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Moon Fire by Snapegirl

Format: Novel
Chapters: 44
Word Count: 221,269
Status: COMPLETED

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

Genres: Drama, Angst, AU
Characters: Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, Snape, Bellatrix, Lucius, Pettigrew, Draco, OC, OtherCanon
Pairings: Harry/Hermione

First Published: 05/07/2010
Last Chapter: 08/17/2010
Last Updated: 10/05/2011

Summary:






 A guilt-stricken Harry finds solace with a mysterious black stallion, never dreaming it's the Animagus form of Severus Snape. But Harry has a dark secret, one that could mean his death unless Snape discovers it in time. AU, no slash! Angsty!Harry Animagus! Mentor! Snape, pairing HP/HG. Banner by lilausty!


Chapter 1: Midnight Run
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The night was his time, when he felt most alive, when he shed the conventions and inhibitions created by his vow long ago, and was free to simply be his true self. The self he kept hidden from everyone, the self that no one now living knew. The moon was full tonight, he could feel the shift in his blood, and he felt the old longing stir in him, the urge to run with only the moon to light his path, to put aside the controlled persona he affected and allow himself to be the wild untamed creature at his core. He looked up at the clock on the wall. Almost midnight, and long past the hour when students should be asleep.

This once, he would forsake his duty and indulge himself. Even he deserved a break now and again, especially after the events of the past year and the Triwizard Tournament. Decision made, he spun, his boots tapping rhythmically across the dungeon floor, and made his way out of the castle through a secret exit learned long ago during his schooldays. He walked past the greenhouse, past Hagrid’s hut, up to a large swath of green pasture, close to the Forbidden Forest, where sometimes the thestrals grazed. But they never bothered him, they were gentle creatures for the most part, despite their fearsome reputation. Upon reaching the grassy verge, he took three deep breaths, focusing himself.

There was a stirring of magic and suddenly the tall Potions professor became a magnificent black stallion.

The horse stood, quivering in the moonlight, which striped his coal black coat with faint silvery markings. He was pure ebony, satiny black from head to hoof, save for a single marking upon his forehead, half-covered by his long forelock. The mark of the crescent moon, an incandescent fiery imprint that told those who knew the old legends and ways that he was a devotee of the Midnight Lady, Selene, the Moon Goddess. He had been initiated into her Mysteries at thirteen, as were all the Prince line, and he had served her faithfully ever since. Selene was not a demanding goddess, she desired above all things that her followers be free to choose their own path, to guard the helpless, and to defend those in need against the rise of Shadow. Selene’s warriors were those who walked unseen, who watched and said little of what they saw, secretive and sly, but trustworthy and a vow, once given, would be kept unto death.

Like the vow he had given to Lily, to watch over and protect her only child, to nurture the boy’s fledgling magical gifts, and to love the boy in her stead should she be killed in the fight against Voldemort.

He found the first part of his vow easy enough to fulfill, as soon as the boy had set foot in Hogwarts, Severus had become his unseen protector, the watcher in the shadows, making sure the foolish brat did not kill himself with his reckless impulsiveness. It drove him to distraction, the way the child continually put himself into danger, as if he was somehow immune to death, and it didn’t help that the senile old coot in charge patted him on the head every time he did so. Did the boy not comprehend that his mother had given her very life for his, and that life ought to be cherished? Why must Potter be a glory seeker, like his bloody father?

The stallion shook his head and stamped a hoof upon the ground. Thinking about James Potter always made his insides twist up, as if he had a bout of colic. And the boy bid fair to take after his troublemaking, arrogant father, at least from what Severus had observed so far. Severus had hoped that the child would have more of his mother in him than his father, but that did not seem to be the case. And that was what made fulfilling the last part of his vow so hard. How could he love a boy who resembled his arrogant bullying father so much, who was practically James Potter’s reflection? The only thing it seemed Potter had inherited of Lily’s were her eyes.

The stallion shook his head abruptly. No, he would not think of that, not now. This was his time to relax, to allow all of his pent up frustration and irritation at dull-witted students and impulsive cheeky brats to be released. This was his time to allow the wildness in his soul free reign and to run beneath the moon.

He half-reared, spinning about upon his hocks, his ebony mane drifting over his neck, tail flagged, and then he sprang forward. His hindquarters propelled him in a gigantic leap halfway across the meadow and then he ran, head high, his long legs flying over the ground in great bounding strides.

The black stallion was built along similar lines as the great Thoroughbreds, he had the same streamlined body and long legs, powerful shoulders and haunches, but his tail was set high, like an Arabian’s and his face was more tapered with large nostrils made to drink the wind and wide-set eyes of startling intelligence. Had anyone come upon Severus in his stallion form, they would have known here was no ordinary animal, even without the telltale crescent upon his brow. There was something otherworldly about the great horse, a grace, an uncanny intuition, when he ran, he did so without worrying about where to place his feet, unmindful of rocks or sudden holes, the dark was no barrier to his eyes. As a disciple of Selene, he could see in the dark as if it were brightest day, so long as the moon shone.

His flying feet pounded the dirt, kicking up spurts, and he stretched out his head, glorying in the feel of the wind as it whipped his mane into a froth and caressed his skin. This was what he craved, the sheer joy to run wherever he chose, to chase moonbeams, free from all the tiresome rules that bound him as a human. Here there was only the wind, the moon, and himself, racing his shadow around and around while far away a screech owl hooted and a dog barked.

He ran across the meadow and into the forest, weaving expertly in and out of the trees, springing agilely over a fallen log, his breath coming in sharp pants, but he did not slow, his endurance was far greater than a steeplechaser, and the moon granted him a strength beyond an ordinary horse’s. He startled a rabbit from its burrow, it fled before his hooves, vanishing into the undergrowth. He ignored it, continuing to run.

He jumped the small stream and raced up a hill to a flat piece of ground where a herd of unicorns gathered. He paused, tossing his head, and greeted the Lead Stallion, Amicus, who nodded and allowed him to come among his herd. There were five mares and two yearlings and three foals this season, all healthy and eager to race their dark brother, who had visited so seldom this year.

The dark horse trotted up and greeted each mare in turn, blowing respectfully into their nostrils. Well met, Sylvana, Silken Wind, Fortuna, Star of Albia, and Sirocco.

They blew back at him, nickering softly. Good evening to you, Moon Fire. Did you have a nice run?

He nodded his head, his forelock flying across his face, partially covering his mark.

Then the foals and yearlings frolicked over, golden coats glittering like new-minted Galleons, nudging and snorting at the big horse. Moon Fire! Moon Fire! Come and race us!

He snorted indulgently at them, he had more patience with the foals than his students, most of the time.

One particularly bold yearling sidled up, bumping hard against his withers. Race me, dark one! Bet you can’t catch me! I am Starblaze the Magnificent, and I can outrun the wind if I want. The colt challenged.

He swung about, giving the overeager youngster a firm shove and a sharp nip to remind him of his place. Settle down, silly colt! We shall race later, if you behave.

Chastened, the colt lowered his head and mouthed an apology, then backed away, allowing his elder to graze upon the tender shoots of sweet grass. But his reprieve was shortlived, as the other foals clamored to race also, running circles about the black stallion.

Me too! Me too! I want to race too!

A few more minutes and Moon Fire, as he was known in this shape, gave up on eating a late night snack and agreed to race the young unicorns. Selene’s All-Seeing Eye! I suppose I shall have no peace until I run the hooves off of you lot of impudent younglings.

Squeals of joy sounded from the yearlings and the foals, and they jostled about him, kicking up their heels and neighing.

A few of the overeager foals’ hooves caught him glancing blows, and he reprimanded them sharply with a nudge from his nose and a warning nip or two. Mind where you fling your hooves, you insolent nags! Or the only racing you shall do is running to hide behind your mothers from my teeth, he threatened.

Amicus whistled shrilly, Mind your dark brother, foals!

Yes, Father. Sorry, Moon Fire.

A snort came from Moon Fire’s elegant muzzle and then he squared up. Forgiven, you pests. Line up, and remember, no biting, kicking, or knocking into each other on purpose.

They all obeyed, and at Amicus’ whistle, surged across the ground, trying to outrun the dark horse whose hooves seemed to fly over the earth, the moonlight sheening his hide in icy rivulets, giving the ebony coat a bluish cast.

Silvery hooves flashed and golden horns gleamed as the unicorn foals and yearlings sought to catch the racing stallion, who always managed to stay just one leap ahead, running with a graceful swiftness that they envied and admired, even as they tried to slip past him.

None of them, not even Starblaze, who was the oldest, had ever managed to beat Moon Fire.

But that did not stop them from trying.

The big stallion flicked an ear back, gauging how far away his nearest competitor was, about two lengths, and deliberately slowed, allowing the colt to catch up, coming with a few strides of his forelegs before he increased his speed and drew away again, giving a mischievous whinny.

No fair! I almost had you! whinnied Starblaze.

So you thought, the other tossed his head and skipped about the sticks lying on the path, circling the meadow and then coming back around, to end at last in a thundering rush in the center of the grassy clearing.

The mares looked up from their grazing in amusement. Moon Fire wins again. Sylvana observed.

But my Starblaze was close, said Fortuna, blowing her forelock out of her eyes.

At least he’s tired them out, remarked Sirocco. So maybe they’ll sleep and quit jumping about like bluebottles.

Sure enough, the foals were tired after their run, and came to graze quietly beside their mothers or lie in the grass and nap, leaving the adults to graze and talk peacefully.

Moon Fire also grazed, barely winded from his run, his tail switching gently against his flanks, content among the unicorns, who embodied the wildness and magic and steadfast courage of the Goddess, who had made them from her breath and tears. Of all her children, the unicorn was the closest to Selene in spirit and those who worshipped her considered them sacred. That this herd had chosen to accept him, despite all he had done as a spy, was an unlooked for blessing.

He returned here each fortnight, to run with the herd, and renew his weary spirit, for the very air the unicorns breathed exuded a kind of peace and serenity he had known only in dreams. But it was something he badly needed, and they seemed to recognize that, and gave him it willingly and did not pry and ask awkward questions the way humans did.

* * * * * *

The moon slipped down in the sky and the dark horse lifted his head, sensing it was time to head back to the castle. Reluctantly, he bid farewell to the unicorns, and trotted off through the forest, his hooves making hardly a sound over the earth, his crescent gleaming in the darkness.

As a human he had been forced to bear a brand of servitude to a dark sorcerer, so he could learn that one’s secrets and figure out a way to destroy him, but in this form, he bore only the mark of his goddess, which was as it should be. He cantered through the trees and into the high meadow where he had begun his journey.

Suddenly his ears caught a muffled sound, a hitching and catching of breath, and he froze.

Something had invaded the meadow.

His nostrils inhaled the night air, and he threw up his head as he caught the unmistakable scent of a boy, and not just any boy, but the one who lived to drive him to drink, Harry James Potter.

His first instinct was to shift into his human form and demand an explanation of the disobedient wretch. What in blue blazes are you doing out here in the middle of the night, Potter? How did you manage to find this place and how dare you ignore the school rules put in place for your safety and wander about outside like this was the bloody Gryffindor common room? Don’t you know what could happen? Or do you want to get eaten alive by a wyvern or torn to shreds by a hungry musk cat or stolen away by a roc to feed her nestlings? Of all the stupid, reckless, idiotic, insane, utterly asinine things to do . . .!

He trotted forward, emerging from the trees to glide across the meadow towards where the boy was sitting, knees drawn up and head resting awkwardly atop them, hair sticking up all over like porcupine quills. Oh yes, I am going to give the damn insolent brat a good piece of my mind, see if I don’t! This is what comes of coddling and spoiling the little—

He halted abruptly, for now it was obvious why Harry had come out here.

The champion of the Triwizard Tournament was crying. And not just a few tears, but outright sobbing, shivering and gasping, crying so hard he was unaware of anything about his surroundings.

Shocked, Severus remained a few feet away from the distraught boy, his senses telling him that this outpouring of misery had been festering within the young wizard for a very long time before at last finding a way out. It brought to mind a time long ago, right after the death of the only woman he had ever called friend and had loved with all that he was. Just so had he wept, desolate and alone, hurting beyond bearing, until Amicus had found him and tapped him with his horn, easing some of the raw pain and giving him a comfort no human could.

What had caused the boy to cry this way? The big horse wondered. Was he crying because of some physical ailment or some other hidden grief? Perhaps the death of his classmate, Cedric? Funny, but he had never thought Diggory and Potter especially good friends. And what, by the light of the moon, was he supposed to do about it? He was no unicorn, gifted with the ability to draw poison from body and spirit.

He shifted slightly, blowing out softly, as he would have done to a frightened foal.

Harry felt the soft whisper of warm air upon his bent head and jerked up.

To stare directly into the eyes of the most magnificent horse he had ever seen, standing not four feet away in a patch of moonlight.

A/N: A banner for this would be greatly appreciated, since the original one I had won't translate onto here for some reason.I couldn't get this image out of my mind, so I wrote this down, and aren't exactly sure where this will go yet, but it nagged me till I wrote it. Takes place just after the last task of the tournament, before term ends, right after Harry is released from the Hospital Wing, Sirius is still in hiding and Harry never let him know about the tournament, instead handling the burden all by himself.

What will Severus do now?


Chapter 2: Midnight Rendezvous
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Am I dreaming? Did I fall asleep here and this is just some kind of crazy vision or whatever? Harry rubbed his eyes and scrubbed away all the evidence of his recent breakdown. He hated when he cried, he had learned long ago that tears were a weakness he could not afford and that gained him nothing save ridicule and laughter. They never solved anything and in fact only made things worse. So he had stopped giving in to the urge to cry, until tonight, when all of his pent up grief over Cedric's death and his guilt over dragging the other boy into a war he couldn't win, and the fact that he would now have to return to a place he detested overwhelmed him. That was when he had run from the common room, where the Gryffinors were celebrating his victory, a victory which was now rendered hollow and bitter by Cedric's death. He had told them all he was going to bed, that he was tired, and then he had gotten his cloak and slipped away out the portrait hole and found his way here, to this quiet meadow.

He had not even known where he was going, he had simply begun running and somehow his feet had taken him here. Where he was free at last to give vent to his awful guilt and sorrow and his misery. He found the reactions of his peers, who had been shocked and horrified at first, but were now willing to put Cedric's death behind them and celebrate Harry's unexpected win, to be shallow and immature. Cedric had died, a pointless death, because Harry had insisted they share the victory. Had he simply gone alone, instead of being so bloody fair-minded, then Cedric would be alive. That weighed upon his soul and tore him apart and so he had run, seeking a place to be alone, where he could fall apart in private.

Except the meadow was not as remote as he had thought.

"Where did you come from?" he queried, his voice hoarse from sobbing.

The horse stirred not a hoof, simply snorted and looked at him.

Harry did not have any experience with horses, having grown up in a suburb, but he was almost certain no ordinary horse would stare at him so intently. Could this be a magic horse? He wished he had paid more attention in Care of Magical Creatures and had really read the material instead of half- applying himself. Then perhaps he would know what kind of horse this was, that bore a white crescent moon upon his brow. The stallion was huge, at least Harry thought so, but the big animal did not move, apparently he was less skittish than most horses. Harry had read somewhere that horses tended to startle easily at loud noises, sudden movements, and stray bits of paper. He wondered if the same held true with magical horses.

"Do you belong to someone? Have you run away?" Harry asked, keeping his voice soft and soothing.

The stallion shook his head, almost as if he were replying to the boy's questions. I belong to no one save myself, Potter. The very idea! As for running away, don't be ridiculous. There would be nowhere I could go that I could escape my vow, even if I were inclined to do so. My word is my bond and I shall keep it, no matter how difficult you make it.

Harry stared into the brilliant dark eyes and for some reason felt that the horse could understand him. There was an intelligence in the animal's eyes that told him beyond words that here was no ordinary animal. "You're beautiful, you know. I've never seen a horse like you before. I think . . .I think you must be magical."

The black horse nodded his head again. Right, Potter, and you'll never see my like again, since I am one of a kind. Brilliant deduction there! I should award you points for not being as dense as you look. But that still doesn't answer my earlier question of why you're here and not tucked up in your bed in Gryffindor Tower.

Harry sighed and ran his fingers through his perpetually messy hair. "I guess you must be a wild horse, though I didn't think any lived around here. Guess I was wrong."

The stallion gave a derisive snort. Big surprise there!

Harry rose cautiously to his feet and held out a hand for the stallion to sniff.

The black horse dipped his muzzle and blew upon the outstretched hand. No, Potter, I shall not harm you, though you sometimes make me want to strangle you. Now quit looking so awestruck, like a giddy fifth year on his first date. Selene grant me patience!

Thinking of his goddess made him wonder if she had placed Harry in his path deliberately, so he could begin trying to fulfill that last most difficult part of his vow. He tossed his head, making his long forelock fall forward to cover his crescent.

Then Harry leaned forward and brushed his fingers across his cheek for a brief instant.

Moon Fire was startled, he had never let anyone touch him in this shape, and he jerked up and away, stepping back gracefully. I am no ordinary horse, you fool boy! Do not treat me like one.

Harry held up his hands. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you." He shook his head in disgust. "Figures, I can't even make friends with a horse, I'm such a dunce. Lately, all I manage to do was screw up royally."

Moon Fire was startled by the boy's honesty, and so he stayed, watching the youngster and trying to figure him out. It was clear something was bothering the boy and he needed to figure out what it was. He was also surprised that Potter hadn't confided in one of his little pals before this instead of running out here to fall to pieces all alone.

Harry did not attempt to touch him again, though he flashed the horse a look of longing before sitting back down on the grass, his knees drawn up, his green eyes haunted and woeful. "You're lucky you're a horse, at least you don't have to worry about getting people killed."

Ah, so that's part of it, Moon Fire thought. Grief and guilt, a volatile combination if ever there was one. He knew that better than any, who had borne more than his share of such burdens, especially over this one's mother.

Suddenly, his acute hearing caught the sound of feet moving up the path and he wheeled and bolted into the trees, not wishing to be seen.

"Wait!" Harry called, feeling oddly bereft. "Don't go! I won't hurt you!"

"Harry? Who are you talking to?" came Hermione's voice from out of the shadows.

"Hermione! What . . .what are you doing here?" he exclaimed.

"Looking for you," she answered, holding a spare bit of parchment in her hand. She drew her wand and tapped the parchment, saying, "Mischief managed."

"You used the map to find me?"

"Yes. I was worried, Harry, when I couldn't find you after the party and you'd said you were going to sleep. I'm sorry I went through your trunk, but I just had to find you and make sure you were okay." She hung her head guiltily, chewing on a fingernail. "Are you?"

"I'm fine. It's just . . .I kind of got annoyed, that practically the whole tower was celebrating when Cedric . . .had passed on. It just seemed so . . .rude and unfeeling. I just couldn't take it anymore so I came here. Sorry for making you worry."

"It's okay. You're under a lot of stress, what with You-Know-Who returning and all." She moved to sit next to him, and put her arm about him.

Harry leaned into her embrace. He had loved her long ago, but never dared to admit it—until now. They were almost a date and her concern warmed him to the core of his being, which had become frozen with shock and hard with anger.

"I know," Hermione said sympathetically. "I felt bad too, but I think . . .I think it was easier for them to celebrate the fact that you win the tournament instead of focusing on what it cost."

Harry made a derisive noise. "That's just plain stupid, 'Mione! You can't just pretend it never happened! Cedric is dead! He'll never come home again, never grow old, never finish school. He never even got to say goodbye to his family. And he was killed because of me!"

"No! Don't say that, Harry! Don't!" Her arms were about him then, holding him.

"Why not? It's the truth. I was the one who allowed him to touch the Goblet and because of it, we were taken to Voldemort and he . . .ordered Cedric killed because he was in the way. Or maybe it was a warning to me." His voice was thick with shame and unshed tears.

"Harry, please listen to me. It wasn't your fault Cedric was killed. They're evil people, they . . .they live for that kind of thing. They're like . . .like terrorists who hijack an airplane and crash it. I'm sorry Cedric died, I wish it never happened, but don't blame yourself. Cedric . . .wouldn't want that."

But her words fell on deaf ears. Harry was no longer listening, his mind was back in the graveyard, seeing the headstone labeled Tom Riddle, hearing Voldemort's soft mocking laughter and hissing order to Wormtail, "Kill the spare!" And then came the terrible flash of green light and Cedric was falling, a look of astonished disbelief upon his face. Falling to land lifeless at Harry's feet, his eyes open and staring at him accusingly.

There must have been something I could have done. Something. His mind spun in circles, like a rat running in a wheel, around and around, to no purpose.

"Harry? Are you listening to me?" Hermione shook his shoulder.

No, but I am, thought the dark stallion, who was standing a few feet away, concealed in a large patch of shadow beneath the trees. The two could not see him, but he could see—and more importantly hear—all they said and did. You surprise me, Miss Granger. It would seem you are more than just a walking recitation of a textbook after all. You have insight and compassion. And you also seem to care more than a little for Potter. Much like another witch I knew. Perhaps those rumors Skeeter printed in the Prophet contained more truth than lie. I only hope he's worth it.

"Harry!" She shook his shoulder harder.

"Huh?" He snapped back to the present. "'Mione, did you say something?"

"Oh, Harry," She stroked his unruly hair. "I was just . . .maybe I shouldn't bring this up but, I was wondering, what will you do when you go home?"

He turned his head and their eyes met. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, will you tell your aunt and uncle what happened this year?"

He shook his head. "Waste of time. They don't care about anything to do with the wizarding world. Or me. I've told you that before. The only thing they care about is not having their precious "normal life" disturbed. Or Dudley inconvenienced or upset. Because the world would stop spinning if that happened."

Strange, one would think he didn't care for his relatives . . .or maybe he's just jealous of this Dudley. Moon Fire mused. Only . . .something about that conclusion didn't ring true. Potter's comment about his relatives not wanting their "normal" life disturbed brought to mind Snape's own home life, where his father had forbidden both his mother and himself to use magic about him. I want a normal boy, Eileen, not some skinny freak! The big horse shuddered, even now those words still had the power to cut and leave his spirit bleeding, and they had been spoken over twenty years ago.

Hermione was frowning, her brows drawn down over her bright brown eyes. "Harry, maybe you ought to speak with Dumbledore again. Explain to him what the situation is and maybe he'll let you stay the summer with Ron or . . .or something."

"That's useless! He only hears and sees what he wants to hear, like all the adults. He wants to believe my life's a bed of roses, just like Snape wants to believe I'm a spoiled rich brat, like my father was. The truth doesn't matter." The boy said bitterly. "No one would believe me."

"I do."

"I know." He hugged her back and they remained that way for a long time, just sitting under the stars, drawing strength from each other. "I can't believe you risked detention to come and find me. Never thought I'd see the day when you broke rules."

She winced. "I . . .you were gone and I was afraid . . .something might have happened, so I just . . .I didn't even think about what trouble I'd be in, for once. All I thought about was you."

He gave her a lopsided smile. "I don't think it's worth getting detention over. If Snape ever catches us out of bed . . .he'll use us for potion ingredients probably."

Humph! Any potion that needed your body part, Potter, would be a disaster. Anyone imbibing it would probably die on the spot. Not that you don't deserve to serve detention with me for the rest of the term for being such a reckless impossible child.

Hermione was laughing softly. "Harry, really! Professor Snape is not evil, he would never harm a student."

"You just stick up for him because he's a teacher and you think teachers are perfect."

"No. I just think there's more to him than meets the eye. He's a walking contradiction, Harry."

"What do you mean?"

Moon Fire's ears twitched and he waited to hear the too-perceptive witch's theory.

"Think about it. He claims to hate you, or you thought he did, but he protected you all year long when you were getting attacked by Quirrell first year. And in second year, you learned a valuable Disarming Charm from him during the Dueling Club. Third year, he risked his neck to follow us to the Shrieking Shack and protect us from a werewolf. Why would he do all that if he were evil, or out to get you? It doesn't add up."

"Maybe he just wanted to keep me safe so he could hand me over to Voldemort." Harry said cynically.

"He could have done that first year, Harry," said Hermione exasperatedly. "But he didn't. I think you ought to give him the benefit of the doubt."

"Ha! That'll be the day! Who knows why Snape does what he does? He probably only helped me because Dumbledore told him to."

Angrily, Moon Fire slammed a hoof on the ground, but it was muffled by the wind. I am no man's puppet, Potter! Not even Albus Dumbledore's. He doesn't pull my strings the way he does everyone else's. What I do, I do for love of your mother, and for what could have been. Had I spoken up sooner long ago, things might have been different. But I was afraid, and I waited too long, and then I became a secret agent, and a spy cannot have a family, it makes one too vulnerable. Still, I might have tried, if Potter hadn't come along and ruined everything. He quivered with suppressed sorrow and need. I loved her more than my life and to this day I miss her still. No one will ever know how much.

He lowered his head, a sick feeling in his stomach, and continued watching the two.

"I don't think even Dumbledore could command him to do something he didn't wish to. He's nobody's pawn."

"Since when did you become an expert on Snape?"

"I'm not an expert, Harry. I'm just saying that he's not the greasy git who's out to get you." She shivered because the night air had turned nippy and she wasn't wearing a coat.

Harry noticed and abruptly changed the subject. He didn't want to discuss Snape, of all people. "You're cold, let's go back to the castle before you freeze. Oh, and did you ever hear of any wild horses around here?"

"Wild horses? No, as far as I know. Why?"

"Because . . .I saw one, just before you came."

"Here? What did it look like? Where did it go?" she asked eagerly.

"He was a black stallion with a crescent moon on his face. He was awesome, Mione!"

"A crescent moon?" she repeated.

"Yeah and he was like . . .kind of glowing. What's the crescent moon mean?"

"It's the symbol of Selene, the Moon Goddess, and anyone or anything bearing that mark is high in her favor. The horse could have been her avatar or familiar."

"Oh. But why come to me? I don't believe in her, or much of anything." He rose and threw the Invisibility Cloak over his shoulders and Hermione's. "Whatever he was, he's gone now. He ran away when you came and I don't think he'll be back. He's probably halfway to China by now."

You wish, Potter! I am closer than your shadow. Moon Fire whickered loudly when they vanished from view. An Invisibility Cloak! So that's the brat's secret. I should have known! His bloody father had one that he used, perhaps this is the same one. And of course he uses it first chance he gets to break school rules. Typical Potter! I've a good mind to confiscate it and prevent future mishaps.

He sprang forward, racing hard and swift over the ground, taking a small short cut that would bring him to the castle before Harry got there, just in time to catch the two impulsive Gryffindors out of bed. Perhaps giving them a much-needed talking to and a detention would soothe his raw nerves and enable him to observe Lily's son more closely, who also was more than what he seemed.


 



Chapter End Notes:


In this version of events, Severus never used the Invisibility Cloak in POA because he knew of a spell that did almost the same thing, so he never learned Harry had the cloak.

Hope you all liked and thanks for all the reviews. Just got back from vacation so I haven't had time to answer reviews.



Chapter 3: Midnight Confrontation
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It took them longer than they anticipated to get back to the castle, because walking under the cloak was harder now that they were bigger. They had to cling pretty close to each other and try and match their steps. By the time they had slipped inside the castle, it was nearly one thirty in the morning, according to the clock in the Entrance Hall.

Then Harry remembered the Maurader's Map and hissed, "Hermione, where's the map? Take it out and let's use it. We can avoid Snape and Filch that way."

Hermione fumbled in her pocket, at last retrieving the parchment. She handed it to Harry, who spoke the phrase, "I solemnly swear I'm up to no good."

The map came alive, revealing the inner rooms of the castle and the grounds. Harry squinted, looking for the dot that represented Severus Snape. It was hard to see under the cloak and Hermione's wand provided barely enough light to read. Snape, where are you? To his horror, he saw the dot labeled Severus Snape was not in the dungeons like it was supposed to be, but heading right towards them. Damn, we've got to get out of here! Harry thought, panicked. "Mischief managed!" he whispered and the map went blank. "'Mione, let's move, Snape's coming!"

"Where? I don't see—"

"Come on!" he dragged her forward, towards the set of stairs.

"MRREOWW!"

Harry jumped backwards as Mrs. Norris, Filch's mangy cat, raced right in front of them, hissing and growling angrily. An Invisibility Cloak was no barrier to a cat's keen senses, and she knew they were there.

His foot got tangled with Hermione's and they tripped and fell backwards onto the floor.

They landed in a tangled heap, and the hood of the cloak fell off, revealing them.

Mrs. Norris glared at them balefully, tail lashing.

Frantic, the two struggled to their feet, but it was too late.

Drawn by Mrs. Norris's yowl, Snape had hotfooted it into the Entrance Hall and caught the two wayward Gryffindors just as they were getting to their feet. "Potter! Granger! Taking a midnight stroll through the garden, were we?"

Hermione blushed and didn't answer, quite aware of what it looked like, and ashamed she had been caught breaking rules. Harry looked up at the professor and put on his most insolent expression, because it was what Snape expected, and he was already in trouble. "We were just—"

"Don't bother lying, Potter. Once again you are where you shouldn't be, breaking rules meant for your safety. Just like your father." Severus sneered. His blood boiled when he saw the look on the boy's face, that rebellious impudence that was an echo of James Potter, with not even a hint of remorse or repentance about him. Well, he'd regret his actions soon enough.

"My father never—" Harry began, but halted when Hermione stepped on his foot warningly.

Snape loomed over him, pale and dark, anger radiating from him. "Your father, Potter, broke rules left and right whenever he chose to, with no regard for consequences. He too was fond of roaming the school after midnight, causing all manner of mischief." The professor's eyes narrowed. "What is that in your hand, Potter?" His finger pointed to the Marauder's map.

"Just a spare bit of parchment," Harry said offhandedly.

"Give it here," Severus ordered, holding out his hand.

"What for? Why do you need a piece of paper?"

"That is none of your concern. Hand it over."

Reluctantly, Harry did so, cursing himself for not giving the map to Hermione.

Severus pocketed it and then looked Harry up and down, careful to keep his most disapproving expression in place. He reached out and tugged at Harry's cloak, examining it closely.

"Hey! What are you doing?"

"Where did you get this cloak, Potter?" Snape demanded, his eyes hard.

"It was a Christmas gift," Harry said defensively, trying to pull away, but Snape's eyes and hand held him fast. Not my cloak! Does he know what it is? Blast and damn it, how did this happen? Greasy git, why does he always have to be around to catch me doing something I shouldn't?

"A Christmas gift? From your dear old dad, perhaps?" Severus sneered. "Given to you by his old friend Lupin?"

Harry didn't answer. He was still trying to determine if Snape knew what the cloak was and didn't want to confirm the other's suspicions.

"Professor, we're really sorry—" Hermione spoke up then, trying to distract the teacher from his scrutiny.

"And you shall be sorrier still, Miss Granger, when you serve detention with me tomorrow night," Snape replied smoothly. "Seven o'clock in my office and fifty points from Gryffindor." But he never looked away from Harry. "Answer my question, Potter. Who gave you the cloak?"

"Why do you care . . .sir?" Harry said, suddenly tired of playing games. "What's it to you?"

Hermione was horrified. Harry, watch your tone! What are you doing? Do you want to get in more trouble?

Snape's eyes flashed. "Mind that tone, Potter! I do not tolerate insolence! That cloak is a valuable magical object, I recognize it from your father's schooldays."

"No! You're wrong!"

"I don't think so. It's an Invisibility Cloak, isn't it?"

Harry yanked the cloak away and said nothing.

Hermione wanted to shake him for being such a stubborn idiot. Defying Snape would only result in more punishment and irritate the volatile man even further. She couldn't understand how Harry kept making the same foolish mistakes concerning Snape and his temper year after year. One would think he'd have learned how to handle the professor by now. She bit back a groan and nudged him hard, but Harry wasn't paying attention to her subtle cues.

"I'll take that too, Potter," Snape said silkily. Inwardly, he seethed at whoever was foolish enough to give the reckless boy such an item, one that would only fuel his desire to get into trouble. Giving Potter an Invisibility Cloak was like handing a toddler a sharp knife. Sooner or later he was bound to cut himself and with such an item at his disposal, Potter would be ten times harder for Snape to keep track of and thus to keep safe.

Harry wrapped the cloak tighter about himself. "No, you can't! It's private property!"

"That's as may be, but you were using it to break rules and now it becomes mine until the end of term. Now give it here, Potter!" Severus' voice became sharp, inflexible.

Harry shook his head, marveling at his own daring. He knew Hermione was rolling her eyes next to him. But he wasn't about to give up the cloak without a fight. Especially not to Snape.

"Now . . .or else you shall be in detention with me for the rest of the term as well and lose another fifty points for your defiance. I give you fair warning, Potter. Don't test me. Give me the cloak."

"It's not fair!" he muttered rebelliously.

Hermione hit herself in the forehead.

Snape leaned down and hissed, "What's not fair is you standing here arguing with me, you stubborn little—" He broke off abruptly. "The cloak. Now, Potter."

Harry slowly unfastened the cloak, angry and ashamed. "Take it then!" He practically shoved the cloak in Snape's face.

The professor caught the cloak easily and tucked it under his arm. "That'll be ten more points for your cheek, Potter and you can serve another night of detention with me as well. Now get upstairs to your common room and get in bed. Or do you need a cup of warm milk and a bedtime story?"

Flushing, Harry gathered the shreds of his dignity around him and walked past the Potions Master and up the stairs, Hermione following.

Severus watched until they had turned the corner to the Gryffindor portrait hole before gliding away, the cloak and map now safely in his possession. Perhaps without them, Potter would think twice about wandering about after midnight and stay safe inside where he belonged. Then too, he might also gain some more insight into the boy's reluctance to return home. There was something not right there, something that made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in warning, but he needed to be certain before he jumped to conclusions. As a spy he had learned to be certain of facts before reporting information. If Potter were being abused, he needed proof before taking his suspicions to the Headmaster. Albus would never believe it otherwise, he had missed completely Severus' own signs when he was at school that all was not what it should be at home.

"That's useless! He only hears and sees what he wants to hear, like all the adults. He wants to believe my life's a bed of roses, just like Snape wants to believe I'm a spoiled rich brat, like my father was. The truth doesn't matter."

Potter's words earlier replayed themselves in his head as he walked back to his rooms, and he pondered just what truth the boy was talking about. If it was as he suspected . . .then he had indeed been blind, and he cursed himself for a fool.

"Harry, why must you always bait him like that?" Hermione whispered upon reaching the portrait hole. "If you had just done what he wanted the first time, then you wouldn't have gotten another detention and lost more points."

"He wanted my cloak, what was I supposed to do, just hand it over?"

"Yes!" Hermione said exasperatedly. "He won't keep it, you know. You'll get it back in a week."

"How did he know what it was, anyhow?" Harry grumbled, knowing she was right but not wanting to admit it.

"Because he saw it on your father," Hermione said. "He said so himself."

"Greasy damn bastard! He lives to make my life miserable."

"Harry . . .some of that's your own fault. You did provoke him."

"So what? How come you're not mad over him giving you detention, huh?"

"Because it was my own fault. I disobeyed and now I'll pay the consequences." She said simply. "That's all there is to it. He's doing his job, Harry."

Harry glared at her angrily. "You always defend him."

"We did break the rules, Harry. You're supposed to get in trouble when you break rules."

"He didn't have to take the cloak."

"I would have been surprised if he didn't, knowing what it was and what you did with it. Come on, let's go to bed."

"Yeah, got to be nice and rested for Snape's bloody detention tomorrow night," Harry grumbled. "Wonder what he'll make us do?"

"I have no idea," she sighed, then she spoke the password and the portrait hole swung open.

The two Gryffindors arrived promptly for their detention in Snape's office. He was grading end of term exams and gritting his teeth over several students who had obviously not bothered to study at all and just made up utter nonsense to the questions. His red quill was kept busy and that always irritated him. He exhaled sharply upon seeing Harry and Hermione, then set aside his tests and rose to his feet.

"The task I have for you is twofold. First, Miss Granger, I need you to go and harvest some starblaze flowers from Professor Sprout's greenhouse. You will find them on the night side of the greenhouse. Bring me a double handful and mind you be careful, the starblaze is delicate and one slip of your knife will make the plant useless for this potion. I shall also need milkweed and valerian."

"Yes, sir. What potion are you making, sir?"

"A draft to clear the mind and spirit," he answered shortly. "You will find a gathering basket, an athame, and a cloth to cover the starblaze inside the lab. Do not dawdle, I wish this potion brewed tonight."

Hermione nodded respectfully.

Then he looked at Harry, who seemed more repentant this evening than last night, though he saw circles under the boy's eyes from lack of sleep. "Potter, did you sleep at all last night?" he asked abruptly.

Harry's eyes shot open. "I'm fine, sir." He said respectfully. "What would you like me to do, Professor?"

Pleased at the boy's attitude, Snape said more softly, "You will begin preparing the other ingredients necessary for this potion. Come with me. Miss Granger, do you need a list or can you remember without prompting?"

"I'll remember, sir," Hermione said confidently.

She went into the lab and found the gathering basket and the other items set out on a table, took them and left.

"Over there is the cauldron you'll be using," Snape instructed, indicating a cauldron set over a simmering flame. "The instructions are on the board. Do all up to number 7. That should keep you busy till Granger returns with the other botanicals."

Relieved that he wasn't going to be scrubbing cauldrons or the dungeon floor, Harry moved to read the directions on the board.

By the time he got to step three—Add powdered mint and extract of lavender to the cauldron he could feel his eyelids begin to droop in spite of himself. He had lied when he had told Snape he had slept all right. The truth was he had tossed and turned all night and been unable to sleep a wink. All around him, his roommates snored and he remained awake, thinking of his stupidity in baiting Snape, the loss of his cloak, and oddly enough, the beautiful black stallion. He had wished he could find the black horse again, perhaps bring along some sugar or an apple and coax the wild horse to eat from his hand.

Don't be ridiculous! He scolded himself, stirring the cauldron. Even if you did make friends with that horse, what would you do when you left? Can't take a horse on the train to Surrey. Besides, you can't even ride him. He's wild and he belongs here, running free. Wish I did. He sighed. He wasn't thinking straight, hadn't been since Cedric had died. Still, it was a wonderful daydream.

He stirred carefully, concentrating on the potion as he never did in class, he discovered he didn't want to mess this up, didn't want to give Snape any excuse to sharpen his tongue on him. But he was so tired . . .weary to his bones . . .tired and sick with grief and dread, because in five days time he would return to the Dursleys and the hell they had made for him.

Severus had been watching the boy closely inbetween grading, making sure he was following directions, but he had begun marking a test and when he glanced over at the child again, he saw Harry nodding over his cauldron, his head drooping and his hand . . .his hand was dangerously close to the iron lip of the cauldron, which was superhot from the flames.

"Potter! Selene's Grace, wake up!"

Severus rose, moving swiftly towards the boy.

"Huh? What?" Harry opened his eyes, staring about him wildly, his brain still back within the realm of sleep, and for an instant he thought he was back at Privet Drive and it was time to get up and cook breakfast. His hand jerked forward and touched the edge of the cauldron for a brief moment.

For one instant, there was no pain.

Then pain flared red hot through his hand and he gasped and cried out.

Suddenly, a dark figure loomed over him, and he cringed instinctively. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to burn it, Uncle. I'm sorry!"

His whole hand was throbbing now and he bit his lip hard to keep from whimpering.

"Potter, let me see."

"I'm okay . . .I'm okay . . ." he babbled, pain and his exhausted state nearly making him incoherent.

"You most certainly are not okay, now let me see how bad you've hurt yourself," Severus said, keeping his voice soft, for he had not missed the instinctive flinch and fear that now shone in the emerald eyes. "Come on, Potter, that hand has to be hurting like blazes. I know what it feels like."

Harry winced, then he shook his head. "Be all right, I can take care of myself."

The Potions Master sighed exasperatedly. "Now is not the time for you to play hero, Potter. Bright Lady save me, why must you be so stubborn? Let . . .me . . .see!" he said through gritted teeth. "Please!"

"I don't want to be any trouble . . ."

"I assure you, it is no trouble to let me tend to your hand. Or do you enjoy feeling like your hand is going to burst into flames?" Snape held out his hand.

Slowly, Harry placed his burnt palm in it.

Severus took one look at the raw flesh, which was starting to blister, and swore under his breath. "All right, Potter, come with me." He snapped his fingers and a bowl of ice water popped up on his desk. "Put your hand in there and just let it soak. I'll be right back with some Burn Paste."

Harry hissed when his burned hand came into contact with the ice water and a few tears squeezed past his eyes in spite of himself. Snape was right, he was hurting like blazes, and he was also horrified that he had spoken about his uncle to the other man. It must be the sleep deprivation. Or the shock. Or something. He prayed Snape hadn't noticed what he'd said.

He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. Even so, he started like a scared rabbit. Some of the water sloshed over the basin to land on the floor. "I'm sorry," he said automatically.

"Relax and quit apologizing," his teacher ordered gruffly. In his hand was a squat container and a soft cloth. "Take your hand from the water and sit down." He indicated an unused desk and chair.

Harry obeyed, his hand was hurting viciously now.

He waited for Snape to make some kind of cutting remark about clumsy students but his professor simply took his hand and rested it atop the desk. "Hold still. This will hurt, it can't be helped, but once the salve is on, it will feel better." He shook his head when he looked at Harry's blistered hand. "Second degree burns, by Selene's Eye." He carefully unscrewed the cap and dipped the cloth into the Burn Paste. It was thick and green.

He gently began to apply the paste.

Harry winced and tried to pull away.

Severus grabbed his wrist firmly. "Stay still, Potter. I'll be done in a minute or two."

"Hurts," Harry whimpered.

"I know. Take a breath and count to ten."

Harry obeyed, anything to take his mind off the awful pain. "One . . .two . . .three . . .ahh! . . .four . . .five . . .ow!"

"Easy. Almost done." Severus said soothingly, continuing to apply the salve. "Count, Potter."

Harry resumed his counting, tears standing in his eyes.

Severus was thorough, applying the paste thickly until the entire burn was covered. Then he wrapped a loose dressing over it and stuck the ends together with a Sticking Charm. "How do you feel now, Mr. Potter?"

"Better, sir." Harry reached up to dash away tears from his eyes. His hand now felt blessedly numb.

He found a handkerchief in front of his nose. "Use this. Do you need a Pain Reliever? Be honest, no lies."

Harry took the handkerchief, blushing. Then he said, "I . . .maybe I do. Yes, I think so."

Severus turned to a cabinet in back of his desk and retrieved a vial of his pain relieving potion.

Harry gratefully took it and drank, grimacing. "I'm sorry I ruined your potion."

"You haven't. Now then, Potter. I have a few questions to ask you," Snape began. "You will answer them truthfully, am I clear?"

"Sir?" Harry said uncertainly, hoping Severus was not going to ask him about his uncle.

"Why did you lie to me about getting enough sleep?"

Harry sighed. "I thought I could . . .I didn't realize I was so tired."

"Next time don't attempt to play the martyr, Potter. Look at what it got you." Severus gestured pointedly at his hand. Then he said, "Are you looking forward to the end of the term, Potter?"

Harry turned away, his heart cold and still within him. He wouldn't answer that. He couldn't.

Severus waited and waited.

Harry looked down at his hands and refused to answer. Which was an answer in itself.

"You flinched from me when I touched you."

"You startled me, sir."

Snape nodded. And Voldemort plays with bunny plushies. You're not fooling me, Potter. For I have been where you are now. I know the first rule—never ever tell what goes on at home. To anyone, but especially someone in authority. "Put your head down on the desk and take a nap, Potter."

"Sir?"

"You heard me. You're of no use like this, now sleep."

Maybe I knocked myself out when I burned my hand? Because that's the only reason why he's suddenly being so . . .concerned over me, Harry thought blearily. Merlin, but I'm tired. I can't remember when I last slept decently. Maybe a few days before the tournament. He could feel himself start to drift. "M'not tired . . ." he protested.

"Like hell you're not." Severus shot back. "Sleep, Potter. That's an order."

Harry's eyes closed and he was asleep an instant later. He never woke when Severus draped a blanket over him. "So you don't catch a chill and die on me," he muttered. I was a fool. I allowed myself to be blinded by jealousy and anger. The boy was right, all of us saw what we wished to see and missed the truth. I failed him badly. Selene and Lily forgive me for being a blind stubborn jackass, and allowing my temper to rule me. It will not happen again. No child should ever suffer what I did, and it would seem that he has. Regret and remorse stabbed him then and he winced at the sudden sting. Lily would chop him up and boil him in his own cauldron if she knew how he had treated her son. Somehow he needed to make amends, beginning with getting the boy away from his abusive relatives.

He turned away to tend to the potion, thinking on a way to get Potter to speak about his home life before he left for the summer. It would be the hardest assignment he had ever had, harder even than gathering information from the Death Eaters, for Potter did not trust him. And there was no way he could make the boy trust him in a week, not after what he had been and done. Or was there?

Hermione returned some five minutes later, all the ingredients he had asked for placed neatly in the basket, harvested correctly. "Here you go, sir." She handed him the basket for him to see.

He peered inside, checking the contents. "Acceptable, Miss Granger. Now, if you will continue to brew from step 7 . . ." he indicated the board.

"Yes, sir. Where's Harry?"

Severus pointed to a blanket shrouded mound.

"What happened to him?" Hermione cried, alarmed.

Severus put out a hand to stop her from running over to him. "Don't wake him, Miss Granger. He is sleeping, he had an accident and burned his hand—"

"Oh my goodness! Is he all right? Does he need to go to a burn center or whatever you wizards have here?" Hermione cried. "Do you need to—"

"Miss Granger!" Severus snapped, effectively silencing her. "Do allow me a word in edgewise! Mr. Potter has been tended by me, his hand is not serious enough to require a trip to St. Mungos. I myself have been burned as badly and I survived to brew again," he said dryly. "I gave him a pain relieving potion spiked with a small amount of a Sleeping Draught."

Hermione's eyes went wide. "You mean you . . .slipped him a Mickey Finn, sir?"

"I did indeed. You may see for yourself, he is merely asleep. I try not to make a habit of poisoning my students."

"Good for you, sir," she remarked, hiding a smile. Few people would suspect their stern Potions Master to have a sense of humor, albeit a wickedly sharp dry one. She made her way over to Harry, peering at him anxiously. He seemed so peaceful, sleeping there. "How long will he be out, sir? And what about his detention?"

"He will sleep for another hour or so. As for detention, that is between me and Potter. Now that you are satisfied he is still among the living, finish this draft. And mind you add the starflower in three separate stages . . .gradually. I trust it's not beyond your abilities?"

"No, sir." Hermione read the directions and began brewing where Harry had left off. She knew her professor would have never allowed her to brew something this complicated if he did not trust her to brew it correctly. He hated incompetence and wasting precious potions ingredients.

Severus returned to his grading, eyeing the girl every so often just to make sure she was brewing correctly.

At last Hermione straightened and said, "Almost done, sir. It just needs to steep for an hour."

He came over to inspect the cauldron and nodded. "At least you have not wasted my time in class, Miss Granger."

Knowing that was as good as a "well done" from another teacher, Hermione allowed herself a small smile. It was rare that one got a compliment from Snape. "What would you like me to do next, sir?"

Severus eyed her shrewdly. "I need you to answer a question. What do you know about Potter's relatives? Have you ever met them?"

Hermione shook her head. "Never, sir. I've never seen them at all. Harry doesn't talk about them much, but I don't think they get on at all. He did say that his cousin eats like a whale and is nearly the size of one and that his aunt and uncle would prefer it if he stayed here at school."

"I see. Then you have never visited him over break?"

She shook her head. "No, sir. I don't think they want Harry to . . .to have friends from school over. One time Ron went there with his brothers and they . . .well they sort of . . .rescued him."

"Rescued him?"

"Yes, sir. He'd been locked in his room and was starving, I think. That's all I know, sir," she added hastily, fearing she had said too much. Harry would be furious, but she couldn't help herself. This was the first time any teacher had ever asked her about Harry's life outside of Hogwarts and it was something she felt an adult . . .even if he were the strictest teacher in the school . . .should be aware of. She had kept her silence because Harry was so reluctant to speak about it, but now she could no longer do so. Harry's mental state was precarious and she feared for him when he went back to Privet Drive. She looked at her professor and saw that his eyes were blazing and for one moment she backed away, suddenly terrified.

Until she realized his anger was not directed at her.

An instant later the anger was gone, hidden behind the mask of the snarky professor, but Hermione knew what she had seen. Snape did care for Harry. Or at least he was beginning to. She wondered what he would do now. But she sensed that Snape would not tell her.

