that sort of folk. 

Meanwhile, Freedom was still continuing his campaign against Dolores.  He was assisted unexpectedly by the Weasley  twins, who loathed Umbridge as much as Freedom did, and sought to play various practical jokes upon her, usually involving dungbombs, water, and fireworks.  Detentions seemed to have no effect upon them and the hag vowed to bring them in line by reinstating some of the more crueler corporal punishments, such as whipping. 

But Freedom overheard her muttering about the order and followed her while she made her way down to Filch's office.  Just as she was drawing the missive out of her pocket, Freedom swooped down and snatched it from her hand and flew away with it.  Ha! Take that, you miserable bitch!

Umbridge screamed and clutched her chest. Then she shook her fist at the hawk, who was flying away before she could go for her wand.  "Wicked bird! Oooh! I hate them, hate them, hate them all!"

Filch came out of his office then, asking if anything was the matter.  Dolores scowled and told him of how the bird had flown away with her proclamation.  "Now I'll have to draw up another one," she said sulkily, like a petulant schoolgirl denied a sweet. 

Freedom also encouraged Peeves to run rampant in the halls whenever Umbridge went by, making rude noises and shouting singsong rhymes at her.  Freedom recalled a certain movie he used to watch when he was younger, and told the poltergeist about it, and for three days afterwards whenever Umbridge set foot outside her quarters, Peeves sang the theme song of the Wicked Witch of the West and screamed, "Here she comes-the wicked witch, ding dong the wicked witch, quick run, hide under the bed, she'll hex you dead!"

The tune was so catchy that students started to hum it during class and even Crabbe, who was a reluctant member of Umbridge's Inquisition Squad, found himself humming it, until Draco threatened to hex his lips shut for two days.

During this time, Freedom discovered that Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Neville, and several others from all four Houses had managed to meet at the Hog's Head and Aberforth had told Hermione how to cast a Protean Charm on several Knuts and Sickles, so she could summon them to a meeting in the Room of Requirement, where Defense lessons would be held. 

Hermione had checked out a book from the library with several defense spells in it and began trying to instruct the others in them.  "Harry would have done much better than me, I'm sure," she groaned to Ron one afternoon.  "You know he always had a flare for Defense."

"You're doing okay, Hermione," Ron said.  "At least we're learning more now than we do in class."

"But will it be enough?" asked the witch worriedly.  "Harry knew loads of spells that I don't, like the Patronus Charm.  Oh, I wish he'd come back, Ron!"

Above, Freedom hovered.  Sorry, Hermione.  Just be patient a little longer.

"Yeah, I know. I'm beginning to think something really bad's happened.  And now even the papers are talking about it."

Hermione sighed. "D'you, d'you think it's a good idea then, to call ourselves Dumbledore's Army?"

"Sure, it's a good name. Ginny's clever that way. Dumbledore's a great wizard."

Freedom made a disgusted noise.  Sure he is, Ron.  Great and stupid.  If you knew what I do, you'd never name yourselves after him.  But hey, it's your call. 

The papers were full of news on a huge breakout from Azkaban, and Bellatrix and Rudolphus Lestrange, the ones who had tortured Neville's parents, were now free, as well as eight others.  A Ministry worker had died under strange circumstances.  Severus swore a blue streak when he read that and Freedom fretted that the wizard might be summoned to Voldemort yet again, but the Mark remained silent.

"The others are enough for now," the spy told his familiar.  "He wishes me to remain here and report anything unusual back to him.  And also to locate Potter, who is doing a damn good imitation of a fox gone to earth."

The Potions Master scowled blackly, for despite all of his efforts and Minerva's as well, Potter remained among the missing.

Or a hawk among pigeons, Freedom thought and felt a pang of guilt strike him. I need to make a choice.  But how can I choose, when either way, it's going to hurt us both? Sometimes . . .sometimes I wish I had just jumped out the window that night.  It would have saved us both a lot of grief.  Ah well.  Somehow I'll muddle through this.  He looked uneasily at Severus and wondered if the man would find it in his heart to forgive him for his deception.

* * * * * *

Umbridge continued her reign of terror, and Freedom harassed her as much as possible, but the hag was not taking it lying down.  She sent out her Inquisition Squad, setting them to patrolling the halls at night and that was how they discovered DA member Marietta Edgecombe, a Ravenclaw who was sweet on Draco.  Marietta, unknown to Draco and his friends, was on her way to a DA meeting, though she was becoming more and more convinced that the meetings weren't doing much good and they risked getting into serious trouble. 

So, when she spotted Draco hovering about the corridor, she decided she would stop and talk to him.  She thought the blond boy exceedingly handsome, suave, and cultured. 

Draco was aware of the girl's feelings for him, they were plain as day upon her face, and it amused him to indulge the pretty girl for a time, so he drawled, "Hey, Marietta.  Where are you off to at this hour?"

"Oh, nowhere," Marietta said, tossing her hair coquettishly.  "I just couldn't study anymore and wanted to get some air.  What . . .what are you doing here, Draco?"

Draco shrugged.  "Being bored to death." He was suspicious, the girl was obviously going somewhere, and seemed nervous about telling him.  Draco knew something odd was going on in the school, something that concerned Weasley and Granger and several other people as well.  He could scent a conspiracy like a bloodhound. He eyed Marietta shrewdly, noticing how she kept twisting her fingers in her robe and biting her lip when she thought he wasn't looking.

Something is going on and she's right in the middle of it, or I'm not a Slytherin. He moved closer to her and whispered, "At least I was bored until you came along, Marietta.  C'mon, let's walk a ways down here." He took her arm and led her down the corridor.

"Oh, but Draco, I . . ."

"What's wrong? You act like you're going to be late for something."

"No, of course not! It's just . . .never mind . . ." she blushed.

Before she knew it, she was being expertly cozened and coaxed by sly Draco, who promised her a date at Madam Puddifoot's in two days time if only she would tell him where she was going. 

"B-but I . . .told you already, Draco, I'm not going anywhere!"

"Ah, now don't lie to me, Marietta.  I don't like girls who lie." He pretended to frown at her.  "Tell me, or else . . .I might just take Pansy to Hogsmeade instead."

"No, please! Draco, don't!" Marietta pleaded, all of her dreams of being Draco's girlfriend beginning to go up in smoke.  "I . . .I'll tell . . .just promise you'll go to Hogsmeade with me."

"All right." He agreed swiftly, then he bent and kissed her, incentive to encourage her.

Marietta nearly swooned.  "I'll tell you . . .I was going to a meeting . . ."

"What meeting?"

"A Defense meeting . . ." the girl babbled dreamily.

Draco smirked.  Ah ha! I knew it! "Who else was going to be at this meeting?"

"What does it matter? Draco, won't you kiss me again?"

He huffed and obligingly kissed her.  "There, now tell me the rest . . ."

And she did, betraying her friends for the sake of an infatuation that would come to nothing, for Draco never intended to keep his promise.  But the damage had been done.  

Viper! Dirty, scheming, evil viper! Freedom cried, he had been returning from the Owlery and heard Draco and gone to see what the other was up to, only to discover he had learned of the DA meetings.

He dove at the blond, and Draco yelled, drawing his wand and conjuring a quick Shield Charm.  

Freedom hit the shield and bounced off, flapping wildly to avoid hitting the wall.

Marietta screamed.  "Crazy bird! What are you doing?"

Stupid girl, what are YOU doing?

"Bloody hawk! One of these days I'm going to kill you!" Draco snarled. He pointed his wand and intoned a Stinging Hex, but Freedom was too quick.

Before he could do anything further, the sound of high heels came tapping down the corridor.  

"Mr. Malfoy, what is going on here? Filch tells me he heard shouting . . ." came Umbridge's honey-sweet voice.

Draco turned and smiled at the pink-garbed witch.  "Professor Umbridge, Marietta and I have something to tell you . . ."

Freedom cursed roundly and then took off, desperate to try and warn his friends, but there was only one problem, he didn't know where the Room of Requirement was.  

 



Chapter End Notes:


How did you like this one? Will Freedom be able to warn them in time?



Chapter 17: Things Fall Apart
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]


Freedom flew frantically through the hallway, struggling to recall if Ron or Hermione had ever mentioned where the DA meetings were held, on what floor at least. He dimly recalled something about the seventh floor and quickly shot upwards like a streak of lightning. But once he got there, he was at a loss. He was unsure what room was the Room of Requirement, and even if he did know, how would he open the door, and how would he communicate with his friends even if they did open the door? None of them could speak hawk.

He flew back and forth, desperate. What to do? I need to warn them, but how? Think, dammit, think! You're so smart, Harry, use your brain for more than causing mischief, as Snape would say. Who can get here and find the room and warn them in time that understands you? Sev could, but he's in his lab, brewing, and by the time he got here, Umbridge will have too. So . . .who's left?

Then he remembered the other time he had called for help, when Severus was so badly injured by the Cruiciatus Curse. Of course! Oh, I am SUCH a dunderhead! He drew in a breath and screeched-TWIXIE!

A second or two later, Snape's house elf-at least that was how Harry thought of her-popped into view. "You called, Freedom?"

Twixie, do you know how to find the Room of Requirement? Because it's really important. My friends were betrayed and Umbridge will be here in minutes to, uh, arrest them or whatever, so please, you've got to warn them!

Twixie blinked. Then she said, "I don't know where that is, but Dobby might." She clapped her hands and called, "Dobby!"

There was another pop, and then Dobby appeared. "What is wrong, Twixie?"

Twixie told him and he quickly popped away, saying, "I shall warn the young wizards and save them from the nasty old wicked witch!"

Freedom gave a happy screech. Go, Dobby! Thanks, Twixie! You're the best.

The elf blushed. "You are most welcome, young hawk. Now, I must be going, I have floors to sweep. Oh, and Master Severus is looking for you, so you ought to go home." Then she blinked away.

Right. I'll go home just as soon as I make sure they're all right, Freedom thought.

A minute later, he heard a door open, and several students spilled out into the corridor, running hard, their faces pale and scared.

"Quick, down the stairs! Hurry! She's coming up the other staircase!"

Freedom swiveled his head around. Sure enough, he could hear Umbridge's heels tap-tap-tapping out a death march, as well as other feet striding purposefully down the corridor.

Most of the students had gotten away by then, but Ron, Hermione, and Neville were the last to emerge from the room, and they had no time to run before Umbridge spotted them. "Halt! What are you three doing here? It's after curfew and prefects or not-you are out of your common room!"

The three froze, like deer caught in headlights.

The door to the Room of Requirement was slightly ajar. Umbridge pointed, and the two Aurors, Shacklebolt and Dawlish, accompanied by Cornelius Fudge, who had come to the school to find out why Dolores had not responded to his letters, pushed by them into the room.

Umbridge strode up to the three, a smile of satisfaction upon her face. "Now, we shall see what has been going on here. It would seem you all have been meeting in direct defiance of Educational Decree #24."

"We weren't doing anything wrong!" Ron blustered, his freckles standing out sharply against his ghost pale skin.

Hermione just looked at the other witch and said nothing, her lips clamped tight.

Neville whimpered and shook, but he too said nothing.

A furious Freedom watched and longed to slam Umbridge on the back of the head with closed talons, but he restrained himself by the slimmest of margins. Stop and think! Stop and think! He chanted softly, over and over. Remember your promise. You'll make it worse if you attack her now.

Fudge called from inside the room, "Come here, Dolores, and see what we've found! Evidence of sedition and an attempt to overthrow the government! I knew he wasn't to be trusted!"

Dolores waved her wand and the three were surrounded by a glowing belt of light. "Stay here and wait. We shall be having a long discussion in my office very soon!"

She stomped into the room.

Three minutes later, they all emerged, the Aurors looked grave and stern, and Umbridge and Fudge like they wanted to dismantle someone. Umbridge herded the three students back down the stairs and Freedom made a soft noise of dismay.

I'm sorry. I tried. He hoped that Umbridge wouldn't harm them too much. He made as if to return to the dungeons, but something made him turn back and follow Umbridge back to her office.

He needed to know what happened to his friends, he wouldn't be able to sleep without knowing.

He nipped in just behind Fudge on the revolving staircase, and again as the door was opened and they all filed into the Headmaster's office. Freedom refused to acknowledge Umbridge in that capacity, to him she was just a usurper. Yet another word he'd learned from Snape. Really, the man was a walking vocabulary text, he thought, trying to keep his churning stomach from coming out of his throat.

Once they were all inside, Umbridge relaxed, though none of them noticed the red-tail perched upon the top of the bookshelf except Fawkes, who warbled curiously in alarm. *What has happened, fledgling?*

Freedom couldn't answer, he was simultaneously fighting back the urge to rip Umbridge's hair out and vomit at the same time. Could they be expelled? Surely not over this! But still, he'd not put it past the woman.

Fudge stomped over to the fireplace, a pinch of Floo powder in his hand. "I shall firecall Dumbledore and see what he has to say about this, Dolores! You deal with those three!"

Umbridge smiled and the three standing before her desk gulped loudly, for her smile would have looked right at home upon a piranha. "You-sit there, there, and there!" She pointed her wand and three very hard wooden chairs sprang up.

"Professor, I can explain-" Hermione began, finding her voice at last.

"Really, Mrs. Granger? Well, I do not need your explanation. Because I already know what you were doing inside that room every other Friday and Thursday night." She cleared her throat. "Ahem! Ahem! Mr. Malfoy, Miss Edgecombe, come in here, if you would!"

A tapestry next to the fireplace slid aside and out stepped Draco and Marietta. Marietta looked guilty and scared, her face was blotchy with tears and a rash of pimples that spelled out the word SNEAK upon her forehead.

Hermione looked at her and shook her head in disappointment and Ron half-leaped to his feet and shouted, "You sold us out you rotten, conniving, two-faced-!"

Marietta burst into tears and Umbridge snapped "Silencio!" effectively cutting off Ron in mid-tirade.

"Now, as you can see, I know all about your little Defense meetings," Umbridge began, her smile widening the tiniest bit. "I also know that they were more than that."

"More than that? No, professor, all they were-" Hermione began, only to be cut off as well by Umbridge.

"Quiet! When I wish you to speak, I will say so! Until then, you will be quiet." Umbridge smiled sweetly. "That's better. Now, as I was saying, I know that the real purpose of these meetings was to recruit supporters for Albus Dumbledore, you were gathering for the purpose of fomenting a rebellion against me and by extension the Minister of Magic."

The three Gryffindors' mouths hung open in horror.

Fudge turned on them then, and said sternly, "You needn't bother to deny it, the evidence was plain upon the chalkboard and the piece of parchment we found with all of your signatures upon it. You have named yourself-Dumbledore's Army, is that not so?"

"Yes, sir." Hermione answered quietly.

"And that is all the proof I need!" Fudge declared triumphantly, just as the fire flared green and Dumbledore emerged from the fireplace.

"Cornelius, what seems to be the problem?" inquired Dumbledore politely.

Though Freedom caught the quick slip of one sleeve as Dumbledore freed his wand and held it hidden in his hand. Good. The old man's not as batty as he looks. He and Severus must have practiced in the same school, because both of them know how to keep a wand up their sleeve. Wish I knew how to do that.

"The problem Albus, is you!" Fudge cried, his face turning red as a tomato. He was literally shaking with rage from head to toe. "You have been plotting behind my back ever since the summer, when I nearly expelled Harry Potter. You told me then to beware of rousing a wizard's wrath-and I didn't get the reference at the time, but now I do."

"Ah. Then you too have read Tolkien, Cornelius?"

"What?" the other sputtered. A moment later he recovered. "Don't try and sidestep the issue, Dumbledore! You are guilty of recruiting these children into an army to use against me-I know it, you know it, and they know it! Well, it won't work! You've been found out and now . . .now comes the day of reckoning!"

Fudge's wand was in his hand, pointing directly at Dumbledore's heart.

Freedom tensed, wondering if he could snatch the wand away before Fudge cast.

A soft hiss from Fawkes halted him. * Stay, Harry-chick! This is not your battle-it is mine! No one hurts my wizard!*

Freedom glanced down, astonished, to see the normally peaceful phoenix with his wings half-spread, fiery sparks flying onto the floor and a look of anger in the dark eyes. It appeared that when their master was threatened, even the most docile familiar turned fierce.

Albus raised an eyebrow. "Indeed, Cornelius. Is that why Shacklebolt and Dawlish are here? To bring me in?"

"Exactly!" Fudge cried. "I am charging you with attempted overthrow of Ministry authority, among other things. Now then, surrender your wand and come along with us, Albus, and perhaps I'll agree to shorten your stay in Azkaban. I doubt you'd last long there anyhow, considering your age . . ."

"Cornelius, I have no intention of going to Azkaban. I organized that group of students to counter Voldemort, not to overthrow you, my friend. You are quite mistaken if you think I would ever wish that-"

Fudge paled. "Lies! You see what lies come out of his mouth?" he gestured to the two Aurors. "He-Wh-Must-Not-Be-Named is DEAD! And you cannot make me think otherwise! He died that night and only his followers are left. And you want me gone and someone of your choosing in my place . . .maybe even that wet-behind-the-ears boy hero of yours-if you can find where he skipped off to-well, it's not going to happen! Not while I can still hold a wand! I will not be treated this way, Dumbledore. Now, will you come quietly, or must I use a Stunning Hex?"

Dumbledore's eyes narrowed and Freedom flinched involuntarily at the wave of raw power coming off the old wizard. "No, Cornelius, I shall not . . .come quietly. As I said, I am not minded to stay in Azkaban, and any attempt to make me will go poorly . . .for you. Therefore, do not try it." There was steel in the Headmaster's voice.

Fudge ground his teeth together. "Dawlish, Shacklebolt-take him!" he cried.

But before the others could so much as raise their wands, Fawkes sprang from his perch with a loud cry and flew over to Dumbledore. He lifted the wizard in his talons, shrilling a sharp war cry, his entire body blazing with eldritch fire.

Then there was a sharp clap like thunder and Dumbledore and Fawkes vanished in a sheet of crimson and gold flame.

No one moved for an instant.

Blazes, Fawkes, but you sure know how to make an exit! Thought Freedom in admiration.

"Where did he go?" cried Fudge. "I want him traced!"

"We'll try to, sir," began Dawlish.

Shacklebolt chuckled. "Well, even if you don't like him, sir, you have to admit-he's got style."

Umbridge and Fudge scowled. "Well, I'm finished here, Dolores. I trust you can handle it from here?"

"Of course, Minister," Umbridge simpered. "Everything is under control."

"Very good! Carry on, Dolores!" and with that, Fudge and the Aurors Floeed back to the Ministry.

Umbridge turned to her wayward students. "You will all serve detention with me tomorrow morning at seven o'clock sharp. And for every morning next week as well. And so will everyone else upon this miserable list! Unbelievable, that you thought you could get away with such unseemly behavior! You are lucky I am being merciful and not calling for your immediate removal from this school!" She waved her wand and released Ron from the Silencing Charm. "Get back to your dormitory, all of you!"

The three rose and left without a word.

She looked at Marietta and Malfoy. "And you two should also get back to your common rooms. Miss Edgecombe, you might want to see Madam Pomfrey about your face, that jinx looks nasty."

"Yes, ma'am," muttered Marietta. She scurried away.

Draco paused, one hand on the door before saying, "Professor Umbridge, that familiar of Professor Snape's attacked me earlier for no reason. I want to lodge a complaint against it."

Why you little coward! Freedom thought furiously. Running to a teacher and tattling just like a little baby! I didn't even touch you!

Umbridge smiled happily. "Complaint noted, Mr. Malfoy. I shall speak to Professor Snape in the morning. Well done, my boy. Now off to bed with you." She shooed him out the door and Freedom quickly followed on silent wings.

All the way back to the dungeons, the hawk was tempted to scratch Malfoy a good one. Or to cut loose with a nice big one right on the smug twit's head. But he didn't, recalling how impulsiveness and temper had gotten his parents into trouble, and how he wanted to try and learn from their mistakes.

So he let Malfoy go back to the Slytherin common room unmarked and continued on to Severus's quarters, where he tapped sharply upon the door with his beak and called Severus! I'm home, let me in!

The wall shimmered as the door was opened and Snape stood aside to let Freedom enter.

He frowned at his familiar who flew down to perch on the couch. "And just where, might I ask, have you been?"

Freedom blinked, wondering why Snape sounded so put out. Surely Umbridge had not told him yet about Draco? Around. I fell asleep in the Owlery.

"Humph! Well, it's a good thing you came back when you did. I was just about to go to sleep and then you would have been spending the night in the Owlery. Next time come home at a decent hour."

Okay, Sev! No need to have a hippogriff. I didn't know I had a curfew.

"Maybe you should, the way you've been staying out till all hours," the other grumbled, settling down on the couch and scratching the hawk behind the head.

Freedom leaned into the caress, unmindful of the other's grumbling, he knew it meant nothing. For now. Tomorrow, though . . .His stomach growled and he realized he hadn't eaten since this afternoon. Uh, Sev? Do you have any chicken? I'm kind of hungry.

Snape sighed and summoned the game bag over. "Unbelievable! Gone all day and all night and then when you do come home-it's Sev, feed me! Is that all I am to you, a walking food dish? Hmm?"

No, of course not! Freedom reassured him. Then he began to devour the raw chicken the Potions Master held out. Mmmm. Thanks, Sev! This is the best chicken ever and you're the best wizard a familiar ever had . . .

"Never mind the flattery," the professor said gruffly, but Freedom heard the smile behind the words and was content.

After finishing his meal, the hawk came to sit upon one black-clad shoulder, figuring he'd better get some snuggle time in while he still could, because Severus wasn't going to be too happy with him the next morning. Odd, how that left a lump in his crop and a fluttery anxiety in his stomach. He didn't want Severus to be disappointed in him. It was strange but a month ago, he'd not have cared two pence whether Snape was disappointed in him or not. Now though . . .things were different, and he felt guilty for making the wizard worry and fret over him.

Merlin, what's happening to me? First Hedwig and now Snape, both of them treating me like . . .well, a kid. Nobody's ever really done that before and it's kind of . . .weird. And nice and annoying. Freedom heaved a sigh, and thought that at least it was better than how the Dursleys had treated him, as if he didn't exist.

Although, that might be preferable to what Severus is going to do once he finds out what I've been up to. Ah, well, I'll worry about that tomorrow. The hawk tucked his head under his wing and thought sleepily that for once Dumbledore had done something right and he hoped Fawkes had plenty of grapes and pineapples to eat wherever they had gone.

* * * * * *

Breakfast the next morning was both subdued, in the case of the DA members, and excited, in the case of everyone else. The hot topic of the day was the Headmaster's vanishing and several worried looks were thrown up at the staff table, where Umbridge presided like a queen over her subjects. Umbridge herself looked pleased as punch, unlike the rest of the staff members. Snape scowled down at his eggs grimly, having just been informed that his familiar had, according to Mr. Malfoy, attacked the boy without provocation.

"Keep that bird in line, Mr. Snape, or else I shall deal with it myself, the way a dangerous beast should be treated!" Umbridge warned, her tone dripping with poison. "And you are now on probation for endangering students with your pet, Professor."

You're a dangerous beast yourself, maybe someone ought to put you down! The hawk chirruped insolently.

"Quiet! You're in enough trouble as it is!" Snape hissed out of the corner of his mouth. "We'll discuss this later!"

Freedom hunched up on the Potion Master's shoulder, looking abashed. No doubt about it, now he was in trouble.

* * * * * *

"What were you thinking, attacking Malfoy like that?" Snape demanded as soon as he had gone back to his quarters after breakfast, he still had a half-an-hour before his first class.

Freedom was sitting upon his natural wood perch, while the irate professor paced up and down in front of him, looking like a father about to decimate a misbehaving teenager. I didn't . . .attack him . . .I just flew at him, Severus.

"For what reason?"

Freedom hesitated. He couldn't tell Severus the real reason. He was being a dumbass to a girl.

Snape's eyebrow rose. "Oh, and I suppose it is now your business to interfere in personal relationships? Since when did your name become Cupid?"

No, it's not like that. It's Malfoy . . .the git who nearly killed me . . .Come on, Sev, you know I can't stand him.

"And I cannot stand Umbridge, but that doesn't mean I hex her," Severus pointed out.

But you'd love to, wouldn't you? Freedom said cheekily, then subsided when Severus threw him a look.

"After last time, I thought you would have learned to control yourself. You promised you would behave and then you go and do this."

The hawk hung his head. Sorry.

"Now you are, sure." He frowned severely at the bird, who looked rather like a repentant six-year-old. He walked over to the hook on the wall where he hung the bag of falconry equipment and removed the jesses and a short creance line. He turned around and walked back to where his familiar was sitting, looking very upset.

Freedom caught sight of the jesses and bated, crying, No! Severus, don't! You said I'd only get in trouble if I attacked Umbridge.

"And attacking Malfoy is all right?" Severus demanded sharply. "You promised you would stay out of trouble and this is how you keep your word?"

I did keep my word. Freedom protested. I never attacked the toad. Just her little kiss-arse. He backed along the perch, gazing at Snape pleadingly. Don't do this, Severus. Please?

"Do you think I enjoy doing this?" Severus demanded. "But you seem to think you can disregard rules whenever you wish and there will be no consequences. Not so. You heard Umbridge, she will be waiting to catch you out, and if she does, she will not hesitate to destroy you, you fool bird! She will order you put down and force me to watch and there will be nothing I can do to stop her. Do you not understand?"

I do, and I'm sorry. I don't mean to make you worry, Severus. I'll be more careful.

"Good. But that does not answer for this. Come here."

Freedom hissed sulkily. But Severus!

"You were warned what would happen. I never threaten. And if you will not have a care for your well being, than I must. I didn't bring you back from the brink of death only to lose you because you are a crazy incorrigible fledgling." Before Freedom could move, Severus spoke a word and the jesses bound themselves to his feet and the line's swivel ring, anchoring him securely to the perch.

"You are to stay here until I am finished with class today, then I will return and let you off the line." Severus said firmly. Then he sighed. "I . . .regret making this necessary."

You do? Then let me go.

But Snape merely shook his head. "No. You must learn."

You're mean, Severus.

"Yes. Sulking doesn't become you," he added as he strode towards the door. "I will see you later."

The hawk did not answer, giving the professor the cold shoulder. He had expected a lecture, but not being tied to a perch and grounded like a . . . well, like a rebellious teenager. Was this how parents punished their children? All he'd ever had for a reference were the Dursleys and somehow he didn't think they were normal.

He spread his wings and flew a few feet away from the perch to the couch before the line brought him up short. Damn! This really sucks! He walked over to the green afghan and settled down in it. Still, I guess I kind of deserve this. I really do need to control my temper. He drifted into sleep then, waking only when Severus returned to his quarters for lunch.

Over his chopped rabbit drizzled with honey, Freedom tried to get Snape to let him off of his punishment early, but Severus remained firm.

"No. And quit giving me that pathetic look, it won't work. You'll stay on the line until supper and that's final."

Freedom sulked. It's boring as hell. C'mon, Sev, have a heart. I'm going crazy here.

"If you don't like it, don't get in trouble." Then he ruffled the hawk's feathers. Freedom glared at him.

Severus shrugged, then finished his lunch, leaving the hawk in his quarters.

Freedom gnawed irritably upon his perch, wishing Snape were not so damn . . .consistent when it came to punishments. Would it really kill the man to compromise a little? After all, this was the first time he'd ever disobeyed before.

Guess maybe that's why he's not letting me off the hook, the Animagus thought ruefully, then he settled down to doze away the rest of the afternoon until Severus came home.

Freedom opened his eyes to find Severus deftly undoing the jesses and coiling the creance line and stowing it away. "I trust you've learned your lesson, reckless one?"

Yes, Sev. Next time I'll make sure Malfoy can't talk, the hawk answered saucily.

"Freedom! Would you like to stay in here tomorrow too?"

No! It was a joke, for Merlin's sake! The familiar squawked. You know, you really need to get a sense of humor.

"I don't find it particularly funny thinking about some Ministry wizard killing you off."

That'll never happen, the hawk soothed. I'll keep my head down, promise.

"You had better." Then Snape held out his wrist, with the modified falconer's glove, and Freedom hopped on it.

The two ate companionably, then Severus settled down with a book and a cup of tea and some blueberry scones, Freedom perched upon the back of the couch.

Severus had barely read a page, however, when Freedom interrupted him. Sev, if you're on probation, does that mean she can sack you whenever she likes?

He set down his book and looked up at the hawk. "No. She would still have to produce grounds to remove me from the school. She will be more stringent in trying to find fault with my teaching and my curriculum, of that I have no doubt, but she will fail. I intend to follow her ridiculous policy to the letter and frustrate her to no end." He smirked wickedly. "The only other way she could have a reason to sack me would be if I challenged her authority over an issue. And there is only one issue that I would ever do so on, so do not worry on my account."

Freedom was quiet for a minute, pondering what Severus had said. Me. You'd fight her for me, wouldn't you?

"Always. It would not even be a question."

Do I . . .really mean that much to you?

"Yes, you incorrigible bird. You really do."

Freedom suddenly felt a warm glow run through him. He had never known what it was to be wanted, to be loved, until that moment. The warmth filled him, driving away the darkness that lingered in his soul, the well of tears he had yet to shed, and for one glorious instant he was truly happy.

Thank you, Severus.

"For what?"

Everything, the hawk said sincerely. Abruptly, he jumped down off the couch to land lightly upon the Potion Master's stomach, Severus was stretched out just below him, his stocking feet propped up on the far arm of the couch, knees slightly bent to accommodate his long legs. Mind if I stay here?

"No. Just don't nibble on my book."

Ugh! I'd never do that! Paper . . .disgusting!

"My thoughts exactly." One corner of his mouth quirked upwards, Severus returned to reading, one hand absently caressing the hawk's chest every so often. Freedom's gratitude warmed him, for it was rare he ever received acknowledgement for his skills. He occasionally felt that Albus took his potion-making skills for granted and it went without saying that the Dark Lord did. Ironic, really, that a hawk knew more of gratitude than two of the most powerful wizards in the world. And people considered animals "dumb beasts".

Night fell, and wizard and familiar spent the hours quietly enjoying each other's company, never knowing that such contentment was not to last.

* * * * * *

Early the next morning, a copy of the Prophet was delivered to Severus's office mailbox, since not even the owls could get past his wards. The professor summoned Twixie to bring it and a steaming cup of hot chocolate to his quarters while he dressed for the day. Normally, Snape drank tea, but every so often he indulged his sweet tooth and allowed himself to drink cocoa. That morning was one of those days.

After buttoning up his professor's robes, which were spelled to repel most potion ingredients and protect him from extreme heat, cold, or acidic solutions, he sat down on his couch and began to read the paper while drinking his cocoa.

Freedom peered over his shoulder, also scanning the headlines.

Suddenly, Severus started coughing violently.

Freedom shrilled in alarm as the spasm continued. Sev, are you okay? Should I call Twixie?

Through his paroxysm, Severus managed to shake his head negatively, at last managing to get his breath back. He carefully wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and straightened, glowering viciously at the paper.

All right there? Thought you were going to cough up a lung. Freedom crooned worriedly. What happened? Did you swallow wrong?

"No. This is why I nearly choked to death. Because bloody Rita Skeeter decided to use her gossip column and expose Hagrid as a half-giant again, the miserable scheming bitch! She'll do anything for readers, and never count how her revelations could ruin someone's career." He thrust the paper pointedly at Freedom and read aloud.

Hogwarts Gamekeeper Revealed!

Rubeus Hagrid is half-giant!

A secret source reveals that Rubeus Hagrid, Care of Magical Creatures instructor and gamekeeper at Hogwarts actually had a secret past. His mother, Fridwulfa, a giantess, died when Hagrid was three, leaving him to be raised by his wizard father. Even so, one wonders just what kind of heritage his giantess mother bequeathed to her son, who has exhibited unusual tendencies to harbor monstrous pets and dangerous ones as well. Rubeus Hagrid is a failed wizard, expelled from Hogwarts in his third year under dubious circumstances and has also done time in Azkaban, though his name was cleared . . .

No! Freedom cried. Sev, if Umbridge sees this . . .she'll go spare! You know how she feels about half-humans and stuff.

"Yes, I know. But I fear there is little we can do. With Dumbledore gone, she is free to do as she wishes, and she will be delighted in discovering Hagrid's background and exploiting it. I have no doubt she will sack him immediately."

Freedom gave a sharp bitter cry. But that's so unfair, Sev! Can't we do something?

"I wish there was, but regrettably, there isn't. The only thing I can do is offer condolences when and if she decides to sack him."

That bloody sucks! Freedom declared, digging his talons into the Potion Master's robes a bit more forcefully than he intended.

Severus winced. "Watch the talons, hawk. I don't want to have to heal myself already."

Oops! Sorry.

Severus finished his cocoa, though the drink had lost its sweetness after reading Rita's article. "Come, Freedom. Let us go down to the hall for breakfast. We will know then how Umbridge reacted to this. If she hasn't read the paper, Hagrid will still be seated with us. If she has . . .his place will be empty."

Together, they made their way to the Great Hall, Freedom flying just ahead of Severus, hovering while the black-robed wizard opened the door and then flying directly to the staff table to land on the back of Severus's chair. They were early, only Pomona and Minerva were there and they looked very grave.

"Severus, have you seen the morning paper?" began Sprout, her round face drawn and miserable.

"Yes, Pomona, I have," answered Snape, sliding into his seat. "But has she seen it?"

"I don't know," Minerva murmured. "But she will eventually. Poor Hagrid! He has tried so hard to be a good role model and instructor and now she will most likely dismiss him, the paranoid harridan."

Her other two colleagues nodded in agreement, Sprout looking distressed and Severus angry.

Soon the High Inquisitor arrived, dressed in one of her hideous magenta ensembles that made Freedom long to splatter it with droppings. Dolores seated herself at the table and tapped the side of her glass. Food appeared in front of them, and all the teachers served themselves from the platters.

Snape took hardly anything, his stomach was in knots after reading that bloody article. He eyed Umbridge over his juice glass, she seemed unusually jolly this morning.

They were soon joined by the other professors, though Severus noted anxiously that Hagrid was not among them. Had it happened already?

He toyed with his eggs and bacon, feeling the knot in his stomach tighten.

"Ahem! Ahem!" Dolores cleared her throat, an affectation that annoyed the hell out the rest of the staff, had she but known. "I have an announcement to make before we all eat this fine meal. Because of certain, ah, unsuitable characteristics and teaching methods, I have been forced to dismiss Hagrid from his post. He will still remain as gamekeeper at the school, but he will no longer be teaching Care of Magical Creatures. That position has now been given to Professor Grubbly-Plank. She gestured to the gray-haired witch with the prominent chin who was now seated at Hagrid's place.

The other staff members, save for Snape, greeted her cordially.

Severus stared down at his plate, his jaw clenched, his temper smoldering. Hypocritical harpy bitch! To dismiss a teacher on grounds of race! What I wouldn't give to hex you into pieces. He did not acknowledge Wilhemina, though he had nothing against the other professor, he was too upset over his mentor's dismissal to make small talk with the one who had replaced him.

Sev, I'm going to go and see Hagrid, said Freedom in his ear.

"Go. I shall meet you there after my morning classes are over."

Freedom took wing off of Severus's shoulder.

Umbridge flinched and cringed as the hawk's silhouette fell across the table. "Where is that . . .bird going, Severus?"

"Hunting," answered Snape shortly, and had the pleasure of watching Umbridge shudder.

* * * * * *

Snape sought out his mentor as soon as his second period potions class was over. He found Hagrid, Fang, and Freedom outside, Hagrid watching, a lure in one hand, as Freedom pursued a hare across the meadow.

The hawk struck, and the hare went limp in the raptor's talons. Freedom mantled over the kill, but Hagrid whistled and swung the lure and the hawk came to it, leaving the rabbit for Fang to retrieve and bring back to the gamekeeper.

"That's a good boy, Freedom," praised the gamekeeper as the hawk gobbled the rather large piece of chicken liver on the end of the lure.

He petted Fang and fed the dog a treat as well, then tucked the dead hare into the large leather pouch on his hip. He turned when he heard Severus's quiet footstep, and Freedom abandoned the lure to ride upon the professor's shoulder.

"Hullo, Severus. Freedom and I were jus' fetching some lunch. I oughta have a hunter's stew cooked up later on if y' want some."

He is sad, but not hysterical, like Trelawney was, Freedom reported.

Severus nodded, then asked quietly, "How are you, old friend?"

"Fair to middling," replied the big man. "Guess you heard then-Umbridge sacked me on account of me mum."

The Potion Master's face tightened and his black eyes flashed. "She had no right! If she can dismiss you over your heritage, where then will it end? What is to stop her from dismissing me next for being a half-blood, or Charity Burbage for being a Muggleborn? I feel like a prisoner waiting for the axe to fall."

Hagrid sighed and patted Severus on the shoulder gently. "S'all righ', Severus. She's got 'er pound of flesh fer now, plus the way she sent Dumbledore away. That'll make her happy for a time."

"And what of you? She took away a decent teacher out of mere prejudice."

The half-giant heaved a sigh and combed his hand through his beard. "I kinda been expectin' it, ever since she was given the run o' the school. Not many people tolerate someone like me, a half-human."

"They are fools! You are better than nearly all the purebloods I know, the toad bitch included!" Severus said hotly.

Damn straight! agreed Freedom.

"Severus, don' take on so. There's more important things than a job, y'know. Least I still have a roof over my head an' friends to talk to an' care for. That's more than most people got. More than she's got, I'd wager."

Severus's black eyes glittered. He nodded curtly.

"C'mon, Severus. All this huntin' has made my throat dry. I could use a spot of tea. How about you?"

"I could as well," his friend agreed, and followed the gamekeeper back to his hut. The big man's calm acceptance of his lot humbled the fiery Potions Master, and enabled him to get a hold on his temper.

The two drank cups of Hagrid's Black Bohea and ate bread with butter while Freedom plotted ways to revenge himself on Umbridge for this latest affront.

* * * * * *

The next morning, a fusillade of swear words could be heard coming from Umbridge's quarters. "My best set of Auvigerne lace robes-ruined! By a bloody damned bird!"

More swearing and several loud thumps followed, as of shoes being hurled against a wall.

"Winky!" Umbridge bellowed.

Winky appeared, trembling. "You called, Mistress?"

"Look, just look, at my wardrobe!" shrilled the witch. Half of her clothing lat scattered about on the floor, all of it various shades of pink, and over half of it marred by bird droppings. "I came back from a meeting with the Minister and this is what I found! My entire wardrobe . . .shat upon!"

"Mistress, how terrible! Winky will try to fix it!"

"You'd better, or it'll be your head!" growled Umbridge.

Winky squeaked, then snapped her fingers and the dress robes Umbridge was holding were cleaned and pressed like new.

"There, Mistress! That's one clean! Winky shall do the rest."

"Good, get busy! And I want to know how this happened! How did a bird get into my quarters?"

"Winky has no idea, Mistress. None at all." Then the elf took the ruined clothes and departed, leaving Umbridge standing in the middle of her bedroom fuming.

* * * * * *

The story of Umbridge's ruined wardrobe soon made the rounds until everyone was whispering and snickering behind their hands whenever the witch passed by, and scanning her attire for anything . . .spotty. Padma and Parvati Patil went to visit Trelawney in her tower one afternoon and reported back that the Divination teacher practically had convulsions when told of Umbridge's . . .misfortune.

Even Severus smirked over it, though he eyed his familiar sternly and said, "I hope you did not have anything to do with her . . .err . . .wardrobe fiasco."

The hawk busied himself cleaning his feathers, avoiding Snape's eyes. Hmm . . .oh, that. Serves her right.

Snape did not deign to comment, though he was suspicious of the hawk's nonchalant behavior. Still, he had no proof his familiar was misbehaving, and so would give him the benefit of the doubt, for now.

He had other things to worry about, namely the fact that Potter was still missing after a month and a half. "Where the hell is that boy hiding? It has to be near enough to the castle so he can slip in and get food, yet far enough away so he can conceal himself from us," he muttered irritably.

One long finger stabbed down at the Daily Prophet, whose front page headlines were all concerning the missing Boy Who Lived. Where in the World is Harry Potter? one screamed and another questioned Missing or Foul Play? The Disappearance of Young Mr. Potter Mystifies Staff.

"That deadline of Umbridge's is fast approaching. I must find the boy before then, or else the brat will find himself tossed out of the gates on his ear for an unexcused absence."

Freedom halted in cleaning one wing. That's right. Ah, bloody hell, I forgot about the deadline. That means I'm going to have to figure out a way to change back . . . and soon. I just hope Severus will understand and forgive me for deceiving him. I wish things were different between us . . .I wish that I didn't have to make this decision . . .Humph, while I'm at it, I may as well wish that Dumbledore never made that false prophecy, my parents never died, and Voldemort killed himself again.

He continued preening with a vengeance, knowing deep down that whatever choice he made was going to hurt like hell, and there was nothing he could do about it.

* * * * * *

Now that the rumor mill had started up about Harry's disappearance once again, though it had never really died down at school, Hermione and Ron decided it was necessary to contact someone else who was probably missing Harry as much as they were and who might have an inkling of how to go about tracing him. It was Ron who thought of Sirius first, saying he must be going nuts shut up at Grimmauld Place wondering what was happening to everyone, and Harry especially.

"We ought to get in touch with him, Hermione. See what he says about looking for Harry. He used to go to school here, he probably had loads of hiding places on the grounds and in the castle. Maybe he remembers one, or told Harry about it."

"Yes, it's worth a try. I mean, none of the professors are having much luck and that really scares me, Ron. What if . . .he got hurt and lost his memory or something? Maybe we ought to be looking in Muggle hospitals for someone that matches Harry's description."

"A Muggle hospital? But Hermione, how would he get there?"

"That's where they bring you if you don't know who you are," she explained. "Harry could have . . .I don't know . . .Flooed back to his aunt and uncle's for some reason that night and then maybe he had an accident or something . . ."

Ron shook his head. "I dunno, Hermione. Seems kind of strange. But let's write to Sirius first. See what he says. All right?"

So that was what they did. Hermione wrote the letter, since she had the better penmanship, and they both supplied the content. They sent it out with Ron's owl, Pigwidgeon, and then waited anxiously for a reply.

Two days later, a letter came with no return address for one Hermione Granger. After class that day, Hermione and Ron read the letter together, delighted that Sirius had responded to them. Sirius had told them he was a nervous wreck wondering what had happened to his godson, but was forbidden by Dumbledore's express order to leave Grimmauld Place to search for Harry. His only contact with the outside world were the papers he got from Lupin, who came by every morning to bring him one. He was also concerned about Harry and suggested they check the Shrieking Shack, perhaps Harry was holed up there and no one would ever think of looking in it, since it was reputed to be haunted.

Ron thought it was a brilliant suggestion, but Hermione less so. "McGonagall checked Hogsmeade, remember?"

"I know, but what if she overlooked the Shack? It's possible."

"McGonagall' s very thorough." Hermione defended.

"What can it hurt?"

So they resolved to check the Shack on their next Hogsmeade weekend.

They had also told Sirius about how all the professors, even Snape, were combing the grounds and the castle for clues about Harry.

Sirius had written back that he wouldn't trust Snape-the greasy long-haired git-as far as he could hex him. In school, he used to hang around a crowd of Slytherins that all eventually became Death Eaters. How do we know that he doesn't still have ties to them? He was nearly convicted himself, only Dumbledore vouched for him and they let him off. I don't like him, never have really, he was always skulking about, trying to get us in trouble at school. I still can't believe they made him a professor! What a joke! Does he still use all those fancy words, trying to make himself sound cultured? Ha! He forgets, I know where he really came from-a tiny Yorkshire hamlet in the middle of nowhere, son of a dumb Muggle and a Slytherin witch who never managed to make ends meet. When he first came to school, he sounded like a north country dunderhead, James and I used to make fun of his accent.

Ron giggled hysterically when he read that part.

But Hermione frowned and said disapprovingly, "I don't think it's funny, to mock someone because of the way they talk."

"Aw, c'mon, Hermione! It's Snape, so who cares?"

"It's not right. You can't help where you were raised and besides, he talks properly now. He must have worked hard to rid himself of that accent. Sirius should know better than to poke fun that way."

"Well, I happen to think he's right. I don't trust Snape either, no matter what Dumbledore or Hagrid says. He's always had it in for Harry, what if he made him disappear somehow?"

"I don't think so, Ron. He saved Harry back in first year, why would he do that if he wanted to harm him?"

"You think just 'cause he's a professor that he's perfect."

"I do not! I'm just pointing out that your logic is flawed."

"Who cares about logic? I say Sirius is right and Snape probably has something to do with Harry going missing."

Hermione huffed. "Where's your proof, Ron?"

"He's a git and nobody likes him except the Slytherins."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "There's no talking to you sometimes!" She rose and stuffed the letter into her carryall. "Come on, we need to start going down to the Headmaster's office."

"Huh? What for?"

"We still have detention with Umbridge, muffinhead!"

"Oh. Right. I forgot."

"Honestly, Ron! You'd forget your brain if it wasn't inside your head! Come on! Before she takes away points for being late."

* * * * * *

Detention that night was essays, she made them write three feet of parchment on obeying school rules and listing all the decrees she had issued and why they should be followed. Ron nearly fell asleep writing, it was so boring and even Hermione caught herself mid-yawn. But at least Umbridge wasn't using a blood quill any longer, she had become nervous after receiving that reprimand from the Board of Governors.

At last the two prefects were finished, it was almost ten o'clock by the time they were done and both of them were practically asleep on their feet. Umbridge collected their essays and dismissed them. Ron couldn't get out of there quick enough, he practically bolted from the room.

Hermione was a bit slower, taking the time to put her quill ad ink neatly inside her carryall. She had to rearrange the contents a bit to get the ink to fit inside snugly, so it wouldn't spill, and as she pulled out a notebook and some spare parchment, Sirius's letter slipped out and fell unnoticed to the floor beneath her desk.