"You may leave, Miss Granger. Your detention is served and over." He turned back to his papers, waving her away.

"Sir . . .what about Harry?"

"When he wakes, I shall send him up to Gryffindor Tower." Then he scowled at her. "Well? Are you just going to stand there, or must I give you formal leave to depart, my lady?" he bowed mockingly to her.

"Good night, sir," she said, ignoring the sarcastic wit. Then she scurried from the room, leaving Harry still snoozing and Severus trying to finish his exams, some of which were so tedious he nearly fell asleep correcting them.

Hope you liked what went on here.

Gradually, Severus is starting to see Harry in a different light. What do you think he will do to make Harry trust him?

Next: Severus takes a new tack with Harry and some absent enemies return to try and harm the Boy-Who-Lived. Will they succeed? Or will they fail? Find out next chapter!

Chapter 4: Midnight Rescue
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Harry hurried down the stairs to the dungeons and Snape's office, having received an owl from the Potions Master to come and see him directly after class that day. He had a sinking feeling that Snape was about to put him in detention, maybe even an extended one, for falling asleep in the first detention and because Harry owed him another one for being so cheeky that night. At the time, it had seemed like defiance was the best course, but looking back on it, Harry wished he hadn't ignored Hermione and had kept his mouth shut. He sighed. Now was too late to regret what was past. There were only five more days left till the end of term and if he was forced to spend extra time with Snape, he had brought it upon himself.

Ron had been horrified to learn that the cloak and the map were now in Snape's possession. He told Harry he should go tell Dumbledore and make the Headmaster give them back. But Harry never would do that, even though their loss was a sharp blow. For he knew he had been wrong in using the cloak and the map to sneak around the school and Dumbledore would probably side with Snape. At least this time.

Still, there was one thing Harry did have to be grateful to his potions professor for.

Snape had treated his burn well. Whatever that Burn Paste was made of, it had cooled and vanished the pain of his blistered flesh almost immediately and though he hadn't examined the burn since, Harry knew it was healing. He knew he owed the teacher a thank you.

He knocked tentatively upon the office door, waiting until he heard a silky, "Enter, Mr. Potter," before turning the handle and walking inside.

Snape was seated behind his desk, grading what looked like a mountain of exams, a red quill and jar of ink at his elbow. He looked as if he had a crick in his neck and straightened up slowly. "I see you have decided to be prompt, for once, Potter. Good, for I have much to do and very little time to do it in. Have a seat." He waved the boy to a chair in front of the desk.

Harry nodded and sat down.

To his surprise, Snape approached him with a familiar container and a soft cloth. "Let me examine your hand, Potter. Make sure it isn't festering. Did you get it wet?"

"No, sir. I knew better than that." Why is he being so concerned? It's just a burnt palm. I've had worse at the Dursleys and nobody ever cared. He can't fear I'll report him or something either, since it was my own fault I fell asleep. Unless he does this for any student who gets burned?

Severus cast a Relaxing charm upon the bandage so he could gently peel it away and examine Harry's palm. The hand was still very red and swollen, though the blisters had shrunk and no longer oozed and the edges of the burn were starting to heal, the skin debriding naturally. "Hmm. It's started to mend, though I think you will need three or four applications before this will be healed. You are lucky, Potter, that magic mends burns very quickly, if you were in a Muggle hospital, you would be suffering for a week or more."

Harry nodded, he knew that all too well.

"Hold still." Snape began applying the salve.

Harry sucked in a breath. Careful as the other was, the skin was still very tender and he winced. But it didn't hurt as badly as last time and he was able to hold still without Snape's assistance. The salve was cool and tingled as it was applied, but it felt wonderful.

Snape summoned another clean bandage and wound it deftly about Harry's hand. "There. Better?"

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Severus snorted. "Humph. Now you thank me. You're welcome, nevertheless. Rumors to the contrary, I do not like seeing students in agony . . .unless the agony is caused by not studying for one of my exams." He waved a hand and the salve and cloth vanished. "You will return here tomorrow morning and I shall apply the paste a third time. For now, you may as well begin your detention early. Follow me."

He led the way into the classroom and pointed to a formula up on the blackboard. "You will go and harvest the following ingredients for me—goldenrod, blue artemis, and the bulbs of the malus mandragora. Here is a diagram of the plants and what parts you will need to gather. Read it carefully. You have an hour and a half. You can go to a small meadow beyond the greenhouse, take the trail out back of it and you will find the spot." It's the one where I found you, sobbing your eyes out. I'm sure you'll recognize it again.

Harry studied the paper and then looked at the familiar gathering basket and shears, this was the same basket Hermione had used last night, though he seemed to recall her having a knife and not shears. Before he knew what he was about, he had blurted, "Why did Hermione get a knife and I have scissors?"

"Because I don't know if you can be trusted not to cut yourself," Snape said dryly. "Also, these plants do not need an athame to harvest, only shears, Potter. Didn't you pay attention to Professor Sprout in Herbology? Or did you just muck about with your friend Weasley?"

Harry didn't answer, feeling a faint flush crawl up his neck, for Snape's assessment was dead on target. He and Ron used to write down Quidditch stats in their Herbology notebooks and play paper games of chess and invent Quidditch plays instead of paying attention to Sprout. She was such an easy going witch it was easy to skive off in her classes. But now Harry was starting to regret not paying closer attention, especially with the way Snape was glowering disapprovingly.

"Never mind, the answer is written all over your face. One would think you had learned by now that Herbology goes hand in hand with Potions. If you cannot harvest ingredients properly you cannot brew an effective draft." Severus lectured. "There is more to life than Quidditch. And more to school than socializing."

Harry felt himself grow even redder and resentment flared in him. He sounds like my bloody father! But he isn't, so where does he get off acting like it? I don't need this crap. He was tempted to say something rude, but mindful of Hermione's warning, managed to keep his tongue behind his teeth for once. He kept his eyes on the basket and pretended to take Snape's lecture to heart.

At last Snape dismissed him, and he walked rapidly out of the door, the gathering basket on his arm bumping against his hip.

Severus turned back to grading his last set of exams, giving Harry twenty minutes or so to reach the meadow and make a start, poor as it would probably be given the boy's tendency to not pay attention, before locking his office and stridingdown the corridor, black cloak billowing behind him. He took a secret passage out of his dungeons known only to Slytherin Heads of House, and emerged just behind the greenhouse.

Then he made sure no one was about before calling upon his magic and becoming Moon Fire.

Harry was kneeling on the ground, digging up bulbs when he felt the ground tremble beneath the pounding of hooves. He quickly dumped the bulbs inside the basket and stood up, brushing off his jeans. He reached into a pocket of his robes for an apple and a piece of a sugared donut he had stuck in there from lunch. He had never quite gotten out of the habit of squirreling food away for later, even though he knew he would never starve at Hogwarts. The kitchens never really closed, and the house elves were always willing to make one a snack if you knew how to ask properly. Still, old habits died hard, and that particular habit was not easily broken since he had to return to it every summer in order to avoid becoming a skeleton.

The drumming of hooves grew louder and then the stallion appeared, circling the meadow on flying feet.

He swept past Harry, mane and tail streaming behind him like black fire, his eyes fixed upon the human who had invaded his private meadow. Harry watched in awe, for the way the horse ran was like poetry in motion, an effortless glide, and his hooves barely seemed to touch the earth before becoming airborne.

"So beautiful!" he murmured. "I'll bet you could outrun any racehorse out there."

Moon Fire slowed, snorting. I have outrun unicorns, Potter, one of the swiftest equines upon the planet. I am sure a racehorse would prove no challenge. He stopped a scant six feet from the boy, blowing through his large nostrils. He was not tired, however, his endurance was incredible, and he was barely winded. He lowered his head, staring into Potter's eyes.

Harry met his gaze for one instant before holding out the apple on his palm, the unbandaged one.

The stallion tossed his head and pawed the ground, once, twice.

Though a good portion of his mind belonged to Severus Snape, Potions Master, there was another part that was purely wild horse, an untamed stallion who bowed his head to no man, and whose greatest joy was running beneath the moon. The wild horse instincts sometimes fought the human mind, clashing, especially when something unknown came up. The boy in the meadow had surprised the stallion mind, though the professor had known perfectly well the boy would be here.

So Moon Fire shuddered and did not approach Harry at first, swiveling his ears and sniffing the air cautiously.

The sweet scent of apple permeated his nostrils and slowly he stepped forward. He lowered his head and whistled, watching Harry intently, ready to spring away at any moment.

Harry, recognizing the wariness, remained utterly still, murmuring, "It's okay, I won't hurt you. See, I have a snack for you. Want it? Then come and get it."

Come and get it? Ah Potter, I'm not your pet beagle, to come at your beck and call. Moon Fire snorted. But he took another step forward.

Harry remained still, holding the apple. "You want this, I know you do." He made a soft clucking noise.

Moon Fire walked the last few steps to stand over the slight boy. Then his head swept down and lifted the apple from Harry's palm so quickly and neatly that Harry barely realized he was moving before the apple was gone.

There, I've taken your offering, by Selene' s Wandering Eye! He crunched the treat, enjoying the tart sweet taste upon his tongue.

"Here. How about this?" Harry held out the sugared donut next, elated. The stallion had returned and had gone so far as to eat out of his hand!

Moon Fire walked forward and smelled the second thing Harry carried. He could smell the sugar and he started to salivate. He dipped his head and made the donut vanish as well. A sugar donut, I haven't eaten one of those in months. I had forgotten how good they tasted.

As a thank you, he blew softly into the boy's hair. "Hey! That tickles," Harry said, and the green eyes laughed up at him. He felt a pang of sorrow flicker through him, for he had seen another pair of eyes laugh just that way, long ago. He is HER son too. And I must discover what has happened to him living in that house. Not that I can't imagine, given Petunia's hatred and jealousy of all things magical. Still, supposition is not proof and it is proof I need if I am to petition Albus to remove him from Privet Drive. Irrefutable proof. Of course then there would be the question of where the boy were to live if he weren't at Privet Drive, but Severus decided he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

Harry lowered his hand, wiping the remnant of the sugared donut on his jeans. He did not try and pet the horse again, he knew now what a mistake that had been. He had been reading up on equine behavior in the library after class for around an hour and had discovered that a wild horse tended to shy and startle at sudden movements, especially a hand touching them. It was the prey instinct in them, they tended to view anything new and strange as a threat. That the horse had eaten from his hand willingly was a great milestone.

"I'm sorry I scared you before," Harry said, keeping his voice low and soft. The book had said that talking to an animal calmed them and got them used to your voice. "I didn't mean to, I just wanted to feel how soft your coat was. It's like silk . . .like a black silk tie Uncle Vernon had once, that he used to wear when he was taking an important client out for dinner. I was never allowed to lay a finger on it, but I did once, just to see . . .and your coat feels just like that. I can't believe you came back and that you ate out of my hand."

The horse flicked his ears forward and snorted. Tell me more about your Uncle Vernon. He was so uptight he wouldn't let you touch a tie. How old were you then? Old enough to remember, and therefore old enough to not have sticky fingers, I'd wager. He waited for Harry to resume talking.

"I used to dream about a horse like you sometimes . . .alone in the cupboard. That someday a horse would come and carry me away. It never happened, of course. Aunt Petunia used to say if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. But I always thought that sounded stupid, and I used say if wishes were horses I'd ride right the hell out of here." He shook his head. "That never happened either. Guess it doesn't matter much now." He looked down at the basket by his foot. "Guess I better start gathering these plants, I've only got an hour left and if I'm not done, Snape will probably give me detention again."

He pulled out the diagramed sheet of parchment and studied it.

Meanwhile, Moon Fire grazed and thought about what the boy had let slip. A cupboard? What did you mean by that? Were you hiding inside one? From your uncle perhaps? I used to hide in closets from my father when he went on a rampage. Sometimes that kept me safe from his fists. And I used to daydream about getting away too, only my dream was going to Hogwarts. Did they ever tell you about Hogwarts, Potter? You knew next to nothing when you came here, even less than most of the Muggleborns. I recall Malfoy saying to one of his friends once that you didn't even know magic existed till your eleventh birthday. They kept you ignorant of your birthright, the fools! But you can't deny a wizard magic forever, especially not one as strong as you. Sooner or later blood will tell.

He looked up and saw Harry kneeling on the ground next to a small spiky plant, preparing to cut it. No, Potter, what are you doing? That's not blue artemis, that's foxglove, which is poisonous in large quantities! The blue artemis looked similar to the foxglove, but it was larger and had prominent blue veins running through it and bell like flowers. A neophyte botanist might make that mistake, however.

Moon Fire gave a sharp neigh and walked over to where Harry was crouched. He placed his hoof directly upon the plant and shook his head. Not that one!

Harry nearly fell over. "Hey! Stop that, I needed that plant for my assignment. Now you've crushed it."

And a good thing too. Moon Fire removed his hoof and then trotted a few steps beyond, where a patch of blue artemis lay. He whistled imperiously and stamped a hoof upon the ground. Here, Potter! Look here! This is blue artemis.

"Huh? What's going on?" Harry muttered.

The black horse neighed and stamped a hoof again. Selene's Grace, Potter, come here and take a look.

Harry rose and walked over to where the stallion was and then he saw the patch of spiky blue leaved plants. He checked his diagram and saw that these matched the ones pictured exactly. "These are what I need for my potion. But how did you know that? Was the other one poisonous? Is that why you wouldn't let me pick it?"

The black horse bobbed his head. He looked at Harry as if to say, Well, what are you waiting for? Harvest it.

Harry quickly began to harvest the blue artemis.

Moon Fire watched, relieved that the boy at least knew proper procedure on how to harvest the plant. Perhaps the mistaken identity might have something to do with the boy's poor vision as well? Perhaps he needed new glasses? He'd been wearing the same ugly black lens for five years. Surely it was time for a new pair? How long had it been since the boy had seen an eye doctor? More proof that Potter was being neglected, for Severus knew that Dumbledore sent the Dursleys a stipend each month for their nephew's upkeep. Clearly, they weren't using the money on the boy's behalf if they hadn't purchased a new pair of glasses for him in five years.

His tail swished angrily, slapping against his flank and he began to graze, biting off the tender shoots with a vengeance.

Harry settled back onto his heels. "Hey, think you can help me find the other one? The goldenrod? I'm not too good at finding these plants growing wild like this, I can't see too well with my glasses, even when they're clean." He removed the glasses and rubbed them on his shirttail and then put them back. "Still kind of blurry. I need a new pair, but they'd never buy me one. As long as I can see to do chores, that's good enough for them. I wouldn't have gotten them at all if my teacher back in primary school hadn't insisted and then Aunt Petunia just took me over to the Masons bin and had me pick one out of there. But they were better than nothing."

Moon Fire's ears went flat back against his head. Skinflint Muggles! She didn't even make sure you had your eyes examined? Perhaps they could have corrected your vision when you were younger. Now it may be too late. He trotted about in a circle, coming to a stop before a nicely blooming patch of goldenrod, their golden blooms waving in the sun. Once again he stamped a hoof and neighed. Here. This one will do nicely.

Harry came over. "Thanks for your help. I'd still be here if it weren't for you, and Snape would take strips off me for being late, the damn greasy git!"

You watch your mouth, Potter! Moon Fire shook his head and then leaned down and lipped the boy's hair hard.

"Ouch!" Harry cried rubbing it. "What do you think I am, a hay bale? Quit it!"

Moon Fire snorted and slobbered all over his shoulder. Next time mind your manners! Really, you are the most insolent child!

"Ugh! Gross!" Harry grimaced. "Do all horses behave like this?" He tried to brush off the slobber, but only succeeded in making his robes wetter.

Moon Fire danced backwards, a mischievous gleam in the black eyes.

Harry stared. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you did that on purpose."

Clever boy!

"Nah. Animals don't do things like that." He shook his head and continued harvesting the goldenrod.

When he was finished he stood up and dusted off his hands on the back of his robes. "All done. And I still have five minutes to get back to the dungeon. Too bad I couldn't ride you. But I don't know how and even if I did, you'd probably never let me on your back."

Moon Fire whickered an affirmative. Got that right, Potter! Black Beauty I'm not. You want to ride something, ride a broomstick!

"Didn't think so." The boy laughed. Then he turned and called over his shoulder, "Maybe I'll see you again tomorrow? I'll bring more apples and donuts." He waved, his face creased with longing. "Gotta run, before Snape gets on my arse."

Then he turned and began to walk back to the castle briskly.

Moon Fire watched him depart. Then he trotted out of the meadow and down the track, moving around the path Harry was walking down, galloping lightly over the ground. He had reached the greenhouse and the secret entrance in five minutes, shifted forms and then slipped back into the tunnel.

When Harry tapped upon the office door, he found Snape still at his desk, grading away.

"Back already, Potter?" Severus beckoned the boy over. "Let's see how well you did." He peered inside the basket, picking up a sample of each kind of herb. "Fine, now start brewing the potion, and do not waste any ingredients."

"Yes, sir."

"One more thing. You'll return here tomorrow at seven o'clock to make up the other detention you missed." He added hoping that the boy might reveal more of his past to Moon Fire.

Harry just nodded then turned away to start chopping. Same old Snape, giving out bloody make-up detentions! But a part of him rejoiced in spite of himself, for perhaps then he would see the black horse again, the moon stallion, as he had taken to calling the horse in his head.

Harry nearly whistled as he made his way down the path to the greenhouse. Snape had once again set him to gathering ingredients, though this time they were inside the greenhouse, but that was all right. He could gather them faster that way and then take a detour to the meadow to see if the horse were there. Hopefully, he would be, Harry had brought extra apples and two donuts this time, one for himself and one for the horse.

He made short work of picking the herbs for this new potion, and then started up the small track to the meadow. Dusk had fallen by then and the moon had just risen, lighting the night enough so he didn't need to fear stumbling in the darkness.

His sneakers squeaked slightly on the damp grass, as it had rained a bit earlier, but he ignored the slightly slippery surface and continued climbing towards the meadow. I hope he's there. Hope the rain didn't make him go somewhere else to look for shelter. I just want to see him again. Just one more time—

A hand grabbed him from behind and yanked him off his feet.

"Hey!" he yelled before a hand was clamped over his mouth ruthlessly.

"Quiet, kid! You're going to be a guest of our Lord! Now don't struggle and we won't need to get rough!" ordered a gravelly voice right in his ear.

Death Eaters! His mind screeched frantically. You have to get away from them! Gathering all of his strength, he began to twist and kick backwards at his captors, opening his mouth as far as he could and biting down hard on his assailant's hand.

"Ow! Little bastard bit me!" cursed the one holding him.

But he had loosened his hold long enough for Harry to call out.

"Help! Professor Sprout, help! It's De-oww!"

A swift backhand to the face silenced him abruptly. He tasted blood on his lip.

"Dolohov, you idiot, he's not to be harmed!" snapped a woman's voice. "The Master said he was to be taken without damage."

"The little prick bit me, Bella! I'm not going to take that from anyone!" blustered the gravelly voiced man. "Here, you stop wriggling about like a greased pig!" He grabbed Harry, who was still fighting for all he was worth, and pinned his arms behind his back.

"Behave, Potter!" scolded the woman in a singsong voice. "Or else you'll find out how we punish naughty boys like you!"

For some reason her words sent an icy chill down Harry's spine. He knew he never wanted to find out what she meant by that, she sounded utterly insane. "Let me go, damn you!" He could not tell how many there were in the fading light, but he suspected there were at least three, maybe even four.

"Don't just stand there, Goyle and Wormtail!" snapped Dolohov. "Grab his feet and then Stun him."

"Should've Stunned him first," grumbled Goyle.

"Where's the bloody Portkey?" Wormtail whined.

Harry thrashed and wriggled, fighting desperately to get away. He couldn't allow himself to be captured, not again, not like the graveyard.

"Hold him, damn you!"

An enraged whistle split the night air, impossibly high and filled with fury.

There was a thunder of hooves and then something dark and huge charged into the knot of Death Eaters, scattering them like ninepins.

The four followers of Voldemort fell backwards and Dolohov lost his hold upon the still-fighting Harry, who twisted hard and wrenched his shoulders free of the other's ham-fisted grip and scrambled away.

Harry felt a thrill even through his mortal peril. The stallion had returned!

Get away from him, you skulking cowards! Moon Fire squealed. He lashed out with his hooves, catching the smirking Wormtail in the chest and sending him flying. His ears were flat against his head and his teeth bared, he could feel the outrage of his goddess pulsing through him, for those who killed children were anathema to her. Fight them, my avatar! Fight! Her voice was a quicksilver flame in his head and the crescent upon his brow flared.

Thy will be done, Lady, he acquiesced, though he would have fought them anyway. He spun, rearing up until he was almost vertical, then he sprang forward upon his hindlegs, once, twice, and lashed out with his front hooves, screaming a battle cry. His maneuvers were instinctive, thousands of warhorses had used them to defend their knights in battles centuries ago.

He drove Dolohov back with two blows of his hooves, then leaped into the air and caught both Goyle and Bella with a flying kick before they could use their wands.

But his main objective was not to kill the Death eaters, but to get the boy out of danger.

Harry was almost free of the circle, when a black shoulder rose up in front of him and the stallion's head was thrust into his face.

Mount, Potter! Quickly!

Harry found himself pressed hard against a satin shoulder. "You came back!" was all he could think to whisper.

Moon Lady save me, this is no time for a joyous reunion scene! Get on my back, Potter!

Harry threw an arm over the stallion's back, but was too small to jump up and swing a leg over the tall horse. "Can't get up . . .!"

"Get the devil horse! And Potter, he's getting away!" Bellatrix shrilled. A red jet shot out from Wormtail's wand.

It missed, but Moon Fire had had enough of Harry's fumbling attempts. He whirled and grabbed the back of the boy's robes, sinking his teeth firmly into the fabric and then he practically threw the boy onto his back. Harry landed with a jolt, scrambling upright and grabbing a handful of the silky mane. He had just managed to wrap his legs around the horse when Moon Fire threw up his head and began to run.

Hang on, Potter! Hang on tight and don't let go!

The stallion prayed that the boy had a good grip upon him, because if he fell off there was no way he would get back on before the Death Eaters hexed him. He sprang up and over Dolohov, the crescent flaring blindingly, making the dark wizard scream as the light burned his retinas.

Harry was thrown onto the stallion's neck, but managed, through some miracle, to stay atop the horse, even when he landed. He sat up, trying to remember any movies he had watched where they coached horsemanship, but was unable to remember anything, and just concentrated upon trying to move with the big horse and stay on his back.

He had a death grip upon the long mane and though he bounced up and down at first, he at last managed to grip hard enough with his thighs to quit sliding all over. Riding a horse was not as easy as it looked, especially not at a full out gallop through trees with dark wizards chasing you.

They were coming after them on brooms, shooting hexes from above, and Moon Fire plunged into the forest, using trails unknown to any save the unicorns and himself to try and outfox their pursuers. Stay on my back, Potter! Just stay there! We can lose them in the forest, going across the castle grounds would have been too obvious and left us with no cover.

Moon Fire continued to run, his flying hooves leaping over the occasional fallen log or stream with effortless ease.

Bellatrix, Wormtail, and Goyle were still following, though they could just barely see their quarry through the thick trees.

Bellatrix decided to resort to desperate measures and put a slender iron pipe to her lips and blew.

Something hard and sharp pricked Harry's left shoulder. He reached back and swatted at it, it felt like a bee had stung him.

A moment later he started to feel sleepy and dizzy. "Ow!"

Moon Fire slowed, sensing something was wrong. What happened? Are you hurt?

Harry swayed and slumped over the black horse's withers. "Don't feel good . . .feel sick . . .think I'm gonna pass out. . ."

No, you're not, Potter! Stay awake!

The stallion began to walk swiftly through the trees, knowing they had almost reached their destination—the Vale of Unicorns. Once he crossed the boundary, they would be safe from the Death Eaters. The Vale was protected by an ancient magic that permitted none of evil heart to cross. He could feel Harry just barely hanging on to his mane. He whinnied encouragement.

Harry was half-sitting and half-lying upon the black horse, and though Moon Fire's paces were smoother than an ordinary horse's, the jouncing in his position was making him sick to his stomach. Oh, no. Think I'm gonna sick up. He tried to sit up, but the effort only made him more dizzy and nauseated.

The next thing he knew he was heaving his dinner up all over the forest floor.

The stallion halted, allowing Harry to finish vomiting, they were within the boundary now and could afford a brief rest. Bloody hell, Potter! Did they hit you with a spell or do you just have motion sickness on horseback? He wrinkled his nose at the sour stench of vomit and stepped fastidiously away from the puddle.

Harry groaned softly and leaned his cheek on the stallion's neck. "Sorry. Where . . .are we? Can't see . . .dizzy . . .out of focus . . ."

Moon Fire snorted in alarm. We're safe, but you've been hit with something, time to take you to Amicus. His horn will cure most spell maladies and poisons. He began to walk again, gliding over the ground, trying his best not to knock about his passenger. Hold on to me. Just hold on. Only a few feet more. That's it. Don't let go, Potter. The litany repeated itself over and over in the stallion's mind as he put on hoof in front of the other and finally reached the swath of grass where Amicus and his herd played and grazed.

He whistled softly to the tall white leader when he saw him standing just beyond the trees. Amicus, I need you, old friend. This student of mine is badly hurt. Some kind of spell or poison, I think.

Moon Fire halted just before Amicus and lowered himself to the ground.

Harry slid off to lie unmoving at the feet of the great unicorn, who nuzzled him, smelling the scent of sickness and fear. Worry not, my friend. My horn's magic can heal him.

He lowered his pearlescent horn to touch Harry on the chest—once, twice, thrice.

A golden radiance spread outward from the horn and bathed the boy in an incandescent light.

Beside him, Moon Fire heaved a sigh of relief, swiveling his ears to catch the faint snarls and wails of the Death Eaters who found they could not cross the boundary no matter how hard they tried, and now Harry was safe from them. For the moment.

The DE's are thwarted for the moment, but will they return? And what will Harry think, waking up among a herd of unicorns?

Chapter 5: Midnight Frolic
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Amicus studied the sleeping human that Moon Fire had brought to his glade curiously. He could smell the innate magic upon him and knew this was one of the young human mage foals from the school beyond the forest. He snorted at his herdbrother and asked, Who is this youngling that you risk your neck to bring him to me instead of relying on your human healers to make him well?

He is destined to fight one of our greatest dark wizards, and I am pledged by magic and a promise to protect him. Moon Fire answered. He blew softly into the sleeping Harry's hair. And to love him as well, as you love your foals. He swished his tail uneasily.

Amicus blew gently into the dark horse's nostrils in comfort. You seem . . .conflicted, my brother. Is it so difficult to love this foal?

I . . .in my youth, this one's sire hurt me very badly and I have never forgotten nor forgiven it, Moon Fire said heavily. This foal reminds me too much of his sire and I . . .have resented him for it, may Selene forgive me.

Ah. The old quarrels are often the hardest to forget, Amicus said wisely. Selene knows we unicorns have them too.

I have allowed my temper to dictate my actions and now I do not know if I can ever make amends. I did not watch as closely as I should have, and the ones raising this youngling hurt him, not just in body, but in spirit. He needs Selene's Touch, Amicus, but I fear She shall not grant it to me after what I have done.

You know She is a merciful goddess, at least the Aspect we worship, Amicus reminded him, stamping a gilt hoof upon the ground. Have you asked, Moon Fire?

The black stallion shook his head. No.

Perhaps you ought to do so. I shall watch over the human foal.

Moon Fire tossed his head in assent, then trotted a little away from the herd to commune privately with his goddess.

Amicus stood over the sleeping Harry, gently shooing away his curious foals when they came too near. The young unicorns had never seen a human so close before and they wished to know how he had gotten there, why he was there, and what he was doing taking a nap in their grove.

He is Moon Fire's guest, you can meet him later, once he has awoken, now be off with you! the Lead Stallion ordered firmly, pointing with his horn that the foals should go and play or graze next to their mothers.

A unicorn was not considered mature until they were six years old and had shed their golden coat of youth for the pure white coat of an adult and their spiraling horn had grown to at least a foot. Until then, they remained with their birth herd, under the authority of their sire. But once they were adults, they left to seek another herd or to form one of their own or to be a solitary, as they chose.

Amicus' herd was unusual in that it counted a non-unicorn as a member, but Amicus had long ago silenced the outraged protests of other unicorn leaders by stating simply, Moon Fire is Selene's Chosen and such is Her will. That had quickly made any protestors be still.

Amicus snorted softly and peered down at the human sleeping inbetween his hooves. And you, young wizard? What shall you be to me and mine? Has Selene set Her Mark upon you as well?

He breathed in Harry's scent and sensed the wizard was slowly coming around. Contrary to popular belief, the unicorn had nothing against young male humans. Male or female, they could accept human adolescents so long as they remained virginal. Afterwards, however, the human male became a threat, for it was then that their urge to hunt unicorns began to awaken. A grown human male was not to be trusted, they had too long and bloody of a history of tracking and killing unicorns for their horns and tails and blood, and no unicorn of any age would ever permit such near him. The only exception to that rule was a Chosen of Selene, such as Moon Fire.

Harry woke slowly, cautiously opening his eyes. He saw tall trees and grass and wondered blearily where he was. The last thing he recalled was riding the big black horse and then he couldn't remember anything more. He must have passed out, but now he didn't feel sick anymore. He turned his head and saw . . .a pair of shimmering golden hooves and then the delicate yet well-muscled legs of pure white that were attached to them.

Oh Merlin, what is this? Could it be a . . .unicorn? He was unsure because the only unicorn he had ever seen had been dead and getting its blood drank by a half-dead Voldemort. The memory made him shudder and would have made him queasy as well, save there was nothing left in his stomach.

He breathed in the sweet scent of grass and the curious faint musky odor of the unicorn. It was not unpleasant, but it was unlike anything he had ever smelled before, a combination of warm animal, grass, and some subtle floral hint, like honeysuckle. The unicorn hide, he could see, was of a white so bright it seemed to glow and dance with myriads of rainbows.

Almost, he reached out to touch it, but then he stopped. He recalled reading in his Fantastic Beasts that unicorns didn't like boys touching them. Besides he was filthy with dirt and there had been blood on his palms from scratches as well. But when he examined his hand, he could find no scratches on it, though it still bore some dirt.

He did not know if he should move, he was afraid to make any sudden motion, just in case he startled the unicorn that was standing above him. He didn't know why the unicorn was doing so, but he didn't want to find out the hard way just how hard and sharp those hooves were!

So he remained quiet, listening to the faint thump of the foals running and the soft nickers of the mares, but most of all he heard the great beating of the unicorn's heart and then he wondered what had become of his black moon stallion. Where was he?

Amicus was very aware that Harry was awake. He exhaled softly and very cautiously lifted his hooves and stepped gracefully away from the prone boy before turning and facing him.

Harry gasped in wonder as he met the eyes of the majestic animal, the awesome creature of legend come from the pages of myth to a living breathing reality. The unicorn's mane was like the finest silk, it flowed down his neck in a shimmering swath, and his tail was so thick and long that it nearly touched the ground. But the most awesome sight was the horn, a pearlescent spiral that seemed to glow with magic, over a foot and a half long.

Slowly Harry sat up, wincing at the soreness in his thighs and bottom. Slowly he climbed to his feet. "How did I get here?" He asked, looking about at the pristine glade and the other unicorns within it. He smiled in delight at the playful foals, some of whom started to approach him, only to be summoned back by their mothers.

Suddenly he heard soft footfalls and turned to see his moon stallion coming towards him. "Hey," Harry held out a hand, and the great horse blew gently at him. "Thanks for saving my life. They would have gotten me for sure if you hadn't let me ride you."

Moon Fire whickered softly, and shoved the boy gently with his nose. You seem mostly in one piece, child, thanks to Amicus. Still, I would not think the Death Eaters will give up so easily, so we must rest here for awhile longer.

Harry dug in his pocket, finding a half-crushed donut and offering it to the stallion.

Moon Fire pricked his ears before accepting the treat graciously. This really is not necessary, but I thank you anyhow.

The boy cautiously stroked the stallion's thick mane, it was silky and yet strong, he could recall gripping it quite hard during their flight through the forest. "I guess this place is safe, isn't it? Hagrid told me once that any place a unicorn dwells is sacred and no evil can come there. It's only when a unicorn is alone that it becomes vulnerable, like the one I saw as a first year . . .the one that You-Know-Who was . . ." he paused, searching for a word. " . . .defiling . . ." He didn't wish to speak the dark one's name aloud for some reason, not in this place.

Amicus snorted angrily at the mention of the Dark One and the sacrilege he had committed against the unicorns and Selene Herself. One day, he vowed, that one would pay for his foul deeds. All hooves and horns were turned against the dark sorcerer and Selene had turned her bright face away from him, showing only the dark visage of Vengeance.

Harry shrank away for a moment from the angry unicorn. "Sorry, I didn't mean to upset you," he apologized, pressing up against the black stallion's shoulder. "I sure hope that wasn't a relative."

Amicus shook his head. Not a relative, but we are all kin, mage child. And for one of us to be murdered that way, their life force stolen to feed a wretched undead thing . . .instead of being returned to the earth and the sky, it is a great tragedy.

Moon Fire whistled softly, and at that signal, the young foals were allowed to come forward and meet his student.

At first they were shy, approaching within a foot of the boy, peering at him curiously, then drawing away. But gradually, they approached closer, until they were breathing softly on Harry, who stayed very still, having learned from his half-wild stallion that if he did so, the unicorn would be less likely to run from him.

Starblaze sniffed the strange visitor and whickered, My, but he sure is funny looking! And he smells . . .strange too . . .

He's got no horn! cried a filly.

The others whinnied in alarm.

Where is it?

Did it get cut off?

Oh, how horrid! To be hornless. How does he heal?

Another filly squealed, Selene's Grace, he has no tail either! Hornless and tailess!

And look at his fur! It's so strange . . .all different colors.

Harry got the distinct feeling he was being sized up by the small foals and they found him very amusing. He blushed.

Moon Fire whickered sternly, Settle down, you lot! This is my guest and he has no tail or horn because he's not a unicorn, but a human. Understand?

Humans are weird, remarked a small filly, her name was Amber. She gazed up at Moon Fire fearlessly. Can you race with us, Moon Fire? Please?

The other foals and yearlings joined in, clamoring for Moon Fire to run with them.

To quiet them and because he needed to feel the wind in his mane, the big stallion agreed.

Stay here, he ordered Harry, then he moved over to the foals and they began to race and leap and spin all over the clearing.

Moon Fire showed the foals how to do all kinds of maneuvers, ones that could someday save their lives if they had to fight an enemy. He was in a much better mood now than he had been previously, since he had felt Selene's gentle whisper in his mind. The goddess had forgiven him his pride and stubbornness and told him to watch over the boy and when he trusted his mentor enough, to introduce him into the Mysteries. Severus had never done so before, though he knew the way of it.

But before he could heal the child fully, he had to gain Harry's trust. And that meant getting the boy to open up about his relatives and confronting Dumbledore with the abuse and removing the boy from Privet Drive.

Harry watched the foals and the moon stallion frolicking and wished suddenly he were a unicorn, or a beautiful stallion, so he could join them. They spun and leaped like thistledown upon the wind, their hooves barely scraping the grass, their manes flying. The stallion danced among them, moving like a streak of light, and none of the foals could keep up with him.

Finally, after twenty minutes, the foals were tired out and they went back to graze and nurse off their mothers, while Amicus watched indulgently.

Moon Fire trotted away through the trees and Harry started to follow, afraid the stallion would abandon him here. "Wait! Come back! If you leave, how will I get back to Hogwarts?"

He was about to step beyond the ring of trees when the Lead Stallion moved like a comet in flight and barred the way.

Amicus half-reared. Halt, youngling! Moon Fire goes to check the boundary. He will return. Back into the grove with you. Go!

He lowered his horn and gently shoved the boy back into the safety of the grove.

Harry backed away, not wanting to tangle with that horn, but he was impatient to get back to school. There was no telling what points and new detentions Snape would assign him for not returning with his ingredients. Still, it couldn't be helped. He hadn't asked to be attacked by Death Eaters.

The wizard moved over to where a pure stream trickled from a series of rocks and knelt, cupping a handful of water in his palm and drinking it. The water slaked his thirst immediately. Then he stood, waiting, for the stallion's return.

Moon Fire investigated the perimeter of the boundary thoroughly, listening for any rustle in the trees above or sound of voices but there was silence. He carefully backtracked and returned to the place outside the greenhouse where the attack had begun.

There was the pungent coppery scent of blood on the ground and the grass was crushed where he had trampled it and where Pettigrew had fallen. But the Death Eaters were gone. Relieved, he turned and galloped back to the grove.

Five minutes later, Harry was once more atop the black stallion, who bid goodbye to his unicorn brethren and promised to return as soon as he could. Then he turned and glided from the grove, Harry trying to both sit and not sit upon the smooth back.

Harry soon discovered that riding when you were already sore was horribly uncomfortable. But he endured the discomfort stoically, knowing this was the only way he could get back to school.

Moon Fire, for his part, tried as best he could to travel smoothly and quickly, knowing Harry was in pain. It can't be helped, boy. I am sorry, but you must grit your teeth until I am back at school, then I can give you a salve for it.

Harry hissed and winced at every other footfall, because though the stallion was being careful, he was still jounced and banged.

At last, Moon Fire halted in front of the greenhouse. The moon was nearly sinking below the trees and it had grown chilly.

Harry slid from the stallion's back, whimpering in relief.

But before he could do anything else, Moon Fire threw up his head and raced away into the night.

Harry wondered why, until he heard the familiar sharp tone of his professor, calling for him. "Potter! Where are you!"

For one moment, Harry was tempted not to answer, but then he realized that would only get him in more trouble. "Here, sir!"

He walked unsteadily towards Snape's voice.

In another moment he saw the professor, black robes billowing, coming down the path.

"Potter! What did you do, take a nap out here? I have been waiting for two hours . . .surely it doesn't take you that long to gather a few bunches of yarrow and milk thistle?"

"Sorry, sir, but I was attacked," Harry said, somewhat defensively.

"Attacked by what?" Snape demanded irately.

"Death Eaters, sir. They tried . . .to kidnap me."

Severus looked utterly flummoxed. "Death Eaters, here?" He gave Harry a searching glance. "Are you utterly certain that's what they were?"

"Yes. They wore gray robes and white masks and they were the same as the ones I saw at the Quidditch World Cup and the graveyard. And they wanted to . . .to take me to Vol—"

"Don't say his name, Potter!" Severus snapped. "Names are power and he has an enchantment attached to his."

"An enchantment?"

"Later. How did you manage to escape them?"

Harry hesitated. Should he tell Snape about the horse? He peered at the teacher and something in the other's gaze warned that lying to him would be a bad thing. "Uh . . .this is going to sound totally mad, professor, but . . .a horse saved me . . ."

"A horse?"

"Yeah, a big black stallion with a crescent moon upon his forehead. I . . .got on his back and he took me into the forest. We hid there from the Death Eaters and then I rode him back here. He . . .ran when he heard you coming, but I swear, I'm not making this up." Harry said. "Look, you can see the hoofprints in the ground." He pointed to the crescent shaped marks that were lit up by Snape's wand.

Severus examined the marks and nodded. "Only you, Potter, could be rescued by a mystery horse. Come along, if Death Eaters have penetrated the grounds, the Headmaster must be warned. We will go to him immediately."

He spun and urged Harry ahead of him with a firm hand on his back.

Harry tried to walk without limping, for he did not want to show any weakness to his professor.

But Snape had eyes like a hawk. "Problems, Mr. Potter?"

"No . . .sir."

"Lying again?"

"No . . .it's just . . ."

"Did the Death Eaters hurt you?"

Harry shook his head.

"Ah. You are not, I would imagine, accustomed to riding." Snape said, his voice smooth and matter-of-fact. "Novice riders often are sore after riding."

Harry gritted his teeth. His thighs and buttocks were burning. "I'm fine."

"Of course you are," drawled the professor. "Don't insult my intelligence, Potter."

Harry did not bother to answer, he just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

The walk back to the castle never seemed so endless.

Once they reached the Entrance Hall, Snape halted. He snapped his fingers and Fetched a small earthenware jar of Abrasion Soothing Salve and handed it to Harry. "Potter, take this into the restroom and apply it where you need to. I trust you don't require my assistance?"

Harry went red and stammered, "N-no!" Then he gave Snape a suspicious look. "What is it?"

"A salve to heal you," Severus replied shortly.

Harry fled into the restroom as quickly as he could, locking himself into a stall.

He hissed as he peeled off his jeans and underwear, he was sore in places he never would have imagined and he feared it would be even worse tomorrow morning.

He bit his lip hard to keep from yelling as he rubbed the salve on, his skin was raw and at first the stuff stung like hell. But then it began to numb the skin and he quit biting his lip and sighed in relief.

After he had applied the salve all over, he went to pull up his underwear and jeans. It was then he realized his jeans were too stiff for him to wear comfortably. Damn! He swore and then he transfigured them into a soft pair of sweat pants. Those his abraded skin could tolerate. He finished fixing his robes and then walked out to where the Potions Master waited.

Severus eyed the boy up and down, noting his changed attire.

Harry felt himself go red at the scrutiny. "I had to change into these, I can use my robe to hide them, I know they're not proper—" he began, waiting for the sarcastic comment.

Snape merely raised an eyebrow. "Potter, you could show up in pajamas at this time of night and I doubt the Headmaster will care, once he learns the news. Come along, up the stairs now."

He spoke the password that would open the stone gargoyle, "Honeycomb Heart Treats."

The gargoyle slid aside and Harry and Severus stepped upon the revolving staircase, Severus wondering what Albus would have to say about this latest development and if it would lead to Potter's removal from the school early. If it did, would Severus then be asked to escort him home?

Chapter 6: Midnight Resolution
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Snape knocked twice at the office door before opening it and entering. Harry wondered if it were some sort of secret code, because Dumbledore popped his head out of the adjoining room, which opened into the office, and did not look at all startled to see the Potions Master. He was wearing one of those old-fashioned nightcaps that Harry recalled seeing in the movie A Christmas Carol. "Severus? Is something wrong?"

Snape nodded curtly, then reached out and pulled Harry into the room.

"Hey!" Harry yelped, though Severus immediately released him.

"Is the office sealed, Headmaster?" was Severus' first question.

"Yes, of course," Albus said sleepily, waving his wand behind his back to activate the privacy wards. He came into the office in his lavender dressing gown and fuzzy star and moon slippers. Harry saw with amusement that his beard had been tied with a black ribbon to keep it neat while he slept. "What seems to be the problem? Hello, Harry! I would hope you haven't been serving another detention with Professor Snape."

"He's been serving detention with me this past week," Snape said sourly. "For being out of bounds in the middle of the night. Tonight I had him collecting moonflowers and other nightblooming plants for my Illumination Draft and he was attacked."

"Attacked? By what?" Albus asked, alarmed.

"Death Eaters," Snape said flatly. "Somehow they breached the wards and attacked Potter while he was gathering in the meadow just beyond Hagrid's cottage. He just barely escaped with his life."

"Great Merlin! I . . .I had no idea," Dumbledore looked exceedingly alarmed. "Are you all right, Harry? Not hurt, are you?"

"No, sir," Harry answered, though he thought ruefully, Not unless you count being so sore you can barely walk from riding.

"Can you identify them?" was Dumbledore's next question.

"Uh . . .Bellatrix LeStrange was one. So was Pettigrew." He chewed his lower lip. It had been dark, his attackers masked, and he had nothing to go on but their voices, most of which he wouldn't recognize. "Dolohov was another. And I think . . .Goyle was also. That's all I can remember."

"You've done well, Harry. I am glad you managed to escape. How did you do that?"

Harry glanced uneasily at the Potions Master. It had been one thing to mention the horse to Snape, in the dead of night it sounded less crazy than usual, but now, with the office lit and the fire crackling merrily in the grate, it seemed the stuff of a children's bedtime story. "I . . .err . . .well you see, there was a horse. A big black horse with a white star on its forehead. And it . . .fought the Death Eaters with me and then I . . .climbed on its back and it took me into the Forbidden Forest. I woke up somewhere in there surrounded by . . .unicorns. Then the horse came back and I . . .rode him back to the school."

"You were among a herd of unicorns?" Dumbledore seemed impressed. "That's a rare thing, Harry. I knew there was a herd of unicorns within the forest, but I myself have never seen them. They tend to shy away from adult males."

"A couple of the foals sniffed me. I could swear they were laughing at me."

They were, Potter. Severus thought wryly.

"I found him returning from the meadow and once he told me what had occurred, I brought him here to you immediately." Severus finished.

"You're safe now, Harry. The castle's defenses are not anything to trifle with," said the old wizard. "Although . . .perhaps it might be best if we were to . . .send you home early. If the Death Eaters were to try anything with you, they would be waiting at King's Cross or the train in Hogsmeade. So it may be better to send you back home before school lets out in three days."

"No!" Harry blurted before he could think better of it. He quickly clamped his mouth shut afterwards, furious at his blunder.

Dumbledore looked puzzled. "Harry, this is for your own safety. I assure you it will not affect your marks. I do not want anything to happen to you. You may write to your relatives and tell them to expect you."

"They wouldn't read it anyhow," Harry mumbled. Then he froze.

"Why not?" Severus seized the opening given. "Do they not get letters from you from school?"

Harry didn't answer, stubbornly looking at the ground.

"Harry, Professor Snape asked you a question," prompted the Headmaster.

"I . . .no . . .they don't like magic and they don't want letters from me," Harry finally responded.

Severus frowned. "How odd. Even parents of Muggleborns want to hear from their children. That does not seem right."

Harry shrugged. "It's how they are." He turned pleading eyes on Dumbledore. The last thing he wanted was to have to go back to Privet Drive early. "Sir, if I stay in the castle for the rest of the term and then Floo to . . .Diagon Alley, that would confuse the Death Eaters, right?"

"Too risky, Potter," Severus interjected before Dumbledore could respond. "The Death Eaters could have spies in Hogsmeade or be watching the Floo in The Leaky Cauldron." He eyed Harry sternly. "Suppose you tell us why you don't want to go home, Potter? Are you perhaps in trouble with your relatives? Under threat of some punishment?" Harry refused to answer. Snape gritted his teeth, familiar with those tactics, as he had used them himself once upon a time. He continued, trying to prompt a response from the stubborn boy. "Were they displeased with your marks last term? Did they threaten to cut off your allowance? Forbid your friends to come over? Ground you from your fan club?"

"I don't have a fan club!" Harry snapped, nettled.

Struck a nerve there, the professor noted, hoping he would not have to grill the boy too much longer. He did not like forcing the boy to admit to what he was almost positive was an abusive home life, but he had to make Albus think something was wrong enough to get the old coot to send him home with Potter. "No?" Snape raised an eyebrow. "Mind your tone, Potter. You will address me as "sir" or "professor"."

Harry lifted his eyes from the floor and gave the other a glare. "Fine, Professor. Why do you care?"

"Harry, don't be rude," Dumbledore scolded mildly. "Professor Snape cares for all his students."

Harry almost burst out laughing, until he saw the look on both wizards' faces. Snape looked angry and Dumbledore sad. "My aunt and uncle want nothing to do with the wizarding world," he said finally. "They'd prefer if it never existed."

Unspoken, Severus heard the silent wail—and that I never existed either—that the boy left unsaid.

Dumbledore frowned. "I am sorry, Harry, but you must go back home for the summer. The school is not safe right now."

"But the Death Eaters are gone."

"That's as may be, but they could return. And most likely will as soon as possible. You must not be here when they return. If you like, I can send Professor Snape with you to explain things to your aunt and uncle, and to escort you home safely."

Harry gasped. "Go home with—Professor Snape, sir?" he stuttered. "But he's . . .I don't need anyone . . ."

"Albus, surely you can find another to escort Potter home, I have a full curriculum of potions to brew for the school stores," Severus protested, pretending to be ticked off and irritated. "How about Flius or Minerva?"

"No, Severus. They are not used to interacting with Muggles or moving in the Muggle world, and you are, since you too were raised like one."

Harry nearly fell out of his chair. Snape had been raised Muggle? "But he's a Slytherin!" he cried.

The professor shot him a look that could have curdled milk. "And your point is? Do you think Slytherin is only purebloods, Potter? Because I assure you that every House in Hogwarts has its share of purebloods, half-bloods, and Muggleborns. Every House."

"Oh." Now Harry felt utterly idiotic. How did Snape always end up making him look like a colossal fool? "Are you like Hermione then? A Muggleborn?"

"I fail to see why it concerns you, Potter," Snape began.

"Professor Snape is a half-blood," Dumbledore answered Harry cheerily. "Like you. His mother was a witch and his father was a Muggle."

Severus ground his teeth and wished Albus' tongue would spontaneously erupt with boils. The man had no subtlety and even less sensitivity for things that Severus wished to keep private, especially from nosy Gryffindors with big mouths. "The Headmaster is correct," was all he said.

"So, you see, Harry, Professor Snape will be the ideal person to take you home the Muggle way, as he is already familiar with such things," Dumbledore said, looking very pleased. "I trust you will behave for him?"

I'd sooner run away from him, Harry thought rebelliously. Then he nodded reluctantly. He wished that he could just remain at school, the threat of Death Eaters finding him was mild compared to the Dursleys. "Do I have to go, sir?" he tried once again to get the Headmaster to relent.

But Dumbledore remained cheerfully oblivious. "Now, Harry, it's all settled. Professor Snape will escort you home tomorrow morning. You may take the Knight Bus for some of the journey and Professor Snape will speak with your relatives and explain to them what happened with the tournament and the Death Eaters. I'm sure they will be glad to have you back safe and not care about whatever mischief you got into before going back to school. After all, boys will be boys." He winked at Severus, who remained stonily silent, unamused and almost, Harry wondered if he were seeing things, disgusted.

Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon don't consider me a boy, sir, the desperate boy thought angrily. They think I'm a freak, and they'd throw a party if the Death Eaters captured me. As for getting into mischief—ha! I don't have time to do that, not with all the work I do around there, and Uncle Vernon's temper. Can't you see? Can't you understand?

He looked up again at the man who he had once regarded as a brilliant wizard and wondered bitterly how such a great man could be so dense? Or maybe he didn't care that Harry would be sent back to a place he hated, so long as he was out of his hair. Dumbledore's eyes twinkled and he twirled the end of his beard inbetween his fingers, making Harry want to yank it out by the roots.

"I could stay with Ron," he suggested.

"No, my boy, the Weasleys are not safe enough either. Home is best." Albus said firmly.

"Potter, why do you not wish to return home?" Severus pressed, angry with Dumbledore's obtuseness. "Do your relatives mistreat you? Hurt you?" I shouldn't be asking these questions, damn it! You should, Albus. He trusts you. He might answer you where he won't me.

Harry almost let everything spill then. Snape's eyes bored into him, cold and black, and he felt as if the other could see into his very soul. He wanted so badly for someone to help, for another to know the anguish and pain he was feeling. But then he recalled who was asking and he refused to let Snape mock him. Refused to have the man sneer at him and say that if his uncle happened to give him a smacking, it was no more than he deserved for his cheekiness.

"Potter, answer me." Snape's voice suddenly went soft, uncharacteristically so.

"Forget I said anything," Harry said. He dropped his eyes to Snape's boots.

Severus swore inwardly. Just as he had predicted.

"Harry, is there something we ought to know about your relatives?" Dumbledore began, finally catching on.

"No!" the boy snapped, curling back into his defensive shell. "Just forget it! You were right, sir!"

"Potter, do not shout at the Headmaster," Severus reprimanded, but his tone lacked his usual sting.

"It's all right, Severus. Harry is tired, he ought to be in bed," Dumbledore said, waving off Harry's apology.

Harry felt himself flush at the Headmaster's words. Dumbledore had just made him sound like a whiny little baby. A child that could be soothed with a cup of milk and a sweet. As if!

He looked up angrily at both wizards and caught Snape's knowing look. He flinched. His impudent act hadn't fooled the professor at all. He quickly stood up before Snape could ask any more probing questions. "I am rather tired, sir. Guess I should go to sleep. What time should I be ready tomorrow, Professor?"

"Ten o'clock sharp," Severus replied. I know what you're hiding, Potter. No one knows better. And one way or another, I must get you to reveal it to me before we get to your relatives' house. He made a mental note to bring along a camera so he could document anything that happened on Privet Drive.

"Yes, sir." Harry managed to say respectfully. He would just have time to say goodbye to Hermione and Ron. Now he had to get out of here, before he ended up confessing everything to that probing obsidian gaze. He had the feeling Snape knew exactly what he refused to say and for some reason it made him want to babble like a gossipy witch. "Good night, sir. Goodnight, Professor Dumbledore." Then he walked out the door as quickly as he could without losing his dignity.

It was only after he had climbed the stairs to Gryffindor Tower and stood before the portrait hole that he realized why Snape's stare unnerved him so.

It was because there had been no irritation or mockery in the professor's gaze. Only a kind of rough sympathy and understanding.

Severus whirled upon his complacent employer. "Albus, there is something wrong with Potter. Or rather, with his home life. What fourteen-year-old boy doesn't rejoice when he's let out of school early?"

"Harry enjoys Hogwarts, Severus. He loves learning magic, much like another boy I could name."

Severus snorted. "Potter seems to regard the school as a refuge," he said. As did I. "I believe there is something off about his home life and I will get to the bottom of it."

"Of course you will, Severus. That is what you do best."

Snape's eyes narrowed. "And if I do find something amiss?"

"Use your discretion, Severus. I trust you." Dumbledore said, then he yawned. "Forgive me, but I seem to need more sleep now than I've ever done. Good night, Severus. Pleasant dreams and have a good trip tomorrow."

Severus didn't bother to respond to that ridiculous statement. "Good night, Headmaster." He sailed out the door, his robes billowing behind him, hoping sleep would find him quickly and that he could somehow get Potter to reveal himself without damaging the boy's fragile psyche. Given time, he could tease it out of him, but time was the one thing he did not have. Perhaps he would have to make the boy an offer he couldn't refuse.

What did you think of the conversation?

What do you think Snape meant by that last line?

Chapter 7: Midnight at Privet Drive
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Harry woke earlier than his wont the next morning, discovering that he was still sore as hell, but another application of magical salve soon healed that problem. He dressed in his normal attire and began packing his trunk methodically. His movements must have woken Ron, however, for the redhead sat up and looked blearily about.

"Harry? What are you doing?"

"Packing," Harry replied, not really up to any conversation at the moment.

"What for? We're not leaving yet."

"You're not. I am." He folded a spare set of robes and tucked them into his cauldron.

"Why? The greasy git get you kicked out early?" Ron rubbed his eyes and yawned.

"No. It's a long story." Harry didn't want to tell his friend about the attack. He wasn't sure how he knew this, but he got the feeling that Dumbledore didn't want the fact that the Death Eaters had managed to get onto the grounds to be known. And Ron was known for just blurting stuff out when he grew excited or agitated. "The Headmaster wants me to leave a little early, that's all."

"Oh. Well, have a good summer, mate. I'll write to you, okay?"

"Yeah." He turned to place his texts inside the trunk and when he glanced over his shoulder, Ron had flopped down on his bed again and was snoring. For once Harry was grateful that Ron was not a morning person.

Hermione, however, was. She was in the common room, studying, when he came down the stairs with his trunk floating behind him. "Harry! You're up early, since there's no classes this morning. I just decided to get in an extra hour of reading—where are you going?" she interrupted herself upon catching sight of his trunk.

"Home," he replied, though he knew that word and Privet Drive would never go together.

"Why? Term doesn't end yet. Has something happened to your relatives?" she asked, concern welling in her brown eyes.

Don't I wish, he thought bitterly. An instant later he said, "No. Dumbledore's sending me home early."

"How come?"

He chewed his lower lip. Hermione wasn't Ron, she could keep a secret. He trusted her. He lowered his voice and whispered, "Because I was attacked by Death Eaters."

Her eyes went wide in horror. "What? When?"

"Last night, while I was collecting ingredients for Snape's detention," he explained, telling her almost everything.

"Where did the horse go, after the professor showed up?"

"I don't know. He must live somewhere around here. He's wild, I think, and that's why he only comes to me every so often. He's beautiful, 'Mione. Like something out of a fairy tale."

"I wish I could see him."

"Maybe you can. Go to the meadow past Hagrid's cottage, you know the one I'm talking about. Take an apple and some sugar, he likes those. Then wait and maybe he'll come."

"I'll do that. He sounds like a wonderful creature. Magical even." She sighed in longing. "I always wanted a horse when I was little, but horses and dentists don't go together."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. I was lucky I stayed on him as long as I did."

She rose and hugged him. "I wish you didn't have to leave, Harry. I'll . . .miss you."

"Miss you too," he murmured into her hair, which smelled like citrus.

"I suppose Dumbledore is right, you can't stay here since they've breached the wards, but why he would send you back to a place you hated . . ."

"I'm sure he has his reasons, Mione," Harry said sarcastically.

She frowned and pulled back so she could look him in the eye. "Did you tell him then? About how they starve you and lock you in a cupboard."

"No. And don't you go telling anyone either," he told her sharply.

"But Harry, what they did to you—it was wrong—terribly wrong—"

"And it's done and over with. Hermione, we've been over this before. There's nothing you can do, nothing I can do, so you just have to . . .let it go."

"Oh, Harry." She hugged him again, and there were tears in her eyes. She knew there was more to his home life than he would admit, even to her, and she wished she had the courage to tell the Headmaster, but she knew Harry would be furious if she did and she didn't want to betray him that way. What was wrong with the Headmaster, that he didn't see the signs that something was wrong? Snape suspected, she was sure of it. "Harry, you said Professor Snape was supposed to bring you back home, right?"

"Yeah. Lucky me."

"Harry, I think you should trust him."

"You're crazy."

"No. I mean it. If . . .if something should happen . . .Harry, he'll help you. Listen to me. I have a feeling about this . . ."

"One of your hunches?"

"Yes. Trust Snape." Sometimes she got strange impulses and had found that if she followed them, they almost always were right. She refused to call them any kind of intuition, insisting they were just educated guesses or hunches. She kissed him lightly on the lips. "Bye, Harry. Write to me, won't you?"

"Okay. Don't worry, I'll be fine."

She hugged him hard, praying that he would get help from Snape, for she didn't like his relatives one bit. Privet Drive might be safe from Death Eaters, but who would protect Harry from the Dursleys? "Do you . . .want to eat breakfast before you leave?"

He shrugged. "I guess."

She called for Dobby and he appeared, eager to help "Master Harry Potter, sir!"

Soon they were eating a nice breakfast of cereal, fruit, ham, and toast, plus pumpkin juice.

By the time breakfast was over, it was almost time for Harry to meet Snape by the dungeons. From there they would go to Hogsmeade and catch the Knight Bus, which would take them halfway to Surrey and then Snape would have to arrange transportation for them in the Muggle fashion. Harry hoped Snape had some Muggle money for a train ticket or a taxi or something.

"Write to me, Harry, please." Hermione reminded him, and gave him another kiss goodbye on the cheek. "Good luck."

"I promise. I'll see you next term. Don't study all summer and wear out your brain, okay?"

She smiled. "That would be impossible."

The last sight he had of her was her waving as he went out of the portrait hole.

Snape had told him to meet him by his classroom, and that was where he headed.

He found the professor waiting rather impatiently beside the door. "Hurry, Potter. We mustn't be seen." Snape ordered, waving his wand and shrinking Harry's trunk and handing it to him. "Put that in your pocket. Haven't you learned Shrinking Charms yet?"

"I thought you couldn't use it on too many objects at once."

Snape shook his head. "Merlin, Potter, that's only if your magic's too drained. Follow me."

Harry followed as Snape led him deeper into the dungeons, past his classroom and into a maze of corridors he had never been in. He didn't know how the other found his way among them, but Snape never hesitated. Finally he turned right, headed down a featureless corridor, and then drew a crescent moon upon the wall and whispered something Harry couldn't catch.

The wall vanished and in its place was an archway. "Step through the arch, Potter, and you'll be at the gates of the school."

Harry did so, followed a moment later by his teacher.

"I never knew that was there!" he exclaimed.

Severus shot him an exasperated look. "Did you think you knew everything about the castle, Potter? Hogwarts is old and holds many secrets, things which not even the Headmaster knows. Let's go, no sense standing around and dawdling."

Snape led them at a brisk walk down the path to Hogsmeade.

Once in the village, Severus told Harry, "If you need to use a bathroom, Potter, now is the time. They have them on the Knight Bus, but the last wizard who used it ended up somewhere in the sewers of Paris, don't even bother asking me to explain how."

Harry didn't argue, but sought out the restroom in the Three Broomsticks. Better safe than sorry.

When he emerged, he saw Snape at the bar, talking with Madam Rosmerta. She handed him a brown paper bag and bid him a cheery goodbye. Harry headed outside and waited on the corner. There were few people about at this hour, most were still lying in.

Snape emerged moments later, the bag tucked under an arm.

Harry eyed it curiously. "What is that, sir?"

"Lunch that Madam Rosmerta packed for me," he answered, then added, "I have enough for two, so don't have a fit, Potter. I told her I was going on a long trip."

"Oh. Thank you, sir."

Severus turned about and summoned the Knight Bus with a thought.

Three minutes later, they were in a private compartment, Severus had drawn the curtains, and was sitting opposite Harry. "Take a nap or read, Potter," he said, taking out a magazine. "We have an hour or two until we get halfway to Surrey."

Harry looked out the window, recalling his first time on this crazy contraption, and winced at how close Stan came to hitting a motorist backing out of a dirt drive. The bus lurched, Harry nearly fell off the seat, and then he tried to lean back and go to sleep.

When Snape looked up from his potions periodical some five minutes later, Harry was sound asleep. Asleep, the boy resembled an angel, though the Potions Master knew that was far from the truth.

An hour later, he was startled out of his own doze by Harry groaning and whimpering. He saw the boy's face, half-turned into the seat cushion, and blanched. The boy looked as if he was terrified, and tears were seeping from beneath his closed eyelids. He felt himself flinch. No child wept in their sleep unless they had suffered such emotional turmoil that they could not handle it even subconsciously.

Either he's dreaming about Diggory's death or something to do with his relatives, Snape surmised. There was only one way to find out. He leaned forward and shook the boy's shoulder, gently at first then harder when there was no response. "Potter, wake up!" he hissed in his ear. "You're having a nightmare."

Harry whimpered and curled up tighter. "Please . . .don't . . .I'll be good . . ."

Severus' mouth tightened. Harry spoke in a soft distressed tone, like that of a much younger child, which was typical of those who had suffered years of abuse. "Wake up, Potter!" He gave the boy another shake. "It's not real. You're dreaming."

Harry jerked spasmodically, as if something had slapped him, then he opened his eyes and cried, "Sorry, Uncle Vernon! I'll never get better marks than Dudley again! Promise!" He cringed away from Severus, throwing a hand across his face, and nearly hitting Snape in the arm.

His uncle beat him for getting better marks than his cousin, Severus thought angrily. That would explain the boy's lack of good study habits and his tendency to turn in half-finished assignments. If he had been strongly discouraged from doing well at school from an early age, it would lend itself to bad study habits later on and a belief that he should only do the minimum of work assigned. Snape had known Potter was not stupid, which was why it had irritated him to see the boy handing in substandard assignments and projects, and why he assumed Potter was lazy. But this put a whole new spin on things.

He shook Harry again. "Damn it, boy, get up!"

Harry's eyes flew open. "I'm awake, Uncle Vernon! I didn't mean to oversleep . . ." he trailed off when he saw the familiar face of his professor in front of him. "Oh. I . . ..thought you were someone else."

Severus drew away. "You were having a nightmare, and refused to wake, Potter." He held out a square of green cloth.

Harry looked at it, stricken. "What's that for?"

"It's a handkerchief. I presume you know what one is used for?"

Blushing, Harry took the soft cloth and scrubbed his face, horrified that he had cried and said who knew what in his sleep. He couldn't remember the last time he had had a nightmare like that, and for Snape of all people to witness it . . .

He waited for the sneer and some sarcastic comment to emerge from the other's mouth such as Crying because some of your worshippers deserted you, Potter? But when he glanced up at the other wizard, he found the black eyes were not cold and hard, but filled with an odd sort of understanding. Like he knows how I feel. Almost as if he's been there before. "I didn't mean to disturb you, Professor," he apologized.

"You cried out in your sleep, Potter," Severus began cautiously. "A name. Uncle Vernon. You sounded . . .afraid of this person. Why?"

Harry felt a chill creep up his spine. Bloody damn hell! What did I say? "It was just a dream, sir."

"Do you get these dreams often, Potter? If so I would like to know, seeing as I shall be traveling with you for several more hours."

"No. Not that I can remember. I usually don't dream at all." Harry said quickly.

Severus' eyes narrowed. "You know, Potter, I recall another boy your age who had nightmares much like yours. Nightmares in which he ran away from a man very similar to this Uncle Vernon, but he never could manage to escape from him. The dream always ended the same, with the boy being caught and beaten for using his freaky magical powers."

Harry flinched. "Sounds terrible, sir."

"It was. He suffered from these dreams even at school, in a place where he was safe from his father, for I discovered it was his father who had been abusing him. At first he told no one of the dreams, for he was ashamed and terrified that anyone should know of his weakness, and he had been taught from an early age to tell no one what went on at home. Or else it would be ten times worse. He learned how to be careful, to hide what he felt, to disguise the marks with glamours and long shirts and pants. He learned to not draw attention to himself in school, and if questioned by a teacher, to act like there was nothing wrong."

"Then how did you find out, sir?" Harry asked, curious in spite of himself.

"I watched him very closely. He tended to dress shabbily and eat sparingly, though I learned later that he also tended to hoard food, because he never got enough to eat at home. The night terrors grew worse the closer it got to the end of the term, for he knew he would be sent back again to that house—unwelcome, unwanted, to be taunted and slapped about by his father, who thought the boy a disappointment because he resembled his mother, was small and slender with her eyes and hair and worst of all, her magic. The thing that made him jealous, which he would never have, because the magic was not in him. He had expected any son of his to be like him, but the boy wasn't and worse, his wife could have no more, and so he was stuck with this freakish disappointment. He became bitter and hard and took it out on the boy every chance he got. Until the boy dreaded going home, and woke screaming at the thought of it."

"What about the boy's mum? Why didn't she help him?"

"She tried. But she had learned to fear her husband and she had taken an oath in the beginning of her marriage to never use her power to harm him. She never expected him to turn on her, or her son. She tried in various ways to protect the child, taking him on trips to her family, until her parents died and she was forced to sell the family property, because they had been in debt. Now the refuge was gone, and with that went her hope. She died of despair, leaving her son at the mercy of his father."

"What happened then? Was that when you found out?"

"Hush, Potter. I'm telling this story, not you." Severus ordered. After a moment, he continued."The boy returned to school an emotional wreck, he couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, was wracked with guilt because he blamed himself for his mother's death. He went to class but learned nothing, for he was suffering too badly to concentrate on his assignments. He wore himself to a shadow, but was too stubborn to seek help. Until he collapsed over a cauldron and woke up in the Hospital Wing."

"Then you talked to him, right?"

"I had no need to talk to him, Potter. I knew everything he had been through." Severus said carefully.

"How? Did you . . .read his mind?"

Severus snorted. "Don't be ridiculous, Potter. I'm not a telepath, and you can't read minds, only scan surface thoughts and memories."

Harry frowned. "Who was he, this boy you knew?"

"Can't you guess? Or is your brain still muddled from sleep?"

Harry blinked. Then he gasped. Surely he was wrong, but . . .it made sense, it was the only thing that made sense out of this whole trip. "You . . .the boy . . .was you."

"Twenty-one years ago." Snape confirmed.

Harry was stunned. He just sat there, his mind running around and around in circles, trying to process what he had just heard. Snape had been like him . . .unwanted and unloved, labeled a freak for doing magic. Snape had been . . .hurt by his father as Harry had been by his uncle. It was unbelievable. He could not picture the tall, stern, professor as being a shy, skinny boy, shivering and afraid. But neither could he doubt Snape's story. The man had been meeting his eyes the entire time he had been talking, and Harry had seen the flicker of pain as he had spoken, heard the odd rasp in his tone. That was not something that could be faked. Harry knew how to lie, he had become quite good at it over the years.

But he had seen nothing in Snape's posture to indicate the professor was lying.

And he had no need to go through all the trouble of inventing a fictitious child simply to taunt Harry about a dream.

"But how . . .why . . .would you tell me this?"

"Because I see myself in you."

"No! I'm not like that!" Harry protested automatically.

"Aren't you? Potter, does your uncle or aunt abuse you?"

Harry shook his head, though he could feel the awful lie strangling him. Tell him the truth! Tell him so he can help you!

"No? Perhaps you don't think of it that way, not after so many years of them telling you that you deserved it. How many times were you beaten for getting better marks than your cousin? How long did they keep you locked in a room and starving?"

"Stop . . .it's not true . . " he whimpered, putting his hands over his ears. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"You can lie to me all you want, but don't lie to yourself. For I know the truth, I have lived in the shadow of fear. The fear that curdles in your gut, that leaves you hollow and shaking with shame, because you can never anticipate what will set him off. And the best you can hope for is that the damage isn't bad enough to warrant a trip to a hospital. And you wonder why no one else can see what you endure, and yet you fear to tell. And they fear to ask, to know. Because then it will spoil their image of the perfect Boy Who Lived."

"You . . .you always thought I was a . . .spoiled brat . . .like my father . . " Harry hissed.

"No longer. Now I see true. Perhaps you think I won't help you?"

"You won't. What can you do about it? Nothing! Just like me. I can't go back to Hogwarts, and there's nowhere else for me to go." Harry said bitterly, still hiding his face.

"There is. You may come and stay with me."

"Where? In the dungeons?"

"At my home. I do not live at the school all year round. But in order for you to come with me, you must first tell me the truth."

"Why would you care about me?"

"Because no child should have to endure what I did. And you still do. And if it is within my power to prevent it, then I shall do so." Severus answered. "Look at me."

"No."

Hands closed over his wrists and pulled firmly. "Look at me, so you can see I am not lying to you."

Green eyes met obsidian.

"I will protect you, Potter. But first you need to answer my question. Yes or no. Are your relatives harming you in any way, shape, or form?"

Harry opened his mouth to reply when the bus skidded around a sharp turn.

"Hold on to your cojones!" giggled the shrunken head. "Traffic ahead, we're in for a bumpy ride!"

But the warning came too late. Harry was unprepared for the sudden change in direction and was abruptly tossed out of his seat and flung into Snape's lap. He landed awkwardly, his backside banging into the tall man's knee and his face smashing into Severus's shoulder, his arms going every which way and his foot dragging on the floor.

The bus slammed on the brakes and Harry almost fell onto the floor, but a pair of strong arms were holding him, lifting him up, settling him securely against a warm black robe. "Relax. I've got you. I won't let you fall."

Harry wasn't sure if it were the words, or the tone, or the feel of the sinewy arms about him that made him feel safe, or perhaps it was all three. He knew only that he had never felt this way in his life and that in turn broke the last of his defenses.

"Yes!" he cried, his voice muffled yet audible to the keen-eared professor. "You were right. Yes . . .yes . . .!"His voice cracked upon the last word and suddenly he was crying.

Harsh sobs shook him, dredged up from some well of tears deep within. He could not stop them, could not control them, they exploded from him in a swift savage wave and he clung to Severus and wept as he had never wept before.

Severus gestured and a bubble of silence wrapped about the booth. Then he settled himself more comfortably against the cushion and simply held his charge, letting him cry himself out. The way a certain nurse had done for him so long ago.

Harry cried for what he thought was forever, or something close to it, unable to halt the endless tears. He wasn't even sure why he was crying—from relief, or stress, or some unnamed pool of hurt—but reasons didn't matter. What did matter was that someone finally knew his terrible shame, his secret, and that someone was here, holding him. For the first time ever, he was not flinching away from a man's hand, he did not feel scared or trapped. He felt . . .safe. Safe enough to allow himself the luxury of tears.

Eventually, the tears slowed and stopped. He lay quietly against Snape's shoulder, his breath catching unevenly for several more minutes. He felt a hand gently rubbing his back and wondered how long that had been going on. His eyes felt gritty and sore.

Slowly, he sat up.

Silently Severus handed him yet another handkerchief.

Harry turned his head away and used it.

"Better now?" came the soft silky voice.

"Yes."

Embarrassment came in a rush and he felt himself go red. He made haste to get off his teacher and back onto his seat. I just cried all over Snape! I just cried all over him! He blew his nose, then slowly lowered the handkerchief.

Snape was looking at him calmly, as if having boys sobbing all over him were a daily occurrence. There was a large wet splotch on his right shoulder. He ignored it. He leaned forward and his hands gently closed over Harry's smaller ones. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, child. It was they who committed the wrong, not you. Talk to me. Tell me what happened."

Harry took a deep breath. Then he began to talk.

He talked for the rest of the ride, and Severus listened without interruption. He knew the whole sorry tale, chapter and verse, by heart. The names might change, the reasons might change, and the location, but the hurt and the damage to one's self-esteem and the scars both inside and out remained the same. Severus listened, and found that even twenty-one years was not time enough to totally heal some wounds. They remained, hidden, scabbed over, but Harry's words caused them to be torn open and bleed anew. For a moment. Then they sealed themselves back up, for he could not afford to empathize too much with the boy, lest he be rendered useless.

When Harry finished, Severus was silent for a moment, then he said, "Good. You've taken the first step. The next step is documentation. That's where I come in. I will take you back there, but strictly for one purpose, to document what you've told me. I will not allow you to stay there for the summer, Potter. Do you understand? No matter what it seems like, you will spend at most one or two days there, no more."

"But the Headmaster said I had to stay there."

"The Headmaster did not know what I do. I am charged with your protection and leaving you to the mercy of those demons in human shape is not protecting you. I know you have very little reason to trust me, given our past, but nevertheless I am telling you that I will be as close as your shadow while you are at that house. No one will see or hear me, not even you. But I shall be there. And if that uncle of yours tries anything, he will wish he was never born. That is my promise to you, Harry James Potter, I swear it by Selene's Grace, whose initiate I am." He placed his hand over his heart.

"Okay." Harry said, relieved that he was not going to be left alone at Privet Drive. Then he asked, "Who's Selene?"

"An old goddess, the Lady of the Moon and of Magic, She was here before the dawn of time, and has ever favored those born with magic's gift. But I shall tell you more of Her later, when we have time. For now, wipe your face with this," he held out another handkerchief, this one was damp with water.

Harry did so, then he gave the professor a curious look. "Where are all these handkerchiefs coming from? You're not Summoning them."

"My pockets hold more than they seem to," the professor replied mysteriously. His robe had been enchanted with a Deep Pockets spell, enabling him to store many items within them, even fragile ones, without fear of damage.

Severus waved his wand once and his robes changed to a serviceable set of black trousers and a button down emerald green shirt, a black tie, and black shoes. "Take your robe off," he told the boy. "We're almost there."

No sooner had Harry complied, than the bus screeched to a halt. Harry stood up and followed Severus off it.

They had been dropped off at a small train station, and Severus hurried over to the ticket booth to purchase tickets for the next available train to Surrey.

Once they had boarded that train, Severus took out the brown paper sack with their lunch and they began to eat hungrily.

The train was crowded with commuters and stank of onions and cigar smoke from those passengers who smoked, but Harry did his best to ignore it and enjoy the sandwiches Madam Rosmerta had packed, turkey and bacon with tomato and mayo on a nutty homemade bread, plus chips that were magically preserved to stay hot and which burnt his tongue. But he could have cared less. They were crispy and salty and delicious. He devoured the meal, washing it down with a cold icy bottle of lemonade.

Some people looked at them and eyed their food with appreciation and envy, until Severus gave them a look and they quickly turned away.

After lunch, the Potions Master suggested Harry read and gave him the potions magazine to look at. He decided to take a short nap.

Harry began to read, reading through half the magazine before he tucked it beside him and fell asleep again. This time he dreamed of riding the moon marked stallion and when he woke, dusk was falling and they were two towns away from Surrey.

"Now what?" asked Harry, he was still a bit tired from the train ride. "You wouldn't happen to have a car in your pocket, would you, sir?"

Severus sniffed. "Regrettably,no. But we won't need one." He led the boy down the street into a small park like area. Once they were safely hidden from prying eyes, Snape took Harry's arm and Apparated with him to the Dursley residence.

Clouds were scudding across the sky and the moon was slowly rising above the trees as the two proceeded up the walk, which was still lined with marigolds and petunias and tulips. Harry gave the flowers a look of dislike, for it had always been his job to weed and plant them and if Petunia didn't like how they looked, she would lock him in the cupboard without lunch or dinner. Dudley knew this and had taken great pains to deliberately sabotage Harry's work, stomping the flowers flat and popping the heads off the tulips before Harry could call his aunt to see them when he was finished.

And she always took her sweet time coming, so Dudley had a chance to wreck everything first. Sometimes I think she did it on purpose, so she'd have an excuse to punish me, Harry thought resentfully.

He took a deep breath and Snape rang the bell.

"Just a minute!" bellowed a man's voice from somewhere inside. They could hear the sounds of a TV blaring, some sports match was on, and then came the thudding of heavy feet.

The door opened and heavyset Vernon Dursley peered out, his moustache quivering. His florid face froze as he beheld the tall man and his troublesome nephew. "What's this? Got yourself thrown out of school, did you?"

"No, Uncle Vernon." Harry said softly, keeping his eyes down.

"Good evening, Mr. Dursley. I am Professor Snape, Harry's potions teacher," Severus interjected smoothly. "Your nephew is not in trouble, the school had to close early due to an outbreak of a virus. So I have escorted Mr. Potter home."

Vernon's eyes bugged out. "Virus? Is it contagious? Does he have it?"

"No, Mr. Dursley. It's a wizarding germ, Muggles cannot get it. Your nephew is not a carrier, the person who had it was sent home, but as a precaution, the Headmaster decided to let the term out early."

"Vernon, who's there?" came Petunia's voice.

"Just . . .Harry and his teacher, Pet," Vernon called back, remembering just in time to refer to his freak nephew by his name in front of the teacher, who reminded him of a black crow and gave him the creeps.

Seconds later, Petunia appeared and gasped. "You!"

Severus arched an eyebrow. "It's been a long time, hasn't it, Petunia?"

"You know this . . .person?" Vernon sputtered.

"I . . .yes . . .he was friends with my sister when we were children."

"We were practically neighbors," drawled Snape, smirking. "I lived in the house down the street."

"Where the derelicts were," Petunia said nastily.

"Still with the wasp's tongue, I see." Severus's voice turned icy. "If I were you, I'd watch how you waggle it. I can do much more than drop a branch on your head now . . .Tuney."

Petunia gasped. "Snape, you . . you vulgar—"

"Are you threatening my wife, you freakish—"

Snape whirled on Vernon. "If I were you, Dursley, I'd not finish that sentence. If you know what I am, then you ought to keep a civil tongue in your head. To quote a famous author, Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger." Severus eyes seemed to glow with black fire and his wand appeared in his hand. "I never threaten, I promise."

"What are you doing here, Snape?" Petunia demanded, her eyes wide.

"I have come to bring Harry home. There was an outbreak of scrofulous mumbletonia storafata in the school, a wizarding virus, and the students were sent home."

Petunia almost fainted. "No! I won't have it!"

"Calm yourself, woman. He is not contagious to you or your family. He should be allowed to rest and recuperate for a day or so, however, just in case. No strenuous chores, heavy lifting, that sort of thing." Snape was using the tone of voice he always used on students who were too dense to comprehend simple instructions. "Do you understand, or shall I write it down?"

Petunia glared at him. "My hearing is perfectly good, Snape. Thank you for bringing him back." She sniffed. "Boy, go up and take a hot shower. A long one, so you don't bring any of those germs in the house. Have you eaten?"

"Yes, Aunt Petunia."

"Good, then you can go to sleep afterwards." She stepped back to let Harry inside, hugging herself to avoid touching him.

"Goodbye, Professor Snape," Harry said. "And thank you . . .for everything."

"I shall see you next term, Potter. Good night." Severus turned and headed down the walk.

Harry practically skipped up the stairs, thanking his lucky stars that Snape was so very clever—fiendishly so. This would be the first hot shower he'd had on Privet Drive since he couldn't remember when. And he wouldn't have to worry about anyone starting in on him tonight, because they would all be petrified of catching some weird virus from him. Scrofulous mumbletonia storafata. Harry fought to keep from snickering. His Latin was not too good, but he knew it was not a real name of a virus, though it sounded impressive.

He went first into his room and removed his trunk from his pocket and whispered the countercharm to enlarge it. Vernon and Petunia had been so afraid of catching some deadly disease that they had forgotten to take away his trunk and his wand. He carefully selected some clothes from it that he had resized to fit him with Hermione's help and headed into the bathroom.

Meanwhile, Severus had waited before Apparating into Harry's bedroom and casting a multitude of enchantments on himself, one to make himself invisible and one to make himself utterly silent, like the wind. He placed a vial of a Disillusionment Draft on Harry's nightstand with a note he had scribbled, telling him to drink the draft upon waking tomorrow and then imagining himself looking very sick and he would appear so. The effect would last eight hours.

He then pulled out the magical camera he had brought along and began taking pictures of Harry's room, especially the bars on the windows and the multiple locks upon the door, all of which locked from the outside and would have looked more at home upon a bank vault. The interior of the room was dusty and the furniture old and broken, the bed had a sagging mattress and faded sheet and a blanket that looked as if it had come straight from the rag bin. Old broken and discarded toys lined the shelves and it was plain this room was an afterthought, as their nephew was.

After taking more pictures, Snape glided into the hallway and down past the bathroom and into a room that had a large sign on it. Dudley's pad—Keep Out Unless Invited! Severus slipped into the room, finding it large enough to house two boys, and filled with expensive furniture, a huge TV and game system, shelves overflowing with board games, video games, and all sorts of toys. There was a king-sized bed with a plump comforter in deep blue and huge pillows, a table which had the remains of several lunches upon it and thick beanbag chairs upon the plush carpet. There was even a padded window seat. The walls were decorated with posters of strange cartoon characters like Nimrod and Pokemon and Lu Kang and Scorpion.

This one lives like a prince and his cousin a pauper! Severus sneered, incensed. He began taking pictures rapidly.

All of this documentation would serve to buttress his case when he went back to Dumbledore and showed him proof that Potter was being treated abusively, like a house elf, at home. And if that did not convince the old man, Severus would take the photos to the Ministry and show them. Either way, he would make them see just what the so-called "hero of the wizarding world" had endured for the last thirteen years. He would wager his finest gold cauldron that they would pass out on the floor once they learned the truth.

Harry would be safe, however, even if the idiots in charge did nothing about the Dursleys. For Snape intended to remove him from Privet Drive regardless, for he took his vow seriously and he would not break the fragile trust the boy had placed in him.

But first, he would document, and then he would have a bit of justice upon the creatures—he would not even give them the title of people—who had dared to make the young wizard's life a misery. He would be discreet and give them a taste of their own medicine, Slytherin style. Just as he would have given Tobias, if the bugger hadn't crashed his car while driving drunk and killed himself while Severus was in school. Selene had answered his prayers then. This time he would be Her hand, and let the Dursleys beware!

Harry finished with his shower, dressed, and returned to his room. He found the vial and read the note, then tucked them both under his mattress. Trust Snape to think of a potion that would make him appear sickly. For once he was glad the cunning teacher was on his side. Snape made a dangerous enemy, but a better ally.

He lay back on his bed, wincing as the springs poked him through the thin mattress. He had much to think about, including the surprising fact that his professor had known his mother when they were children. Was there no end to the labyrinth of secrets Snape kept? The professor was an enigma that Harry didn't think he would ever be able to solve.

He heard loud shouts from downstairs as his uncle and cousin screamed at the telly, cheering on whoever was playing like raucous hyenas. He half shut his eyes, then felt a prickle across his skin and darted a look at the door to his room, which had just opened and shut soundlessly.

"Professor? Is that you?"

"Shhh. I'm right here."

Harry relaxed. Snape had kept his word after all. He drifted off to sleep, and in his dreams he rode the black stallion far away from Privet Drive, to a ruined temple where no Muggle had ever set foot.

All your lovely reviews inspired me to write the next chapter of this super fast!

Please keep them coming!

Next up, justice is served, Slytherin style!

Chapter 8: Midnight's Justice
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When all the household was asleep at last, Severus slipped down the stairs and found the cupboard Harry had described on their way to Privet Drive. It was barely the size to hold a few mops and a bucket, and Severus hardly had room to stick his upper body within it. It was dark and sweltering inside and his fury, still on a low simmer, suddenly flared. He could only imagine what it must have been like to close a small child in there, alone in the dark with the heat and dust and mildewed smell of old mop. Disgusting filthy creatures! Severus thought savagely. When did they let him out . . .only to relieve himself, or did they expect him to hold it?

He soon discovered the answer to that when he lit up the tip of his wand and found a tin bucket that smelled faintly of urine still. Snape's nose wrinkled and he began to plan out exactly what he would do to these miserable Muggles, who in their way were just as cruel and wicked as Voldemort. He snapped several more pictures of the inside of the cupboard, and then the outside.

Then he tucked the camera away in his pocket, even in Transfigured Muggle attire, the Deep Pockets was still active, and he headed into the kitchen to grab a bite to eat. Normally he wouldn't have ever just "helped himself" to anyone's food, but considering who they were, he had no qualms about making a large sandwich from the array of cold meats and cheeses in the fridge, topping it off with lettuce and pickles and a mayonnaise and mustard sauce and devouring it. He also ate some potato crisps and a Cadbury milk chocolate bar, and drank a large glass of water as well. That would be enough to get him through the first round of spells he was going to cast. It was important for a wizard to eat well before a major casting, since spellcraft burns off energy better than the best aerobic workout. Severus usually didn't eat all that well, which was how he remained so slender, because he had a tendency to cast without eating.

Not this time, however.

He smirked evilly as he drew his wand. Lady of Magic, I normally do not call upon You this way, but this once, I ask that You show me Your Hand of Justice. Show me how best to punish these offenders, who have so harmed a child bearing the gift. He bowed his head, waiting to see if Selene answered. Sometimes the goddess would speak to him, other times She remained silent, and he was free to choose his own course of action.

Suddenly he felt a tingle across his spine and he turned to face the window, where the moon shone through the glass, stippling the counter top with silver. Look up, my child. Severus, look up.

He gazed upwards and the moon seemed to shimmer and he felt a cold caress upon his cheek, as if from a hand. Lady of Mysteries, what will You have of me?

Justice for the one you are sworn to guard. Justice by thy hand, my moon fire stallion. Give them a taste of the plagues. Let them know hunger, thirst, pain, and darkness. Let them feel fear and uncertainty. Let them know that to trifle with one under My auspice is to invite My wrath.

Severus listened as Selene whispered certain enchantments into his mind, spells that had not been cast in centuries. He felt the strength of the moon flow into him and knew it would be his until his task was done.

With pleasure, Bright Lady! He sent back, and heard Her chuckle before withdrawing.

Severus turned and began to chant the first spell.

Three hours later, he was finished, all the spells were in place, timed to occur at specific intervals. Weary but triumphant, Severus climbed the stairs and Transfigured a sock into a camp bed with his last bit of energy. Drawing the blanket over himself, he fell fast asleep.

He was awakened some four hours later by Petunia screaming bloody murder.

Harry was in the bathroom, after drinking the potion he wanted to look in the mirror to see how his face looked with the green tinge and red pustules. He thought it looked quite horrifying, especially if one was Aunt Petunia, with phobias of anything with dirt, bugs, or disfigurement.

Then he heard his aunt screaming, not the usual Harry-get-your-arse-down-here scream, but a full throated screech. Harry almost bolted down the stairs to see what was wrong, but recalled at the last second he was supposed to be sick and returned to his room instead.

By that time Severus had risen and Transfigured the extra bed back into a sock and disappeared. Harry entered the room and went and lay down in bed.

He heard a chuckle and then a whispered, "Good job, Potter. I'll be back."

Snape glided from the room, going downstairs to see how well the first part of his justice had worked.

Petunia was standing on a chair, her eyes bugging out of her head, shrieking, "GET THEM OUT! GET THEM OUT NOW! VERNON, GET THESE FROGS OUT OF MY HOUSE!"

Over a hundred frogs of all sizes were jumping and hopping everywhere in the house. They were coming out of the cabinets beneath the sink, from under the table, beneath the sofa, croaking and ribbeting.

Dudley was running around, yelling, "Cool, Mum, there's a rare leopard spotted one over here!" He picked up the frog to show Petunia.

She screamed. "Dudley, put that filthy animal down now, it could have diseases!"

A frog hopped up on the chair by her feet and she jumped on the table, wailing, "Merciful good God! My house has been invaded . . .ahhhh . . .by frogs!"

The normally prim and proper Petunia looked as if she had stuck her finger in a light socket, her hair was going every which way, she had one shoe on and the other had fallen on the floor, where several frogs were leaping over it and one had crawled inside. Her pressed cornflower sprigged dress was rumpled and she wrapped her arms about herself and cried. "My house! Infested with frogs . . .frogs . . .FROGS!"

Vernon came bumbling down the stairs. "What's the matter! Arghhh! Bloody hell! Where did all these . . .frogs come from?"

One jumped up on his leg and he yelled. "Damn thing! Get off!"

"Vernon! How can we get rid of them?" Petunia sobbed.

Vernon looked confused. "Uh . . .I could get a bucket and net . . ."

"A bucket! You stupid imbecile . . .you need more than a bucket . . .you need an exterminator!" screeched his wife.

Vernon held up his hands. "Okay . . okay . . calm down, Pet . . .I'll get on the phone right now . . ."

Severus smirked wickedly, knowing full well that no Muggle exterminator would be able to rid the house of the plague of frogs until two hours had gone by, and then the next phase of the curse would start.

The exterminator ran around with his own net and cages and tried unsuccessfully to get rid of the frogs. "It's like . . .every time we get rid of ten, there's fifteen more taking their place. And some of these species aren't even local ones."

"I don't care what they are!" Petunia snapped. "Just get rid of them!"

Finally, the frogs departed, and Vernon growled, "So what the hell happened? Where did all these frogs come from?"

"I don't know how they got here. They just appeared!"

Vernon scowled. "It's that freak's fault!"

His face grim, he stomped upstairs, followed by Severus, who was scowling.

Harry was under the covers, looking like death warmed over.

"Boy! What's the meaning of all this? Frogs everywhere!" Vernon boomed.

"Huh?" Harry rubbed his eyes, feigning sleep.

"Don't you play innocent with me, boy! I know you're behind this, something freaky always happens when you're here. I tell you, I won't tolerate—ahhh!" He jumped back from Harry just as he was about to shake his shoulder. He had just noticed the spots and green skin. Terrified, Vernon backed away. "Stay there, boy! Don't come near me. Don't come near any of us. Just stay there!"

Face pale as curdled milk, Vernon fled down the stairs.

He quickly told Petunia and Dudley about Harry.

"Is he gonna die?" were the first words out of Dudley's mouth.

"Be better off if he did die," Vernon growled.

"If he dies, Dad, can I have my second bedroom back?"

Severus scowled upon hearing this. It would seem that his relatives had as much care about Potter as they would have an unwanted shoe.

"Dudley, hush!" Petunia ordered. "You mustn't say things like that. That warlock Snape might be able to hear you. If the brat dies, there goes our second income." She glanced about furtively and then hurried upstairs with some water and a bowl of chicken broth.

She screamed and nearly dropped the broth when she caught sight of Harry. Then she placed the items upon his desk and fled.

Harry, who was becoming hungry after all the drama, slipped from his bed and went to eat, only to find the meager meal supplemented by a large platter of bacon, eggs, and toast. He blinked, then recalled that Snape was still lurking about, and must have Summoned this for him, and he whispered "Thank you, professor," before tucking in.

All day long, strange and odd happenings plagued the Dursleys. No sooner had the frogs vanished, then the sky became dark as night, and it began to hail and storm. Dudley had been outside skateboarding when he got caught in it and came in screaming about hail the size of golf balls that had hit him in the head. He had a lump the size of one on his head.

Petunia put an ice pack upon his head and told him to go and lie down. Then she stared gape-mouthed at the weather, which seemed to only be affecting their part of the street, for across the way, their neighbor's house was suffering from a surfeit of sunshine and beautiful weather.

"We're cursed! Cursed!" she moaned, then called for Vernon to come and see this latest event.

The hail pelted the house, breaking the windows in the den and causing Vernon to nail boards across the broken frame to keep the wind and hail from coming in. He muttered swear words as he did so.

Unseen, Severus watched and smirked in satisfaction. Little did they know their troubles were just beginning.

Petunia went to get a glass of water and begin cooking something for lunch and started screaming when the tap ran a rusty brown liquid.

"Vernon, something's wrong with the pipes! It's running rusty water again."

Dudley came to peer over her shoulder and put a hand under the faucet. It came away red. "Ahhh! Mum, it's not running water! It's running . . .blood!"

"Blood? But . . .but that's impossible!"

Then she looked at the bottom of the sink, which was slowly filling with blood.

"VERNON!"

Vernon came running. "Turn off the water!" he yelled. "Turn it off!"

She did, then stood trembling in terror. "What do we do now?"

"I'm hungry, how are we gonna cook anything if we don't have water?" whined Dudley. "This sucks!"

"Uh, well, you're just going to have to drink something else," Vernon said. "And . . .and eat cereal for now."

Dudley pouted and sulked, reminding Severus of a five-year-old. The Potions Master longed to take the spoiled brat by the ear and shake him till he howled.

"How will we take a shower if this keeps up?" Petunia cried. "I am not bathing in blood!"

They all shuddered and looked horrified.

"I'm hungry!" Dudley shrilled, and Petunia went to get something out of the fridge.

Severus waved his hand, and when she opened the fridge, dozens and dozens of brown grasshoppers and spiders crawled out.

"AHHH-AHHHH!"

Petunia backpedaled so fast that she tripped over her own feet and fell flat on her bottom. "Spiders! Grasshoppers!" She continued to scream hysterically as the insects and arachnids crawled all over her.

Dudley was screaming too, as was Vernon, and they started trying to stomp the bugs, but there were too many. In minutes the kitchen was covered in a living curtain of insects, crawling and scuttling, making a noise like paper crackling, all over the floor, walls, furniture and the three Muggles.

They were all shrieking and hopping about like demented puppets, shaking their arms and legs, because the bugs had crawled inside their clothing.

Vernon ran out into the backyard, trying to rid himself of the awful things, but then he was attacked by a mob of birds, and ended up pecked and nipped by them until he ran inside.

"The shower, Pet! Maybe we can drown them!"

"But . . .but Vern. . .the showers don't run water. They run blood!" sobbed a frantic Petunia. "Ooohh! I can't stand this anymore!" She began to run around waving her arms and beating at herself, like a scarecrow run amok.

Severus couldn't help but chuckle at the sight of prissy Petunia freaking out this way.

Serves you right, you miserable hag!

They discovered there was nowhere in the house they could go . . .except Harry's room . . .to get away from the bugs. And none of them wanted to venture near the plague-stricken Potter.

If that wasn't enough, all the food in the fridge had become spoiled and they had nothing to eat.

After twenty minutes, Dudley began moaning that he was wasting away and groaning while stomping grasshoppers.

Two hours later, the bugs slipped into the walls and disappeared. But the water was still running blood, or something very like it.

The Dursleys huddled upon the couches in the den, in front of the TV, shivering.

Then Vernon felt an itch upon his arm, and went to scratch, and found a large boil rising on his skin. He jerked up and bawled, "Oh, Lord have mercy!"

"What? What is it?" Petunia asked.

"I'm . . .I'm infected . . .look!" he displayed the boil on his arm.

Petunia covered her mouth in horror. "No! No, this can't be happening! He said . . .he said we couldn't get sick!"

"I think he lied," whimpered the fat man.

A few moments later, Dudley yelped and jumped from the couch. "Oww!" he rubbed at his backside. Boils had begun to pop up all over his bottom and legs and arms.

Before long both Dudley and Vernon were covering in red oozing pustules, which itched and burned like hell.

Petunia started to cry. "Not my husband! Not my baby!"

Then she too began to get the boils.

"We're all gonna die!" wailed her son. "Mummy, I'm too young to die! You're supposed to die first!"

Severus nearly choked at the sheer selfishness of the boy, and sneered nastily at Dudley's back, which he was trying to scratch frantically. "It's all Harry's fault! He's gonna die and he wanted company!"

"We should have slammed the door in his face instead of letting him in!" groused Vernon, his face bulged with large carbuncles.