Finally the ink bottle fit and Hermione shoved her books back inside and departed, calling a brief, "Good night, Professor," over her shoulder. Not that she liked the woman, in fact she detested her, but she had been raised to show respect to teachers and so bid her good night politely.

Umbridge sniffed, then shuffled the papers on her desk before rising and making a last minute inspection of the office, banishing the desks back to her classroom.

It was then she noticed the piece of parchment upon the floor.

"What's this? A love letter?" She quickly unfolded it and read it.

A slow smile of diabolical delight spread over her flabby face. So . . .Snape has a shady past, does he? Well, well. A former Death Eater, was he?

She rubbed her hands together. Finally, a way to bring the high and mighty Severus Snape to his knees. Him and that wretched familiar of his.

Still clutching the letter, she moved to the fireplace and Flooed the Auror Department.

"Dawlish, I want you to give me the records on Severus Snape, everything you have on his prior association with the Death Eaters."

"Now what would you be needing that for, Dolores? Snape was never convicted."

"Never mind that, just bring me them!" Umbridge snapped.

"One moment."

A few minutes later, he popped back through the Floo Network and handed the portly witch a small folder. "Here you go. But I still don't see why you want it. It's ancient history."

"Not anymore," Umbridge smirked, then she withdrew from the fireplace, took the folder and began to read it.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Isn't Umbridge awful?

BTW: Sirius used his Padfoot alias when writing to Hermione, so Umbridge doesn't know who wrote the letter.

Next: With Severus accused, will Freedom be forced to reveal himself?



Chapter 18: "Nobody Hurts My Wizard!"
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Dolores spent all night plotting on how best to use the information on Snape to her best advantage. Ever since the Potions Master had brought that infernal hawk to dinner, she had resented the dark-haired man for having a pet that humiliated her and for looking at her and finding fault with her without saying a word. She longed to see the proud Head of Slytherin House humbled, she who had once been a Ravenclaw, though she used her intellect selfishly, to further her own agenda, and was rabidly prejudiced against half-humans and anyone who did not fit into her narrow worldview. She believed that animals were inferior to humans, hence her dislike and disrespect of birds, dogs, cats, and the like-she regarded half-humans as a subspecies because they had "tainted" themselves by mingling pure human blood with that of a lowly filthy animal. It was for that same reason she detested half-bloods and Muggleborns.

Unknown to anyone, she secretly agreed with Voldemort's campaign to exterminate Muggleborns, thinking the world would be a better place purged of such undesirable people. She also believed that half-bloods, like Snape, should be registered and not permitted to breed with any save purebloods. Her idea of a perfect world would be one in which purebloods were in charge and half-humans were outlawed.

She licked her lips while reading the report Dawlish had given her, learning that the young Snape had been brought up on charges, but they had not stuck because Dumbledore had gotten him off by questioning the younger man under Veritaserum himself with Auror Moody as witness. And Moody was considered mad from his torture at the hands of Death Eaters, therefore his testimony was suspect, and now so was Dumbledore's, given what the Minister had charged him with. Your protection is null and void, old man, and with a little effort, I could put Snape away for good. Miserable half-blood!

And yet, she knew that her ruling might be challenged, since half the wizarding community still respected Dumbledore, and by extension, anyone he took under his wing. So she had to make his fall from grace more outrageous, get the people on her side. She tapped her finger against her lips thoughtfully. Now, what can I do to make people want to string Snape up by his greasy hair?

She picked up the copy of the Prophet that Cornelius had left her. There on the front page were the words-Harry Potter Missing! Possibly Kidnapped?

"Ah ha. Kidnapped? Perfect."

She whistled happily. All the pieces had fallen into place. In one fell swoop, she would rid herself of the undesirable staff members and then she would rule unchallenged.

Severus Snape, your time has come. And so has that blasted familiar's.

She carefully tucked the folder and the paper into her satchel and then dressed and slipped into bed, falling asleep on her monogrammed pink pillow an instant later, a small smile on her face.

* * * * * *

Freedom awoke in the pre-dawn hours trembling. But his dream was not the old nightmare of Cedric dying, nor of Pettigrew cutting him and using his blood to bring Voldemort back. No, this was a new dream, one where he watched helplessly while Severus was dragged away to Azkaban, held in custody by Umbridge, and then the toad summoned dementors and made Freedom watch while they Kissed the Potions Master.

He woke up shivering and gasping, his eyes darting all over. He was on his perch in the lounge, but he couldn't bear to stay there, so he flew off and into Severus's bedroom, where he nestled into the pillow near Severus's head and tried to go back to sleep.

It's not real, Harry. It's just a stupid dream! Now go back to sleep. Sleep. He concentrated on the wizard's breathing, matching his own to it unconsciously, until finally he drifted off.

* * * * * *

Severus awoke at his usual time, and noticed that Freedom seemed oddly clingy, but the hawk insisted nothing was wrong when he questioned him. So he simply attributed it to a mood and thought no more of it. Today was Wednesday, and that meant he had no class until the late afternoon , but he was required by Umbridge to have breakfast with the rest of the staff in the hall, much to his irritation. He had come to enjoy his solitary quiet breakfasts with Freedom.

But he knew he was on thin ice with the High Inquisitor and so he went to the hall for breakfast like an obedient drone, Freedom perched upon his shoulder.

Strangely enough, Umbridge was absent from the table, usually her pink garbed self was visible from five meters away, Snape thought sneeringly. But perhaps without her scrutinizing the table, he could manage to choke down more than a few mouthfuls of breakfast. Just looking at her flabby face made him lose his appetite.

He walked to his usual place and sat down, in between Minerva and Wilhemina, said a perfunctory good morning, then selected some toast, buttered, a slice of ham, and poached eggs. He quickly placed the ham atop the toast and then the eggs and then summoned Twixie to bring him some Hollandaise sauce, which he drizzled over the eggs.

Wilhemina eyed him and asked, "Whatever are you eating, Severus?"

"Eggs Benedict, Wilhemina. A Muggle recipe . It's quite good, you should try it." With that, he picked up a fork and knife and began to eat.

Freedom watched and remembered that Uncle Vernon had liked that too, and he had learned to make it very well by the time he was nine. I always wanted to try it, but there was never enough left over for me to have a taste, he thought wistfully. Maybe one day, though, if I ever return to a boy, I can request some from the house elves.

"Where is Dolores?" queried Snape, after finishing most of his breakfast.

"She had an important meeting with the Minister," Minerva replied, spooning some more bananas over her porridge. "She should be back after breakfast, I believe."

Severus nodded and fixed a cup of tea, sipping it leisurely while eating the rest of his eggs. It was amazing how the atmosphere improved when Umbridge was absent. She cast a noxious pall over everything, he thought derisively.

Breakfast over, the Potions Master rose and was just about to go down to his lab to begin brewing a few extra Deflating Drafts. He had a class of second years tomorrow who were going to be working on Swelling Solutions, and ever since Potter's class with the exploded cauldron, Snape deemed it necessary to have extra doses on hand, just in case. But before he could leave the hall, Winky appeared next to him and said diffidently, "Professor Snape, sir, Mistress Umbridge request you come up to her office immediately."

Severus frowned down at the elf, and Winky flinched. "Is it a matter of grave importance? I have drafts I need to brew for class."

"Oh, yes sir, it is! Very important, Professor Snape sir!" Winky began wringing her hands. "Not good to keep Mistress waiting, sir. Mistress does not like it. Mistress will punish Winky if Master Snape is not there soon."

"Typical," Severus muttered. "Very well. Tell "Mistress Umbridge" I shall be there directly."

"Oh, thank you, sir!" the elf looked like she was about to kiss his boots, but instead she vanished, much to Snape's relief.

"I wonder what the bloody pain-in-the-arse wants now?" Snape grumbled balefully to Freedom. "To change my curriculum yet again? Damn pinch-faced wench! She could use a good purging. I swear, if she has me alter my class again, I'm going to put a few drops of a Constipation Reliever in her afternoon tea and see if that won't cure her of her need to change schedules every other week."

On his shoulder, Freedom shook with silent laughter. Oh, Sev, that would be so funny! Would you really do that?

Snape cast the hawk a sly grin. "In a heartbeat. No one deserves it more." He walked over to the stone gargoyle and said, "Pink carnation."

The gargoyle slid aside and he stepped up onto the revolving staircase.

Hell hath no fury like a Potions Master, the hawk chirped, still chuckling inwardly.

"Indeed. Best you remember that, fledgling," Severus teased.

For some reason, Freedom recalled the nightmare he had last night as they ascended the staircase and he shuddered involuntarily. Don't be ridiculous. It was just a dream, not a premonition. You're not a Seer, Potter. It was probably all that rabbit you ate. What possible reason could Umbridge have for sending Severus to Azkaban? He hasn't broken the law.

Even so, the hawk was uneasy. Umbridge played fast and loose with protocol when it suited her. Severus, be careful. I don't trust her.

"Neither do I. I trust her as much as I trust the Dark Lord."

They had reached the carved oak door and Snape put his hand upon the knob, then paused. "I trust you will remember your manners, fledgling?"

Yes, Severus. Unless she hurts you. Then I'll be within rights to rip her a new arse.

"Where is that written?"

It's part of the Code of Familiars, answered Freedom glibly. If anyone hurts your wizard, you're free to defend him by any means necessary.

Snape raised an eyebrow. "I will keep that in mind. Though I think I could take her in a duel."

She fights dirty.

"So do I, when necessary." Snape admitted, then he turned the knob and entered the office.

Umbridge was seated behind the mahogany desk, an eager look upon her face as she heard the door open. The colored kitten plates upon the wall meowed annoyingly, as if announcing Snape's presence. Severus stepped into the room, looking at Umbridge questioningly.

Standing off to the side of the desk, near the window, were Dawlish and Savage, a young man with a lean hungry face like a jackal.

"You wished to see me, madam?" Snape queried, his tone coolly polite.

Freedom glared warningly at the other wizards, though none of them paid attention to him.

Umbridge looked up at the taller man, her nose twitching eagerly, like a hound who has scented a quarry. "Professor Snape, it has recently come to my attention, by a certain letter from an anonymous person called . . ." Here she shuffled through the folder on her desk before pulling out a letter. " . . .Padfoot, that you once were associated with the followers of You-Know-Who. Is that so?"

Inwardly, Severus cursed, calling Black every foul name he knew. But his demeanor remained calm and unruffled. He replied to the hag evenly, "As a young man, I did follow the tenets of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, for about six months. Until I realized what they were and renounced them forever."

No! Oh, Sirius, what have you done? thought Freedom in horror.

"Indeed? You were pardoned by Albus Dumbledore, is that not so?"

"It is. I confessed all to him and he heard my testimony, as did Auror Moody." Severus answered, furious that he had to discuss this with her, of all people.

Umbridge's eyes narrowed. "Confessed to what, exactly? Torturing Muggles? Deflowering little girls? Murder?"

Snape's jaw was clenched, and a muscle throbbed in his temple. "No, High Inquisitor. I never did any of that. As a new recruit, I performed other duties for You-Know-Who. I brewed potions, for the most part. And did research on dark curses and such. Those other . . .pursuits you mentioned were saved for those of his Inner Circle. I was not one of them." Though I am now, he added silently, with a bitter twist to his lips.

"Yet you bear his Mark, do you not?"

Snape nodded. "As do all who once were followers."

Umbridge seemed pleased by that. "You know, Severus, I believe in second chances. I think that one should always give someone the benefit of the doubt. Which is why, when I first learned of your . . .shall we say . . .involvement with You-Know-Who . . .I did not go with my first impulse and dismiss you out of hand. Instead, I watched you carefully, and I must admit, you are good, Snape. You nearly fooled me."

"In what way, madam?"

"You nearly made me think, as poor foolish Dumbledore did, that you had changed. But then I started hearing rumors. Rumors that you detested young Mr. Potter. That you wished the boy expelled from Hogwarts. You told Dumbledore as much when the boy arrived for his second year. Do you deny it?"

"No. I did say Potter ought to be expelled, because of that incident with the flying car, he put our world at risk with that fool stunt. It was reckless and irresponsible and the boy should have been given consequences for his actions."

"Indeed. From what I have heard, Potter was forever breaking rules and being disrespectful to teachers. He defied me as well. Very cheeky." Umbridge sniffed. "But still . . .even I would not have resorted to kidnapping, Professor Snape."

"Kidnapping? I haven't the slightest idea what you mean."

"Don't you?" Umbridge purred, and in her eyes was a glint of terrible satisfaction. "Where were you the night Harry Potter disappeared, Snape?"

"I fail to see why that is any of your business."

"Everything that goes on in this school is now my business, Snape. By order of the Ministry of Magic, I demand you answer my question. Where were you the night Harry Potter disappeared?"

Snape looked bored, though Freedom could see a faint trickle of sweat behind his left ear. "I believe I was walking around the grounds, as I normally do after class, it helps me clear my head."

"Was anyone with you?"

"No."

"So you have no alibi."

"What exactly are you accusing me of, madam?"

"The kidnapping and possible murder of Harry Potter."

Snape stared at her. "You are mad!"

"Am I? I think not. You, a former Death Eater, pardoned by an old man whose mental capacity is under suspicion, have admitted freely to me that you disliked Mr. Potter and wished him gone from this school. You are the only one who has no alibi on the night he vanishes. You have motive and opportunity, Professor. You Stunned the boy and hid him away somewhere."

"To do what with him? Play twenty questions?"

"Do not mock me, sir!" Umbridge yelled, slamming her hand upon her desk. "You are guilty of conspiracy and have doubtless used what you learned from your fellow Death Eaters to torture and perhaps even kill a defenseless child!"

"That is ludicrous!"

"Not by my lights, Snape. You have already proven to be lax when it comes to your students' safety, look at the familiar you keep, a vicious bird who attacks children without provocation."

That's a filthy lie, hag!

"There, you see! A nasty beast, like his master. Severus Snape, I am charging you with the crime of harming and kidnapping the Boy-Who-Lived. You are the reason why he has been missing. I shall not have a criminal half-breed on my staff. I hearby dismiss you from your post and remand you into the custody of these Aurors." She turned to the Aurors. "Arrest him! We shall see if some time in Azkaban will not loosen his tongue."

Severus's wand was in his hand. "Since when do you arrest someone without proof of a crime?"

"I need not explain myself to you. You got off once before because you had a powerful protector. But Dumbledore is finished and now you shall pay for your misdeeds, Snape! Once in Azkaban, we shall get the truth out of you." She gestured, and the two Aurors started forward.

"Dawlish, you cannot believe her," Snape began. "I would never harm Potter. I am sworn to protect him."

Umbridge laughed, high and shrill. "Another lie, Snape? You and Dumbledore were conspiring together. He was going to make himself Minister and you wanted to revenge yourself upon Potter and so you made him disappear."

"I will take Veritaserum and prove you wrong, woman!"

"I know better, Snape. Death Eaters are trained to resist that particular potion. Do not make this hard on yourself, Severus. Surrender and save yourself some pain."

Snape bared his teeth. "If you wish to take me, bitch, you will have to fight."

Dawlish shot off a Stunning Hex, but Snape ducked.

Freedom flew from his shoulder, screeching in fury. Leave him ALONE! Nobody hurts my wizard!

He dove down at the Auror, talons glinting and hit the man hard, raking back and down the other's head.

Dawlish screamed and clutched his head, dropping his wand.

Savage snapped out a Body Bind. "Locomotor mortis!"

But Snape was too quick, and the hex was deflected harmlessly wide, bouncing off the wall.

"Blasted hawk!" Umbridge yelled, and pointed her wand and shouted, "Incendio!"

A jet of flame shot out from her wand, nearly scorching Freedom's tail feathers.

Several of the portraits cried out in alarm as they were nearly set on fire.

Severus spun, his eyes burning with a terrible rage. "You dare-?"

Umbridge froze, for in that moment, she saw her death approaching.

Freedom saw it as well. Saw that Snape hovered upon the cusp of destruction and in that instant made a choice.

Severus, no! Don't! he screamed. Stop it, all of you! He dove inbetween the Potions Master and Umbridge and felt a terrible pressure build up behind his eyelids. Then sparks formed before his eyes and fire etched his limbs.

The wizards stared in astonishment as the hawk blurred and then reformed-into the shape of a fifteen-year-old boy with a shock of dark hair, glasses, and a lightning bolt scar. His wand was clutched in his fist and he snarled at Umbridge, "Don't touch him, toad bitch! You want to know where Harry Potter is? Well, here I am, and if you want to hurt Severus, you'll have to go through me."

Everyone froze.

Harry's eyes bored into Umbridge with a fiery emerald intensity that caused the witch to flinch and step back. "B-but how . . .is this possible . . .? You have been here this whole time . . .?"

"Yes. I transformed into my Animagus form by accident one night, flew out the window and crashed, I broke my wings and lost my memory. Professor Snape found me and healed me. He didn't know I was an Animagus. No one did. He never kidnapped me or hurt me. He saved my life. Now call off your dogs, Professor."

Umbridge sputtered, but waved Dawlish and Savage back. Then she gathered herself and said, "It could be a trick. A Disillusionment Charm. How do I know you're not lying?" She pointed her wand at Harry. "Finite!"

Nothing happened. Scowling, she snapped, "Dawlish, give me some Veritaserum."

"Sorry, ma'am. But that's illegal. He's underage." drawled the Auror. "And anyhow, you only have to look at Snape there t'see the kid's not lying." He jerked his head at the Potions Master.

Umbridge looked up and Harry slowly turned about, swallowing hard.

He was prepared to see anger, scorn, or shock in the eyes of his professor.

What he saw instead was betrayal, intermingled with disbelief.

Harry flinched and took a step back.

"You knew nothing of this, Snape?" demanded Umbridge, sounding like a child just deprived of a trip to the toy store.

"No. I thought . . .he was just a hawk. My familiar . . ."

"Looks like the kid just got into a bit of trouble by being too hasty," Savage said. "It happens. Since it's obvious Snape isn't guilty, that means you'll have to retract the charges, High Inquisitor."

"Oh, very well! Though I still think he was in league with the boy!"

"No," Harry insisted firmly. "He didn't know anything. I'll swear on my wand, any oath you like, but it's the truth."

"I believe him," said Savage.

"Me too." Dawlish agreed, holding a rag to his bleeding scalp and glaring at Harry.

Dolores huffed then said, "Fine! Charges will be dropped. You may go, gentlemen. I shall deal with Mr. Potter's truancy myself."

The two Aurors nodded and then Flooed back to Auror Headquarters, leaving Harry alone with a sulky furious Umbridge and a stunned angry Snape.

The young wizard looked from one to the other and wondered if he'd have been safer in Azkaban.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Hope you all enjoyed this one!

It's my birthday today, by the way!



Chapter 19: Severus's Bane
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Umbridge recovered first, her small eyes hardening as she gazed at her missing student. "Well, well, Mr. Potter. An unregistered Animagus. And also a student who has missed class for over a month and a half. Have you any idea of the trouble you have caused? I ought to have you expelled for your pathetic behavior, young man!"

Harry gulped sharply, wondering if she was going to snap his wand right there. But then the sickening feeling vanished and he lifted his head and looked the other witch right in the eye. As a hawk, he wouldn't have let the toad bitch cow him. And he was still Freedom, even if he was now a boy. Before he could say anything, however, Snape did.

"Dolores, might I remind you that Potter should not be held responsible for absences as a result of a magical accident?"

Umbridge glared at the tall professor. "How so?"

"It is in the Guidelines of Hogwarts Bylaws," Severus interjected smoothly. "Chapter 12, section 10: "If a student has missed class due to an unforeseen accident of a magical nature, up to and including random shapeshifting, no House points may be taken or expulsion considered, since said student was not able to control his or her magical outburst."

Umbridge looked as if she wished she could turn Snape into a puddle of sludge. She summoned a thick leatherbound book with a wave of her wand from the bookshelf and snapped, "Cross reference-chapter 12, section 10." The book opened and magically turned to the page she had requested.

She bent and read, her face flushing. "Very well. I may not expel you, Mr. Potter, but I can and will give you detention for the rest of this term. And you will need to make up all the work you missed as well as take your OWLS."

Harry gaped at her. "But Professor, how can I do that and keep up with my classes at the same time?"

Umbridge smiled coldly. "That, Mr. Potter, is your problem. Next time, do not experiment with magic you have no business learning. You are to report to me here at 7PM this evening for your detention. I trust you will be prompt?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Inwardly he shuddered, for though she might not be able to use a blood quill on him any longer, he had no doubt she would come up with something else that was quite as horrid. As it was, it was going to be hell trying to catch up with all of his classes, he had no idea how he was going to manage that without cracking under the pressure. How am I going to explain everything to Ron and Hermione? And how am I going to explain it to Severus? He darted a quick glance at the potions teacher out of the corner of his eye, and saw that Snape was pale and expressionless, all of his emotions locked away.

In one way, that made Harry relieved, but in another, it made him fearful, for he knew that Snape was just waiting to get him alone, and then he'd probably hand Harry his head on a platter. He was not fooled for an instant about Snape's mask of indifference.

Umbridge rose, came around the desk, and caught Harry's chin in her hand. The boy stiffened and Snape made a motion to halt her, then arrested it when Umbridge spoke. "I want you to understand something, Mr. Potter. When Dumbledore was head of this institution, you were allowed to run wild. But he is no longer in charge, I am, and you will abide by my rules, or else suffer the consequences. Break one more rule and I shall not hesitate to snap your wand, boy!"

Harry jerked his chin from her grasp, wincing as her nails scored his cheek. "Understood, Professor. May I go now?"

"Yes. Go. Oh, and one more thing, Mr. Potter. Failure to finish your work in a timely manner is considered rule-breaking. Dismissed."

Harry opened his mouth to protest, for that was so unfair it was ridiculous, but then he shut it at Snape's ferocious glance.

"Mr. Potter, after you have seen your Head of House and informed her of your return, I will see you in my office." Severus said, his voice devoid of any emotion.

For some reason that scared Harry worse than if the man had shouted at him. Just how angry was Snape to exert that kind of control over his emotions?

"Yes, sir," Harry said as respectfully as he could muster. He's not going to forgive me. He hates me now for what I did. Merlin, Severus, I'm sorry! I should have told you sooner. But somehow, I just couldn't. He cast his former wizard master a guilty regretful look before hurrying out of the office.

Severus scowled and rubbed his temples, he was starting to develop a blinding headache. "If there are no further accusations you wish to make, madam, I have potions to brew."

Umbridge gave him a sickly syrupy smile. "Of course, Severus. I shall see you at dinner."

Snape swept out of the office his hand clenched upon his wand. That morning had been one of the worst of his life, and he was still trying to process the fact that his familiar, the hawk he had come to love and had told his innermost secrets to was actually none other than bloody Harry Potter.

He strode down the steps to the dungeons and barricaded himself in his lab, figuring he had about an hour or so before Potter came knocking on his office door. An hour to try and combat the awful feelings of betrayal and anger that were surging up within him.

He had trusted his familiar the way he had no other soul, not Hagrid, not even Lily had ever known what he had spoken of to Freedom. And while Potter had claimed he had amnesia, Severus had to wonder just how much Potter remembered from his time as a hawk. From what he knew of Animagi, they retained their mind in their other shape and anything they did in their second form was remembered when they changed back. If that held true for Potter . . .he knew everything.

Severus longed to put his fist through the wall.

This was worse than the time James and Sirius had hung him upside down in front of everyone down at the lake, worse than the Dark Lord probing his mind with his clumsy Legilimancy, because he had always been able to Occlude his mind and the Dark Lord had never known anything but what Snape wished him to.

He felt as if Potter had gotten hold of his private Pensieve and rummaged through it. Only he had told Potter, disguised as an innocent hawk, all of those private memories himself! I trusted him and he betrayed me! What a fool I was! All along, a part of me suspected . . .and I should have known! How else would it be possible for a fifteen-year-old to remain hidden so long without help? An Animagus, just like his bloody father!

He felt like throwing his carefully labeled potion vials against the wall, but he was too old to indulge in that kind of juvenile behavior. Breaking things wouldn't change the fact that Potter now knew his carefully guarded secrets. He thought of all the nights, and days as well, when he had talked to his hawk, stroking and healing the bird, and how good it had felt to have another to talk to that would listen and not judge him, who would be loyal and never betray him. His teeth clenched. Now that was destroyed, for how could Potter not judge him for speaking so about his parents? He had even admitted that he loved Lily to her son!

Severus groaned and buried his face in his hands. It was the ultimate humiliation.

He began to chop up acacia roots with a vengeance, the steady repetitive motion helping him concentrate on something other than the Potter brat and how he had lied to him and was probably laughing up his sleeve at what a psychological wreck his potions professor was. Two broken things have found each other. His hands stilled as he recalled that long ago night after he had returned from the Dark Lord's meeting. Little did he know he had spoken those words to the son of his worst rival.

But then he also recalled what the hawk-Potter-had told him. You're not alone. I care for you.

Perhaps the hawk had cared, but how much was the hawk and how much was the Boy Who Lived? When had Potter's memories returned? And why in bloody hell had he not transformed back when they did return, instead of playing about in hawk form? Had he done it as a lark, the way James would have done? Had it amused him, playing Snape and all the rest of them for fools?

He could just see it-Potter bragging to his friends how he had made an utter fool of the master spy himself, smirking like the Cheshire cat. Wait, no that was James who had always smirked whenever he'd pulled a prank on someone-usually Severus. He had never really seen Potter smirk that way, had he? Come to think on it, he had never really seen Potter smile that much. Not even when he'd beaten Slytherin at Quidditch. Potter was . . .serious, mostly. Unless he was being cheeky.

Severus resolved he would have the answers to those questions before Potter left his office. At least he would have that much. Although, he had to admit, Potter had done a brave and unexpected thing defending him from Umbridge that way. But that did not take away the sharp sting of betrayal.

* * * * * *

Harry barely heard McGonagall's lecture on the dangers of unsupervised Animagus transformations. He knew he ought to pay attention to his Head of House, she was the most experienced Transfiguration teacher on the staff, and she deserved his respect, but his stomach was threatening to rebel, he was so worried over how Snape was going to react when he finally got Harry alone. Something in his bones told him it was not going to be good. But then, had he ever really expected it to be? He had, in essence, deceived the man for two weeks after regaining his memories, had listened to private conversations, and he knew Snape's views on privacy, especially when it came to his own life. Snape was like a clam, shut up tight and needing a crowbar to pry him open.

"Mr. Potter! Have you been listening to a word I've said?" demanded McGonagall.

Harry jumped. "What? Oh . . .yes . . .I have . . .umm . . ." Then he blushed crimson. "No . . .not really. I'm sorry . . .what did you just say?"

McGonagall sighed, clearly the boy's mind was about a thousand miles away. "I said, Mr. Potter, that you should not change forms until you have been properly registered by me with the Ministry and I have seen for myself that you can transform back and forth without a problem. For now, consider yourself on probation as far as shifting goes. I will want to see you for extra tutoring after class during your free period."

Harry groaned. "All right, Professor, but I don't know when I'm going to have time to do everything, with all the make up work and Umbridge's detentions . . ." He trailed off, realizing he was whining, he hadn't meant to say that out loud!

But instead of scolding him, the Transfiguration professor shot him a concerned look. "Umbridge has assigned you detention? For how long?"

"Till the end of the term."

McGonagall's eyes grew flinty. "That is absolutely . . .I shall speak with her . . .you cannot possibly perform well in class if you have detention for that long and she ought to realize that your missing so much school was unintentional and discipline you accordingly . . ."

Harry just nodded, though he didn't think it would do much good. Umbridge was not the sort to take criticism from anyone and she ran the school with an iron fist.

"Thank you, Professor."

"Go on, Harry. Go back to your dorm, I'm sure your friends will be glad to see you back where you belong. As am I. You were very lucky, you know. Very lucky. Not everyone can maintain their sense of self after being gravely injured in Animagus form. You seem to have an instinctive knack for it, much like myself. Or your father." She smiled at him. "Well then, off with you!"

Harry went, though he did not tell her he was going down to Snape's office. It was strange to have to walk on the ground, his feet felt uncoordinated and awkward, after so many weeks of flying everywhere. He had never realized just how quickly a pair of wings enabled one to get to a destination until now. But maybe he shouldn't be in such a hurry to get to his own execution, figuratively speaking.

Then he stiffened his shoulders and thought that at least once he had confronted Snape, it would be over. He felt bad though, costing the wizard his familiar, and more, his friend. But perhaps . . .perhaps he might convince Snape that he still wanted to be his friend? He snorted. Right. And Umbridge would have an epiphany and become a fuzzy pink bunny. Snape would never want to be a friend to a student, much less the son of his hated rival.

He had now reached the office. Slowly, he put a hand on the door. Then he took a deep breath and turned the knob. He halted. Perhaps he had better knock first. That was good manners and Snape liked that. He knocked firmly on the door.

For a long moment, there was no sound and Harry wondered if Snape was even inside.

Then came a familiar silky command, "Enter."

Harry opened the door and went in.

The office was the same as always, Snape's desk crammed with neat stacks of parchment, quills, and potion vials. Behind it was a shelf with various things in jars, pickled eyes and other strange but valuable ingredients. Snape was seated behind his desk, looking as forbidding as ever. Harry felt any hope he had of reconciliation shrivel and die.

Severus shut the door with a wave of his wand and then cast a Muffliato Charm silently. He had no wish for anyone to hear what he was about to say.

Harry came to stand before the desk, his hands in his pockets. He looked at Snape with troubled emerald eyes and waited for the man to speak.

Snape said nothing for a long time, though Harry could see a cauldron of emotions brewing in the dark eyes. His fingers tightened upon his viridian green quill and Harry sensed he was struggling to control his temper . . .or his magic, for it too was surging about the room, he could feel it prickle across his skin.

At last Severus spoke. "So. The hawk I saved and made my familiar was you all along, Mr. Potter."

Harry nodded. "Yes, sir. But I really didn't remember who I was. I hit my head. Twice. Once when I fell from the sky and again when Malfoy knocked me off the perch in your lab. I'm not lying, honest."

"About that, no. But tell me, Potter, what about after that? What about after weeks of healing and . . .learning all of my secrets? For I know that your memory did not spontaneously return just this morning. My familiar was behaving oddly two weeks before that, and I could not figure out why the sudden change until now. Your memories returned then, did they not?"

"Yes, but I didn't want to . . .I wasn't ready to change back . . ." Harry began.

"Why not? Because you wanted to find out some more of the greasy git's secrets? Oh, don't look so shocked, Potter, I've heard what you all call me behind my back," Severus declared sharply, a bitter smile twisting his face. "Did it amuse you then, listening to me speak to Hagrid of my childhood with your mother, of my schooldays with your bullying father? Did you laugh when I spoke of what he and his friend Black did to me that day by the lake?"

"No! I didn't think it was funny at all. Sev, please listen to me-"

"Don't ever call me that name!" Severus snarled, his eyes burning like a volcano about to erupt. The quill in his hand broke with a sharp snap. "You have no right! Only my best friend ever called me by that name and you . . . are . . .not . . .my . . . friend! You deceived me!"

Harry paled, but he stood his ground. Angry as Snape was, he didn't think the man would hex him. He had too much control to harm a student. But Snape's words cut him sharply, lashing his fragile self-esteem like a whip. "I was once. I was your familiar."

"My familiar." Severus repeated, and beneath the anger was a sharp hard note of bitter despair. "Yes, my familiar, whom I trusted, and look how that has turned out. My familiar, who turns out to be a lying Animagus! Why did you continue the charade, Potter? Did you enjoy tricking me and the others? Every morning I searched for you, wasting my time and my magic looking for a wretched boy who was hiding upon my shoulder all this time!"

"Look, sir, I'm sorry I lied to you, I should have changed back before but I . . ." And suddenly his throat closed up and he couldn't speak, couldn't bear to tell Severus the real reason, and be rejected for it. "It wasn't a trick . . .I needed time . . ."

"You needed time? Time for what? To eavesdrop some more? Tell me, Potter, what will you do with the information you've learned about me? Tell your little friends?" Snape sneered the words. "Post it about the school perhaps? Run an article in the paper? Snape Reveals All To Unknown Student Disguised As Familiar! Rita Skeeter would have a bloody field day with that one! And to think, I trusted you! That for once in my life I had found something worthwhile, that could not be taken away. I thought, more fool I, that you would never betray me."

"I wouldn't!" Harry cried, anguished. His hands clenched into fists. "You don't understand-"

Snape leaned over the desk, breathing hard. "Do not shout at me, Mr. Potter. You forget, I am your professor, not your wizard any longer. This is exactly the kind of stunt your father would have pulled, had he been able. What an opportunity, to learn all of Snape's dirty little secrets. It would have given him no end of amusement."

"I'm not my father! When will you see that? When will anyone see it?" Harry yelled. "Just because I look like him doesn't mean I think like him or act like him!"

"No? Could have fooled me. You still haven't answered my question. Why did you remain in your Animagus form after your memory returned if not to spy upon me or to cause mischief? So you could cut school? For that too is like your father, who attended class whenever he felt like it. It must run in your blood, this tendency to break rules. And to make a laughingstock of me in front of everyone." Severus slammed his hand down on the desk. "Poor Snape, he thought he had found the perfect companion, only to find out it was a sham!" The professor's voice was sharp with sarcasm and hurt, it hit the boy like a slap.

"I . . .I didn't do it to humiliate you, Severus. And if you think I did . . .then you really don't know me at all!" the frustrated teen cried. "I'm sorry, okay? Sorry I hurt myself and you ended up caring for me, sorry I betrayed you . . ." Everything was going wrong, Severus wasn't listening to him, and he couldn't stand the way the man was shredding him with his eyes and his tongue. "I never should have come back! I should have stayed a bloody hawk!" Sudden tears welled in his eyes and he blinked them back hard.

He could feel himself start to splinter, feel something hot and heavy rise in his chest. He could not bear for Snape to see him cry. So he went on the defensive. "Fine, professor! You're right, it was all a big joke, I did it for revenge, is that what you want to hear? Good! Now you can go back to Goddamn hating me like you've always wanted."

"Potter, I never hated you-"

"Could have fooled me," the boy cried, throwing his own words back at him. Then he whirled and ran from the office, ignoring Snape's shout to come back. Let the professor hex him. Or give him detention. What did it matter? It was finished. The friendship he had cherished was over. He had broken it all to pieces and it would never be mended.

Back in the office Snape sank back into his chair, weary and hurting, regret mingling with bitter despair. He'd had something rare and precious with his familiar, but now it was gone. His greatest bane, his dreadful temper, had once more shattered everything. And now he was alone again, the solitary bat of the dungeons, haunted by a pair of green eyes, the way he had been long ago.

He brought up a hand to rub his eyes, they burned with a strange throbbing ache. The ache of tears, suppressed and unshed, for what had been and would never be again.

He cursed softly, then his hand reached out and grabbed a jar of dead cockroaches off the shelf behind him and hurled it against the door.

It smashed into a million little pieces.

Snape's lip curled. How symbolic, he thought mockingly, and stared bleakly at the shards upon the floor, which had fallen in the shape of a pair of wings.




 





Chapter End Notes:




Comments?

Next: Harry serves detention with Umbridge and both he and Severus are in turmoil over their lost friendship. Will they ever be able to mend it?



Chapter 20: Turmoil
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7PM, that same night:

Harry headed down to Umbridge's office for his detention, his trainers scuffing the floor. He was looking forward to this with about as much enthusiasm as he would have getting a root canal, but he did not slow. He had learned, while Snape's familiar, slowly mending from his broken wings, to endure setbacks and cultivate patience. Umbridge and her detentions were setbacks to be endured. He could not even guess at what the witch had planned for him, except that it wouldn't be a blood quill, like the first time he had detention with her. Since that citation, she had ceased using them. But he was sure she'd found other methods to make students wish they had died.

After his disastrous confrontation with Snape, Harry had fled to the haven of Gryffindor Tower, sick and aching, to find it deserted, as everyone else was in class. He was grateful for that small bit of mercy, because then he wouldn't have to deal with endless questions and explanations when he was all cut to pieces inside. He had gone to his bed, which had been neatly made in his absence, and curled up among the pillows and comforter, his knees drawn up to his chest, and put his head on them.

There was a terrible hollow feeling in his chest, and his head hurt, and he felt tears prickle his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. What good would it do to cry over this now? He had known Snape would be angry, had known the man would not take being lied to well, but still . . .it hurt when Severus had looked him in the eye and told him that only his friends were allowed to call him Sev, and Harry was not his friend. I was once. I was your best friend, Severus Snape! And . . .you were mine.

It was strange, how he had bonded with the older man, becoming at once a protective familiar and a cheeky younger brother . . .or dare he even think it . . .a foster son. At one time he had felt all of those things about the professor, before he learned he was really Harry Potter. And even after he had regained his memories, he still had felt that way. He knew Severus, the way he thought and felt, his past, like no one else.

But Severus had not known him. And perhaps that was why he felt betrayed. For though Freedom had returned his affection while a hawk, it was not the same as a person, and Harry had not been given the chance to share things with Severus. If Snape had been receptive to Harry's apology and willing to forgive a little, Harry would have shared his reason for keeping his presence a secret. But Snape had not, and now Harry was afraid to say anything about his past, or the nightmares, because Severus would not care any longer and he did not want to be sneered at.

I thought you cared, Sev! I really did. But no, all you see is my damn father! I'm me, for Merlin's sake, not him. I just wish you could see that . . .I just wish I could go back to the way it was before . . .when you talked with me and liked me. It was brilliant, being able to talk to someone who actually understood what it was like to be scared and lonely. My friends never really understood what it was like, living with the Dursleys, or how it felt to see a friend die, they didn't know the way it tears you apart inside. But you did and even though you didn't know details, I knew you understood how it was. And that meant . . .everything.

A lone tear escaped and made its way down his face.

He sniffed and then just lay on his bed, lost and confused and wishing desperately for something he was sure he would never have again. If only Severus could forgive him. But Harry wasn't sure if that would ever happen. For he had done the unforgivable, he had gotten inside the carefully constructed walls of Snape's heart and mind, he had made the man care again, and then he had betrayed him by keeping his identity a secret. I should have told him right away. But I didn't want to hurt him, and instead I ended up hurting us both. I'm such a screw-up!

He buried his face in his pillow and then fell asleep, only waking when his dorm mates returned from class.

He heard Ron, Neville, and Dean bustling about in the room, opening their trunks, putting books on their desks, and muttering about how much homework they had to do for Transfiguration and History of Magic.

Ha, not as much as I have to do! Harry thought ruefully. He considered just staying behind the bedhangings, but then figured he'd have to face his Housemates sometime and better now than later. He just wished he didn't feel so raw and . . .vulnerable. Severus's temper had really shredded his self-confidence. You've had worse. Much worse. So just shut up and deal with it, he told himself firmly. He was tempted to jump out of the bedhangings and yell "Boo!" in a terrible imitation of Peeves, but decided it wouldn't do to scare his Housemates to death, so all he did was stick his head out and say, "Hi."

All three boys gasped and backed away, staring at him with their jaws hanging.

Harry slid all the way out from the bedhangings and stood there.

Finally Ron found his voice. "H-Harry? Is that really you?"

"Yeah, it's me. Hey, Ron."

"But how did you get here?" Neville asked, his eyes round like a pop-eyed fish.

"The usual way. I walked," Harry replied.

"Where were you all this time?" Dean wanted to know. "Did you like . . .get captured by the Death Eaters?"

Harry shook his head. "No."

"Was Umbridge holding you prisoner in her armoire or something, mate?" Ron asked, raising an eyebrow. "Because I wouldn't put it past her."

The others shuddered and made disgusted faces.

"Merlin, no!" Harry grimaced and shuddered too. "That'd be a fate worse than death." He sighed softly. "It's a long story. Let's just say, for now, that I was missing because of . . .a magical accident."

"A magical accident?" squeaked Neville. "Did you . . .uh . . .blow up a potion or something?"

"No, not like that." Harry said, reluctant suddenly to admit his foolish impulse. He wasn't sure he wanted his Housemates to know about how he became an Animagus. "It's complicated."

"Well, it's great to have you back, mate." Ron said, giving him a friendly slap on the back.

"But, Merlin, are you ever gonna have a lot of homework!" Dean remarked.

"Believe me, Dean, I know." Harry sighed gustily. "Homework and detention with the wicked witch."

The others snickered at the nickname and shot him sympathetic looks. "Sucks to be you," Ron groaned. "Maybe you might want to ask Hermione to help you with schedules or whatever. She's good at that."

"Yes, that's a good idea," agreed the dark-haired boy. Then he beckoned to Ron and said softly, "Tell you more later."

"Right." Ron looked at the hourglass on the table. "Gotta run, Harry, else I'll be late for class. Does McGonagall know you're back?"

"Yes, and she said she'll get the work I missed from the other teachers."

"Ouch!" Neville winced. "You'll probably get ten feet of parchment from Snape alone."

Of that, Harry hadn't the slightest doubt. Angry as he was, the Potions Master would probably give him extra homework. He just hoped Hermione could show him some way to prioritize his time so he wasn't dropping dead of overwork. He wished she still had the time turner from their third year, that would have helped him no end.

The other boys grabbed their books for their next class, it was potions, and shoved them into their bags and left.

Harry sat down on his bed and stared at the wall, where Ron had hung posters and banners of the Chudley Cannons and Dean had a poster of his favorite soccer team. He knew he should probably start looking over his books and try and get a head start, but he frankly didn't care about school much, he was still reeling from Severus's rejection. He stared moodily at the wall, wondering what Hermione would say and how his detention with the toad would go tonight. He summoned Quidditch Through the Ages from his shelf and paged through it, wondering what would happen now. Everything was different and he wasn't sure how to adjust to it. One thing he did know, was that he would remain true to his promise and not speak of what he had learned about Severus to anyone. He knew the other wizard was terrified he would reveal all of his past to everyone, and that terror had led to his explosive accusations that Harry had betrayed him. But Harry refused to make that a reality. Anything Severus had told him would stay with him.

Right then all he wanted to do was sleep. Sleep and dream of a time when he was happy, when he had wings and was the familiar of a wizard that had cared for him.

* * * * * *

Hermione simultaneously hugged him and questioned him at the same time when he awoke just before dinner. "But where were you? Were you here all the time? How did you live? What kind of accident was it?"

"Hermione, Merlin's ghost, let him speak!" ordered Ron exasperatedly.

"Oh, sorry." They were in the common room, in a table in the corner, trying to have a semi-private conversation. "But I'm just dying to know details, Harry! I mean, you can't expect to disappear for a month and a half and not tell me anything!"

Harry was quiet, then decided it was safe to tell her a few things. "Okay. I'll put you out of your misery. I was trapped in another form and lost my memory. That's how come I was missing."

Hermione's eyes went wide. "In another form? You mean . . .you're an Animagus?"

"Yes. I did it by accident. Then I got hurt and developed amnesia. I just got my memory back and managed to change back to my real form today. I've talked to McGonagall, she says she'll tutor me in how to become a registered Animagus. But I could really use your help, Hermione, with schoolwork. I've got a month and a half of make up work plus regular classes and Umbridge says if I don't finish it all by the end of the term, she'll expel me."

"Oh, Harry! She couldn't do that, could she? I mean, it wasn't your fault you got trapped in your Animagus form."

"I know. But she's Umbridge and she thinks she's the Queen of Hogwarts and we're her damn subjects. So . . .I have to finish whatever the professors give me and serve detention with her every other night. Can you help me? You're the best at organizing things and prioritizing time that I know of."

Hermione blushed with pleasure. "Thanks, Harry. Of course I'll help you. I'll make up a schedule and everything. You'll get through this, you'll see."

He could see the wheels in her brain start to turn, trying to come up with a solution already. "Thanks, Hermione."

Then she asked the question he'd been dreading. "Harry, what's your Animagus form?"

"Uh . . .it's a bird," he replied vaguely. Then he stood up, trying to evade any more questions. "Come on, I'm starving. Let's go eat."

He evaded the rest of Hermione's questions during dinner by being busy eating. He shot a glance at the staff table and saw that Snape was there, though he didn't notice Harry looking at him, all his attention was on Minerva, who was discussing something with him. Harry wondered if it had anything to do with him, for Snape was frowning. He felt a bitter ache in his chest, and suddenly wished he could transform and perch upon the professor's shoulder. He missed the easy camaraderie they had shared. Damn it all, Sev! I don't want to be your enemy!

He forced himself to look away and continue eating.

That evening, McGonagall called him to her office and said that she had managed to get hold of all Harry's missed work and also spoken to Umbridge, who had agreed to give Harry only two days of detention each week, starting tonight. "Do not antagonize her, Mr. Potter. As I'm sure you know, she'll be looking for an excuse to find fault with you. Do not give her one, am I understood?"

"Yes, ma'am," Harry said respectfully. He eyed the satchel she handed him, crammed full of notes and books and groaned. "All of that?"

"Yes, and mind you complete it neatly. Work will keep you out of trouble, Mr. Potter. Also, you may meet with me on Sunday mornings and I shall tutor you in your Animagus form. A proper teacher is essential."

"Yes, Professor."

"Go back to your common room, and remember, you have detention with Professor Umbridge at 7, according to the detention logs." Minerva reminded him.

Harry nodded, the turned and left his Head's office. The satchel on his shoulder felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds.

Once he arrived back at Gryffindor Tower, he gave Hermione the satchel, and she started organizing and examining all of the work his teachers had assigned and trying to make a timetable for him to complete it. He left her to it, hurrying back down the stairs for his detention with Umbridge.

He found the toad in the Defense office for once, sitting primly at her desk in a shocking pink dress that made Harry's eyes hurt just looking at it. So he glanced to the side, that way he wouldn't be struck blind. She looked up at him, a phony smile plastered over her broad face.