"We should have left him to starve that first night!" Petunia snapped. "Wretched boy! Never been anything but a burden and a cross to bear. Useless magical freak! Too bad he didn't die along with his parents!"

A large boil grew on the end of her nose. "What . . .what . . ." she reached up to feel it and started to tremble. "Oh no . . .no . . ." she ran into the bathroom upstairs. "Oh my face . . .! I look like a . . .a . . .witch! A horrible, ugly, old witch!"

Actually, Tuney, you look worse! thought Severus spitefully.

He heard a smothered chuckle from down the hall and turned and saw Harry standing there, covering his mouth with his hand.

The green eyes were lit with mischief.

Petunia not only had a large boil on her nose, but several on her cheeks and forehead and more were growing upon her arms and hands. She began to scratch frantically and Harry snickered.

Petunia looked up and saw him and her face twisted in spiteful rage. "You! This is all your doing, you wretched misfit brat! You brought this . . .this plague upon us!"

"Me? But . . .you can't catch a wizard flu, Aunt Petunia. Unless . . .you've got magic too," Harry added.

Petunia looked as if she might faint at the mere thought. "I . . .How dare you compare me to . . .to . . .freaks like you?"

"My mother wasn't a freak!" Harry defended.

"You watch your mouth, boy! I won't have this . . .this insanity in my house! No more, d'you hear? Now get in that room and stay there!"

She advanced upon him, and pushed Harry back inside his room and locked him in with all seven locks.

Severus was tempted to hex her fingers, but figured right now Harry was safest in his room.

The Dursleys suffered unmercifully with the painful itching boils all throughout the day, unable to get relief because the faucets still ran with thick blood and various frogs and insects reappeared both inside and out of the house. Grasshoppers popped out of the sofa cushions, making Petunia screech when she tried to sit down, and then the fireplace flared up and shapes appeared within it, like imps from hell. They leered and mocked her, until she ran from the room, yelling, "Possessed and cursed!"

But the final outrage was when the electricity in the house went out and refused to come back on. Dudley threw a fit and kicked a hole in his bedroom wall because now he had no TV and no video games system and nothing to do except be driven mad by the boils.

His continuous whining got on Petunia and Vernon's nerves. "Mummy, Daddy, I'm so bored! I'm starving! When can we eat? I'm wasting away! It's not fair!"

"Duddy, Mummy will try and get you some food as soon as these nasty things go away."

"But I want it NOW!"

Severus would have locked the brat in his room for a month if he had ever addressed him in such a fashion, but Vernon and Petunia fawned over their only child as if he were a god. Snape was sickened by their display, they doted on one child and treated the other like he didn't exist except when they needed a slave to do chores or take the blame for something.

"Vernon, what do we do? We can't be seen in public like this, we just can't!" she wailed, bursting into tears. "How will I ever show my face around here?"

"Now, Pet, I'm sure they'll go away by tonight or tomorrow morning," Vernon soothed, patting her on the shoulder.

"Tomorrow morning! But Daddy, I'll starve!"

Vernon dug about in his trouser pocket. "Here. A big chocolate bar."

Dudley crammed it into his mouth.

Loathsome pig of a boy! Severus thought angrily. It would take a whole six months for you to even begin to look like a normal boy, much less starve!

The Dursleys had managed to light candles in order to see as the evening wore on and dusk fell, but Severus kept snuffing them, so they tried flashlights, only to find they wouldn't turn on.

As a matter of fact, the only room in the house which still had heat and light was Harry's room, but since the three Dursleys were huddled downstairs in the den, they didn't know it.

Severus glided upstairs and unlocked Harry's door, letting him out so he could use the bathroom. For him, the curse did not function, as he was not named in it by Severus. But he could still see the many bugs scurrying about, though none of them touched him, and he distinctly recalled his aunt screaming about frogs, of which she was deathly afraid.

He wondered what else Snape had cast, and found that he didn't feel the least bit sorry for them. After all he'd been through, it was about time the Dursleys knew what it was to have justice done to them.

"What did you cast on them, sir?" he asked as he headed back into his room.

"The Curse of a Thousand Misfortunes," replied Severus. He explained what had happened to them so far and Harry laughed.

"Sounds like they have a real pest control problem."

"I would say so," agreed the professor, then he returned downstairs once more.

All through that night, misfortunes continued to dog their footsteps, one after another. Petunia's hair started coming out in clumps, Dudley tried to find his way to the fridge in the dark and tripped and sprained his ankle, assorted hooting and hollering went on as well, making them unable to sleep.

By the time the sun peeked its head over the horizon, all three Dursleys were quivering wrecks, and the curse still was working. Finally, Vernon couldn't stand it anymore, and stomped up to Harry's room, threw open the door (he hadn't known Petunia had locked it), and grabbed Harry by the front of his pajamas and shook him hard.

"Wake up, damn you! You had better take whatever freaky thing you or that other black crow did off of us or else!"

"I . . .I can't, Uncle Vernon!" Harry sputtered. "I don't even know what kind of magic it is!"

Severus returned, he had been using the bathroom, to find Vernon looming over the small fourteen-year-old, hand lifted to strike, and fury such as he had rarely known swept over him.

He clenched his hand and suddenly Vernon found himself lifted up and flung violently through the air to land with a thud against the opposite wall.

Harry sat up and gasped as some invisible force began to pummel his fat nemesis. Vernon's head slammed back and blood spurted from his nose and mouth. He began to whimper and squeal like a pig being slaughtered, buffeted by unseen hard hands. He struggled, but was pinned against the wall, unable to get away.

"So help me, boy, when I get free of here, I'll kill you!" he bellowed. Then he screeched in agony as his fingers snapped like deadwood.

"Don't . . .kill him, professor!" Harry cried, afraid that Snape would do so.

Severus reappeared, canceling the spell and marching right up to the cowering blubbering Vernon and snarling, "Had enough, Dursley? Or do you want more of what I just gave you? How do you like raising your hand to a defenseless child now? Is it fun? Do you like being helpless? Do you?"

"Please . . .please . . .mercy . . .!"

"You pathetic snotrag!" Severus hissed. "I know what you did to your nephew, and this is but a taste of the justice you shall receive if you don't agree to sign over all custody to me right away. All the misfortune you have endured up till now will seem like a picnic compared to what you will suffer if you don't do what I say. You are unfit to care for a child—any child---even your own, but especially a magical one."

Snape produced a long scroll and shoved a pen at Vernon, whose fingers were swollen and misshapen. "Read it and sign, Dursley!"

"Okay . . .okay . . .you devilspawned bastard!" Vernon cried. "I can barely hold the pen!"

Severus shrugged.

Vernon managed to sign his name to the document. "There! It's done. Now will you lift the curse?"

Severus smiled coldly. "It will wear off in a few hours." He turned to Harry. "Mr. Potter, pack your things."

Harry didn't need to be told twice.

Severus stood glowering in the middle of the room at Vernon, who bolted away as if he had been scorched, down to the main floor of the house to tell his wife what he had done.

Severus followed, just in time to hear Petunia say, "Good riddance, we're finally rid of the unnatural thing!"

"Unnatural?" Snape laughed softly. "Petunia, you are the one who should bear that label, considering all the things you've done to your own nephew these past thirteen years. You are a disgrace and it's no wonder your sister has come back to haunt you."

Petunia went fishbelly white. "L-Lily? She's . . .returned from the . . .dead?"

"I believe so. And she is most unhappy about the way you've treated her son. Most unhappy." Severus gave her a nasty smile.

Petunia sagged to her knees. "Please, Lily! I'm sorry! Vernon made me do it!"

"What? You bloody witch!" her husband cried. "You told me to keep the brat so we would get an extra pair of hands and free money! You were as much to blame as I was, you lying harridan! He came from your side of the family!"

"So what? Like you don't have problems in your pathetic family? Your sister, who breeds attack dogs and tested them out on the boy . . ."

"If it weren't for you, the boy would never have been given to us in the first place!" Vernon shouted.

"I never asked for him!" Petunia raged. "That old wizard Dumbledork left him without even asking!"

Severus turned on his heel and left them to their meaningless argument. He had what he had come for, pictures and memories both, enough evidence to convince even the stubborn Headmaster that Harry could not remain with the walls of Privet Drive any longer.

He Apparated to Harry's room, asking quickly, "Are you all packed? The sooner we depart this place the better."

"I am, sir." Harry said, glad he had taken Hermione's suggestion after all and left Hedwig with Ron. "Where are we going?"

"To my home," was all Severus replied.

He held out one black-clad arm and Harry took it and was whisked away.

Meanwhile, Vernon and Petunia continued to bicker and quarrel and the Curse of a Thousand Misfortunes began to wane, though not before Death Eaters arrived on Privet Drive and demanded to know where Harry Potter was.

Unfortunately for the two eldest Dursleys, they didn't believe them when they said they had no idea where Harry was. They assumed that Petunia and Vernon were lying and in a fit of rage, Bellatrix killed Dudley with the Torture Curse and made them watch, before finally killing them.

Their bodies were found a week later by a delivery man, cause of death, unknown. He had been dropping off a brand new set of video games plus a large screen TV for Dudley and needed a signature. When ringing the bell produced no result, he tried the doorknob after knocking loudly. It opened and it was then he saw the bodies. The case baffled police, for there were no signs of a struggle, no marks on the bodies, no sign of breaking and entering, or anything to indicate poison or drug overdose. At first they suspected the missing nephew, but when they tried to check on his whereabouts according to the neighbors, they found no record of a Harry Potter ever attending St. Brutus' and no neighbor ever recalled seeing him anywhere about Privet Drive recently. And there was no indication another boy lived in the house with them either. So they closed the case, labeling it "unsolved cause of death by unknown natural causes" and after a few weeks people forgot all about it and number 4 was put up for sale.

Hope you all liked this one!

If you think the Dursleys' punishment bears a resemblence to the plagues of Egypt, you're right. I did base them off that, though the DE performed the final plague--"death of the firstborn sons".

Next up: Dumbledore learns about Harry's whereabouts and Harry starts to adjust to living in Snape's home . . .which is not where you think it is!

Thanks for all your support!

Chapter 9: Midnight Sanctuary
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Harry stumbled to his knees when Snape's spell dumped them out of the nothingness that had enfolded them onto the grass. He gasped for breath, feeling both lightheaded and nauseous. But then he got himself back under control, and a strong hand helped him to his feet.

"Potter, take a breath. That's it. Another. Still feeling dizzy?"

"No. It's passing," Harry said in obvious relief, his eyes shut. So was the churning in his gut, for which he thanked whatever deity was watching over him, because the last thing he needed was to throw up on Snape's boots. He was certain that the man would have put him in detention for all of next year and made him scrub them without magic if that had occurred.

When Harry opened his eyes, he beheld a slope of emerald green grass leading down to a medium-sized house fronted with some kind of white stone that shimmered as the sun hit it, it was two stories, shingled in obsidian roof tiles with two chimneys at either end and two peaked dormer windows. Two enormous spruces flanked the house and a cobblestone pathway led up to the porch, which was circular. The door was painted a light blue and had a crescent shaped window at the top, and below was a silver knocker in the shape of a horse's head, holding a horseshoe in its teeth.

"You live here?" Harry blurted before he could think better of it.

Snape raised one eyebrow half-mockingly. "Yes. Why? Were you expecting, perhaps, a decrepit old ruin? A shack in the middle of the woods? So sorry to disappoint you."

"No, I just . . ." Harry trailed off awkwardly, for the truth was he had never given much thought to where Snape lived when he wasn't teaching. He had always assumed the man lived at the school, in the dungeons, though that was a foolish assumption, since the school was closed during the summer holidays. "It looks like a nice house, Professor."

"Too good for the likes of me?" Snape queried, though his tone was not quite as sharp. "I purchased this house cheap, as its former owner was leaving for France. I chose it mainly because it was situated far enough away from nosy neighbors and because it has plenty of land. Sixty acres, to be exact. It used to be a horse farm." He beckoned Harry across the lawn towards the house. "There's a barn out back and a paddock and a very large pasture that runs right up to the forest."

"Where are we, sir?"

"Nottinghamshire, right next to Sherwood Forest," Severus announced.

Harry's mouth fell open. "You mean where Robin Hood lived?"

"Do you know of another Sherwood Forest in Britain?"

"No."

"Yes, it is the same one. But it has shrunken considerably since Robin's day and you won't find any merry men about in it, only royal foresters making sure no one is poaching or hunting, since it's a preserve. Despite that, there are places within Sherwood that still retain the old magic, and remain hidden from prying Muggle eyes. There are two sides to the forest, Mr. Potter, one mundane, the other as magical as the Forbidden Forest by Hogwarts, and you would do well to remember that. Do not wander within it until I give you leave."

"Is it dangerous?"

"Only to those it does not recognize. But I will speak more of that later. Come, let us get inside, you need a hot shower and I daresay you are hungry as well."

"I am," Harry said, watching as Snape put a hand on the door and it swung open.

The door opened into a large area that appeared to be a combination of a living room and kitchen, the floors were of a light golden oak, sanded to a smooth finish and waxed till they shone. Harry stopped in the entrance and looked about in astonishment. To the right was a wraparound couch of soft muted green with heather colored pillows and a library table at one end filled with books and topped off with a sculpture of a winged falcon. There was a large area rug facing the fireplace, colored a soothing blue and green geometric pattern.

The fireplace was huge, it looked as if it could have roasted an entire deer, it was made of large gray stone and had a slate hearth. Some wood was piled next to it along with a stand of fireplace tools. The mantle held a hand-carved German clock with curling ivy leaves, and a strange emerald and purple crystal was to the right of it. To the left was a piece of petrified wood. Above was a picture of a beautiful glade, with a stream that glittered in the light of the moon. An owl flew across the sky and a unicorn drank at the pool. The sight reminded Harry of the evening when he had escaped the Death Eaters and woken to find a unicorn stallion standing over him. He would never forget the feeling of peace and awe he had felt looking into the great creature's eyes.

There was a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling, it cast enough light to illuminate the entire living room area. A simple oaken table was set in the middle of the couches.

"Does this house run on electricity or magic?" was Harry's next question.

"A little of both. This was originally a Muggle dwelling, but I have my own lab and distillery for potions down in the basement and that is run entirely by magical means." Severus explained. He waved a hand at the set of stairs leading up to a large loft. "The rest of the house, however, does have electrical lights, though I heat and cool it by magic, because it saves on bills."

The kitchen area was separated from the living space by a large counter. To the left of it was a breakfast nook with a small table and seats built into the walls around it. They were covered in simple blue cushions. On top of the table were parchments and an ink well and a jar of quills.

The kitchen was done in a Lincoln green motif with small tiles of different woodland animals, like a doe, a bear, a fox, and an owl, decorating the walls inbetween the stove, sink, and refrigerator. Pots hung from a rack in the ceiling and the counter was done in more of that strange white stone. Harry ran his hand across it.

"What is this made from?"

"There was a quarry here of this stone, it came from the river Trent, but I have no idea what it is," Severus replied. "The woman who sold me the house claimed it had been much prized and it would never crack or break, no matter if I put a dish scalding from the oven on it or not."

"Oh. It's very . . .unusual."

"Yes. To the right of the refrigerator is the pantry and down that small hallway is one of two bathrooms and the door leading to the back entry and my room is there as well."

Harry spotted another door off to the right of the breakfast nook. "Is that the basement?"

"It is and you are to stay out of it unless I tell you otherwise. The door will be spell-locked, and if you try and open it, it will singe the skin off your fingers, so I suggest you not try it."

"Yes, sir," Harry said, shivering at the image that conjured, unaware that Severus was exaggerating. The charm upon the door would give a mild shock and sting, enough to startle one into releasing the handle and send a silent alert to Severus.

"My potions lab is private and there is no reason you should be in it unless I am instructing you," Severus told him. "Have a seat there. After we eat, I shall show you the loft where you'll be staying."

Harry slid onto the cushioned seat and peered out the window through a gauzy white curtain. The window overlooked the back . . .pasture he thought it was called and he could see a corner of a barn that was weathered and old, though not exactly falling down. The fence around the pasture, however, had been whitewashed recently.

In the distance he could see the large birches and oaks of Sherwood and staring at them made a quiver run through him. He was not exactly afraid of the forest, but rather a bit in awe and respectful of it. He hoped that Snape would tell him more about it after they ate.

Harry continued staring out at the forest while Severus moved about the kitchen, fetching ingredients for a large salad with breaded chicken strips. He eyed the boy, his new charge, Selene help him, and hoped that he had done the right thing. Oh, there was no question that the boy had needed to be removed from that place, but Severus was uncertain if he could be what Harry needed of him. He had more practice being a strict snarky professor than he did a compassionate authority figure. Still, he alone knew what Harry had endured at the Dursleys' hands, and so perhaps he could manage to show the boy some understanding and empathy. He rattled a dish in the cupboard and Harry started.

"Relax, boy. Nothing will ever harm you in this house. Myself included. Unless you push me past all endurance and I chop you into potion ingredients like my last houseguest," Severus said wryly.

Harry flushed and remained staring out the window, but Severus caught the slight smile upon his face. "I'll try not to do that, sir." He looked cautiously back at the professor, who was cutting a green apple into neat slices. "Do you . . .want any help, sir?"

Snape shook his head. "No. Here I prefer to prepare meals, and unless I specifically ask you to, you will not be doing all the cooking or cleaning around here. I am used to fending for myself."

"Then you don't have a house elf?"

"No. I prefer not to have any creature bowing and scraping to me. I like my solitude."

"So you clean your own house?"

"Why, yes, I do, and tie my own shoes and everything, Potter." Snape tossed the apple into the large bowl of salad greens and began cutting up a red onion. "Have you never been shown a cleaning charm?"

"No. I was the cleaning charm at Privet Drive," Harry said, daring to be a little cheeky.

"Humph! The less said of those . . .people, the better." Severus sneered. "Here you will be expected to clean up after yourself, pick up your room, and scrub that bathroom upstairs, but it doesn't necessarily need to be done by hand."

"But professor, I can't use magic outside of school."

"Not with a wand, no. But a cleaning charm is an easy magic to master without one."

"You can do magic without a wand?"

"Yes. Though only the most focused and powerful wizards and witches manage it. I am one." He eyed Harry shrewdly. "Your mother was one also. I believe, with practice, you could master it. If you concentrated and studied hard. There is nothing wrong with your brain, Mr. Potter, save for the fact that you are not used to performing up to your full potential. I know that has to do with your relatives, but here you will be expected to use every shred of your mental capabilities. I will accept nothing less. Understood?"

Harry nodded.

"Good. Wandless magic improves with practice, and I will see you get plenty of it."

Another nod.

Normally, Severus would have demanded a verbal response, but he sensed the boy was tired and uncertain and he recalled how in times of stress as a child and an adolescent he would retreat into himself and become still and silent. It was a defense mechanism, because if one was quiet, one might be forgotten about, and escape the beating from one's vicious father . . .or uncle. Easy, Severus. This one is as skittish as a whipped colt. You need to go slowly, he reminded himself. Snape returned to cutting up his salad, and mixing ingredients for the poppy seed vinaigrette dressing. Ever since he had been granted his Animagus form at sixteen, he found he preferred more vegetarian meals, though he did like to eat fish and chicken and eggs and sometimes ham and bacon.

Harry watched out of the corner of his eye as his professor deftly chopped and mixed things. As in his lab at school, Severus was precise and swift, his motions practiced and easy. Harry could tell the man was used to looking after himself from how he cooked. The professor was neat and had the chicken and apple-walnut salad ready in fifteen minutes.

Along with the salad, Snape served whole grain rolls with butter and honey and cold glasses of lemon water.

Harry ate the nutritious and tasty meal without complaint, he actually enjoyed green food, unlike Ron, who had an aversion to it as if it were poison, and he would never turn his nose up when offered a meal. There had been times in the past that he would have taken food from Voldemort's own table in lieu of starving. He ate slowly, however, savoring the tangy dressing and the crunchy walnut and juicy chicken. All too soon, his plate was empty.

Severus gestured and the plate refilled itself.

Harry's eyes widened.

Severus answered his unspoken question. "In my house, you shall never go hungry, Potter. There will always be food in the pantry and refrigerator, and you do not need permission to eat it. However, I do expect you to tell me if something is finished, so I may buy more. I do not keep many sweets on hand, so I hope you like healthier snacks, like fruit, nuts, and vegetables, or bread with honey."

"I eat anything, professor," Harry assured him.

Severus nodded, taking a bite of his bread. He had not expected Potter to protest, not after seeing what his home life had been. Like a starving stray, the boy would eat whatever he was given and enjoy it.

"This is really good." Harry said belatedly, after he had taken another bite.

"And you haven't died yet," teased the other, smirking.

Again the boy flashed that gimlet smile. Then he finished his plate and took a second helping of bread. "Did you make this too?"

"No. But a very fine bakery nearby in town did. Later I shall take you over there."

Harry finished his bread before asking, "Why don't you use magic to cook like Mrs. Weasley does?"

"Because I find it easier and more satisfying to cook by hand. And if you use magic for everything, Mr. Potter, you will soon become too dependent upon it. In addition to that, any spell you cast uses up energy, and cooking dinner by magic uses up energy I would rather spend elsewhere."

"Like brewing potions."

"Or layering wards about my property. I prefer to conserve my magical strength until I need it most, and so I do not use it frivolously. I was raised in a Muggle household and old habits die hard. I suspect the same will be true of you."

"Umm . . .probably. I . . .don't mind doing chores. I'm used to it."

"I realize that. I shall make a list of chores you will be expected to do each week. But it will be nothing like what you were made to do at Privet Drive. You are not my slave, Potter, but my student, and Selene forbid I ever behave like those abominable freaks of nature."

Harry giggled softly at how his teacher had spat those words and the way Snape's eyes glittered with disgust. It felt good to have someone else know what hell he had been through and who disliked the Dursleys as much as he did. Though he had to admit, he didn't detest Dudley half as much as he did his aunt . . .or his uncle.

"If you are finished, let me show you the loft. Go scrape your plate into the garbage and leave it in the sink. I'll wash up after."

Harry obeyed, then followed his teacher up the stairs, which had a runner on them of beige carpet, and into the spacious skylight loft.

The railing about the loft was formed of spiraling wooden columns, that reminded Harry of a unicorn's horn. It had thick plush carpeting of a chestnut brown color. There was a comfortable looking beige couch and an endtable with a lamp. A Tv on a stand was set up in front of it and Harry turned and said, "You have television here, professor?"

"Yes, the television works, though I hardly ever use it, unless I need to see the news or the weather. You may watch it after your chores and summer schoolwork is completed."

Harry hid another smile. Imagine that, a TV all to himself. It would take some getting used to.

All the way in the corner of the loft, against a dormer window, was the bed, a large one, with a plump looking mattress and a comforter in earthtones with a sunrise printed on it. There was a dresser and a small closet as well, and next to the closet was the second bathroom.

It was a small bathroom, done in gray and black, containing a toilet and a sink and a small shower. "There are towels and such in this linen closet and any other essentials you might need in this cabinet," the Potions Master told him, before they exited the restroom.

Harry saw his trunk at the foot of his bed.

"You make take some time to unpack, Mr. Potter. The potion should be wearing off soon, so you may feel a bit tired. Feel free to have a lie down if you need it. I shall be out back, tending my herb garden."

"I . . .I need to write to Ron and ask him to send back Hedwig," Harry recalled. "What should I tell him, sir? Should I tell him that Vol—"

Snape abruptly clamped a hand over his mouth. "Do not say that name, Mr. Potter! I told you, it is not safe!"

"But why?" mumbled Harry from behind Snape's hand.

"Because he has caused an enchantment to be linked to that particular name." The professor answered, removing his hand. "You may not know this, but he was not born with that name, he created it to make himself feel important and set apart from others. He made it so that whenever people spoke his name, he would hear it, and if he felt like it, could Apparate instantly to them and either aid or destroy them. Or cause them to come to him. He loved when people feared him. You are familiar with the phrase "speak of the devil?" That is just what He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named became to most everyone in the wizarding world."

"But Dumbledore says his name."

"He can say it because he knows the Dark Lord will not seek him out."

"But I said it once or twice too."

"Were you in the Headmaster's presence?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then it didn't matter. He was also not fully back in the world. But now it does. See that you guard your tongue, unless you desire a meeting with him."

"No! I'll be careful. I'm glad you told me why. You're the only one who ever has."

"Potter, I will try to tell you the truth as much as possible. I cannot promise always, because there are things that you do not, or should not, know. But I will never outright lie to you, not when it concerns your safety. By Selene's Grace, I will promise you that."

"I understand." Harry said. Snape was an intensely private person, one who did not reveal much about himself, and Harry suspected the professor knew secrets he would take to his grave. But at least he had Snape's word that he wouldn't be kept in the dark "for his own good", he was not a sodding baby, after all. He cocked his head, then asked the other burning question that had been on his mind. "Professor, do you . . .worship . . .the Moon goddess Selene?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because I noticed that you swear by her and usually that means you worship someone when you do that."

"And you would be right. She is my goddess, and I am Her Initiate."

"An initiate? Like a . . .priest?"

"No. Say rather a favored follower who has sworn himself to Her. But that too is a story for later. If you wish to write to Weasly, use discretion. I would prefer if you not mention where you are right now. Unpack, Potter. The trunk will not get any lighter by you looking at it." He turned on his heel to depart.

"Professor Snape?"

"Yes?"

"Would you mind . . .sometimes . . .calling me by my first name? Just sometimes."

Severus turned. "Since it is the holiday and we are not at school, I will agree. But back at school, I shall address you like any other student. . .Harry."

With that, he sailed down the stairs, leaving Harry alone to get settled in.

He had little to unpack and after he was through he went and lay down upon his bed and thought about how odd it was to finally live somewhere safe, somewhere he didn't have to worry about working his arse off and getting punished for doing better than Dudley, somewhere he needn't fear looking at Uncle Vernon in what might be construed as a "cheeky manner" and getting walloped for it. Somewhere he could eat his fill and not make himself ill eating scraps from the rubbish bin. Somewhere finally where someone cared about him . . .not the Boy Who Lived, but Harry.

I ought to write that letter to Ron. I ought to write another to Sirius. Does Snape have an owl? I've never seen him with one. Have to ask that later . . .right now I'm so tired . . .He fell asleep in mid-thought and slept for an hour and a half.

When he woke again, he felt refreshed and quickly scribbled letters to Ron and Sirius and also Hermione. Hermione he went into more detail than he did the other two, because he knew she appreciated that sort of thing and she wouldn't have a problem with him living with Snape. Because of his concerns over privacy, he asked Hermione not to mention that little telling detail to Ron, and in his own letter him and to Sirius, he told them he had been removed from Privet Drive because of a safety issue and couldn't tell his location, but he needed Hedwig back and that he was fine.

He found Severus sitting at the table, looking as though he were marking tests and hating it. "Does anyone even read the bloody material anymore?" he was saying to no one in particular,

"I do. Only sometimes I forget stuff," Harry replied honestly.

Severus glanced up from his horror show of end-of-term exams and said testily, "You wouldn't if you tried harder. What is it?"

"I . . .have some letters I wanted to mail, but I don't have Hedwig here and didn't know if you had an owl."

"I do. She is probably asleep in my room." He gave a soft whistle.

A moment later they heard a sleepy hoot and then a brown and white barn owl flew onto Severus' shoulder. He stroked her and fed her a treat from a small dish on a shelf behind him. "Nighteyes, meet Harry. He'll be staying with us the summer."

The owl looked up at him and Harry tentatively went to stroke her chest. She made a soft clucking noise and nibbled his hand before settling down.

"Hello, Nighteyes. Sorry to wake you but I really need these delivered. Would you mind?"

The owl hooted again, and gently took the letters in her beak. Severus opened the window and she flew away with them.

"How do they always know where to go to bring the mail and how to return?" Harry asked curiously.

"It's bred into them. Merlin created the first post owl and used magic to make the bird willing to fly during daylight and stronger, faster, and hardier than its normal counterpart. He also gave it a homing instinct, like a pigeon's, and another instinct that would allow the bird to sense where it was to go, no matter how far away it was. Finally he made them incredibly intelligent for an owl, so it could almost comprehend human speech. I find the barn owls are very smart, Nighteyes especially."

"Oh. I never knew that."

"They really ought to have a lesson on post owls in Care of Magical Creatures," said the professor. "Anymore questions, Harry, or can I get back to my infernal grading?"

Harry had loads of questions, but sensed that now was not the time to ask them. "No, sir. Guess I'll just go walk about outside."

"Fine, but be careful inside the barn, there are old rusted tools there, if you cut yourself you could get tetanus. And do not enter the forest, or else!" Snape stressed. He fixed Harry with a glare. "If I am interrupted because you disobeyed me and set one foot in there, you will wish a bugbear or a wyvern ate you."

Harry flinched. Then he nodded.

Severus checked his watch. "It's three o'clock. Be back inside by five, we'll have supper then. Now get!" He waved him away.

Harry went, not wanting to annoy the already irritable professor. He had no wish to discover how Snape punished misbehaving Gryffindors this first day . . .or any other day, for that matter. He went out the back entryway and down off the porch.

A few meters to the left he saw a large herb garden and a greenhouse. He supposed that was where Snape grew plants for potions. He walked down the small dirt path to the barn.

When he cautiously pushed open the door, a musty smell of old hay and dust came out, and he heard the rustle of several mice and owls above in the rafters, but nothing else. Harry groped about before finding a light switch and the lights came on, soft ones, down the corridor and inside each stall. The barn was quite large, it had stalls enough for fifteen horses and also a tack room and another room that had probably once been used for feeding and storing oats. There were several empty sacks of feed and a lone oat scoop. Some rusted pitchforks and rakes and a broom were standing in a corner.

In the tack room were a few old horse blankets, buckets, containers of hoof polish and saddle soap, a halter and lead, and a currycomb and brush. There was even an old saddle. Harry noted that though worn, the items were still in good condition. Looking at them made him wish that he could return to Hogwarts and try and befriend the moon stallion. He closed his eyes and imagined what it would be like to ride the horse once more, with a proper saddle, and how fast they could travel, faster than a unicorn could run.

Smiling, he stroked the smooth leather of the saddle and then looked up and saw some rolls of bandages and a bottle of linament also resting on a shelf. He wondered why the people had left this stuff here and why Snape had kept it. Then he shrugged. Maybe Snape intended to get a horse one day, though Harry couldn't picture the man mucking out a stall or riding one.

He left the tack room and peered into another smaller room, empty except for some built in bookshelves and an old metal desk and chair, perhaps this had been an office at one time.

Exploration over with, he decided to walk a little down by the pasture.

The sun felt good on his back as he walked through the thick green grass, listening to the singing of birds in the trees and watching a bee buzz over a wildflower. He felt at peace here, drowsy almost, it was not a feeling he was accustomed to, but one that he found he rather enjoyed. He walked all the way down to a large beech tree and settled himself on the ground.

He wondered if the Dursleys had finally rid the house of the grasshoppers and spiders and frogs. Did they still have boils all over them? He smirked a little at that. He recalled once as a young child getting sick with chicken pox and Petunia hadn't even given him a bath or put Calomine lotion on him, she had simply left him in the cupboard and he had been driven nearly mad from the itching. So he didn't feel very sorry for them at all now. He also wondered how Dumbledore would take the news that he was no longer at the Dursleys.

He dozed, the sun and the breeze combining to make him sleepy.

When he woke and glanced at his watch, he saw that it was nearing five and he hurried back inside to take a shower and change before supper.

For supper that night they had pasta primavera and more bread, Harry was allowed to eat as much as he wanted and then they stored the rest away to eat tomorrow.

"Come here, Potter," Severus ordered after they had put away the leftovers. "Now is as good a time as any to begin learning wandless magic." He indicated the sink full of dirty dishes. "The spell you need to learn is a simple cleaning spell. It can be used for dishes or for small messes. You simply speak the word Scourgify and point at what you wish to be cleaned." He pronounced the incantation slowly, so Harry go the right pronunciation down. He made Harry repeat it several times before he was satisfied.

"Now. When you use a wand, it is mainly to focus the magic within you, to channel it into a form that is easy for you to use. You can also do the same with your mind. Think of your will as you would a wand, and use it to summon your power and then focus it into a narrow tube. Then speak the incantation and concentrate upon what you wish to be done, point, and see what happens."

"All right." Harry did so, trying to call upon his magic and then channel it.

He felt it swirl within him and he pointed his hand and spoke the incantation. "Scourgify!"

Nothing happened.

"You're not concentrating enough. You have to focus, Potter. And you have to want it. Try again."

Harry did. Over and over, until he was red-faced.

"Stop." Severus ordered impatiently. "You look like you're fighting a bout of constipation, not summoning magic."

Harry scowled. "I'm trying, sir! I am!"

"You're too tense. Relax. Breathe in and out, slowly. Summoning your power shouldn't take that much effort."

"It doesn't. It's trying to focus it."

"Ah. Don't try and call up all your magic at once. Make in your mind a cup and summon that much and no more."

Harry closed his eyes and tried to imagine a tea cup, slowly filling with the golden magic, and when he had done so he opened his eyes. "Okay, sir. Now what?"

"Keep the image of the cup in your mind. Now, slowly call the magic from the cup and shape it into a narrow fine tube."

"That's the part I'm having trouble with. I can't picture it."

Severus thought for a moment. "Imagine an empty quill. Imagine dipping the quil into your well of magic and filling it. Have you got that image in your head, Potter?"

Harry thought hard. He slowly imagined the white quill filling with magical "ink". He could feel his power pulsing and throbbing, but he clamped down on the quill image. Focus. Focus.

"Now speak the spell."

"Scourgify!" Harry cried, remembering to point at the sink.

He felt the magic flow out of his hands and then the water turned on and soap appeared and the dishes began to wash themselves.

"I did it!" He opened his eyes and grinned.

"You did. And it only took you . . .forty minutes." Severus said. "Not bad. As I said, practice makes perfect. You shall wash all the dishes in this manner for weeks and by the time you return to school, you will have mastered this wandless charm as well as a few others I shall teach you."

"I'll be faster next time, sir," Harry said, eager to please his teacher.

"Eventually, yes. You are young to master wandless magic, but I felt you had a natural aptitude for it. It's not something all wizards can do, you should be happy that you managed as well as you did. Most students don't learn wandless magic until they are in sixth year."

Harry was elated. He was determined to master this magic and for once know something that most of his classmates didn't, even Hermione. Suddenly, he felt extremely tired. "Huh? Why am I so tired?"

"Wandless magic takes a lot out of you in the beginning. Come, let us retire to the den."

Harry padded into the den and sank onto the couch.

Severus sat beside him and snapped his fingers. A green vial appeared which he handed to Harry. "Drink this."

"What is it?"

"A Nutrient supplement. You need it. Now drink it."

Harry obeyed. "Ugh! Tastes like rotting vegetables."

Severus handed him a glass of water. "You'll be taking that for a month, after supper each night. You need the extra vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. You're malnourished from your summers and early years."

"Will this help me grow taller?" Harry asked hopefully. He had always hated being shorter than all the boys in his year. Ron towered over him by a foot.

"It may. It will keep you healthy, which is what I need it to do." Severus answered.

Harry made a face. "Why does it have to taste like rubbish?"

"How would you know what that tastes like?" asked Severus sarcastically.

Harry bit his lip and looked away, towards the unicorn portrait.

Snape leaned forward, frowning. "Po—Harry, answer me," he said in a much quieter tone. Harry continued examining the portrait, avoiding Snape's eyes. "Tell me those bloody Muggles didn't—" he broke off and swore furiously.

Harry said in a colorless tone, "Sometimes they kept me in the cupboard for days and then made me cook for them. And when they were out of the kitchen . . .sometimes I was just so hungry . . .I couldn't stand it . . ."

Severus took a few moments to get his temper under control. Then he said, "Sometimes we must do things to survive that might seem shameful, but necessary." He gave the boy's shoulder a squeeze. "Do not think less of yourself. It was not your fault, but rather the fault of those you lived with, who were such greedy bastards they couldn't even leave you a piece of toast or a slice of ham for breakfast."

Harry was silent, shame curling like a snake in his gut.

"That will never happen here," he reassured the boy. "I have plenty of food and you may eat as often as you like. In fact, I think small meals a few times a day would be easier for your system to adjust to." Severus said. Now he wished he had summoned a plague of ants and locusts down upon the Dursleys instead of merely grasshoppers. The more he learned of what they had done, the more sickened he became.

"Can we talk about something else?" Harry asked softly. "Please?"

Severus changed the subject. "I will be making an appointment for you to see an Occular Specialist by the end of the week. I think you need new glasses. How long have you had that same pair?"

Harry shrugged. "Years. But it was either them or be blind."

"You will be getting a new pair. Then perhaps your handwriting will improve, since you can see the paper." Severus said.

"I'd like that. How much would they cost? I have money in my vault."

Severus cut him off with a quick slash of a hand. "No. I shall pay for them. As your new guardian, that is my responsibility."

"Guardian? When . . .when did that happen?" Harry asked, dazed.

Severus smirked. "When your fat uncle signed that piece of parchment this morning. See for yourself." Severus picked up the piece of parchment lying on the table in front of them.

Harry began to read it aloud. "I, Severus Tobias Snape, do hereby claim guardianship of my own free will over one Harry James Potter, until such time as he comes of age at seventeen. I agree to provide my ward with all basic necessities and comforts . . ." When he reached the end, he said, "All that's missing is one signature."

"That's right. Yours. Dursley, that rotting piece of dogshit, signed away his rights to me. Now all that remains is for you to willingly agree and I shall be your guardian instead. Do you wish for that to happen?"

Harry blinked. Asked that same question a week ago and he would have screamed a most emphatic "NO! NEVER!" But since then he had come to see Snape as someone else. Someone who might be able to help him in ways that no one, wizard or Muggle could. And really, what other choice did he have? He would rather die than return to Privet Drive. Or go to some foster home. "Sir, if I signed this, it would mean you would have . . .authority over me."

"Yes, I would be responsible for your wellbeing and discipline," Severus said, then he made one of those eerie jumps of logic and answered Harry's questions before he spoke them. "However, I would never use that authority as those creatures did, to humiliate you or harm you. I swear this by Selene's Grace, child. You will receive no beatings at my hands, or neglect, or starvation. My punishments will consist solely of lectures, chores—like whitewashing that pasture fence—and periods of groundings and restrictions to your room and no flying."

"Oh. Like Ron's parents. Well, sometimes Ron's mum swats him one with her spoon."

Severus chuckled. "When he has tested her patience past bearing, no doubt. But I am not Molly Weasley. When you have pushed me that far, Mr. Potter, I will leave."

"Leave?"

"Leave to calm down," he clarified. "Then return and issue any punishment necessary afterwards. That is one lesson I learned from my bloody father. To not punish in anger."

"But when you give detention at school, you're angry."

"No, Harry. I am exasperated, annoyed, irritated, but you have never seen me angry. Not truly so. Not even that time I caught you sneaking back from Hogsmeade."

"Honest?"

"Yes. Much of how I behaved at school was not . . .real. I play a dangerous game, Mr. Potter."

"I don't understand."

"Someday you will. Do not pry, it is not safe for you to know anymore." Snape told him. "Are those consequences acceptable to you? I am not the easiest person to live with, but you need never fear I will harm you. In return I ask that you make a serious effort to follow my orders, to not whine and sulk, and to keep yourself out of danger as much as possible. Your mother gave her life for you, and you should respect that gift. Your life is not worthless, it matters a great deal."

"To who? The bloody wizarding world?"

"To me. And to your friends. Do not throw it away, Harry James Potter. Selene have mercy if you do, for I swear I shall come to the afterlife and drag you back to the Other Side kicking and screaming and then you shall truly see me in a temper. Am I clear?"

"Yessir," Harry answered. He did not doubt for a moment that Snape could do it. Or that he would. And though Snape's threat was scary, Harry found that it felt good to matter to someone. To matter to an adult. Was this what his friends felt with their own parents? If so, he didn't want to lose it. Not ever.

"Good. You may take a day or two to think on it, and then sign the paper if you wish. There is no rush—" Severus halted because Harry had risen and fetched a quill from the kitchen table and came back and signed the bottom of the parchment.

Then he handed it to Severus. "I trust you, sir. Don't ask me why, but I just . . .do." Now he was safe. Safe at last. He could feel it in his bones. This was where he belonged.

"Thank you," said the other sincerely.

"Will you inform the Headmaster then?"

"I shall. I shall also show him the pictures I took of your former home and maybe that will convince him that you were treated worse than a slave and you are better off anywhere else than there."

"Yes. Will you . . .tell me more about Selene? Hermione told me a little, but I know you know more about her."

"Indeed. What did Miss Granger tell you first?"

"Just that she was an old goddess, the goddess of the moon, and her worshippers wore a crescent moon."

"That is so, but there is much more to Her than that. Listen closely. Back in the days of ancient Egypt, the Egyptians and their mages worshipped Isis, Mother of Magic, and She gave to them many gifts. She taught them to respect the earth and sky and the animals who dwelled there. She gave them Gifts of Foresight and Insight and the ability to change shape, spells to drive back the dark and defend against harm. Above all, She taught them how to be cunning and clever, and fight against Her Dark Opposite—Set the Destroyer, or Apophos. His followers were known as the Hungry Ones, because they were never satisfied, and would destroy all without remorse. In Rome She was worshipped as Selene, the Moon Lady, She of Mysteries, and all wizards there once paid Her homage. After Rome fell, and the barbarians pulled down Her temples and killed Her priestesses, the sorcerers and mystics who still followed Her scattered.

"Some went to France, some went east to China, and some came here, to Britain. Here She became known as the Great Mother and paired with a consort, the Horned God. But She has had many consorts and many names, for all are one. Isis, Ma'at, Selene, Hecate, Persephone, She is at once mother, lover, and wise woman. Eternal. Those who worshipped in the old Roman Way took as their symbol the crescent moon—the Mark of Her favor, and when a person was dedicated to Her service, they were allowed to wear the crescent upon them, or use it to mark their dwellings, so that any who followed Her would know that here was a place of safe haven."

"That's why your door has that window, right?"

"Yes. In this day and age, it is not always wise to be open about worshipping the Mysterious One."

"But you said that Hecate and Persephone were also names for Her. Aren't those, well, evil goddesses? The Queen of the Underworld and the goddess of Dark Magic?"

"Death and life are part of each other, Harry. That is one Aspect of Her. It may not be one we like, but nevertheless, it is there. When She calls you by your soul's name, then you must follow Her to heaven. As for the other, She shares Aspects of Dark as well as Light, as does everything. No dark without light, no night without day. All things opposite, and all things in balance," Snape quoted softly. "I do not worship Her in that Aspect, Harry. That is Her Dark Face, and those that do roam the night unceasing, and curse the rising of the sun."

"You mean like vampires and werewolves?"

"Yes. Vampires worship Hecate, and as for werewolves, they are Selene's lost children, for they bear a curse that can never be broken, and yet in Her mercy She has enabled Wolfsbane potion to be created, so that those who wish it can return to the side of the Light."

"Like Professor Lupin."

"Yes."

"Does . . .does You-Know-Who worship Hecate?"

Severus snorted. "No, if he worshipped any it would have been the god of destruction. The only thing he worships now is himself. He wishes to become divine."

"Is that possible?"

"He thinks it is. And in trying to overthrow Death, he has shattered the Balance. That is why even those who follow Hecate fear him. For he knows no bounds, no honor, nothing save his own whim. He is that deadliest of all creatures—a mad rogue. He must be stopped at all costs."

"By me."

"And me as well. I am pledged to his destruction."

"Then why . . .why were you once a Death Eater?" Harry blurted out before he could think better of it.

Severus' brows drew down sharply. "Who told you that?"

"I . . .I saw it. In a Pensieve in Dumbledore's office. He . . .He told me to look in it, so I could see what happened during the trial of Barty Crouch Jr. Karkaroff was there and he said . . .he said you were a Death Eater. And then Dumbledore said that you were no more a Death Eater than he was now. Were you?"

"In truth, no. There are times when Selene asks Her faithful to do . . .difficult tasks. That was one of them. I agreed to be Her eyes and ears in a dark place, to seek what was hidden. To that end, I pretended to join You-Know-Who. Dumbledore knew this. That was why he vouched for me, and why I was never convicted along with the others." That was the truth, but it was not the whole truth. Once, after Lily had left him, he had flirted with temptation. Angry and hurt, he had almost succumbed to the lure of the dark, and joined them for real. Only one thing had saved him then. Selene's Grace, and her promise that he would never be alone. I shall always be with you, my child. Even into the darkness I shall light your way. Do not step off the path. You are not alone. I am here, and I shall love you always. It was then She had given him a great gift—the shape of the black stallion, Moon Fire.

But now was not the time to discuss that with Harry. That revelation could wait. Though he knew he must reveal his other form before he initiated Harry into the Mysteries.

"You were a spy then."

"Obviously."

Harry ignored the sarcasm. If he had been a spy then, perhaps he also was one now. It would make sense, and fit with what he already knew of the man. But he knew he could not pry answers out of the wizard this time, so he asked instead, "Do you, uh, go to church or something like that?"

"No. There is no formal worship in that way. Those who worship Her are solitary, usually. Or part of a family. She is a very individual goddess, and though Selene had temples in the past, it is not a requirement. She goes wherever the moon travels, veiled in the Mystery of Magic. And once She had chosen you, you are forever changed. And you are never alone. She can be hard at times, even cruel, but She is also compassionate and forgiving. We are all Her children, wizard and Muggle, even those who have strayed from Her teachings."

"Even You-Know-Who?"

"Yes. She has tried repeatedly to call him to Her, but he no longer hears Her. So She has turned Her Bright Face from him. She regrets it, but knows he must be stopped, for he threatens all. And so She summons me to fight him. And you."

"Me?"

"Yes, you."

"But . . .but I don't even know her!" Harry stammered.

"But She knows you. Lily was Her avatar once. The night he came to Godric's Hollow. She called upon Selene and the Lady answered. She gave Lily the ancient magic that protected you from him . . .and it protects you still."

Harry stared. "How . . .how do you know this?"

"I can See it. She set Her Hand upon you," Severus said, his tone a mixture of wonder and utter certainty. "I See it now, but I do not know why I didn't before . . ." He shook his head. Perhaps he had not been meant to see it before, only now when his mind was open and willing to accept the boy before him.

Harry looked down at himself. "I don't see anything different."

"You wouldn't. It isn't visible with the mundane eyes. Not like the scar he gave you. Her Mark is inside, and it is how you survived that curse."

"Dumbledore said it was because my mother loved me."

"Yes, he was right, but not in the way he thought. The Headmaster is not a follower of the Lady. Otherwise he would have seen it long ago and known the truth."

"But I thought he was this great wizard. Everyone says so."

"And do you believe everything everyone says? Even "great wizards" can be blind. Can miss what's right under their nose."

Slwoly, Harry nodded. That was true. For had not Dumbledore missed all the signs regarding him and his . . .abuse at the Dursleys? "What does that mean . . .that She Marked me?"

"It means you are one of Her favored. A rare honor. That you are invited to join us, to become an Initiate, as I am."

"To become a follower of the Moon goddess? But I don't . . .I'm not . . .I don't even believe in Her!"

"Do you believe in magic?"

"Of course."

"Then you believe in Her. She is magic's essence, personified."

"But—"

"Do you believe magic is real?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Then so is She."

"I'm not ready for this," Harry said. He looked almost panicked. Too many things had been thrown at him, he hardly knew what to think.

"All right. I didn't mean to push you this fast." Severus relented. "I shall teach you more about Her tomorrow night. You do not have to commit to anything tonight. Perhaps it might help if you read this."

He rose and walked to the library table, removing a small volume with silver lettering on a black leather cover. It was titled The Path of Mysteries. "This is one of the few books written about Her and what it means to be Her follower. It's a history and a code of sorts. Read it when you have time, after your studies."

Harry tucked it under an arm. "Okay." What could it hurt?

"Now, I would say you should sleep. It's been a long day."

Just then the clock struck nine.

Harry would have protested being sent off to bed like a ten-year-old but once again he discovered that Snape knew him better than he knew himself. For he was tired. His eyes started closing and he yawned despite the early hour. "All right. Good night, Professor."

"Good night, Harry."

He walked slowly up the stairs, suddenly feeling as if he hadn't slept in days. Damn it, how does he do that? Maybe that's another gift from his goddess, Harry thought, a bit peeved.

He undressed and tumbled into sleep like a rock.