"Mr. Potter. How prompt you are. It's too bad you aren't that way for most of your other classes. Sit down." She indicated a chair and a desk in front of her.

Harry sat, and then he waited.

Umbridge leaned forward over her desk and said, "Your little experiment with Animagus forms does not excuse you from punishment. In the old days, if a student was caught experimenting with forbidden magic, he was punished . . .most severely." Her smile widened and Harry felt a shudder crawl up his spine. "However, such things are . . .not done today, and so I shall have to impress upon you the consequences of your misdeeds another way."

She opened a small black box and removed from it a thick silver cuff. "Come here, Mr. Potter."

"Professor?" Harry stood up, eyeing the cuff uneasily.

"Do as I say!"

He obeyed.

"This is a Cuff of Binding. It will serve to bind your ability to shift forms. You shall wear it until I think you have learned your lesson. I will not have an unregistered Animagus running loose in my school. Hold out your hand."

Harry balked. He did not know if he could bear not being able to fly. "No. I'll give you my word, I won't shift without permission, ma'am. Just don't . . .make me wear that."

"Hold out your hand, Mr. Potter!"

"But . . ."

"Now! Or else your disobedience will have serious consequences!"

Do not provoke her, McGonagall's words echoed in his head. Harry bit his lip. Then he very reluctantly held out his hand.

Umbridge grasped it and slid the cuff upon it.

It shrank to fit and Harry felt a sharp jolt run through him. He gasped, then rubbed his wrist where the cuff was. It stung like he had stuck his wrist in a patch of nettles.

"Ma'am, it stings."

"Oh? I was told it would be a bit . . .uncomfortable at first. You'll get used to it." She said indifferently.

Harry fought to keep from scratching his wrist. "But Professor Umbridge, I have Animagus lessons with Professor McGonagall Sunday morning."

"What? I did not authorize any lessons," Umbridge growled. "You need nothing except theory at this stage, I will not have you transform again until you have learned the proper respect for me, am I understood?"

Harry dropped his eyes to his shoes and muttered, "Yes, Professor." Hell, I wish I could hex you into a million little pieces.

"Good. Now, for your detention, I want you to go and scrub all the toilets on this floor. No magic, only a brush and some strong lye soap." She waved her wand at the ground and a bucket filled with an acrid smelling solution and a small scrub brush appeared. "You may begin, Mr. Potter. You have three hours." Then she held out her hand for his wand.

He surrendered it, gritting his teeth. Then he took the bucket and the brush and headed over to the first bathroom on the floor.

By the time three hours had passed, Harry had cleaned a total of twenty toilets. His arms and back ached from bending over and scrubbing for hours, and the skin on his hands and arms were red and sore from the strong lye soap, Umbridge had not given him gloves. But at least he was done.

He reported back to her, finding her with her feet up on a puffy rosebud stool, reading a novel called Flight of the Pureblood's Daughter and Her Muggle Lover-clearly a trashy romance if he ever saw one-and this was the first time he had seen a wizarding version, though Petunia had been fond of reading them while Vernon was away. Figures. That's probably the only time she can get a man.

"Professor Umbridge? I'm finished."

She quickly shoved the novel under a stack of reports. "Fine. Let me inspect your work, Mr. Potter."

She strode over to the first bathroom.

By the time she reached the third, her face was pinched and irritable, as if she'd swallowed a lemon. Harry was sure she was going to find fault with his work, but instead she sniffed. "Adequate. Barely. You may go, Mr. Potter. Your next detention is on Friday, same time."

He nodded and left, wincing at the blisters that had formed upon his hands.

He wished he had some of Severus's murtlap salve right now.

When he returned to the common room, he found Hermione still at the table, surrounded by crumpled pieces of parchment. Ron was dozing on the couch.

"Oh, Harry! I'm so glad you're here." Hermione said when he entered. "I'm sorry it's taking me so long but . . .it's nearly impossible for me to prioritize things when you have so many classes and make-up work. There just aren't enough hours in a day . . ." she trailed off when she caught sight of his reddened hands. "Merlin's hat! What happened to your hands, Harry?"

"Nothing. Just detention."

Ron awoke then at the alarm in Hermione's tone. "Huh? Oh, it's you, mate. How did detention with the creepy crawling toad go? Bloody hell! What'd she do, stick your hands in boiling water?"

"No. She just made me scrub toilets with lye soap without magic," Harry explained. He tugged the sleeve of his robe down to hide the cuff.

"Without gloves?" Hermione cried in dismay. "The cruel hag!" She stood up. "Here. I'll get some murtlap salve." She summoned it with a wave of her wand, plus a bowl and a soft cloth. She carefully mixed the murtlap with water and then told him to soak his poor hands.

"Thanks." Harry put his hands in the bowl and sighed in relief. The murtlap started soothing him immediately.

Ron was muttering several uncomplimentary things about Umbridge and her relationship with a horned toad. It made Harry smile, despite how Hermione's previous words had dismayed him.

"So, does this mean I'm royally screwed? That there's no way I can catch up?"

The girl looked very upset. "Well . . .I can still keep trying. But it's going to be tough for you to study for OWLS, make up the classwork, detention, and regular class. You'll probably hardly have a free minute to eat, or sleep, or take a shower." She shook her head. "That woman needs to be kicked hard. Does she want you to fail?"

"Probably." Harry said.

"Evil bitch!" Hermione spat, and both boys stared at her.

"Hermione! You actually called a professor a swear word!" Ron cried.

"Wow, Ron! For your information, I do know them, I just don't use them much. But she . . .she deserves it."

"No argument there," said Harry feelingly. He removed his hands from the murtlap. "Look, Hermione. Just do your best. I'll muddle through somehow."

"Okay, Harry. Here's the first part." She handed him a small grid. "You might want to start on some of this tonight."

Harry took the schedule and thanked Hermione again, then he headed upstairs. He would read his Charms text tonight before bed. He was determined not to let Umbridge win. If she thought she could break him, she was mistaken.

Thursday, day 1:

Despite a good six hours of sleep the night before, Harry still felt tired after rising. He looked at the silver cuff around his wrist in distaste, wishing he knew how to magic it off. But he didn't, and he didn't want his friends to see it and ask any more awkward questions. Perhaps Umbridge would remove it if he behaved himself. He rubbed the skin under the cuff, it itched and ached something fierce. He had saved the rag he'd used last night when he soaked his hands in the murtlap solution and he carefully dabbed at the raw skin with the murtlap soaked cloth. Some of the redness and itching eased.

Then he pulled on his clothes, making sure the cuff was covered by the sleeve of his robe, and headed down to breakfast.

He didn't have class until midmorning, and then it was potions with the Slytherins, never his favorite class, but he was sure it was going to be a horror, given the way things were between him and Severus. He was prepared for the Potions Master to tear strips off of him with his razor tongue, he just prayed he'd be able to take it without snapping back at him or worse, showing the man how much his words hurt him.

He picked at his breakfast, for some reason nothing tasted right ever since he had transformed back. He decided to spend the rest of his free period before potions studying some of the classwork he'd missed, at least he wouldn't feel like a fish out of water when he went to class this afternoon.

Ron's jaw dropped when he heard what Harry was going to be doing. "Hey, mate, you sure you're not still knocked for a loop? Because I've never heard you volunteer to do homework or study before."

"I don't have a choice," Harry said quietly. "Umbridge says if I don't complete all my make-up work before the end of term, she'll snap my wand, remember?"

Ron flushed. "Oh, right. I really wish we could get rid of her."

Harry nodded. "She's tough to banish though. Kind of like a cockroach."

Both of his friends giggled at that assessment and Hermione offered to help him learn some of his potions homework quickly using charts and neumonics. Harry agreed, and they headed off to the library. Ron followed, saying he'd check out a Quidditich book and read it while the two brains studied.

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Really, Ron, it won't kill you to study also. You might actually learn something."

"No thanks. I like just scraping by. It's more fun that way."

"You're impossible, Ron!" Hermione scolded. "It'll be a miracle if you pass your OWLS."

"Uh huh. That's what I'm counting on," Ron replied, smirking. He loved to rile up Hermione. He put his hands together in a prayerful motion. "Merlin, send me a miracle!"

Hermione snorted. "You don't need a miracle, you lazy idiot, you need a good kick in the pants."

Ron goggled. "What's gotten into you, Hermione? Get an E on an exam?"

"Your attitude is what's gotten into me, Weasley," the girl huffed, but before she could say anything else, Harry interrupted.

"Uh, Hermione? This isn't helping me study."

"Oh. Right. Okay, let's see what Professor Snape assigned you." She took his potions folder out of his backpack and began looking through it.

"You mean, you haven't memorized the homework yet?" teased Ron. "You're slipping, Granger."

"Stuff it, Ron!" Hermione muttered, then started taking the notes out of the folder. "It's a good thing Professor Snape is so organized. It makes it so much easier to figure out everything."

Harry supposed so, and tried to concentrate on learning the material instead of worrying about class.

* * * * * *

Snape swept into the classroom at precisely one o'clock, leveling them all with a stern scowl. Next to his workstation, Neville was already quivering slightly. Harry expected Severus's stare to gut and fillet him, but instead Snape shot him a cursory glower and moved on. Well, that was unexpected. Wonder what it means?

Severus circled the classroom, making sure the students had their materials and were not doodling in their notebooks or gossiping with charmed notepaper. Finding nothing amiss, he strode back to the head of the class and announced they would be brewing a Friendship Draft.

Harry waited in dread for some kind of pointed comment, but none came. Snape looked directly at him and then glanced away without saying a word.

Harry was confused. Normally Snape never missed the opportunity to taunt him in class.

Severus pressed his lips together to keep from ordering Potter out of his classroom. He turned away to get a tissue and pinched the bridge of his nose. Just seeing Potter in his classroom made him both irritable and comfortable. Get hold of yourself, Snape! Just teach and forget about Potter for now. Ignore him. He had never tried that before, but perhaps he should have. His heart just wasn't in his usual sarcasm today. He felt rather the same way he had after Lily had refused to hear his apology outside of Gryffindor Tower that night, hurt and betrayed.

Not to mention, he was nearly bored out of his skin teaching according to Umbridge's policy. The potions were so elementary he could have taught them blindfolded in his sleep, but he was determined to keep Umbridge off his back at any cost now. He eyed Potter and wondered idly how the first detention with the cruel woman had gone. Potter did not seem injured, which was a good thing.

Harry concentrated on his potion, which was quite easy, and tried to figure out when Snape would start commenting about him again. But oddly enough, the professor ignored him, instead going to correct some other pairs and did not so much as glance at Harry.

In a way, that relieved the boy, but in another it made him upset, for ignoring him had been a favorite tactic of his aunt and uncle. "Pretend you don't exist, Potter!" was a favorite saying of Vernon's especially when they were expecting guests.

It hurt that Snape was pretending he didn't exist, as if what they had shared while he was Severus's familiar counted for nothing. But he kept his head down and managed to complete his potion before the end of the period. He bottled his solution, labeled it, and placed it upon Snape's desk. He darted a look at the older wizard, but Severus didn't even sneer at him. Instead he looked right through him.

Harry flinched, then slung his bag over his shoulder and took off. Once he would have celebrated the fact that Snape wasn't on his arse in class, but now he almost longed for the familiar old Snape. At least he knew where he stood with that one.

Severus stared after him unobtrusively, pretending to read a potion vial while actually using it to look after Potter. The way the boy had looked at him . . .as if he had smacked him or something . . .it was both unnerving and puzzling and it made him feel guilty at the same time. He continued examining the potions, thinking that he needn't hurry and return to his quarters now, since they were empty of all save himself again. Just the way he liked it, a small voice hissed. Except . . .that was no longer true. Now he kept recalling the way a certain red-tail used to sit upon the back of his couch, or his shoulder, or even on his stomach. Angrily, he pushed the memories away. It was over. His temper had seen to that, just like it had another afternoon, long and long ago.

Biting back a sigh, he continued examining and marking the potions, recalling with a sharp pang of regret the way Freedom used to fly through the sky and stoop after the lure on warm sunny days like this one.

* * * * * *

Friday, day 2:

That morning, McGonagall called him into her office to speak with him about the Animagus lessons. "I'm sorry, Mr. Potter, but we will not be having lessons the way I originally planned. The High Inquisitor has said I may only teach you theory for the time being, you are forbidden to transform." The Transfiguration Mistress frowned, she clearly did not like that ultimatum. "That is not the way I would normally tutor a fledgling Animagus, however, Professor Umbridge is in charge. So, we shall be studying this text for an hour, Potter." She handed him a rather worn copy of a book called A Beginner's Guide to Becoming One With Your Animal Soul.

"Thank you," Harry said quietly, not bothering to inform her that he already had read most of this book, it was the one he had borrowed from the library. Though he was annoyed at Umbridge, he assumed McGonagall knew about the restriction she had placed upon him, and so did not bring up the fact that he was bound with a Binding Cuff. And at least he didn't have to read another new book, he could skim through this one.

"Read through chapter one and we'll discuss it Sunday." McGonagall said quietly. She could have assigned him more chapters, but she knew he already had a colossal workload.

Harry took the book and shoved it in his bag. Then he went to the library to try and do some Herbology. For once he was grateful to Hermione for her neatness and study habits, because now that knowledge proved invaluable, as he had to cram a month and a half's worth of knowledge into a month as well as complete the assigned current classwork.

Well, at least the holidays are coming up and I can get a great deal done then, he thought. Of course, he still had detention with Umbridge tonight.

He quickly bent over his parchment and began to sketch a picture of a Venomous Tantagula.

Detention with the High Inquisitor that night consisted of polishing several cases worth of tarnished silverware with some kind of polish that stung his eyes and nose terribly. He tried to keep from coughing and tearing up, but it was impossible.

"What is the meaning of this, Potter?" snapped Umbridge, glaring at him over her evening snack of tea and pink iced tarts.

Harry coughed uncontrollably, at last managing to say, "Sorry . . .professor . . .this stuff . . .burns my nose and eyes . . ." He blotted his eyes with his sleeve, they smarted as if he'd gotten dust in them.

Umbridge gave him a nasty look. "Oh for Merlin's sake, Potter! Stop trying to get out of work. I will not tolerate you shirking. Now get back to work and quit coughing like a hyena, it is most annoying! Or else I shall take points and you will receive another detention."

Harry just nodded, afraid to open his mouth. His throat ached and throbbed and he wondered if whatever he was using was toxic.

He managed to muffle his coughs in his sleeve and finish the polishing of the silverware just before the end of the hour. Umbridge looked less than pleased, but all she said was, "Get out of my sight, Potter."

Harry did, wishing he could change into a hawk and scare the snot out of her again.

Once beyond the door, he doubled over, coughing horrendously.

It was several minutes before he could get his breath back and when he straightened, he met a familiar pair of obsidian eyes. "P-professor Snape?"

The Potions Master scowled down at him. "Why are you hacking up a lung, Potter? If you're that ill you ought to be in the infirmary, not lurking in the corridor."

Harry shook his head, his eyes still streaming. "N-not sick . . .from the polish . . ."

"What polish?"

"Silver polish, sir . . .makes me cough and my eyes burn . . ."

In spite of himself, Snape found himself reaching out a hand to feel the boy's forehead.

Harry jerked away.

"Be still, Potter! I'm trying to determine if you have a fever."

"I don't . . .sir! Told you . . .I'm not sick!"

Snape ignored him, setting his hand briefly on Harry's forehead. It was cool. "Humph! Go and see Madam Pomfrey, boy, she'll give you a wash for your eyes and something to quiet that cough."

Then, before Harry could say anything, Snape stalked past him, his black robes billowing.

Harry gazed after him, looking thoughtful. Maybe Snape was not as indifferent as he seemed.

He decided to follow Snape's advice and headed to the infirmary.

But the potion Pomfrey dispensed for his cough was one that made him sleepy, and he fell asleep over his Transfiguration and missed out on several hours of study time, putting him even further behind.

* * * * * *

Saturday, day 3:

Harry spent all morning in the common room, trying to focus on History of Magic and Divination. Luckily Divination was a joke, especially when Trelawney was teaching it and Harry could get by with fudging answers and assignments.

Ron tried to get his friend to take a break and quit studying, but Harry refused. He could not afford to waste this precious time, though he took a look outside at the brilliant blue sky and felt a terrible pang of loss shoot through him. On a day like this, he would have been soaring above the clouds upon a thermal as Freedom.

He missed being able to fly with an almost physical ache. Almost as much as he missed a certain silky voice and a hand stroking him.

He pushed those memories aside. They had no place here and now. He bent over his books, scribbling frantically.

* * * * * *

Severus was supposed to spend that Saturday brewing extra batches of potions for the Hospital Wing. But after three hours of brewing, the Potions Master found that he couldn't stand looking at four gray stone walls, and headed outside for a walk about the grounds.

He walked for several minutes, and could not help but jerk his gaze skyward, searching for a familiar shape, though he knew rationally he would never see Freedom flying again.

He walked even more swiftly, as if trying to outrun his memories.

* * * * * *

Sunday, day 4:

After his lesson with McGonagall, Harry considered writing a letter to his godfather. He knew Sirius was worried about him, even though he was the one who had caused Snape to nearly get arrested by Umbridge, Harry felt that he deserved to know that he was back. He quickly composed a letter and summoned Hedwig to deliver it, it was addressed to Snuffles.

The snowy came immediately, nuzzling him and nipping him gently in reproof when he forgot to feed her a treat. It was then that Harry really missed being a hawk, for then he could speak and understand his familiar. Wonder if there's a potion that would let me talk to owls like there was for Snape to talk to hawks?

After telling Sirius he was fine, he also asked the man about the time he and James had hung Snape up in the air, wanting to know why he had done it and saying that it had been a rather cruel joke to play. He signed it Your godson.

Afterwards, he went back to his studies, doing Astronomy charts until his eyes crossed and he fell asleep amid his parchment, forgetting once more to eat lunch and breakfast as well.

Hermione woke him a few hours later for dinner. "Harry, you can't keep on skipping meals like this. It's not good for you."

"Okay. I'll eat dinner. It's just . . .there's not enough time for me to do everything I need to."

"I know, but you don't want to become sick, now do you?"

He shook his head, only then realizing he was starving.

* * * * * *

That same afternoon, Severus was relaxing in his quarters, but for some reason his mind was not focusing on his potions journal, it kept wanting to glance over at the empty perch and bag of falconry equipment. I don't know why I haven't returned those items to Hagrid by now. I have no use for them any more.

And yet, he found he could not bear to let them go. He knew several students in his House were worried something had happened to his hawk, and he had not been able to admit the truth, so he just kept silent. He did not want any gossip about Potter being his familiar, let them think the hawk was sick again, or had flown away.

Immediately, thoughts of Freedom conjured thoughts of a skinny messy haired teen, and he resolutely smothered them. Potter was no longer his responsibility. He was Minerva's. And yet, the green eyes haunted him, emerald pools of despair and longing.

It's done, Snape. Your friendship with the brat is over, not that you ever really had one with him, just the hawk you thought was your familiar.

But he admitted that he missed the sassy bird's comments and company. Missed them like one would a missing tooth.

Silently, he cursed Umbridge to the depths of hell and opened his journal again, re-reading the same page for the fourth time, trying to ignore the little voice that whispered perhaps it wasn't too late to form a bond with the boy. Ha! He will not forgive you for what you said in a temper. There is too much of his father and not enough of his mother in him.

Still, a very small corner of his heart hoped that were not the case . . .

* * * * * *

Monday, day 5:

By Monday, Harry nursed a raging headache, dozed through History of Magic first period, and managed to finish a Charms essay during his break. Then came potions, a double period, where Snape ignored him once more and Malfoy attempted to sabotage his work, only to discover that Harry had protected his workstation with a simple Repel Objects Charm, which was something he had learned from Severus in hawk shape.

Snape took points from Gryffindor anyhow, because Neville almost exploded another cauldron, and Harry found himself wishing the Potions Master would start sneering at him again, instead of looking around him like he wasn't in the room. Why do you care so much? demanded a part of his mind. You have Ron and Hermione as friends, who needs Snape?

That was true, on one level, but on another, he knew he could have used the professor's advice and help with his homework and that dry wit was refreshing and somehow he felt less alone when Severus was near, which was ridiculous considering the man hadn't said two words to him since Friday. I'm losing it, I really am. All this studying is turning my brain to mush, as Ron would say.

He was one of the first to leave once they were dismissed, and he walked away without looking up, massaging his temples with one hand. See, I don't need you, he thought defiantly. I don't need anyone. I'm doing fine on my own.

He was so focused on getting out of the dungeon and to his Defense class that he failed to note the pair of eyes that followed him, nor the slight spark of concern in their ebony depths.

Harry was not looking forward to class with the toad bitch, as he had taken to calling Umbridge in his mind. He just knew she would have something either boring or unpleasant up her sleeve, probably both. Nevertheless, he was determined to get through it and then have dinner and try and finish his Transfiguration essay.

"Get ready to go to sleep, mate," Ron nudged him and winked.

Harry managed a small smile back and nodded. He really could use the sleep, lately his rest had been disturbed by nightmares and so he began snatching brief naps here and there inbetween classes and study breaks. Perhaps that was why he felt so run down and depressed. He wished he dared fall asleep in the hag's class. But he knew better, that's what she would be waiting for, and then she would give him more detentions.

Some ten minutes later, he wished he had fallen asleep. Because Umbridge decided to take this class period to give a lecture on using forbidden magic. Harry listened, shell-shocked, as she proceeded to use him as an example, saying in a sickly saccharine tone, "Do not try and emulate Mr. Potter here, who as an Animagus, broke several rules and also injured himself badly when he attempted fly. As a hawk, Potter broke both his wings in his fall . . ." she tisked at him.

Harry wanted to die right there. He could see Malfoy exchanging glances with Goyle and Crabbe, it wouldn't be long before they put two and two together, and if they could do it, so could Hermione, unless she had already. Now everyone would know his secret and be talking about it, he thought, furious. How dare you? How dare you tell everyone? That was private, between Snape, McGonagall, and me!

He got a sick feeling in his stomach as Umbridge continued. "Luckily for Mr. Potter, he managed to get himself rescued . . ." she paused and licked her lips.

Harry shut his eyes. No, no. Don't say it. Please.

"By Professor Snape, who nursed him back to health, thinking he was just an animal."

There were gasps then and several of the Slytherins began to mutter, "His familiar . . .the hawk . . .it was him . . .all this time . . .it was Potter!"

Harry risked a look at Ron who was sitting there gaping, shock and horror and sympathy plain upon his face. Oh, snap out of it, Ron! Bloody damn hell! He's gonna kill me. He'll never trust me again. He glared hotly at Umbridge. Miserable hag, why did you have to tell everyone? Why? Now I'm so dead. I hate you. I really really HATE you.

"So, as you can see, using magic on the sly can be costly, so do not do so. Now, turn to chapter ten in your books and read it."

Harry was numb. He opened his book and stared at it. Behind him, his classmates continued to whisper. He wanted to find a hole and crawl into it. Severus was going to be furious, and rightly so. He pulled out a piece of parchment and uncapped his ink well. Perhaps he could write to Severus, explaining what had really happened, and hope the other would understand.

Dear Professor Snape,

I'm writing this to explain something and ask that you read this through first before throwing it into the fireplace. . . .

That was as far as he got before Umbridge ordered him to quit writing and read the assigned chapter.

He bit his lip until it bled in order to keep the nasty comments behind his teeth, shoved the incomplete letter back in his bag and zoned out over the chapter. It wasn't as if the book contained anything useful about Defense, it was all theory, and so dry it was a miracle it hadn't crumbled to dust by now.

At last Defense was over though, and he managed to get as far Gryffindor Tower before Hermione and Ron pounced on him.

"Harry, why didn't you tell us you were Professor Snape's familiar?" asked Hermione, her eyes alight with a million questions.

Harry did not answer, just kept walking. He was trying to compose the rest of the letter in his head, trying to explain logically what had happened so Severus wouldn't dismiss it out of hand. Harry knew he would assume that he had broken his trust yet again and gone blabbing to his friends, and he wanted Snape to know that Umbridge was responsible for letting the kneazle out of the bag.

"Yeah, mate, you could have told us how rotten it was getting stuck with Snape for a month and a half." Ron said. "Can't imagine what that was like . . .living with him, I mean. Did he keep you locked up all day?"

Harry spun on him, his eyes flashing. "Ron, just shut it. He saved my life, all right? Twice. And he treated me decently, he didn't hurt me or abuse me, if that's what you're going off about. Once my wings were healed, I could go where I wanted, or didn't you remember me flying all over?"

"Well, yeah, I think I do, only I wasn't paying attention all that much, 'cause I had class and stuff."

"Then you ought to know I wasn't kept locked up all day."

"Why didn't you change back?"

"One, I didn't remember I could transform back and two, I didn't know how to, and three, I liked being a hawk."

Hermione looked at him thoughtfully. "Why did you finally change back, Harry?"

"Because of Umbridge. She threatened to expel me," he answered, it was half-true.

"Bet that must have shocked Old Toady and the Greasy Git," laughed Ron.

Harry wanted to sock him one. "Lay off of Snape, Ron. It wasn't funny."

The redhead gave him an odd look. "How so? He must have looked like somebody hit him in the head with a Bludger-"

"I don't want to talk about it, okay?" Harry shouted. "You've lost a familiar, dammit, so you ought to know how it feels. Just leave me alone. I have tons of work to do."

He shoved past them, leaving Ron looking like a pop-eyed fish.

"Harry, aren't you going to eat dinner, at least?" called Hermione. "It's not good to skip meals."

"I'm not hungry," he answered, walking back towards the library. "I'll get something later from Dobby." He knew the little house elf would be happy to provide him with a snack anytime, no questions asked.

Right then he needed to be alone, to have time to write that letter and send it off with Hedwig before all hell broke loose. If Snape learned of the rumors before he read the letter . . .any chance of him ever convincing the stubborn professor that he valued his friendship would be destroyed. And he did value it, he realized suddenly. More than he ever thought possible.

I know him better than anyone. He needs me, and nobody ever has needed me before . . .not just me, that way. They all needed the Boy Who Lived or whatever. But Severus . . .all he wants is a friend. And I can do that, I want to do that. Bloody Umbridge! I wish she'd up and croak one night.

He made his way to the library, the halls were empty of students, they were all in the hall, eating dinner. He settled down and began to write at an empty table in the back. Ten minutes later, he was finished, and re-read it over for any spelling and punctuation mistakes. Finding it satisfactory, he addressed the envelope to Professor S. Snape and whistled for Hedwig.

"Give this to Severus, please," he told the snowy owl earnestly. "I know he's eating dinner, but he needs to have this."

Hedwig chuffed and nibbled his hair, then she took the letter in her beak and flew off with it.

Harry heaved a sigh of relief then turned to completing his current Transfiguration essay.

* * * * * *

Severus looked up from his plate of roast chicken and mashed potatoes to find a snowy owl hovering over his shoulder with a letter in her beak. "For me? Thank you." He fed her a bit of chicken as a reward, then took the letter and tucked it into a pocket of his robes. He would read it later.

He resumed eating, remembering the way a red-tailed hawk used to perch upon the back of his chair and eat tidbits from his hand. Only that had not been a true hawk, but a disobedient student in Animagus form, he thought bitterly. His familiar, like so much else in his life, had been a lie.

Almost unconsciously, he darted a look at the Gryffindor table, which was clearly visible from where he sat. He saw Weasley, Granger, Longbottom, and the rest, but no Potter. Where was the boy? Sleeping? Studying? Why was he not with his friends? After a month and a half, he should have been stuck to them like a Sticking Charm. But he wasn't.

A flicker of anxiety shot through him. He recalled Hagrid remarking upon Potter's strange behavior just before he had gone missing, how he had started spending large amounts of time alone and avoiding his friends. Could the pattern be repeating itself?

Even if it is, he's not your responsibility, Severus. Minerva's his Head, she ought to be watching him. He's not your familiar any more, remember? Snape ate another bite of chicken. But you are pledged to protect him. Deceitful brat though he is, you are bound to make sure he survives till adulthood.

He would inform Minerva of his . . .concerns, and let her deal with it. He finished dinner and then he had essays and homework to grade. He quite forgot about the unopened letter in his pocket until he reached his quarters and by then the rumors were all over the school and he could not help but overhear them.

By the time he had entered his private suite he was sizzling mad and ready to hex that . . .that bloody brat's tongue to the roof of his mouth. What was it about the boy that he had to brag to all and sundry about everything that happened to him? Why couldn't he just shut his mouth for once? Did he really crave fame that much, or recognition?

He strode over to his desk and pulled out the current day's homework and settled down to mark it with a vengeance.

Never trust a Potter. You know better. I wonder how long it will be before he speaks to a reporter from the Prophet and there's an article about his time with Professor Snape and an exclusive on the true story of the dungeon bat as well?

He pointed his wand at the perch and it splintered in two.

An instant later, he mended it with a flick of his wand.

The perch was Hagrid's he had no right to destroy another's property.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he rose and went to a small cabinet in the corner of the lounge and knelt and dug out a very tiny bottle of Ogden's Firewhiskey. He poured it into a glass and studied it for a moment. Did he really want to go that route?

A second later, he flicked his wrist and downed the shot. He rarely-almost never-drank, but he had seen his father do shots thousands of times and he just copied from memory.

The whiskey burned a path down to his stomach, warming him, though his heart remained frozen.

He slammed the glass down and swore. Bloody damn, Potter! Now you've driven me to drink.

He walked back over to the desk and looked down at the essays he had left. They disgusted him. He disgusted himself, moping like a damn teenager over a lost friendship. It wasn't like this was the first time he had ever lost a friend.

You're a fool, Sev. You know better than to let anyone get close to you. It's better when you don't care about anyone. Then you won't get hurt this way when they leave. And they always do. Always.

He picked up the bag of falconry equipment, and decided now was as a good a time as any to return it to Hagrid. Who was the only friend to ever remain loyal to him, he sighed.

He shrunk the perch and stuffed it into the satchel then strode out the door and down the secret way.

A cup of tea and a scone would settle his nerves, and doubtless Hagrid had already heard the rumors, and would be waiting for Severus to speak with him.






 







Chapter End Notes:






Next: Can Hagrid convince our stubborn Potions Master to see Harry in a different light? Will Severus read the letter? And will Harry collpase from overwork? Find out next chapter!



Chapter 21: Hagrid's Wisdom
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Hagrid had just finished making a pot of tea, he had figured he could use one after hearing what had been going on up at the castle that afternoon. He had gone to bring Filch the weekly bag of dried jerky treats for the Owlery, he made them specially from strips of deer and rabbit and game birds he hunted in the forest. The raptors loved them and it made Hagrid happy to feed them things they enjoyed. A well-fed owl was a happy owl and a happy owl delivered the mail promptly. So it was in the best interest of everyone if the owls were content.

He had told that much to Crabbe, Goyle, and Malfoy when they had served detentions with him, though he wasn't sure if Malfoy or Goyle had absorbed the lesson. Crabbe had, he saw the comprehension in the boy's eyes. He made a note to tell Severus that at least one of his Slytherins was learning his lesson. Perhaps it might do the boy good to continue lessons with him, he could use a helper, there were always many animals he needed to treat than he could keep up with.

But he was expecting Snape to show up any time now, given the rumors he had caught about losing his familiar, since said familiar turned out to be Harry Potter in Animagus form. Hagrid knew that would have been a great blow to Severus, who had bonded quite closely with the hawk. Aye, he'll be here sooner or later. But Hagrid could not help feeling a great relief that Harry was safe and not injured and back where he belonged. He expected Harry to show up soon also, he knew the boy loved his tea and scones, which the elves had baked for him just this afternoon.

But apparently, according to Hermione, Harry was busy studying, which Hagrid was happy to see, since for awhile there Harry had begun to take his father's cavalier attitude towards schoolwork, and Hagrid usually saw him out on the pitch more than in the castle. Perhaps Harry was beginning to develop new study habits, like his mother. Lily had always believed that work came before play, as had Severus, though she had been one of the few to convince Severus that it was all right to enjoy himself, that it didn't have to be all work. She was also one of the few people that could make Severus smile and laugh, Hagrid thought wistfully. He wondered if her son had inherited that talent as well?

Freedom had certainly made Severus smile on more than one occasion. Now though, he hoped that was still the case. Harry had a lot of love in him, and he just needed someone willing to show that love to. And Severus needed someone to show him that he was worthy of being loved, since he had developed a self-confidence problem due to his father's harsh and critical treatment. And that was something only Hagrid had ever realized, he'd learned that the week he had nursed Snape back to health when he was sixteen. Snape hid his vulnerability well though, with his sharp tongue and temper and the mask of the unfeeling Slytherin, but if you managed to look beyond it (not an easy thing), you would see once again the awkward sixteen-year-old, wanting friendship, yet not knowing how to ask for it or how to mend it when it went wrong.

The knock on the door came, and Hagrid rose to answer it. "Hullo, Severus. Care for some tea?"

Snape looked drawn, but he nodded and came into the other wizard's cottage. "I came to bring these back to you," he said, holding out the falconry equipment. "I assume you have heard that my . . .familiar is no longer with me?"

Hagrid fixed him with a rather sad look, taking the bag and setting it down in the corner near the hearth. "Yeah. I heard that Freedom was really Harry. That he's an Animagus."

Snape nodded, teeth clenched. "That's right. An unregistered Animagus, just like his bloody father!"

Hagrid coughed. "Well, not exactly. James was a stag."

Severus scowled. "You know what I mean. He deceived me."

"I know it's hard, Sev, losin' something y'care about. But mebbe all ain't lost, lad."

"What do you mean, Hagrid?" Snape asked sharply, accepting the cup of tea the man handed him and stirring in milk and two sugar lumps. "Freedom is gone, he'll never be back. In fact, he never existed in the first place. There was only Potter, James's son, in hawk shape."

"Severus, listen to what you're saying. Harry's Lily's son too, remember?"

"How could I forget? He has her eyes."

"He's got more'n that, to my way o' thinking. He's quiet and he looks after those that need looking after."

"Ah, yes, Saint Potter!" sneered the Potions Master. "Hallowed by thy name. He betrayed and deceived me and you give him every excuse in the book."

"Severus Snape!" Hagrid said sternly. "Will you listen to yourself? You sound like one o'your students, not a grown professor! Now hush that tongue of yours, lad, an' listen to me for once." He fastened a look of extreme disapproval upon the other man.

Severus winced. He had not heard that tone from Hagrid in over fifteen years, and it still had the power to make him feel ashamed like a first year. "I . . .am sorry, Hagrid. It's not you I'm angry at." His apology was awkward, for he was not accustomed to apologizing much. In fact, there had only been three people he had ever apologized to in his life-his mother, Lily, and Hagrid. For they were the only ones that he truly respected.

"Aye, I know. Yer angry at yourself, for lettin' somebody get too close again. An' you're angry at Harry, for not bein' what you thought him. Righ'?"

"Yes. Freedom was . . .he was a good companion. I never expected . . .when he transformed in front of me and the bitch in the office . . .I could not comprehend it, not at first . . .and then to find out that brat had been tricking us all along . . ." Severus trembled. "How would you expect me to feel, Hagrid? He played me for a fool!"

"I know that's how you saw it at first, Severus. An' that might o' been right, if it had been James 'stead o'Harry. But you're forgetting, Sev, that Harry's not his dad."

"Of course I'm not!"

"Y'are, lad, b'cause you keep thinkin' Harry behaves like he does b'cause he's James's son. Only he never knew his father, so how he behaves isn't like James, it's for his own reasons. D'you see what I'm saying?"

Severus was quiet for a moment, thinking over what Hagrid had said.

His mentor was clever, he knew the best way for Severus to acknowledge the truth was to present it calmly and let him draw his own conclusions. Severus did not like to be forced into opinions and he only became more stubborn if you tried to force your views down his throat. That was how Dumbledore handled Severus in the past, and it was why Severus was reluctant to trust the man and always viewed his dictates with suspicion.

"You're saying I'm projecting James's motives and attitude onto his son."

Hagrid nodded. "Yup. Exactly. Lemme ask you something. When you were in that office an' Umbridge was gonna have the Aurors arrest ya, what did Freedom do?"

Severus thought. "He . . .he flew at them. He defended me. He even . . .threatened Umbridge." He could still hear the hawk's angry screech in his head. Nobody hurts my wizard! And he could not say that Potter had not known what he was about, because even when he became a boy again, he had still defied the evil witch.

"Aye. Now that's something Harry would do. He'd always protect a friend. Like his mum."

"Until she decided the friend was no longer worthy of protection," Severus said darkly.

The big man sighed. "Ah, Severus. Lily was in a temper when she said those things to you. I doubt she meant half of 'em. Jus' like you didn't mean t' call her that filthy name. The both of you were hotheaded young fools back then, lettin' yer pride an' tempers talk for you."

"Yes." Severus admitted quietly. And I fear I have repeated the same mistake again. Once more, my temper has ruled me. Am I doomed forever to repeat the mistakes of the past?

"Why did Harry change back?"

"Why? Because . . .it would have meant expulsion."

"But that's not the only reason, is it? What did he say when he changed?" Hagrid prodded. Come on, Severus, quit being so bloody stubborn, b'fore I cuff you upside the head.

Severus thought back to that night. When Freedom had transformed, he had pointed his wand at Umbridge and said, "Don't touch him, toad bitch! You want to know where Harry Potter is? Well, here I am, and if you want to hurt Severus, you'll have to go through me." "He . . .did it for me. Umbridge tried to arrest me on trumped up charges and Freedom . . .came back for me."

"Now, does that sound like a person who doesn't care for you? Who wants to make a fool of you?"

"No . . .but . . .he knows everything, Hagrid. About my past . . .the Dark Lord . . . Lily . . .one word and he could destroy all I have worked for . . ."

"So do I, Severus. And why aren't you afraid of me?" Hagrid inquired gently.

Severus stared at him. "You saved my life. Twice. If not for you, I'd be dead at sixteen."

"An' you saved him too. Twice. An' he saved you. The bond was formed then, Severus. I think you ought to give it a chance." He laid a hand atop the long-fingered one. "Not all of us leave, y'know."

Severus said nothing, but his eyes bored into the other man's, wary and fearful and hurting, like the sixteen-year-old he had once been. Dare I trust? Is he right? Is Potter . . .Harry more than his father . . .?

"I don't know. I think . . .it may be too late. We quarreled . . .I said things I shoudn't have . . ."

Hagrid raised his eyebrow. "Well, lad, then you know what you can do t'unsay them. Four words will fix it."

But Snape was shaking his head. "Not this."

"That's what y'said when you told me about the fight you had with Lily. And when y'came back from the Death Eaters. You said you were beyond forgiveness, remember. But you were wrong. There ain't nothin' so bad that can't be forgiven, as long as you're willing to ask for forgiveness and accept it. I know Harry, Severus. He needs you as much as you need him. And if you talk with him, like you're doin' with me, he'll be quite willing to forgive you. He's not like Sirius or James, he doesn't hold grudges."

"He told everyone that he was my familiar." Severus argued, still fearful. "Now everyone knows, dammit."

"So? Is that so bad, Severus? That the students know you can help a wounded hawk back to health?"

"It's bad for my cover. If His Darkness ever learned my familiar was Harry Potter . . ."

Hagrid shivered. "Could you not tell him you didn't know? That you transformed him back on a suspicion? I mean, nobody knows why he transformed except you and Harry and Umbridge."

"Yes, I suppose so. He might believe that . . .and at least Potter has been found. But it would have been better if the boy had kept his mouth shut about it . . ." grumbled the Potions Master.

He reached for a scone and his arm hit the pitcher of milk, knocking it over.

Milk splashed across the table.

"Damn!" Severus swore, and reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. "I can't believe I was that clumsy . . ."

"Sev, accidents happen," Hagrid soothed, rising to get a cloth.

Severus's hand encountered the letter he had tucked in his pocket instead of the handkerchief he had been expecting. Huh? What's this? He drew it out. There was no return address, simply his name. He muttered a few charms to detect unsavory curses and such and found the envelope was clean.

Hagrid mopped up the spilled milk while Severus opened the envelope.

Inside was a single sheet of parchment.

Severus unfolded it and read the following:

Dear Professor Snape,

I'm writing this to explain something and ask that you read this through first before throwing it into the fireplace. I know you think I'll tell everyone your secrets, but I swear to you upon my wizard's oath and my mother's grave I will NEVER betray you. I can keep a secret, I've been keeping them my whole life. The first one was to never let anyone know I'm a magical freak . . .but anyway, I'm writing this to tell you that it wasn't me who told everyone that I got hurt and was your familiar.

I was in Defense and Umbridge decided to use me as an object lesson on how not to use magic. SHE told the class how I became an illegal Animagus and injured myself and how you found me and took care of me and made me your familiar. I never would have told them-NEVER! Ron and Hermione never knew until that afternoon.

I wanted to hex her so bad, Professor, for taking something private and just blabbing it all over the school like that. I think she did it on purpose. It makes me want to tell everyone how she's deathly afraid of birds. But I won't sink to her level.

Please, sir, you must believe me. I know I said some things last time that were out of line and I apologize. I just want you to know the truth, is all.

Sincerely,

Harry Potter

Severus read it through twice, scrutinizing it for anything that sounded off or untrue. He found nothing. The letter's simple style and language were that of a fifteen-year-old boy. A fifteen-year-old boy with nothing to hide, who was obviously frightened he would not be believed, and who, for some unknown reason, seemed to seek out the Potion Master's approval. Who had also been the victim of a nasty vicious witch.

He set the letter down and muttered several swear words.

Hagrid looked at him quizzically.

"It's from Potter," Severus told him shortly. "He says he never told anyone about him being my familiar. It was Umbridge." The black eyes burned with an almost volcanic intensity.

"Ah. As I thought. Y'see it's her you have to watch out for. You and Harry both. I don't trust her as far as I can hex her, an' I'm not allowed to use my wand anymore."

"I trust her even less than that, old friend."

"Then you'll be willing to give Harry a second chance then?" he prodded.

Severus was quiet for several long minutes. Then he said, "I will think about it. I . . .may have misjudged him."

Hagrid recognized what a great concession it was to the proud man to admit that, and did not push for more. He had gained a small victory today. It was enough for now. "You do that, Severus. Watch the boy an' maybe you'll see something you've missed before."

"I will try." He took a scone from the plate and ate it.

Hagrid poured them a second cup of tea and told Snape about the rest of his day, tending the animals and how he thought Crabbe would make a good assistant.

That raised Snape's eyebrows. He had never thought it would be Crabbe who would absorb the most out of Hagrid's teachings. "If you think he would benefit from extra lessons, Hagrid, by all means you may have him. By learning what you do, he may learn as well to turn away from darkness."

Hagrid beamed. "Good. Another scone, Professor?"

Snape waved away the offer. "No. If I eat too many, I won't be able to maintain my image. No one will be frightened if I waddle about the dungeons." He smirked. "And now, I really must get back to my tests." He rose to his feet, pocketing the letter. "Thank you. You are wise, Hagrid, wiser than even Albus."

The half-giant blushed. "Ah, Severus. All o' my wisdom comes from learning from my mistakes. Don' be afraid to admit when you're wrong. Even if it's only to yourself and one other person. If you live as long as I have, you can be wise too."

The Potions Master gave his mentor a crooked half-smile. "I doubt that. My temper will be my bane till I die, I fear."

"But at least you know how to wrestle it, Severus." Hagrid remarked sagely. "Y' might want to give Harry some pointers."

The Potions Master snorted. As if he would take pointers from me. But perhaps you are right. After all, who better to give lessons on control then one who has battled the demon nearly every day of his life? "I shall see you soon, Hagrid."

Then he turned and headed back towards the castle, his long strides covering the ground. He had much to think about.

* * * * * *

Tuesday, day 6:

Harry awoke that morning feeling drained and exhausted. He knew part of it had to do with the fact that he wasn't sleeping enough at night. He was down in the common room studying his arse off. Ron had suggested a game of wizard chess again, but Harry had refused, making the redhead glower and snarl, "Merlin, Harry, but you're turning into Hermione's male clone. Next thing you know, you're going to start getting to class early."

Harry set down his quill then and gave the other a level stare, one reminiscent of their potions professor, had he but known. "Ron, will you please shut up? Do you think I want to be studying like this? It's not exactly how I want to spend my free time or my holiday, but what other choice do I have? If I don't complete everything, Umbridge won't hesitate to snap my wand. So . . .that means I work my arse off. Got me? Now, why don't you go and play chess with the twins. I need to finish this blasted potions essay."

He returned to writing down the differences between starmist pods and fae beans, it wasn't that the essay was difficult, but Snape wanted two feet of parchment on it and that meant he had to search for more differences than he recalled from class. He rubbed his eyes, and drank the glass of pumpkin juice near his elbow. He hadn't gone to sleep until somewhere around two in the morning, and then had dreamed again of Cedric dying.

He rubbed his wrist where the cuff was, it was tender and a bit swollen, he didn't know what to do about it, and continued putting small amounts of murtlap on it when he could. But the rash always came back and each time it did, it was worse. He detested the cuff, but so far Umbridge had not mentioned removing it.

He rubbed his eyes and forced himself out of bed, he was muzzy and bleary and wanted to just sleep for a year. He glanced over at his satchel and scowled bleakly. He had been working nonstop on it for nearly a week and it looked as if he hadn't made a dent it. It wasn't fair! Hermione had been right, it was going to be almost impossible to get everything done, there weren't enough hours in a day indeed. Maybe if he just quit sleeping? He knew there was a potion to make you stay awake all night-a Stimulant Draft. Perhaps Hermione could brew it with him? Or for him?

He rubbed his eyes again. When he opened them, a strange owl was perched upon his bed, a small envelope clutched in his beak.

Harry took it. "Thanks!" he summoned a treat and fed the owl, who nuzzled him and then flew off.

Harry eagerly opened the letter, knowing immediately who it was from.

Sirius.