Then the dreams began. He was a small child again, locked in his cupboard, alone and frightened, dirty and bruised from where Vernon had cuffed him and Dudley had knocked him in the dirt. He crouched upon the cold floor and cried because he was frightened and hurting and he wanted to be let out. He wanted to be held, the way Aunt Petunia held Dudley, but he was never allowed that, because he was a freak and didn't deserve it. But oh, how he wanted it! I want my mum! Mummy, where are you?

Once there had been a pretty red-haired woman with green eyes who sang to him, and then she became another woman with silvery hair and eyes as dark as midnight, who held him and rocked him. She wore a robe of starspun silk in all colors and none and she whispered, Fear not, beautiful child. I will always be with you, Harry. Always.

He could feel her arms about him, holding him and see how she glowed even in the dark and suddenly he was no longer afraid. Her voice was sweeter than any he had ever heard, pure and true and it soothed and warmed him. She dried his tears and at her touch the bruises vanished and then he slept, knowing that he was safe and that he was not alone.

He woke all at once, and sat up. There was a small sliver of light from the window shining across his bed. He realized it was the moon, three quarters full, and stared out the window. I remember! I remember now! He had had that dream before, many times, when he was thrown into the cupboard. It had always comforted him.

So that was Selene, Snape's Moon Goddess. He closed his eyes, recalling the soft feel of the robes against his skin, and how cool and gentle her hands were, and the smell of nightblooming jasmine that had drifted from her hair. I remember.

A feeling of peace and love washed over him, so strong that he wept a little. Then he opened his eyes and looked out the window again, at the lawn below, drenched in moonlight and for one instant he thought he saw the shape of a black horse running.

He blinked and then it was gone, and he supposed he must have dreamed it, for he was half asleep, and there were no horses here. But just for a moment, the horse had looked like the wild moon stallion that had saved his life.

Don't be ridiculous! He scolded himself. The stallion is at Hogwarts and that's far away from here. You're imagining things. Go back to sleep.

He lay back down and closed his eyes, but sleep did not come. He breathed in and out and counted crescent moons in his head before finally drifting off again and the last sound he heard was not the cry of a nightbird but the drumming of hooves over the earth.

I was going to have Dumbledore and Sev's meeting in this chapter, but changed my mind. I felt it was better to focus upon Snape and Harry here as well as Selene.

Thanks for all the wonderful reviews and I hope you've enjoyed this reality and Snape's home, which is different from anything else I have written.

Chapter 10: Midnight Regrets
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The next morning, Severus rose early, as was his wont, and decided to go and see the Headmaster. Albus would be expecting him and he wished to give the damn old fool a piece of his mind as well as showing him the pictures he had taken with his magical camera as proof that Potter's bloody relatives had been mistreating him. Even Albus would not dare to ignore that evidence. Severus had already caused the camera to develop two sets of prints, one he would keep, just in case, and one that he would show the Headmaster.

Severus knew that Albus was not an evil man, but so fixed upon his own agenda of defeating Voldemort that he became blind to anything that impeded it. Albus was used to calling the shots as Head of the Order of the Phoenix, most of its members were Gryffindors who bloody worshipped the ground he trod, and hardly any of them, save perhaps Minerva, dared to question his dictates. Only Severus did so on a regular basis, for he refused to be anyone's pawn, not even the "greatest" wizard in Britain's. Selene had given him a brain so he could use it, and he was Slytherin enough to take nothing at face value and always see if those in authority had an ulterior motive. He had learned the hard way as a child not to trust male authority figures, and though Albus had never raised a hand or wand to him, Severus still was wary. Whenever he entered the Headmaster's office, he did so with his magic at the ready and his wand up his sleeve, ready to fall into his hand with the briefest flicker of movement. Albus would have probably been shocked, but the habit was ingrained in him, as was his sworn vow to never let another man hurt him the way Tobias Snape had.

As with Harry, Albus had never noticed what Severus tried to hide, not until that fateful day in potions when he had collapsed in a dead faint and been sent to the Hospital Wing. Once Poppy had managed to worm the truth out of him, by using her compassionate logic and her medi-witch scans, she had reported directly to the Headmaster. Albus had been shocked and horrified, and had offered Severus the sanctuary of the school during holidays and the summer. But it was Poppy who had escorted him home and helped him pack his things, and it was she who had cast the Retribution Curse upon Tobias, which caused misfortune and illness to dog the man's footsteps, not enough to kill him, but enough to make him suffer as Severus had suffered. For she too was Selene's disciple, and there was nothing worse to her than the deliberate harm of a child. Especially after Snape's father had attempted to try and manhandle her the way he had Eileen. Healer she might be, but Poppy Pomfrey was nobody's pushover, nor did she flinch from doling out her own brand of justice.

She had earned Severus' respect that day and so it remained. Severus never returned to Spinner's End from then on, and Tobias suffered the curse until he was killed in an automobile accident three years later, driving home from the pub after having one too many for the road. Severus went back long enough to settle his affairs with a solicitor and then he sold the house and used the proceeds from it to start a small mail order potions business, renting a room at the Leaky Cauldron and selling his wares in a local apothecary. Because of the war, his healing potions were in high demand, and soon he had enough Galleons to purchase the horse farm here in Nottingham.

It had been then that he had been approached by both Dumbledore and Selene, and had agreed to be the shadow in the dark, and spy on the Death Eaters, in order to bring about Voldemort's destruction. And Dumbledore had also offered him the position of Potions Master, both to aid in his deception and because he needed a competent Master to replace the retired Slughorn. It was a situation that was mutually beneficent to both of them. Dumbledore gained a window into the actions and motivations and plans of his enemy, intelligence gathered by the best spy he had ever known, and Severus gained a way to fulfill his vow to his goddess and a decent job with time to brew on his days off.

Albus had tried repeatedly to mentor the younger man, but Severus would have none of it. He respected the elder wizard as an employer and leader of the Order of the Phoenix, but other than that he wanted nothing more. Albus had failed to put a stop to the Marauders' bullying of him and had failed to see the abuse he had suffered, forever tarnishing his golden image in the Potion Master's eyes. Let others bow and scrape to the Supreme Mugwump, he refused, for he knew that Dumbledore was as flawed as any man, and the only one he ever bowed his head to was Selene.

Not even Voldemort had ever made him perform anything but lip service, and thus Severus remained unbowed and unbroken, forever wild as the stallion whose shape he bore.

So when he dressed and left Harry asleep upstairs, scrawling a quick note to tell the the boy where he had gone should he wake before Severus returned, he was fully prepared to fight tooth and nail for Lily's son, no matter what. He would not be intimidated and he was immune to the old wizard's charm as well. He had done what was right, not what was easy, and nothing Dumbledore said would change that fact. Or the fact that it had been Dumbledore's decision that had placed Harry with those no-good Muggles in the first place. It was a decision that Snape knew the Headmaster would now live to regret.

He Flooed directly to his office at school, because it was easier doing so than into Albus' office and because he didn't like dropping in on the Headmaster unannounced. One never knew just what Albus might be doing at any given moment, the old man was known for trying out strange and outlandish notions. He had made that mistake only once, a first-year professor, Flooing into the office to ask Albus about a grading rubric and found the old man "taking an air bath" just like the late Benjamin Franklin used to do, with all the windows open and Albus naked as a jaybird. Severus had almost passed out. He had muttered a quick, "Excuse me, sir, I'll come back at a more convenient time," and immediately threw himself back into the Floo. Even now, he still flushed slightly, recalling that incident. Albus merely thought it was amusing, but then he would, having quite a different view upon modesty than Severus.

Then he swept up from the dungeons like a bat out of hell, ignoring the squeaks of students as they scattered out of his way, and to the gargoyle that guarded the Headmaster's inner sanctum. After speaking the password, "Sugar Quills", Snape stepped up on the staircase and was transported to the office door. He knocked twice and waited until he heard Albus acknowledge his presence before stepping inside.

The Headmaster was seated behind his desk, perusing some reports, dressed in his usual flamboyant purple robes, his blue eyes sparkling over his half-moon spectacles. "Ah, Severus! Back from your trip to Muggle suburbia already? How did it go?"

Snape's eyes flashed, suddenly in no mood for the usual jolly attitude Albus displayed. "How did it go?" he hissed. He slapped the photos down atop the papers beneath his employer's nose. "Take a look at those, Headmaster, and then ask me that same question. I did as you required, and left Potter with his relatives, but as I said before, something about them seemed off, so I stayed to look around and observe. That is what I saw."

Dumbledore looked puzzled. "I don't understand, Severus."

"You will. Look closely at the pictures. And keep in mind, these are affluent people, able to afford a decent house, private school for their son, a large car, vacations. Yet that is where they chose to keep their only nephew."

Dumbledore examined the pictures, one by one. "This can't be right," he cried. "You must be mistaken."

"I am not. I saw with my own two eyes the room in which Potter stays in when he's at home. Those were the first pictures I took. The next set shows the room of his cousin, who looks kin to a baby hippopotamus and is just as nasty tempered as a full-grown one. Do you see the locks upon the door to Potter's room, Albus? Locks that belong on a bank vault, not the room of a fourteen-year-old. Do you see the shoddy pitiful furniture, the bed with springs poking out, the cracked shelves? I've seen better on a roadside motel. Now look at this one's room. Bit of a discrepancy, wouldn't you say?"

Snape's voice was sharp, dripping sarcasm.

Dumbledore remained silent for a few moments, his face still and set, his eyes sad. "They favor their own natural son over him. I never thought they would do such a thing."

"No? Why not? That is what most people do—favor their own. Unless they are drunken deadbeats like my sire," Severus said coldly. "And before that, Albus, they put him here—in a cupboard under the stairs." He stabbed a finger at the pictures of the wretched cramped cupboard. "They put a little boy in with the mops and brooms. And do you know why they did such a thing? Because they didn't see him as a person, but a useless magical freak. A slave to do the washing up and the cooking and the scrubbing and yard work. A boy Cinderella."

"Cinderella? I'm not familiar with that reference."

"Look it up in the bloody encyclopedia!" Severus snarled. "Now do you see why he was reluctant to go home? Now do you understand?"

The old wizard paled. "I understand that I was mistaken all those years ago."

"Mistaken! Is that what you call it? You left him on their doorstep like a bottle of milk and never bothered to ask if they wanted another child."

"I left a letter with him, informing Petunia of what happened. She was Lily's sister, she had an obligation to care for him."

Severus made a disgusted noise. "Petunia never gave a damn about Lily. If you knew anything about her, you would have known that. You should have listened to Minerva that night, Albus. She told you they were the worst sort of Muggles."

"She was not speaking from experience, Severus."

"If you had consulted me, I could have told you that I wouldn't put a gnat in the care of bloody Petunia Dursley. I grew up with her, and she hated magic even then. She was always jealous of Lily and me, always sneering and calling us freaks and outcasts. She and Lily parted ways before Lily left Hogwarts, she would have been the last person I would have recommended, Albus. The very last."

"I did not know," the Headmaster muttered feebly.

"Did not know, or did not want to know?" queried Snape silkily.

Albus frowned up at him. "I had to put Harry somewhere safe, it was chaos that night, as I'm sure you'll remember. I had no time to consult anyone. Blood provides the strongest protections there is."

"Only if the relative considers the person part of his or her family. She never did!" Snape argued. "You don't treat your family like trash, Albus! You should have gone back and checked on him afterwards. Why didn't you?"

The old man looked away. "I . . .sent Mrs. Figg. She told me they had taken him in. I assumed he was fine. They should have taken to him, Severus. He was only a baby, and helpless."

"But he was a magical baby, and therefore anathema in their eyes. Do you know what else I learned during my visit, Albus? Listen closely and you will hear how well the Dursleys loved their homeless baby Potter. . . " Snape rasped.

He then told Dumbledore nearly everything Harry had revealed to him. When he was done he noticed that the Headmaster was pale and bloodless, his blue eyes filled with sorrow and regret. "So there you have it. The reason why he never went home for holidays, because to do so would be to walk right back through the gates of hell. Much the same as another boy I once knew."

Albus flinched. "Severus, had I known, had you spoken up sooner, I would have—"

"Would have what? Hexed my father into oblivion like he deserved? Please! Your ethics prevent you from using magic on a Muggle. And I would have never told you anything, just as Potter never did. Want to know why? Because we were conditioned not to, or else we would get it three times as bad. Don't speak, don't tell. Ever. But the signs were there, Albus. They were there and yet you never saw them."

"I . . .I didn't know what to look for."

"With me, no. But I'm not talking about me, Albus. I'm talking about Potter. How could you miss the same thing again?"

"He always seemed so happy . . ."

"Here, he was. But he told me he asked second year if he could stay at school over the summer and you refused. You sent him back there and didn't even ask why. Selene have mercy, Albus!"

The other's eyes flashed. "He had to go back there, Severus Snape! There were blood wards keeping him safe from dark wizards. His mother's sacrifice made it imperative that he live with his family."

Severus laughed once. "The wards will do little if the recipient keyed to them believes he doesn't belong to a family. As for Lily's sacrifice, do you not know that it was not her alone who deflected the Killing Curse? She called upon the Lady and Selene answered. It was Selene who caused the spell to rebound upon He-who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

"You see your goddess' Hand in everything. It was Lily's love that protected Harry."

"If that is so, if a mother's love is so powerful, then why didn't it save all the rest of those children the Dark Lord murdered? He killed hundreds of children, while their parents watched! I know . . .I was there . . .I saw . . .their mothers begged him for mercy, they offered themselves for their children, they died for them . . .but none of their children survived the Killing Curse. Are you saying that Lily's love was so much greater than theirs? They were witches too, some of them. With their dying breath, they tried to save their children with magic. Yet they failed." Snape pointed out chillingly. "Your theory is flawed, Headmaster. Lily was an avatar that night, and that is why Potter lived. Because She Marked him for her own."

"How do you know that? He bears a lightning bolt, not the crescent."

"His Mark is not visible on the outside. It is within. I can See it, it shines like a beacon to my Magesight. You could See it too if you looked."

"Then why did you not See it before?" challenged Albus.

"Because I, too, was blind," Severus admitted. "In any case, you now have proof that Potter is being mistreated, and after what I had seen, I acted upon my discretion and removed him from there."

"But Severus, the blood wards!"

"Are null and void!" Severus growled, aggravated at the other's stubbornness. "They were abusing him, Albus, did you just expect me to stand there and watch it happen?"

"No, but you should have consulted me first."

"As you said to me before—there wasn't time."

"Where is Harry now?"

"Safe. In my home."

"Severus, you cannot keep him there."

"Like hell I can't."

"Now Severus, be reasonable, you're my spy, how would it look if you were to be seen taking in Harry Potter?"

"No one knows I have done that, Albus," Severus said through gritted teeth. "No one but you. And you will not be running to tattle on me to the Dark Lord, I hope?"

"Severus, you cannot possibly protect him adequately. My blood wards are the strongest protection—"

"To the bloody abyss with your blood wards, Albus!" Severus cried, his temper slipping its leash. "I am his guardian, Dursley signed him over to me and Potter agreed willingly. See for yourself!" he removed the guardianship document from his pocket and shoved it at the other wizard.

Albus' jaw dropped. "You . . .are Harry's guardian?" He rubbed his eyes. "I am not certain I'm not dreaming."

"You're awake. You wouldn't be half this irritating asleep," Severus growled.

A shrewd gleam crept into the Headmaster's eyes. "Well, well. Who would have thought? And here I figured you would carry your resentment of James' son to your grave."

Severus ignored that dig. "I am sworn to his protection. Like me, he is Selene's Chosen. And who better to look after him now than me, Her initiate?"

"Harry does not worship, Selene, Severus. I forbid you to convert him."

"Forbid, Albus? You cannot forbid me anything, and I do not need to convert him. He will come to Her willingly or not at all, like the rest of us did. Why does it bother you?" Severus frowned. Albus had always been skittish about religion, the professor did not know what deity he worshipped, or even if he worshipped any.

"I fear he will come to depend upon Her, like a crutch. That is the trap of religion." The Headmaster murmured.

"A trap? Oh, Albus, you know nothing about Selene if that's what you think. She does not trap, She frees. And just because you call upon Her doesn't mean She answers you. She's not a dog. I have served Her since I was thirteen and my will is still my own. My choices are still my own. She takes none of that away. She gives me courage in dark places and when I stand before that beast in human shape, I know that She stands beside me, always. How do you think I have endured for so many years without going insane?"

"You're a natural Occlumens. And strong-willed."

"That is not enough. I draw my strength from Her, Albus. And thus I am able to keep my promise." Snape's mouth tightened. "Harry stays with me, Albus. He will never return to those . . .Muggles. I have called the plagues down upon them for what they have done, and I gave him my word that he would never see Privet Drive again. I will not be foresworn."

Albus looked startled and then pleased. "You called the Moon Lady's vengeance upon them?"

"Yes. They suffered the seven plagues of Egypt, more or less."

"Including the last?"

"The death of the firstborn? Don't be ridiculous. I am no dark wizard, to kill a child. Though after what I did, they may wish themselves dead," said Severus, his voice throbbing with satisfaction.

"Good. I cannot say I feel sorry for them," Dumbledore said, his tone an echo of Snape's. "Though I would have preferred Muggle justice be involved."

"My way was quicker. The boy could not bear to be in that house more than a night. Nor would he have trusted Muggle police to tell them the truth." Severus leaned forward upon the desk. "After seeing that and hearing what I told you, tell me that you wouldn't have done the same, Albus."

The blue eyes hardened. "I may have done worse. It was never my intention to have Harry hurt, I thought Petunia would take better care of him, I thought it safer for him to grow up away from the wizarding world. When I saw him for the first time in the Hall, I did think he was small for his age, but I figured that was just how he was, I never thought they were starving him. I never thought to ask Mrs. Figg to go inside the house." He grimaced, looking weary and old. "I have failed him badly. All this time I thought he was being treated like any other child, and instead it was the opposite. There is nothing I can do to change it, and I don't know if he will ever forgive me for it."

Severus could hear the regret in the other's tone and breathed a sigh of relief. "There is one thing you may do."

"What is that?"

"Apologize to him for your poor decision and then let him live with me, as he has chosen. My home is well guarded, trust me on that. No Death Eater even knows where it is and none have ever breached the wards. You do not even know where it is. Harry will be safe there. And also happy."

Albus sighed. "Very well, Severus. You have twisted my arm. I shall allow him to remain with you, as you are his guardian now. I hope you may be able to undo some of the damage the Dursleys inflicted. For if you cannot, than no one can."

"He will recover. I did. It simply takes time."

"You would know best," the other conceded regretfully. He stared down at the pictures numbly, the pictures of a broken childhood, and so missed entirely the startled look upon the Potion Master's face. It was rare that Dumbledore admitted he was wrong, but apparently finding out the truth about Harry's home life had shaken him badly. "I wish you luck, Severus. Poor child. I shall give him time to settle in and then come for a short visit. Perhaps in a week?"

"That would be fine. Send me a letter beforehand and I shall write back and send you a charm to get past my wards." Severus conceded. He removed the guardianship paper and the photos from the desk. "I will go and file this at the Ministry. Augusta Longbottom works in Records, she will be discreet about it."

"I could do that and save you the trouble," Albus offered.

"No, that is quite all right." Severus declined. Though Albus had seemed to accept the guardianship, he still did not trust the man to not throw a monkey wrench into the gears, and losing the document would foul up his claim considerably. He was not about to let that happen. Things that inconvenienced his plans had a way of "disappearing" off of Dumbledore's desk, and Severus knew he would not have been the other's choice to look after the hero of the wizarding world. Albus would have much preferred one of his loyal Gryffindors, instead of his argumentative, independent, Moon-worshipping Slytherin. "Good day, Headmaster. I shall see you in a week."

"Goodbye, Severus." Albus responded, though the twinkle was gone from his eyes. "Oh, and Severus, I am truly sorry. For everything."

"Now is too late for regrets, Albus. What's done is done," was all he replied. Then he left the office in a swirl of black robes, feeling extremely satisfied. For once he had managed to get the jump on the wily old coot and outmaneuver him.

One week later:

Severus had taken Harry to get his new glasses earlier than planned, as the Occular Specialist had had a cancellation. Harry had gone disguised by a Disillusionment Charm cast by his guardian, one that lightened his hair to nondescript brown, changed his eyes to hazel, erased his scar and gave him tanned skin and a rounder face. He was introduced as a student whose parents had died recently, an Ernest Brown.

"Ernest Brown?" Harry had protested. "You couldn't come up with something better?"

"Better than what?"

"Something cooler?"

"This is not about being "cool", as you put it, young man. It's about blending in. Do you want new glasses or not?"

"Yes."

"Then shut up and stop whining."

That was the end of that conversation. The visit went well, however. Harry walked out with a brand new pair of rimless glasses, made of shatter and glare proof magical glass. They also were scratch resistant and doubled as sunglasses when needed. He loved them, but nearly fell over when the occulist announced the price. Over two hundred Galleons! Severus wrote him a bank note.

"You didn't have to do that, sir," were the first words out of his mouth once they had arrived home.

"Do what? Buy you adequate glasses so I don't have to squint and ruin my eyes trying to decipher your awful scrawl, Potter? Or perhaps you think I like trying to figure out whether the blob on the paper is a word, a letter, or an obscene picture?"

Harry blushed. He had a point. "Uh . . .no, sir. It's just I . . ." He trailed off, digging his foot into the floor. How could he explain the fact that no one had ever gotten him anything because he really needed it and not expected something in return?

"As your guardian, it's my responsibility to provide you with necessities," Severus said calmly. "Those are one. Now you no longer have the excuse of not seeing to be able to read all your assignments and do them correctly, boy." He reminded his charge with a smirk. "You can begin on your summer homework now."

Harry groaned. He should have seen that coming. "How far do I have to get?"

Severus' eyebrow went up. "Negotiating? Read the first chapter of my assignment and then Herbology. That should take you an hour and a half at most. Then we shall have a small snack and I shall take you with me into Sherwood and introduce you to the forest."

Harry nodded. "Okay, sir." He half-ran up the stairs, pausing almost to the top and calling over his shoulder belatedly, "Thank you, professor."

Snape grunted, then added, "Read the words, Mr. Potter and comprehend them. No skimming!"

Harry bit back another sigh, but he went and got his books from the bookshelf Severus had given him and flopped on his bed to read.

The assignments weren't as bad as he feared and he was done with them fifteen minutes early.

After a snack, they headed out to the forest, which Severus explained had two sides to it—the mundane one that everyone could see and walk in, and the magical one that only wizards could enter.

It was cool and filled with life, the trees in the full bloom of their greenery, and Harry took in great gulps of air that felt as pure and pristine as heaven itself. Snape paused about ten minutes into the trees and laid his hand upon a venerable oak, one that had large gnarled roots and many intersecting branches. "Come here, Harry. Let the Ancient One know you."

Harry frowned. How could a tree know him? "Sir?"

"Place your hand on the oak."

Harry did so. He felt the rough bark beneath his fingers and wondered what was so special about it. Then he felt a tingle and sudden warmth spread up his arm and he could feel the tree's sap running, warm and thick and ancient. He could feel the rustle of the wind through the branches and the way the sunlight hit the leaves, which drew the sweet hot energy into itself and fed it all the way through the trunk and down to the roots nestled deep within the nourishing soil. He could sense the pulse of the land, ancient and unwavering, that counted time but lightly. And he could feel a presence, feel the wood eyeing him, the way you would a curious new visitor.

He gasped, and then felt the wood glance aside. There was no danger in this one. Power, but no evil.

Harry opened his eyes. "What was that, Professor Snape?"

"That was the heart of Sherwood Forest. Since it has acknowledged and accepted you, it is safe for you to enter it for brief periods. Come, I need to gather several specimens of moss and a creeper vine."

Harry followed his professor deeper into the trees, looking about eagerly. He could sense the magic in this place, it was ancient, as old as the Forbidden Forest, but not as dark feeling. Severus walked swiftly, he was clearly familiar with the paths they trod, and Harry had to trot to keep up with the man's long legged strides.

Even so, he managed to catch a glimpse of a glitter quail, a golden plumaged bird with a glittering silver tail, scurrying into the undergrowth, a balck squirrel, and he swore for a moment he saw a slender girl's face peeping out from behind a tree. She had green skin and reddish hair and golden eyes and she grinned and winked before vanishing.

"Professor Snape? Are there . . .girls that live in the forest?" he asked uncertainly.

The professor halted. "Girls?"

"Well, you see, just as we went by that big oak tree, I thought I saw a girl's face, only she was green and had red hair like fire."

"A dryad. That's what you saw," Severus said. "They live in the oaks and maples and ash trees here. They won't harm you, but don't let them kiss you."

"Kiss me?"

"Yes, dryads have a . . .fondness towards human males. Especially young ones. They like to take them for mates, since there is no such thing as a male dryad."

"There isn't? But why?"

"That is just how it is. So they look for likely humans."

Harry gulped, reddening spectacularly. "But I'm . . .I'm too young to be . . .uh . . .a dad!"

Severus chuckled wickedly. "Not to a dryad. They prefer men between sixteen and twenty. Young and handsome and easy to enchant."

"Enchant?"

"Yes. They say a dryad's song can bring a man to forget his own name and family for a time, and when she sings to call a mate to her for a night or two . . ."

"But what if I don't want to be her m-mate, sir?"

"After you heard her singing, Potter, you wouldn't mind at all." Snape was very amused, his dark eyes twinkling almost like the Headmaster's.

"Have they ever . . .I mean have you ever . . .heard them singing . . .?"

"Once or twice. But I was careful to stop my ears with beeswax plugs. That's one way of defeating their song."

"What's another way?"

"To fall in love with a girl of your choosing. A dryad's song will not affect a man whose heart belongs truly to another. The enchantment cannot break the bond of love."

"Oh." Harry said. Then he asked, "Professor, do you have any of those earplugs?"

Snape's mouth twitched and he made an odd sound.

It took Harry a minute before he realized the dour wizard was actually chuckling. "You won't need them today, apprentice. It's not the right season for a dryad to seek a mate. Like the trees, dryads seek mates in autumn."

"They do? So I'm . . .safe?"

Snape nodded.

Harry glared at him. "You knew that all along!" he accused. "And you let me think . . .that I might be . . ." He blushed furiously. "You're so . . .so . . .bloody . . ."

"Careful, Potter. You don't want to find out how long it takes to whitewash a fence, do you? Or how bad cod liver oil tastes, now do you?" warned the professor, his tone hard.

Harry froze. He shook his head rapidly.

"I thought not. Come, the grove isn't far now." He beckoned the sullen teenager onward, saying softly, "And here I thought you Gryffindors possessed a sense of humor."

The boy followed, his pride smarting a little, but then he realized that Snape had been teasing him, and his astonishment at that discovery made him grin in spite of himself.

They spent the afternoon gathering blue ferns and greenwood moss and seed pods, plus the cuttings from a wandering lavender ivy. Severus made Harry sketch each new plant in a notebook he Summoned, writing down their properties and how they were used in potions. Thus began his lessons in summer potion-making.

Severus also showed him where wild onions and carrots grew and how to gather them, as well as walnuts and fresh blackberries. "The forest provides food if you know where to find it, so you will never starve."

That night they feasted upon a fresh salad, bread, fish fillets, and a blackberry compote with ice cream.

Harry then washed the dishes using wandless magic again, it took him only thirty-five minutes to focus himself this time. Then they played a rousing game of Wizard Chess before Harry nodded off over the pieces and Severus shook him and told him to go to bed.

That set the tone for the rest of the week, until Friday arrived, and Harry had just emerged from the shower and was coming down to breakfast when he heard Severus talking to someone below. He peered over the railing and saw Dumbledore standing in front of the fireplace, holding a newspaper in his hand and looking rather grave.

Harry paused as he came down the stairs, wondering what the Headmaster was doing here. Had he come to yell at Severus for taking Harry away from Privet Drive? Harry bit his lip, hoping he hadn't caused the professor to get into trouble. It would not be a good thing if Snape were sacked for helping him.

" . . .shall you tell him, or shall I?" asked Dumbledore quietly, but the sound carried in the wide open area and Harry heard every word clearly.

"Albus, as it was you who came here to speak with him anyhow, you may as well tell him all of it," Severus replied testily. "I am tired of being the crow all the time, delivering ill news."

"Very well."

Harry moved then, making enough noise so the two men turned to face the stairs. "Tell me what?"

He winced as his voice echoed loudly and there came an annoyed screech from Hedwig upstairs on her perch. Ron had sent her back at the beginning of the week, along with a letter that said he hoped Harry was okay wherever he was. "Sorry, Hedwig," Harry called.

"Harry, come here and greet Professor Dumbledore properly," Severus ordered. "He wishes to discuss something with you."

"Hello, Harry. I hope you're doing well," Dumbledore said, smiling at him.

"Hello, Professor. I'm fine now."

"Good, I'm glad to hear it. I trust Professor Snape has been treating you well?"

"He has, sir," Harry said. He eyed the other wizard warily. "Much better than my relatives did."

Dumbledore winced at the bitter note in the boy's tone. "I am sorry for that, Harry. I never thought they would treat you so."

The young wizard's eyes flashed. "You could have asked. I told you I didn't want to go back there."

Dumbledore looked ashamed. "You are right. Instead I assumed that you simply were having too much fun at school with your friends, like your father used to—" he shot a look at Severus, who snorted loudly. "I cannot tell you how sorry I am that I did not recognize what you were trying to tell me and do something about it. It is something I should have been aware of." He met the boy's eyes then. "Can you forgive me for it?"

Harry thought about it. He was silent for a long moment. The damage had already been done. Did it make sense to resent the other for it now? Still, he did feel resentment and anger over Dumbledore's blindness. He could have been spared so much misery if the old wizard had seen the signs. He stared up into the blue eyes and saw the regret written in them. Sure, you regret it now. He felt the resentment coil within him, into a cold knot. "I'll have to think about it, sir."

Dumbledore exhaled, looking unhappy. "I understand. I erred badly in thinking that your Muggle family would accept you without reservations. And now, I'm afraid, I must tell you some other depressing news."

"Like what?" Harry asked, feeling a sharp frission of fear shoot down his spine. "I won't . . .you won't make me leave here, will you?" He unconsciously edged closer to Severus, who reached out and put a hand upon his shoulder.

"No, Harry. Professor Snape is your guardian now, and you are his ward. Please, come and sit down."

Harry followed Dumbledore to the couch and sat, a sick feeling stirring in his stomach. "What is it? What's happened? Is it Ron? Or Hermione?"

"No, your friends are fine. It's your aunt and uncle and cousin. I went by their house today and found it borded up and some odd yellow and black tape across the door and lawn. A neighbor told me what had happened, and then I found a copy of the local paper in town. Here. It's best if you read it for yourself." He handed Harry the paper.

Harry took it and read the following headline.

Family Found Dead in Home. Cause of Death Unknown, Nephew Missing. No Sign of Foul Play. Police Baffled.

Harry felt his stomach start to churn. They were dead. The Dursleys were dead. He slid his eyes from the newspaper to Dumbledore. "They're . . .dead."

"I am very sorry, Harry. I know they were not kind to you, but still . . ." He went to put a hand upon Harry's shoulder.

Harry flinched away. "How . . .did they die? Was it by magic?"

"I fear so. I had one of our people examine the bodies at the morgue," said the Headmaster. "Harry . . .there's no easy way to say this . . ." He paused, looked over at Severus, who was standing off to one side, face expressionless.

"Tell him, Albus. He deserves to know the truth."

Dumbledore sighed. "As you wish." He turned back to Harry. "They were killed by the Killing Curse. After they were tortured with the Cruciatus. It is my theory that Death Eaters came there seeking you and when they didn't find you . . .they wouldn't have believed your relatives saying they didn't know where you were, so they . . .tried to get them to talk . . .Harry, you are not to blame yourself for this—"

Harry's mind whirled. He could not quite grasp all the Headmaster was saying, but one thing was perfectly clear. The Death Eaters had come for him and killed the Dursleys in his stead. As much as he had hated them at times, and feared his uncle's wrath, he had not wanted them dead. Not that way. Not tortured to death by dark wizards.

He was on his feet then, his insides a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. "How is it not my fault? They came because of me. What happened to the protections?"

"They fell when Vernon repudiated you," Dumbledore said. "In truth, they had not been working well for some time because of how they treated you. I was not aware of it until—"

"There seems to be a lot you weren't aware of!" Harry cried angrily. Then he whirled and ran past them, heading out the back entrance.

"Harry!" Dumbledore called, and made as if to follow.

Snape put out a hand and halted him. "Let him go, Albus. Leave him be. He won't go far."

"Severus, he's upset—"

"I know and he wishes to be alone right now. I will go find him later." Severus said. "For now, how about a cup of tea and some scones?"

"Thank you, but no. I must be on my way. I have a meeting with the Minister." He looked across the room and out the large bay window. "Poor boy. So much for him to bear."

Indeed. And whose fault is that? Severus thought darkly.

Some twenty-five minutes later, Severus walked out across the back pasture, a small bundle tucked under his arm. He was not wearing his customary black robes that morning, because he was not brewing, and so was only dressed in ordinary khaki slacks and a long sleeved lightweight shirt colored a marine blue. It was warm out and the sun peeked from an array of fluffy clouds cautiously.

He found Harry at the edge of the pasture, beneath an old beech tree, sitting with his knees drawn up and his head down. He almost appeared to be asleep. But Severus knew better. "Harry."

At his name, he lifted his head. His face was pale and there was a smudge of dirt on one cheek. His glasses were awry and the eyes behind them were filled with a helpless regret and anger. "What? Is it time for lessons? I'm not in the mood."

"I thought perhaps we'd start with breakfast."

"Not hungry."

Severus dug a familiar vial out of a pocket of his trousers. "At least drink this."

Harry made no move to accept the Nutrient Suppliment. "Can't. Stomach hurts."

"That's because you need something in there. Take it." He proferred the vial again.

Harry batted it away. "No! You want me to sick up all over you?"

In answer, the Potions Master removed yet another vial from his pocket, this one containing a white milky potion. "Take this first and you won't get sick."

Harry shook his head.

Exasperated, the professor snapped, "Mr. Potter, take the damn potion. It won't harm you. Or do you like feeling as if your stomach is going to heave itself out of your throat at any moment?"

"No."

"Then quit acting like a baby, or else I will treat you like one."

Hearing the warning in the other's tone, Harry took both vials, downing them one after the other, so quickly he choked.

Severus tilted his head up and rubbed his back till he had stopped sputtering. "Trying to drown yourself will not help you, foolish boy," he scolded gently. "It will not change the fact that they are gone."

He seated himself on the ground next to the boy, one hand resting casually upon his bent left knee. "The Headmaster was right, you know. Blaming yourself is fruitless. There was no way you could have known what would happen. None of us predicted that the Death Eaters would come to Privet Drive."

"I know that. But still . . ."

"Look at me." he waited until Harry had done so, then said, "You are not responsible for the actions of others. The Death Eaters have killed and tortured Muggles before this. They take pleasure in such things. Had you been there, you could not have prevented it. You could only have suffered along with them."

"They might not have been attacked if I was there," Harry began.

"Don't be an idiot! I told you, Death Eaters hurt Muggles for sport. They would have killed two birds with one stone. Blame them, not yourself." He gave the boy a slight shake.

Sudden tears filled the emerald eyes. Angrily, Harry swiped them away. He would not cry for the Dursleys. He wouldn't. "I don't even know why I . . .I feel like this. They hated me. They couldn't wait till I was gone off to Hogwarts. They never wanted me. They hurt me and thought I was some kind of freak. They never acted like my real family. I used to wish Uncle Vernon run over by a car lots of times. So why do I care now that they're gone? They would be throwing a party if it were me lying there dead. I never loved them . . .never! So why do I feel this way?" He turned away abruptly, sniffling hard.

Severus handed him a handkerchief. "Why do you feel remorse and regret? Because you are a better person than they, Harry. You know what my father did to me. He died when I was seventeen, killed in an auto accident. He was drunk. When I first heard the news I was stunned. It hardly seemed real. The nemesis of my childhood, the boogeyman, was gone. I need never fear going home or seeing his face again. I was finally free. I was glad the bastard was dead. Yet when I went to the funeral, and stood over his grave, intending to spit on it and curse him, do you know what I did?"

"No."

"I wept. A few tears. I cried for that son of a bitch. Do you know why?"

"No."

"Because I had lost my last chance to try and mend things with him. Even though I loathed him, even though I hated and feared what he had done to me, there was still a part of me that wanted him to recognize me as his son. Not even love me. Just accept that I was his and acknowledge me as a person. That was all. It was not something I realized consciously. But it was there, just the same. It never would have happened. The bastard would have sooner spit on me. I knew that here." Severus tapped his temple. "But here—"he placed a hand over his heart. "—I still hoped. Maybe someday, a miracle would occur. But then he died . . .and with him died my hope. I stood there, at his grave, and I hated him and I loved him. And I wept for what might have been and now never would be."

He placed his other arm lightly about the young wizard's shoulders.

He felt the boy stiffen for a brief moment. Then Harry relaxed.

Harry kept his face averted, trying to pretend the tears slipping down his cheeks were sweat, or raindrops, because he didn't give a damn that Vernon was gone, who had beaten him black and blue, or Petunia, who had pinched him and starved him and called him an unnatural freak, or Dudley who had tormented him unmercifully and then laughed afterwards when Harry got in trouble at home.

"They never loved me," he whispered harshly, the words like acid on his tongue.

More tears fell.

"But I used to wish they did. And sometimes . . .sometimes I still do."

There was silence for a moment. Harry shut his eyes. Severus was right. His tears were not for them, but for himself, and for what should have been, had they not been selfish coldhearted beasts.

"I know," came the soft answer. The hand on his shoulder patted him awkwardly.

It felt good. He turned and leaned his head tentatively upon Severus's arm, breathing in the scent of the other. It was pleasant, a sort of sandalwood and herb smell, mixed with cloth, and that uniquely male essence. It eased the guilt and regret. He pressed his nose into the other's shoulder, cheek resting upon that lean muscle and he was not afraid. He should have been afraid. Snape was an adult male, strong enough to wallop him from here to China, physically or magically. Yet here he was, trustingly leaning against the man. It was unbelievable. As unbelievable as him crying for the Dursleys.

Yet it had happened.

They remained that way for a long time, until Severus' arm grew numb and Harry's stomach growled and complained, reminding him that he needed to eat now.

Harry shifted, he was drowsy and comfortable, he didn't want to move, but hunger won out. He lifted his head and met Snape's eyes. "I think breakfast would be good now."

The professor smirked. "Your stomach agrees." He shifted too, and reached for the package lying beside him. "Here. I believe these belong to you."

Harry took the package and opened it. Inside were the Marauders Map and his Invisibility Cloak. "You're giving them back to me?"

"I said I would, didn't I? The week is up. But mark me, Mr. Potter. If you use them to break school rules again and I catch you, I shall confiscate them indefinitely. The cloak especially. That should be used only in an emergency, not for foolish pranks or some bit of idiotic mischief. Think before you act. Understood?"

"Yes, sir." He hugged the bundle to him. His stomach rumbled noisily.

Severus rose and extended a hand. "Come up from there, Harry. It's almost noon, so perhaps we ought to have brunch instead, before you expire."

Harry took the long-fingered hand in his own and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet. Before he could move, the professor had turned him about and was brushing off the back of him. "You've got something against grass?" he asked cheekily.

"No. But it belongs outside," answered the professor. He turned away and started back towards the house.

Harry followed, swiping his eyes one last time with the handkerchief, then tucking it in his pocket. The Dursleys had been awful people, but he regretted their deaths, deserved though they might have been. Or at least, he regretted what might have been. He sighed, and wondered how long he would be carrying around that ghost, before it finally left him in peace?

Severus glanced back once, then reassured that Harry was indeed following, started up the porch steps. He knew he would have to reveal his Animagus form soon, the full moon was but two weeks away and he would have liked to initiate Harry into the Mysteries by then. Providing the boy was willing to accept Selene and the fact that his guardian was also the black stallion Moon Fire. He could only hope that Harry would forgive him his deception and understand the reasons behind it.

But that could wait. He had a starving child to feed, and he knew that a teenager's stomach waited upon no man . . .or wizard either.

Hope you all liked the conversation and what followed here.

I hope it wasn't confusiing, shifting time periods like that, but I wanted to show the backstory of what was happening with Harry and Severus before moving on to the Dursleys' deaths.

When do you think Severus should tell Harry about his being Moon Fire?

Chapter 11: Midnight Confession
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"Harry! Harry, wake up!"

He felt something shake his shoulder, and thought it was the wind that had fanned the flames . . .flames that wreathed the house in lurid yellow, orange, and blue. Crackling and snapping, they consumed everything within, and through the roar of the flames he could hear them screaming . . .screaming in agony for him to save them.

"Harry! You're having a nightmare, wake up!"

Again came the wind, shaking, shaking . . .He put an arm out for balance, so he wouldn't fall out of the tree he had climbed . . .and felt it connect with something hard.

"Potter!"

That voice he knew. He abruptly came back to himself and opened his eyes.

Only then did he realize where he was. He was in bed, in Snape's house, which was not on fire, his relatives were not screaming and being burnt alive, the wind he had felt had been his guardian's hand shaking his shoulder, and . . .he saw Severus clutching his nose and swearing under his breath.

Horrified, Harry looked at his hand. He couldn't have . . .hit Severus, could he?

He reached out and jammed on his new glasses. The room came back into focus, as did his guardian, who was now applying what looked like a wet washcloth to his slightly swollen nose, which had a trickle of blood running from it.

Harry cringed, panic shooting through him. Merlin help me, but I am dead! I . . .I punched him. Oh, God. This is it. I'm going to be kicked out into the street. After he beats me senseless. How could I do that? How?

He huddled upon the bed, quaking, unable to move, waiting for Snape to look at him.

When the other wizard did so, he flinched as if Severus had slapped him. "I'm sorry, sir! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to . . .please, don't kill me . . .it was an accident. I'm sorry!"

Severus stared at the shaking boy for an instant, then said quietly, "Harry, calm down. I'm aware it was an accident. I'll live. Stop apologizing."

It was a moment before Harry could stop babbling and hear what his guardian had just said. "You're not . . .mad? You're not going to whack me one?"

Snape rolled his eyes. "Honestly, boy, if I wanted to "whack you one", I would have done it already. Did I not say that I would never raise a hand to you?"

"Yes, but . . .I hurt you!"

"You were dreaming. It was a reflex. I should have ducked sooner." He pulled the cloth from his nose. The bleeding had stopped. Severus' mouth twitched into a lopsided smile. "You pack quite a punch asleep, young one. I haven't had anyone hit me like that since your father—" he halted. Damn, now why had he mentioned James Potter?

"My dad hit you? Why?"

"Never mind that."

Harry hung his head. "I'm sorry I woke you up."

Severus shook his head. "No need to apologize again. This isn't the first time I've been woken up by a student having a nightmare. Though usually they're first years who wake me, frightened and homesick, because they've never been away from home before."

"Oh. What . . .what do you do with them?" Harry mumbled, almost afraid to find out.

"What do you think I do with them, Potter? Beat them?" The Potions Master sighed. "I bring them a glass of warm milk laced with Dreamless Sleep and talk to them for a bit. Would you like me to try it on you?"

Harry thought about it. "I guess . . ."

"Suppose you tell me what you dreamed and I shall prepare the milk with the potion? If you wish to drink it, it will be there. If not, I can save it for another night."

Harry bit his lip. He didn't want to seem like a whiny little baby or an idiot in front of Severus, all upset over a dream. "Promise you won't laugh?"

"Do I look like I'm amused?"

"No." He looked down at his sheets, which were tangled all about his legs. He squirmed, trying to untangle himself.

Severus flicked his wand.

The sheet suddenly unwound themselves and flattened out, coming to rest smoothly atop Harry's knees. "There. Much better. Well, are you going to talk? I have found that helps to sort out things."

Harry hesitated. "Err . . .but, if I tell you my dream, will you tell me what you meant before . . .about my dad hitting you?"

"Midnight confession time, is it? Humph!" the older wizard sounded annoyed as he pulled up a chair and sat down, but Harry saw no real irritation in the obsidian eyes. "Very well. Begin."

Harry cleared his throat and then described what he had dreamed. "I was flying my broom and all of a sudden I was in front of the house on Privet Drive. I went to turn around and all of a sudden, the house just . . .caught on fire . . .it was burning like . . .like wildfire . . .flames were shooting out of the windows and everything . . .I tried to fly down to help, but the flames were too hot. Then a wind came and knocked me off my broom and I fell into a tree . . ."

While he talked, Severus listened and also Summoned a glass of milk which he heated with a Warming Charm and added a small amount of honey and a dose of Dreamless Sleep, then stirred it gently and left it sitting upon the nightstand, where Harry could reach it.

Harry's eyes flicked to it and then back to his teacher, who was wearing a silk bed robe of green with a silver snake on it and leather slippers. Harry was glad he had not made Severus' nose bleed on to the silk robe, for blood was the devil to get out of clothes.

" . . .they were dying and I couldn't save them, I could hear them screaming . . . then I woke up."

"That is not surprising, considering what you just learned today. As I said before, your regret over their deaths will take a long time to heal."

"Will it ever?"

"Yes, in time."

The boy heaved a gusty sigh. He didn't like that answer. He wanted the stupid nightmares and guilt to fade now. Sometimes he wished he were more like Dudley, who had never cared about anything except his stomach and video games. Instead he got stuck with a conscience and a guilt complex. Go figure! But then he recalled the bargain that Snape had made and he eyed the tall wizard expectantly. "I guess so. Now will you tell me about my dad?"

"If you insist. Though I warn you, you will probably not like what you are about to hear. No doubt you have been told that he was a great Quidditch star and a hero," A sneer morphed its way onto Severus' face. "I am sure your . . .godfather Black told you about his days as a Marauder, roaming the school casting hexes upon students, though they called them pranks, most of them were not designed to be funny, like the Weasley twins, but humiliating and painful. The only ones who found them funny were the Marauders most times. You already know of the incident at the Shrieking Shack, which was the stupidest and most deadly of all their so-called jokes."

Harry nodded. Suddenly he was beginning to regret he had ever asked. Clearly this was a bitter subject for the other and he almost told Snape to forget it, to let the past remain in the past. He knew that he would hardly care to discuss all the torments Dudley and his gang had put him through. But curiosity reared its head, and he kept silent.

Snape went on. "The Marauders, as I and some other unfortunate students knew them, were not mere pranksters, but bullies. And James Potter led them. He was like your cousin, rich, popular, and full of himself. Unlike him, Potter was also handsome, and girls tended to drool like imbeciles over him. He charmed half his professors with his rogue manners, and they tended to look the other way when it came to his little pranks. He tended to target those like myself, who were Slytherins, bookworms, or both. We had never gotten along, and soon it became an outright war between us. But I had only one friend I trusted to watch my back, and it was for that he detested me most of all. Do you know who that friend was?"

"My mother?"

"Yes. Your mother was my best friend. That horrified certain people, especially your father and godfather. That a Gryffindor girl would dare to be friends with a slimy Slytherin. They thought she was "too good" for me and tried many times to get her to abandon me. But Lily refused, and it irritated the hell out of Potter. Your mother and I were very much alike. We both loved potions, though she was also excellent in Charms. I was just as good in Herbology, and so we complimented each other. It was I who introduced her to the magical world when we were seven and later I also told her about Selene, the Moon Lady. My mother initiated us both into Her Mysteries when we were thirteen.

"Now, if you've been reading the book I gave you, you should remember that though no formal worship is necessary, there are certain times in the lunar cycle where you may ask Her blessing and She may come to you and grant it. Mostly at the first rising of the full moon. Soon after we became initiates, my mother grew ill. We had returned to school then, so I didn't know how bad it was, though I feared the worst. Madam Pomfrey was a good friend of hers and she told me my mother was sick and would need an extended stay in St. Mungos. I was petrified, and decided to go into the forest on the next full moon and pray to my goddess to help my mother. Lily also wished to do this, and so we broke the rules and slipped out of the castle to go to the meadow up beyond Hagrid's. We brought offerings of cakes and butterbeer, the meadow we chose because it was a known haunt of unicorns, which were sacred to Her.

"Of course, the night of the full moon was also the night of the werewolf, and the Marauders were abroad, though Lily and I didn't know it. We reached the meadow, set the offerings down on a white sheet Lily had taken from her dorm, and began to pray.

"I can only assume that your father happened upon us by chance, whether in his Animagus form or out of it. In any case, he came into the clearing, saw me, and started insulting me. He did not follow Selene, he called Her the Lady of Fools and Milksops, and then he saw Lily and accused me of "corrupting her". I was furious. He had ruined my ceremony, insulted both my religion and me and my best friend. I was so angry I didn't even bother to draw a wand. I just slammed him one in the mouth. I also called him some rather creative swear words learned from my father."

"What happened then?"

"He hit me back and broke my nose. I couldn't win against him physically, he was bigger and stronger. Lily cast some kind of Itching Jinx on him, but even then he wouldn't quit hitting me. I recall Lily yelling, he had me pinned on the ground then, and just when I was seeing stars, Potter screamed and fell off me. I thought Lily had hexed him. I passed out briefly, when I came to, I was lying in the meadow still, Lily was wiping my face with a wet cloth, and she told me that a unicorn had appeared and attacked Potter, drove him off with his horn, healed me, then left.

"Lily was astonished. I told her, "Selene protects Her own", and then we headed back to the castle. No one caught us sneaking back into our dormitories, though we learned later that your father was caught by Professor Cypher, because even an Invisibility Cloak cannot hide a blood trail. The unicorn, you see, had gored him quite neatly in his arrogant arse. He was in the Hospital Wing for a week, mending from it, because for some reason not all Pomfrey's potions or spells would heal fully. The wound, rumor had it, left a star-shaped scar upon his backside, and for awhile some Slytherins teased him about being "kissed" by a unicorn."

Harry snickered softly. "He deserved it. I wish a unicorn would have come and done that to Dudley. Although Hagrid did give him a pig's tail." Then he sobered. "I guess then Selene never heard what you asked for, did She?"

"No, Harry. She heard, but She answered it differently than I would have liked. She gave my mother an extra year with me before She called her to Her side. It was not what I would have wanted, but then you don't always get what you want."

"I know." He was quiet for a moment, thinking about Snape's tale, his brow furrowed.

"Any more questions, or shall we call it a night?"

"I . . .was wondering . . .if my dad was such an arse and all back then . . .how did he ever end up with my mum?"

"That, Harry, is a question I cannot answer. I have never been able to figure it out, except to think that perhaps your mother finally beat some sense into his fool head and he respected and loved her for it. I don't know. She married him soon after we finished school and had you nine months later. Hopefully Potter managed to do one thing right and make her happy. Perhaps you ought to write Black and ask him. Though I do know that you made her happy, and she loved you with all that she was, and so did your father." Snape rose, clearly the conversation was finished. "Enough questions for tonight. It's late, we're both tired. Drink your milk and go to sleep."

Harry did not argue. He picked up the potion-laced milk and sipped it. To his surprise, it was still warm. He drank it down and almost immediately fell asleep, the glass slipping from his fingers.

Severus caught it before it hit the floor, then removed Harry's glasses and tucked the covers about him. "Good night, child," he murmured before heading back down the stairs. Potter was probably turning in his grave to see who was raising his son now, he thought with a wicked smirk. Who says the gods don't have a sense of humor?

After the night they had both had, Severus and Harry slept in till ten o'clock the next morning, a rarity for both of them. After breakfast, Severus told Harry to finish his reading assignments in Herbology and Potions. Harry set to with a will, but after finishing his Potions assignment, he became distracted by the book Severus had given him about Selene. The Path of Mysteries was not at all the dry theological text he had expected. In fact, it was written as a kind of story and a guide all in one and it was compulsively readable. Harry tried to concentrate on his Herbology text, but he found the siren call of The Path of Mysteries hard to resist.

After about ten minutes of reading the properties of the bell-shaped flame flower twice because he wasn't paying attention, Harry set 1001 Plants for the Aspiring Herbologist aside and picked up The Path of Mysteries instead. Within moments he was immersed in reading about how Selene, sometimes called Isis, was trying to find all the scattered bits of her beloved husband Osiris, which Set, God of Destruction, had scattered all throughout the world and heaven in order to bring him back to life. He read about how after she had done so, they had a son called Horus, Bringer of the Sun, and he bore much of his mother's magic talent.

He read how Selene/Isis had taught magic to those of the human race who showed an aptitude for it, those who questioned and wondered and saw things beyond the ordinary. Those first wizards and witches became priestesses and priests of Her temples in Egypt, and later in Rome as well. When the Roman mages came to Britain fleeing the collapse of their Empire, Selene came with them, though some argued that She had been there already, known by other Names and Aspects, like Dia the Great Mother. At first, the Roman wizards built shrines to Her as they had always done, but some of the local tribes took offense at that and Selene then told Her worshippers—Build Me thus a temple in your heart, for I am everywhere, in all that there is, and as the moon watches, so then shall I. I need no fixture of marble to hear your prayers, the wind is My messenger, whisper My name and I shall hear, your thoughts and dreams fly swifter than falcons in flight to My ears. Make me a temple in your heart and there I shall dwell, so long as there is magic and love to sustain Me. Stone crumbles, memory fades, but I shall remain, eternal as the magic I wield.

He then read about how Selene had Blessed the animals, and for a few She had given special powers and longevity, and of these, Her favorite was far and away the unicorn, sacred and pure, with a horn that could heal wounds, cure poisons, purify anything, and remove magical curses. So much did the Goddess love Her unicorn, that when a unicorn departs the earth, She takes it into the Afterworld to dwell forever with her, and follow Her across the sky as She journeys each night. And that is why one of the most heinous crimes a wizard can commit is to slay a unicorn. The one who does such an unspeakable deed is forever cursed and Selene turns Her face from him forever, and he is Named Oathbreaker and sentenced to death, for the one who can slay innocence has no place at Her side.

Harry read those words and felt a chill shudder through him. Voldemort had slain a unicorn and drank its blood, becoming a sort of revenant, he recalled. He had seen that for himself that night in the Forbidden Forest. A part of him had been sickened and terrified by such a thing, and even now he still cringed and felt ill recalling it. Damned, Voldemort was damned. He remembered how it had looked, the fallen unicorn upon the forest floor, so still, all the magnificent life and strength sucked from it, the white coat dull and bloodstained, the pearlescent horn dimmed forever, the vibrant magical life shattered into pieces to feed a selfish wizard's need for immortality.

He would never forget it, and for weeks afterwards he had nightmares about it, though nobody ever knew that, because he had warded his bed with Silencing charms. Lately, he had been dreaming of Cedric and the dead unicorn, or he had until he had met the moon stallion in the meadow. Now his dreams were filled with the great horse who bore the goddess's Mark upon him, and who had saved his life.

Did She send him to me? Even though I'm not her disciple, Professor Snape says She Marked me as a baby. Does that mean I'm under Her protection? Like he was that night, or my mum?

Owls, falcons, and hawks were also sacred to Her, and also the snake, the horse, cat, and wolf. She loved all animals, but those were Her favorites, and She was often depicted with one or another of them about Her.

He read on, coming to about the middle of the book, when he heard a soft cough behind him.

Startled, he sat up on his bed, and saw Severus standing at the foot, a half-frown on his face. "Have you finished your schoolwork yet, Harry?"

Harry flushed. "I . . .not exactly. I read your assignment and some of Herbology, but then I . . .umm . . .got a bit distracted." He lowered Selene's book reluctantly and eyed his teacher warily. "Am I in trouble?"

"Not yet. I am happy you find The Path of Mysteries so intriguing, however . . .your schoolwork must come first. Do not roll your eyes at me, boy, I would be remiss in my duty as a professor if I did not point that out to you. Therefore, I expect you to have finished reading your Herbology chapter by suppertime."

Harry groaned. "Okay." He gave the Herbology text a disgusted look. "Pain in the arse!" he muttered under his breath.

"Excuse me?" Snape said in a deadly soft tone. "Would you care to repeat that, Mr. Potter?"

"Uh . . .I . . .didn't . . .I mean . . .no, sir. No, I wouldn't."

"I didn't think so. Simply because we are not in school doesn't mean you can disrespect me, young man. Swearing at me will earn you at the least time scrubbing toilets without magic, or else a spoonful of cod liver oil."

"Cod liver oil? What the heck is that?"

"Fish oil. An old remedy for colds and mouthy teenage brats. Harmless but tastes absolutely dreadful. I keep an extra large bottle in my desk at school for those students who think it acceptable to swear at me, aloud or under their breath. I have another here. Unless you wish to experience it, I suggest you mind your tongue." He fixed Harry with a hard gaze.

Harry dropped his eyes. "Sorry. I wasn't really talking about you . . .I was kind of talking about the assignment. . .Why do teachers give summer assignments anyhow? Isn't it a waste of time?"

"No. Summer assignments are meant to refresh your memory and keep it sharp, so you don't waste time at the beginning of term reviewing last year's work. It saves hours of classwork and enables us to get ahead on topics for the current term. So we don't have students with "I'm bored syndrome" cropping up everywhere. It also shows teachers who the real students are, and which ones are lazy, and which ones need help, and so forth."

"Oh." Put that way, Harry supposed it made sense. Too much sense. "I guess that makes sense."

"I'm so glad you approve," said the professor sarcastically. Then he softened slightly. "Regarding your other reading, is there anything you would like me to clarify for you? Anything that you don't understand?"

Harry considered. He had plenty of questions, but decided to start with the most recent one. "I was reading about how Selene grants some of her followers special powers, and I was wondering if you get to choose what you get? Or does She just award them to you? This guy—Libertus, I think his name was—he wrote that he called upon Selene and She granted him the shape of a winged falcon to escape his enemies, but then another person said that Selene gifted him with certain spells that helped him save his daughter. Why was it different for them?"

"Selene chooses to reward Her followers in different ways, Harry. One does not question how She chooses to help you, but just accept the help given. To some of her faithful She gives the forms of animals, and those forms mirror the inner spirit of the wizard or witch."

"You mean, it's like an Animagus form?"

"Yes, but those so chosen always bear the Mark of her favor, whatever form they become," Severus answered enigmatically. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the boy that he was Moon Fire, but something made him hesitate. Wait. Now is not the time. Wait. Accustomed to following his inner voice, he bit back those words for now.

"And what about the spells? If you follow Her, do you get some kind of special magic?"

"Yes, sometimes. She is the Lady of Magic, and it was She who gave magic's gift to mankind. At first, women proved more receptive to the Gift and able to use it easier. Thus, Her first worshippers were women, but later, men mastered the Gift as well, and came to follow Her also."

"Why was it easier for women?"

"Some say because women are more open to the spiritual side of existence than men. They listen more to their inner voice. They are more contemplative, more prone to think before they act. Back then, men were very warlike, they hunted and fought to survive, and it took awhile for Selene's message to get through their thick skulls. Once Egypt became settled and civilized, it was easier for male magicians to accept magic's gift. The first Egyptian male magician was a scribe, working in the temple of Thoth. His name was Rahotep, and the first magical act he ever performed was to mend a priceless scroll some idiot noble's son had borrowed and spilled wine upon. Not such an earthshaking thing, you might think, but it preserved valuable knowledge, so it was greater than you might assume. For knowledge is power, Harry, and to a wizard there is no greater coin. It is no coincidence that the first line an initiate speaks when you pledge yourself to Her is "And I shall dedicate my gift and my knowledge of all things arcane and not to Your service . . ." he quoted softly. "Pity some of us have forgotten that, and think only about playing pranks and playing Quidditch."

"Just because I play Quidditch doesn't mean I'm a bad student . . .sir."

"Did I say you were? I was speaking generally, no need to get all ruffled, Potter. It was merely an observation, made by years of experience. I do not mind sports, in their turn, but I do mind when my students become obsessed over a silly broom game and start dodging class to practice. There is a reason why Quidditch is labeled an extracurricular activity. Meaning it should come after one's normal studies in importance. Any other questions you need answered right at the moment?"

"Uh . . .I just finished reading about how Selene's favorite animal is the unicorn and I was wondering why unicorns don't like boys and men?"

Severus chuckled wryly. "A common misconception. It's not that unicorns do not like human men, it's that they don't trust them. Unicorns will not mind a boy touching them, but once a boy becomes a man, and I mean that in the sense of losing one's virginity, not coming of age, then a unicorn usually will not trust you enough to come near. Why? Because men centuries ago hunted unicorns for their horns and hair, and killed them for sport. It is unknown exactly how many unicorns were hunted down and killed, only that they were near to extinction before Elizabeth I took the throne and forbid it."

"Was she one of us?"

"A witch? She had some power in her, gained from her mother's side. But she was a follower of the Lady, a secret follower, but Hers nonetheless. And under her reign the slaughter of unicorns stopped, and the kingdom flourished, and the Balance was restored. That was a good age to be born a wizard, Hogwarts was gaining precedence as a great school of wizardry, and witch hunts were down. Elizabeth was a good ruler, and she took as her royal symbol the unicorn, and that was no accident. In her own way, by claiming it, she showed her devotion to the Lady of Mysteries. Or so we Selenians believe."

"Selenians?"

"A slang term for those who follow the Moon Lady. As for the unicorns, count yourself lucky, Harry, that you were among them for so brief a time, it is something that very few wizards have ever experienced. Even Professor Dumbledore had never been graced so."

"Have you, sir?"

Slowly, Snape nodded. "But I am Her initiate, Harry, and as such, the unicorns do not mind my presence. That they accepted you, however, shows that you have an uncommon strength of character and goodness about you. It is a great honor."

Harry blushed, unaccustomed to the praise. He couldn't think of anything to say and so he said nothing, fixing his eyes upon his hands resting in his lap. "Oh. Well, umm . . .thanks for telling me and I guess I should get back to my Herbology."

"Yes. You have two hours till supper. I will call you when it's ready."

Then he left Harry to read about the delights of rootless magical plants and went back downstairs to start preparing supper.

After supper, much to his dismay, Professor Snape quizzed Harry on his reading that day. "Didn't you trust me to read it, sir?" he asked indignantly.

"Read it, yes, retain it, that's another story." Severus said bluntly. He then went over the parts Harry had trouble with and told him to read those sections again and then move on to Transfiguration and Charms tomorrow.

"Fine," Harry said, a bit sulkily, for usually he did his summer assignments on the train going to school and copied Hermione, he wasn't accustomed to being accountable to an adult for how well he learned them.

"Attitude, Mr. Potter," scolded the professor.

"What attitude?"

"You have a distinct whine in your voice that aggravates me."

"No, I don't!"

Severus crossed his arms over his chest and flashed his ward a warning look. "You most certainly do, and don't contradict me. This is your first warning. Lose the attitude or else you can go out with a bucket of whitewash and paint a fence till you remember your manners."

Harry threw up his hands dramatically. "I don't believe this! All I said was fine and you're chewing my arse out?"

Severus frowned. "It wasn't what you said, but how you said it."

Harry fumed silently. Really, now Snape was becoming impossible! "I'm going for a walk." He started to move towards the back entrance, deciding that he needed to leave before he said something really disrespectful.

Severus moved in front of him. "You don't leave this house without asking permission."

Harry stopped. "Okay! Can I go for a walk?"

"Sir."

"Huh?"

"Respect, Mr. Potter. Otherwise you can take a walk out to the paddock with a paintbrush."

Harry gritted his teeth. "Can I go for a walk, sir?"

"You may. Be back at sundown and don't—"

"Go into Sherwood Forest, I know," Harry finished, rolling his eyes. Then he stalked towards the door and slammed it behind him. Honestly, sometimes Snape could be a real pain in the rear!

Suddenly, the back door opened and Severus strode out, his eyes blazing. How dare the little brat slam doors that way? The cheek! Well, he wasn't going to put up with that sort of thing. He was going to nip that insolent attitude in the bud right bloody now!

In three strides he had caught up to his ward and snapped, "Harry James Potter, you do not slam doors in my house! Stop right where you are."

Harry stopped dead as if commanded by an Imperius Curse. He hadn't heard that sort of tone from Severus in weeks, but it still had the power to freeze him in his tracks. He looked up at the professor through his fringe of untidy hair. His stomach took a nose dive towards his sneakers. Aww, hell, now I'm in for it. I shouldn't have done that. I really shouldn't have done that. "Sir?"

"Don't you "sir" me, and try and act all innocent!" snapped the other. "I warned you twice about the attitude. And don't bother trying to tell me you don't have one, because that's a lie. I refuse to tolerate your insolence any longer." He snapped his fingers and a can of very thin white paint appeared in his hand, along with an industrial-sized paintbrush. "March over there to the fence and start painting, Potter. We'll see if that will alter that impudent attitude of yours. Paint as far as the tree down there," he indicated the tree they had sat under for a discussion the other day. "You have two hours." He shoved the paint and brush at Harry. "Well? You going to stand here all night like an idiot or are you going to get started?"

Harry took the items and started to offer an apology, but Severus vanished before the words could cross his lips. He looked down at the whitewash and the fence unhappily. Good going, Harry. You handled that brilliantly! You know better than to mouth off like that. Lucky he wasn't Uncle Vernon, else you'd have some bruises to go with your smart attitude, his conscience rebuked.

He moved over to the fence, which gleamed alabaster in the setting sun, and dipped the brush into the paint can.

Two hours later, Harry was aching and sore, his back throbbed from bending over so much and his hand ached from holding the brush, which seemed to get heavier with each stroke of whitewash. He had just reached the tree and was now taking a bit of a breather. He was paint splattered and tired, no one had ever told him that painting a fence was such hard work, or that the bloody whitewash tended to run which meant you had to paint the same spot over twice.

But he had worked out his attitude on the inanimate fence and was now calm and ready to go back inside and apologize. He just hoped Severus had calmed down enough to accept it. He wiped a hand across his brow, wondering what had happened to the boy who used to live to annoy the hell out of his potions professor? A few months ago he would have been happy as a clam to give Snape lip and get him ticked, but now . . .now he felt guilty and ashamed. And the odd part was he had done it on reflex, without really thinking.

Next time he'd know better. He had pushed Severus too far and gotten his arse walloped, figuratively speaking. He stretched and groaned. Damn Snape for coming up with the most creatively painful ways to punish children! Where did he come up with them, anyhow? Did he ask Selene for advice? Harry's entire back and shoulders felt like someone had beaten him with bamboo rods. I'm never going to smart off to him again. I'd rather be scrubbing cauldrons or pickling rat spleens. Ooohh!

He examined the fence, decided it didn't look bad for a first time attempt and then he prayed Snape didn't expect a professional job or anything. He rolled his shoulders, wincing, and stuffed the brush back into the almost empty can of whitewash. At least the can was empty, so even if Snape wanted him to, Harry couldn't go back and paint over the fence again. Unless there was another can of the damn stuff somewhere, Harry thought with a shudder.

Oh please, Selene, let him not have another can stuffed away, I've learned my lesson this time. He went to wipe his hands off on his already paint wrecked jeans when he heard a familiar sound of hoofbeats.

He jerked up as if prodded by a red hot iron in the small of his back.

There, across the pasture, cantering easily, was the black stallion he had last seen at Hogwarts. The horse ran like a black flame, his long legged stride devouring the distance between them. Harry could only stand and watch as the horse thundered towards the fence, his mane whipping back across his massive shoulders, the crescent moon Mark gleaming brightly upon his brow.

Clods of dirt flew up from the stallion's hooves as he raced directly at the fence. He showed no sign of slowing down.

Paralyzed, Harry watched in horror as the big horse continued his suicidal charge at the white barrier. He held out his hands in a futile attempt to halt the horse. No, no, he's isn't going to stop, he's going to crash right into the damn fence, and there's not a damn thing I can do to stop him! He was afraid to shout, because that might startle the horse even more, but inside he was screaming, Stop, please, stop!

He shut his eyes, the horse was about five feet from the fence now, his eyes glittering and his breath coming in harsh snorts, his hooves pounding in a staccato rhythm. He waited for the sound of boards splintering, for the scream of agony as the stallion hit the fence and fell.

There was silence.

Cautiously, Harry opened his eyes.

The stallion was standing a foot from the fence, tossing his head, a mischievous glint in his dark eyes.

"Bloody hell! You trying to give me a heart attack here?"

He shook a finger at the stallion.

The horse snorted, then let out a piercing whistle.

Payback, Potter, for the many times you nearly gave me one.

"Hush! You want the professor to hear you? He's already in a snit 'cause of me, I don't think he'll take too well to a horse just appearing in the backyard, even if you are Marked by the Lady."

The stallion whickered and sniffed the freshly painted fence, snorted in disgust and backed off, tossing his head.

"Stay away from that, unless you want to have a white mark on your nose to go with the one on your forehead," Harry warned. "Took me two hours to paint the bloody thing and it really sucked."

The stallion eyed him and shook his head. Good. It's punishment, it's not meant to be fun. Though you look like you had a war with the whitewash, Potter.

"How did you get here anyway? Hogwarts is like . . .kilometers from here. What did you do, ride a moonbeam?"

Moon Fire let out a sharp whinny.

Harry could have sworn the horse was laughing.

"Okay, whatever. Guess it doesn't matter now. You're here. I missed you, you know." Harry said, speaking to the horse in a half-croon. "Sorry I don't have any treats for you, but I wasn't expecting you."

He held out his right hand, palm up.

Moon Fire approached the fence, leaned his head over, and blew softly into the wizard's palm. Then he shoved his nose into Harry's hand.

"Hey, that tickles," the boy giggled. The stallion stared right at him, and there was something in those eyes that seemed somehow more than any animal intelligence. "You're a magic horse. And I think you can understand everything I say to you."

Moon Fire bobbed his head. Yes, I can. Every word, youngling. So watch yourself.

Harry went on, talking softly to the stallion while gently stroking the satin cheek. He told Moon Fire all that had occurred, then he said how grateful he was to Snape for taking him in like this, but sometimes the man could really get on his nerves with his damn rules of deportment or whatever you called it.

And you do the same to me, boy, with your cheeky attitude. But then, it's the age. I was no different. In fact, I was probably worse. He playfully nibbled Harry's hair.

"Hey! Quit that, I just washed my hair." He swiped playfully at the stallion's nose, and Moon Fire danced away.

"Don't go! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," Harry called forlornly.

Moon Fire shook his head, pawed the ground, and then trotted about the paddock in a circle, his hooves hardly seeming to touch the ground at all. It's getting late. Time for you to come inside, so that we can have a talk.

The stallion's strides lengthened, until he was galloping, and then he raced down the paddock, leaped the fence with careless ease, and vanished into the forest.

Dejected, Harry watched him leave. He kicked the fence post and yelped as his toes throbbed. "Damn it! I don't know what the hell's wrong with me. Lately I just screw up everything."

He lingered for several more minutes, waiting to see if the stallion would come back, but the horse did not return.

He dragged his feet as he came up the porch steps, set the empty can and brush down, removed his shoes, and cast a Cleaning Charm on them. He left them soaking but free of paint, and went into the house in his socks.

He glanced about, but saw no sign of the professor in the kitchen or the den, though the fire was crackling merrily and there were lights on and a book lying on the small table next to a half drunk glass of what looked like butterbeer.

Maybe he went down to the lab, Harry thought and made his way silently upstairs to take a shower. I hope the professor knows a spell that takes paint out of clothes.

Twenty minutes later, after a lengthy scrubbing and soaking, Harry came downstairs in his blue pajamas and robe and slippers, he had a whole new wardrobe, since Severus had taken one look at his so-called summer clothes and declared them only fit for kindling. They had gone into town the second day Harry had arrived and Snape had bought him everything brand new, from the inside out, underwear, socks, jeans, shirts—everything. The pajamas he had on now were his favorite pair of the five he owned.

To his relief, he found his teacher downstairs on the couch, reading and sipping his butterbeer. He was also dressed in his night clothes, which were similar to Harry's.

"Sir? I've finished the fence," Harry said, somewhat diffidently.

Severus set down his book and looked over at the boy standing at the end of the couch. "I trust you've learned your lesson?"

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry I talked back to you before."

"Try not to let it happen again. Or else," Severus said, then he beckoned the boy over to him. "There's tea in the pot and some scones if you want them on the counter. Bring them in here and sit down. There's something I need to discuss with you."

What else did I do wrong? Harry wondered frantically as he made his way to the kitchen. He tried to come up with some rule he'd broken and failed. He quickly fixed himself some tea with lots of sugar and took a large cinnamon scone, freshly baked that morning.

Severus allowed Harry to eat, pleased at how the boy seemed to be gaining a healthy appetite now that he was away from Privet Drive.

Harry devoured the scone, nervous as he was, he had worked up an appetite painting. Then he drank his tea slowly, darting glances at the professor out of the corner of his eye. Snape didn't look angry. But that didn't mean anything. He'd seen the man go from inscrutable to furious in two seconds flat. Trying to delay the inevitable lecture he was sure he was about to receive, Harry said, "Professor, you know the horse that I told you about at school? The black stallion with the crescent on him that saved my life? Well, he . . .he came here tonight. He just came out of nowhere, I don't know how he ever found me, but one minute I was alone and the next minute he was running towards me. He's gone now, but I swear I really saw him! If you go and look, you'll see the hoofprints in the grass. I'm not lying."

"Harry, take a breath."

Harry quit talking. He waited for the lecture, but all the professor did was look at him rather oddly and then he said, "The stallion's name is Moon Fire."

"You . . .you know him? You've seen him before?"

"Many times."

"He doesn't belong to anyone, right? I mean he acts like he's wild."

"He is. He belongs to no one save himself and the Lady of Mysteries. And until you, he never let anyone ride him."

"I didn't really ride him, professor. More like just hung on. I was lucky he didn't buck me off."

"Never. Not running from Death Eaters. He is sworn to protect you."

Harry stared at him. "How do you know that, sir? Did Selene tell you?"

"She had no need to tell me anything about Moon Fire. I know him as well as I do myself. Because I am the black stallion you rode that night." Snape confessed.

"What?" Harry nearly fell off the couch. "You . . .the horse . . .You're an Animagus! Like my dad and Sirius."

Snape grimaced at being compared to the Marauders. "No. Not like them. Their forms came from a spell, mine was gifted to me by my goddess. She granted me Her favor when I was sixteen, and ever since I have been Moon Fire."

The green eyes were widened in astonishment. "All this time . . .it was you . . .that first night, that was how you knew about Hermione and I being outside . . .and after that . . ." He blushed and swallowed hard. He had told the stallion things about his home and himself that no one ever knew, and all the while he had been spilling his guts to Severus Snape. "You knew . . .you knew about the Dursleys. Why didn't you just report it to Dumbledore then?" Harry cried angrily. "Why bother going through all that trouble making me tell when you could have just said!"

"Because I could not have done so without revealing the truth to the Headmaster."

"What truth? That you're a sneaking spy?" he was too angry to care if his tone of voice was disrespectful now.

To his utter shock, the Potions Master smirked at him. "That is no secret to him, I have been his spy since I finished school. I told you once before that I have many secrets, and that not all could be shared. The fact that I am Moon Fire is one of them. No one knows of my other form."

"Not even my mother knew?"

Severus shook his head. "No. Only you."

"Why tell me?"

"Because you deserve to know that I wasn't using my stallion form to spy on you personally. I went for a run in the moonlight with the unicorns and returned to find you in my meadow sobbing your eyes out. What was I to do? I couldn't leave you alone, you were too vulnerable, so I stayed and watched. It was no coincidence we met then, Harry. Selene put you in my path for a reason."

"What reason? So you could listen to me make an ass of myself telling you stuff I'd never even tell my girlfriend?" He blushed, but calling Hermione his girlfriend, even if it wasn't official, was the truth.

Severus sighed. "Things aren't always what they seem. As a spy I am not free to reveal things, and doing so might have gotten me killed, since I often used my horse form to gather intelligence from the Death Eaters. I am an unregistered Animagus, and being so has kept me alive these past thirteen years, for there are Death Eaters and You-Know-Who sympathizers working in the Ministry and even I don't know all of them. I play a dangerous game, Harry, I pretend to be the Dark Lord's spy at Hogwarts and slip him false information about Dumbledore and his plans, I ape the perfect Death Eater, but one glance at my stallion form would destroy me, for all know Selenians are sworn to fight dark wizards. I bear the Mark, and I would not if I had repudiated Her. So no one must know that Severus Snape and Moon Fire are one and the same."

"So it's dangerous for me to know the truth too," Harry surmised, beginning to get over his shock and anger and starting to think. "Will you Obliviate me then?"

"If I had meant to do that, I would have kept silent. Like I said before, you deserve to know."

"You should have told me before!"

"Before what? Before we reached Privet Drive? Before I called the plagues down and had to monitor the curse? Or perhaps you meant during your detentions with me? Harry, you did not trust me then, and I needed to find out the truth about your relatives. If you had known I was Moon Fire, would you have spoken the way you did to me? No. You needed help, and that was the only way I could help you then. I had no time to try and coax you to reveal what was wrong slowly, term ended in a week's time and I knew only that whatever sort of home you had to return to scared the spit out of you. And there was only one reason I knew of why that would be. Because you were abused."

"But if you knew that . . .why did you make me admit it on the Knight Bus?"

"Because I didn't know all of it. You didn't tell me everything, and you needed to say it, to speak of it before it poisoned your soul. It was therapeutic for you. I am sorry I didn't tell you a few days before this, but something always seemed to get in the way, like your relatives dying. Or tonight, I had intended to tell you after supper, but you pulled an attitude with me and ended up making me punish you instead."

"You came to me as Moon Fire though."

"Yes. I often change forms and run if I can. It eases stress and makes me able to think clearly. The Lady chose well when She gave me that form. As Severus Snape, I am forced to live a life of secrets and lies, at least until He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is destroyed. But as Moon Fire I am free to go where I choose and I bow my head to no one." There was a proud glint in the other's eye, similar to one Harry had seen in the stallion's eyes.

"So . . .when you're Moon Fire, do you think more like a horse than a man?"

"It's complicated. I do retain my memories and knowledge that I am also a human named Severus Snape, but much of my reactions and emotions are that of a wild stallion. I can comprehend human speech with that part of me that is still human, but the stallion understands only tone and scent. As Moon Fire, I can also "speak" with other equines, or magical creatures like them—such as pegasi or unicorns. The crescent allows me to draw upon the moon's strength and also enables me to see in the dark. That was how I was able to navigate so swiftly the night the Death Eaters came for you."

Recalling that wild ride made Harry wince, but then he recalled how he had met the unicorns and that made all of it worth it. He also remembered how Moon Fire had played with the unicorn foals and he smiled. "You played with the foals."

"Yes. I often do, it's the only way to get any peace, to run the little pests into exhaustion."

"You know, you're a lot nicer when you're Moon Fire," Harry remarked slyly.

Severus turned and glared at him. "Me, nice? Bite your tongue! I am never nice."

"You rescued me from my awful relatives. What do you call that, if not nice?"

"Necessary," the professor replied. "I am sworn to protect you."

"Even if you weren't, you would have done it anyhow," Harry predicted, somehow knowing he was absolutely correct. "And that's mighty nice of you, Professor Snape."

"Humph! A spy cannot afford to be nice, Harry James Potter. Or else he gets himself killed."

"Moon Fire's not a spy," Harry pointed out. "And you've been nice to me since I came here, sir. Except when you made me whitewash that bloody fence. Then you were nasty."

"Oh, really? If you don't watch your language, you shall be seeing just how much nastier I can get."

"What? What'd I say?"

"I made you whitewash the bloody fence," Severus prompted.

"Oops. It sort of slipped out."

"Do it again and you'll be getting a reminder spoonful of cod liver oil."

Harry grimaced. "I like you better as a horse."

"Sometimes, so do I," admitted Severus, very quietly. The stallion was the heart of who he was, his soul given flesh, the truest essence of himself both magically and physically.

Harry was silent for a long time, mulling over what Snape had told him. He was still slightly resentful that Severus hadn't told him the truth of what he was from the beginning, but then again, this was Severus Snape he was talking about. The man was like one of those nesting boxes, just when you unlocked one, there was another one inside, and another and another, all surrounded with wards and locks like a fortress. Harry knew that Severus had learned how to guard himself that way when he was young, it was a legacy of abuse that Harry understood. He's never let anyone see him for what he truly is. Not even my mother. At least, not anyone mortal. I doubt you can keep secrets from a goddess. Until me. He still didn't understand that. Because you deserve to know was not enough for him. Could it be that Snape, who trusted almost no one, trusted him?

Harry recalled that feeling of oneness, that odd connection he'd felt when he had ridden the stallion. Had Moon Fire felt it too? Was that why he trusted Harry with his most guarded secret? Because they were both the moon goddess' Chosen?

He looked up at his professor, who was quietly watching him.

"I won't betray you, sir." For some reason he needed to say that. And Snape needed to hear it.

"I know." Still, the boy's words warmed him. "So, do you forgive my necessary deception?"

"Why did you tell me? Why do you care if I knew or not?" Harry countered his question with his own.

Severus sighed. "Stubborn boy. You wish to know the full reason? You are what I was a long time ago. Young, impressionable, and hurting. With the potential to be either a force for great good or great evil. I don't want you to become what I am—cynical, hard, alone. So I'm giving you a chance I never had, to have a mentor and to keep that damn innocence you've managed despite everything to preserve. I made a promise to your mother to protect you, but that wasn't why I told you about Moon Fire. It's because a relationship must be built upon truth, not lies. I want you to trust me to watch over you. To teach you what you need to know to survive that crazy beast who wants to kill you. And then you can live a normal life, or as normal as it ever gets for one of us."

"One of us? You mean a wizard? Or Selene's Chosen?"

"Both. Does that answer your question?"

"Yeah." He squared his shoulders and exhaled softly. Snape trusted him. He felt honored. At least someone did. "I am a little peeved at you for not telling me sooner, but . . .seeing as how Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon lied to me my whole life about who and what I really was, and I dealt with that, I can forgive you. I understand why. I've kept a few secrets myself."

Their eyes met in a shared moment of understanding. Nothing else needed to be said.

Severus broke the contact after a minute, because neither of them enjoyed baring their souls to each other so casually. "More tea?"

"Yes, please."

The teapot floated out of the kitchen and poured itself into Harry's cup. The milk pitcher came next, along with the sugar bowl. Harry watched as the spoon stirred in precisely three teaspoons of sugar and then stopped. "How did you know that?"

"Observation is a paramount ability for a spy. Watch and learn, Mr. Potter."

Harry took a sip of the tea. "Perfect."

"If you like drinking sugar," the Potions Master said with a grimace.

"So . . .what happens now?"

A wicked gleam lit the older wizard's eyes. "Now you will have another lesson to master over the summer besides wandless magic."

"What's that? Are you going to teach me how to become an Animagus too?" the boy asked eagerly.

Severus shook his head. "No. That is not my area of expertise. I was given the ability to shift forms, I did not learn a spell."

"Oh." Harry's face fell. "Then what is it?"

"It is a skill that once every wizard and witch mastered along with flying a broomstick. Riding a horse." He laughed at the boy's expression, which was somewhere between delight and horror. "It won't hurt. Much."

This one is just flying out of my head at warp speed or the equivalent thereof. I hope everyone is enjoying the wild ride along with Harry and Moon Fire.

Next: The bond between Harry and Severus deepens as Moon Fire teaches Harry to ride as only a horse can. Plus more lessons on wandless magic.

Chapter 12: Midnight Ride
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The next morning, Harry woke up early and took a long shower, though he suspected he would need another one after Severus was done with his riding lesson. The professor had left him a set of riding breeches, a shirt, boots, and a hardhat at the foot of his bed, he discovered after he had emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a towel. There was a note on top of them.

For you, Harry.

You'll get plenty of use out of them.

Professor Snape

The shirt was an elegantly tailored Irish-made linen in a cream color, and the breeches were butter-soft tan leather. The boots were shiny black and so was the hat. Harry stroked the soft fabric and thought that he had never worn anything so fine. What was even more astonishing was the fact that this outfit was for riding lessons, to practice in, not to wear in some competition. He lifted the shirt in his hands. It looked like it had been tailored to fit him perfectly. He had never owned such things before and he felt a warm glow of appreciation towards his guardian. Severus had spared no expense to buy him this outfit and he promised himself he would try his best to learn how to ride to show Severus how much he appreciated the man's generosity.

He quickly shed his robe and dressed, marveling at the feel of the quality leather and linen against his skin. Even the boots were a perfect fit. He took the hat in his hand and descended the stairs, ready for breakfast and then his first lesson.

He found Snape cooking breakfast, today it was cinnamon banana pancakes and a side of ham. The professor had a pot of strong coffee on the stove and orange juice in a pitcher. "Morning, Professor Snape."

Severus looked up from flipping over a pancake and saw Harry dressed in his brand new outfit and gave him an approving nod. "You look well in that, Mr. Potter. Sit down and have some breakfast. You'll need something in you once we start lessons."

"Yes, sir. Thank you for the clothes, sir." Harry said, giving him a tentative smile.

The professor was wearing casual clothes as well, relaxed black cargo pants and a green polo shirt. He looked faintly embarrassed. "No need to thank me, Harry, you need proper clothes in order to ride, so best to start you off right."

After they had eaten the delicious breakfast and Harry had drank his Nutrient potion and washed the dishes wandlessly, Severus led him out to the back pasture. Harry figured he would change forms once he was there, but instead Severus unlatched the paddock gate and went into the barn.

Harry watched in puzzlement, wondering what Snape could be doing in there, then he recalled there was a tack room and figured he had gone to get a saddle and bridle. Some seven minutes later, the professor emerged from the barn leading a pretty Arabian mare of dazzling white. She was wearing the saddle and bridle Harry had seen in the tack room. She stepped gracefully and lively behind the tall man, her large liquid eyes taking in everything.

"Professor, you bought a horse?"

Severus shook his head, coming to a stop in the middle of the paddock. "Hardly. She's on loan to me for four weeks, courtesy of Andromeda Tonks, an old friend of mine who runs a dueling academy and riding stable down the road. Harry, meet Jasmine. She's a ten year old mare and Andromeda has used her as a schooling horse before." He gently stroked the Arabian's nose.

Harry slipped into the paddock and approached Severus and the horse. He gently extended a hand to her, and she dipped her head and smelled him curiously. "Hello, Jasmine. I'm Harry." He stroked her neck, she had a high crest and a thick flowing mane like spun silk. She was a beautiful horse, but Harry was confused. "Professor, I though . . .I mean, I thought I would be . . err . . .riding Moon Fire for my lessons."

Severus shot him a sly glance. "Did you now? Not until later, Harry. Before you mount a horse, it's necessary to learn how to care for one, and how to take the saddle and bridle off and on. That is what Jasmine here can teach you. She can also serve as an exercise horse when I am busy elsewhere."

"Right." He continued stroking the mare, who stood calmly, unperturbed by the strangers beside her. "When do we start?"

"Now." Snape replied. "Take a look at what she has upon her head. This kind of bridle is called a headstall, and is the gentlest of all bridles a horse can wear. It has a snaffle bit, which means an inept rider cannot injure a horse's mouth by pulling too hard, and allows the horse more control and comfort when a rider is on her back. Normally, Andromeda would not allow a first-time rider to use a snaffle bit, but I insisted upon it. The less stress upon the horse's mouth, the better."

Harry understood perfectly where Snape was coming from. As Moon Fire, he would know what it felt like with a bit in his mouth by speaking to other horses, and would therefore be sympathetic to the equine's point of view.

Severus went on to demonstrate how to remove the bridle, after first commanding Jasmine to stay. The mare obeyed, remaining stock still like a statue. She had been well trained. He then handed the contraption to Harry and told him to put it back on the mare.

At first, Harry was all thumbs, tangling up the headstall and the reins, and having to get sorted out by the Potions Master. Severus made him practice straightening out the bridle before he put it on Jasmine and buckled it into place. Then the professor had him undo it and do it all over again. They did that several times, until Harry had memorized how to fit the bridle on with a minimum of fuss. As a reward, Severus fed Jasmine a carrot.

"Jasmine is trained to stay ground tied when you remove a bridle, meaning she won't wander off, but a normal horse needs to be tied when you remove tack, or remove it inside a stall so the horse cannot walk off." Severus explained. "Now, we'll concentrate on the saddle."

Harry had even more problems buckling the girth straps and heaving the saddle off and on the patient Arabian. He would have never thought that such a thing could become so heavy, and Severus had told him this was a lightweight hunting saddle! After ten times, Severus called a halt, and fed Jasmine a piece of salted bread.

"Not bad, but you'll need to practice that over tomorrow." Severus instructed. Then he showed Harry how to walk a horse on a lead, explaining that one should always walk to a horse's side, since that was how they saw you best. Horses had great peripheral vision and preferred a person to walk close to them and make no sudden movements.

"A horse is a prey animal, and will startle at quick movements and loud noises, it's a survival instinct. And the closer you stay to a horse's head or side, the less chance she will have to kick you, and the more control you will have over her. Jasmine is a good tempered lady, she knows better than to buck or kick you, but should you ever encounter a horse that is not so well-behaved, remember what I just told you."

Next Severus told Harry to Summon a currycomb and brush from the stable. "Tomorrow I'll have you practice the charm wandlessly, but today you can do it with a wand."

Harry concentrated, waved his wand, then called, "Accio currycomb and brush!"

The items he had summoned flew out and into his arms. He looked at his mentor. "Now what? You're going to teach me how to brush her?"

"Exactly. Come here. Grooming is an essential part of taking care of a horse. Whenever you are done with a ride, you should always groom your mount. At the very least, you need to check her hooves for stones and pick them out and rub her down with a soft cloth." Severus pulled a strange hooked metal implement from his pocket. "This is a hoofpick. Watch me."

He touched Jasmine's leg below the knee and the horse obligingly picked up a hoof and Severus took it in his hand. "Good girl." Then he took the hoofpick and demonstrated how to clean the dirt out of her hoof.

"Doesn't that sharp part hurt her?"

"No. A horse's hoof is like our fingernails, only much harder. The only sensitive part of a horse's hoof is the frog, deep in the middle, here."

He cleaned out three of Jasmine's hooves and turned the last over to Harry.

Then he showed Harry how to rub down a horse and clean away dust with a rubber scraper and lastly to comb and brush the coat. "Some horses are very thin-skinned and ticklish, so mind you be gentle when you comb and brush them. Think of how you comb your hair. Hopefully you don't just yank out the tangles."

By the time Harry had finished brushing Jasmine he was hot and sweaty. He had never known there was so much to learn about taking care of a horse before. But Snape was a thorough and surprisingly patient instructor, speaking in a soft tone, and willing to repeat a step if Harry requested it. "You'll be taking care of Jasmine while she is here, I'll show you how to measure out feed and muck out a stall next."

Harry groaned. "When do I get to ride Moon Fire?"

"When you've shown me you're responsible enough to take care of a horse without me hovering over you." Severus answered. "This isn't like a broom, Potter, that you can just stick in a corner when you're done flying. This is a living creature with feelings and you had better respect that."

"Yes, sir," was all Harry said.

After Severus had shown him how to measure out scoops of oats and put some hay in the manger for Jasmine to munch on, and fill her trough with fresh water, but not too cold or too warm, his teacher bade him to fetch a large pitchfork and start shoveling out the dirty straw in the stall. Luckily there wasn't that much, since Jasmine hadn't been inside very long before being let out. But Harry's shoulders still ached when he was done.

But when he looked down at his clothes, expecting them to be full of horsehair and sweat, they looked as neat as they had when he had first put them on. When he asked Severus why, the professor said, "I've put an enchantment on them that repels dirt, hair, and water."

"You think of everything, don't you, professor?" Harry said with an admiring tone.

"I try," was all his teacher replied.

"Do you have some books about horses I could, uh, read?"

"I do. I'll give them to you after supper. Right now, I'd say it's time for lunch. Then you can come back here and get to know Jasmine while I'm brewing. I think you'll get along. She's easygoing for an Arabian."

He scratched the mare in the back of her ears and she leaned into his shoulder, sighing in bliss. After a moment she put her head down and began to graze. They left her alone and headed back to the house.

Later, Harry returned to the paddock and petted and talked to the mare. Jasmine was no Moon Fire, but she was a very good horse for beginners and he liked her. He apologized for being so clumsy around her and fed her a small apple and some sugar. Severus had warned him, though, to not feed her too many apples, else she might colic. Too much grain and fruit was not good for a horse's digestive tract.

That set the tone for the next four days. Severus awoke Harry at six-thirty every morning to go out and give Jasmine her morning feed. When Harry complained the first morning, the professor told him unsympathetically that he was lucky he wasn't getting up at five-thirty, the way the children of most farmers did. Once Jasmine had been fed and groomed, Harry turned her out in the paddock and mucked out her stall and spread fresh straw down. He then trundled the whellbarrow of manure to the side of the barn, where Severus had told him was once a manure pile, and dumped the soiled straw there.

Then and only then was he allowed to come inside, shower and eat breakfast. After that he studied for two hours before going back out to the paddock with Severus and practicing tacking up the Arab and one afternoon Severus showed him how to polish and clean the tack as well with the leather polish and soft soap.

It was hard work, but Harry found he didn't mind it. Jasmine was a sweet horse, she took to him readily, and soon came to look for him when he departed, and nicker a greeting when she saw him each morning. At the end of five days, Severus returned and watched him perform his duties.

At the end of the morning round of chores, Severus declared him a pretty competent stablehand and said he could start learning how to mount a horse.

Harry's eyes lit up. "Really?"

"Yes. Tack up Jasmine and come over to the center of the paddock."

Harry did so, then he led the Arabian over to where Severus waited. Severus showed him how to adjust the stirrups and then he demonstrated how to mount a horse, from the left side, swinging the right leg over the horse's back.

Severus did it easily, mounting in a few seconds. He clicked softly to the mare, and she began to walk about in a circle, Snape sitting easily on her back.

Harry watched enviously as the professor had Jasmine trot, canter, and then walk, barely moving his hands and feet. He rode expertly, as if he had been doing so all of his life. Then he slowed the mare and they stopped in front of Harry.

Severus dismounted and handed the reins to Harry. "Your turn. Remember, mount on the left side."

Harry put his foot in the shortened stirrup and grasped the pommel of the saddle and tried to jump up and swing his leg over the back of the mare as he had seen Severus do. But he had misjudged the height he would need to get in the saddle, and ended up crashing into Jasmine's side instead. He scrambled frantically for a minute before slipping back down again.

"Again. Push off the ground with your other foot," Severus ordered.

Harry tried. The second time he managed to get his upper half over the saddle before wriggling the rest of the way onto the horse's back. Jasmine heaved a sigh and gave him a reproachful look. "Sorry, girl. I'll do better next time."

He started to dismount.

"Hold it, boy! You dismount with the right leg first. Swing your leg over and down."

Harry managed somehow to get off the horse without falling, though it was a near thing. Everything looked so much further away once he was actually astride. "You make it look so easy," he told Snape, somewhat accusingly.

"It is easy. Once you get used to it. Practice makes perfect. Do it again."

Harry groaned and obeyed. By the time Severus called a halt, he was aching in every muscle in both arms and shoulders, sweaty, hot, and very tired. He was certain both his teacher and Jasmine were disgusted with him. He doubted if he would ever make a decent rider.

But to his surprise, Severus clapped him on the shoulder. "Not bad for your first time, Harry. Tomorrow will be better. Walk her about for five minutes and cool her out. Then you can give her water at what temperature?"

"Room temperature, sir. Never cold."

"Good. Get going."

The next morning, Harry was so sore that he could barely move his arms. He feared he was crippled for life. He lay there in bed and wondered if he would be able to move some time in the next century. Severus came and shook him awake, and Harry whimpered, "Go 'way! I can't move. Lemme alone."

"Rise and shine, boy." Severus ordered, yanking the covers off him. "You're burning daylight."

Harry yelped as the cold air hit him and curled up into a ball.

Severus turned and left the room.

Fifteen minutes later he returned when Harry did not come downstairs. He found the boy right where he had left him in bed. "Mr. Potter. That was not an invitation, now get up!" he snapped.

"Can't. My arms . . .they hurt to move . . ."

"Oh for the love of Selene!" Severus frowned. He snapped his fingers and a bottle appeared in his hands. "Are you certain you can't move?"

"You think I'd still be lying here if I could, sir?" the boy asked pathetically.

Severus sighed. Harry had proved a diligent worker and did not usually shirk his assigned chores. "One minute." He spoke a word and Harry's pajama top vanished. "I'm going to give you a quick massage, that'll loosen up those stiff muscles enough for you to go take a hot shower."

He poured the strong smelling eucalyptus oil onto his hands, rubbed them together and then bent over Harry.

"Ah!" Harry gasped as the professor began to massage, because his muscles were so stiff it hurt at first.

But gradually, they loosened as Snape worked, and after ten minutes Harry felt much better. "There! Now get in the shower."