Harry,

I'm so very glad that you are all right. I can't tell you how much. When I heard you were missing, I nearly went crazy, especially since that old coot Dumbledore refused to let me search any longer for you after the first few days. Honestly, he expected me to just sit here and do nothing! I damn near went spare, I'll tell you. I hate being cooped up. Reminds me of Azkaban.

So, you're an Animagus, are you, kid? That's great! Congratulations! You're a chip off the old block, just like James. You've got his talent for Transfiguration all right! Not to mention his talent on a broom and his good looks too. Lucky you! He'd have been proud of you, Harry.

I must say I was surprised that Snape actually took care of you while you were in hawk form. Somehow Snivellus doesn't strike me as the type to care for animals. More likely to use them for potions ingredients. But I'm glad he finally did something good, for once.

About that incident back in fifth year with Snape and your dad and I . . .well, we were fifteen and stupid. What else can I say? Snivellus was always starting with us, the greasy slimeball. And your dad was showing off for Lily, I think. Besides, it wasn't like we hurt the little creep. And believe me, we wanted to after what he called your mum.

James did manage to deflate his head a bit by seventh year, that was mostly due to your mum. She gave him an ultimatum-no more hexing and pranking or else she'd walk away and leave him flat. She was a dragon, your mum. We all knew better than to get on her bad side. She was quick to cast a spell and quick to shred you with her tongue. Never could figure what she saw in Snape, though. Ah, well. We all make mistakes.

Be careful, Harry. That new Headmistress sounds like a real wicked piece of work. I wish I could talk to you face to face. Any chance of getting to a fireplace and Flooing me? If you can, do it. But if not, don't worry. Just owl me. I'm here anytime you need to talk, okay?

Keep cool and don't sweat your OWLS.

Love,

Snuffles

Sirius's letter cheered him somewhat. But what he had said regarding Snape didn't sit well with him at all. What kind of reason was we were fifteen and stupid? Harry scowled. I'm fifteen and I'd never do that to anyone-not even Malfoy, the snot. But then, that's cause I've been on the receiving end of bullying from Dudley, Piers, and their lot. It's a bit different when you've been beaten up every day.

He chewed his lower lip. From what Remus and Sirius had told him, they had spent half their free time pranking people and hexing Severus for fun. And some of their pranks had not been very funny, unlike Fred and George, who made it a point to target everyone with their silly jokes, and their effects never lasted more than an hour or two. There was a difference between harmless magical jokes and those the Marauders had used on Severus. A big difference and it disturbed Harry that Sirius did not acknowledge that what he had done was wrong.

Maybe he hadn't known better as a kid, but he was an adult now, and surely he must know the difference? It was strange, but Harry had not had any kind of decent role model growing up, all he'd had was Dudley, and an empathy for others, and yet he had never wanted to become like his cousin, or Vernon, at all. Instead, he had become just the opposite.

Harry wondered what Dudley would have been like if he had been picked on the way Harry was? Would it have changed him for the better? And how about James and Sirius? If they had known a fraction of what they had put Snape through, would Sirius be so quick to laugh off that incident during fifth year? Or the Shrieking Shack? Somehow Harry doubted it.

He felt a sudden flash of resentment towards his cousin and his father and godfather. They had had privileged childhoods, for the most part. They had never known what it was to go cold and hungry and do chores endlessly and never have anyone hug you or say they were proud of you. They had never worn hand-me-downs and been labeled a freak. They had normal childhoods, and yet they had wasted them by being bullies.

I was never really a kid. Never allowed to be one. Sev and I, we have that in common too. How he must have resented my dad and Sirius for that. I can understand, because sometimes I really hated Dudley for getting everything for nothing and I never got anything, no matter how much I tried to do what Aunt and Uncle wanted. It really sucked.

The fifteen-year-old shook his head, there was little profit in remembering those days. He quickly fed the letter to the flames in the common room fireplace, no way would he repeat Hermione's mistake. She had confessed to him last night that she had dropped the letter from Sirius which had started Umbridge's rampage against Snape and led to Harry revealing himself. She had been quite remorseful and cried that she hadn't meant for Professor Snape to be accused by the hag or get arrested and never meant for Harry to get hurt either, even though he hadn't been, really. Harry had hugged her and said he forgave her, that it had just been a stupid mistake, and God knew he'd made plenty of his own.

He brushed off his hands and then made his way out of the common room and down to the hall for breakfast. For once, he was up first out of his Housemates. Today he had double Charms, Care of Magical Creatures, and double Transfiguration. He just hoped he could last the whole day without snoozing, though neither of those classes was boring in the slightest.

But he was so tired. He felt as if he had not slept in months, and lately when he had tried to summon his magic to cast spells it had felt . . .sluggish and slow to respond. He looked at the cuff on his wrist and wondered if perhaps that was why. Umbridge had assured him it only bound his ability to shift, but what if she were wrong? What if the cuff affected his magic in other ways?

He yawned, and wished the students were allowed a good steaming cup of coffee. That would wake him up, all right.

I hope Severus read my letter. Otherwise it'll be hell having potions on Thursday. If I manage to make it through today and tomorrow without passing out.

The rest of his House soon arrived at breakfast, and though Harry had been hungry at first, one bite of his pancake and he was suddenly revolted. He pushed his plate away after only a few bites. Nothing tasted good any more. Everything either tasted bland or like sawdust. Was it like that for all Animagi? He'd never seen McGonagall lose her appetite. Maybe it was just him.

Up at the staff table, Severus was watching Potter without really seeming to, and what he noticed disturbed him profoundly. The boy looked like he was on his last nerve, wan and drawn and he was barely eating anything. Doubtless the pressure was getting to him. He shot a look at Minerva. Could she not suggest that Potter be allowed half periods for awhile, until he finished his make-up work?

If Potter were in Slytherin, Severus would have been dosing him with a Nutrient Potion and a Stress Reliever, among other things. He would mention that to her and hopefully she would insist Potter take them. And get a decent amount of sleep.

I need to speak with the boy as well, but my schedule is booked the next two days. Thursday evening I'm free and so is Potter. I shall endeavor to find him and talk then. I just hope Hagrid is right and it won't make things worse.

He then turned to Minerva and said, in an undertone, "Minerva, have you noticed that Potter is looking a bit peaked? Listless, tired? Perhaps you need to give him a dose or two of a Nutrient Potion and a Stress Reliever?"

Minerva looked startled, for rarely did Snape suggest remedies for students outside of his own House. "Yes, I think that would be a good idea. Thank you, Severus. Mr. Potter has been burning the candle at both ends, I'd say."

"No doubt. I will send them to you with Twixie."

* * * * * *

That evening, McGonagall called Harry to her office and gave him the two potions, asking him if he felt all right.

"I'm fine, Professor," Harry lied glibly. Well, it was not quite a lie, he did feel better after he'd taken the potions. "Just a bit stressed, but I'm managing."

She eyed him thoughtfully. "Are you sure, Potter?"

"Yes, ma'am." He thanked Merlin Snape were not questioning him, the man would have seen through his flimsy façade in an instant. But McGonagall was no Snape and she trusted Harry to tell her when something was wrong, like most teenagers would have. She didn't realize that Harry was not most teenagers and had been trained to suppress any feelings of pain or illness as a small child, so he wouldn't be a burden upon the adults.

"Very well, but mind you eat a good breakfast and dinner tomorrow, am I clear? You need food in order to have energy to cast spells. And mind you go to bed at a decent hour, young man. No later than eleven."

"Yes, professor." He would go to bed at eleven, but wake up an hour later and study, he decided.

"Good night then."

"Good night," he waved at her before going out the door.

* * * * * * *

"B-but Harry, taking a Stimulating Draft is dangerous," Hermione argued when he cornered her after she had completed her homework in the common room. "It can be addicting, and even I've never taken one."

"I know, but I really need this. I have to get most of this make up work done. Can you make it, Hermione?"

"Yes, of course, but Harry . . .I really don't think it's a good idea. Maybe I could lend you my notes?"

Harry shook his head. "No, I don't want to copy off of you. How long will it take to make the draft?"

"A few hours. I could do it tomorrow, dungeon number three probably won't have anyone in it, and Professor Snape doesn't have class till the afternoon."

"Right. Will you brew it for me then?"

Reluctantly, the brown-haired witch agreed. "But I'm only making you one vial, Harry, and you have to promise me, to follow the dosage carefully."

"I promise." He gave her a sweet smile. "Thanks, Hermione. You've just saved my life."

She sighed. "Somehow I doubt that. Let me go and look up the formula."

Ron looked up from his homework as the little witch got up and left the room. "Where's she going? To get another book out of the library?"

"No. To do some research," Harry answered. "Want to quiz me on Divination, Ron?"

"Sure. You know Divination's gotten a whole lot easier to uh, comprehend since Firenze started teaching," Ron remarked, taking the sample quiz from his friend.

"Tell me about it. And have you noticed, Umbridge doesn't do those annoying surprise inspections any more?"

"Yeah, and I know why. Because she's afraid of centaurs. They're half-human and she's messed up in the head over them." Ron lowered his voice even further. "The twins said they're planning something big to drive her insane, maybe for good. It has something to do with a portable swamp. And lots of Zonkos fireworks."

Harry grinned. "Sounds cool. Maybe they could add in stuff with wings, because Umbridge's other weakness is . . .birds. She can't stand 'em."

Ron's nose twitched. "I'll tell my brothers. Thanks for the tip." Then he turned back to the paper in his hand. "All right, what are three heavenly signs that portend great change or upheaval?"

"Uh . . .a comet seen in the night sky, a red sky at night, and . . .err . . ."

* * * * * *

Wednesday, day 7:

Harry was returning from Herbology when he glanced up from tying his trainer to find himself surrounded by three angry-looking Slytherins. His hand slipped uneasily to the pocket of his robes, where he had his wand, but he didn't draw it yet.

"Potter, what's the big idea, tricking our Head by being his familiar like that?" demanded a tall girl angrily. "Did you think it was funny?"

Harry shook his head. "No, it wasn't intentional. I lost my memory while I was a hawk-"

"A likely story," snorted another, this one topped Harry by a foot, though he thought the boy was a year younger than he was. "Seems more like typical Gryffindor mischief to me. And we don't like it when you screw with our Head of House, Potter."

"It's bad form," added the third one, another boy, slightly smaller than the first. He had his wand out. "Maybe we ought to teach you what happens when somebody messes with our professor like that."

"Look, I don't want to fight," Harry began, knowing that if Umbridge ever found out he'd been involved in a duel or anything resembling one, she would expel him. "What happened wasn't a prank, just bad luck."

"Oh? Now you think it's bad luck to get rescued by Professor Snape?" demanded the girl hotly. "Seems like he fixed you up pretty well by my lights."

"No, that's not what I meant. I'm grateful to him for saving me-"

Just then he heard a familiar voice say, "Hey, Cummings. What are you up to?"

It was Vincent Crabbe.

The larger boy turned around. "Teaching Potter here a lesson, Vince. Why? You wanna help?"

Harry's heart sank. If Crabbe joined them he was finished. If only he could become Freedom.

"No. Let him go. You heard the professor last night." Crabbe ordered. "Potter wasn't to be touched."

Harry almost fell over. Snape had issued orders to his House to leave him alone?

Cummings squirmed. "I know, Vince, but . . ."

Crabbe glowered at the other boy. "Nathan, you know the rules. If Snape says leave him be, you'd better do it. Unless you want him on your arse, mate?"

"No. Merlin save me." He turned back to Harry. "Fine. You walk for now, Potter. Snape's orders."

They stepped back and allowed Harry to continue walking up the path, stunned by that piece of information. Guess he must have read the letter or something. A faint smile tugged on his lips. If Snape was willing to protect him from Slytherins than perhaps he was starting to believe that Harry was telling the truth, and he would never betray him.

* * * * * *

When he got back to Gryffindor Tower, he found a small vial of an electric blue potion upon his pillow, with a written list of instructions. He stuck the vial and the note in his trunk, he would take the first dose after dinner, and hopefully it would give him some energy.

Hell, I've got detention with Mrs. Toad Face this evening. Brilliant!

He joined his friends in the hall and forced himself to eat dinner, though he still barely had an appetite. He could feel eyes on him from the staff table and assumed McGonagall was watching to make sure he ate like she had told him to. Had he turned around, however, he would have seen that the eyes watching belonged to Severus.

* * * * * *

He had decided to forgo using the Stimulant Draft until after his detention, fearful that Umbridge might notice, and it was a good thing too, since tonight's detention was writing lines. She handed him a sheet upon which the following sentence was written: An Animagus has the soul of a beast, I must learn to control it, lest I become one.

"Two hundred and fifty times, Mr. Potter." Umbridge declared sweetly. "You may begin."

He picked up his quill, scowled down at the parchment, and began to write. It was a bunch of bull, that sentence, yet he knew that was what Umbridge believed, and in her tiny little mind, she was trying to re-educate him into believing what she did. Not that it would work. He knew who and what he was, and he was no beast.

An hour-and-a-half later he was finished. He turned in his paper to her and then left. He practically ran up to Gryffindor Tower on winged feet. Then he went directly to his room and removed the vial of potion. He read the instructions, no more than two swallows in a twenty-four hour period.

He carefully unstoppered the vial and took one swallow.

The potion went down his throat like a rush of spring air.

The minute it hit his stomach he felt a sudden jolt as if all his muscles and tendons had become supercharged. All the queer tiredness and exhaustion vanished, he felt alert and ready for anything. Energy coursed through him, he felt as if he could run a hundred miles without stopping, he practically vibrated in place.

Merlin, but this feels incredible! I can do all my homework and not even get tired, I think. What a wonderful potion! Why didn't I think of this sooner?

He ran and got his satchel and took out his books, only to discover that his newfound rush of energy would not let him sit still for long. So he read while walking about his room until the urge to dart off into the night had passed. Then he settled on his bed and began completing the day's assignments. He always did those first before tackling the make up work.

Before he knew it, three hours had passed, Seamus and Dean and Neville were coming upstairs to get into pajamas and go to bed.

"Studying hard, Harry?" asked Neville.

"He's becoming Hermione's double," teased Seamus.

Harry just nodded, he was not tired at all with the elixir coursing through his veins.

He took his books and parchment and retreated to the common room to finish his work.

Hermione was there and she darted him a concerned glance. "Harry, did you do what I said when you took the potion?"

"Yes, and it worked great. I feel incredible."

"Oh. That's good, I guess. Just don't overdo it, okay?"

He nodded absently, then sat down and began writing frantically, his hands moving rapidly across the parchment.

* * * * * *

Thursday, day 8:

He was still writing and reading when the others had gone to sleep. He remained awake all night and when dawn broke, still felt refreshed and energized. He decided to put away his books, he had made a sizable dent in the make up work this time, and go for a walk. He was twitchy, he needed to move about.

He dressed in a new uniform and raced outside. He spent an hour before breakfast walking and ridding himself of some of the excess energy, and even then he was not tired. Colors seemed brighter, images sharper, even the air he breathed was purer. He almost felt the way he did as a hawk.

At breakfast, which he practically inhaled, Hermione kept stealing worried glances at him. "Harry, are you feeling all right?"

"Never better. Why?"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Quit worrying."

They had double potions that day, and Harry didn't even care if Snape ignored him again. He was filled with a glorious rushing energy and he practically skipped about his cauldron. Ron just stared at him. "Harry, are you okay?"

"Fine. I feel great. Why?"

"Because you seem so . . .I dunno . . .happy and jumpy . . .and it's potions, mate."

"I know. I feel great." He took his small knife and dragged Ron's pile of acacia roots over. "Let me chop these for you. I need to do something."

The roots were chopped speedily and then they had to wait for the solution to steep. That was hard, since Harry could feel the energy coiled restlessly in him and he couldn't stand still, he wanted to move. His hand tapped out an uneven rhythm on his thigh and his toe tapped against the floor, but it was partially hidden by his cauldron.

Snape swept about the room, examining each pair's cauldron. When he got to Ron and Harry's cauldron, he glanced once at the solution, muttered, "Adequate for once," then he stared at Harry. "Potter, is there a reason you cannot stand still for a minute but have to gyrate?"

"Hmm? What, sir?" Harry responded. "Oh no, sir. I'm just a little twitchy today."

Severus frowned sharply. "Well, control yourself."

"Yes, sir."

Severus billowed away, thinking hard. What is wrong with the boy? He's twitching like he's been drinking a Stimulant Elixir. He knew the signs since he had occasionally taken one himself in the course of his spying duties, when he needed to be alert for a whole night and still teach the next day. If that foolish child has taken one of them, I shall shake him to pieces. Does he not know the dangers of that potion? It makes you feel wonderful for a good twenty-four hours, but after that it wears off and you crash hard. That was one reason he never introduced that potion until sixth year or even seventh, though the draft was not that difficult to make. It was too seductive to use, and the withdrawal from it made one depressed and melancholy for a day, and also lethargic.

The Potions Master kept an eagle eye upon Potter the whole lesson, noting more telltale signs. The boy kept shuffling his feet unconsciously and his left hand twitched every so often. His eyes were also unnaturally bright and his breath rapid.

Severus's mouth tightened. He was on the beginnings of coming off the energized trip the potion gave you. He'll need a counteractive if I'm to have any kind of meaningful discussion with him. I'll prepare one just before I have him come to my office.

Severus checked everyone's potion one last time before telling the class they had less than ten minutes to finish up and bottle their solutions.

Harry was almost sorry to do so, but he carefully poured the potion into the vial and Ron labeled it. Before Ron could bring it up to Snape's desk, Harry grabbed it. "I'll do that. I don't mind."

"Whatever," Ron said, still giving him a weird look. Then he beat a hasty retreat, Snape's class was not one he wanted to linger in.

When Harry dropped off his solution, Severus leaned over and said softly, "Mr. Potter, we need to discuss something. Be in my office after lunch, two o'clock sharp."

Harry blinked. "You mean you want to talk to me?"

"Did I not just say so?"

"Uh . . .yeah, you did. Two o'clock. I'll be there, sir. Bye!" he practically sprinted out the door.

Snape rolled his eyes. Potter, after our discussion, I am confiscating that bloody potion. It affects you worse than it does me. Damn Minerva for not going over the dangers of using that particular draft! Potter probably used it to help him study and do homework.

That was what most students used it for . . .in the beginning. Before they began using it for everything and became addicted to it.

* * * * * *

Harry nibbled at his sandwich at lunch, his appetite was starting to wane again, but he didn't care. He needed to take another walk, he was still antsy. He invited Hermione and Ron along, but Hermione had Arithmancy reading and Ron said he was going to take a nap.

Harry just shrugged and raced out of the hall and through the double doors. He took off at a dead sprint and soon reached the edge of the grounds behind Hagrid's hut. Taking a careful glance around, he vanished into the trees, heading towards the secret glade that he used to frequent as a hawk with Severus, and once or twice before then too.

By the time he reached it, most of the potion had worn off and he was no longer filled with boundless energy. He felt pleasantly tired.

He slipped into the pretty glade and sat down upon the grass. He looked at his watch. Good, he had at least an hour before his appointment with Snape. Wonder what he wants? Did he read the letter and want to talk about it now? Or am I failing potions or something?

Suddenly, he felt extremely tired and his fear of failing potions intensified. If he didn't get at least an A in class he wouldn't be elegible for Auror training. Of course, that was assuming the Aurors would take him. He had heard they were very selective and only the most dedicated ever got to become one.

He put his head on his knees and fell asleep. But his dreams quickly morphed into nightmares. Once again he saw Cedric fall, heard Voldemort laugh, then the Dark Lord transformed into Umbridge, who dug into the back of his hand with a blood quill. Crimson drops spattered the ground . . .and he howled, but there was no one to hear, no one to care, they were all gone, dead or lost, he was alone . . .abandoned . . .

He woke with sweat streaming down his forehead. He glanced up and saw to his alarm that the sun was almost down. He glanced at his watch and saw it was after two. Oh damn! I've missed my appointment with Snape.

He thought about getting to his feet, but for some reason that was too much effort. He was too tired. All he wanted to do was sit here. Who cared if he missed Snape's little chat? Nothing really mattered anymore.

A wave of crushing despair and loneliness swamped him. He buried his face in his hands, tempted to weep, but that was a coward's way out. He was no coward, was he? He shook his head. Maybe he was, and that was why he was alone.

His sleeve had slid up and he looked at the silver manacle about his wrist, the mark of his shame, the mark of the beast-souled, and felt even more bitter and angry. He had allowed her to bind him like a beast. What then did that make him but a coward? A useless, good-for-nothing freak, as Uncle Vernon would say.

He shut his eyes, but there was no escape. The taunts echoed in his head. He was so damned tired! He didn't care about anything anymore. He had lost everything-his Animagus shape, his friendship with Severus, his parents . . .what was the point of going on? He would never finish his damn assignments and the toad bitch would snap his wand and he would be tossed from the school and that would be it. Then the Dark Lord would find him and kill him to fulfill a prophecy of lies.

He would die as he had lived . . .unloved.

The darkness and cold overwhelmed him then and he drowned in their depths.

* * * * * *

Severus glanced at the clock again and ground his back teeth together. Where was he? It was now ten minutes past two and Potter still had not shown up. Did he think he could waltz over any time he pleased? He had specifically told the boy to be on time. And he was late.

I shall give him five more minutes, then I will go and look for him. I will not tolerate him ignoring me, or disregarding my authority.

Severus turned back to marking essays. Five minutes went by. Still no Potter.

Snape shoved back his chair with a sharp scrape and stood. Just wait till he found the boy. He would make sure Potter knew what it meant to be on time. He stalked from his office and headed up to Gryffindor Tower.

He spoke the password, "Bright heart" and entered the portrait hole, scaring to death some first years who were playing Exploding Snape.

"Professor Snape!" they squeaked.

"Do any of you know where Harry Potter is? Or his friends, Weasley or Granger?"

It was a moment before one answered. "Weasley's sleeping, sir. And Hermione's in the library, studying. She lives there. But I don't know where Harry is."

"He never came back here after lunch?"

"No, sir. Not that I know of."

Severus breathed out of his nose sharply. Then he turned and stalked back out of the portrait hole.

"Uh oh. Harry's gonna get detention for sure," muttered a first-year behind him. "He looked mad enough to breathe fire."

"He always looks like that."

"No, this was worse."

The portrait hole shut and Snape lost whatever comments they might have made. But they were right. Severus was angry enough to give Potter detention now. Where had that blasted child run off to? He headed out of the castle, reasoning Harry might have gone down to Hagrid's and lost track of time.

But Potter was not at Hagrid's either.

"He's gone missing again?" Hagrid asked, alarmed.

"Yes. I asked him to meet me for that talk you suggested we have and he skived out of it!" Severus growled. "Of all the cheek!"

"Surely y'don't think he transformed again?"

"I would hope not. Umbridge has forbidden it and if she ever caught him . . ."

"Have you tried your glade, Severus?"

"No. But maybe I should. Thank you, Hagrid."

"Good luck then, Sev. And if you do find him, remember . . .don't let your temper talk for you."

"I shall." Severus answered, then he slipped from the cottage and into the Forbidden Forest.

Severus walked swiftly but silently through the forest, his boots making no sound over the trail. He had better be there, or else I'm going to throttle him. After what happened last time, he ought to bloody well know better than to wander off like this! Especially if he really is under the influence of a Stimulant Draft. When you come off of it, you're a bloody mess, and you need someone to talk you through it.

His person of choice had always been his mentor, whom he trusted implicitly. Or a counteragent to prevent you from going mad with despair.

He carefully parted the screen of foliage and peered over it. He drew in a sharp breath of relief. There was Potter, sitting there, looking like the world had ended.

Snape brushed aside the foliage and entered the glen. "I had thought I might find you here," was all he said, keeping his tone perfectly neutral.

Harry jerked about so fast he nearly fell over. "How did you find me?"

"Simple deduction. You were not in Gryffindor Tower or at Hagrid's. Therefore, you might be here." He walked forward a pace, doing his best to squash his temper down. The boy looked like hell, his eyes were burned holes in his head, pools of despair and hurt. Severus was unsure how much of that was the potion and how much Potter's actual mental state. It was probably a combination of both. "You missed your appointment with me."

The boy shrugged, apathetic. "So? What does it matter? Give me detention why don't you?"

"Is that why you think I am here?" Severus asked softly. He walked forward another pace, withdrawing the counteragent from his robes.

Harry glanced away and muttered to the ground, "Don't know and don't give a damn either. Leave me alone!"

"Leave you alone to do what? Drown yourself in guilt and self-recriminations?"

"Whatever. I felt fine before you told me to see you . . .sir. You ruin everything."

"You were not fine before, Potter." Severus interjected sternly. "You were under the influence of a Stimulant Draft, weren't you?"

Harry nodded.

"Now it has begun to wear off and this is the result. You feel depressed, exhausted, and hopeless. One of the nastier side effects of that potion. Here. I have brought you a counteragent. Drink it, it will help a little."

He held the vial out to the teen.

Harry ignored it, instead coming to his feet, and glaring angrily at his teacher. "What the hell game are you playing at, Snape? You don't give a damn about me. I'm just your student. Why should you care about me?"

Their eyes locked, and suddenly the tension in the glade intensified, as the angry young wizard faced his former rescuer, and his magic stirred in response to Snape's presence.


 



Chapter End Notes:


How did you like this chapter? The letters? Hagrid? Snape's reaction?

I know, you're all screaming about me ending it there, but I felt the big discussion deserved its own chapter.

So be kind and review this one and I might just be able to get the next one up by this evening, if you want.



Chapter 22: Through A Glass Darkly
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"Why should you care about me?"

Harry's question hung in the air, filled with anguish, bitterness, and a terrible longing.

His hair hung limply in his eyes, and those eyes pierced Severus to the core.

He gazed into them and saw, for the first time, not his rival James, nor even his beloved Lily, but himself . . .angry and hurting and terrified . . .himself at sixteen, lost and searching desperately for someone to help him, but not knowing how to ask. He looked into the young wizard's eyes and saw an injured soul reflected, through a glass darkly.

Snape took a deep breath. This was not what he had expected when he had gone to search for the boy. He had expected to find a rather depressed youngster as a result of the potion, not one who was drowning in despair and need, not one who reminded him so sharply of himself, hovering on the cusp of self-destruction. Nevertheless, this was what he had found and what he had to deal with.

Severus looked and saw a great canker of hurt upon the boy's soul, as well as anger and need. He made a swift decision, instinctively, and prayed it was the right one. The anger needed to be lanced first, before the hurt could be soothed, like a boil.

So he said, "That's not such an easy question to answer. Why don't you tell me first why you don't think I care about you?"

Harry stared at him, disbelief and anger etching his features, throwing them into sharp relief. "Because you don't! I tried . . .I tried to tell you that I wasn't my father before, but you still insisted I was like him. I never even knew him! And from what I did learn about him, he was a git at my age, and I am not like that! I would never hex people for the fun of it, never act like I was better than everyone, because I know I'm not. I've always known that."

The boy's breath hitched sharply, as if he were trying not to sob.

"How do you know that?"

"Because that's what I've been told my whole bloody life, Snape! By my cousin Dudley, by my Aunt Petunia, and by my uncle. You're a freak, Potter, now get away from Dudley before you contaminate him, they told me. You're a waste of space, Potter! You should have died with your parents. You're a worthless magic mistake! That's what I heard, all the time, ever since I can remember. I was nothing but a burden, put here to do chores and catch the kick in the ribs from Dudley. I was never the spoiled brat you thought me, never given everything I wanted like my father! Do you want to know where I lived for the first ten years of my life, Snape?"

"Where?"

"The cupboard . . .the cupboard under the stairs."

Snape was stunned. But he knew the boy was telling the truth. They had put Lily's son in a cupboard. He clenched his fists together. Those miserable awful Muggles! How dare they? "They put you in a cupboard?"

"That's right. They only let me out to do chores and stuff. Then it was back with the brooms and the mops, Potter! And if you're cheeky, no supper for two days! And no new clothes, Dudley's old ones are good enough for freaks like you! Didn't I have a wonderful life, Severus? It was the best, right?" Harry's voice was sharp with sarcasm. "I don't know why the hell I'm telling you this anyway. Like you give a damn! You're just like the rest of them! You see what you want, not the truth!" He glared angrily at the professor. "I don't know why my mother was ever friends with you!"

Severus felt his temper flare at that pointed comment, but it died as soon as he looked at the boy again. "I . . .deserved that. I haven't been a good friend to you since you . . .transformed back, have I?"

"No. You've been a royal git."

He turned away abruptly, his fists clenched, fighting to keep his emotions locked inside.

Severus knew that defense mechanism, however. He moved then, and closed the gap between them. "You're right. I allowed my temper to rule me. I saw your father, not you. For too many years, I have seen his specter, instead of the child you were. I . . .wish to make amends. I was wrong."

Harry shook with the force of his emotions. "Damn straight you were! Do you know . . .how much I looked forward to your class as a firstie, Professor? I thought it was the one class I could do well in, since I did well in primary chemistry and cooking in school. Everything else was like Greek to me, but potions . . .was the one thing I could succeed in. And then you came in and you . . .never even gave me a chance. I wanted to impress you and you made it impossible. I wanted to respect you, Goddamn it, and instead you made me despise you!"

"I know. I was abominable to you. Part of it was because of my own blindness, but part of it was also a façade, an attempt to maintain my cover as a spy. Even so, it does not excuse my actions. I should have explained this to you, but I have never been the kind to explain much to anyone."

"No kidding." Harry's breath came in harsh pants, his vision began to blur.

Snape caught him before he crumpled to the ground. "Blast it, Potter! You're hyperventilating." He gently eased the boy to a sitting position. Then he leaned the boy forward. "Head between your knees, Potter. That's it. Now, relax and take a breath. Come on, breathe." The professor knelt beside the youngster, one hand resting upon Harry's back, patting it awkwardly. "Breathe. In and out."

Harry managed to draw in a breath and some of the smothering darkness within him faded. He focused on Snape's voice, that familiar silky voice.

He gradually began to breathe normally.

"Good. Another one."

Harry obeyed, breathing in and out. The spots before his eyes receded. He drew in another breath . . .then he began to hiccup. Hard. The hiccups wracked his diaphragm and hurt.

Snape rubbed his back soothingly. "All right, don't tense up. You'll make it worse."

Hiccup!

"Can't . . .stop . . ."

Hiccup!

"Potter . . .Harry . . .listen to me. Take a deep breath and hold it for fifteen seconds. Ready?"

Harry hiccupped, then he tried to do as Severus instructed. He drew in a deep breath and held it, silently counting in his head while Severus counted aloud.

" . . .fourteen . . .fifteen. Breathe."

He let the breath out. Then he drew in another . . .and hiccupped again. "Damn it!"

"Stop. Take another breath and hold it."

Again, Harry obeyed.

That time when he let out his breath, the hiccups were gone.

He heaved a sigh of relief. Cautiously he sat up.

He eyed Severus warily. Now what?

The Potions Master held out the vial in his hand. "You need to drink this. It will help with the depression you're feeling."

Harry balked. His stomach was in knots. "No. I'll just sick up."

"Try."

"No."

"Try anyway." Severus ordered firmly. "You need this." He pulled the boy's head back until it was resting on his shoulder. "Now, head back, mouth open, and swallow." He held the vial to Harry's lips and managed to get the teen to take a swallow of the counteragent.

Harry sputtered. "Ugh! I think I'm gonna be sick."

"No, you will not. Breathe in and out."

Harry did, finding the potion seemed to soothe him.

"Again." Severus made him take another swallow and then another, until the vial was empty.

Harry grimaced, but had to admit whatever the potion was, it did make him feel better. Now he no longer felt as if he were drowning in despair and anguish, though his head throbbed and there was a raw ache deep within him. But the ache eased somewhat when he realized that Severus's hand was still on his shoulder. No, his head was on Severus's shoulder, he amended.

Flushing, he started to sit up, only to have Severus push his head back down.

"Be still. If you sit up too quickly, you'll make yourself dizzy, fledgling," said the potions professor softly. He had not meant to say that name aloud, but somehow it had slipped out of his mouth.

Fledgling. He called me fledgling, Harry thought, and found the old name made some of the darkness leave. Tentatively, his eyes met the older wizard's and he asked, "Did you mean it? What you said before? That you were sorry for how you treated me in class?"

"I did. I allowed an old grudge to dictate my actions and for that I apologize. I should not have held you responsible for things that happened before you were born. I hope someday you can forgive me. I understand now why you changed back . . .and for that I thank you."

Harry gave him a small smile. "Well, I couldn't just let the toad have you, now could I? I mean you saved me too."

"For the umpteenth time," said Snape, a soft growl in his tone.

"What can I say? I'm a trouble magnet." Harry said, spreading his hands out.

"You most certainly are," he agreed, then his eye was caught by a shining silver cuff upon the boy's slender wrist. "Potter . . .Harry . . .what is that?"

"What? Oh, this? It's a . . .Cuff of Binding."

Severus was staring at the silver manacle with a look of loathing and fury. "I know what it is. Who has put such filth upon you, Harry? Who has dared to bind a trueborn Animagus with an item of dark magic?"

"Umbridge. She . . .she did it the first night I had detention with her. She said that I wasn't to be trusted, that she had to put this on me and all it would do was bind my ability to shift forms. She said she wanted no unregistered Animagus running loose in her school."

"Did she now?" Snape's voice was harsh and sharp. "She lied, the wicked bitch! A Cuff of Binding inhibits your ability to shift shapes, that is true, but it also weakens your natural magic. The cuff is an object of dark magic, it imprisons your magic and by doing so also creates an aura of despair. They used them in Azkaban long ago, to bind the powers of criminal Animagi. I was not aware they were still in existence. I thought they had all been melted down. They are illegal, especially . . .especially if used upon a child. " He caught Harry's wrist and turned it over, pushing the cuff up and examining the raw blistered flesh beneath it.

"Bloody hell, how long has it been like that? And why, dammit, why didn't you tell anyone? Do you enjoy playing the martyr so much?"

"No! But . . .I thought it was okay for her to do that. I thought McGonagall approved since Umbridge spoke to her about my Animagus lessons. And I did tell Umbridge the cuff stung, but she said that it was supposed to be uncomfortable and I would simply have to, uh, bear it."

Severus swore furiously. "That bloody hellspawned bitch! I will have her head for this! I will prosecute her to the full extent of the law and I will see her in Azkaban or six feet under, whichever comes first!"

His eyes were blazing black fire and Harry felt a warm glow spread through him. At least someone cared. Until that dark gaze was turned on him, and he flinched. "As for you, mister, I ought to beat some sense into you for allowing this to go for so long without asking for help from someone! It didn't have to be me, but you could have at least gone to your Head of House when that started happening." He stabbed a finger at the rash. "Minerva knows the law as well as I do, she would have no more permitted this on one of her lions than I would have my Slytherins! Or anyone else, for that matter."

"But, Professor, I told you . . .I didn't know it was illegal . . ."

"You should have known better than to accept anything that hag says at face value. Next time, use your head, won't you?" Snape scolded gruffly, though there was more concern than anger in the dark eyes.

"I'm sorry, sir."

"Humph! And it's Severus."

"What?"

"My name. You may use it . . .if you would like. In private," he amended. "Now then, I will try my best to get this . . .abomination off of you. In the meantime, let me see about fixing your wrist."

Severus then summoned his emergency potions kit, the one he kept in a drawer of his desk in his classroom in case some unforeseen accident occurred with one of his students and they needed immediate first aid. He removed several vials and a soft cloth from the kit.

He took Harry's wrist and laid it on his knee, saying quietly, "Some of this will hurt, so grit your teeth. I will be as quick as possible." He pointed his wand at the boy's wrist and intoned a short spell.

Harry gasped as several of the blisters upon his skin burst, oozing a yellow liquid.

"Infection," Severus murmured. "Of the body and your magic." He shook his head and then picked up a vial of purple potion and opened it, shaking some out onto the cloth. "Hold still. This will sting like blazes, but it needs to be done."

Harry clenched his jaw as Snape swabbed the antiseptic potion over his wrist. It burned like hell, but the boy made no sound. His eyes glistened with tears however.

"Almost done." The Potions Master was thorough, making certain all of the infected area was cleansed before applying a salve that numbed and healed open wounds.

Harry exhaled softly in relief.

Then Severus deftly wrapped his wrist in a soft bandage and intoned a Sticking Charm. "There! How does that feel? Better?"

Harry nodded. "Thanks . . .Severus." He gently removed his arm from Snape's knee, wincing as the cuff slipped back over his bandaged wrist. But at least it no longer burned, since the bandage prevented it from touching his skin. "I guess that was why . . .I've been feeling so awful lately."

"What do you mean?"

"I haven't been able to sleep much. And everything I eat tastes like sawdust. I haven't been hungry since . . .I used to be Freedom. I'm exhausted but I can't sleep and I know I need to. My magic, it feels run down . . ."

"All effects of dark magic," Severus said grimly. "The longer this remains upon you, the worse it will get."

"Am I . . .damaged forever then?"

"No. You can be healed, once this is removed," the older man reassured him. "I shall corner the bitch in her office tonight and confront her with this. She will not get away with this, I promise."

"Not with you on her arse, that's for sure." Harry remarked cheekily. Then he sighed gustily. "I'm . . .sorry I didn't tell you sooner, about getting my memories back, I mean. But you see . . .I didn't want to . . .err . . .take your familiar from you. I know how much you liked Freedom. Guess I screwed that up, huh?"

"No. I am . . .honored that you would have cared that much for me . . .considering the way I have behaved towards you. It was more than I deserved. You remind me very much of your mother. She, too, forgave me a great mistake."

"You brought the prophecy to the Dark Lord," Harry said, his tone faintly accusing. "How could you do that?"

"I was young, and desperate to prove myself to Albus. I thought he knew best, that the prophecy was the best way to throw His Darkness off the trail. I had been pardoned by the Ministry, but they watched me still, and I knew they were waiting for me to slip, and then it would be Azkaban for me without hope of a parole. Albus swore that as a spy, I would be invaluable, and I wanted that, I needed that. I needed to atone for being an idiot and following the teachings of a madman. Delivering the prophecy was my first official assignment. But had I known where it would lead in the end . . .I would have refused. I would have never risked Lily or you or even James. . ."

Harry looked into Severus's eyes, and saw that the other was telling the truth. The mask was gone and he saw only great regret and sorrow for what had gone before. He sucked in a breath. Then he said, "I understand. And I . . .forgive you. It wasn't your fault. It was bloody Dumbledore's. And the Dark Lord's. But not yours."

"Do you truly mean that?"

"Yes."

"How . . .is that possible?"

"Because . . .that's what friends do. They forgive each other."

Severus smiled. Not a half smile, but a true smile. For with those words, the gaping wound in his soul had begun to heal.

"Thank you, Harry. You are wiser than you know. Sometimes. Other times, you can be a foolish fifteen-year-old. What possessed you to take a Stimulant Draft? Didn't you know it's dangerous to rely on such things?"

"Uh . . .well, Hermione did warn me, but I had to do something, Sev! I have so much work to do and how the hell am I going to get it all done before my OWLS?"

Severus reached out and cuffed him, very lightly, on the ear. "By asking for help, you incorrigible brat."

"Hey!" The boy shot him a glare. Then he said, "Well? Will you help me, Professor Snape?"

"Yes. I will take a look at your work and give you tips on how to speed read and outline so you needn't read the whole assignment and show you how to write concisely. You do not have to re-invent the wheel, Potter."

"Is that allowed?"

"It bloody well is. You are a student, I'm your teacher, if you ask me for help, I am bound to give it." Snape smirked. "You see, there is more than one way to skin a dragon."

Harry smirked too. "Bet she never thought of that, the damn toad."

"Obviously not." Severus said dryly. "I think she wanted to break you with her cuff and her impossible workload."

Harry snorted, his eyes flashing. "I'm not broken that easily." He gazed up at his teacher hopefully. "I can't wait until I have this damn thing off. I really want to fly again."

The wistful longing in the boy's tone made the Potions Master sigh. "I know. We will find a way to make that happen. No Animagus should be bound."

Harry nodded. "Hawks were meant to fly free. You know, the way I was when I was Freedom . . .that was still me. It wasn't an act."

"I know that now." He put an arm about the slender shoulders. "You will always be Harry Potter. And you will always be my Freedom."

The boy stared up at him, disbelief and hope mingled in his gaze. "You really mean that?"

"I do."

Suddenly, the professor found himself with an armful of a green-eyed Animagus, who hugged him fiercely, shaking with silent sobs. Awkwardly, he patted the boy on the back. "Hush. It's all right."

The words, spoken in that soft silky tone, shattered a wall within the boy then, and he did something he had not done since he was a small child. He put his head down on Severus's shoulder and cried. The tears did not come easily, they flowed from some bitter well deep within him, but as he wept all of his fear and loneliness and pain away, he felt the ache inside of him, that had been born when he first realized he would never be accepted by his family, begin to mend, for at last someone cared just for him.

Severus held the sobbing child close, one hand patting his back, the other carding his infinitely messy hair. He wasn't sure if he was doing this comforting thing right, for he had never comforted anyone before, but assumed he must be, for Harry was still clinging to him. He knew, analytically, that the boy needed this release, had been needing it for quite some time, but he had not expected Harry to turn to him for comfort, since he had been the cause of so much of the boy's pain. Yet here they were, temperamental snarky professor and moody wounded adolescent, both managing to find comfort in the most unlikely place of all.

For the first time, Severus Snape began to think that it was possible to mend a broken heart, and his soul, so long imprisoned by darkness and despair, grew wings and flew free at last, thanks to one stubborn boy, who refused to let friendship die.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Well, things finally came to a head, didn't they?

But while some things have been resolved others still need to be addressed, and don't think Harry and Sev's friendship will be all roses and song, there will still be bumps and bruises and quarrels. But the bond will never be broken.

Next: Severus goes head to head with Dolores over the bracelet and Harry with Ron over Snape!



Chapter 23: The Toad At Bay
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A/N: I had posted this last night, but due to the upgrade or whatever this chapter plus  3 other chapter in my Never Again story were deleted, along with everyone's reviews for them and for Where Shadows Go!! I am very upset about this, since I wasn't aware of anything like that going on, I was in the middle of replying to reviews when the page froze and then reported an error and when I was finally able to log back in, 13 reviews and three chapters were gone! So if you want, please go back and leave a review again, I'm really sorry!

After a long time, Harry stopped crying and it was only then, when his nose was stuffed and his eyes puffy from crying so hard, that he realized he had just spent the last fifteen minutes bawling like a three-year-old on his Potions Master. A crimson tide washed up the back of his neck and he wished he could conjure a hole and fall into it. Oh my God, I just cried all over Severus Snape. Just like a . . . whiny brat. Why is it that I always manage to do things that embarrass the hell out of myself without half trying? I can't believe I did that. I never cry. Never! Not since I was five or six. I learned a long time ago that tears didn't help. So why in Merlin's name did I just end up doing that on Snape?

He drew away from the older man, not looking him in the eye, instead he looked at the bloody manacle on his wrist. He waited for Snape to sneer at him, to make some comment about Harry getting his robes all covered in snot and tears or how boys weren't supposed to cry all over their teachers like little girls. He darted a glance at the older wizard out of the corner of his eye, for surely Snape must be as uncomfortable with that open display of emotion as Harry was.

To his utter shock, Severus was not regarding him with disgust or disdain. Instead the Potions Master was reaching into his pocket.

A moment later he handed Harry a handkerchief with a green snake embroidered in the right hand corner.

Harry took it and mopped his face and wiped his nose. Damn it, my nose is running like a bloody toddler's. He sniffled, trying to muffle it in the cloth.

"Blow your nose," was all Severus said, and there was not a bit of mockery in his tone.

Flushing, Harry obeyed. Can I die now? Please? He darted another glance at his professor.

Snape arched an eyebrow quizzically. "Why do you keep looking at me like that? Do you think I will melt because you happened to get my robes wet? Salt isn't the best thing for cloth, but I learned how to cast a cleaning charm a long time ago."

"No . . .it's just . . .I haven't . . .I don't normally . . .do that."

"I figured as much. You were taught, like I was, to keep the hurt inside of you, to hide what you felt. I would wager you got punished for crying as a small child, yes?"

Harry nodded.

"My father used to whack me a good one every time I so much as sniffled," Severus said quietly. He normally never discussed his childhood in detail, but this once he broke his silence, since he sensed it would help Harry open up about his own trauma. "I learned very quickly to never cry around him and eventually to almost never cry at all."

"Me too. Do you ever?"

"Once in a blue moon."

"Like . . .when my mother died?" Harry guessed.

"Yes." The professor rose to his feet, brushing the grass stains off of his robes with a few brisk passes of his wand. Another pass and the shoulder of his robes were dry as well. Then he coughed and said awkwardly, "There is nothing for you to be embarrassed about, Potter. You are not the first student to give my robes a salt water bath." Though you are the first student I have ever held that way.

"I'm . . .not?"

"No. I have been Slytherin Head of House for sixteen years and in that time I have had one or two homesick first years in my House cry in front of me or the occasional mark-obsessed girl as well."

Harry gaped. "You mean . . .a girl cried over getting bad marks to you?"

"Astoria Mullin, Merlin help me. Came to me begging me to speak to Professor Burbage , she couldn't get anything less than an E on her Muggle Studies or else she would self-combust right there. Such dramatics! But she had good reason for them, as I discovered when I questioned her more closely. If she did not maintain acceptable marks, her father cursed her."

"That's horrible! Was he a dark wizard? What did you do then?"

"No, he was not a Death Eater, but he was a cruel man, and as dark as they come in that way. I took steps to inform Wizarding Minor Services, as was proper for a teacher who has a documented case of abuse towards a minor by a parent or guardian and they got her removed from her home."

"You can do that?"

"Of course. It is my duty to do so. I can try and do the same for you as well, Harry, although it might take a bit of string-pulling, since your relatives are Muggles. I shall speak further with the Headmaster when he returns. Are you agreeable to that, Harry?"