Harry didn't need to be told twice. He rolled over and sat up, wincing.

"Next time, tell me if you're sore and I'll give you some Muscle Relieving Salve to rub on before bed."

Harry grimaced, but now he could lift his arms above his head. "Thought you said riding wouldn't hurt."

"I said, it wouldn't hurt much," corrected the professor, smirking. "And you have no idea about soreness yet, trust me. Hurry up, Potter! Shower and go down to the barn."

"Okay, okay. I'm going," he muttered irritably.

The shower made him feel much better, and so did the feeding and grooming of the gentle mare. Wielding the rake and shovel hurt, but it was a good feeling, and he could endure it.

By the time midmorning rolled around, his arms and shoulders weren't throbbing agonizingly, the pain had subsided to a dull ache. Until he went to mount Jasmine again. Then his muscles started screaming at him and he groaned. "I can't do this!"

"Quitting already? I wouldn't have thought you would give up so soon." There was a faint mocking tone to Snape's voice.

Harry glared at the other man. "It hurts, damn it!"

"Of course it does. Anything worth doing hurts, Potter! You ought to know that by now."

Harry wanted to snap at Severus that it was easy for him to talk, since he wasn't being tortured. But he held his tongue for once, because it seemed important to Snape that he learn this, and he really did want to ride Moon Fire. Which he wouldn't be able to do unless he learned how to mount a horse properly. He gritted his teeth, grabbed hold of the pommel and levered himself upwards again.

After about fifteen more repetitions, Severus called a halt, and allowed Harry to take a breather. Harry leaned against the fence gratefully. "Was it like this for you too at first?"

Severus nodded. "Believe it or not, yes. Riding is not a sport for the faint of heart. It takes dedication and patience and stubbornness. But once you master the basics, it's also the most rewarding thing you can do. The more you practice, the easier it will get."

"It sure doesn't feel like it now."

"Give it a day or two," the Potions Master chuckled.

"My arms feel like limp spaghetti."

"Just imagine how poor Jasmine feels, having to stand there and let you hang and climb all over her."

"I think you feel sorrier for the horse than me." Harry grumbled.

"I do," Severus admitted shamelessly. "How many times have you kicked her in the ribs?"

"I didn't mean to." Harry protested.

"Nevertheless . . ."

Harry promptly wandlessly Summoned a piece of bread and some carrots and gave them to Jasmine, who devoured them and then slobbered all over him in thanks.

"Great, Jasmine! I really needed that," the boy scowled, than he patted her sleek coat. She nuzzled him affectionately. He stroked her cheek and whispered, "You're a good girl for putting up with me, you know that?"

She whickered and blew out softly.

But after a few days, Harry's body grew accustomed to the routine exercise and was no longer sore. He had also learned how to jump up and into the stirrup before swinging his leg over, making it much easier to mount.

After five consecutive decent mounts, Severus declared he had graduated from the patient Arabian mare. "Tomorrow, Harry, you work with me. And then you shall learn how to ride like no other wizard has ever learned before."

"Not even you?"

Severus shook his head. "I learned to ride upon ordinary horses. You will have the privilege of learning on an intelligent magical stallion. Your experience will be much different and better than mine."

"You think?"

"Yes. Now cool out Jasmine. You did well today."

Harry's heart thrilled to hear those words and he felt extremely proud of himself, as proud as the day he had caught the Snitch during his first game. Snape was not an easy man to please and winning his approval was like winning an award. He could hardly wait till tomorrow.

He was up with the sun the next morning, without needing to be called, and he hurried down to the barn while it was barely light and flew through his grooming and feeding with Jasmine. Once he had cleaned her stall, he put her back in it, as per Severus' instructions. Then he went back inside to wash up and change into his riding clothes before going downstairs to start breakfast.

Severus was momentarily shocked upon seeing Harry awake before him and already making breakfast, which today was omelets, fried potatoes, bacon, and toast. He raised an eyebrow and said laconically, "You're awake early."

Harry merely smiled quietly and finished scraping the potatoes onto their plates. As he levitated the plates to their places with a brief flick of his wand, he asked, "Professor, will I be able to understand you when you're Moon Fire?"

"Not unless I cast a spell on you that will allow you to speak and listen as a horse does. Would you want that?"

Harry nodded. "Yes, sir. It would make learning a whole lot easier."

Snape gave him a wolfish grin. "Very well. Though you might regret it after I am done with you. Finish up, the spell only lasts two hours, so I will cast it after breakfast."

Harry nearly choked on his food, until his mentor ordered him to slow down and eat like a human being instead of a starving dog. Flushing, he obeyed.

Finally breakfast was over, the dishes washing, and then Snape pulled his wand and cast a short incantation. Silvery sparks shot out from his wand and encased Harry's head, he felt the magic seep into his ears and head, and there was a tingling in his ears. Then it was gone. Harry rubbed his eyes. He didn't feel any different. "Did it work?"

"Go out to the barn and see," Severus urged.

Harry did, and Severus Summoned the tack and left it on the fence for Harry before blurring into the midnight stallion. He cropped grass idly, waiting for the boy to reappear.

Harry did in about six minutes. "It worked, sir! I spoke to Jasmine and she answered me. It was absolutely amazing! Where did you learn that one? Oh . . ." he trailed off as he caught sight of Moon Fire, standing near the fence, looking at him alertly.

This was the first time he had ever seen the stallion by day, and his obsidian coat shone like black satin, the crescent standing out in sharp contrast to the dark coat. Once again, Harry's breath caught. Jasmine was a fine horse, a thoroughbred in every sense of the word, but Moon Fire . . .he was like a fairy tale come to life. For a long moment Harry just stood there, drinking in the sight of the stallion.

Then Moon Fire tossed his head impatiently and whistled, Well, are you going to stand here all day, Potter, or shall we get started?

Due to the spell, Harry "heard" the stallion's whistle in his head translated into human thoughts and speech, and Moon Fire sounded exactly like Severus. "All right. Come over here, please, and let me put on the bridle."

Moon Fire walked over and halted, lowering his head so Harry could slip the headstall over his ears and buckle the straps. He was very careful to not catch the stallion's ears and only tighten the strap enough to keep the bridle in place. He offered the bit to the stallion and Moon Fire accepted it. "Is that okay, Moon Fire?"

The stallion snorted an affirmative and Harry moved on to the saddle.

Not so tight, boy. Moon Fire warned as Harry tugged the girth closed. He stamped a foot on the ground.

"Sorry," Harry loosened the girth a notch.

Moon Fire shuddered at the feel of the saddle upon his back. It felt alien and strange, he did not like it at all. All of his instincts urged him to scrape and tear it off and he drew away from the boy, trotting in a circle about him, fighting the terrible urge with all of his human intellect.

"Moon Fire, what's going on?" Harry called, puzzled.

The stallion tossed his head and whinnied. Give me a minute.

Harry watched as the stallion continued walking, tail flagged, plainly something was irritating him. Harry wondered if it were being treated like a beast of burden, because he recalled that Moon Fire was still half-wild.

Finally the stallion seemed to settle and then he trotted back over to Harry and squared up. Mount! He whistled.

Harry went to put his foot in the stirrup, only to discover that Moon Fire was much larger than Jasmine. "Uh . . .how am I gonna mount you?"

Moon Fire turned his head, saw the difficulty, and snorted. There's a mounting block near the entrance to the barn. He followed the boy to where the concrete block was.

Harry discovered the mounting block was ten times easier to use, and soon he had his foot in the stirrup, swung his leg over, and was astride the big stallion. He wriggled about a little, trying to adjust to the fact that Moon Fire's back was much larger than Jasmine's.

Moon Fire laid his ears back. Settle down and quit bouncing all over me!

"Sorry. But I'm having a little bit of trouble adjusting. Your back is so broad."

The stallion turned his head and looked at his rider. Sit up straight, Harry, don't slouch. I'm not a piece of furniture. Take the reins in your right hand, look forward, and grip the saddle with your thighs.

Harry obeyed as best he could. "Like this?"

Lean forward a little more. Good. You want to balance on my back, don't sit all stiff like a lump, the way you do on a broom. Now, tap your heels against my sides, and we'll start with a walk.

Harry tentatively thumped his heels against Moon Fire's flanks.

The stallion made a sort of exasperated sound. For the love of Selene, Potter, that was barely a poke. I'm not glass.

Harry tapped him again, this time with a bit more force.

Moon Fire began to walk, slowly, about the paddock, his hooves gliding over the grass.

Harry swayed and gripped both reins and pommel.

Relax, boy. You're stiff as a board. Relax your hips and bottom, don't sit still. Try and move with me.

Harry tried, concentrating on how the stallion moved beneath him. He started to sway back and forth.

Moon Fire halted. Harry, not like that! I'm not a bloody rocking horse! Grip hard with your thighs and sit deep in the saddle and let yourself relax and just follow the way I move.

Harry shifted, he disliked the feel of the leather saddle, but knew he had to just get used to it. "Okay. Let's try it again."

Moon Fire began to move effortlessly about the paddock, Harry trying to relax and move with the stallion. It was not as easy as it looked, he slipped and slid on the saddle, and then he kicked Moon Fire harder than he meant to by accident.

Annoyed, the black horse gave a sharp squeal and kicked out slightly with his back hoof.

Harry yelped and found himself sliding off. He grasped the black mane and Moon Fire whinnied and stopped dead.

"Ow!"

The boy found himself on the ground, still clutching a few coarse black hairs in his hand, he had landed hard on his right hip and backside. Wincing, he sat up. "You . . you did that on purpose!" he cried angrily. "You made me fall."

Moon Fire swung his head around, his black eyes gleaming. Of course I did! You ripped my mane out by the roots, damn it!

"I did?" Crestfallen, he glanced down at the black hairs and quickly put his hands behind his back like a guilty schoolboy. "I didn't . . .I was falling and I just . . . grabbed onto whatever was there."

Next time grab the saddle horn, Mr. Potter, not my mane! Or else I might just be tempted to buck you off hard into a thorn bush.

"Sorry." Harry stood up and brushed himself off. "I'll remember."

The stallion tossed his head, blowing out sharply. Forgiven. Back to the mounting block, boy.

Harry rubbed his backside ruefully and thought he was surely going to feel this tomorrow. Then he picked up the reins and walked—make that limped—back to the mounting block. "That really hurt."

Moon Fire whickered and bumped him with his nose. You have to expect falls when you learn to ride. You'll live. It's not as bad as what your uncle used to dish out, right?

Harry shook his head. No, nothing had been that bad. He quit complaining.

Moon Fire squared up at the block, waiting for Harry to remount.

But the boy remained standing there, looking up at him, his forehead creased.

Moon Fire stamped a hoof and swished his tail. Well? What are you waiting for? Get back in the saddle.

"Moon Fire, what if . . .what if I learned to ride without the saddle? Like I did before?"

The stallion's ears shot forward. Bareback? Harry, that's a lot tougher than learning with a saddle. You need to learn how to sit properly on a horse before you can try that.

"I did it before," he argued.

With Selene's help, I don't doubt.

"At least let me try. It feels more . . .natural like that. I can feel your body better that way."

Moon Fire considered. Very well. It's your backside. But you will fall more that way. Might I suggest leaving a blanket on and the saddle pad? It will cushion you and my skin.

"Okay." Harry bent and unbuckled the saddle, heaving it off Moon Fire and setting it on the ground. He left the checked blue, green, and gold blanket on the black horse as well as the sheepskin pad which went inbetween saddle and blanket. He chanted a quick Sticking Charm so the blanket and saddle pad would stay on the stallion's back. Then he put one hand upon Moon Fire's withers and hopped upon his back.

He winced, because he was sore, but the fleece pad was much more comfortable than the leather saddle had been. He sat up and took the reins, wrapped his legs about the stallion and kicked him lightly with his heels. "Walk, please."

Moon Fire did so, with his head up high, his hooves dancing over the grass.

Harry soon discovered that it was easier for him to feel the horse beneath him without the saddle, but harder for him to stay in one spot, since he had to grip hard with his legs to avoid sliding. Moon Fire made two complete circles of the paddock, occasionally tossing his head.

Hands, Potter! Relax your grip on the reins and don't drag at my mouth. Easy, you don't need to tug that way, I'm not a pull toy. Simply give the reins a gentle tug in the direction you wish me to go.

"Sorry, sir." He cautiously reached down a hand and stroked Moon Fire's neck. He loosened his hold on the reins. "Can we go a bit faster?"

Moon Fire whinnied, then stretched out into a smooth gait halfway between a walk and a trot. Harry clung gamely to the horse's back, and gradually began to feel more comfortable atop Moon Fire. He started to be able to move with the horse, the rocking motion was almost soothing. Until he tugged on the reins and sat back to try and make the horse stop.

He tugged too hard and Moon Fire stopped so suddenly he flew off and landed on the ground again.

He picked himself up. "What did I do now?"

You keep yanking the reins. Until you cease doing it, I shall keep knocking you off my back.

"Touchy, aren't you?" Harry grumbled.

You would be as well if you had a teenager hanging on your mouth, the horse snapped, laying his ears back.

"Sorry."

You were doing much better until then. The stallion conceded.

"Told you this way worked better for me," Harry said, a bit smugly.

Moon Fire snorted and trotted back to the mounting block.

Finally the two hours were up and Moon Fire let Harry untack him and rub him down as he had done Jasmine. Mindful of how thin-skinned the stallion was, Harry was careful not to tug out any knots and brush his coat gently. Then he went and carried the saddle inside along with the rest of the riding gear.

When he came out again, Severus was standing there. "Not bad for your first time. Tomorrow will be easier."

"Sure it will. For you," Harry shot back. "I'll be lucky if I can sit down."

Severus chuckled. "You ought to be glad you're a wizard, Harry. Otherwise you'd be suffering with a sore behind for much longer, with only hot baths and cushions to help you. Come, we both need a shower. You'll find a container of salve in the cabinet, put it on after your shower."

"Then can we eat? I'm starving."

"I'm not surprised. Riding always gives me an appetite."

Together they went back to the house, tired yet more relaxed than they had ever been around each other.

Harry was more tired than he thought, for he fell asleep on the couch reading a book about riding techniques. When he woke, sometime in the middle of the night, he found himself in his own bed and didn't remember how he had gotten there. He turned over and snuggled into the sheets, his last thought was that perhaps Severus had put him there.

Then he fell asleep and dreamed of riding Moon Fire across the sky at a speed faster than any Firebolt.

The next morning, Harry was so sore he staggered to breakfast, walking almost like an old man. Severus raised an eyebrow but thankfully did not comment, and when Harry sat down, took pity on him and placed a Cushion charm upon his seat. He ate his oatmeal and fruit without saying anything, drank his potion, then went to wash the dishes.

Severus gave him points for fortitude, and asked Harry if he would mind brewing some Pain Reliever with him that morning.

"But I thought we were going riding?" Harry said, surprised.

"Are you feeling up to it? You seemed a bit stiff from what I observed."

Harry colored. "My backside is a little sore." Severus gave him a sharp look. "Okay, more than a little," he amended. "But I'll live."

"So I would assume that you enjoy your riding lessons, despite your sore backside and your sharp-tempered mount?" Severus drawled.

"You assume right, sir."

"Ah. Still, I do have to get this brewed, and so perhaps you would assist me, that way I shall be done quicker?"

"All right." Harry agreed, not as adverse as he used to be to brewing since he had begun to spend time with his professor. And though he had been rather casual about it, his bottom really was hurting. Not sitting down for awhile would feel quite good. As would a second application of salve.

That second lesson, Harry only fell off twice, both times because he wasn't paying attention when Moon Fire switched directions abruptly. But he took the falls and the scolding he received for not paying attention with good grace, for he found he couldn't get enough of riding the sleek stallion.

He felt an unexplainable connection between himself and Moon Fire when he rode, and he improved rapidly once he allowed himself to become immersed in it. By the end of three days, his bruises had faded to yellow and green and he only needed to apply the salve once a day.

Moon Fire was pleased with his rider's progress and had moved on to teaching Harry how to post at the trot. That gait was one of the hardest to learn for a rider, and Harry soon discovered a whole new world of balance and conditioning existed, as did a new realm of bruises.

The first time the stallion broke into a trot, Harry jounced and bounced all over before falling right off Moon Fire's back. The stallion whinnied and shook his head. Up, youngling. And try not to bounce so hard.

"Okay, Moon Fire," Harry said through gritted teeth, wondering if he were going to have vertebrae-sized bruises on his bum that night.

This gait is always difficult for riders. You may want to use the saddle, since the stirrups help tremendously. He nuzzled the boy affectionately.

"No. I'll learn it this way."

Despite the soreness, Harry was loving every minute of his riding lessons. Moon Fire had not yet raced with him, but just being on the great horse's back was exhilarating. Moon Fire was as graceful as any unicorn, and Harry's natural agility and balance enabled him to pick up the silent cues the stallion sent him. He learned to sit lightly atop his fleece pad, and hold the reins with the lightest of touches. He learned to ask rather than demand, and to trust Moon Fire to know what he was doing.

He loved stroking the silken hide and putting his face against Moon Fire's neck, listening to the great heart beating solidly in his chest and reveling in the warmth radiating from the stallion. Being with the horse fulfilled some unknown need within him and when he rode Moon Fire he felt some odd mystical connection deep inside.

The riding was also, he noted in satisfaction, putting muscle upon his lanky frame. He hoped that by the end of the summer he would be as tall and muscular as Ron.

By the end of the week, Harry was only falling once per lesson and receiving more praise than criticism from his stallion.

He was also mastering wandless magic at a good rate, since he was practicing it every day, using Cleaning Charms and Summoning Charms and now Severus had him studying Sticking Charms as well.

But he spent most of his free time reading The Path of Mysteries, and learning that the Selenians who pledged themselves to the Moon Lady's Bright Aspect were sworn to fight their dark brethren wherever and however they could, and to protect the innocents and Muggles who inhabited the world with them. Selene had told Her followers that they were all Her children, Muggle and wizard, and She loved them both.

It made him happy to read that such tolerance existed in the wizarding world, for he had often seen the dark side of prejudice and intolerance in the magical community, from house elves to Muggleborns. He wondered too, just how many wizards and witches followed Selene, and if they were enough to make a difference. He had to admit that the tenets of the religion that he had read about so far appealed to him. Selene seemed like a goddess that he could respect and even love, considering that She had been watching over him since he was a baby.

Severus had certainly benefited from worshipping Her, and not just in the magical and material sense, but Harry had seen how the other's faith seemed to sustain him during troubled times. Harry wished he had something like that to fall back on.

Perhaps someday he would, he thought, as he opened the book to the chapter where an initiate described the ceremony where he had been dedicated to the goddess and given a special test to fulfill by Selene.

I wonder what Professor Snape's test was? Or my mother's? And if I were to become an initiate, what would mine be?

Hope you all enjoyed this one!

Next: More riding lessons and an unexpected visitor shows up.

Chapter 13: Midnight Visitor
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An unexpected visitor arrived the afternoon Harry learned to gallop on Moon Fire. The stallion had finally, after several days of practice, given in to Harry's begging and agreed to a short gallop across the pasture. But the big horse warned the eager boy that he wouldn't be responsible if Harry parted company with the saddle pad during the accelerated ride.

If you fall off, don't blame me, Moon Fire warned.

"I won't," Harry promised. "I remember everything you taught me about a good seat and steady hands."

The stallion eyed him expectantly. We'll see. Make sure your hat is on tight.

Harry sighed, for he disliked the hardhat Severus insisted he wear every lesson, it made his head sweat and his hair stand up like porcupine quills once he removed it. "Do I really have to wear it?"

Moon Fire bared his teeth in irritation. I cannot believe you actually asked me that question. Why don't you ask yourself if you'd like to end up a paraplegic and drink all your meals through a straw and live the rest of your life in bed?

Harry gulped. "Never mind. I'll wear the hat." He put the hat on and tightened the strap. No way did he want to end up like Christopher Reeve.

Smart boy. Mount up.

Harry mounted, barely needing the mounting block now. Once he was seated comfortably upon the stallion's back, Moon Fire began to canter, allowing Harry to settle into that pace before shifting into a full gallop. His black mane whipped back and slapped Harry across the face, but he hardly felt the stinging, he was so consumed with the exhilaration of his first real gallop on a horse that could rival a unicorn for sheer speed.

Moon Fire extended his stride, though he was not running full out as he had done that night in the forest, he was nevertheless running pretty fast. He kept his head up and his tail flagged behind him like a thick black train. The boy on his back clung like a burr, his thighs clamped tight around the stallion's barrel, hands light and firm upon the reins, just the way Moon Fire liked them.

Harry drank the wind, his eyes shining. The stallion's hooves beat out a regimented tattoo across the paddock, like thunder, and the sheer speed of Moon Fire's stride nearly stole the breath from his body. He knew he had ridden a broom faster than this, but somehow even the Firebolt couldn't compare with the feeling of delight and power and awe that riding Moon Fire conjured within him.

Beneath him, he could feel the stallion's muscles rippling and flexing like a well-oiled machine, sending them hurtling across the paddock like a rocket. Harry heard the wind whistle in his ears and he leaned close to the stallion's neck and whispered, "That's the way, Moon Fire. Fly, great one, fly!"

He recalled reading an excerpt from a horse racing magazine, the author had written that watching a race horse run was like watching wildfire in the grass—unstoppable and unforgettable. Harry thought that no truer statement had ever been spoken. Riding Moon Fire at a gallop was like being in the heart of a bonfire, a black firestorm that swept out of nowhere and streaked across the earth, devouring everything in his path.

The great stallion flicked an ear back, he could feel Harry balancing upon his back, moving easily and rhythmically, as if he had been riding since he was a small child. It was strange, but something had clicked with the boy in the past few days, and he had discovered his center. He no longer sat like a sack of meal upon Moon Fire's back, but had finally figured out how to sit with most of his weight forward, and use his thighs and knees to grip, moving with the stallion.

Moon Fire accelerated, whipping about the paddock, his flying hooves hardly touching the earth before leaping forward again. Harry was laughing in delight, he was addicted to speed and the stallion fulfilled his every wish, he felt as if he were riding a lightning bolt, and it both thrilled and frightened him.

He did not even try and guide the stallion the way he would have with an ordinary horse, he realized long ago that Moon Fire called the shots, and any hint of control was an illusion. The stallion was the instructor and Harry did not fool himself for an instant debating who was really in charge. It should have bothered him, on some level. It did not because he trusted the professor, whatever form he wore, to have his best interests at heart.

Well, Harry? Had enough yet?

Harry blinked back tears from the wind and shouted, "No way! Is this the fastest you can go?"

Hardly. But I can't get up to top speed here.

"Then why don't we get out of here?"

Moon Fire snorted. All in good time, youngling. He slowed down from his blistering gallop to a smooth canter and from there to a walk and finally halted beside the barn. He was barely lathered.

Harry sat back in the saddle with a sigh. "Did you have to stop? I wanted to keep going."

Moon Fire swung his head about and lipped the boy's boot playfully. Later we'll have another gallop. I have a Memory Enhancer simmering for Madam Pomfrey that I need to decant. However, if you haven't had your fill of riding just yet, why don't you take Jasmine out for a bit? She could use the exercise, and she is well-mannered and smooth gaited for an ordinary horse.

Harry considered. "All right." He slid down from Moon Fire's back and patted the stallion on the shoulder. "Just give me a minute to rub you down, okay?"

The stallion tossed his head affirmatively and Harry called the soft cloth and a bucket of warm water to him and sponged the black horse off, rubbed him dry, and brushed the tangles from his silken mane. The work left him pleasantly weary and pleased with himself, and Moon Fire's coat became glossy and sleek.

Moon Fire enjoyed the grooming session as well, he was rather vain about his appearance in this form, and he loved the feeling of the brush and cloth upon his hide. Harry seemed to know all the itchy spots upon his back and sides that he couldn't reach himself and rubbed them all away.

"There, Moon Fire. All done!" Harry declared, stepping away from the horse.

Moon Fire tossed his forelock away from his eyes and snorted a thanks, then he blurred into Professor Snape once more.

"You have an hour and a half to ride before you'll need to come in and start on your room and bathroom."

"Aww, Merlin!" groaned the teen, he had forgotten that today was Wednesday, which was cleaning day at the Snape residence.

Severus chose to ignore the boy's griping and headed inside to finish his potion.

Harry sent the grooming kit back inside the barn with a flick of his wrist, which was another little trick Severus had taught him. Then he went to get Jasmine from her stall. The Arab mare had been patiently awaiting his arrival, and he stroked her nose. "Hey, girl. Sorry I haven't been riding you too much lately."

He scratched her ears and then slipped the bridle on her. He still preferred riding with his modified saddle pad, and he quickly had her tacked up. "Come on, Jazzy. Let's go for a bit of a run."

The Arab pricked up her ears and trotted after him happily. Though she was not in the same class as Moon Fire, she could work up a respectable gallop and she cantered beautifully, her paces were smooth as silk.

Harry mounted her easily, after Moon Fire, getting aboard Jasmine was easy as pie, since she was much smaller and more compact. He clicked his tongue at her and nudged her into a walk and from there to a trot and then a canter. Trotting was not his best gait, in fact he disliked it intensely, since he tended to bounce more than post, and ended up with a bruised rear end half the time. So he usually skipped over that when he rode Jasmine, and went directly to a canter.

Jasmine was delighted to be ridden, at the riding school where she lived, she was normally ridden several times a day, so being at the Snape residence was sort of like a mini holiday for her. It was nice to rest, but she missed being ridden at least once a day, and Harry was not as bad as some beginning riders, who tended to kick her ribs too hard and saw on her delicate mouth.

She switched from a trot to a canter easily, obviously happy to be asked to travel faster than a tame lope. Harry soon grew bored with riding her about the paddock and decided to take her across the field for a little bit.

He had done that before, and Jasmine seemed to enjoy it, though Severus didn't know his student had left the safety of the paddock for the rolling green meadow beyond. Harry never went far, and saw no need to inform his teacher of his little indiscretion.

He dismounted, unlatched the gate and clucked to the Arab once he had swung aboard her again.

Jasmine eagerly walked through the gate and then Harry turned her head towards the rolling pastureland and gave the mare her head for a few minutes.

Jasmine cantered about halfway down to the border of Sherwood, circled and started to head back towards the house, Harry guiding her with subtle twists of his wrists. Mindful of Moon Fire's acid comments about riders who thought a horse was a pull toy, and yanked their mouth to pieces, Harry was careful to exert only enough pressure to tell Jasmine where he wished her to go.

They had just passed the tree at the far end of the pasture when Harry spotted a girl sitting upon the fence. He immediately drew Jasmine up and halted. "Hey! How'd you get here?" he called to the child, who looked to be no more than eight or nine.

The girl was dressed in a violet colored tunic that came to her knees and could probably double as a dress. She had skin pale as milk and hair that was the color of dandelion fluff and her eyes were huge saucers of violet with hints of midnight blue. She was also barefoot. Harry stared, unable to look away. He had very little experience with small children, but this child was without a doubt the oddest and most adorable one he had ever seen.

She looked up at him solemnly, eyeing both him and his horse, then she flashed him a secretive smile.

He couldn't help but respond to it. It was infectious. "Hi. Would you mind answering my question?"

She shrugged.

"Are you lost? Did you come here by mistake?"

That earned him a brisk head shake. She extended her little hand and suddenly Jasmine walked forward and nuzzled her palm. The child stroked the horse and giggled.

"No, huh? I guess you like horses. Her name's Jasmine, by the way. Mine's Harry. What's yours?"

The child seemed enraptured with the mare and ignored his question.

Harry frowned. "How come you're not answering me? Can you speak at all?" Too late he realized that might be a rude question.

She looked up at him, her little head cocked and her purple eyes vivid smudges of color in her pale face. Their eyes met and suddenly Harry felt a tingling sensation crawl over him.

Then he heard a little voice say, This way of speaking is easier for me. I've been watching you ride. You're pretty good for a novice.

Harry blinked. He hadn't seen her mouth move, but he had heard quite clearly a voice in his head. "You're a telepath? Wow! You're the first one I've met. Do you live around here?"

Yes. She pointed back towards the forest.

"You come from Sherwood Forest? What are you, some kind of wood sprite—like a dryad?"

The girl gave another shrug. It's not important.

Harry's brow crinkled. "Why not? Don't you have a home and a family? You're too little to be on your own."

For some reason that made the child laugh. Her laughter was sweet and pure, like music.

My family knows where I am.

"They let you just wander all over by yourself? Isn't that kind of . . .irresponsible?"

Another shrug. There is no danger here. Is there?

"No. Not like the bad kind. But Professor Snape might not like you trespassing."

He is your instructor, isn't he?

"Yeah, and also my guardian."

That's good. He seems like a good teacher.

Harry wondered if all dryads were this talkative. "He is. And if my friend Ron ever heard what I just said, he'd fall down in a faint."

Why?

"Because he . . .err . . .doesn't really like the professor much."

I see. Jasmine is such a pretty mare. How long have you had her?

"A few weeks. We borrowed her from a riding academy nearby. The owner is friends with my guardian. She's a nice mare. Perfect for a kid like you."

Are you saying I don't know how to ride? The violet eyes flashed, clearly she was insulted.

"No, but Jasmine's not all jumpy like some horses, she's got patience and heart. Professor Snape says she's a good horse for a beginner like me to start out with. I just thought . . .you're so little . . ."

Shall I show you how well I ride, Harry? She hopped off the fence.

He unlatched the gate and went inside the paddock. Then he dismounted. "Fine. As long as you ride her inside the paddock. Do you need some help—?"

He never finished his sentence because she took one jump and was on top of the mare's back, sitting there as if she owned the mare. Her heels just brushed Jasmine's flanks and Jasmine began to trot obediently about the paddock.

Harry watched in astonishment as the child rode calmly and competently, sitting up straight, hands light on the reins, as if she had spent her whole life on horseback.

She gave invisible cues that he couldn't spot and Jasmine changed leads. Small or not, she rode with such grace that Harry could not help but envy her. "You are good. Where did you learn?"

She gave him another of those inscrutable looks, before sending, Here and there. I pick things up quickly. She patted the mare and Jasmine whickered and began to canter. The child barely moved, clearly whoever had taught her had been a master.

"You're really good. Think you can give me some pointers?"

If you like.

"You must live near the riding school Jasmine came from, right?"

The violet eyes twinkled. Close by there. I haven't seen you before around here.

"That's 'cause I only recently moved here. It was kind of sudden."

She cocked her head.

"My relatives died and the professor offered to be my guardian since I had no one else. If he hadn't, I don't know where I'd be now. Probably in some wizard foster home or something." He covered his mouth with a hand. "Uh . . .you do know that we're wizards, right?"

She gave another chuckle. Of course, silly! Your power shines like a beacon. And only a wizard child would accept that I can speak into your head and not flip out and run away.

"Yeah, I guess that's true. My aunt and uncle hated anything to do with magic and I think they'd have preferred it if I ran away."

The girl made one more circuit and then brought the mare to a halt just before him. Muggles are strange. They live an odd life without magic.

Harry shrugged, figuring she must come from an all magical family in order to make a statement like that. "Sometimes it seems that way. That's why I'm glad I live with the professor now. He's strict but fair and we understand each other. He's actually the first adult I've ever known who just cares about me as Harry and not because of what happened when I was a baby."

She raised an eyebrow.

"I killed a dark wizard when I was a baby. Ever since, they've called me the Boy Who Lived. The Headmaster of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, thinks it makes me special, but I don't even know how I did it. Professor Snape thinks Selene Marked me."

The girl nodded. I can feel protection all over you. Are you Her initiate then?

"Not yet, but I'm starting to consider it. I've read quite a bit about Her and She seems to be a goddess I can respect. Do you worship Her?"

The girl smiled enigmatically. Do you trust the professor?

"Yes. More than I do just about anyone else. He's the only one to treat me like . . .well . . .something other than a celebrity or a means to an end. Dumbledore means well, but he thinks I'm some kind of hero, and sometimes . . .sometimes he tends to treat me like a . . .wind-up toy, that's a Muggle toy that you wind up and then let go and it does stuff like fight your enemies. That's how I feel sometimes. I mean, first year I nearly died fighting Quirrell, he was possessed, and then next year it was the basilisk, then a werewolf, and then the tournament. I don't want to spend my life fighting off all these bloody monsters. The school is supposed to be safe, and shouldn't it be the teachers' jobs to deal with all these bad guys? Yet every time I face one, the damn teachers and the Headmaster are like conveniently absent."

The little girl gave him a sympathetic look.

He sighed. "I don't know why I'm telling you this, it's not like you can do anything about it now. It's done and over with. Headmaster's already patted me on the head like a good dog, right? Then he was going to send me back home to my scum relatives and the only one who cared at all was Professor Snape."

He is a good man then.

"He is, only don't tell him I said that. He thinks it'll ruin his reputation as a strict hardarse teacher. Maybe it would. But I owe him."

Do you? There are no debts between family. And with them, and with Selene, you're never alone. She handed Jasmine's reins to him, and gave him a quiet smile.

"Sorry, I don't usually blab on and on like this to anybody. I don't know why I told you this, you don't even know me."

Because you needed to. I'm a good listener.

"Uh huh. Like Hermione."

Just then, he heard Snape calling him from the porch. "Gotta run. I have chores to do. Maybe you can come back tomorrow?"

The child nodded, smiling.

"You could meet the professor—"

Abruptly she shook her head and put a finger to her lips.

"No? But he won't bite, honest."

She frowned and shook her head again, repeating the gesture.

"All right. Maybe some other time." He turned to lead Jasmine back into the barn and when he glanced back, the child was gone. "Where'd she go?" he wondered.

Once he had finished with Jasmine, he came inside to wash up.

"How was your ride with Jasmine, Harry?"

"Good. Professor, do you know of any wizarding families that live around here?"

"No, the closest wizarding institution is Andromeda's academy and that is five miles from here on a fast horse. Why?"

"Because today I—" he opened his mouth to tell his guardian about his unexpected visitor and found he was unable to speak of it. Every time he tried, his throat closed up and his tongue refused to form the words.

"Yes?"

"I . . .was just wondering, that's all," he finished. Some kind of enchantment. Must be. But I never saw her cast a spell. He poured himself a glass of milk and drank it on the way up to the loft, still pondering the mystery child. If she really was a child, and not one of the folk of the forest.

Only then did he realize that she had left and he had never learned her name.

Hope you're not getting bored with this story, because things are about to heat up next chapter!

Thanks for all the reviews, please keep them coming!

Chapter 14: Midnight Advice
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Three days later, Harry had finished The Path of Mysteries. Unfortunately, he had neglected his Charms and History of Magic assignments to do so, which meant an extra hour of study time and an hour of re-painting the paddock fence as well. But that last had been because of his sulky attitude after Severus had scolded him about ignoring his assignments. So here he was again, with a fresh can of whitewash and a brush, painting the opposite side of the paddock, while Jasmine grazed calmly inside.

He was angry both at himself, for provoking Snape yet again and making the professor punish him, and also at Severus because the man could never let things slide. It had only been two essays and he had all freaking summer! He sighed in irritation and wielded the brush against the fence with undue force.

Suddenly, Jasmine lifted her head and whinnied a welcome.

Harry turned to see the little girl with the silver hair and violet eyes coming across the pasture. She was wearing the same tunic dress as before and her bare feet danced across the ground. "Hello."

She smiled and nodded at him and went to pet Jasmine, standing upon the fence to stroke the mare, who moved immediately to put her head into the girl's chest. For long moments the only sound was the Arab's sigh as the girl scratched her ears and neck, her small fingers hitting just the right spots.

Harry watched for a few moments, then turned back to his hated chore. He knew there would be hell to pay if Severus came out and didn't see him working.

He had just coated the brush when a voice spoke into his head.

What are you doing, Harry?

He jerked up his head. "I'm painting this fence."

She hopped down and came to stand near his shoulder, her head cocked, a quizzical look upon her face. How come?

"Because Professor Snape ordered me to, the damn strict pain in the arse." Harry replied, slapping the paint down.

You sound angry. Are his orders not fair?

"Well, yeah, kind of . . .it's because I had an attitude with him, see, and for some reason he thinks working will teach me to control myself better, or something like that. But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

She nodded solemnly. Punishments aren't meant to be fun.

He rolled his eyes. "Tell me something I don't know, Titania."

Titania? You address me by the name of the Faerie Queen?

"I have to call you something, since you don't seem to want to tell me your real name," said the boy, still painting.

It isn't time for you to know that, she replied enigmatically. Until it is, I suppose you may call me Titania. What did you do to earn your teacher's displeasure?

Harry told her. "He's got a right to be ticked off, I guess, but really, History of Magic could put a dead guy to sleep, even without Binns' lecturing, and I like the practical side of Charms, but reading about all the effects and stuff just makes me yawn. I can't help it. And the professor . . .he doesn't even remember what it's like to be a kid anymore, and want to do something other than study all the time."

She was silent for a moment. Then she said, So you think the knowledge he wishes you to learn is useless? Unimportant? A waste of time?

Harry shook his head. "No . . .but . . .I would have rather been reading The Path of Mysteries."

Selene's holy book? Are you Her follower now?

"Uh . . .no. But after reading about Her and what she represents and how She believes that all magic is connected to the universe and there must be a Balance between Light and Dark, and Muggle and wizard, wizard and magical beings . . .I really like that philosophy. It makes sense. More sense than binding house elves into eternal service, more sense than looking down upon half-bloods and Muggleborns. I was told once that all pureblood families have some Muggle blood in them, or else they would have died out. But the purebloods sneer at Muggleborns and call them Mudbloods."

People fear the different. Or are jealous of them for having more Talent. It is an old story, one that will never have a happy ending until people stop fearing and start listening with their hearts.

"Right. You're real smart for a little kid."

She laughed, and the sound reminded him of bells chiming, high and sweet. Thanks. Do you listen with your heart, Harry?

"I . . .I try."

If you do, then you'd know that your guardian isn't being cruel when he assigns you these tasks, he is trying to teach you something important.

"Yeah. How to wear myself to a sliver and watch my mouth."

No, silly! How to control your emotions and your magic.

"Huh? How do you figure that?"

"When you paint the fence, what do you feel?"

"Annoyed as crap. Why?"

Besides that. Moving the brush up and down, looking at the white paint, what do you feel?

"Sort of relaxed and calm."

And that is how you ought to feel when you touch your magic. Not angry, not frightened. Calm and in control. She moved then, and grasped his wrist lightly. You're doing it wrong. You need to flex your wrist, like so. She guided his wrist up and then down, and the paint went on in a smooth motion. See? Much better!

He grinned at her wryly. "Where'd you learn to paint a fence? I didn't think they had fences in Sherwood."

I am not always in Sherwood.

"I wish I had your parents. They don't seem to care what you do."

Why do you say that?

"Because you seem to just come and go as you please. You don't have anybody quoting rules at you."

Things aren't always what they seem. Sometimes, Harry, the hardest rules to follow are those you make yourself. When you lived with your aunt and uncle, they didn't really care what you did, right? Was that better than living with your teacher?

"No! Living here is twenty times better than living at Privet Drive. It's just . . .he's so stuck on rules sometimes it drives me mad."

Perhaps that's his way of showing you he cares.

"That's crazy!"

Rules exist for your safety. If he didn't care about you, would he bother making sure you followed them and were safe?

Harry thought about that. He supposed not. He knew the professor cared about him, otherwise he would have left Harry at Privet Drive. It was good to have someone who cared, but at the same time he missed not being answerable for homework to anyone but himself. "No, but . . .who's side are you on anyhow?"

She grinned impudently at him. My own side, of course.

"You are one strange kid." He turned back to painting the fence.

She shrugged, plainly not bothered by his statement. She watched him paint, sticking her nose in when he missed a spot or paint dripped onto the grass. Wipe it up. You'll kill the grass. That's poison to growing things.

"Hey, calm down. It's just grass."

Grass that your horse and other animals need to live. If somebody threw garbage into your drinking water, would you be so calm about it?

"No." He knelt and wiped up the paint. He had never thought about it like that before.

Respect the earth and it shall respect you.

"You're just full of advice this morning, aren't you?" Harry said, half-amused.

She shrugged again. Why is that funny?

"You're a little young to be giving me advice, don't you think?"

Not if you need it. You missed a spot there.

He scowled at her. "What are you, the paint police? You think you can do a better job?"

Yes. But you need the practice, she returned primly.

He turned and stuck his tongue out at her. It was very childish, but somehow he didn't care.

Then he returned to his fence painting, concentrating on making the paint nice and even and trying not to drip on the grass.

The child lay down a few feet away and put her hands behind her head, staring up at the clouds, which reshaped themselves into dragons and unicorns and other mythical creatures for her amusement. But Harry did not notice, and as soon as he had finished painting the fence, she sat up and the clouds blew into wisps.

"How's that look?" He stepped back from the fence.

Good. Your guardian should be pleased.

"He damn well ought to be. I busted my arse." Harry declared, wiping his hands on the back of his jeans.

You do like to complain, don't you?

He glared at her. "If you'd had to do that, I bet you'd complain too."

Why don't you go for a ride? Jasmine is bored being in the paddock all day.

Harry waved a hand and sent the whitewash and brush floating onto the back porch. "My thoughts exactly." He walked around to the gate and entered the paddock, Summoning the saddle pad and bridle as he did so.

Jasmine nickered and trotted over to him, staying still while he placed the tack on her.

Harry swung aboard her, and the mare danced happily in a circle before settling down when he pulled on the reins. "Whoa, girl. Easy." He looked back at the child and rode Jasmine over the gate where she was standing. "Want to come? You're light enough for Jasmine to carry us both."

If you want. But I like to go fast. She hopped up into the saddle before him, her bare feet banging against his boots.

He swung the gate open and Jasmine cantered out of it. The mare was feeling her oats today, because Harry had to rein her in when they circled the paddock and then he let her go, pointing her towards the forest.

Jasmine leaped forward like an arrow released from a bow, her hooves flying over the grass. Harry clung to her and glanced down at Titania, but he needn't have worried about the strange wise child. She might have been on a rocking horse, she sat easily in the saddle, unconcerned about the mare's sudden burst of speed, her small hands twined in the white mane.

Jasmine raced full out, Harry urging her faster and faster. They breezed about a mile before he tugged gently on the reins and slowed her, then turned and raced back towards the paddock. The little mare was as game as they come, and galloped eagerly towards the paddock.

Harry gloried in the rush of speed and the feel of the mare beneath him. Jasmine did not have the electrifying speed and sheer power of Moon Fire, but she was a graceful horse with a sweet temper and a willingness to please her rider.

He galloped Jasmine to the paddock and back again towards the woods. The little girl was laughing and delighted. Run, Jasmine, run!

Jasmine put her ears back and galloped even faster.

Harry crouched over the little girl, hearing the wind sing in his ears, and he thought he was in heaven. Or at least very close to it. He clucked to the mare and they swung back towards the paddock.

He slowed suddenly when he caught sight of a familiar figure waiting at the gate.

The professor was standing with his arms folded, eyeing his wayward charge sternly.

"Damn, he looks really ticked off," Harry groaned. He looked down at the child, only to find that she had simply vanished. Again. Gone again! How does she do that? She might have stuck around for a bit and delayed the scolding I'm about to get. Though he didn't know why Severus was angry at him. He had completed the fence.

He pulled Jasmine to a neat halt in front of the other man. "Sir? Is something the matter?"

Severus raised an eyebrow. "You tell me, young man. What were you supposed to do after finishing that fence?"

Then Harry remembered. "Oh. I forgot. I'll finish my essay right away. Sorry." He slid down from Jasmine and started to lead her towards the barn. "Am I in trouble again?"

"You will be unless you finish that assignment."

"Yes, sir." He hurried towards the barn.

"Harry."

He turned and looked at his guardian.

"Who gave you permission to ride outside the paddock?"

"I . . .you never said I couldn't."

"I never said you could, either. Next time ask me first. And where's your hat?"

"In the tack room."

"How many times must I remind you to wear it?" Severus growled. "Is it so difficult to remember? Must I Stick it to your head?"

"No. I forgot. It won't happen again."

"See that it doesn't. Or else you won't be allowed to ride any horse for two days."

"Two days! But that's not—"

"Don't say it," Snape cut him off. "Part of riding is being responsible for your own safety as well as your horse's. If you can't do that, then you shouldn't be riding."

"Okay! I said I'd remember." Harry snapped, then he turned and started walking towards the barn again.

"Mind the tone. I'm not going to tell you again," warned Severus, his patience shredding.

"Yes, sir," he responded automatically. Then he muttered under his breath, "Bloody damn hardarsed git!"

"Put the mare away and then see me in the kitchen." Severus said shortly, fuming.

Harry was already leading the mare into the barn and didn't bother acknowledging the command.

It would seem he was right back where he'd started.

Until he entered the kitchen and saw Severus waiting holding a spoon and a brown bottle. Only then did he remember that Snape had ears like a proverbial bat.

Cod-liver oil tasted worse than any potion he had ever had. Worse, it clung to the inside of his mouth and tongue, slick and nasty. He gagged and spit for three minutes, trying to rid himself of the horrid taste before Severus said, "Enough, boy. It'll linger for a bit as a reminder. Next time, watch your mouth, and don't test me."

"Yes, sir." He darted a glance at the professor, expecting to see satisfaction upon the other's face. Instead he saw only a sort of weariness. Apparently, Snape did not seem to enjoy punishing him. Unlike Uncle Vernon, who had derived a certain sick pleasure in walloping him.

"Go finish your essay." Severus waved him away.

Harry went upstairs to finish his belated homework, leaving Severus alone in the kitchen, rubbing his itching brand beneath his long-sleeved shirt. The tingling sensation boded no good. Voldemort was stirring and that meant trouble for everyone.

He rubbed his temples and scowled. This was all he needed.

Severus was terse to the point of being uncommunicative during dinner. Harry noticed and wondered if the other was still angry at him and giving him the silent treatment. He kept glancing over at the other while eating his shepherd's pie until Snape set down his fork and gave him a direct glower.

"What is it? Why do you keep looking at me that way? Have I grown horns and fangs? Turned purple?"

"No. It's just . . .are you still mad at me? Is that why you aren't talking to me?" Harry asked, trying to sound matter-of-fact.

But Severus heard the slight quiver in the boy's voice and said, less abrasively, "No. Once I punish you for an infraction, Harry, it's over and done with. Unless you repeat it. I've got a lot on my mind tonight." He picked up his fork and resumed eating, trying to ignore the hot flashes of pain in his arm from the Dark Mark. It was not a summons, not yet. But the Dark Lord was irritated and making his annoyance known.

"Oh. I thought . . ." he trailed off. He didn't need to burden Severus with his stupid insecurities. He took a bite of his salad.

"Thought what?" Severus asked softly, sensing the boy was upset. "That I wouldn't forgive you? That I would show you the door? Because I assure you that no matter your attitude, I will never tell you to leave. There will be times when we have differences and arguments, it happens to everyone, in every family. We are no different."

"Are too. You haven't backhanded me across the mouth yet." Harry blurted.

"Nor will I. Clearly, force does not work with you. Anymore than it did with me. Therefore, I will try alternative methods to get my point across. And pray to the Lady that you learn your lesson."

"I have. Selene's Grace, I have," Harry said fervently. He never wanted to taste cod-liver oil again for as long as he lived.

"Good. Despite what you might think, I did not enjoy that, however you needed it. You need to learn to guard that wayward tongue. A wizard's magic expresses itself in words, and words are power, child. Use them wisely and only lie if you absolutely have to." He grimaced and swallowed a sip of his lemon water, which was laced with some Pain Reliever. It would dull the throbbing.

"Is that why you made me paint the fence too?"

"Yes. Discipline is the cornerstone of a wizard's power. If you can't control your impulses, you'll have a difficult time controlling your magic as well. And an uncontrolled wizard is dangerous to everyone. You have a great deal of inherent power in you. You could burn out your magical core if you allow your magic to run unchecked. That's why I'm stressing control over your emotions now. Someday it may save your life."

"I understand. I'm sorry I'm so aggravating."

"Humph! All teenagers are aggravating, Harry. I expect it. Just try not to let it happen so often."

"Okay." So the silver-haired waif had been right after all. She really was too smart for her own good. He wished he could tell Severus about her, but he still couldn't speak about her to the other wizard. It was very frustrating. Though it was one way to keep a secret.

Harry looked out the window and saw that dusk had fallen. The moon was halfway up, a silver crescent in the darkening sky. He felt an odd tingle in his bones and turned to his guardian and asked, "Are you going to go for a run tonight, sir? If you are, could I . . .ride with you? Please?"