Harry nodded. "Hell, yeah. I mean . . .yes, sir."

Severus frowned. "I do not understand why you were allowed to go back to that environment year after year. Did you ever mention to an adult what your relatives were like?"

"Once I . . .hinted to Dumbledore that I didn't want to go home at the end of the year, that I'd rather stay here, but he said I had to, so I did. I didn't really go into detail, Sev," he added, seeing the professor's face turn stormy. "I just said I had lots of chores and I couldn't get enough rest there or something."

"And Albus did not question you further? Did not ask you anything more?"

"No. So I stopped talking about it." Harry admitted softly.

"Blind old coot! What game was he playing? Had you spoken so to me, or Professor McGonagall, or to any other teacher, we would have investigated the situation. And then moved the sun and moon to get you away from there."

"Truly? I told my primary school teacher once. She called my aunt and uncle and talked to them, and they told her I was a chronic liar, always making up tales. She believed them and I got locked in the cupboard for three days without food."

"That would not happen here. There would have been an investigation from Wizarding Minor. I know you are not accustomed to relying on adults for help, much like myself, but you need to start trusting us, Harry. You are important to us . . .to me. I know that I have not been fair to you and that others on the staff may have seemed . . .indifferent to your situation, but had we known the truth . . .Things will change now, Harry. From now on, if you have a problem, serious or otherwise, consider coming to Minerva or to me to resolve it if you cannot do so by yourself. You need not bear everything in silence."

Harry hunched his shoulders at the scolding tone a little. "You do."

Severus sighed. "Not always. And even so, you should not emulate me in this, Harry. I am what I am through circumstance and necessity-a spy has to be self-reliant. But that does not mean I do not need someone to talk to every once in awhile. As Hagrid is so fond of saying-a problem shared is soon no problem at all. Think about that, won't you?"

"Okay." He shifted from foot to foot restlessly. "Severus? Do you really mean to confront the toad tonight? Shouldn't you wait a little bit?"

"For what purpose? The longer you wear that abomination upon you, Harry, the worse off you will be."

"I know, but . . .she's dangerous. She almost had you sacked once. What if she tries again? I don't want you to lose your job over me."

Now the Potions Master did scowl at him. "Harry, this is more important than a mere teaching post. She is using dark magic upon students, and that is a criminal offense. She deserves to be locked away at the very least, and the only reason Aurors haven't dragged her away by now is because she has friends in high places." A sneer contorted Snape's features for a brief instant. "Using a blood quill upon students would have gotten anyone else a swift trial, but because Fudge vouched for her, all she got was a citation and a warning fine. But this . . .this I will not permit to be shoved by the wayside. This is the second time she has committed the same crime-using an object of dark magic to compel the obedience of a child."

"I'm not saying she doesn't deserve to be chucked where the sun doesn't shine, Severus, but . . ."

The Potions Master placed a lean hand upon the slender shoulder. "Do not worry about me, fledgling. I have handled worse than her and lived to tell of it. Much worse. She may be a petty, bureaucratic, power-mad bitch from hell, but the day I cannot deal with the likes of her is the day I surrender my wand and go for a stay in St. Mungos." There was a fierce light in his eyes and it made Harry shiver.

"What will you do to her? Hex her?"

"Only if threatened. I have much worse planned." He smirked diabolically. "She thinks she is clever, sheltering beneath Fudge's robes. But even Fudge must follow Ministry law. And she has broken it twice. Once might be overlooked, but twice . . ."

"You're going to report her then?"

"Yes. The Board of Governors is already watching her and they will be less than pleased to find out she is back to her old tricks. I plan to document your case very carefully, Harry, including witnesses, and perhaps even threaten to run a piece in the paper . . .but only as a last resort. The real strength of my case will be the laws I use to support my claim. And I know them very well, better than she does."

"How did you learn them?"

"I studied Magical Law after I gained my Mastery, so I could make sure no other wizard could steal potions I had invented. I know contract law extremely well and also those laws pertaining to the abuse of dark magic. She will have nowhere to hide, for I have irrefutable proof of her misconduct." Severus jerked his head at Harry's wrist.

Harry permitted himself a small evil grin. This was going to be interesting. Very interesting.

"Kick her arse for me, Severus. Hard."

"I intend to, Harry. Come along now. The sooner I write up a report and take pictures the sooner I can give her the boot."

Harry followed eagerly. "Uh, Sev? You said something about witnesses. Like who?"

"Minerva. She will be livid when you show her the cuff, both as your Head of House and as an Animagus. She will support me until death after that." In fact, I may well have to put her in a Body Bind to keep her from killing the toad bitch, Severus thought in satisfaction. Dolores the Dictator, your time is nearly ended, and soon Hogwarts shall be free of your shadow for good and all. Because no one hurts my familiar! Or my friend either!

Harry smiled. Now Umbridge would learn the truth all students knew-screwing with Snape was like baiting a Hungarian Horntail-either way you ended up dead.

* * * * * *

They went first to Snape's quarters, where Severus took a camera and snapped several pictures of the manacle itself, Harry wearing it, and then he removed several official looking documents from his desk drawer and sat down. He handed Harry a parchment with the words Deposition of the Victim in Latin. "Take that and go sit on the couch." He flicked his wand and the table enlarged so Harry could sit and write comfortably. "I need you to write down everything you recall about that night's detention. Try and remember exactly what she said to you before and after she placed the cuff upon you, Harry. This is key testimony, so be as accurate as possible."

"I will," Harry said, then he sat down and began to write as well. He might not have as good a memory as Hermione did, but the hag's detention was embedded in his brain and he could no more forget the moment she placed that manacle upon him than he could forget he was a wizard.

By the time he was done recording the entire incident, as well as the way the cuff affected him physically, mentally, and magically, he felt drained and tired and was smothering a yawn.

Snape looked up from finishing filling out the necessary form for Abuse of Dark Magic by a School Administrator and saw the teenager's eyelids begin to droop. "Why don't you have a bit of a lie-down, Harry? I still have some paperwork to do before we visit Professor McGonagall. You need the sleep. Have you finished your deposition?"

"Right here, p'rfessor," Harry mumbled, gesturing to the parchment, he was exhausted and halfway into the realm of sleep.

Severus summoned it over and placed it with the form he had just completed. Then he rose and tucked a familiar green afghan about the now snoozing fifth year, arranging the boy on the couch with a pillow so he did not get a stiff neck sleeping in a contorted position.

He remained gazing down upon the boy for a moment. Ah, child. You were the second greatest mistake of my life, but I shall try and make amends as best I can, starting now.

Snape returned to his desk, he still had more documents to fill out, plus an article to submit to the Prophet if it became necessary to go public, though he refused to release the name of the student Umbridge had tortured with the Cuff of Binding. The last thing Potter needed was more press-good, bad, or otherwise. He pulled out a large tome titled Magical Law and the Ministry and copied out the strictures regarding the use of dark magic against a minor and summoned another book that described exactly what a Cuff of Binding did and how it had been made to restrain Animagi criminals in the past, until the Ministry ruled it dark magic and destroyed the cuffs-all but one, apparently.

He wondered how Toady had gotten her hands upon it, then supposed he could always ask her that when he confronted her. He had to admit, he was very much looking forward to giving the hag her justly deserved and long overdue arse kicking.

* * * * * *

Severus allowed Harry to sleep for a good hour-and-a-half before he woke him and the Potions Master contacted McGonagall through the Floo Network. "I have an urgent matter to discuss with you, Minerva," Severus began without preamble. "It concerns one of your Gryffindors."

Minerva looked up from the yearly proficiency reports she was writing-as Deputy it was her job to evaluate the staff on a yearly basis, to see who might be eligible for promotions and so forth. The reports were based upon content knowledge and following school policy, she had just finished writing one for Firenze, giving him an Exceeds Expectations mark, for the centaur had done an admirable job picking up in the middle of the term that way.

"What now, Severus?" she sighed irritably, her eyes hurt and she removed her reading spectacles and rubbed them. "How many points did you take and how much detention did you give him or her?"

"Nothing. This is not a matter for detention. It concerns a certain High Inquisitor and Mr. Potter. May we come through?"

"Yes, by all means."

Severus and Harry stepped into the Gryffindor matriarch's office, Harry coughing slightly, he had never really mastered the art of Flooing gracefully. Soot always managed to go up his nose or all over his clothes.

He looked up to see his Head regarding him with a touch of disapproval and he wondered why, until she said, "Please, Potter, tell me you did not prank her or something. I detest the woman, but I must make an attempt to get along with her as best I can since she is my superior, and short of an untimely accident, cannot get rid of her." The witch wrinkled her nose.

"Actually, Minerva, there may yet be a way to rid ourselves of the plague harridan," Severus interjected. "Permanently."

"How? You know I don't approve of poison."

"How about a long term stay in Azkaban for using dark magic upon a minor again?"

"What do you mean, Severus? Surely she would not dare . . .not after her citation . . .?"

"Surely she would, Minerva. Mr. Potter, show her."

Severus made a beckoning motion and Harry walked over to stand next to McGonagall, his sleeve rolled up to reveal the silver cuff and the bandage beneath it.

McGnagall stiffened when she saw it, and her eyes grew flinty. "Great Merlin! But they were all destroyed! Where did she get it? And how dare . . .how dare she place a Cuff of Binding upon a new Animagus?" She bore a look of utter revulsion upon her face, and was flushed crimson in anger.

Harry had never seen her look so out of sorts.

"It is . . .unforgivable! To bind a fledgling Animagus like that, and moreover one who is not even of age! Mr. Potter, why did you not come and show me immediately? How long has this . . .thing been on you?"

"Eight days, I think."

"Eight days! Then it must have affected your magic and . . .why is your wrist bandaged?"

"The cuff . . .it burnt me and made me get a rash with blisters. But Professor Snape healed me. I'm sorry I didn't come to you before, but I thought . . .she had the authority to do this, I didn't know it was a dark thing, Professor, or that it was forbidden."

"No, of course you didn't. I never got around to discussing that with you, and the Cuffs of Binding were supposed to all have been destroyed during the last century or so, when the Ministry ruled them possessed of a dark taint and unsuitable for use." The Transfiguration professor's mouth set in a grim line. "But I suppose Her Majesty the Great and Powerful Umbridge believes that she knows best how to handle such objects and can ignore all the rules as she chooses."

"Not anymore," Severus stated coldly. "I have all the necessary documentation here, Minerva, to submit to the Board of Governors and the Ministry Office for Abuse of Known Dark Objects. All I need is for you to state, here and here-" he indicated two separate sheets with a space for a witness to sign and write a statement. "-that you have seen with your own eyes the dark object binding a minor, and will testify in front of the Wizengamot this is so."

Minerva snatched a quill from her desk and began to write rapidly. "There! Is there anything else you would like, Severus? Do you want me to hold her while you hex her back to hell where she came from?"

"Regrettably, no. If I am to commit murder, I would like it to be a clear cut case of self defense. But I do need you to wait outside the door and Stun her if she attempts to Obliviate me. I shall confront her tonight, after I send the documents off to the Ministry and the Board. I have made a copy for her and another for me. I will try and get her to remove the cuff before I present her with the document. Or after it, but either way it will be removed." Snape stated darkly. Even if I have to use Legilimancy to rip the command word from her mind. That was not something he wished to do, for it reminded him far too much of the Dark Lord, but if the hag refused to cooperate . . .

"Ah, well, my offer still stands." She looked over at Harry, who was looking at her askance. "Don't worry, Mr. Potter. We shall have the awful thing gone by tonight or I will know the reason why."

Harry nodded, then cocked his head in a movement reminiscent of the hawk he had once been, and blurted, "Sir, if you won't let Professor McGonagall help kick the bitch's arse, then at least let me. I owe her for this."

"Language, young man!" both teachers barked automatically.

Harry blushed to the tips of his ears and mumbled an apology.

Severus rounded on him. "You are to stay out of this, Potter, am I clear? Your offer is noted, but I can handle her best without you getting involved. Less chance of being distracted if she tries to hex me."

"I know, sir, but . . ."

"No exceptions, Potter. I want your word-you will not interfere."

Harry's jaw clenched. For a moment he was angry at Snape. The man was going all overprotective now and he wasn't a child, for Merlin's sake! But then he realized that Snape had issued the order because he was concerned about Harry's safety, something no adult had ever really cared about, and it made him happy.

"I promise. Wizard's honor, sir."

Snape relaxed a fraction. "Good. Minerva, I shall meet you here after dinner, as will Mr. Potter. Umbridge usually retires to her quarters then, right? I want to Floo inside and be waiting. Surprise is essential."

Minerva gave him a fierce grin. "Of course. Let the games begin."

* * * * * *

Since there was still a few hours left until dinner, Harry decided to grab his satchel of make up work and let Snape look it over. He made his way back to Gryffindor Tower and found most of his Housemates absent, walking about the grounds and enjoying the unusually sunny day. All except Ron and Lavender, who were snogging on the couch when Harry came through the portrait hole.

The two flushed guiltily and drew apart, then Lavender muttered something about fixing her hair, and hurried up to the girls' dorm to get a brush, leaving Ron and Harry alone.

"Oh, it's you, Harry. Thought for a second it was McGonagall," Ron said, heaving a sigh of relief. "Where have you been? Studying in the library?"

"No. I was . . .uh getting career advice," Harry lied glibly. On how to bring an insane witch up on charges. "Now I need to get some of my make up work done. Professor Snape said he would help me."

Ron's jaw dropped. "Huh? Since when . . .since when d'you ask Snape for help?"

Harry pretended not to hear and summoned his satchel with a brief swish of his wand. He really didn't want to quarrel with Ron, so all he said was, "He said he could show me how to prioritize my time better and study quicker."

Ron coughed and sputtered.

Harry turned and walked out of the portrait hole.

Ron followed. "And you believed him? You really think the greasy bat of the dungeons is going to help you? Did he hex you or something?"

Harry halted and spun around. "No, Ron, he didn't. I asked him, as a matter of fact."

"Are you feeling okay, Harry? Because you must be out of your mind to trust Snape to help you."

"Why?" Harry asked softly, his jaw clenched. He really didn't want to deal with Ron's stubbornness right then. "He's a teacher, it's his job to help me."

"Like he's ever given a damn about that. He hates Gryffindors and you."

"No, he doesn't. He saved my life as a hawk. Twice."

"Only 'cause he didn't know who you were. He'd have left you to die else."

"No. You're wrong. There are things you don't know, Ron. He's not the enemy. Umbridge is."

"Right. The two of them are probably in league with each other."

"In league with each other?!" Harry shouted, furious. "You bloody git, he's fighting against her! He hates her as much as we do! He was the one who got her to stop using the blood quill, he reported it to the Board of Governors. If he was in league with her, like you think, why the hell would she have him arrested for kidnapping me? Huh? How does that make sense? She had the Aurors allset to take him off to Azkaban, I know, I was there!"

Ron shrugged. "Maybe it was a set up. You know Slytherins are sly and cunning, and he's the worst of the lot."

"Don't be a blockhead, Ron! It was not a set-up. Umbridge wanted to get rid of him, just like she wanted to get rid of Trelawney and anyone else who didn't meet her so-called standards. Look what she did to Dumbledore, for Godsake! Kicked him out of his own bloody castle! Snape refused to let her intimidate him though, so she decided to sack him."

"Maybe we'd have been better off. I mean, Firenze is a much better teacher than old bonkers Trelawney."

Harry clenched his fist. "I never thought I'd say this, but you are acting like a bloody git, Weasley! Saying it's okay for the toad to just go around sacking people just 'cause she feels like it."

"Since when did you become Snape's defender, Harry? You turn Slytherin when he made you his familiar, huh? Want to go live in the dungeons and become a snake now? Gryffindor's not good enough for you anymore?"

"What are you talking about? I never said that. You're jumping to conclusions. Just because I'm friends with Snape doesn't mean I want to become a Slytherin. You can be friends with someone in a different House," Harry argued.

"Sure you can, if you want to be a traitor," sneered Ron, his eyes suddenly hard.

"I'm no traitor, Weasley!"

"You are if you call that greasy git a friend! Whoever heard of a student being friends with a professor anyhow? They're too old and they don't get anything and all they live for is to give detention and homework."

"You're wrong. Professor Snape is a very good friend. Not just because he saved my life, but because he understands things nobody else will. He's not the greasy git you call him, Weasley! You don't know the half of what he's done for everyone here, and I can't tell you either, but if you ever knew you'd be kicking yourself now for ever saying he was associated with The Toad Queen!"

"No, I wouldn't. Because he's a Slytherin and they're all dark in that House."

"That's just stupid prejudice talking!" Harry yelled. "Not all Slytherins are bad, just like not all Gryffindors are heroic."

"Traitor!" Ron spat.

"You know who you remind me of right now, Ron? Malfoy, who thinks your family is pitiful because you're poor and will never amount to anything. He judged the book by its cover and you're doing the same thing with Severus."

Ron looked like he was about to explode. "Severus? You're on a first name basis now? How cozy! How dare you compare me to that . . .that arrogant prat, Potter? You take that back now, or I swear, I'll hex you!" The other had his hand on his wand and was glaring at Harry fit to kill.

Harry glared right back, but he did not draw his wand. "What I said was the truth. Sorry if you don't like it. Put your damn wand down, I'm not going to fight you. I've got enough enemies on my case without adding you to the list."

"Are you afraid to fight me then? Afraid I'll kick your Slytherin-loving arse?"

"No. I'm afraid I'll hurt you, arsehole! Take a walk, why don't you?" Harry growled. "Better yet, I will. So I won't be tempted to bash your face into the wall." He turned away from the irate redhead and began walking down the corridor.

"Keep walking, Potter! Walk right back to your scummy Slyth friends!" Ron shouted after him.

Harry flinched at the venom in the other's tone, and hoped Ron would get over his jealousy or whatever, because until then he couldn't stand to be near the other boy. He hurried down the stairs and across the entrance hall to the dungeons, upset about Ron's refusal to see anything but his own narrow viewpoint. Just like Sirius, Harry thought angrily. I don't have time for this crap right now. I need to study and get the rest of this done.

He arrived at Severus's apartments slightly out of breath and still annoyed at Ron. He forced himself to take a deep breath and then another one, until he was calm. Then and only then did he enter Snape's quarters, speaking the password as he did so.

Severus glanced up when Harry entered, noting immediately the angry look in the boy's eyes and the tension in his shoulders. "Something the matter, Harry?"

"No. Not really, I'm dealing with it." He floated the satchel over to Severus and took a seat upon the couch while Snape examined the books and assignments.

Severus raised an eyebrow, sensing something was bothering the younger wizard, but willing to allow Harry some space to resolve his own problems, he suspected some of his Housemates had been at him, for the boy was bristling with indignation like a hedgehog. Well, quarrels between adolescents, even in the same House, were nothing new and he would not interfere unless it came to wands or blows. That was part of growing up and he was a teacher not a nursemaid.

Although, if Harry had been devastated by said quarrel, he would have insisted the boy tell him what was wrong, because then it would be detrimental to Harry's health. But that wasn't the case here. Harry was more annoyed than upset, and just as clearly did not want to go into detail. So Snape let him be and concentrated on helping him with his backlog of assignments.

An hour later, Severus had organized the assignments into piles-Very Important, Important, and Barely Necessary for Graduation. In the Very Important pile were Transfiguration, Potions, Charms, and Defense Against the Dark Arts. In the Important pile were Herbology, Astronomy, and Care of Magical Creatures. Barely Necessary contained History of Magic and Divination.

"Harry, come here." Severus called. The boy rose and came over to Snape's desk. "Look, I have organized your classes according to importance, meaning those you ought to be most concerned with studying for in order to pass your OWLS and get into NEWT courses next year. Have you discussed with Minerva a suggested career path yet?"

"Uh . . .sort of. She asked what I thought I'd like to be and I told her I wanted to be an Auror."

Severus sighed. "While that is . . .not an entirely surprising revelation, might I ask why you chose that particular path?"

"Umm . . .I don't know . . .it seems like a . . .neat occupation and . . .my dad was one . . .so . . ." he trailed off awkwardly, for the truth was he hadn't given the matter all that much thought, since he was still two years away from finishing school and he had to do something once he was done.

"Most boys your age find the position of an Auror exciting and glamorous. But it is not. It is dangerous work, and there is no glory in it or adventure. I have known several Aurors and all of them work insane hours and come home exhausted, injured, and very few of them have families. I think you ought to think carefully if that is what you wish to do, Harry."

"Oh. I didn't know . . .it was really like that. I just thought . . .all you had to do was catch dark wizards."

"That is what most wizards your age think." Severus said. "Might I suggest another career? From what I have observed, you seem to have patience and a fairly even disposition, if a little impulsive, determination, and a willingness to cooperate with others. You also have a flair for Defense. Have you ever considered teaching Defense, Harry? I think you would make a decent professor and that is less dangerous but just as rewarding as being an Auror. Granted, the pay is not as good, but the only danger you will face on a daily basis is hormonally insane teenagers who make you want to throttle them, instead of homicidal maniacs. Not much of a difference, I know, but I think you would do well to think on it."

Harry considered. He had never thought about it like that before. What Snape said was true, he did like Defense, he considered it one of his best subjects and he hadn't minded showing others in his House how to cast certain spells and had always been dissatisfied with all of his Defense instructors save Lupin, though the false Moody had been pretty good as far as learning Unforgivables. Me . . .a professor? I think . . .that's a possibility. "Do you really think I'd make a good teacher?"

"Yes. Probably a better one than I am. I have very little patience for those who are not quick to grasp concepts and make foolish blunders over and over. That is why I am considering taking on an apprentice, so that he or she may teach the first, second, and third years and leave me with the older and more serious students , who actually want to learn about potions."

"Then you don't like teaching?"

"On the contrary, I like teaching those who show interest and aptitude and do not waste my time fooling around or displaying no aptitude or inclination to learn. Potions is my passion, and it is demanding and subtle and precise, and there are some who can grasp it, and some who excel at it, and others who are hopeless, such as Longbottom, and should never be allowed near a cauldron. I know many of you consider my methods harsh, and that is so, but it is because I am trying to weed out those who do not belong. I have argued repeatedly with the Headmaster that potions should be mandatory only through third year, and after that those who have no interest or cannot brew to save their lives should not take it, for the drafts and elixirs increase in complexity and they will never be able to handle them and are a danger to those around them and a headache for me, who needs to be continually on top of them. I love my subject and hate to see it butchered by incompetent, careless, and indifferent students. It drives me crazy." The professor shook his head ruefully. "I am a perfectionist, a temperamental perfectionist, I always have been and always shall be. Some would say then I should not teach, and perhaps they're right. But I say I should teach those who truly wish to learn and then I will be content and not so sharp-tongued."

"That might work," Harry allowed. "So, do I do all the homework in the Very Important pile first?"

"Yes. Finish that, and then move onto the next one, but remember, outline your essays before you do them, so you can focus on the main points, and also scan the chapters for the most important parts first, that way you will get the main parts of the reading. As for the last pile, copy the pertinent parts of the chapter and take notes, but don't worry too much about them, you won't need those subjects to become a professor, or an Auror if you so choose."

He then handed Harry all the piles of homework, each one wrapped with a ribbon to keep them together. "The more organized you are, the easier it is to study. Although, she has given you a most Herculean task, which was probably what she intended all along."

"She'd like to snap my wand, that's for sure. Thank you, sir."

"You are welcome." The professor glanced at the clock upon the mantle. "It's almost time for dinner. Afterwards, meet me here and we shall go to McGonagall's office and then we shall beard the toad in her lair."

"Right. I'll see you later," then Harry left, heading back up to his room to drop off his books and then go to dinner with Hermione. Ron didn't not speak at all to Harry over dinner, and Harry gave him the silent treatment as well.

Hermione looked from one to the other and groaned. "Don't tell me. The two of you had a fight or something."

Ron snorted and muttered something that sounded like, "Brilliant deduction, Hermione. Whatever gave you that idea?"

She glared at him. "I'm not going to answer that, since the answer is obvious." She turned back to eating her shepherd's pie. Boys! Sometimes she just wanted to smack them upside the head until they saw sense.

Harry ate as much as he could, which was barely anything, then he rushed off to get to Severus's quarters.

* * * * * *

Dolores Umbridge had just poured herself a cup of jasmine tea in her brand new pink kitten mug and was just sitting down with some iced cakes and her latest wizarding romance novel The Headmaster's Half-Blood Mistress Goes Wild, when her fire flared green and Professor Snape and her least favorite student, Harry Potter, stepped out of the fireplace.

She quickly hid the novel under a stack of reports and cleared her throat. "Ahem! Ahem! What brings you here, Professor Snape? And Mr. Potter? I must say, your manners leave something to be desired. Normally one use the door and asks permission before one enters a room." She gave each of them a frosty glower.

Severus looked down his nose at her coolly. Harry felt his heartbeat increase as Snape's magic surged through the room in a torrent of barely restrained fury. He wondered how it was that Umbridge did not feel it.

At last the Potions Master spoke. "Normally, Dolores, you would be right. However, I only extend common courtesy to those I feel are deserving of it."

She sniffed, incensed. "And you do not think I am deserving of it?"

"No, for you have done the unforgivable, you hellspawn demon's daughter, and used dark magic to bind a minor's powers." His hand reached back and fastened upon Harry's wrist, and he pulled the boy forward.

"I? I use dark magic? You lie, Severus Snape!"

"Really? Then what do you call this?" Severus pushed up Harry's sleeve to reveal the Cuff of Binding.

Umbridge lost her smug air and turned a pasty white. It was not pretty. "How . . . how did that get there?" she asked weakly.

"You know how it got there," Harry snapped. "You put it on me during my first detention, so I couldn't transform."

"You are an unregistered Animagus," Umbridge declared. "It is my duty to restrain you!"

"Restrain him?" Severus cut in, his black eyes smoldering. "Like you would a criminal, madam? For that was what those cuffs were used for, a century ago. But Mr. Potter is no criminal-he is a student and a fledgling Animagus and the use of that abominable item is strictly forbidden!"

"I am a Minstry official, Professor Snape, and such an item may be used by me at my discretion." Umbridge blustered.

Severus's eyes narrowed. "Where is that written, woman? I know Ministry law, and it does not make allowances for banned items of dark magic. This is one of them and do not even try and pretend you did not know it. It not only prevents an Animagus from shifting, it also weakens his magic and will eventually drain him dry. And yet you thought it was right to use such filth upon a child! You are despicable, Umbridge!"

"How dare you address me in this manner, Snape? I shall have you brought up on charges of slander and dismiss you from this school."

Severus sneered. "By all means, Umbridge, put me on trial. And when I am before the Wizengamot, I shall reveal how you have willfully tortured and harmed several students in this school during your so-called detentions with blood quills and rulers and now a Cuff of Binding. Would they be willing to overlook that? I think not, you sadistic harpy!"

"You cannot prove any of it, Snape! It's your word against mine and you are a former Death Eater while I am high in the Minister's favor and his Under Secretary. Accuse me and I shall see you put away for good!" her little eyes were glowing with triumph.

Harry longed to hex her smug lips off, but he remained silent beside the Potions Master. He had given his oath and besides, Severus was doing a fine job on his own of cutting the hag down to pixie size.

"I would never accuse without proof, and this is more proof than I need." He indicated Harry's wrist. "I want this abomination off his wrist tonight, Umbridge! Or else I shall reveal all of your wonderful administrative policies to the public and see what the parents of these children think of them. I doubt they will agree with your disciplinary record, Umbridge! And lest you think you can circumvent me, I have already filed a preliminary accusation with the Board of Governors and another with the Ministry Department for the Misuse of Dark Objects."

He snapped his fingers and a document appeared in his hand. He leaned over the desk and thrust it in her face, his dark eyes glittering. "This document was witnessed by Minerva McGonagall, and she has also seen the cuff which you have bound Mr. Potter with. As we speak, Ministry officials are perusing my letter and the accompanying photos. Shall we wait and see what their response is, or will you do the sensible thing and remove the cuff?"

Umbridge was chalk white now, but her eyes were spitting sparks. "You think you can come in here and threaten me, Severus Snape? All I need to do is say you Imperio-ed McGonagall and Obliviate Mr. Potter here and say you bore false witness against me and the charges will be dropped. You see, professor, my power is absolute here." She gave him a poisoned honey smile.

"No power is absolute, hag. Especially not yours." Severus bared his teeth in a feral smile, like a wolf going for the throat of an intruder. "If you attempt one word of an Obliviate spell or anything like it, the artcicle I have written documenting your reign of terror here goes public, to both the Prophet, the Quibbler, and any other newspaper in Britain. You will not survive the backlash, and your chance at a sterling political career will be destroyed. Still want to play Exploding Snap, Dolores?"

Umbridge shook with fury. "You cannot do this to me! I am High Inquisitor! My word is law! He is a filthy Animagus-a beast soul trapped in a human body." She indicated Harry with a long pointed fingernail. "He must be controlled, else he shall run mad one night and slay us all."

"You are delusional, woman. An Animagus is not a beast trapped in a human body, but a human who can assume animal form for a time, and he keeps his own mind throughout it. Your sick need to dominate children has led you to this pass, Umbridge. Now, for the last bloody time, remove the cuff . . .or else you shall see what a former Death Eater is capable of!"

Snape did not draw his wand. He did not need to. He simply pointed a finger and allowed his magical aura to surge forward, letting the pink-garbed witch feel his enmity and the arcane power that accompanied it. Never had he seemed more deadly, like a viper poised to strike. Or a hawk about to stoop down upon a tasty morsel of rabbit.

Umbridge went backwards, stumbling over her brocade chair. "You would not dare!" She drew her wand.

Snape twitched a finger lazily.

Umbridge's wand was blown out of her hand.

Wow! I didn't know you could do a wandless Expelliarmus! Harry thought in awe.

Snape towered over the witch, all terrible blackness and size, like an avenging specter. "I am a former Death Eater, bitch," he declared in icy tones. "I dare anything. You have ten seconds before I cast the Curse of a Thousand Wings upon you, Umbridge."

"What is that?" She attempted to move about the desk to retrieve her wand.

Severus blocked her.

Snape smiled wolfishly. "It is a curse where a thousand winged creatures descend upon the target of the caster's choice . . .and tear her to shreds." Umbridge's eyes were wide in horror. "Shall we see how fast you can run, High Inquisitor? Or will you remove the cuff?"

"I shall see you in Azkaban yet, Snape!"

"One . . ."

Umbridge remained defiant, but her hand trembled.

"Two . . ."

Severus was giving her a glower reminiscent of an angry manticore.

"Three . . ."

He waved his hand dramatically, and there came a rustle of displaced air and the soft sound of wings beating. "Make up your mind, Dolores. Four . . ."

The whirring of wings grew louder.

Umbridge swayed, trembling. "No . . .don't . . .Severus please . . ."

"Five . . ."

"No . . .I cannot stand them . . .horrid flying things . . ."

"Six . . ." Snape counted implacably.

Dolores scrambled for her wand.

"Seven . . ."

She tripped over her chair and landed at Snape's feet, sprawled on her knees.

"All right! I'll do it! Just stop counting, damn you!"

"Eight . . ."

"Stop! Stop! I promise I'll do it!"

"Nine . . .Swear it, toad bitch, upon your magic and your witch's honor, such as it is."

"I swear! Upon my magic and my witch's honor!" Umbridge sobbed as the shadowy wings became audible and several shadowy winged shapes began to appear in the air inside the office.

"Free Potter from the manacle."

Umbridge pointed her wand and spoke a word and the cuff expanded and Harry shook his wrist hard and the cuff fell off onto the floor. It rolled to a halt beside Snape's boot, and he quickly scooped it up. "I'll have that. Evidence for the suit I am bringing against you, Dolores Jane Umbridge for willfully using dark magic upon children placed under your care, specifically one Harry James Potter."

"WHAT!" Umbridge screeched. "But . . .I removed the cuff, Snape."

"Yes, but I never said I wouldn't prosecute you for deliberately endangering a minor, now did I? By now the necessary paperwork is on its way to the proper authorities and you should receive a visit from Aurors Tonks and Moody any day now."

Too late did Umbridge see how she had been manipulated to revealing her true colors to this man and Harry, who could stand as a witness to everything. "Bastard! You shall rue the day, Severus Snape!" She leveled her wand at him. "Cru-"

She never finished her spell.

"Langlock!" Snape snarled and Umbridge's tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. "Minerva, come in here, please."

The door to the office opened and a livid Minerva strode. "I heard everything, you awful evil creature! You deserve to go to hell and sit in the lap of the devil himself!" She pointed her wand at Umbridge. "Incarcerous!"

Strong ropes emerged from her wand and wrapped about the toad, imprisoning her fast.

"Harry dear, please go to the fireplace and Floo the Auror Department. I believe Moody and Tonks are still on duty."

Harry was never so happy to obey a command in his entire life. They had subdued the wicked witch and he was free of that awful cuff at last.

He tossed a pinch of Floo powder down and the flames turned green. "Auror Department, Ministry of Magic," he said, then he stuck his head through.

"Hello. I'm looking for Auror Moody or Tonks, both if they're available. My name's Harry . . .Potter."

The three Aurors on duty stared at him for a second. Then they gasped and fell all over themselves to be the one who assisted the Boy Who Lived.

Harry nearly grinned. It was amazing how people responded to the wizarding world's youngest hero.

Soon Alastor Moody was limping towards him, his magical eye whirling. "Lad, what seems to be the problem? You in trouble of some sort?"

"No, sir, but we have a bit of an emergency at school. We caught a dark witch."

Moody seemed pleased. "Stand aside, lad. I'm coming through."

A second later, Moody stepped through and eyed Umbridge knowingly. "Ah, I thought there was sommat wicked about you ever since you joined the cabinet and I see I was proven right. What have ye to say for yourself?"

He waved his wand and said, "Finite!"

The Langlock spell, which was one of Snape's own invention, was removed. Umbridge drew in a deep breath. "Just this, Moody! If I am to go to the dementors, one of you shall go with me!" Then she threw back her head and let loose with a magically amplified banshee screech.

Everyone covered their eyes and ears and gasped. Umbridge managed to cancel spell binding her and shot to her feet. She turned to run out of the office, only to discover that someone had put a fetid green lake in the hallway, like a swamp.

"Arghh! What the bloody hell is going on here?"

She quickly splashed through the muck and made for the front entrance.

She had just managed to wrench the door open before bolting outside.

"Halt!" bellowed Moody. "Stop in the name of the law. You are resisting arrest!"

Umbridge fled across the lawn.

Severus, Minerva and Harry followed.

While it felt good that damnable cuff was no longer on him, Harry thought it would feel even better if he had a hand in Umbridge's punishment. In a roundabout way. He shifted into his hawk shape then he flew by the Olwery and screeched-Wake up everyone! The nest robber, the chick hurter, she flees my brethren. Shall we teach her a lesson?

Cries came from every owl in the Olwery. Let us give the wicked bitch what-for!

Then all the owls took wing at once and flew out the casement and after the pink lacey witch, who took one look behind her and practically fell apart. "AHHH! They're after me! Snape, you promised! Not that! AHHHH!"

She tried to run faster, but nothing moves quite as quick as hunting owl, unless it is a peregrine falcon.

They emerged from the school to see Umbridge staggering across the lawn, pursued by dozens upon dozens of outraged owls. The owls flew down and pecked and showered her with droppings and clawed her until her fine pink robes were in tatters and she was scratched and bleeding.

"Call them off! Call them off!"

Minerva looked at Snape. "I regret to say, Severus, that I don't know how."

"Nor do I." Snape remarked smoothly. "Unfortunately for her." He turned to Moody. "Do you, Alastor?"

"Nope. Pity. I always said you oughta be kind to animals."

The owls chased the witch to the edge of the Forbidden Forest, screeching and hooting.

The resulting noise awoke one of the more volatile denizens of the forest, one who bore no love whatsoever for humans, and in fact loved to feast upon them on occasion.

The owls scattered as a huge shape the size of a bus emerged from the forest, flying high above the trees.

The crimson sunset reflected off the iron feathers and the bronze claws of one of the last Stymphalian Birds in existence, as the predator woke from its sleep and immediately looked for prey to sate its ravenous appetite.

Freedom hovered, shivering, as the massive shadow stretched across the sky.

Umbridge looked up, her mouth opened in a scream of utter terror.

The Stymphalian Bird gave a loud harsh cry upon seeing the tasty pink morsel and then it closed its iron pinions and dove.

Umbridge fired off a spell, but it bounced off the bird's iron feathers, since they were naturally resistant to magic.

The bronze talons embedded themselves in the witch's heart and then the Stymphalian Bird lifted the dead High Inquisitor and flew back to its cold lair to feast.

The three wizards and the red-tailed hawk watched in shocked silence, then Moody cleared his throat. "Too bad. Now I have to fill out a blasted report that suspect was killed resisting arrest. I really hate paperwork."

Severus held out his wrist and whistled. "Freedom!"

The red-tail stooped and landed upon Snape's arm in a thunder of wings. Then he walked up and sat upon the Potions Master's shoulder. See, I told you no one messes with my wizard.

Moody peered at Freedom. "So this is the boy's Animagus form? It suits him." He gave the hawk a nod. "Well, I have forms to fill out and a death certificate to file. Good evening, Minerva, Severus, and . . .what are you called as a hawk, Potter?"

"Freedom," Severus answered.

"A good name. Well, I'll leave you to it, though I daresay you'll have the Minister up here in a day or so, questioning ye. But at least you're free of that one's shadow. Till the next Order meeting," Moody said, then he bowed and stumped off towards the gates of the school, where he could Apparate once he was outside them.

Severus turned to Freedom then and said severely, "Freedom, change back. Now."

Freedom obeyed, becoming Harry once more. He flashed Severus a half-guilty, half-sheepish look. "I didn't really break my promise, Severus."

"You came damn close. What do you call that harebrained stunt, mister?"

"Getting even," answered the boy cheekily.

Severus rolled his eyes. "You'll be the death of me yet, you incorrigible fledgling. I ought to take fifty points and keep you scrubbing cauldrons for the rest of the term."

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, I can think of a better punishment than that, Severus," said Minerva. She had a mischievous gleam in her eye. "Make Mr. Potter your unofficial apprentice potion maker, until the year ends. He could use the practice and you could use some help."

Both men gaped at her.

"Minerva, I . . ." began the Potions Master.

"No need to thank me. I think this is both what you need."

"But . . .professor . . ." cried Harry.

"My decision stands, Mr. Potter, as both your Head of House and Deputy Headmistress. You are now Professor Snape's apprentice. We can make it official after you pass your OWLS."

"If I can," Harry muttered.

"Oh, you will." Severus said sternly. "I'll make sure of that."

Harry groaned, though secretly he was pleased. As Snape's apprentice he would have an excuse to spend more time with his professor, and perhaps Snape would manage to help him banish his nightmares as well as improve his brewing.

Suddenly he grinned, and then he blurred into Freedom, and flew delighted spirals about the two professors, shrilling a victory cry.

I'm free at last and the wicked witch is dead! Kreee-aar!


 



Chapter End Notes:


Did I not promise you THAT B  would get hers??

Thanks to all my wonderful reviewers, you rock!

Next: Severus attempts to mentor Harry, teaching him potions and Occlumency in an attempt to alleviate nightmares and visions of a certain Dark Lord.



Chapter 24: Mentor
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The three headed back into the castle, ending up back where they had begun, in McGonagall's office. It was only then that Harry realized that the death of Umbridge might pose a problem for all of them, even though she had not been harmed directly by either professor or himself. "Sir?" He stopped himself from tugging on Snape's sleeve like a toddler. "What happens now? Now that Umbridge is . . .gone?" He didn't know how else to put it, seeing as she had been killed and eaten by a giant bird.

Severus halted and looked at him. "There will, of necessity, be an investigation by Fudge to determine cause of death, though with Moody's testimony and our own, there should be no problem deducing what caused it. The Stymphalian Bird that dwells in the forest is known to hunt humans upon occasion and we have no control over what it hunts when awakened, though it usually does not go beyond the bounds of the forest itself. That it awakened at that particular moment, as Umbridge entered its domain, was sheer chance."

"Professor Snape is right, Harry," McGonagall said, laying a comforting hand upon his shoulder. "None of us were expecting the bird to attack, when you sent the owls after her, it was more to harry than to harm, though I must say the owls really detested her if they followed a hawk's orders to that degree, which says something about her treatment of them," The witch sniffed. "Be that as it may, we were trying to arrest her and bring her in for questioning and trial, not murder her." McGonagall said firmly. Then she added, in a voice so low only Harry and Snape could hear it, "Although I won't shed a tear over her casket, I'll tell you. That woman was as evil as they come, and in a way, the Stymphalian Bird did us all a favor."

Harry looked faintly revolted, but whispered, "Because she might have gotten off even with our testimony at a trial, right?"

Severus nodded. "That was always a possibility, given who she worked for. The Minister has been known to pull strings for his favorites before." The Potions Master grimaced in disgust. "Though given the evidence I have in the form of the Cuff of Binding and your own eyewitness account, I think there is little Fudge can do to salvage her reputation now she is dead. People will find it much harder to pardon a dead witch and will most likely be cursing her name within a fortnight."

"As well they should. Binding a child as well as a new Animagus that way is a heinous crime." McGonagall stated.

"Yes. As such, Harry you need not feel guilty over her death. She died a victim of an attack by a wild beast, a known hazard when you stray too near the Forbidden Forest. If Trelawney were here, I would wager she would say that it was her destiny to die, and the forest chose this way of meting it out. Fudge will probably wish to speak with you, but that's all."

"What if . . .what if he tries to blame me for her death?"

Snape shook his head. "He would not. You were an observer, as were all of us. None of us summoned the bird, it came on its own."

"What about that curse you threatened her with, sir? The Curse of a Thousand Wings?"

"Ah, that. There is no such spell, Mr. Potter," Severus declared, his eyes glittering with mirth. "I made that up to scare her into removing the manacle."

"But, professor, I saw the shadows of the birds and heard their wings beating," protested the fifteen-year-old.

"As you were meant to. That was a mere bit of illusion charms, enough to fool her into thinking the spell was active."

Harry whistled. "Wow! That's really clever, sir. I never would have thought of a bluff like that."

"Which is why he's in Slytherin, Mr. Potter." McGonagall pointed out, though she too gazed at her colleague with respect. "They put their cunning to good use."

"Indeed."

"I wonder if anyone else saw?" asked Harry.

"I doubt it. The castle is too far away from the forest to have a good view even if you looked out one of the uppermost windows. And nearly everyone else was probably studying or sleeping. But they will all learn of her demise tomorrow morning, when Minerva announces it in the Great Hall."

Harry had one more question. "Uh, Professor Snape, what's a Stymphalian Bird?"

"Do you know your Greek mythology? Yes? Well, if you'll recall, Hercules had twelve labors to complete and one of those was to kill or drive off the Stymphalian Birds around Lake Stymphalia in Arcadia. The myth says the birds were Ares's pets and those that were not killed returned to him. Of course, that was not true, the birds scattered to the four winds and have been hunted to near extinction by would-be heroes. This one is the only one left in Britain, it has dwelled in the forest for centuries, though it is rarely seen."

"Unless it is awakened by a screeching banshee of a witch," McGonagall said tartly. "This is the first time the bird has eaten someone in over a century, I believe. In a way, it was poetic justice." She gestured for them to have a seat in her chairs, which were blue tartan upholstered. "She who scorned beasts as beneath her has now become nothing more than bird food."

Harry shuddered a little, for the way Umbridge had died was not pleasant, but he found he could not muster up any true regret for the one who had cuffed him like a stray dog and bound his magic with darkness, nearly harming him permanently, so she could control him. He would not have killed her, but now that she was dead, he felt relieved. He wondered if it were normal to feel so?

Now that she was dead, would things return to normal? He gazed at the elder witch and asked hopefully, "Does this mean I don't have to finish that entire pile of make up work?"

Minerva considered. "Well, it would be a good idea for you to attempt to finish the core courses you will need if you are to enter the Auror program, but you do not need to make yourself sick over it if you cannot complete it before OWLS."

"Thank you," Harry said sincerely, smiling a bit. At last the pressure was off and he could relax somewhat. He decided to finish the assignments in both the Very Important pile and the Important one and as for the rest . . .he would see if it were feasible. "Uh, what will happen now, Professor McGonagall? Will the Headmaster return to Hogwarts?"

McGonagall pursed her lips. "That is difficult to say. When Fawkes used the escape spell to transport them both away, they could have ended up anywhere . . .like a tropical island on the other side of the world. We have no idea where he has gone, and I have not dared tried to contact him yet, just in case the toad was monitoring her. Plus, the escape spell erects a protective bubble about the wizard, preventing communication for a time. I shall try to find him tomorrow." Minerva sighed. "In the meantime, I am Deputy Headmistress at the school. I will be attempting to bring the school back to its original form."

"Do you mean to dismiss all the education decrees she had put up?" Severus demanded. He sounded as if he would not mind in the slightest.

Minerva smirked like a little girl given a treat. "Those will be the first to go, this is a school, not a prison. Oh, and Mr. Potter, you will resume Animagus lessons with me on Sunday mornings-proper ones this time-practical as well as theoretical. However, there will be new rules to follow-the most important being that you will not transform without permission-mine or Professor Snape's. Am I clear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Harry said dutifully, though he thought that rule sucked.

"Good. I want no more accidents. From now on you are allowed to change only during lessons or supervised outings with Professor Snape."

Harry thought about protesting, he'd been a hawk for weeks at a time and he had been fine, but he kept silent, since spending some time in Animagus form was better than nothing. Then he recalled something else she had said as well. "What about my . . . apprenticeship?"

"I think it best if you wait for the Minister to speak before you begin lessons, wouldn't you agree, Severus?"

"Yes, that would be less distracting." He turned to Harry. "I will explain what an apprenticeship entails for both of us after we have met with the Minister. My only concern is maintaining my cover while still being an effective mentor." He eyed McGonagall sternly.

Minerva remained unperturbed. "Don't fuss so, Severus. I have a solution worked out."

Snape looked dubious and muttered, "I am not fussing, for Merlin's sake!"

"Listen. After I break the news to the rest of the school tomorrow morning of our . . .late High Inquisitor's demise, I shall make a statement that I believe we need to encourage cooperation between the Houses, and foster better relations, since Umbridge's policies did nothing but encourage old fears and prejudices. To that end, I shall introduce a cross-House mentoring program, with a teacher from one House mentoring a student from an opposite House. You and Mr. Potter shall be one pair-Slytherin professor and Gryffindor student-and the other pair . . .I shall have to consider who-"

"Perhaps this might help. Hagrid spoke to me earlier about letting Vincent Crabbe study further with him in Care of Magical Creatures. He seems to think the boy shows great promise. I have already given him my permission, but as yet have not told Crabbe."

"Oh brilliant! I shall reinstate Hagrid as the Magical Creatures teacher, since his post was unfairly snatched away from him and Wilhemina really wants to retire anyhow and then we will have our second pair-Gryffindor professor and Slytherin student. The other two Houses I shall have to think upon, but your precious cover as a spy won't be compromised at all, Severus, seeing as it is a direct order from me."

"Just so. And my Slytherin Death Eater offspring will believe I took Potter under duress and not suspect a thing." Severus said, pleased with how it had all worked out.

"Does that mean I have to act like I hate the idea?" Harry inquired softly.

"Grumble and act disgusted, then become resigned to it," Severus offered. "Part of your duties as my apprentice will be teaching small classes of first years. So you will be doing more than brewing, and that should sweeten your temper some."

"You can discuss this in more depth some other time," Minerva said. "For now, it's getting late and Mr. Potter ought to get a good night's rest. For as soon as the paper gets wind of it, they'll be coming around, so expect interviews."

Harry groaned. He hated interviews and reporters ever since Rita Skeeter had printed all those scandalous articles about him during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. "I don't have to give them one, do I?"

Minerva cast him a sympathetic look. "Perhaps one, then refuse any others, it will look odd if you refuse all interviews. I wouldn't worry about it till then. I shall see you both tomorrow, gentlemen. Oh, and I must remember to tell the Weasley twins to remove their swamp from the hallway."

Severus rolled his eyes at that and Harry snickered before they left for their respective beds. Though she did not say so, Harry understood he was not to discuss what had happened that night with any of his Housemates yet. Luckily, they all assumed he had been serving detention with Umbridge or studying and so didn't ask him anything.

* * * * * *

After Minerva had made her announcements in the hall after breakfast, it was pandemonium for several minutes. Some students couldn't believe the Hag from Hell, as they had nicknamed Umbridge, was truly gone. Others were shocked that a vicious predator dwelled in the forest, but the prevailing attitude among most of the student body was thank Merlin Umbridge was no longer in charge.

There followed several minutes of loud cheering when Minerva stated that all the Educational Decrees were to repealed, and extra-curricular clubs and activities could be resumed, though Quidditch was officially over, she would allow two or three matches anyway.

"Will you play Seeker, Harry?" asked Seamus, who had been playing that position before Umbridge had cancelled everything.

"He'd better," Ron muttered. "Otherwise we'll get our bums walloped."

"Who's going to be Keeper now that Oliver's gone home?" asked Dean.

"I will," Ron said.

Everyone looked at Harry, who nodded and said, "Fine with me." He was still angry with the way Ron had behaved, but he would not deny the other a spot on the team, for her knew how much he had always wanted one.

Then McGonagall stated that Trelawney and Hagrid were able to resume their positions on staff and thanked Firenze and Professor Grubbly-Plank for their help. More clapping followed, though Harry heard Malfoy say rather loudly, "Oh Merlin, not the oaf again! I swear, I can learn more by reading a book than listening to the idiot lecture."

Harry felt his blood heat and he was just about to snap out a reply when he heard Crabbe say, "Hagrid's not the oaf you think he is, Draco. He's patient and he knows what he's about. You'd know that if you ever paid attention."

Several Slytherins gaped at the sight of Malfoy's follower daring to contradict him, as did Malfoy himself. Then he recovered and snapped, "When I want an opinion, Crabbe, I'll ask for it. Till then, shut your mouth!"

Crabbe frowned. "I don't need your permission to talk, Draco. You're not Head of the Inquisitorial Squad anymore, so don't act like it. I'm glad Hagrid is teaching again." Then he turned away and began to eat some toast, ignoring the stunned look on Malfoy's patrician face.

Huh. Looks like Crabbe's finally gotten out from under Malfoy's shadow and become his own person, Harry thought, he was sitting on the end of the Gryffindor table closest to the Slytherins and so had heard the entire exchange. Good for him! Malfoy needs to stop lording it over everyone.

Then McGonagall made the announcement he had been waiting for . . .the news of the cross-House apprenticeships. Luna Lovegood ended up apprenticed to Professor Sprout and Hannah Abbot was paired with the jolly Flitwick. Both of them seemed pleased and Crabbe was shocked speechless with his pairing.

Harry looked surprised, as much as he could. Hermione was smiling. "Oh, Harry! What a wonderful opportunity to learn new recipes and stuff!"

"Wonderful?" shrieked Ron. "How can you say that, Hermione? It's bloody cruel, is what it is. To be stuck with Snape for the rest of term. I'd hex myself first." He looked over at Harry. "Well? Don't you have anything to say?"

Harry shrugged. "Well . . .Umbridge was worse. There's nothing I can do about it, really. So . . .I'll make the best of it, I guess."

"I think McGonagall's gone round the bend," stated Seamus. "Snape will make your life miserable, Harry."

"Maybe. But I'll live." Harry sighed, looking unhappy.

Only Ron was not quite taken in by his pathetic acting and as soon as they were away from the Hall, Ron dragged him into a corner of the corridor and hissed, "What game are you playing, Harry? You don't seem all that upset about this. Why not? Because your little friend is there to play with, huh? Do you forget what the bastard did to you for four years or whatever during class?"

Harry clenched his jaw. "No. But that's in the past." He moved away from Ron and said softly, "You don't understand and I can't explain it, but I've my own reasons and either you accept it or not. Your choice."

Ron said nothing, just gaped at Harry, who then turned upon his heel and continued down the corridor. Get your head out of your arse, Ron, for Godsake! I'm not going to have this argument over and over. Just when things start looking up, something else bloody happens. I can't wait to see what Fudge does.

* * * * * *

It was two days before Fudge managed to pay a call to Minerva and discuss what had happened to Dolores Umbridge, and during those two days, the Daily Prophet had a field day with her death, though no fingers were pointed at anyone, it was speculation run rampant, and there were no close relatives to have a funeral procession, especially since there was no body. Fudge was quoted as saying there would be a "small ceremony" held, though when and where was not revealed. Privately, Severus wondered just who would come to it, for Umbridge had not had many friends as Under Secretary either.

As predicted, Fudge summoned both him and Harry to question them about what had gone on that night, since Moody had put them down in his report as witnesses and the Ministry also had his accusation and deposition against Umbridge using dark magic as well.

"I find it hard to believe that she would . . .ah . . .use such an item on a student," Fudge protested. "Much less Harry Potter."

"The evidence is right before you, Minister," Snape said tightly. "Here is the object in question." He produced the Cuff of Binding with a flourish, he had it tucked in a small pouch in his pocket. "As you can see, it is the same object as in the photos and if the Minister would examine Potter's wrist, where he wore the cuff for a period of eight days . . ."

Harry shoved his sleeve up. Though mostly healed from the burns, there was evidence of some scars and redness. "It looked much worse when the cuff was on me, sir," he said quietly. "Madam Pomfrey says that if I had worn the cuff much longer, it could have killed me or damaged my magic permanently."

Fudge peered at Harry's wrist and then at the cuff gravely. He placed the tip of his wand upon the silver manacle and whispered something. The manacle began to glow a sickly green. The Minster recoiled as if he had touched a viper.

"It . . it would seem . . .as though you are telling the truth, Mr. Potter. This is, indeed, an item of dark magic, Merlin forfend!"

Harry fought to keep from rolling his eyes and blurting, Thank you, Captain Obvious! It took you long enough! Instead, he put on his most pitiful face and looked all persecuted and lost, like a hurt puppy.

Fudge sighed and said, "I . . .regret this happened, Mr. Potter. I had always considered Dolores to be . . .trustworthy. A bit zealous perhaps . . .but not crossing lines. It appears I was mistaken. She was seduced into darkness and this is the result."

He eyed the cuff with distaste. "Might I suggest you get rid of that? Melt it, destroy it, but get rid of it, Snape. I will declare this matter closed, based upon the testimony of Alastor Moody, Minerva McGonagall, Severus Snape, and especially Harry Potter. The official cause of death shall be presented as accidental devouring by a magical creature. Such a shame, when she tried so hard to forget that she was one-eighth banshee."

Harry gasped. "Umbridge was one-eighth banshee? But how is that possible?"

"One of her ancestors made a pact with one long ago and it bore a half-human child and that was where Umbridge's line got most of its magic. But Dolores loathed her part-human ancestry and never acknowledged it, claimed it was all hogwash. But she did possess one small talent from her banshee ancestory-the ability to howl like one once a month."

"We experienced the effects of that howl, Minister," McGonagall said dryly. "I nearly went deaf."

Fudge winced. "Well, there you have it. Do you have anything else you would like to add? No? Then I bid you good day." He Flooed back to his office, still shaking his head and muttering, "Poor Dolores! What was hidden overwhelmed her at last."

Snape snorted, then said to Minerva, "With your permission, Minerva, I shall teach Potter how to brew a potion that will melt this abomination down and banish it forever."

"Be my guest, Severus. It is past time we rid ourselves of it."

Snape tucked the cuff back into his pouch and beckoned Harry to follow him. "Come along. We're wasting daylight."

Harry rose and followed the black-robed professor back down to the dungeons, where he watched avidly as Snape concocted a very acidic electric blue potion that hissed and frothed agitatedly even after removed from the fire.

Snape wore dragonhide gloves and so did Harry, as well as a mask, and even then Harry could feel his eyes water.

Severus removed the cuff from its pouch and looked at Harry. "Would you like to do the honors?"

Harry gulped, took the cuff gingerly by the edges and tossed it into the cauldron.

It sank like a stone and immediately the potion hissed, smoked, and turned a viscous black. It smelled like rotten eggs too.

Harry nearly gagged, until Severus cast a Fresh Air charm to blow the stench away.

But after three minutes, the potion quit steaming and smoking, and when Snape stirred it, there was no trace of the manacle in the cauldron. He pointed his wand and uttered the familiar, "Evanesco!"

The contents were banished forever, and the Cuff of Binding, bane of Animagi, was no more.

Harry looked up at Severus and grinned. "It's really gone, isn't it?"

"It is, fledgling," he reassured the boy. "And now, let us go to my quarters, where we can discuss what it means to have an apprenticeship."

"Can we have some tea and scones too?" begged the Animagus shamelessly.

"Oh, for the love of . . .very well," Severus grumbled. "Can't have anyone saying I starve you."

He summoned Twixie once they returned to his apartments and over cups of tea and a dish of blueberry scones, detailed what it meant for Harry to call him mentor.

"Before Hogwarts ever existed, there was the old system of master and apprentice in the wizarding world. The mentor program is a continuation of that old tradition," Snape explained. "Your apprenticeship would normally last two to three years and involve a written agreement from you pledging you to learn all I have to teach willingly. It also pledges me to teach you thoroughly and compassionately, by that I mean without using curses to compel you or whippings or incarceration, my area of expertise until I have deemed you competent. According to the Mentor Articles, by the time you are graduated from your apprenticeship, you ought to be able to brew almost as well as a full Potions Master."

"What? But Severus . . .I'm only average in potions now!"

"That will change. Furthermore, it is also the duty of a mentor to ensure that his apprentice is in good health, of sound mind, and has practical skills necessary to be a credit to the wizarding world. For the duration of the apprenticeship, I am, for all intents and purposes, your legal guardian, since you are a minor without parents living."

"My . . .my guardian? As in . . .I have to live with you?" Harry stammered.

"You may if you wish, though here at school you must still reside in Gryffindor Tower."

"During the summer, though, I can stay with you? And not the Dursleys?"

"Legally, yes, I have that right. Does that bother you, Harry?"

"Bother me? To get out of that house? Are you bleeding cracked, Severus?"

Severus half-frowned at the boy's rather cheeky address, but all he said was, "I shall take that to mean you are amenable to spending the summer with me."

"But Dumbledore said I had to go back to the Dursleys. That I had no choice."

Severus's face darkened. "I shall speak to him about that when he returns. The manipulative old coot will not like it, but neither will he condone what your relatives did to you, Harry." At least I pray not, he added silently.

"Does that mean that Hagrid is now the guardian of Crabbe too? And Flitwick of Hannah?"

"Yes and no. The mentorship I just described to you is the ancient one, with all of the responsibilities and commitments that entails. There is another, lesser version, which is more of an extended study program, and does not bind the mentor to act as a guardian or last more than a year at the most. That is the mentor code I believe the rest of my colleagues will follow. I can do so as well, if you would like."

"But if we did that, then I would still have to return to the Dursleys, right? Dumbledore could force me to go back."

"Yes. With the lesser version, I would have no authority to prevent him, and you would legally be under the jurisdiction of your aunt and uncle."

"What else does this apprenticeship mean?" Harry asked, sensing there was more.

"It means that you will have shortened periods during school, leaving a half a day free for me to tutor in potions. When I think you ready, I may also assign you to teach a class or two of first and second years and possible third years as well, as an adjunct. You will learn how to brew all the drafts on the syllabus for each year, plus the counterdrafts and correct papers and tests and be given the authority to take points and detention as well. However, I reserve the right to override your disciplinary procedures, as I am the more experienced teacher, if necessary."

Harry made a face. "But you won't, will you?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"On whether you know how to discipline effectively," answered the professor. "But that will not be occurring for several weeks yet. First you must learn how to gather ingredients and brew properly. Not to mention study for your OWLS."

"Am I allowed to play Quidditch?"

Slowly, Snape nodded. "Yes, since you need some form of recreation. But be warned, mister, as your mentor, I can and will revoke privileges if you disobey me or misbehave. And that includes confiscating your broom."

Harry blinked and eyed his teacher warily. "What other punishments will you give me?"

Severus coughed, noting the way the boy instantly stiffened and glanced away. Clearly, he was distrustful of anyone in authority over him, which, given what Snape knew of his past, was not surprising. The boy had learned early that adults with power were not to be trusted, since the adults he had known tended to abuse it. From the Dursleys to Dumbledore, all had failed to give Harry the stability and consistency an adolescent needs, not to mention the physical security. Severus too was guilty of harming the boy's self-esteem, and he flinched inwardly. But perhaps now he could begin to make amends for his harsh treatment, he reflected.

"Harry, I am not your uncle. Nor your father, though the guardianship gives me the authority to discipline you, I shall never abuse that privilege. Given my past record, you may not trust me, but I swear wizard's oath that I shall never mistreat you, physically, magically, or verbally. I will try and give you clear rules and consequences if you break them. Said consequences may include a period of grounding, loss of privileges, like your broom and restriction of your Animagus form, lectures, chores done the Muggle way, and written essays. And that is all. I will never hex you, strike you, or starve you, nor lock you in a cupboard. Does that sound fair to you?"

Harry cocked his head and pondered. On one hand, he was wary of letting an adult figure have control over his behavior, but on the other hand, he had learned gradually to trust Severus to keep his word. And he knew the power of an oath sworn upon a wizard's honor. The consequences Snape had outlined were no worse than those his friends' parents had for them and ten times better than what he had been subjected to at the Dursleys. He considered carefully, mulling it over for a good twenty-five minutes before at last saying, "Yes, that sounds fair. I can live with that."

"Good. In return I ask that you try and respect me as a mentor and realize that my dictates may occasionally seem strange or hard, but that they are that way for a reason, to protect you. I also ask that you try not to endanger yourself by being foolish and reckless the way you have done in the past. Your life, fledgling, is a precious gift your parents died to preserve, so do not waste it. And if you have a problem, do not hesitate to ask me for advice. I know you are not accustomed to relying on adults, but there is no reason you have to solve all of your problems alone. I have been where you are now, Harry, so use my experience to help you if you need it."

Once again, he hesitated. He understood where Severus was coming from, that he should have more care for himself, but no one had ever put it like that before. That his life was a gift. Instead he had been made to feel as if his life mattered nothing, and that to risk it was to risk nothing at all. This was the first time he had ever been told that what he did mattered and it touched him profoundly. And yet . . . there was still a part of him that whispered What if you trust him and he fails you like the others? What if? So he looked at the man sitting next to him and said candidly, "I . . .can try, Sev. But . . . I'm not too good at asking for help. I've never . . .nobody ever really cared before . . .and I don't know . . .I mean, I'll agree to listen to you, it's what I'm supposed to do . . .and I'll try to remember to ask you for help . . .Is that okay with you?"

Green eyes filled with a wary uncertainty gazed into his own, and Severus felt a sudden connection flare between them. He gently put an arm about the boy's shoulders. "Yes, Harry. It's all right. I know it will take time for you to trust again. We can take it slow . . .one day at a time."

"Okay."

"Very well, shall we sign these documents then?" Severus asked, summoning the Mentor Articles from the top of his desk.

"Sev, what about Dumbledore? What if . . .he gets mad that you're my guardian? And what about . . .You-Know-Who?"

"Harry, Dumbledore has nothing to say about this, he is not your relative. It is your choice, Harry, and only yours. This can remain between us. Until you choose to reveal it. As for the Dark Lord, he will never learn of it. I can hide it from him, as I have hid many things from him over the years."

"How? How can you hide things when he . . .hurts you?"

"Because I am a master Occlumens."

Harry's brow wrinkled. "An Occlumens? What's that?"

"It is a wizard who has a natural talent in the art of Occlumency, which is the discipline of closing one's mind against another, so they cannot enter it."

"Like reading your mind?"

"Well . . .not exactly. The mind is not a book, it is full of thoughts and memories, and they aren't organized, most times. But a wizard skilled in the discipline of Legilimency can penetrate your mind and find out your secrets. The Dark Lord considers himself a skilled Legilimens, but he uses brute force to penetrate minds, not subtlety. It can be . . .unpleasant, but he has never penetrated through my shields. He can read what I wish, and that is all."

"Is that why you're such a good spy?"

"Partly, yes. The rest is because I have learned to observe and retain what I've learned."

"Could you . . .teach me?"

Severus hesitated. He had never taught anyone Occlumency before, it was not something he had ever been taught, he had learned it instinctively. "Why don't we wait a bit before I teach you that discipline? It is not easy to master and it will require you to . . .let me into your head. For now, I think you need to concentrate on studying for your OWLS and learning how to brew potions."

"All right." Harry agreed, sensing that Severus was uncomfortable with that request for some reason.

Severus pulled the Mentor Articles over and signed them with a flourish. He then handed the parchment and quill to Harry, who read the Articles first and then signed them. As soon as the ink dried upon the parchment, a green light shone from it, coiled about their two wrists, and bound them together.

An instant later, it vanished.

Harry smiled at Severus. It was done. They were now mentor and apprentice, guardian and ward, bound by magic and by something deeper that neither of them recognized yet.

* * * * * *

One week later:

He opened his eyes and gasped sharply, trying to soothe his racing heart. He sat up, shoving the covers off of him frantically. There was only one thought in his mind that kept the fear at bay. Severus. Must get Severus. He stood, his bare toes curling as they met the chill stone floor, and snatched up his wand from beneath his pillow.

One pass and his pajamas became his jeans and Gryffindor sweatshirt and trainers. Then he tucked his wand up his sleeve, Severus had shown him how to master that little trick, and sprinted from his dorm room. His feet had wings that night and he reached Severus's quarters in ten minutes. He placed a hand upon the stone wall and whispered the password.

The stone dissolved into a wooden door and he turned the handle and went in.

Please, let him be okay. Please, don't let the dream come true. I've had the same dreams for a week now, except this was a new one. Tonight's dream had a sinister quality to it, and eerie feel of reality as he watched Severus kneel before the serpent-like Voldemort and Voldemort had smiled and bid him to rise. "What news of Harry Potter, Severus? Have you found him yet?"

There was more to the dream, but all he could recall was fear and darkness, and suddenly he needed his mentor and now here he was, walking into Severus's rooms, certain he would find the man asleep or, Merlin forbid, cursed into unconsciousness again. Instead he found Severus seated upon his couch, tending to scratches on his arm, and drinking a cup of tea.

He exhaled sharply, relief holding him mute for a few moments.

Severus looked up. "Harry? What's wrong?"

Harry's mouth worked, but no sound came out. Then he said, "You're all right! I thought maybe you were hurt. I had a dream . . .and I thought . . ."

He closed his mouth abruptly, fearing he sounded like an idiot.

"Come and sit down," his mentor invited. "Tell me about this dream."

Harry came, now feeling embarrassment and shame swamp him. He'd run down to the Potions Master like a six-year-old after a nightmare. It was a miracle Snape didn't sneer at him and offer him warm milk and to tuck him in bed. He was reluctant to speak yet, so he watched the Potions Master rub some healing ointment upon the long scratches upon his arm.

Suddenly he recalled another part of his dream that night.

". . . .and you never knew the boy was an Animagus, Severus?" hissed Voldemort.

"No, my lord."

"You wouldn't be lying to me, now would you?"

Then Voldemort lashed out with one scaly green hand with sharp claws, and they cut a bloody row of scratches down the Potion Master's arm.

Harry stared at the row of scratches Severus was tending.

They were the same as the ones in the dream.

He blinked and rubbed his eyes.

But how could they be, unless . . .?

A sick feeling stirred in Harry's gut. Since the incident in the graveyard, he had been having weird dreams and sometimes he could feel Voldemort's anger, like a red-hot iron in the back of his mind. Having that dream coincide with Severus's injury was a bit too much of a coincidence.

"You went to him tonight, didn't you?" Harry said abruptly, the knot in his gut migrating to his throat and emerging from his throat in an accusing tone. "You went to him and you didn't tell me."

Severus frowned, not caring for the boy's tone. "I wasn't aware I had to clear my comings and goings with you, apprentice. I have been going back and forth to the Dark One since before you were born."

"I know, but . . .what if something happened to you? Like last time? I wouldn't have known . . ." Harry's voice was getting shriller as his anxiety was growing.

"Calm down, Mr. Potter. Poppy and Hagrid were aware of where I had gone. I didn't see the need to wake you in the middle of the night and disturb your rest."

"Is it because you don't trust me, Severus? I mean, I know I have some freaky . . . connection with Old Snake Eyes, but . . .if something happened to you . . ." he rubbed his scar, which was throbbing like seven hells, in accompaniment to his terror at losing Severus to the evil bastard. "He could kill you . . .You could die like Cedric . . .die . . .and then who would be there when . . ." He trailed off, not wanting to say the words aloud-who would be there for me? No one.-he had already said too much, flipping out like a little girl. He turned away, hiding his burning face.

Then he felt a touch upon his shoulder.

"Harry."

He stubbornly remained with his face turned towards the wall. He wished he dared shift into Freedom, for hawks did not blush.

"Harry, look at me."

He shook his head stubbornly. "No. I know what you're going to say. That I'm stupid and overdramatic and a freak and I should mind my own business. That you can take care of yourself." He stared down at his shoes, his stomach churning. "Go on then. Say it. I know you want to."

Suddenly, he felt his chin seized in a firm grip. "Harry James Potter, look at me, this instant."

Green eyes filled with uncertainty and trepidation met onyx ones.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled.

"Why are you apologizing?"

"Because I'm acting like a twit. I don't know."

"You are not. You are acting . . .concerned over your mentor's welfare. Thank you." Severus paused before continuing. "That is not something I am used to . . .but I would never call you stupid. Or overdramatic. A bit . . .disturbed, perhaps," he teased, and then tentatively rumpled the boy's hair.

"Disturbed? You think I'm crazy?"

"I was . . .making a joke, Harry."

"You have a sense of humor?" Harry smirked slightly.

"Sometimes I forget myself."

In spite of himself, Harry managed a smile. "Funny, Sev."

"Now, what was that comment about a connection between you and His Darkness?"

Harry squirmed a little. Snape's penetrating stare was a little unnerving. "Uh . . .well, I don't exactly know how to explain it."

"Generally, it is best to start at the beginning," Severus prompted, releasing the boy's chin.

"Umm . . .okay. I think it started that night . . .the night in the graveyard . . .after Cedric was killed . . .and Pettigrew took my blood for the ritual . . ." Harry took a deep breath, and then he began to tell Severus about the dreams he had since that night, the dreams where Voldemort was speaking to his Death Eaters, or torturing one of them, or stroking the head of his gigantic snake, Nagini. ". . . .sometimes, when he's angry . . .I can feel it . . .my scar hurts . . .like it did tonight. I woke up and I was hurting . . .and I was . . .scared . . ." he whispered, so softly Severus could barely hear it.

The Potions Master bit his lip hard, for he was angry that Harry had waited so long to inform him of the strange link between himself and the dark wizard. But he knew if he snapped at the boy now, it would ruin the fragile trust that was developing between them. And, to his surprise, he didn't want that to happen. Harry's concern was open and honest and he discovered he liked it. It reminded him of the way Lily used to scold him for spending so many hours studying instead of getting enough sleep.

"That's understandable," he said calmly. "However, I wish you had said something to me before about this connection, Harry. You should not have kept something that important from me," he reproved firmly.

"I . . .didn't want you to know." Harry hung his head. "I hate feeling him in my head, Severus. Besides, what can you do about it? Lock me up in the crazy ward? That's what they do to crazy people."

"No. I can teach you Occlumency."

"But you said you wanted to concentrate on potions and stuff."

"That was before I knew you were having such dreams and feeling the bloody Dark Lord in your mind, young man. Had you informed me of that little detail before, I would have begun trying to teach you then."

"I'm sorry."

"Stop apologizing, won't you?" he said gruffly. "I'm not going to wallop you over a mistake, you ought to know that by now."

"Why not? I screwed up again."

"Stop that. You're feeling sorry for yourself and that I won't tolerate. We all make mistakes, Harry. The trick is to remember and learn from them and hopefully to not repeat them." Severus cleared his throat. "Is your scar still hurting?"

Reluctantly, the boy nodded.

Severus put two fingers beneath his chin and tilted the boy's head up so he could examine the scar. He gently brushed the hair away from Harry's forehead and saw that the scar was red and swollen. He gingerly touched it and asked, "Does that hurt?"

Harry flinched. "A . . .little. But not too bad," he added quickly, lest Snape think he was a wimp. "It's just tender."

Severus gave him a knowing look. Then he summoned his anesthetic salve and applied it to the lightning bolt shaped area. Some of the tension eased from the boy when he did that. "How's that?"

"Better. Thanks."

Severus wiped his hand upon a cloth. "Tell me about your dream tonight, Harry. You saw the Dark Lord in it? And me, I presume?"

"Yes." Quietly, he related the dream. "And it happened. It wasn't just . . .a dream."

"No. And that means that your . . .connection is getting stronger. You must be careful, Harry. It could work both ways. That is why I need to teach you Occlumency. So you can shut him from your mind and vice versa. But, I'll warn you now, it is a difficult discipline to master. It takes much work."

"I don't care. I'll do it."

"Well, you're too tired now to start, so might I suggest we wait until Monday night? For now, I will give you Dreamless Sleep and tell you that the first step towards mastering Occlumency is learning to clear your mind."

"Clear my mind? Huh? I don't get it."

"Make your mind a blank, so that nothing can be known of you," Severus said softly, hoping he was doing the right thing. It was so difficult trying to teach something he knew intuitively. It was like trying to teach a cat to bark, he had no idea how to break down what he did into steps.

"Okay, I'll try."

"Good." Severus waved his wand, and summoned a vial of lavender colored Dreamless Sleep from his private stores. "Take this and go back to your dorm, Harry. You'll sleep peacefully and after class tomorrow we can work on brewing some more of this, or maybe a Draught of Peace."

Harry took the potion. "All right. I'm sorry I acted like such a-"

"If you apologize one more time, child, I swear I'll swat you a good one," he threatened. "You have nothing to apologize for. What have I told you about asking for help?"

"That . . .it was all right."

"It is and always will be. Now, get on up to bed. Because if you oversleep tomorrow morning, I will have you in detention so fast your head will spin."

"Yes, sir." He turned to go, then added over his shoulder, "But how would you know? I don't have class with you at all tomorrow."

"I have my ways, you incorrigible fledgling." He gave the boy a mock glare. "Bed, Mr. Potter. Or shall I carry you there and tuck you in?"

"No!" Harry yelled, horrified. Then he bolted out the door, and so missed his mentor's sly chuckle.

Really, Harry, you need to develop a sense of humor.


 



Chapter End Notes:


Sorry for the wait, it was busy this weekend. Hope you enjoyed this one!

Next: The Occlumency lessons begin and Severus tries to help Harry with nightmares, past and present.



Chapter 25: Laying Old Ghosts To Rest
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Occlumency, Day 1:

"This isn't working!" cried Harry irritably, frustrated.

"Try again," Snape ordered in that implacable tone.  "Take a deep breath and clear your mind."

Snape had been attempting to teach Harry the beginnings of Occlumency for almost two hours now, but so far all Harry had learned was how to become so frustrated he developed a headache.  Despite the professor's encouragement, he had failed to clear his mind or block out Snape's mental probes, and now every time Snape uttered the word "Legilimens!" he cringed mentally.

So far Snape had managed to see some of his earliest memories-of himself standing in the corner, watching while a three-year-old Dudley  opened twenty presents and ate birthday cake, and another time, watching Dudley ride his new bike while he was told to weed the garden, and the last time, when Marge's bulldog Ripper chased him up a tree. 

"Don't you see? I am trying.  It . . .just . . .isn't . . . working!" Harry bit out, his breath coming in ragged gasps.

"Stop.  You are getting overexcited.  You need to be calm when you Occlude."

"It's impossible!" the boy grumbled.  "Maybe you're doing it wrong."

Severus gritted his teeth.  It didn't help that deep down, he feared Harry's assessment was right.  He was in the dark here, trying to teach something that was as instinctive as breathing for him. He didn't need to think about how to Occlude, he just did it.  But hearing Harry criticize him that way, especially when he was trying his best, sparked his temper. 

"Get up," he ordered, restraining the impulse to yank the boy out of the chair.

Harry stood up.  "Now what?"

Severus took the chair and set it in the corner. "Sit there."

"What? You're . . .putting me in a corner? Severus, I'm not five, for Merlin's sake!"

Severus put his hands on his hips.  "Remember the Mentor Articles, young man? You agreed to abide by my instructions.  Now go and sit there."

Jaw clenched, Harry marched over to the chair facing the wall and practically threw himself down in it.  This was just . . .bloody embarrassing! How was punishing him like a little kid teaching him Occlumency?

Snape came up and put his hands upon his shoulders gently.  "Now, Mr. Potter.  Take a deep breath and stare at the wall. Think of nothing but the wall. Let the wall fill your mind.  Breathe . . .in and out . . .Look at the bricks in the wall. . .Become the wall, Harry. . . Nothing exists save the wall . . ."

Harry tried to do as Severus ordered, staring at the wall until he memorized the pattern of stones in it and then he felt himself start to drift, Severus's voice was so soft . . .almost hypnotic . . .it drew him down a misty tunnel . . .

"Breathe . . .one, two, three . . ."

Harry breathed . . .and the wall grew in his mind . . .then he felt a stab of pain in his left temple and he jerked up.

"Bloody damn hell!" he swore.

"You almost had it that time.  What happened?" Severus demanded, feeling exasperated by the half-progress they were making.

Harry rubbed his temple absently.  "Nothing.  My head hurts."

"Where? Do you need a Headache Remedy?"

"No.  They make me fuzzy."

"A common side effect." Severus sighed.  "Where does it hurt?"

"Left side.  Why?"

Severus set his hands on Harry's temples.

"Hey, what are you doing?" he yelped as Snape began to massage.

"Sit still, please.  Put your head back and try and relax.  You're too tense, no wonder you can't clear your mind."

Unaccustomed to an adult male touching him that way, Harry stiffened.  But Severus kept on massaging, and gradually the repetitive gentle yet firm motion caused Harry to relax in spite of himself. 

Severus continued massaging for another five or six minutes, then asked, "How do you feel now?"

"Good.  It's gone now."

The hands returned to settle on his shoulders.  "Now, let's start over.  Look at the wall."

Harry tried again, focusing on the wall, but for some reason he couldn't concentrate, and the wall slipped from his consciousness when Severus cast the Legilimency spell on him. 

Within two minutes, Severus was inside his head and seeing the memory of Dudley shoving him head-first into the toilet at primary school.

No! Not that memory! Get out of my head!

He thrust hard against the white mist that was Severus and suddenly the mist retreated and Harry blinked, gasping, and rubbed his eyes. 

"Not bad.  You knocked me out after a few moments, but you shouldn't have allowed me access in the first place.  What happened to the wall, Harry?"

"How the bloody hell should I know?" the teen asked sulkily.

"Mind your mouth, young man," reproved Snape, and there was an edge to his tone now.  "I will not tolerate being spoken to like that.  Swear at me again and I have a bar of soap for you to wash out your mouth."

"You . . .wouldn't!"

"Try me and find out."

Harry turned his head to look the other in the eye, and blanched when he saw the expression on his mentor's face.  "All right. I believe you now," he muttered.  "Sorry. It won't happen again." The last time he could recall getting his mouth washed out he'd been six, and had called Dudley a "bloody buggering whale from hell".  Petunia had not been amused.

Severus heaved a sigh, now he was developing a headache.  "Let us try this again, Mr. Potter."

But the more Harry tried, the worse it went, until he felt like banging his head into the wall and he was almost certain Severus wished to also.  "I don't understand why I can't do this!"

"Perhaps that's your problem.  You are trying too hard.  Why don't you take a break? Go and take a walk?"

"Can I go flying? As Freedom, I mean? Please?" Harry wheedled.  "That'll relax me better than anything, Sev."

Severus considered.  The boy really had been trying, he reflected.  Which was why it was so frustrating for both of them when he could not seem to grasp the concepts Snape knew intuitively.  Perhaps it had been a mistake to try and teach the boy this lost art? The Potions Master huffed.  No, Harry needed to learn this.  And Severus was the only one who could teach him, since the Headmaster was absent. 

"All right.  But only for an hour, mind.  Hunt, fly, and then return to me when I whistle.  Agreed?"

"Agreed.  Thank you, Professor!"

 Harry shot off the chair so fast one would have thought his backside had been set afire. 

In two blinks of an eye he had shimmered into his Animagus form, and flown up onto Snape's shoulder.  He was careful to grip the fabric gently so as not to hurt the Potions Master.

Severus started to walk out of his office and down the corridor, Freedom happily bobbing his head in time to Severus's footfalls.  The professor slipped out the secret passage and walked across the lawn, before pausing and letting Freedom launch himself from his shoulder into the air.

Severus watched as the red-tail spiraled up and up, until Freedom was just a speck in the twilight sky.  There was a wistful longing in the wizard's eyes as the hawk soared away upon an updraft.  What would it be like to fly, not upon a broom, but with wings? A true master of the air? What would it be like to become a hawk?

I never had time to seek my Animagus form before this . . .I have even less time now, but perhaps one day . . .I can study on it.  Of course, there is no guarantee that my Animagus form will be a bird.  You don't get to choose.  Your form is something that your magic chooses for you and no one knows why or how it decides upon the form.  Perhaps it has something to do with your inner spirit or your soul or whatever.  Severus mused as he walked about the grounds.  The fresh air and exercise helped his headache dissipate and he stretched his legs, walking rapidly down the familiar cobblestone way to Hagrid's thatched cottage, where he spotted Crabbe trying to give Fang a bath.

"Hold still, ya big idjit!" drawled the boy, struggling to keep the huge hound in the tub of soapy water. 

Fang barked and whined, trying to heave himself out, and the boy, despite his bulk, was hard pressed to keep the dog in the tub.

"Ah, be a good dog now, won't you?" Crabbe groaned, tugging Fang back down.  "Stay, ya big lump!"

Fang slurped the boy across the mouth and Crabbe choked.

"Aww! You're such a stupid . . .yuck . . .hound! Ya know that, dontcha?" He scolded, but he was grinning at the big dog, even though Fang was covered in soapsuds and drooling all over his shoes.

Severus suppressed a smile, it was rare he saw one of his Slytherins so content and well, happy.  Most of them put intense pressure upon themselves to succeed, and hardly ever took time to relax.  Clearly, Minerva's mentor program had been a good thing for all concerned.

"Hey, Vince, you almost done out there? I got tea on!" Hagrid bellowed, sticking his head out the window.

"Almost, sir! Jus' gotta rinse him off!" Crabbe yelled back, then turned to the dog and said, "Now, you behave, lad, an' stay!" He held a palm out upright in front of the dog's face.  "Fang, stay! Or else I'll Stick you to the tub, hear?"

The dog barked, wagging his tail.

Then Crabbe pointed his wand and a stream of water flowed out and rinsed the soap off the big hound neatly.  Fang shook and Crabbe threw an arm up to protect his face.  "Whoa! Take it easy! I'm not the one needin' a bath here!"

"Problems, Crabbe?" sneered Malfoy, coming upon the dog and the Slytherin from the direction of the Quidditch pitch. 

"Naw, he's just trying to get dry, is all," Crabbe explained, wiping his eyes.

"Is this what your so-called apprenticeship means? You're a . . .dog groomer, Crabbe?" Malfoy sniggered.  "Now that's a step up in the world."

Fang barked again, but this time he didn't sound so friendly. 

Crabbe banished the water and whistled.  The boarhound came over to him, and the boy spoke a Drying Charm.  Fang shook once more, than ambled over to the porch and lay down, giving Malfoy an unfriendly curl of his lip.

"What do you want, Draco?" Crabbe asked shortly.  "I'm kinda busy, in case you haven't noticed."

Malfoy laughed.  "Oh, I noticed, all right.  Must be a lot of work, giving a stupid dog a bath.  What else do you do, Vince? Curse off ticks? Clean out the thestral pen? Feed the chickens?   You know, Vince, when I was forced to work here, I imagined it was like working on a Muggle farm.  My estate bordered a farm and sometimes I would see the Muggle up at dawn, shoveling manure.  Do you do that too, Vince?"

"And if I do? So what? Animals need to be kept clean, same as people."

Draco rolled his eyes.  "You're so dense! I can't believe you want to do this.  It's so boring and useless."

"Not to me.  See you later, Malfoy." Crabbe said sharply, then he turned and walked into the cottage, leaving Malfoy gaping after him.

As Malfoy turned to go back towards the castle, Severus stepped into his path.  "Mr. Malfoy, a word with you."

Malfoy started.  "Professor! I didn't see you!"

"No, since you were too busy sneering at your Housemate," began the Potions Master.

The blond boy went pale, realizing that Snape had overheard everything.  "Umm . . .well, sir , I was just . . .giving Vince some pointers . . ."

One eyebrow rose.  "Lying does not become you, Mr. Malfoy."

Draco gulped. "I-I . . .wasn't, sir.  Not really.  I just think Vince is . . .wasting his time and his talent serving that oaf, Hagrid.  I mean, all he knows is animals and hunting and what good's that going to do Vince when he finishes school?"

"I was not aware, Malfoy, that it was any of your business what Mr. Crabbe did after he finished Hogwarts.  Nor should you be putting down another student, especially not a member of your own House.  What is the first rule of Slytherin House?"

Malfoy squirmed.  "To . . .present a united front, sir."

"Correct.  And would you call what you just did presenting a united front?"

"No, sir."

"And furthermore, you shall not speak disrespectfully about a teacher, Malfoy.  I don't care what you think of him personally or his teaching methods in general, you will keep a civil tongue in your head, Malfoy, or else you will be back scrubbing the House dormitory on your hands and knees until next year." Snape hissed, his eyes flashing.  "Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good.  Get back to your common room, Malfoy, and I want an essay-two feet of parchment, on respecting your teachers and your fellow students. To be handed in tonight."

"But . . .but . . .sir . . .!"

"Now, young man, or shall I make it four?" threatened Snape silkily.

Malfoy shook his head and fled up the path.

Severus sighed.  He had hoped his detention would have knocked some of the arrogance out of the blond boy, but apparently not.

Guess you told him, huh, Severus?

The professor looked up at the soft cry and saw Freedom circling above him lazily.

Snape checked his watch and found that Freedom still had about fifteen minutes left and waved the hawk away.

Freedom gave a quiet screech and then spun on a wingtip and headed off to the left of the lake.  Sometimes ducks nested there and he was hungry again.  Flying often worked up an appetite. 

As he glided above the Black Lake, his raptor sight fixed upon the rushes, Freedom thought about how much he loved flying this way, soaring high above the world, upon the breeze.  He had missed being able to fly, as a hawk he was one with the wind and nothing, not even riding a broom, could match it. 

He hovered and then his eyes caught a flicker of movement.

Instantly, he was alert, all the muscles in his body trembling with eagerness.

There! An unwary wood duck had just emerged from the rushes and was waddling down towards the water, oblivious to the red-tail above.

Freedom circled, then waited until the duck was just to the waterline before he stooped.

The duck attempted to fly, but had barely spread its wings before Freedom was on it, breaking its neck in one neat swoop.

The hawk gave a quiet kree-eauk! of triumph before bending his head to eat. 

At first, Freedom wasn't sure if he could eat the duck, but then instinct took over and he found he was able to enjoy his quarry as much now as he ever had before regaining his identity.  To a hawk, food was food, and duck was delicious.

Severus had seen Freedom stoop and catch the duck, and he allowed the Animagus to finish his snack before whistling him back in. 

To his surprise, the hawk returned immediately, sitting on his shoulder and daring to nibble on his hair! "Stop that! Before I summon a brush and take it to that awful disgrace you call hair."

Freedom squawked indignantly.   Ah, now that's below the belt, Severus!

But he quickly stopped nibbling, instead sitting up proudly like Osiris the Falcon God in an Egyptian relief. 

Snape waited till they were inside the school before ordering Freedom to transform back.

Harry stood in front of him, a questioning look on his face.  "Are we going to continue lessons now?"

"No.  I think it best if you practice some more breathing techniques and wait till next Monday to resume lessons.  For now, why don't you finish your homework and then study some more for your OWLS?"

Harry groaned, it seemed like all he did lately was homework and studying.  But Severus had made up a schedule where he studied for one to two hours and did homework as well for at least an hour in the evenings before bedtime.

"Homework obsessed bat," he muttered under his breath.

Or he thought he did, until he felt Snape's hand descend upon his shoulder.  "Excuse me? Did I just hear a certain apprentice volunteer to scrub the obsessed bat's bathroom with a toothbrush before going to bed tonight?"

"No . . .sorry, Professor Snape."

"I didn't think so.  Homework, Mr. Potter."

Harry went inside the Potion Master's quarters, wondering if the other apprentices had the same problems with their mentors?

* * * * * *

Occlumency, day 2:

Harry entered Snape's office that night feeling flush and happy.  Gryffindor had won their unofficial match against Slytherin and Harry had finally wiped that gloating smirk off of Malfoy's face.  He had also had a wonderful lesson with McGonagall yesterday morning, and had been allowed to become Freedom for almost the whole hour and a half.  McGonagall had also told him that she was pleased with how well he was able to transform between hawk and human shape and that eventually, when he learned to summon the hawk side of his nature while in human form, he might also develop the ability to understand and speak with avians. 

Harry had been delighted.  It would be like having a permanent Hawk Speak potion, only better.  He had just come from the Owlery, stroking Hedwig and telling her about his day and feeding her treats.  His snowy had gently preened his hair and didn't nip his ear too hard for not visiting her in three days.  She seemed delighted that he was getting proper instruction in Animagus form, and had given him a love nip in farewell when he left.

He tapped on the door of Snape's office before being bidden to enter.

"Professor? I've collected the feathers you needed for the Featherlight Draft," Harry announced, handing the Potions Master the small satchel full of owl feathers, which had been his main reason for going to the Owlery, besides spending time with his familiar.

"Well done.  Set them down over there," Severus waved a hand at a corner of his desk.

Harry did so, then stood there, hands in the pockets of his robes, waiting to see what Severus had planned tonight. 

His mentor came around the desk and set two chairs facing each other, fairly close together.  "Sit down, Mr. Potter."

Harry did so, noting wryly that when Severus was in his professor mode, he became "Mr. Potter" again.  He supposed that was Snape's way of maintaining a professional demeanor.

Severus sat down in the opposite chair, they were so close that their knees brushed. 

"I have decided to try something a bit different tonight.  Something that may help you focus yourself a little better, it is an old technique used in some forms of meditation and hypnosis." He had wracked his brain trying to find an alternative to help Harry learn how to clear his mind and finally had paid a visit to the nearest public library, and read and took notes on several books on meditation and hypnosis.  "We are going to try counted breaths and matched breathing. Are you ready?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good.  First, I want you to close your eyes. Think of something pleasant, a sunny day, clouds, something you find relaxing. Fix the image in your mind. Do you have it?"

Harry nodded.  Being Freedom and flying upon an updraft in the clear blue sky was the most relaxing thing he could think of.

"Good.  Now, I want you to inhale gently, through your nose, and exhale out your mouth."

Harry did so.

"That is one breath.  Now, do it again, only this time hold it for five seconds.  I will count."

Harry drew in a breath and held it as Snape counted.

"Exhale.  That is two.  We will do ten breaths like this.  Again."

By the time all ten were completed, Harry felt very relaxed, and sleepy.

"Open your eyes, Mr. Potter."

Harry reluctantly slid his eyelids up. 

"Are you calm?"

"I think so.  I feel kind of sleepy, sir."

"As you ought to. Now, put a hand on your chest, over your heart." Snape instructed.

Harry placed a hand over his heart.  "Now what?"

"Feel your heartbeat. Feel the way the heart beats . . .steady and slow . . . Now take your other hand and put it on my chest, over my heart."

Tentatively, Harry reached out and laid his hand on Snape's chest.  Severus moved his palm slightly, until he could feel the beating of his mentor's heart beneath the black robes.  Ka-thump. Ka-thump.

"Okay.  This is . . .weird."

"It will get even stranger.  Now, I am going breathe and I want you to feel the way my chest rises and falls when I do so."

The professor inhaled and exhaled, and Harry could feel the way his chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm.  Severus breathed in and out several times then instructed Harry to breathe as well.  "See if you can match my breaths.  Together.  One.  Two. Three.  Breathe."

At first it felt odd, trying to breathe in tandem.  Harry felt a strange urge to giggle hysterically, after picturing Ron's face if he ever knew that Harry spent his time with Snape learning how to breathe together.  But he managed to squelch that desire.  Don't think about that, Harry.  Just breathe.  In and out.  Breathe like Severus.

"Very good.  See how your breathing is slowing down your heart rate? That's what you want.  I want you to enter a state of calm, you should feel relaxed, even a bit sleepy, and there should be nothing on your mind except the wall you stared at yesterday.  Focus on the wall, Harry.  Become it."

Severus's voice deepened, became soft and cajoling, hypnotic in its intensity.

Harry let it wash over him and carry him away, down the misty tunnel beyond the wall.  I'm safe here.  Nothing can harm me.  No one can find me.  I'm safe.

Severus was certain the boy was tranced now and he gently touched the tip of his wand to Harry's temple. 

"Legilimens."

Snape's mind was met with a blank wall.  He probed, gently at first, and then harder.  The wall held, he could only discern surface thoughts.  Good.  This is the way the barrier should look at first.  Now, let me push a little, test for weaknesses. 

Harry could feel the other wizard testing the wall he had erected and he immediately shoved back, instead of remaining passive.  It was a mistake.  The wall bulged and Severus poked at it, and then it collapsed, and he was inside Harry's memories again.

Harry tried to reconstruct the wall, but he was too nervous and the calmness slipped from him. 

Once more he was in the graveyard in Little Hangleton, and Cedric was falling . . .landing on the ground with a thud right in front of his trainers, never to rise again in this world.

No! NO! NO-O-O! Cedric!

He screamed, or thought he did, and he could hear mocking laughter from somewhere as Wormtail grabbed him and shoved him against a headstone, binding him with magical ropes.

He struggled to no avail. 

A cauldron was set before him, smoking and bubbling with some foul brew and he writhed, desperate to get away . . .

"No! I don't want to see this again! Not again!" he screamed.  "Get out of my head, Snape! Get out! OUT!"

Suddenly he was back in the office, standing, his wand drawn, eyes wild.

Severus was shaking his hand, a slightly pained look on his face.  His wand was in his hand, but nonthreateningly.   "Mr. Potter . . .Harry . . .relax.  . ."  He reached out to touch the boy, but Harry jerked away as if Severus were the Dark Lord.

"Don't . . .don't touch me!  I don't want to learn Occlumency anymore, if this is what you see in my head . . ."

"Harry, what happened that night in the graveyard wasn't your fault-"

"NO! I don't want to talk about it!"

"I know you don't but you need to . . .or else you will never master Occlumency. And not learning it isn't an option.  If the Dark Lord ever learns of your vulnerability-"

Again, Harry cut him off.  "I don't care! He can go screw himself! I don't need to talk about it.  I just want to forget it . . .forget this . . .just . . .leave me alone!"

Before Severus could say anything further, Harry whirled and bolted from the office.

"Potter! Come back here!"

Harry ignored him and kept running.  There was a sickening feeling in his stomach and a tightening in his chest as he recalled that awful night. . .No, he wouldn't think about it.  He wouldn't.  He needed to get away, to escape . . .

"Potter, come here!"

That was the last thing he wanted to do.

Before he thought about it, he had exchanged  feathers for flesh and soared into the air. 

Like a brown and red streak, he shot away, his wings leading him unerringly to the Owlery. 

He flew out of the casement, startling Seraphina, who was eating a shrew, and Hedwig, dozing upon her perch after a day hunting voles. 

Freedom? What has happened? Where are you going? Hedwig hooted.

Away! Leave me be, Hedwig.  I just need . . .to be left alone.

Seraphina blinked her huge copper eyes.  I would say, Hedwig, that it is not wise.  Your fledgling is very agitated.  Too much to think straight.  And the Great Iron Bird preys sometimes on the unwary youngling.

Yes, I know.  I shall see if he will speak with me, and if not, will make sure he does nothing foolish, like flying too near the Forbidden Forest at this hour.

The snowy owl took wing, and soon caught up to Freedom, who was not flying with his usual grace, but somewhat erratically. 

Freedom? Slow down.  You are flying too near the forest.

Freedom slowed and glared at the other bird.  Go back home, Hedwig.  I don't need a bloody nursemaid! I told you . . .I just need to be left alone!

Oh? Well, the state you're in, you can't be trusted alone.  Hawks don't fly at night. The owl matched him effortlessly, her wingbeats soft and utterly silent.  What is troubling you, fledgling? You are upset.

Brilliant deduction there!

Mind that tone, or I shall teach you some manners! Hedwig warned.  She hovered just above him, and she was nearly twice his size, as was often the case with raptors-the female was larger than the male. 

Please, Hedwig, just go! I don't want to talk about it with you, or Severus, or . . .anyone! Okay?

Does Severus know you're out here?

Freedom did not answer, instead flying in spirals above the forest.

Freedom! Where are you going? Hooted Hedwig in alarm.

My glade.  It's safe there.

You never answered my question.  Does the professor know where you are?

No. He began his descent below the treetops.

Freedom! You transformed without letting him know? You're not supposed to do that! It's dangerous, especially when you're upset.

I'm fine.  Don't worry about me.

You must go back.  The forest is not safe at night. Go back to the castle!

He spun on her, hissing.  No! Now bugger off! Then he dove through the trees.

Hedwig hissed furiously and followed as quickly as she could.  But she lost him among the trees, the forest was hard to navigate here, even though she was a night flier.  She pulled up and flew away at last, thinking angrily that when she next saw her wizard, she would have much to say about his behavior.  Much to say!

Harry landed on a convenient branch in the secret glade Hagrid had shown him long ago. He huddled miserably upon the branch, wishing he had never agreed to practice Occlumency, and never allowed Severus to enter his mind. 

Meanwhile, Snape was searching for his errant apprentice, growing more angry and concerned by the minute.  At last, after his locator charm indicated Harry was not in the castle, he decided to search the grounds.  And the first place that he thought of was the glen, which was where Harry, like himself, seemed to go when he was upset.

Sure enough, he found Freedom perched upon the branch of a low hanging oak tree.  For a moment he felt a sharp sense of relief, then anger at what the boy had done surged through him. 

"Running away never solved anything, you know." Snape said sharply.  "Change back, Harry. You transformed without my permission."

Freedom hunched his back and faced away from his mentor.  Piss off, Severus!

Though Snape could not understand what the hawk said, since he had not taken the Hawk Speak potion since Harry had revealed himself, the message was clear. The Potions Master put his hands on his hips and said sternly, "Mr. Potter, I will say this one more time, and then I will cast a spell to make you transform back.  Change back-now.  Using your Animagus form as an escape because you don't feel like discussing something with me is not a good idea."

He waited.

Freedom hissed, then he flew down from the tree and blurred into Harry, who glared at him defiantly. 

"What happened that night is private, Severus, and I don't want to discuss it, okay?"

"Mr. Potter, I know this has been bothering you for awhile . . ." Severus began, trying to keep his temper.  He could tell this really upset the boy and he tried to remind himself that he was no different at sixteen.  He too had refused to speak about his past to Hagrid, becoming sullen and silent when the half-giant had tried to get him to talk about what had prompted his sudden attempt to leave the world behind forever.  "I think it might help if you were to talk to me . . ."

"No! How many times do I have to say it? I don't need to talk to you, I don't need you to tell me it'll be okay, because it won't . . .it's done and if you'd stayed out of my head I wouldn't have these nightmares all over again . . .Just let it go, won't you?"

"I can't do that."

"You can! Pretend you don't care, dammit, and leave me the hell alone! Just piss off!" he yelled, then he sprinted past the other wizard and out of the glade.

Why that . . .disrespectful little brat! Snape thought, furious.  He followed the boy, he could hear him crashing through the brush just ahead. 

Harry ran across the lawn, his breath rasping in his throat, his eyes burning with unshed tears.  Any minute now he expected Severus to grab him and shake him or whatever, but it never happened.  He slipped into the castle and up to Gryffindor Tower, everyone was asleep and he was relieved for he didn't want to speak to anyone.

He undressed and pulled on some pajamas then he curled up in his bed, utterly miserable, a single tear flowing down his face.  Now he had really done it.  He was sure that Severus was going to kill him.  He buried his face in his pillow and wished he could forget everything about that blasted night.  Why couldn't someone just Obliviate me? Why? He groaned and spent the night tossing and turning before finally falling asleep near dawn. 

And then he dreamed of Cedric.

* * * * * *

The next morning, Harry felt as if a black cloud of disgrace hung over him.  He slogged through his classes, dreading the moment when he would have to face Snape again.  For once he wished that he had longer periods, but he knew the inevitable could only be put off so long.  He didn't even know how Severus was going to punish him, but he was certain he wasn't going to like it.

Damn my temper! Damn my smart mouth! Oh Merlin, I am so dead!

He could feel himself start to sweat beneath his robes.  He ignored Hermione's call to come with her for lunch, muttering a quick, "Not hungry, I need to study," over his shoulder.

With how his stomach was churning he doubted if he could keep anything down. 

He lingered in the corridor outside Snape's classroom, which was where he'd been instructed to meet the professor on Tuesdays,  until he finally gathered up what Gryffindor courage he  had left and entered the lab.

Snape looked up from where he was chopping up some acacia roots.  "Come in, Mr. Potter," he said ominously.

Harry walked into the room, feeling like a naughty child about to receive a well-deserved punishment.  He peered up at Severus from beneath his thatch of messy hair.  "Sir? I-"

"Not another word." Snape cut him off.  He lifted his arm and pointed to the back of the room.  "Go to the cabinet in the back and take out what you find on the bottom shelf."

His apprentice obeyed, dragging his feet like a reluctant four-year-old.  He suspected what he would find there, and Snape did not disappoint him.

He carried the bar of soap back to his teacher and placed it on Snape's outstretched palm. 

"Sir, before you . . .do it can I at least say that I'm sorry?"

"For what?"

"For . . .swearing at you, and running off, and ignoring you . . .I don't know why I acted like that . . .except . . .I was just so angry, I didn't think . . ."

"Tell me something, Mr. Potter.  Do you behave that way with your other professors? Like McGonagall? Or Flitwick? Or Hagrid?"

"No, sir."

"Then can you tell me why you behave that way with me? Am I less worthy of respect than they are?"

"No . . .it's not like that . . ." Harry felt himself turn red.  "I do respect you, but . . .sometimes . . .I don't know . . .I just say things . . .I'm really sorry . . ."

"So you say.  That attitude of yours, Potter, is what will get you in trouble quicker than any hex you could cast.  I realize that you don't wish to talk to me about your dreams, and normally I would respect that privacy, but in this case, I cannot do that."

"Why, sir?"

"Because it is harming you more than helping you to keep it unspoken.  Trust me on that.  Even so, that does not excuse your unacceptable language.  I warned you what would happen if you swore at me, for whatever reason. As I am a man of my word, you shall now pay the consequences.  Afterwards, you will assist me in preparing ingredients for a cauldron of a Draught of Peace.  Once it is finished, I strongly urge you to take some of it and then discuss these dreams you've been having about Cedric Diggory."

"Do I have to, sir? I'd rather scrub your bathroom with a toothbrush ten hundred times."

Severus sighed.  "Harry, you know how I feel about personal privacy.  If it were not imperative, I would never push you to discuss something so . . .distressing.  But if you do not lay the ghosts of the past to rest, you will never be able to get on with your life.  They will haunt you forever."

"How do you know that?"

"Because I have been where you are now." Severus admitted quietly.  "We will discuss this more afterwards." He placed a hand firmly upon the younger wizard's shoulder and steered him towards the sink at the back, ignoring the pleading puppydog eyes Harry flashed at him.  He disliked punishing the youngster this way, but he knew consistency was the key, and he had spelled out the consequences beforehand.

* * * * * *

 Ten minutes later, one very repentant apprentice grimaced as he ground up lavender buds, wishing that the taste of soap did not linger quite so much on your tongue even after you had rinsed your mouth twenty times.  Or that your mentor was not quite so thorough with coating your mouth with said bar.  One thing he did know was he would never swear at Snape again.  Petunia had nothing on the Potions Master when it came to a good mouth washing.

It made Harry wonder just how many times Severus had washed out a student's mouth for him to become so . . .proficient.  Never mind. I don't think I want to know.

After he had added the syrup of hellebore and powdered moonstone, Harry stirred the draught ten times clockwise and then let it rest for two minutes before stirring it five times counterclockwise and then letting it steep-it was now a deep turquoise color-for ten minutes.

He glanced at his mentor, expecting to receive a reprimand for his almost forgetting to add the lavender buds to the solution, but Severus gave him a nod and slight smile, which was the equivalent of a "Wonderful job!" from another professor.

Harry allowed himself a moment of pride.  The Draught of Peace was a tricky potion, OWL level, and he had done it correctly on his first solo attempt.  He had made it one other time as well, but assisting Severus, never on his own.

"When it has steeped and you have decanted all but a cupful, you may drink it, and then we shall retire to my quarters . . .or the glen if you prefer . . .and work on ridding you of your nightmares."

"Yes, sir."

* * * * * *

 One cupful of the Draught of Peace later, Harry was sitting half-curled upon Snape's leather couch, the green afghan clutched in his hands, trying to relax.  He was feeling rather calm due to the potion, but little tendrils of anxiety still quivered through his nerves. 

Severus had tea set out on the table, but it remained untouched. 

The Potions Master had removed his black robes and was seated a foot or so away in his shirtsleeves and trousers, looking attentive and yet relaxed.  In point of fact, he was anything but.  He knew this session was not going to be easy for either of them, but it was necessary.  He waited patiently for Harry to speak.

And waited.

And waited.

Finally, he cleared his throat pointedly.  "Harry, delaying it won't make it go away."

"I know, but . . .can't you just . . .do what you did before?"

"No.  When I used Legilimency, you became immediately hostile and defensive, and I do not want to go through another hour of chasing you all over the grounds.  It will be more effective if you tell me in your own words about your nightmares, Harry."

The boy drew in a shaky breath.  Then he began.

"It's always night in my dream, that never changes.  Cedric and I are holding hands and touching the Triwizard Cup at the same time.  That was my idea, I thought it'd be fair if we both won, because I wasn't even supposed to be in the Tournament in the first place.  I . . .convinced him to touch the cup, we didn't know it was a Portkey until we ended up in the graveyard, where Wormtail was holding . . .You-Know-Who . . .we were surprised, we didn't know where we were or what was happening.  Cedric didn't even have time to draw his wand, or cast a Shield Charm, before he told Wormtail to "Kill the spare".   And then he said the Killing Curse and Cedric got hit by that green light and he was falling .  . .I tried to catch him but . . .I was too slow . . .He fell at my feet and I saw his face . . ."

"What did it look like?"

"Like . . .like . . .he was stunned . . .Like he couldn't believe this had happened to him . . ." Harry whispered, shaking.  "I couldn't believe it either.  I kept thinking-it's a dream, it's not real, you'll wake up soon-but I didn't . . .I didn't .  . .I tried to run, but Wormtail . . .he cast some kind of bind on me and then he gagged me and tied me to the headstone of Tom Riddle senior and then he . . .started the ritual that brought the bastard back again . . .he took a bone from the dead father, and he cut off his hand and he . . ."

"What else?"

"Do I have to say it? You know . . .you know what he did."

"Yes.  But it is best if you admit it, child." Snape prompted.

"A-all right.  He . . .cut my arm and he took my blood-the blood of the enemy-he called it-and then he used me to resurrect the filth . . ." Harry bowed his head, unable to look Snape in the eye.  "Then he called his Death Eaters with the Mark and I managed to free myself . . .we fought and our wands joined and that's when I saw them . . .all the ghosts . . .my parents and Cedric . . .Cedric said to bring his body back . . .so I did . . .I couldn't even tell his dad what happened because he was raving about his son dying and I knew . . .I knew he'd blame me for it . . ."

Harry's hands clenched to white-knuckled fists on the afghan. 

"Why? Why would Amos Diggory blame you? You were as much a victim as Cedric," Severus pointed out.  "You nearly lost your life too."

"Because it was my fault, Severus! It was! I told him to touch the cup, if I hadn't, he never would have been taken away by the Portkey.  He would have remained in the maze and been safe! Don't you see? I led him to his death! They killed him because of me!"

"No.  Cedric died because the Dark Lord enjoys killing helpless children. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Harry, and his death was . . .not something you could have predicted or prevented."

Harry shook his head stubbornly.  "I could have gone alone."

"Did you know the cup was a Portkey?"

"No."

"Did you know that sharing your victory with Cedric was going to lead you to a madman and his servant?"

"No, but-"

"Did you know that Cedric would be killed?"

"No, of course not!"

"Then how was it your fault?"

"Because I brought him there!" Harry yelled.

"No, you didn't.  He brought himself there." Severus hissed, leaning close to the boy.  "Did you force Cedric to touch the cup, Potter? Did you hold a wand on him and threaten him harm if he did not share in your triumph?"

"No."

"No.  Then why carry guilt for something that was not your fault? You were innocent.  You were caught in a clever trap like Diggory.  The only difference between you is that you survived."

"I know! And that's why I feel so awful, Sev! Because it should have been me!"

"Why would you say that?"

"Because . . .if I had died . . .then he never would have been able to return! Don't you see? I should have been the one and then everyone would have been safe!" Harry sobbed.  "Only I didn't, and the Dark Lord returned and now there's another war and . . .it's my fault! Mine!"

Severus reached across the intervening space and took the boy by the shoulders, shaking him gently.  "Harry, listen to me.  You are not responsible for the choice others make.  If you had not been in the graveyard, do you think it would have stopped Wormtail from finding another person to use in his ritual? Do you? For I assure you-the Dark Lord has no shortage of enemies.  He could have kidnapped an Auror, a professor, any one of them would have done to take blood from and use in the ritual.  But His Darkness thought it fitting to use your blood, the blood of his supposed "greatest enemy", following the ravings of the false prophecy.  It was his choice, not yours.  He chose to kill Diggory and he chose to sell his soul to the forces of darkness."

"But . . ."

"Would Cedric want you to feel guilty over his death, Harry? When you saw his . . .ghost . . .did he act like he was angry with you? Or that he hated you?"

"N-no . . ."

"No, and do you know why? Because you were not to blame. Cedric knew that, he knew who the real killer was-the one holding the wand, not you.  Never you."

And suddenly the truth of what Severus was saying hit Harry all at once. 

Like a Bludger to the solar plexus.

He gasped, went pale, and then started sobbing. 

"I'm sorry . . .Cedric . . .I'm sorry . . .I wanted to save you . . .but I couldn't . . .!"

"No, and that is why you feel guilty and ashamed," Severus whispered.  "Because Dumbledore made you believe you were a savior." He reached for the boy then, and Harry fell into his arms, just as he had done in the glen. "But you aren't, child.  You're just a boy.  Shhh . . .It's all  right . . ." He began stroking Harry's hair and rubbing his back, encouraging him to release all of the pent up grief and guilt he had kept inside of him for all those months.

Severus held him wordlessly, not allowing him to draw away, recalling another night long ago, when another dark-haired boy had wept this same way for the death of a friend.  And been comforted too, by another of the Dark One's victims.

We are much alike, he and I.  You were right, old friend.

The Potions Master rocked and held his charge until the grief had spent itself and Harry rested, worn out, upon his soaking wet shirt.

Then and only then did he transfer the exhausted boy to a reclining position upon the couch and tuck the afghan about him, after first transfiguring Harry's clothes into nightwear.  He gazed down at the sleeping boy, gently running a cool flannel over his blotchy face and removing his glasses.

My poor Freedom.  You carry too much for your age. Too much.  Damn you, Albus! I wish you were here, to see what your bloody machinations for the greater good have wrought.  I wish you could see your "Savior of the Wizarding World" now, wrung out and exhausted from guilt! I'll bet your eyes wouldn't be twinkling, old man! I'd show you, all right.  And then I'd throttle you .  .  .so maybe it's better you're not here.

 Severus knelt and smoothed back the perpetually messy hair from Harry's forehead.  "I am sorry, child.  Hopefully, all of your ghosts have been laid to rest now.  Pleasant dreams."

Then he muttered a charm to alert him in case Harry chanced to have a nightmare, reheated the tea upon the table, drank it off, firecalled Minerva so she wouldn't worry about her missing lion, and went to bed.

* * * * * *

Occlumency, day 3:

Monday night rolled around again, and Harry found himself seated in Snape's office in the same chair he had been in last time.  It had only taken him a day or two to stop feeling ashamed over his outburst Tuesday evening and to realize that Severus had been right-talking about it did help immensely-and he had not had a dream about the graveyard or Cedric the rest of the week.

"Shall we begin, Mr. Potter?"

Harry nodded, then held up a hand.  "Wait, sir.  I know what to do."

"Indeed? Show me then."

And Harry did, managing to use the techniques Severus had suggested to clear his mind and erect a wall about his innermost thoughts, showing Snape only those thoughts he wished the professor to see, and blocking the others away.

Severus slipped into Harry's mind like water flowing over rocks, causing barely a ripple, and gently sifted through the memories Harry displayed. 

He poked and prodded at the wall, and Harry managed to send him more images from his day of classes. 

See? There's nothing there.  Nothing.

Severus allowed himself to be drawn away for a time . . .then he slipped back in and found a small weak spot in Harry's defenses and nudged his way in.

Harry flinched, but all Severus said was, We'll work some more on this  next time, fledgling.  You have made a very good effort.  Well done.

He withdrew, retreating back into his own mind in the flicker of an instant.

Harry opened his eyes and removed his hand from Severus's chest.  "You got in."

"But only after a concentrated effort."

"I forgot to keep thinking about the wall."

"True, but that is why you need to practice.  Rome wasn't built in a day, Harry.  And you shouldn't expect to master Occlumency in a day either.  It is a very hard discipline to learn."

"Tell me about it." Harry groaned.  Then he smiled quietly.  "It's a good thing that I have the best teacher then, isn't it?"

Professor Snape smiled.  "A very good thing, apprentice.  Now, how about a cup of tea and some scones?"

Harry's smile grew wider.  Then he called for Twixie, a warm glow of pride suffusing him.  Perhaps he had been wrong and he was not as hopeless  at Occlumency as he had thought.   And now Cedric's ghost could rest easy, and allow Harry to get some sleep.    

 



Chapter End Notes:


Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed this fanfic!

Hope you all enjoyed the Occlumency lessons so far!

Next: Ron's attitude leads to Harry losing his temper with Severus, prompting the Potions Master to give his ward an unexpected lesson on controlling his temper
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Chapter 26: Anger Management
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The end of term was fast approaching, and Harry was working hard on mastering his Occlumency lessons as well as keeping up with his studies as an Animagus and a potion maker. He was also reviewing his classwork for his OWLS with Severus at night, though the Potions Master said he was far enough along that they could skip a few nights and just brush up a week or two before the exams. Harry was happy to hear that, because all that studying was making him cross-eyed.

His Animagus lessons were progressing nicely, McGonagall was teaching him how to transform his normal eyes, with their awful vision, into his hawk's eyes for brief periods, though that almost always gave him a splitting headache afterwards. The first time he had done it, he had a lesson with Severus afterwards, and been scolded by his mentor for not taking a Headache Remedy immediately. Snape had made him lie down on his couch with a cold cloth over his eyes while the professor brewed an Extra Strength dose, the kind he used for those students and professors who developed migraine headaches.

Harry had never had a headache so bad before and was astonished at how much pain he was in and how it made him sick to his stomach. Severus had returned, tried to give his apprentice the potion, but Harry ended up vomiting, to his chagrin. Severus was undaunted, however, having nursed himself through a migraine a time or two. The Potions Master summoned a strong Stomach Soother and proceeded to alternate spoonfuls, first the Stomach Soother and once that had begun working, the Severe Headache Remedy after.

The horrid headache vanished in about ten minutes after that, and Harry fell asleep. When he woke up, Severus had told him bluntly, "Next time Minerva asks you to partially transform, make sure you have some of this on hand, and be sure to tell her a hawk's eyes don't belong in a boy's head."

"But Sev, it was so neat to be able to see like a hawk for a little while," Harry protested.

"And would you say that headache you got was also neat?"

"Uh, no, that really sucked."

"If I were you, I'd restrict that particular transformation unless absolutely necessary."

Harry made a face.

"Unless you like feeling your head getting pounded like an overripe melon."

"No," the apprentice muttered, shuddering. There were times he wished his mentor didn't make such perfect bloody sense.

When he told McGonagall about Severus's suggestion, she agreed with him, and said that such side effects were common and that was why Animagi usually transformed fully instead of partially.

Lately, Harry had been having strange dreams about a long corridor with dozens of doors and when he reached the end of it, there was a door that glowed and inside was a huge room of crystal balls and standing next to one was Voldemort, clutching a ball in his scaly hand and laughing in triumph. Harry had reported the new dream to Severus, who immediately stepped up his Occlumency lessons from one night to two nights and began giving him measured doses of Dreamless Sleep every other night and instructing him to Occlude his mind before he slept.

Recalling Voldemort's hand in the dream made Harry wonder if the evil wizard was also an Animagus-an unregistered one, no doubt.

But when he had asked Severus, the master spy said only, "I do not know. He does not reveal everything about himself, he is far too smart for that, though it could be a possibility. It would explain much, like why his eyes resemble a reptile's or a snake's and how he has suddenly begun to grow scales."

Privately, Harry found the idea of Voldemort as an Animagus utterly loathsome and if he could transform to a snake or a lizard, Harry was sure it would reflect his twisted soul, and felt bad for whatever creature it was.

He was still on the outs with Ron, and that was something that was really beginning to irk him. He had given his friend plenty of time to adjust to his new status as Snape's apprentice and to quit sulking because of Harry's supposed "betrayal" of Gryffindor sensibilities in daring to be friends with the Head of Slytherin House. But the stubborn Weasley refused to accept that Harry wasn't going to change his mind and go back to hating Snape the way he used to, or that Snape was more than what he seemed and had in fact helped Harry battle his inner demons. Ron still persisted in seeing Snape as "the Greasy Git Who Hates Gryffindors and Needs to Wash His Hair".

And if Ron's attitude were not enough, Hedwig was mad at him too for his behavior that night of his second Occlumency lesson, when he had transformed without permission and gone flying at night to escape Severus. He had gone to ask her to deliver a letter to Sirius a week later, and discovered that owls never forgot insults either.

She had ignored his entreaties to come to him, and when he had climbed up on the niched wall to coax her down off her perch, had whirled about and nipped him-hard-on the hand and the ear, hissing and screeching, her golden eyes whirling with anger.

He had yelped and covered his face instinctively, and then she had smacked him soundly with her wings, boxing his ears, so to speak.

"Hey! Oww! Hedwig, what's the matter with you? Why are you attacking me like this?" he had cried.

Then he had transformed into Freedom so he could speak to her, and the snowy had promptly pecked him again on the head and proceeded to berate him sternly. How quickly you forget, youngling, what you said to me that night! You were rude and nasty and I might be your familiar but that does not mean I shall be treated like a featherduster! I seek to keep you safe and that is how you act?

Sorry, Hedwig. I didn't mean to say that to you, I was angry at Severus for trying to make me tell him about my dreams, and I guess I just . . .overreacted. Freedom chirruped contritely.

Humph! You need to start listening to your elders and controlling that temper, before it gets you into trouble you can't get out of. Now change back, you know better than to shift without a teacher around!

He had done so, and asked humbly if she would carry the letter for him. She had agreed, though not before he had apologized yet again, fed her a shrew plus several of Hagrid's homemade jerky-honey treats, and promised he would never do anything like that again.

She had nipped him warningly before flying off to Grimmauld Place, and the other owls in the Owlery at the time had all cast disapproving looks at him and he had gone back downstairs feeling like a chastened toddler.

When she returned, she had not come to see him, and he assumed she was still angry with him for his smart mouth.

As yet, he had not heard back from Sirius, and hoped all was well with his godfather, though he winced imagining the other's reaction if he knew that Harry was now Snape's personal apprentice. It would most likely be worse than Ron's.

Harry hurried into the Great Hall for lunch, he had another potions lab with Snape after, and wanted to skip lunch and practice some of the Occlumency disciplines instead, but his mentor insisted he eat three square meals a day. Harry grimaced. Really, Severus fussed worse than his mother, or so he imagined. Sure he was small for his age, but he wasn't starving here at school, and one skipped meal wouldn't cause him to waste away.

But he knew better than to disobey Severus's dictates regarding his health. "Either you take care of yourself properly, Mr. Potter, or I shall do it for you, even if it means sitting you on my knee in the hall in front of the entire school and feeding you like a reluctant toddler. You are undernourished as a result of your treatment by those . . .reprobates you call relatives and therefore you need to eat three balanced meals a day and drink plenty of liquids and go to sleep at a decent hour."

"You sound like somebody's mother," Harry had groused.

"If your mother were alive, she would be lecturing you the same way. A healthy body equals a healthy mind. Now eat your breakfast and quit picking at it. Or do you need me to play flying train with your oatmeal?"

That dire threat had made Harry start eating double quick. Severus had a wry sense of humor and sometimes he couldn't tell if the man were kidding when he made those threats. Better to be safe than sorry though.

And, though he would never say so, he found Severus's concern over his wellbeing a welcome change from being ignored and overlooked like he had been at home. He supposed this was what it meant having a guardian of sorts and decided he preferred Snape's fussing to the Dursleys' coldness any day of the week.

At the Gryffindor table, Harry slid into his usual place, next to Hermione and across from Ron. Hermione was already there, looking over some Arithmancy notes and nibbling an apple. She was careful about what kinds of snacks she ate since she used to wear braces up until last year and didn't want to ruin her teeth by eating too much sugar.

"Hey, Hermione." He waved at her as he shoved his bag under the table. "Anything new going on with you?"

"Hi, Harry. No, I just wanted to get ahead in my reading for next class before I start studying for my OWLS. Have you been learning anything interesting with Professor Snape?"

"Lots," Harry answered, watching as lunch popped up on the table in front of them.

Today there was a choice between chicken pot pie, a roast beef and cheese sandwich, beer battered fish and chips, a garden salad, a crisp green bean with bacon salad and rice pudding.

Harry took some fish and chips and some green bean salad, plus his usual pumpkin juice. Hermione took a sandwich, and both kinds of salads.

"Where's Ron?" Harry asked, looking around for the redhead, who was usually never late for meals.

"Um . . .I think he had to speak with Professor McGonagall about something." answered Hermione, biting into her sandwich.

Harry began eating, telling Hermione about the Occlumency lessons Severus was teaching him, explaining that it was a difficult discipline to master, but he was beginning to get the hang of it, bit by bit.

"It's a very rare art, Harry. Only a handful of wizards have ever mastered it," said his friend. "But I'm sure you'll do well if you keep at it. I've read that it requires a good deal of patience and control over your emotions and mind. Is that true?"

"Yes. It's hard, sometimes, for me to control myself. You have to be calm when you Occlude, if you're not, it won't work. Professor Snape says eventually I'll be able to keep him out for some of the time, my goal right now is about twenty minutes."

"If you keep at it, you'll master it. After all, practice makes perfect." Hermione said, giving him a smile of encouragement. "Have you learned any interesting potions lately?"

"Well, we've been working mostly on medical ones-like the Non-Coughing Draught, and bruise-healing paste, and the other day I brewed a batch of burn salve. Good thing too, because I ended up having to test it after I burned my hand on the side of my cauldron."

"Oh, you poor thing? Did it work?"

"Yeah. See?" He showed her his left hand, which bore not even a red mark on it. "Professor Snape says that maybe next week, once I've brewed all the drafts in the first-year syllabus from memory, I can start teaching a class or two of firsties."

Hermione's eyes lit up. "Oh, that sounds wonderful! Isn't it exciting? I would love to teach a class. Will they call you Professor Potter, do you think? Are you allowed to take House points and give them?"

Harry nodded. "Yes, and detention too, if I have to. I'm a little nervous, but Snape says all I have to do is make a firm first impression and-"

"Is that what he calls it?" Ron snorted. "All he's ever cared about is taking points from Gryffindor and letting his House get away with everything." The redhead came forward and sat down opposite Hermione, his blue eyes flashing.

Harry looked up and said softly, but with a hint of anger, "How long have you been listening to our conversation, Ron?"

"Long enough to know you'd be stupid to follow anything that the Greasy Git tells you, Harry. You going to become mini Snape now, huh? Scare all the firsties to death, put grease in your hair and wear a black robe, huh?"

"Ron! How could you say that?" Hermione cried. "I think Harry would make a great teacher."

"You would! You and Ginny worship the ground he walks on!" Ron stated. "Mr. Perfectionist Potter teamed up with the Perfectionist Prat Professor Snape! How thick can you get?"

Harry shot to his feet, his eyes darkening to evergreen. "Just what the bloody hell is your problem, Ron? Whatever it is, just do us all a favor, Weasley and get over it!"

Ron glared right back at him, his face flushing an unattractive scarlet. "You're my problem, Potter! Ever since you became Snape's bloody familiar you act more like a Slytherin than a Gryffindor. You spend time with the snakes, you kiss the arse of their Head of House, you can even talk to snakes. You know what I think? I think the Hat made a mistake and you ought to have been Sorted into Slytherin."

Harry felt his temper start to boil over. "You know what I think, Weasley? That you ought to shut it before I do it for you! I don't know where you get off judging me about anything. I had an accident with my magic and would have died if it hadn't been for Snape. In case you've forgotten, I was knocked out and in shock, and couldn't even remember my own name, much less the fact I wasn't a hawk, and if he hadn't come along and rescued me, you'd have been paying your respects at my funeral three months ago!" He jerked his head towards the door, not wanting the whole school to overhear their conversation. "Come on, let's take this outside."

"No. Anything you have to say to me, you can say here," Ron said angrily.

Harry waved his wand, casting a Muffliato Charm, which was a spell Severus had invented and taught him just three days before. He was not going to endanger Severus because of a stupid quarrel.

"Fine! I told you before, Weasley, that you don't know half of what you think you know-about the professor, or me, or anything. All you see is what you want to see."

"Like hell! What's going on between the two of you, Potter? He cast a Befuddlement Charm on you? Are you lovers, does he touch you while you're brewing and- ?"

"Shut up! Just shut up!" Harry raged. "You're the one who's sick, thinking things like that about me! You used to be my friend, damn you! What the hell happened to you?"

"You became friends with a Slytherin prick, that's what! No true Gryffindor would do that."

"Oh, give me a break! All this Gryffindor hates Slytherin stuff is a crock, you know that? The Founders were never enemies, they were friends. They might have had different viewpoints but they were friends. Salazar Slytherin might have thought purebloods were the elite but Godric Gryffindor didn't go and chop off his head for it. Let me tell you something I learned while I was trapped in my hawk shape, Ron. I learned that not all Slytherins were wanna-be Death Eaters, or spoiled arrogant brats like Malfoy, or brainless ogres like Flint. When Malfoy shoved me off my perch and nearly killed me, not one of his House clapped him on the back and told him he did a good thing. They were ready to draw and quarter him, I was there, I saw it. Malfoy, Prince of Slytherin, and they had him scrubbing their House common room like a house elf! One thing I will say about them, Weasley, is that they take care of their own. Unlike some people in my House, who turn on me at the drop of a hat, call me crazy behind my back for saying Voldemort's returned and think I'm doing all this to get more fame and fortune. Such loyalty you lions show me, it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!" sneered Harry.

"What do you expect when you go and cozy up to snakes, traitor?"

"Call me that again, Weasley, and you'll be missing a few essential parts of your body," snarled Harry, his wand clutched in his hand. "Although maybe that'd be a blessing, before you bring any more kids into this world who are too stupid to know who your real friends are and backstab them for nothing. There's no law that says Gryffindors have to be enemies with Slytherins, in case you've forgotten, we're all supposed to get along."

"I'm not going to make all nice with Malfoy, I don't care what McGonagall says!" Ron spat. "His family are all Death Eaters."

"No one says you have to be friends with him, but he's not the only Slytherin. They're not all dark wizards, hell, I don't even think the majority are dark. And don't start with all that "our House has never been dark" crap either. Because Pettigrew came out of our House and so did Barty Crouch junior! Ah, didn't know that, did you? See, we all have a bit of darkness in us, Weasley, no House escaped it. We're no worse or better than anybody else."

"Shelve the lecture, professor. I don't need it."

"Oh, that's rich! You need it more than anybody I know, because you judge first and think about it afterwards. And one day you're going to regret it. Funny, last year you said I was an honorary Weasley, remember, and your family was my family. Well, if this is how you treat your brothers, Ronald, maybe I should find another family, because I got enough of that kind of thing from the Dursleys."

"Oh, and you'd rather become Snape's ward, huh?"

Harry clenched his fists. "Let me tell you something about Severus Snape, Ronald. He might be a sarcastic, short-tempered, pain in the arse, and he's not all touchy feely, but when I needed him, he was there for me! Not just as a hawk, but as a person too! He's been helping me with my nightmares and trying to keep You-Know-Who out of my head by teaching me advanced magic. Now tell me, how is that evil? Grow the hell up, Ron, and learn to look beyond the mask and more than two feet in front of your nose. You might actually learn something!"

He cancelled the Muffliato and stalked from the hall, so furious his magic unleashed a mini wind gust that rattled the banners in the ceiling and shook the window panes. He didn't bother looking over his shoulder, otherwise he would have seen Hermione light into Ron like a mother cat defending her only kitten and tear the stubborn git a new one.

Even Ginny got in on it, stating, "You just had to start up again, Ronald, didn't you? Why can't you ever learn to shut your big fat mouth?"

"Mind your own business, Ginny!"

"Stuff it, Ronald! Harry is my business and you've got no right treating him like dung. Mum would drop dead if she ever knew what you just said to him. You know we don't treat family that way."

Ron glared at her. "Button it, Ginevra. Before I do it for you." He waved his wand at her.

"Hex me and I'll tell Fred and George to make you their joke product tester this summer. After I've reversed your arse with your head, you boneheaded prat!"

"That's telling him, Ginny," spoke up a curly-haired girl on the other side of her.

Ron gaped. It was Lavender. "You too, Lav? What the bloody hell is going on here? Did Potter spike the pumpkin juice with Amortentia or something? Why are you all defending him?"

"Because he's right, Ron," Hermione said. "You need to lose the attitude and apologize."

"No. He's turned Slytherin and none of you girls see it."

Ginny rolled her eyes. "Anybody got a skillet? Because my brother needs some sense bashed into his head."

"Ha! Look who's talking. Your head's so full of Harry-worship you can't even think of anything else."

"Oh, go soak your head, you dumbarse! Maybe the water will clear the stupidity from your brain." Ginny cried, her face flushing too. Sometimes her brother was such an idiot it seemed as though he'd been switched at birth, because Merlin knew there was no shortage of redheaded foster children in Britain, she thought disparagingly. I wish Mum were here. She'd straighten his arse out in two shakes of a dragon's tail.

Irritated by the angry looks he was receiving from his sister, girlfriend, and Hermione, Ron picked up his plate and moved to the end of the table nearest the wall, where no one was sitting.

* * * * * *

Harry could hardly ever remember being this angry before, except for perhaps the time he blew up Aunt Marge the summer before third year. Stupid bloody sodding git! He stomped down the stairs to the dungeons, feeling his magic prickle across his skin like static electricity gone wild. He struggled to bring it back under control, lately it had been flaring up when he became agitated. He leaned his head against the stone wall and took a deep cleansing breath and then another, until his heart wasn't going to burst through his chest any longer. But the anger coiled inside of him in a hard knot and he couldn't manage to rid himself of it.

How could Ron betray him like that? How could he just take four years-four-and-a-half if he was counting the beginning of this year-and throw them away because Harry had found a mentor in Severus? Granted, Snape had never been their favorite teacher, but Umbridge was worse and so was Crouch and Lockhart wasn't even deserving of the title.

He pulled this bullshit last year too, over the tournament, thinking I tricked the Goblet and put my own name in there because I wanted to get noticed. Ha! I'm noticed too damn much, why the hell would I ever want MORE publicity? Merlin's shorts, but I can barely sneeze or go to the loo without somebody telling the paper! I feel like one of those French kings back in the 1700's that had servants standing around watching the king do everything but die, and for all I know they probably watched that too. Bloody Ron! If I could carve my scar off my forehead and change my name, I'd do it. Fame is overrated, you'd know if you ever stopped envying me long enough to ask me about it.

He smacked the wall with his palm, hard enough to hurt. Then he shook his hand and cursed himself for an utter idiot. How are you going to make potions if you hurt your hand, Potter? he reprimanded himself. I thought after last year, he'd have learned not to jump to conclusions and to trust me. Guess I was wrong again.

He entered Severus's classroom still seething from Ron's unjust accusations and though he greeted Snape calmly enough, the anger within him began to ooze out of his pores and his skin tingled with suppressed magic.

Severus glanced up from his desk, where he was grading the latest batch of exams, and said calmly, "Good, you're early. If you wouldn't mind giving my cauldron ten stirs counterclockwise, while I finish up these exams . . .?"

"Sure." Harry moved over to where the cauldron was simmering, the potion inside it was a pretty sunny yellow color. "What are you brewing?"

"A Euphoria potion. So I can dose all my troublemaking first-years into a state of blissful obedience," Severus replied dryly, one side of his mouth quirking.

Familiar with Severus's wit by now, Harry chuckled. Then he bent over the cauldron and began to stir it ten stirs counterclockwise.

The cheery yellow color reminded Harry for some reason of the first train ride on the Hogwarts Express back when he was a first year, and Ron had met him for the first time. They had been sharing a compartment with Hermione, and Ron had tried to turn his pet rat yellow with a made up spell that had, of course, not worked.

That was back before you turned into a first class arsehole. Hermione was the only one who could work real magic then, even though she was a Muggleborn. She must have gotten her books as soon as she got her letter, unlike me, who almost didn't get one at all thanks to my brilliant troll-hearted relatives or yours, who couldn't afford squat.

He was almost done stirring, still reflecting angrily on Ron's hateful attitude, when the potion began to bubble violently, reacting to his magical aura, which was leaking out all over, unnoticed.

Though he was fifteen, Harry was also a powerful wizard, and sometimes he still had bouts of accidental magic, which was common in the strongly gifted, it took years to bring the magic to heel, hence the reason for Hogwarts' remote location.

Harry stared in alarm as the potion began to erupt over the sides of the cauldron, like lava flowing from an exploding volcano.

Oh shit! What the hell is happening? All I did was stir it. Why is it doing that? I think it's gonna blow.

He stepped away from the cauldron, which was shaking and called tentatively, "Uh, Severus? I have a little problem . . ."

"What?" Snape looked up from his paperwork. "How hard can it be to-bloody hell, Mr. Potter! Move! NOW!" he barked.

Harry did, almost tripping over his own feet. "I don't know what went wrong, sir! All I did was what you said."

Snape was on his feet, wand pointed at the wildly gyrating cauldron.

"Tempus Immobulus!"

The stasis spell settled over the cauldron and it froze, the potion within it ceasing to bubble.

Harry breathed a sigh of relief as Snape came around the desk. "I don't understand . . ."

"Are you all right? Did any of the potion get on you?" Severus asked, concerned.

"I'm fine." Harry examined himself quickly. He was not burned, thank Merlin.

Severus frowned. "What happened?"

"I don't know." Harry said, confused. "I was doing what you said, stirring it, and then it just started to blow up."

"How many times did you stir it?"

"Ten times, I think."

"You think? You're not supposed to guess, you should know."

"Okay, I was on my tenth stir when it started doing . . .that."

Severus inspected the cauldron and found nothing amiss with either the container or the heat source and the potion had been prepared correctly. He then walked over to his apprentice. Immediately, he felt the wisps of uncontrolled magic pouring off the boy and he snapped, "Mr. Potter, were you this upset when you were stirring the draught, or is this from nearly having the solution explode?"

"No . . .I mean, yeah I was kind of mad . . .okay I was really mad . . .Ron and I fought again and he really makes me steamed . . .I was thinking about him before . . .why?" His brow creased in puzzlement. "What's that got to do with anything, Sev?"

"Everything. Your anger triggered your magic, which in turn made the draft agitate too much and caused it to become volatile. Hence this," Severus gestured at the frozen cauldron with its leaping yellow bubbles.

"I did that? But I didn't mean to."

Severus shook his head. "How many times have I told you, if you are upset about something, don't brew, because you'll usually end up ruining your solution? That your concentration on the task at hand is vital?"

"A lot. I'm sorry. Is it . . .ruined?"

"No. Fortunately, I can calm it down." He waved his wand and muttered a spell Harry didn't know and the cauldron stilled, the potion settled, and then the master wizard floated a few beakers over and bottled the Euphoria Draught with a flick of his wand.

Then he turned to his apprentice, a look of disappointment on his face. "Why didn't you tell me you had quarreled with Weasley before?"

"I . . .didn't think it mattered. I didn't think my magic would react like that."

"Mr. Potter, your magic will always react to strong emotions, that's why we stress control over them. Which is clearly something you lack."

"I'm sorry."

"Yes, I know. Come back into my office. I think we need to give you some quiet time."

Harry flushed, wishing Snape didn't make it sound like he was a toddler needing a nap. He was fifteen for Merlin's sake! Don't argue, Harry, just do it. You're so lucky that didn't explode, he would have been furious.

He followed Snape back to the office and sat down in the chair like he usually did and tried to take several calming breaths, only to discover that the anger within him wouldn't go away. "I still don't get it, Severus. How come my being angry at Ron made my magic go nuts?"

"You performed accidental magic, Mr. Potter."

"Huh? But I'm fifteen and too old for that! It's supposed to stop once you're school age."

"Normally, yes. But the strongly gifted, like you, can have bouts of accidental magic until you're of age. As I ought to know. When I was seventeen, just before I joined the Dark Lord, I nearly blew the roof off Hagrid's cottage."

Harry whistled. "Truly?"

"Yes. I was very angry after I had heard some news and my magic reacted badly."

"What were you angry about? Your dad? At Sirius for the Shrieking Shack thing?" Harry guessed.

"No. I was angry at your mother."

"My mum? But why?"

Severus grimaced. "Because I had just found out that she had married your father."

"Oh. Yeah . . .I can see why you'd have, uh, lost it."

Learning that the woman you secretly loved had just up and tied the knot with your arch rival would be enough to make anyone go spare, Harry thought. It made what he and Ron had fought about seem kind of trivial.

Snape did not respond for a moment, he was recalling how he had held onto and nursed that bitter anger at Lily's betrayal, or at least in his wounded heart it was a betrayal, at choosing to marry James, letting it fester and poison him. The anger had made him easy prey for the Dark Lord, who loved bitter, angsty youths, because they were so easy to manipulate. And after learning that Jmaes had finally convinced Lily to marry him, Severus was one of the bitterest, hating himself, James, and Lily equally.

Even after he broke with the Death Eaters, he still harbored resentment and anger towards the Potters, though at the same time he longed for Lily to forgive him and to be able to make amends. For years he had nursed that resentment, refusing to have anything to do with the Potters, even though they were Order members and so was he. He had always been conveniently absent or late when they were at the meetings, so he didn't have to see his beautiful Lily hanging all over bloody James.

You could have had any woman you wanted, Potter, why the hell did you have to choose the one I loved too? He could recall himself thinking. It had been a bitter draft to stomach, that Potter had won Lily away from him, suave, arrogant Gryffindor. He had not seen or spoken with her until a few months before she went into hiding under the Fidelius Charm, and she forgave him for walking the dark road and he swore an oath to protect her son and finally told her how he felt about her all those years ago.

He blinked and came back to the present.

"Are you still angry with Weasley, Mr. Potter?"

Slowly, Harry nodded. "I know, it's stupid, but I still feel like punching him out. I need to do something. Like fly as Freedom."

"Remember what I said before about using your Animagus form as a crutch?" Severus lectured. "You should not use it as an escape every time you don't want to deal with problems or the reality of being a teenager, Harry."

Harry opened his mouth to speak but Snape held up a hand.

"Wait. I'm not done speaking. It would seem to me you need a few classes on how to manage that anger of yours, before you end up blowing up my classroom. And I think I know something that might help. It worked for me, then and now."

"What is it? A potion or a charm?"

"Neither. Come with me."

He led Harry up from the dungeons and to the seventh floor. There he paused and concentrated, requesting the Room of Requirement to open and be set up the way he liked it.

"But this is the seventh floor, where the Room of Requirement is," Harry said.

"Yes, I realize that."

"You know about the Room then? But I thought . . ."

"You thought the Room only appeared to students? No, Harry, the Room appears to anyone in the castle who needs it, including teachers." Severus turned the knob upon the door. "Come along then."

Harry stepped into a room that reminded him of a boxer's gymnasium. It was wood paneled, with a row of mirrors along one side, and a large stuffed heavy bag hanging from a silver hook suspended from the ceiling. In another corner was a smaller teardrop-shaped bag of red leather also suspended from a round wooden platform. Off to the side was a wooden bench with two sets of boxing gloves, one red and one green, a set of towels, goblets of water, a leather jump rope, two sets of black hand wraps, and a book called The Art of Boxing. Underneath the bench were two sets of black leather hightops.

"Whoa! I feel like I just stepped into a scene from Rocky," Harry exclaimed. "You know, that movie about the prize fighter from Philadelphia?"

"Yes, I am familiar with Muggle culture." Severus removed his robes and hung them on a hook beside the door. He ran his wand down himself and his work clothes were transfigured to what looked like a pair of casual sweats and a short-sleeved black shirt. Before Harry could get over the shock of seeing Snape in anything save wizarding attire, Severus intoned a Switching Spell, and the larger pair of hightops were transferred upon his feet, while his boots now rested beneath the bench. The Potions Master also produced a hair tie from somewhere and bound his hair back.

Harry fought to keep from gaping like a village idiot. "You look . . .different, Sev."

Severus rolled his eyes. "Take off your robes, Harry and hang them next to mine."

When Harry had done so, Severus transfigured his jeans and rugby shirt into an outfit similar to his own, but with a gold T-shirt.

Harry summoned the hightops to him and put them on, then looked expectantly at his teacher. "You know how to box?"

"Yes. Not professionally, of course, but I know the basics, enough to hold my own in a fist fight, if it ever came down to it, and enough to teach you the same thing."

"But . . .you're a wizard. Where did you learn?"

"A wizard who grew up Muggle, like you," Severus reminded. "My father did not permit me to speak or acknowledge my magic while I was growing up. He, like your uncle, wanted a "normal" child. So I was raised mostly the Muggle way, with only occasional secret lessons here and there from my mother. I had an Uncle Richard, my father's younger brother, who came to visit us for a week, he was the only member of my father's family I had ever met, my father was the black sheep, you see, and cut all ties to them when he married my mother. In any case, Richard came to see how we were getting on, I was nine that year and had arrived home from school sporting a black eye from some scrap."

"They picked on you too," Harry said knowingly. He could picture the sort of kid Severus had been-skinny, shy, too-smart-just the type to be a target for bullies. As he had been.

Severus nodded. "Well, Richard saw and asked what had happened. I didn't tell him at first, but he guessed what had gone on, and a few days later, he took me into the garage and taught me the rudiments of boxing. Boxing used to be considered a gentleman's sport once upon a time, and it still is in some circles. All that week he showed me how to defend myself, then he left and I never saw him again, but I remembered what he taught me."

"Did it help?"

"Very much. And not only with the neighborhood riffraff. I find that a brisk workout helps relieve stress and tension better than most magical remedies. Especially when I am fighting the urge to throttle someone." He walked over to the bench and began wrapping his hands with the protective tape. "A rather unorthodox method of anger management perhaps, but I find the results satisfying. And I think you will as well." He beckoned the boy over and began wrapping his hands with the protective tape as well, so he would not bruise or injure his knuckles or fingers.

He tossed the other pair of gloves at Harry, who stared at them dubiously before putting them on. "You want me to . . .fight you, sir?"

Severus shook his head, amused. "Not yet. I want you to fight the bag first. Watch me." He pulled on his own gloves. "First, you warm up your head, neck, shoulders." He showed Harry how to do several exercises to limber up.

He demonstrated how to stand, with the feet shoulder width apart and move, in soft sliding steps around the bag, with your hands up to protect your face and chest, elbows in, and chin down. "Keep most of your weight centered on the balls of your feet, not the heel, that gives you greater mobility and quickness. Boxing isn't just about brute strength, there is a science to it. It's also about agility and quickness. Keep your eyes focused upon your opponent and then, when he lowers his guard-strike, like so!"

Severus launched a quick head jab at the heavy bag, hitting it solidly, and the bag swayed with the force of his punch. He executed several more jabs and punches, high, low, and middle. "Since neither of us are built like Hagrid, my main focus will be on agility and quickness rather than brute strength."

He showed Harry a right cross, left hook, and an uppercut.

After Harry had done some warm up exercises, he allowed the boy to throw punches at the heavy bag, coaching him on the correct way to hit and move, dodge and weave.

Harry soon discovered he could hit harder and faster if he imagined the bag was Uncle Vernon, or Voldemort, or even Ron or Malfoy. And the harder he pounded the bag, the more the tension eased. He could feel his magic gradually pulling back and calming, and Severus did as well.

The older wizard allowed his ward to box the bag until his magic had settled and the anger he had been nursing died. Then he called a halt, and allowed Harry to cool down and drink some water.

"Well? Has your anger gone away yet?"

"Yeah. I'm better now." Harry said, mopping his face with a towel.

"Good. Then might I suggest you come here when you are frustrated and angry and work out instead of coming down to my lab?"

"Yes, sir. When do I get to box you?"

"Not for awhile, fledgling. First you learn to box your shadow, then you spar with me."

After he had cooled down somewhat, Severus had him skip rope, which Harry balked at until the other explained that such exercise helped with movement and agility and was also good for your heart.

"If you're ever in a situation where you need to defend yourself, good footwork is essential. As is keeping your head down and your hands up."

That was a phrase Harry would hear over and over as he worked with the Potions Master on the weekend, sparring with his shadow using the mirrors and the bag. The workout was necessary, for Ron was still behaving like a git and Harry had no patience for it anymore. The boxing lessons relieved much of the stress he had built up, enough so he was no longer in danger of blowing up any more cauldrons, or anything else for that matter.

The sessions also made Harry bold enough to ask Severus why he hadn't used the fighting techniques to defend himself against the Marauders.

"I did, on occasion. I broke your father's glasses and gave him a fat lip one time and knocked two of Black's teeth out. But most of our battles were fought with magic, and after they saw how I could use my hands to defend myself, they usually would cast a Body Bind on me to prevent me from hitting them. And technically, it wasn't considered sporting to combine magic with Muggle defense methods."

"Oh." Harry shrugged. Personally, he felt the more ways he knew how to defend himself, the better off he would be if he ever faced Voldemort again. Maybe he could pop the bastard one in the eye with a good right hook.

He concentrated on hitting the bag, letting the rhythmic smack of the punches against the leather drain away the tension he was feeling, until he was calm once more.

He halted at Severus's signal and came to sip some ice cold water and sit down upon the bench, unlacing his gloves and placing them next to him. "Severus? Have you taught other students how to box?"

"No. You are the first."

"I am? Why?"

"Because most Slytherins do not favor Muggle methods of stress relief, though I have taught one or two meditation. Also, no student I have ever had has been in need of such training, or had so much pressure placed upon them. They never needed this. You do."

"You're right. Thanks. It helps a lot. Now when Ron starts giving me lip, I just . . .walk away."

"Good. Sometimes learning how to walk away is harder than learning how to fight."

But Harry's continuing frustration with the Weasley boy was starting to annoy him. If it went on too much longer, interfering with his ward's peace of mind, he would speak to Minerva about it and suggest she take Weasley in hand and tell him to leave Harry alone.

But for now he would stay out of it, since he knew Harry would not welcome his interference and so far it had not escalated into violence. He would watch, however, doing for his charge what someone should have done for him long ago.

* * * * * *

All that week while Harry had been having lessons in anger management and Occlumency and potions, Ron had been going around sullen and glowering, in a blue funk. Ginny was still peeved at him, Hermione barely spoke to him, and Lavender had even urged him to make up with Harry when they had gone to Hogsmeade that weekend.

"Ron, he's your best friend. You shouldn't let that go. Really."

"He was my best friend. Now it looks like he's Snape's best friend." Ron grumbled.

"Oh, stop it! You're pouting like a three-year-old," scolded Lavender. "You know, a person can have more than one best friend, and not all of your friends have to like each other. I mean, I'm friends with Angie Johnson and she can't stand my other good friend, Luna Lovegood. Thinks she's mad as a hatter. But that doesn't mean I'll stop being friends with Luna 'cause Angie doesn't like her."

"That's different. Luna's not a git like Snape. And that's a girl thing."

Lavender giggled. "A girl thing, Ronnie? Sometimes you're so absurd it's funny. All I'm saying is you ought to stop fighting with Harry. It's not good for you, your humours are all out of balance."

"My what?"

"Humours. You know, the four temperaments that make up your personality? Right now, I'd say you're suffering from an excess of choleric and melancholic humours and not enough sanguine."

"I have no idea what you just said, Lav."

"Oh for the love of Merlin! Don't you ever pay attention when you're in Divination?"

"No, usually I doze off or draw in my notebook," Ron admitted shamelessly.

"You're hopeless, you know that? What I meant was that you're angry and depressed and you need to start becoming happy again. And it seems to me that the reason why you're like this has to do with you being on the outs with Harry. So, why don't you just agree to disagree and let it go? Then you can go back to being Harry's friend at school and don't worry about Snape mentoring Harry. I mean, a mentor's not really like a friend, Ron-he's more of a . . .guardian. So there's no reason why you can't just go back to being friends with Harry . . .after you've apologized that is."

Ron sulked. "Who says I need to apologize?"

"Me, your sister, Hermione, every other girl in Gryffindor practically."

"You're all bewitched."

"Says who? Ronnie, just swallow that dumb male pride and say two little words-I'm sorry. And then Harry will forgive you and you can stop going around with a puss on your face. I mean, it was cute at first, but now it's kind of . . .annoying."

Ron threw up his hands. "What is it with girls and their stupid apologies? Guys never apologize."

"And that's why so many guys end up alone, without friends or wives. Women know better." Lavender said smugly.

"Uh huh. Right."

"Ronnie, darling? Would you like to eat that ice cream or wear it?" asked Lavender sweetly.

Ron gulped. The look on his girlfriend's face reminded him of his mother when she was irritated with him. "Okay. I . . .didn't mean it."

She beamed at him. Then she kissed him. "See? That wasn't too hard. Now just say that to Harry and you can stop being such a bilious wretch."

Before he could object to her unflattering assessment, she kissed him again, and all thoughts of Harry were forgotten.

But even with Lavender's prompting, Ron couldn't bring himself to admit he had been wrong and apologize. A part of him still wanted Harry to come back to him and tell him that he was right and Snape really was a greasy dungeon bat and then things could go back to the way they were before Harry had become an Animagus.

So he maintained his distance and stubbornly ignored the other boy, until things came to a head the following weekend.

Ron had asked Harry if he was busy and what he was doing, and Harry had said he had to practice meditation, Snape was teaching him how to control his emotions, whereupon Ron had sniggered and said, "Oh, that's funny! Snape teaching you control over emotions. Like he'd know. He has the worst temper in the school. That's the cauldron calling the kettle black."

Harry had gritted his teeth and said, "You're one of the reasons I need to learn how to do that, Ron." Then he had gotten up from the common room table and walked out of the portrait hole.

Ginny gave him a disgusted look and stomped upstairs.

Ron chewed his lower lip and retreated to his room, flinging himself down on his bed and flipping through a Quidditch magazine , wishing he could take back the comments he had said that evening.

Five minutes later, he was awakened by Pigwidgeon hooting frantically, and holding an ominous red envelope in his talons.

What?? A Howler! Aww, bloody hell!

He took the red envelope gingerly and opened it, cringing.

A second later, Molly Weasley's irate tones filled the room and were audible even down in the common room. Ron winced, she'd set the spell for maximum volume.

RONALD BILIUS WEASLEY!

HOW COULD YOU SAY SUCH NASTY WICKED THINGS ABOUT YOUR BEST FRIEND? NOT TO MENTION A TEACHER? YOU KNOW BETTER! I DIDN'T RAISE YOU TO BEHAVE IN SUCH A SULKY MANNER, YOUNG MAN, ACTING LIKE A JEALOUS BABY SIMPLY BECAUSE HARRY IS GRATEFUL TO PROFESSOR SNAPE FOR RESCUING HIM! YOU OUGHT TO BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF! HARRY HAS ALWAYS BEEN THERE FOR YOU, HELPING YOU WITH HOMEWORK AND PLAYING QUIDDITCH AND CHESS AND THIS IS HOW YOU TREAT HIM?? INSULTING AND IGNORING HIM? WHERE DID YOU LEARN SUCH BEHAVIOR-BECAUSE IT CERTIANLY WASN'T ANYTHING I TAUGHT YOU!

HARRY IS LIKE A SON TO ME AND I WANT ALL OF MY CHILDREN TO GET ALONG. YOU'VE LET YOUR PRIDE GET IN THE WAY OF YOUR GOOD SENSE AND YOUR FRIENDSHIP, LIKE YOU DID LAST YEAR. THERE IS NO REASON WHATSOEVER THAT HARRY CANNOT ASSOCIATE WITH SLYTHERINS AS WELL AS GRYFFINDORS, AND YOU NEED TO STOP ACTING LIKE AN ARROGANT BRAT AND START ACTING LIKE A RESPONSIBLE AND KIND INDIVIDUAL, THE WAY YOU USED TO, AM I UNDERSTOOD? NOW APOLOGIZE TO HARRY, RONALD, OR MERLIN HELP ME, I SHALL COME DOWN THERE AND BEAT SOME SENSE INTO YOUR STUBBORN HIDE WITH MY SPOON, YOUNG MAN!!

I MEAN IT-SO DON'T TEST ME!

AND DON'T GIVE GINNY ANY GRIEF EITHER, I WOULD HAVE FOUND OUT ANYWAY, FROM ONE OF YOUR BROTHERS.

OH, AND ONE MORE THING-DON'T FORGET TO EAT ALL YOUR LIMA BEANS AND WASH BEHIND YOUR EARS, BEFORE THINGS START SPROUTING THERE.

HAVE A GOOD WEEKEND AND MIND WHAT I SAID! OR ELSE!

Ron had been lying on his stomach, his mouth hanging open, face flaming, wishing he could hex Ginny into next week for telling on him. But then again, she had always done that when one of her brothers was fighting, he reflected glumly. No reason she should change now.

Finally the Howler drew to a close, and Ron breathed a sigh of relief, until there was a clap of displaced air and a wooden spoon appeared in the air, whacked him hard on the bum, and then vanished.

Ron yelped. "Oww! Bloody hell, Mum!" he reached back to rub his stinging behind and the Howler self-destructed, leaving red confetti all over his bed.

Chastened, Ron stood up, groaning. At first he was angry at his mother for poking her nose into his business, but then he began to think, and the more he mulled it over, the more he realized they were right-he had been treating Harry awfully and he had let his pride get in the way of his friendship again. Just like last time. Oh, Merlin! I really am a stupid arsehole. What was I thinking? Guess I wasn't. Lavender was right, I might not like Snape, but I do like Harry, and if I want to be friends with him I'd better just agree to disagree and shut my trap. Harry's my best mate and I don't want to lose him over this, even if I'll never understand how he can consider Snape a good friend.

Ron sighed. To each his own, I guess. And now, I'd better start thinking about an apology. Before Mum really does come down and wallop me. And I'm sticking all Ginny's shoes to the floor for being a damn tattletale and embarrassing me beyond belief, he thought.

* * * * * *

When Harry returned to Gryffindor Tower later on that day, he found Ron waiting in the common room, which was empty for once, since everyone else was outside, enjoying the fine afternoon. Harry checked and almost made a detour around the other boy, but Ron got up and said quickly, "Look, Harry, I know I've been a real git to you and all and I just want to say that I'm sorry and I was an arse and well, you know what I mean. Friends?"

Harry stared at him for a full minute. "You been practicing that all day?"

"Uh . . .yeah, guess you could say that. Will you forgive me then?"

Harry hesitated. "Do you really want to be my friend or are you doing this to save your arse?"

Ron blushed. "You know about that?"

"Yeah, Dennis told me about the Howler. Along with the rest of the school, probably. So, which is it? Either you're my friend or you aren't, no matter who else I choose to make a part of my life."

Ron swallowed. "I want to be your friend, Harry. I just don't know about Snape though."

"Snape is my business. You don't have to like it, but I do ask that you respect it. Can you do it? Or shall I just call it quits?"

"No! I . . .I can accept it. Forgive me?"

"Okay, Weasley. You're forgiven. Just don't ever do this again." Then he cuffed Ron across the back of the head.

"Hey! That hurt!"

"It was supposed to," Harry said. "Now that I've finally knocked some sense into you, how about a game of chess?"

Ron grinned. "Sure. I'll even let you win this time."

"You do, and I'll really kick your arse," Harry growled, and socked his friend in the shoulder.

Ron winced. "Merlin, Harry, where'd you learn to punch like that?"

"That wasn't a punch, it was a tap."

"Whatever." He summoned his chess set down from his room. "Am I gonna get an answer to my question?"

"Anger management class," Harry replied, then laughed at Ron's dumbstruck expression.



A/N: Well, what did you think of the anger management solution of Sev's? I have to thank my brother Vinnie for his advice on boxing, he used to be a Golden Glove in college, he trained in Easton PA.

For those of you who are wondering, yes, boxing really is a good stress reliever, according to my brother and several other people I have spoken to.

Next: Harry gets to teach a class of first years and oh what trouble they'll be!

Chapter 27: An Unruly Potions Class
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One week later:

"Here is your master syllabus with the lessons and drafts you'll be brewing with each of your classes for the next two weeks," Severus handed Harry a rather long parchment with the two first year classes he'd be teaching timetables and potions lists, which also contained the correct formulas to brew each draft, ingredients, and the counterdrafts should something go wrong. "And here are the rolls of students in each class." He handed Harry another parchment with the names of all the students in each class. There were twenty students total in each class, ten from each House. "I suggest you take roll each class until you are familiar with all the students."

"Okay. But I've never seen you do that."

"That's because after sixteen years, I know almost all my students, save for the newest first years, and those I memorize while in the Great Hall during the Sorting."

"How do you do that?"

"I have a photographic memory. Even so, when I was a new teacher, I found it easier on myself if I took roll in the beginning. It will also make the students know that you pay attention to who is absent from your classroom, and hopefully they will make an effort to not be so. If not, don't hesitate to take points."

Harry nodded, though he was beginning to wonder if this were such a good idea after all. Last week it had seemed so, he had even been excited, but now, with one day left before he set foot in the classroom, he was starting to think maybe he wasn't ready for this. What if the kids didn't listen to him? What if, Merlin forbid, they blew up the classroom?

He knew Severus had said to make a good impression, but how was he to do that when he was a mere four years their senior? "Severus, can I . . .uh, borrow your cloak?"

One eyebrow lifted. "My cloak? Whatever for? You have your own."

"I know, but . . .mine doesn't . . .do what yours does."

"What in Merlin's name do you mean?"

"It doesn't . . .you know, fly out behind me like . . .like wings . . ." Harry could feel his face getting hotter and hotter. I sound like such an imbecile! Oh, why didn't I just keep my mouth shut?

Severus stared at him, an amused smile stealing over his face. "And do you think that is necessary in order to teach potions?"

"Well . . .no, but . . . it makes a good impression." Harry said lamely. "How do you do it?"

"It is something that requires much practice, it's not a spell. It has to do with posture and carriage and presence, things which you can't learn in a day. And a cloak made from the right material."

"Oh." Harry sighed, wondering what else he could do. Then he recalled how McGonagall had entered her classroom when he was a first year. "Then will you give me permission to transform into Freedom? Just for a bit, so I can kind of . . .surprise them? Please, Sev?"

"Harry, you're not putting on a performance, you're teaching potions. There's no need for such dramatics," he began, then sighed when he saw the boy biting his lip and gazing at him with those soulful green eyes. "Very well. You may become Freedom, but only for the beginning of your lesson. That should serve to make them sit up and take notice, though why you assume they wouldn't when you are one of the few adjuncts I have ever had teach my class . . ."

"Thank you." Harry gave him a quiet smile. "I just hope I don't . . .make an ass of myself."

"You will not. You know the material you'll be teaching, you have brewed the drafts flawlessly and the counterdrafts, and there is no reason for you to feel self-conscious in that regard."

"But I've never taught anything before."

"Follow the steps I've outlined for you on your syllabus and don't forget to write the directions on the board and you'll do fine. Also remember to watch each pair of students closely to prevent accidents and if anyone gives you cheek, take points. They'll be testing you, to see if you can keep them in line, and you must establish your authority, otherwise they'll walk all over you."

"I wish I were taller. At least when you glower at someone, you have to look down on them."

"Harry, you can be as small as Flitwick and still have authority. It's all in the way you carry yourself. Head up, shoulders back and look them in the eye. And act confident, even if you don't feel that way. They'll never know the difference." Severus laid one hand upon his apprentice's shoulder. "Relax, fledgling. You will be fine. Your first class tomorrow morning is Slytherins and Gryffindors, and I doubt if your Housemates will be a problem, they will be dancing in the street to not have me teaching and my Slytherins know to behave for a substitute or else they will answer to me. You should have minimal problems."

Harry was still doubtful. He wished he possessed a tenth of Snape's presence and self-confidence, never realizing that those qualities had taken years to perfect. "I can come by tomorrow before class and pick up the case of counterdrafts, right?"

"Yes, and if you wish, have breakfast here, since you will probably be too nervous to eat and I'll have to force feed you," Severus said, deadpan.

"Ha, real funny. You know, the more I eat when I'm nervous the more risk there is of my throwing up on your boots."

"That is why we invented potions, Potter. I'll be sure to have you take some before your class," said Severus silkily. "Now, go and get a good night's sleep, you'll need to be up early tomorrow."

"Yes, sir . . ." Harry moved over to the office door and opened it before adding slyly over his shoulder, " . . .Dad." Then he bolted away before Snape could react to that piece of utter insolence, his green eyes dancing with mischief.

It was a moment before Severus could process his apprentice's final words and by then it was too late to scold the incorrigible child for daring to address him in such a familiar fashion. And yet . . .deep down a small part of him thrilled to hear that word, a word that he had been certain no child would ever say to him, or want to say to him. You're a bold saucy piece of baggage, Potter! I don't know why I put up with you.

He returned to marking papers with a sigh. Harry thought that facing a roomful of teenagers was bad, just wait till he had to read over their assignments and decipher their chicken scratch handwriting without developing a severe migraine. Severus would take the classroom over that any day of the week.

* * * * * *

Slytherin common room:

Draco was bored, having finished most of his homework during his free period that day and most of the rest of his House was either studying or sleeping or watching wizard chess, there was a killer tournament going on between sixth-year Allison Motte and seventh-year Lance Andrews, and several of the House had placed bets on the outcome. Draco had placed a three Galleon bet on Lance, but didn't feel the need to watch, since Goyle was already there and would inform him if he won.

Vince was reading some boring book Hagrid had given him called The Habits of Rare Rainforest Magical Species, and Draco wondered how he was managing to slog through it, even if it did have some neat photos. Who cared about species in the Amazon rainforest anyway? It wasn't as if they were ever likely to go there and see them, Draco thought with a sneer. Crabbe would end up staying right here in Britain and joining the Death Eaters upon finishing school, just like his father and Draco's had done. So what was the point of studying about something you'd never see?

He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the table, he was sitting in the far right corner of the room, far away from the chess crowd. He was never allowed to behave in such an unrefined manner at home, not with both his parents being so stuck on decorum, but here at school he did what he pleased. Merlin's toenails, but it's so boring I might as well take a nap.

Just then, a rather small first-year came through the portrait hole, panting slightly from running all the way from the library to make it back before curfew. His dark hazel eyes were wide with trepidation as he glanced about the room. "Is . . .Professor Snape here?"

"Nah. He's still in his office, he always grades late on Thursdays, so you're safe Witherspoon," commented Crabbe, who seemed to have some kind of sympathy for the perpetually late first-year.

"Safe from him, but not from me," drawled Malfoy, his eyes lighting up at the prospect of having a bit of fun with the shy firstie, whose diffident demeanor irritated him for some reason. "Come here, Witherspoon."

The small towheaded youngster made his way over to where Malfoy was sitting, looking like a puppy afraid of receiving a reprimand, his tie askew and his bookbag hanging off his shoulder.

"Aw, lay off the kid, Draco," Crabbe ordered in an undertone.

"Shut your trap, Vince," Malfoy hissed out of the corner of his mouth. "I'm his prefect and I'll deal with him as I see fit."

"Only 'cause you're bored," Crabbe shot back. "Otherwise you'd leave him be."

Malfoy ignored that comment, though Crabbe was right, and focused on the trembling first year. "Listen up, Witherspoon. You're giving our House a bad name by being late for everything and it's going to stop."

"I'm sorry, Prefect Malfoy," muttered the boy, hanging his head. "I just . . .I keep getting lost and . . .I'm sorry, it won't happen again."

"It had better not, or else you'll see what we do to House members who keep forgetting the time, Witherspoon." Malfoy growled warningly. "I won't report you to the professor . . .this time . . .as long as you do something for me in return."

Witherspoon looked up at him uneasily. "W-what is it?"

"I've heard that Potter is going to be teaching first-year potions tomorrow morning, that true?"

"Yes. Professor Snape told us last class that Potter would be taking over for awhile."

A sly smirk crept over Malfoy's face. "Perfect! This gives us a chance to make Potter look like the world's biggest idiot. I want you to get together with Vandernoose and Rhys and start some kind of trouble," he ordered, his eyes gleaming. The other two firsties were pranksters, and good ones.

"But . . .but . . .Professor Snape said to behave . . ."

"What the professor doesn't know about, he can't punish you for." Malfoy said smoothly. "I want you to play a good prank on Potter, make a cauldron explode or somebody get splattered with something and have to go to the Hospital Wing. Then the professor will think twice about putting Potter in charge of another class and everybody will know that the precious Boy Who Lived can't teach for turds."

Witherspoon gasped. "I can't do that! Professor Snape will kill me!"

Malfoy grabbed the other boy by the collar and hauled him up to dangle in front of his face. "Listen, Witherspoon. Either you do what I said, or else I tell the professor what a hopeless procrastinator you are and he'll make you wish you never set foot here. Got me?"

The kid looked like he was about to cry, but he swallowed hard and nodded. "Good. Now get your arse in your room and start thinking about what you're going to do." Draco set him down and gave him a shove.

Witherspoon fled as if hellhounds were nipping at his heels.

Crabbe set down his book and gave Malfoy an incredulous look. "I can't believe you just did that. What the bloody hell were you thinking? Snape's gonna tear him to shreds if he finds out."

"Only if he gets caught, the little wimp. If he's smart, he won't and that'll be that." Malfoy said loftily. "What do you care anyhow, Vince?"

"Unbelievable. You just set him up, you know that?"

"So? Kid's a pansy, he needs toughening up, acts more like a Hufflepuff than a Slytherin."

"Just 'cause he's quiet don't mean he's a coward, Draco," Crabbe argued.

"Whatever, Vince. Go back and read about the rainforest and let me worry about the firsties." Malfoy said, then he rose to talk to the other two first-years who were supposed to be in on the prank.

Crabbe shut his book and slipped from the room, going into the first-year dormitory, where he found a miserable Witherspoon, shaking and shivering upon his bed. "Hey, kid."

The boy looked up, his lower lip quivering.

"Don't listen to Draco. You do what he said, and Professor Snape will kick your arse. Ya know that, dontcha?"

"Yeah, but . . .if I don't . . .Draco will tell and Professor'll give me a million detentions anyway, cause I'm a disgrace." He sniffled.

"Look, kid, ah . . .what's your name?"

"Jace. Jace Archimedes Witherspoon III."

Crabbe whistled. "That's some monicker. Mine's Vincent Crabbe. Just call me Vince though. The professor won't give you detention for being late, he knows it takes time to learn where stuff is at school. Matter of fact, Draco oughta be helping you, stead of tellin' you how to break rules. Anyhow, listen up. Keep your head down and just behave like the professor said. Let those other two idjits act up and get in trouble or whatever."

"But . . .what about Draco?. . .He'll hex me, like my cousin Alvin does when I don't obey him."

"I'll handle Draco. You just worry about yourself, okay?" he clapped the boy on the shoulder. "A bit o' advice, kid. Never ever do something the professor told you not to. Because he always finds out and you've seen what he does to those that don't follow his rules, huh?"

"Yeah. Are you still on detention with him?"

"Yeah, but that's what I got for bein' stupid and following Malfoy. Good night."

"Night, Vince. Thanks."

"Don't mention it, kid."

Crabbe returned to his own room, scowling. Draco needed to be taken down a peg in a big way.

* * * * * *

Friday morning:

Harry hesitated before entering the classroom, his stomach was churning madly. Oh God, I think I'm going to be sick. He rubbed a hand across his eyes and slid open the classroom door. He could hear the quiet shuffle of feet and the thump of bags being set down and whisperings between the students. He felt his palms start to sweat. Come on, Potter, pull yourself together. You faced the bloody Dark Lord, how bad could a class of twenty first-years be? Never mind, I don't want to answer that.

He peered at his watch, he had five minutes before class started. Dammit, Severus, I knew I shouldn't have let you talk me into eating breakfast. Even with your Stomach Soother I feel ill. Why did I ever agree to do this? He swallowed hard, wishing he didn't feel as if he were walking barefoot into a nest of hungry manticores. Okay, here goes nothing. He lowered his head and concentrated, transforming into Freedom a scant minute later.

The red-tailed hawk soared into the classroom, startling a few of the girls who were sitting nearest the door. Freedom soared a quick circle around the room, getting a bird's eyeview of the room and the children in it before he settled on top of the desk, gave a soft kree-ar! and then blurred into Harry.

There was a collective sound of "Oooohh!"

Harry straightened, pleased with the way all of the students gazed at him, with awe and curiosity. He was wearing a plain black robe without a crest, so he wouldn't seem biased, and had a set of good trousers and a dress shirt underneath it. He had even used a Hair-Sleeking potion to make his hair lie flat.

"Ooh, Harry, that was wicked!" squealed little Maureen Hughes, a Gryffindor, looking at him adoringly.

Harry bit back a groan. Help a kid with her Transfiguration homework and you were her hero for life. But he quickly recalled Snape's advice about not letting students get familiar with him. "Thank you, Miss Hughes. And it's Professor Potter."

The girl giggled and looked at her hands.

"All right, well, as you know, I'll be filling in for Professor Snape, and even though some of you are in my House, I'm going to ask that you call me Professor Potter and not Harry, since I am your teacher now."

Several Slytherins snickered at that and were promptly glared at by the Gryffindors.

Harry cleared his throat. "Okay. I'm going to take roll, so hold up your hand when I call your name." He picked up a quill and the sheet of parchment with the roll for the morning potions class. "Abraxus, Mandy."

A tall redhaired Slytherin raised her hand.

Harry looked at her and then checked off her name.

"Brown, Sydney."

This time a short dark-haired Gryffindor raised his hand.

And so it went, all the way through to "Witherspoon, Jace."

A small towheaded boy in robes that looked too big for him shyly raised his hand.

"Good. All present and accounted for." He set down the parchment and pointed his wand and whispered an Unlocking Charm.

The potions cabinet at the back of the room opened, allowing the students to get ingredients. He then turned and aimed his wand at the chalkboard. "Scriberius!"

The ingredients for the Pepperup Potion wrote themselves magically on the board, which Harry was grateful for, since he doubted if he could have written legibly himself, he was so nervous he was sure his hand would have shook and rendered his writing unreadable.

"Okay, today we're going to be brewing a Pepperup Potion. Who can tell me what that's used for?"

Several hands shot up, including the shy Slytherin's in the back of the room. Harry pointed and said, "You . . .Witherspoon, is it?"

"Yes, sir," came the soft reply. "The Pepperup Potion is used for colds, sir, to cure them."

"Very good, Witherspoon. Five points to Slytherin."

The Gryffindors gasped at seeing him award points to their rival and the Slytherins just looked surprised. Harry fought to keep from grinning. He had hoped that awarding points to Slytherin might prevent them from causing any mishaps.

"The Pepperup Potion is a standard remedy for colds and it's not all that difficult to brew. You have an hour and ten minutes. All the ingredients are in the back cabinet, check the list on the board for directions. Any questions?"

That was a mistake.

Several Gryffindors bombarded him with questions, all of them speaking at once, on everything except potions.

"Hey, Harry, when's the next Quidditch match?"

"Are you going to be teaching us permanently?"

"How did you become an Animagus?"

"When you were a hawk, could you understand people, or could you only understand birds?"

"Is Professor Snape retiring? I heard that's why you were teaching, Harry."

Harry felt his head begin to spin. What the hell is going on here? Is this potions class or social hour? He held up a hand before the questions got any more off topic. "Hold it. Hold it. Any questions you have about me you can ask me later. This is potions, remember? Let's get started, before you don't have time to brew. And no, Professor Snape is not retiring, he'll be back to teach you in a few weeks."

"Aww, but we wanted to talk about Animagus forms," groaned half the Gryffindors. It's much more interesting."

"And Quidditch."

"Who wants to make potions anyhow?" groused a Slytherin.

"Can't we just pretend to make the potion and have a free period?"

"This isn't up for debate. Go on, get your ingredients," Harry ordered, wondering if he'd ever been that whiny at that age.

Finally, they started pulling things from the back cabinet, and Harry went around and lit all their cauldrons, figuring it would be faster if he did that.

Then he retreated to the front of the room to watch as they collected their ingredients and started to prepare them.

As Harry had said, this potion was not too difficult to prepare, and only had you grinding and chopping a few ingredients, most of them could be added right out of the jars at the proper time.

Harry watched as the students ground up yarrow root and pepper and diced some pickled onions and smashed red clover blossoms and minced dragon tongue.

Five minutes later, one of the Slytherins was having an argument over how fine you had to grind the yarrow with his partner. Harry went over to examine their ingredients, but while he was doing that, two Gryffindor girls on the opposite side of the room had trouble dicing up their dragon tongue.

"Eeew! It smells! And look, it got all over my new manicure!"

"Gross! Harry, do we have to cut this up?"

"This is almost the right consistency, keep grinding for a minute, then move on to the next step," Harry told the Slytherins. Exasperated, he turned about and called over his shoulder at the girls, "Yes, you do! Next time wear gloves and it's Professor Potter." Merlin, why do they keep forgetting they have to call me that? Is it really that hard to remember? I'm beginning to think Sev is right, and they really are dunderheads.

Just then there came a sharp "Oww! I'm bleeding!" from Tom Matthews, another Gryffindor.

"See, I told you to watch where you were cutting, Tom," lectured Mabel Fairchild, a pretty Gryffindor. "Just hold a cloth on it, for Merlin's sake."

Harry turned around, just in time to see a tall Slytherin working next to Tom's cauldron keel over.

"Ah, Merlin's arse!" groaned his partner, a plump brunette girl. "Davy's fainted. It's the blood, he can't stand the sight of it."

Harry rushed over to them. "Tom, let me see your finger." The boy obediently held out his bleeding hand and Harry chanted a quick Wound-Repair charm. "Next time, be more careful with your knife."

"Yes, sir." The boy blushed.

Then Harry knelt beside the passed out Slytherin. He carefully felt the boy's head for bumps, and finding none, cast a quick "Ennervate!" waking up the unconscious boy with a quick wave of his wand.

"Huh? Wha' happened?"

"You fainted," Harry said helpfully. He held out a hand to help the boy to his feet. "Do you feel all right . . .Davy, isn't it?"

Before the other could reply there came a huge BOOM!

Harry hauled the poor Slytherin to his feet and spun around.

Four cauldrons away, towards the back of the room, two Slytherins were covered in red potion and there came a crackling sound as a cauldron on the Gryffindor side exploded as well, showering the students with more unfinished potions.

Some of the girls screamed and Harry clenched his teeth and snapped, "Nobody move! Stay where you are."

He marched over to those students who had been splattered and cleaned them off with a quick Scourgify and asked if they had been burned. No one had, the potion had barely gotten hot before it had exploded.

"I don't know how it happened, sir!" babbled one Slytherin. "I hadn't even added the dragon tongue yet."

Harry peered inside the cauldron and saw, to his irritation, a large Fillibusters Firework. He levitated it out of the cauldron and banished the contents with a quick "Evanesco!" Then, still holding the firework, he said to them, "Sorry, you'll have to do it over."

He went to examine the second cauldron and found yet another firework. After that, he stalked up to the front of the room, both fireworks in his hands. Great, just great! Now I have a bloody prankster to deal with too. He fixed the class, who had all frozen, with a disapproving glare.

"All right. Who is going to tell me who these belong to?"

No one said anything.

"What's this? No one knows? Very well, I shall take five points from each of you until someone tells me who did this. " Harry crossed his arms over his chest.

Then he waited.

There were outcries of, "No fair!"

"How should I know?"

"It was probably a Slytherin, they're always causing trouble." That from a Gryffindor.

"Says who?" shouted back a Slytherin. "You lot are always cutting up in potions."

Harry gritted his teeth. Did they not take him seriously?

"You have five minutes before the points start adding up."

More muttering occurred.

Until finally a Slytherin, Harry thought his name was Vandernoose, stood up and said quietly. "I saw him do it, Professor Potter." And he pointed directly at the quivering Jace Witherspoon.

"Me too," added another Slytherin, black-haired Macsen Rhys.

Witherspoon said nothing, just looked stricken.

"Yeah, see I was right! Scummy snake!" yelled a Gryffindor.

"Aw, shove it up your arse!" cried a Slytherin and drew his wand.

"Make me!"

"Okay, I will, you coward!"

Before Harry could move, hexes were flying everywhere.

Bloody hell! I turn my back to speak to someone for two minutes-TWO MINUTES-and look what happens! What is wrong with these kids?

In a minute all was chaos. Students were ducking behind cauldrons and desks, Stinging Hexes were flying through the air, along with Color Change ones, and some Sticking Charms too.

For one instant, Harry was at a loss. How had this happened?

Then he felt his temper spark and he pointed his wand at his throat and cast a Voice Amplifying Charm. "Sonorus!"

"Everybody, freeze!"

They did, some of them in mid-word.

His eyes flashing with a temper to rival their absent Potion Master's, Harry spoke a quick, "Accio all wands!"

Everyone's wand was yanked from their gasp, if they had been holding it, or from wherever else they had it, and deposited at Harry's feet.

"All of you-sit down! Now!"

There was a mad scramble for chairs and within two minutes the whole class was seated.

Harry canceled the charm on his voice. "What did you all think you were doing? Anyone care to answer that one?"

No one said anything. Most of the Gryffindors looked either ashamed or upset, and so did some of the Slytherins. Only a few had smirks on their faces, but they quickly lost them when Harry declared, "All of you will be getting a zero for today's work and will be re-doing this potion next class. I will also be taking twenty points from each of your Houses for your horrible behavior. And don't even think of saying it's not fair."

"But it's not!" muttered Todd Wilson sullenly.

"Mr. Wilson, would you like to join Mr. Witherspoon in detention?"

"No, Harry . . .I . . .m-mean Professor Potter . . .sir."

"Didn't think so. Start cleaning up, and you have two feet of parchment on the properties of the Pepperup Potion and correct behavior in my classroom," Harry finished. "Mr. Witherspoon, you have detention with me tomorrow at . . .two o'clock. Meet me here."

"Yes, sir," whispered Jace.

Harry went around and vanished everyone's failed potion, feeling his head start to pound as he did so. He couldn't believe how quickly things had gotten out of hand. It was utterly humiliating. I should have known better. I can't teach, I'm pathetic.

He retreated to his desk for the last ten minutes of class, pretending to work on the next class syllabus. Finally it was time for the class to be dismissed.

Harry looked up. The classroom was neat and clean.

"Dismissed."

The students all ran out the door, eager to be released from the hell of potions. Harry noticed that Witherspoon was the last to leave and he did not speak to any of his Housemates. Probably afraid of what they'll do to him since he got them all in trouble and lost House points. He almost felt guilty giving out that detention, knowing how hard Slytherins were on their own. But then he reflected that if he hadn't, they would have assumed he was a pushover, and whatever respect they had for him would have been lost.

As soon as he was gone, Harry slumped and put his head in his hands. Without a doubt, he was probably the worst teacher in the history of Hogwarts. Well, maybe the second worst teacher, Umbridge had been the worst. I'll bet this never happened to Severus. Or McGonagall either.

He packed up his papers and his potions counteragents and then locked the door of the classroom. My first day teaching, what a disaster!

* * * * * *

"So, how did your first day of teaching go, Harry?" Hermione asked brightly when he entered the hall for lunch.

So far, it was mostly the fifth and sixth years at the table, the younger ones had lunch at a different time. "Don't ask, Hermione."

"It was that bad, mate?" queried Ron, sitting down at his usual place.

"Worse."

"What happened?" Hermione queried. "Did they blow up a cauldron?"

"Two of them."

"It was Slytherins, right?" Ron predicted.

"One of them, yes. But our House was no better."

"You took points from Slytherin, I hope." Ron said.

"I took point from both Houses."

"BOTH?!" Ron cried.

"Yes, Ron, because both of them started hexing each other," Harry said sharply. "Look, I really don't want to discuss it, okay?"

"Maybe your next class will be better, Harry." Hermione said comfortingly. "I can't believe our firsties behaved like such . . .hooligans."

Ron nearly choked on his pumpkin juice. "Hooligans? What the bloody hell are those?"

"Rude, out of control, annoying little beasts," Harry supplied. "And that's just what they were like."

He finished his sandwich and crisps then said quietly, "I'll see you later, I have to report to Professor Snape about this morning."

"Think he'll bite your head off 'cause you had to take points from Slytherin?" wondered Ron.

"I don't know. I gave one of his House detention too, for exploding the cauldrons."

Ron's mouth fell open. "Oh, Merlin! Now you're dead, Harry."

"Why? It was deserved," Hermione pointed out. "Harry did the right thing."

Ron looked doubtful. "Good luck, Harry."

Harry nodded wearily and went towards the dungeons. He knew Hermione was right, but would Severus see it that way?

* * * * * *

Severus listened quietly as Harry related the disastrous potions lesson to him. The apprentice did not spare himself anything, admitting that he should have been more aware of what was going on and then perhaps the whole exploding cauldron thing could have been prevented. When he was finished, he waited for Severus to unleash his temper on him, and tell him he was, without a doubt, the worst teacher and he shouldn't ever think about setting foot in a classroom again.

Severus watched his apprentice closely, noting how tense Harry was, and sensing instinctively that