Severus sighed. "Not tonight. I'm rather tired. Maybe tomorrow." He rose to his feet. "Dishes, Harry."

Harry rose also, eager to show off his growing mastery of wandless magic. He sent the dishes into the sink with a gesture and a soft, "Wingardium Leviosa!" Then he cast a "Scourgify!" a few moments later.

Severus nodded his approval. "You've been practicing. Well done. Perhaps it's time to teach you a new spell."

"Like what?"

"An Unlocking Charm." Severus answered. "But not tonight. Fetch me your essay."

Harry called it off his desk and it floated over to Severus as if it had wings. He was proud of it until he tried to make it halt and it ended up hitting the professor in the face. "Oops, sorry!"

That got him a half a glare and then Snape took his History of Magic essay into the den to proofread it.

Harry waited patiently until Severus had declared the essay adequate before sititng down next to the other man. "Professor, I was reading up on the initiation ceremony in Selene's book, and several times it mentioned an ordeal that a person had to undergo. But it wasn't very specific, only saying that the goddess chose the task for the initiate. Can you tell me more?"

"No, for the task for each initiate is different. And also a very personal affair, between you and the Lady. It is not something to be spoken of lightly. It is something you need to experience to understand."

"What is She testing for?"

"She wishes to make sure that your choice comes from your heart, that you were not forced into it, or persuaded by magic. Her followers must come to Her willingly or not at all, knowing that She asks them to be protectors and keepers of the Old Ways—to cherish the earth and the animals who walk it, to help those in need, whether Muggle or wizard, to fight the dark magic by whatever means necessary, including giving your own life should it be required. And also to preserve the Balance of power between Light and Dark—for the dark cannot be eradicated, only pushed back and balanced by light. Both are necessary, but when the Balance tips, then She may call you to act to right it, as She did me. You have seen her nurturing Aspect, the face of the Mother, but She also has a warrior Aspect, and in that She can be ruthless and deadly. You only summon that Aspect in dire need, for once She comes, She shall slay any who threaten you, or have threatened you, without mercy."

"Have you ever summoned that Aspect of her?"

"Once. The night your mother and father died. I called upon Her for vengeance and She answered. Many Death Eaters perished that night, and those who did not were imprisoned in Azkaban. It is not something I would do again, unless I had no other choice. The Bright One's Rage is not to be taken lightly."

"How come some of the Death Eaters survived then?"

"The Aurors had already taken them into custody when I invoked Her vengeance. Everything in balance, remember?"

"I've been dreaming about Her," Harry told him. "In my dreams, She protects me and comforts me after . . .after Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia punish me for nothing or Dudley pounds on me. But it almost doesn't feel like a dream . . .it sort of feels like it really happened . . .like a memory. Am I making any sense? I know it sounds insane . . ."

"Not really. One of the ways in which Selene comes to you is in dreams, they are Her province as Lady of the Mysteries. You may be remembering incidents from your childhood that you had either blocked out or She had made you forget until now."

"Why would She do that?"

"Perhaps because you were too young to comprehend things then and now you're not. I do not pretend to know Her mind. How often have you had these dreams?"

"Every night for a week. And there's more. When I wake up I feel . . .refreshed and at peace. Even if the dream starts out bad, by the end of it I'm not afraid because She's there with me."

"She will never leave you, Harry. When I stand before the Dark One, I know that She stands behind me, and gives me strength to endure his depravity without flinching."

"Would She do the same for me, if I asked? If I became Her initiate?"

Severus nodded. "She would. Are you considering following the Path of Mysteries? I warn you, it is not always easy. We Selenians often act in secret, without hope of recognition or reward, as our conscience and our goddess bids. We are not as respected as we once were, and we have fewer acolytes each year. But once you have passed your Ordeal and have been accepted to Her service, you shall be a part of the brethren until you die, or She Herself casts you out."

"Like She did He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named."

"Yes. She loves those strong in magic, but She hates hubris, and that was the great sin the Dark Lord committed, that and the willful destruction of children. That She could not forget or forgive. And so She turned away from him, and he from Her. He detests Her now and any who follow Her. He feels Her rejection keenly and yet he will never admit it was his fault. So when he comes upon a Selenian . . .he shows them no mercy."

"When does he ever?" Harry snorted. "Look at Cedric."

Severus sighed heavily. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. You should not blame yourself. Blame instead the one who committed the deed."

"Wormtail."

"He has much to answer for." Severus said gravely.

"No kidding. I'd like to kill him." Harry said furiously.

"I cannot blame you. But set aside your thoughts of revenge for now. Answer this question for me. Why would you choose Selene as your goddess?" When Harry would have answered, he held up a hand. "Think before you answer."

Harry did so, considering the question carefully. It was more complex than he thought at first. Finally, after almost fifteen minutes, he replied.

"Part of me chooses Her because She protected me that night on Halloween. I didn't know it, but for years I always felt safe when I looked up at the moon and stars. I guess I could feel Her then. She's been there for me throughout some of the worst things in my life, even though I didn't know it. She gave me courage to endure my relatives and to keep going even when my life sucked. She sent you to me and then She protected me when Quirrell tried to kill me. And with the basilisk and the werewolf too. There's never been anyone . . .except maybe you . . .who ever cared that much about me. She called me Her son. In my dreams."

"So you are. All of us are Her children."

"She makes me feel . . .like I belong. Like I'm worth something besides just being the Boy Who Lived. I like the philosophy She gave to us, how everyone matters—not just purebloods, or wizards, but regular people too. I can relate to that. I want to know more about Her, I want to learn what She has to teach, and to become someone other than a hero. I think She can help me do that."

"Yes. You are one of Her Chosen, Harry. She has a special purpose for you, one that is yet to be revealed. I do not know what it is, so do not ask. But I can tell you this. It is more than destroying her wayward son. To her Chosen, She gives great gifts, but also demands much of them. And there is always a price. I knew when I accepted Her into my heart long ago that sometimes the path I would walk would be lonely and hard, dark and twisted, but in the end I would know Her grace. For me, it was enough. Think about it some more, Harry. If you still feel the same tomorrow night, then I can begin your initiation. If you change your mind . . .I will not be angry. The choice is yours always."

"I don't need anymore time. I can give you my answer tonight."

"Do not. Sleep on it. It's not a decision to make lightly. Re-read The Path of Mysteries. I want you to be utterly certain before I perform the ceremony."

Harry agreed, though he was certain he wouldn't change his mind. He needed Selene, needed the comfort and stability She provided, and the love that was what he imagined his own mother would have given him. He needed that most of all.

Just then, Severus felt the brand on his arm flare into agony. He gritted his teeth to keep from screaming. Somewhere, Voldemort was hurting someone, perhaps several someones, and he was enjoying it. Snape could feel the Dark Lord's cruel delight through the link that bound them and he fought to keep from vomiting. Sometimes the brand gave him insight into the dark wizard's mind, which was why he had allowed himself to be Marked in the first place. Sometimes it worked to his advantage. Other times, like now, he could have done without the bloody thing.

He felt his head swim as the evil sorcerer used his power to harm, to suck the life from an innocent human being, simply for the pleasure of killing.

"Professor Snape? Are you okay?" Harry cried in alarm.

His teacher's face was gray and he shook as with a fever, his eyes were glassy and filled with pain.

Severus's mouth worked and he said hoarsely, "Harry . . .fetch me a Headache Remedy—Class Five. And an Anti-Nausea Draft as well. Do it now!"

Harry sprang to his feet and ran to the potions cabinet. He feared Snape was suffering a migraine or maybe something worse from the looks of things. He had just found what he needed when he realized he could have summoned them wandlessly. He mentally called himself an idiot and carried them over to the professor.

"Here, sir. Do you need help?"

Severus took the Headache Remedy first and then the Anti-Nausea Draft. Both potions worked almost immediately, dulling the terrible pain, though nothing could dull the awful truth that Voldemort was torturing and murdering people. Selene, help me. I ask you, Lady, to help me bring this mad thing to justice.

He closed his eyes, forcing himself to breathe slowly, as he did for meditation.

He felt a fluttering touch, delicate as a moth's wing, inside his mind.

Severus, My child, hear Me.

I hear you, Great Mother. What would You have of me?

A young witch is in grave peril. She must not be allowed to perish. Save her, Severus. Follow the path and save her!

He felt the goddess' need flow through his veins like liquid fire, a burning urgency in his blood that he could not help but obey. As You will, Lady.

He opened his eyes, his headache was gone, the burning of the brand subsumed by Selene's call. "Harry, stay here," he ordered abruptly. "Under no circumstances are you to leave the house, or the grounds, until I return."

Harry stared at him as if he had gone mad. "Professor, I don't understand. Where are you going? Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine. She has given me a mission. I need to save a girl."

"A girl? Who?"

"I don't know . . ." Severus began, but then an image flashed into his head of a slender girl with brown eyes and wild frizzy hair, a girl who forever had her nose stuck in a book, and who at turns both irritated and shocked him with her intellect.

The most brilliant witch of her generation—Hermione Granger.

Save her, Severus.

"But if you don't know who you're supposed to save, how will you find her?"

"Selene will guide me." He turned and gripped Harry by the shoulders, his hands were like iron claws, they dug into the boy's slender shoulders. "Stay here, Harry James Potter. You are safe here. Do not leave the property. Understand?"

"But . . ."

"Stay here. Don't worry about me. If I don't return in two days, contact Andromeda Tonks. She is another Selenian. She will help you."

"Can't you just tell me where you're going? Please!" Harry cried, the professor's gaze was fixed and his eyes were burning pits of black fire, they frightened him. Snape's fingers were digging into his shoulders, hurting him, but he made no attempt to pull away. "Please, professor!"

"I am going to the Granger residence," Severus answered curtly. "May Selene watch over you, child. I shall return as soon as I may." He released Harry with a snap and the boy toppled over on the couch, stunned.

"Hermione? Hermione's in danger?" he sputtered, getting to his feet.

Professor Snape did not answer. He strode to the front door of the house and opened it, sprang down the porch steps and blurred into Moon Fire.

The stallion reared, pawing the air, and the Mark upon his brow blazed incandescent fire. The moonlight shimmered down upon him, and Harry saw the black coat start to shimmer with eldritch fire.

"Be careful!" he called softly as the stallion leaped forward, his hooves trailing icy sparks.

Within moments he had vanished into the night, following a trail only his eyes could see, running with the speed of the wind itself.

"Come back to me," Harry whispered, feeling his heart constrict within his chest. "I need you too. Selene, please let him come home to me."

Frightened for both his guardian and his beloved friend, Harry went back inside, anxiety making his heart race and his stomach cramp. He located a Calming Draft in the cabinet and drank it down. Then he huddled upon the sofa, wrapped in Severus's favorite soft blue blanket and stared into the fire, praying that all would be well.

I know, an awful cliffy! But you ought to know that there will be at least one in any of my stories!

Hope you all liked this one! I will try and get the next chapter up soon so you can find out what happens with Severus and Hermione.

Thanks for reading and reviewing as always!

Chapter 15: Midnight Tragedy
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*Warning-you WILL want Kleenex for this one!*

Hermione had always thought of herself as a bright, resourceful, and courageous girl. After all, the Hat had put her in Gryffindor, which emphasized bravery. Her intelligence was sometimes daunting, but she had always prided herself on using her head and being a practical sort of person. Until now, she had always been able to solve any problems with her formidable brain, resourcefulness, and her teeth-gritting courage.

Until now.

Now she was helpless, undone, her magic bound, all of her courage and resourcefulness crumbled to nothing. Even her marvelous brain could see no way out of the trouble she was now in, and worse, she could not save those she loved best. All she could do was watch them die, and bear witness to the atrocity that was committed before her eyes. Her soul shriveled in horror, there was a terrible pressure about her heart that threatened to shatter it into a billion pieces, and yet she could not look away, or shut her eyes, no matter how much she longed to. She wanted to scream, to curse the evil wizards and witches who had torn apart her family, but her magic was trapped and her voice buried deep within her, where no one could hear the screams she uttered.

For the Dark Lord and his minions had come to Library Way, to her peaceful home, and proceeded to destroy her world. There had been no warning, no way that she could have prepared herself for what happened, the attack had been swift and deadly, like a pack of feral dogs attacking a herd of placid sheep.

She had been sitting down to dinner with her parents, Jeanne and Danny, serving herself a second helping of her mum's broccoli cheese casserole, the spoon buried deep in the vegetable dish when the bay window behind her shattered inward. She recalled screaming and her father shouting, "What the hell—!" her mother had cried out as well then asked her if she were all right.

"Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine, Mum," she had said, turning to see what had caused the window to break that way.

And she had come face to face with a grotesque silver mask worn by a tall figure in ash-colored robes.

She squeaked and backed away, calling her wand into her hand, but her reactions were too slow.

The Death Eater stepped through the window, boots crunching on glass, and casually disarmed her with a flick of his wand. "You dare raise a wand to me, Mudblood? I'll soon teach you the error of your ways," hissed the Death Eater, and then his hand clamped hard about her throat, silencing her.

Her father had cried something like, "Let her go, you bloody bastard!" and she had just enough time to marvel that her mild-mannered father had actually used foul language, which he almost never did, before her world went black as the hand closed off her airway.

When she came to, she found herself bound like a trussed pig by a silvery rope that glowed, tied to a tree in her backyard. The rope not only bound her physically, but magically as well, she discovered after trying to wandlessly Summon her wand. Before her in a semi circle were six Death Eaters and Voldemort himself. In the middle of the circle were her parents, bloodied and cut, eyes wide with fear and a sort of reckless eleventh-hour courage. They were not bound with ropes, but they remained on the ground, curled up, trembling with terror.

"Please, please, don't hurt my little girl," she heard her mother sob, and tears prickled her own eyes. She had never heard that particular tone in Jeanne Granger's voice before—a tone of utter defeat and terror, one that lacked any hope, reduced to begging for the mercy of those who had none.

"Do what you like with us, but let her go," her father spoke next, and in his voice was the same chilling despair.

Voldemort sneered. "A bargain, Muggle? You wish to strike a bargain with me?"

"I do," her father said, pushing himself to his knees.

"Fool!" Voldemort's boot shot out, kicking her father in the chin and knocking him flat. "I do not bargain with Muggles! I crush them!"

"Why? Why are you doing this to us?" asked Jeanne, helping her husband sit up, he was bleeding from nose and mouth.

"Because I can," laughed the other mercilessly. "Because Muggles are a blight upon the earth and need to be crushed like ants . . .or taught their place." He pointed his wand at Danny Granger and hissed something.

Her father began to writhe upon the ground, making horrible noises the human throat was never designed to render.

She tried to look away, but slender gloved hands wrenched her chin about. "Don't turn away, girl!" snarled a woman's voice. "You watch. This is part of your new education. Learn your first lesson well. Those who defy the Dark One shall suffer his wrath."

Then she released Hermione's chin, leaving red marks in her tender flesh and laughed—a high wild sound verging upon the edge of madness.

Hermione did not dare look away, and though she struggled silently to break her magical bonds, all of her anger and determination was useless. She hung her head, tears spilling down her cheeks, as Voldemort and his toadies had their sport with her parents. She would hear their cries in her sleep for years to come.

Desperate, she prayed silently—to God, to Selene, the Lady of Magic, to anyone who would listen. If anyone is out there, anyone at all, please help me! Help me and help my parents! Please!

She felt a kind of numbness creep over her, and didn't even flinch when the woman slapped her sharply across the face.

"Eyes front, girl! You ought to appreciate the Dark Lord teaching you this, it's not often he gives personal lessons this way. Now watch!"

Shaking, she looked again, and felt bile rise in her throat.

She glared fiercely at the wicked thing that called himself Voldemort and vowed silently that someday he would suffer the way she had suffered, the way her parents—may Selene have mercy—suffered. Someday, vengeance shall be mine! But then despair swept over her again and the hot flame of her courage withered in the frozen wasteland of fear. All was lost. She was alone and no one could hear her sobbing in the darkness.

Do not lose hope, little one. Help is coming. You are not alone, for I am with you.

She did not know where the silvery voice came from, perhaps from some last reserve of inner strength within, but it soothed and comforted her like nothing else. Though she was stiff and sore and paralyzed with fright, she felt a soothing warmth spreading through her, and phantom hands wrapping about her, holding her close.

I'm hallucinating. I must be. I'm so cold. In shock. And yet . . .I feel warm inside. Someone is coming to rescue me. But who?

Suddenly, figures in black and brown trench coats appeared at the edge of her backyard, shooting Stunning hexes and Impediment Jinxes and Blasting Curses from their wands.

Her heart leapt for joy.

Aurors!

But had they come in time?

The Death Eaters turned to face their ancient foes—a young woman with pink and purple hair, a tall black man, Mad-Eye Moody with his magical eye and even quicker wand, a youngish-looking man with a goatee who pointed his wand at her and chanted something she knew she ought to recognize.

The glowing ropes slithered from her and she felt her legs give way.

She crumpled to her knees, unable to speak, her mind still trapped in the nightmare of what had come before and what was still to come.

"Run!" the Auror was screaming as he dodged a Cutting Curse. "Damn you, girl, run!"

But she was frozen, her legs would not obey her, frozen in time, caught like a fly in amber, reliving the last awful moments of her parents' deaths.

She had seen the light leave their eyes, their bodies go slack as their souls departed, knew irrevocably that they were gone, yet a part of her could not accept it.

Spells were flying thick and fast all about her. She knew she needed to move, before she was struck by a misdirected curse, but she had no will to move. She heard Voldemort snarl "Avada Kedavra!" but could not see if the curse hit anyone.

Child, look up. Here is the help that was promised.

She felt the ground shake beneath her and then her eyes were drawn to the great horse that thundered to a halt before her, his satin midnight coat shimmering, the crescent upon his brow spilling a cool radiance over her.

A part of her shivered in awe.

Another part whispered—this is Harry's horse—the one he told you about—the moon stallion.

Moon Fire stamped a hoof impatiently and whistled sharply. On your feet, Granger! Now is not the time to go into shock. Get up!

The horse dipped his head, nuzzled her hair and her cheek, blowing softly into her ear.

The warmth of his breath tingled against her cheek, and she smelled the sweet scent of fresh grass and clover. He breathed out upon her again and suddenly she found herself on her feet, her arms about his muscular neck, weeping into his thick mane.

Moon Fire whickered sternly. Grieve later, child! Now is not the time. Up on my back! Hurry! The Death Eaters were distracted by the Aurors, but sooner or later he would be noticed and that he could not afford.

He turned his head around and fastened his teeth lightly in Hermione's shirt, kneeling down and then tossing her onto his back, as he had done to Harry at Hogwarts. He felt the girl scramble upright, sitting more or less astride him, and her hands fisted in his mane.

He turned to race back the way he had come, and so did not see the flash of the blue bolt that ricocheted off the tree where Hermione had been tied and slammed into the side of his head.

Hermione screamed and so did the stallion, as the spell stole away his awareness.

Panicked, Moon Fire knew but one thing.

He did not belong here. He needed to get back home.

He threw up his head, screaming in primal rage, and then he surged forward, running at full speed back along the silvery trail of moonlight, knowing instinctively where to go.

Hermione clung to the stallion as best she could, the wind stealing her breath and bringing tears to her eyes. She did not know where the horse was going but it did not matter, so long as it was far away from the wreckage that had once been her home.

She glanced back once and saw the distant flicker of magical fire and then she face forward and concentrated on staying astride her equine rescuer. The world raced by in a blur, she could not get a fix on where she was going, the horse was moving abnormally fast.

She could have sworn she had been riding forever, but when the horse thundered through a forest and across a pasture, she saw the moon was still up.

Moon Fire was sweating and yet he did not slow. He had one coherent thought in his mind—to get home and get the girl to safety. He took three strides, gathered himself and leaped over the paddock gate.

But Hermione's weight threw him for a fraction of an instant, and he misjudged his leap.

His right hind hoof slammed into the top rail of the fence, splintering it and when he landed, it was on his off fore, hard. He stumbled, went to his knees, and felt a hot shooting pain in his front leg.

Hermione tumbled off Moon Fire, and landed upon the grass, bruised but otherwise unharmed.

Moon Fire staggered to his feet, limped three paces, and stood still.

Hermione picked herself up and went to stroke the horse. "You poor thing! Are you hurt?"

Moon Fire shied violently, baring his teeth. He backed away, whistling a warning, his eyes rolling.

"Easy. I won't hurt you."

But the horse was plainly frightened and refused to allow her near. He backed away to the far corner of the paddock.

Hermione shook her head and turned to go up to the house. This place felt serene and peaceful, all was calm here. She wondered for a brief moment where she was and who lived here. She walked up to the house and stood on the porch, one hand raised to knock on the door, when it was opened.

Harry stood in the entryway, his emerald eyes peering drowsily at her. "Hermione? Are you all right?"

She took two steps and fell into his arms. "Oh God, Harry!"

"Hey. What happened?"

"Death Eaters. They came to my . . .house . . .and they . . .they k-killed my parents . . .!" She buried her head in his shoulder, her small frame shaking with sobs.

"Ah, Selene have mercy! Oh, 'Mione. I'm sorry . . ." he said, feeling utterly helpless and unable to say anything that didn't sound trite. He hugged her hard, pulling her into the house and letting her cry.

Somehow they ended up on the couch in the den, with Harry cradling the distraught girl in his arms. He said nothing, for he knew words would not mend this sort of hurt and just let her cry, all the while wondering where Severus was.

"Hermione?" he asked cautiously when the spate of sobs seemed to be slowing. "How did you get here? Did a . . .black horse with a crescent moon bring you?"

She nodded against his shoulder. "Yes. But . . .he hurt himself, jumping the paddock fence. He's out there now . . ."

Harry froze. Severus was hurt? Did that mean he couldn't shift back? Or did it mean that he had shifted back and was just taking his time mending whatever was wrong?

He rubbed Hermione's back, waiting until she had stopped crying before he offered her a vial of Calming Draught. "Here. It's a Calming Draught. It might help a bit."

She swigged the potion with the ease of one who had been taking bad-tasting medicine all her life. Then her face went sort of slack and her eyes took on a sort of dazed calm. She leaned back against him and asked, "Where am I?"

"Professor Snape's house."

"Snape's house?" she slurred her words a bit as the potion took effect, making her sleepy as well as utterly relaxed.

"Yeah. I've been living with him for weeks now, ever since the Dursleys were killed." Harry told her.

"You too? I'm sorry . . ." she sniffled.

"Shhh. It's okay."

"Where's the pr'fessor?" Hermione asked, amid a jaw-cracking yawn.

"He's away right now," Harry said quickly, the lie rolling off his tongue with ease. "He'll be back soon."

"'Kay." She murmured and then her eyes closed.

Harry tucked Severus' blanket about her and then rose to his feet.

He had to see to Moon Fire, or to Severus. The back door slammed as he went out to the pasture.

"Professor Snape? You all right?"

The white fence shone in the moonlight, and he could just make out a dark shape beneath the tree at the far end of the pasture. He walked towards it. "Moon Fire?"

A whicker. Soft and low.

Harry reached the fence and climbed over it. "Moon Fire? Can you change back? Sir, can you understand me?"

The brilliant crescent upon his brow gleamed and Harry could see the stallion's face. Sweat sheened his midnight coat and he stood awkwardly on three legs.

"Hey. You hurt your leg, huh? Can't you shift back?"

The stallion snorted, shifting backwards, neighing sharply.

Harry reached out a hand to stroke the velvet nose and Moon Fire half reared, snorting warningly.

"Moon Fire? What's the matter with you? It's me, Harry."

The boy looked up then and met the stallion's eyes for the first time that night.

In them he saw the fear and pain and wariness of a wild stallion, and there was nothing of the keen intelligence and otherworldly intuition that had been there before.

"Dear sweet Selene!" Harry cried in horror. "What's happened to you?"

The stallion trembled and screamed, his dark eyes wild, lacking any recognition of who Harry was, or anything to do with his former life as the Potions Master of Hogwarts.

Now the real fun begins, as Harry and Hermione try and heal the injured Moon Fire, and restore Severus to himself . . .if they can.

Hope you all enjoyed this! Some of you may be upset with the Grangers dying, but it was necessary for the plot line of the story, you will see why later on.

Thanks everyone for reading and reviewing.

I have also posted a new fic called Wizard's Luck set in my Prince Manor world, if you haven't read it yet, please do and let me know what you think!

Chapter 16: Midnight Struggle
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Harry remained frozen, looking at the injured stallion in horrified disbelief. The horse was frightened and angry, he could tell by the way the stallion had his ears back and the eyes were rolling. Froth spilled from his mouth and Harry was certain that if the horse had had four good legs he would have bolted away by now. As it was, he could only stand there, teeth bared, looking as threatening as possible.

"Oh, Moon Fire! How did this happen? Why can't you remember?" Harry asked, stricken. "It must have been some kind of curse. I'll have to ask Hermione." He looked down at the stallion's left foreleg, which he was favoring, and saw that it was swollen, he had probably torn tendons or ligaments. "You need that leg looked after too, but I don't how I'm gonna do that without you kicking me to kingdom come."

He extended a hand towards the horse, moving slowly and carefully.

Moon Fire tossed his head and snorted, but made no move to thrust his muzzle into Harry's hand as he usually did. It was then that Harry realized that the great horse truly had lost his memory of who he had been and that Harry could be trusted. He recalled Snape telling him that when he became Moon Fire a part of him was still a half-wild stallion, untamed and unbroken, and sometimes the stallion instincts took over his thinking human brain. Now it appeared that Moon Fire was all wild horse and no human whatsoever.

It scared Harry to pieces. Was Severus trapped inside the horse's mind somewhere, unable to break free? Or was he just . . .gone, subsumed by the horse? No, that can't happen. Selene wouldn't let that happen, and She was the one who gave him the gift in the first place. He went to rescue Hermione on Her orders. I think . . .I think maybe he's just lost for a time and maybe there's a way to cancel the spell or maybe it'll wear off?

He prayed that was the case, for he found that he could not bear to lose his guardian. The man might be a strict pain in the rear sometimes, but he was also fair and he was the only thing standing between Harry and a foster home. Over the weeks he had been with the professor, Harry had developed a fondness for the man, and had been looking forward to learning more about wandless magic, and potions, and being initiated into the Mysteries. It was the first summer he could ever remember actually enjoying, and now it was ruined.

Tears stung his eyes and suddenly he was furious. Rage rose in the back of his throat, thick and hot, and he longed to go and kick all the Death Eaters' arses back to hell where they belonged. Must they pollute and destroy everything good in his life? Or the lives of his friends?

But then he looked at the exhausted stallion and remembered the man he had been and suddenly all the rage drained out of him. "I'll find a way to heal you. I promise." He told the horse. "Hermione can help, she's smarter than I am. There has to be a way to restore you. I know you're in there somewhere, professor. I won't quit until you're back to the way you should be. Selene as my witness, I swear it." He placed a hand over his heart in a silent pledge.

Moon Fire eyed him warily.

Harry sighed and then made his way back to the barn. He left the barn door open and a stall door ajar, with the water trough and hay net full, just in case Moon Fire desired to come into the warm and dry barn and sleep with Jasmine in the next stall. For now, that was the best he could do.

Tomorrow he would try again, he knew the horse had to be in considerable pain, but was too stubborn to accept help, much like his human self. Harry shed his sneakers beside the back door, as was usual, and went inside.

Hermione was still asleep on the couch. Harry crept upstairs to his loft on cat's feet, even though Hermione was probably so deeply asleep she wouldn't have woken if a bomb had exploded. Still, he had become accustomed to moving silently from his childhood, and he probably would never lose that habit. He quietly pulled on his pajamas and slid into bed. He closed his eyes and prayed to Selene. Moon Lady help me, please. Help me to help my guardian. Please, if you truly love all of Your children the way he says, then help Severus Snape.

He fell into a troubled sleep, and dreamed of the black stallion racing away from him and then falling off of a cliff into the sea.

Hermione woke with a stiff neck and her eyes felt gritty and sore. For one instant, she did not remember where she was, she glanced around the unfamiliar den with its huge fireplace and the beautiful framed portrait of the unicorn. Where am I? This isn't my house. It's beautiful, but . . .She clutched the blue blanket to her, overwhelmed by icy chills running up and down her spine.

The house was warm but her heart was cold. Cold and shattered by visions no one should ever have to see, or to remember. She squeezed her eyes shut. I don't want to remember. I just want to sleep forever and forget. Oh God, how I wish I could forget!

Tears were falling from her eyes to drip upon the blanket. She felt that she had cried an ocean of tears last night, but there was a well of bitter agony deep inside her that would never be healed. She had watched her parents die, and for all of her brilliant mind and all of her magical power, had been helpless to prevent it. Some witch she was! They call me brilliant, but what's the use of that when I can't use my so-called brilliance to save what I loved best? The first time I was truly tested, I failed.

She crushed the blanket to her mouth and began to sob helplessly.

She lost herself in misery until she heard stirring from upstairs and recalled that she was not alone in the house. Harry was here and so was Professor Snape. She hastily wiped her eyes with a corner of the blanket. She was a wreck, but she still had her pride. Her hand went up and clasped the silver unicorn charm that she always wore about her neck. It was a beautiful piece, exquisitely detailed down to the spiral horn and the flowing mane and tail. She breathed in and out sharply, combating the nausea that threatened to choke her. She had had the charm since she was a small baby and wore it always. She considered it her good luck talisman. Her mother had said it had been a gift from some distant cousin, sent to her on the morning of her christening.

Thinking of her mother made the tears come again.

She wiped them away when she heard the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. Looking up, she saw Harry. He looked rather rumpled and untidy, like he hadn't slept well. "Hi. Good morning."

"Hey. You all right?" he asked, then immediately wanted to smack himself in the mouth. Of course she wasn't all right, she had just lost her home and family. "I . . . I mean . . ."

"I know what you mean," she said sadly. "I'm not, but . . ." She glanced up behind him. "Is Professor Snape home?"

Harry started. "No . . .but he did say he might be away for a few days," he said quickly. "So it's just us for now. And the two horses."

"Two horses?"

"Yeah. There's a white Arabian mare named Jasmine boarding here for awhile, she belongs to Andromeda Tonks. And there's Moon Fire, the stallion who rescued you last night."

"He belongs to the professor?" Hermione surmised.

"Yeah . . .kind of. He's half-wild and he doesn't really have a master."

"He was hurt." She recalled. "He hurt his leg jumping over the fence."

"I know. I'm going to need your help to fix him."

"Me? But I don't know the first thing about doctoring a horse, Harry. I'm not a vet."

"Neither am I, but we're all he's got," Harry said, his face tight with worry.

"Why don't you call a Magical Creatures vet?"

"Because nobody's supposed to know I'm here and I don't have any money to pay one."

"Can you call the professor?"

Harry shook his head. "No. He's sort of . . .gone incognito right now."

"Oh. Well . . .maybe he has a book on veterinary medicine?" Hermione suggested, at a loss. "I can't believe he actually owns a horse. I never would have thought him the type to be a rider."

Harry smirked slightly. "Yeah, me either. But he's . . .different than he is at school. There's more to him than the potions professor, Hermione. A lot more. He was the one who . . .rescued me from the Dursleys. And now he's my guardian." Who's now trapped in the form of a stallion.

Her eyes widened. "Really? That's . . .surprising. But I'm sure it's better than living at Privet Drive."

"It is. Believe me." He told her how Severus had gotten revenge upon his relatives before they had left and how Dumbledore had informed them of the Dursleys' deaths at the hands of Death Eaters.

"I'm sorry, Harry. They were terrible people, but nobody deserves to go . . .that way . . ." she sniffled sharply.

"Yeah." He put an arm about her and hugged her. "I couldn't stand them, but I feel bad that they died that way."

She leaned her head on his shoulder. "I'm glad. Because . . .it shows that you have a good heart. I wish . . .I wish I had thought to put up wards, or some kind of magical alarm, maybe then—"

He put a finger to her lips. "Shhh . . .don't. Don't go there. There was nothing you could have done. You're only a student, how could you expect to fight grown killers?"

"I didn't even have time to draw my wand, Harry! I'm supposedly the smartest witch in our class and when it counted I totally screwed up!" Her voice was filled with self-loathing.

"Stop," he ordered, sounding very much like his mentor, had he known it. "You couldn't have known they were going to come and attack you. Hindsight's always twenty twenty. And if you had attacked them, who's to say you wouldn't have been killed too? They don't care that you're a kid, 'Mione. They live to murder. They're monsters wearing human form."

"I know, but . . ."

"They wouldn't want you to feel guilty. Any more than my parents would want me to feel guilty that they died protecting me. I'm sure they're looking down on you from heaven right now and are happy that you're safe."

"You think?" she wiped away more tears. "Harry, do you think the professor will let me stay here? I . . .I don't have anywhere else to go. My parents were only children and my grandparents passed away when I was too little to remember them."

"I don't see why not," Harry said calmly.

"Do you think anyone's looking for me?"

"Probably. But you should lay low for now. You're safe here. Nothing can get past Snape's wards. Not even Dumbledore can break them. He had to get a special key in order to come over here."

"That's good. I . . .I wonder what they did with . . .with their remains? The Aurors, I mean. I hope . . .they give my parents a funeral at least."

"I'm sure they will." Harry said comfortingly. He knew the Aurors would see to it that Muggles didn't find out about the attack, and they would probably do something with the bodies as well. "Uh . . .how about some breakfast?"

"I'm not really hungry . . ."

"I know, but you need something in your stomach," Harry said. Selene's Grace, but I sound like Professor Snape. "How about some tea and toast?"

She nodded and slid into the window seat. The sun was shining and it looked like it was going to be a gorgeous morning. She twirled the unicorn pendant between her fingers and tried not to think about her parents.

Meanwhile, inside the stable, Jasmine woke and sniffed the air. She smelled another horse, a stallion, and hung her head over her partition, which was low enough for her to see into the neighboring stall, whickering a greeting. Normally, she was never placed with a stallion alone unless she was breeding, her stablemates were normally mares, geldings, and fillies. The Arabian could smell that the stallion lying upon the straw was injured, he reeked of fear-scent and hurt-scent.

But when she blew softly at him, as she would have a scared foal, he started up from the straw with a squeal, his hooves scrambling for purchase upon the stall floor. Where am I? Who are you?

Jasmine gave a soft snort. Easy, warrior. You're safe here. No one will hurt you. The boy and the man who live here and take care of me are very good to horses. My name is Jasmine. She sensed that he was unused to being inside a closed space, he sidled and rolled his eyes about once he gained his feet. She gave him the appellation "warrior" out of respect, for she instinctively knew that he was a veteran of many conflicts. Might I know your name?

The black stallion hesitated, for his mind was all in a fog, and for one terrifying instant he couldn't recall his own name. I . . .I am . . .Moon Fire. Yes, that sounded right. He lifted his head proudly. I am the Bright Lady's Chosen.

Jasmine did not have to seem impressed, for she had seen the Mark upon his brow, and knew already that here was no ordinary stallion. I know. You must have traveled a long way. How did you hurt your leg?

Moon Fire nibbled on some alfalfa and hay before replying. I hurt it jumping over that fence into here. I was on a mission for the Lady.

I see. Were you successful? She stretched her neck out and touched noses with him in greeting.

I . . .believe so. I brought the girl back here. He blew into her nostrils, getting her scent. She was a middle-aged mare, one that had borne a few foals, though she was not in season at this time. She smelled well-fed and was calm and peaceful, clearly she enjoyed being here, wherever here was.

He chewed some more of the sweet dried grass, it was very good, and eased the pangs of hunger in his belly. What is this and where does it come from? He asked after finishing his entire portion.

That is hay with alfalfa twists. The people bring it every morning and evening. Have you never been in a stable before?

The stallion shook his head. I . . .do not believe so. I am used to running free through the woods and fields. I . . .seem to remember racing some unicorns.

She quirked her ears at that. You have run with unicorns? Oh, you are so lucky! I have never even seen one, only heard stories from my dam when I was a foal. Are they as beautiful and magical as the tales?

Moon Fire bobbed his head. Very much so. If one of them were here, he could heal my leg. He dipped his head and sniffed the injured foreleg.

You ought to let the humans see to it. They can put medicine on it to heal it.

Moon Fire laid back his ears. No human touches me without my consent! I am nobody's pet!

Jasmine whinnied softly. Settle down, silly horse! You have naught to fear from the boy and the man. They can help you. Why suffer if there is no need?

I don't trust people. I will not submit to them like a tame lapdog and permit them to treat me like a slave. I am not like you.

Jasmine's ears went flat in anger. I am no slave, but a free horse who chooses to work with humans! No one beats me or locks me in a stall for days on end. My ancestors ran wild in the desert and were worshipped by our human companions. I would never shame them by becoming a slave, a broken down nag. Do not be arrogant and assume when you know nothing! She swished her tail angrily against her flanks.

He dipped his head briefly in an apology. Forgive me. I meant no insult. But all of this is strange to me. Something happened to me while I was retrieving the girl . . .and I cannot remember . . .there are large holes in my memory . . .things I should recall but do not and it . . .frightens me. He admitted very softly.

Perhaps you shall remember in time, she whickered encouragingly. The boy should be coming soon with some oats and carrots. You'll like them, Moon Fire.

The stallion lowered his head down to his knees, he was feeling very woozy and his leg throbbed terribly even though he was careful to keep it off the ground. He leaned against the side of the stall, and tried to focus past the pain and dozed.

After breakfast, Hermione asked if she might take a shower, she felt grungy and dirty after all that had happened.

"Sure. You can use the bathroom upstairs in the loft. While you're doing that, I'm going to turn out the horses and feed them their oats."

"Turn them out?"

"Yeah. Put them out in the paddock for the day."

"Uh, Harry? I wouldn't put them together if I were you." Hermione said.

"Why not? Jasmine's a mare, so Moon Fire won't fight her."

"No, but . . .he might decide to get frisky and do . . .other things with her."

Harry felt a slow blush crawl up the back of his neck. "No! He wouldn't do that! He's not . . ." He caught himself before he said, He's not really a horse, he's Professor Snape! Except he wasn't any longer, and as a horse, might he not find Jasmine attractive?

"Harry, I might not know much about horses, but one thing I do know is that if you put a mare and a stallion together, eventually the mare will have a foal. Simple biology. So, unless you want that to happen—"

"No! That would be a terrible thing to happen," Harry said quickly, shuddering. Who knew what kind of offspring would result from an Animagus and an ordinary horse? Harry didn't even want to think about it. He shuddered again.

"Then you've got to keep them apart. Put them out at different times or something. You can't leave them alone together. And maybe you should keep Moon Fire in his stall, so we can examine his leg easier?"

"All right. I'll do that. And I'll look through the library and see if the professor has any veterinary books." Harry agreed hastily. Then he tugged on his shoes and hurried out to the barn while Hermione climbed the stairs to the loft.

He found that Moon Fire had made his way to the open stall and was dozing inside. But the stallion's head jerked up when Harry paused outside the stall, and he put his ears back and whistled in warning.

Harry held up his hands, afraid the stallion might charge him, until he recalled Moon Fire's injured leg. The black horse's eyes were showing white around the rims, a sure sign that the stallion was frightened and angry. "Easy. Easy, big fellow. I'm not going to hurt you. Calm down or you'll hurt yourself."

Stay away from me! Moon Fire neighed.

Jasmine thrust her head over her stall door and whickered a greeting. Then she whinnied to her stablemate, Relax, Moon Fire! It's just the boy . . .Harry, they call him. He's come to bring us oats and clean our stalls. He won't harm you.

Moon Fire shivered. The boy's scent was not threatening, but some age old instinct was screaming at him that he couldn't trust humans, and coupled with his vulnerable leg, the stallion was wary. I don't like him. You can't trust humans.

You can trust this one, Jasmine argued, and when Harry came and unlatched her stall door to put the oats in her feeding trough, she nuzzled him.

"Hey, Jazzy. Got a new friend, huh? Move over, so I can feed you." He threw some of his weight against her shoulder, and the Arabian stepped back so he could get to her feed trough.

After dumping in the oats and giving her more hay and water, Harry turned to Moon Fire.

The stallion was in the far corner of the stall, standing on three legs, still looking like he wanted to trample Harry into the ground. Harry swallowed, only then realizing just how big the horse was and how much damage he could do with a single kick or even a bite. He had never thought about that before, because Moon Fire had always had Severus' consciousness within him. But now he could see plainly how dangerous and unpredictable the wild stallion was.

"Hey, Moon Fire. You must be hungry." Harry said, speaking softly and easily. He remembered the professor saying that the stallion couldn't understand words, but could understand tone. "Let me come in and give you some oats."

Harry moved carefully into the stall, pretending this was another ordinary horse. He tossed the oats in the feed trough and then replenished the hay and water.

Moon Fire stayed where he was, watching him.

"There, see? Breakfast," Harry told him. He turned back to Jasmine, who was calmly eating and drinking. "Might as well groom you now, before I turn you out."

By the time he had finished with the Arab's coat, Moon Fire had moved two steps from the back of the stall and was smelling the sweet scent of oats. But he waited until Harry had clipped a lead to Jasmine's halter and led her from the stable before approaching the feed.

Cautiously, he took a mouthful, and discovered it was delicious. Nutty and sweet and crunchy. It tasted as good as grass, if that were possible. And he was hungry, though he kept one ear out for the boy returning, and one eye fixed upon the open stall door.

Harry returned after a few minutes to put away the lead and clean out Jasmine's stall. He walked right past the stallion and ignored him, figuring maybe the stallion just needed to get used him being around. As he forked out the dirty straw into the wheelbarrow, he said softly, "I was hoping whatever curse hit you would have worn off by now. But I guess it was a strong one. I really wish you'd come back to us, sir. Hermione's an orphan too and we could really use an adult around here. And it would make it so much easier to treat you if you could remember who you are and change back. I haven't told Hermione about you yet because you wanted it kept secret, but something tells me I'm going to have to soon, and I hope you won't get mad and kick my arse once you find out."

Moon Fire kept one ear pricked towards the boy and continued eating. The boy's voice was low and soothing, it did not grate upon his sensitive ears. Funny, but it almost sounded . . .familiar. He didn't comprehend the words, but the way the boy spoke calmed him a little. He decided he would tolerate the boy's presence, so long as he didn't try anything like trying to touch him.

Harry finished up Jasmine's stall and left Moon Fire alone, shutting the barn door so he could not enter the paddock.

After washing his hands in the feed room sink, he went back to see about the vet book.

Rather than waste precious time searching, he Summoned the book with wandless magic. "Accio veterinary book!"

A large thick volume bound in red leather flew off a high shelf in Severus' bedroom, which was where he had his personal library, and into Harry's outstretched hands.

"Oh!" He heard a gasp behind him. "I didn't know you could do wandless magic!"

Harry turned, clutching the heavy book in both arms. "Professor Snape taught me a little bit. So far all I can do is Summon objects and return them and do a Cleaning Charm."

"That's more than I can do," she said, a slight hint of envy in her tone.

"Hermione, when you were rescued, did you see . . .I mean did the horse get hit by a curse or something while he was running away? Sorry, but it's important for you to remember."

Slowly she nodded. "Everything was chaos, spells were flying everywhere. I remember an Auror screaming at me to run, but I couldn't move. Then the horse came, and I somehow . . .he threw me onto his back, I think. And then a blue flash of light hit him in the head. I thought . . .I thought he was going to die, but then he started to run and I figured whatever spell it was hadn't hurt him. Why do you ask?"

"You're sure you saw a blue bolt hit him?"

"Yes. Positive. I remember almost everything about that night . . .even though I want so badly not to."

He saw the grief return to her face and regretted asking. "Sorry. But I had to know." He drew in a deep breath. "Hermione, how much have you read about Selene?"

"I've found references to Her in some of my textbooks. She's the Moon Lady, goddess of magic, and a lot of wizards follow Her. Or at least they used to."

"Yes. What would you say if I told you that Professor Snape was Her follower?"

"That wouldn't surprise me. Most of those who follow Her are secretive and private. And very strong in magic and dedicated to protecting children. He saved your life, Harry. And he might be strict, but he makes sure nobody ever gets badly hurt in class, and he always is prepared with counterdrafts and antidotes if someone does. How do you know that?"

"Because he told me. Sometimes . . .sometimes Selene grants Her initiates, like Severus, special powers and spells. . . what? Why are you looking at me like that?"

"You called the professor Severus."

"I . . .did? I didn't even realize . . .I guess . . .I sort of started thinking about him that way in my head and I just . . ." He frowned, not wanting to get off topic. His growing bond with his guardian was not something he wished to discuss right then. "Anyhow, Selene granted him the gift of an Animagus form. He's the stallion who saved you. He's Moon Fire."

Hermione felt her knees go weak and she quickly sat down on the couch. "The black horse in your barn is . . .Professor Snape?"

"Yes, and I think he was hit with a Memory Charm or something, because he doesn't remember who he really is." Harry said quickly. "I don't know what we can do to help him."

"Oh, Harry! Then he's trapped in horse form. How awful!"

"Yeah. But you can't tell anyone, 'Mione. He needs it to be kept secret."

"Why?"

"Because if the Death Eaters found out they'd kill him. He's working for Dumbledore as a secret agent. A spy. And you have to promise not to tell anyone that either. Swear it on your immortal soul."

"Okay." She put her hand over her heart. "I swear. I was right. I told Ron he wasn't what he seemed."

"The professor wanted everyone to think he was a nasty git. That was his cover. But now . . .we need to find a way to restore him if we can. And to heal that leg of his, I'm sure it's hurting him really bad. When a person is hit by a Memory Charm, how do you reverse it?"

"I . . .I'm not sure. I think you can use a potion—a Memory Restorative, but I don't know how it'll work on a horse. Sometimes . . .sometimes you can't restore them and they just . . .drift about in a fog, like Professor Lockhart."

"There has to be a way! He can't be lost forever, Mione! He just can't."

She placed a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry. I can research ways on restoring lost memories. But we also need to fix that leg."

"Right. Let me see what this says." He opened the large veterinary handbook and began to flip through it.

Some ten minutes later, he cried, "Here! I've found something." He began to read slowly, " . . . Horses carry about 70% of their body weight on their forelegs. This makes them very prone to foreleg injuries. Racing and jumping add additional stress to these muscles, tendons and ligaments which increase the occurrence of injury in these disciplines . . . Suspensory Ligament Desmitis (sprain): This injury is the same as a bowed tendon except that a ligament is strained or ruptured-not a tendon. Ligaments have less elasticity than tendons and can therefore be injured easily. The suspensory ligament is located behind the cannon bone beneath the flexor tendons and connects to the sesamoid bones. This condition is caused by excessive strain on the area and can be aggravated by poor conformation. Treatment: Lower leg treatments to relieve inflammation/pain, and rest."

Hermione looked up at him. "You think it could be a ligament sprain?"

"It sounds likely, since he fell pretty hard after he jumped over the fence and injuries like that can happen in seconds."

"How do we treat it?"

"Let me see. Lower leg treatments, see page 345 . . . Liniments are used to increase heat, circulation and healing and are usually used under wraps . . .Epsom salts will also help reduce inflammation and fight infection in wounds or sprains . . .both hot and cold therapy should be used . . .Cold water treatments such as hosing leg down and wrapping a bandage soaked in ice water about the injury will help reduce inflammation and pain, should be used twice a day, for 40 minutes at a time. . .Sounds like what you'd do if a person sprained their ankle."

"It is very similar," Hermione agreed. "But how can we do any of that if we can't get near him?"

"I don't know." Harry sighed. "I don't know if we could knock him out with magic."

"You mean like a Stunning Hex?"

"Yeah, but what if he hurt himself worse falling down? We can't risk that."

"If we knew an equine vet, he could come and give him a sedative."

"Yeah, but one, we don't know any and two, we have no money to pay for one. Three, we can't leave the property. I have potions here that can put a person to sleep, but what if they can't be used on horses?"

"They could poison him, since a horse's body isn't exactly like a person's. I guess we could try and . . .and lasso him or something?"

Harry started to chuckle. "Lasso him? Hermione, this isn't the Wild West and I'm not a cowboy! I'd probably end up tying myself up."

"Then what can we do? Drug his feed?"

"Hmm . . .that's not a bad idea, but again, I don't know what's safe to use on a horse."

"Maybe we could try making friends with him?"

"It's worth a try. If I can get him to trust me a little, he might just stand still while I put a halter on him and tie him to the fence."

"Yes, and then we have to hope he doesn't go crazy and break the fence down," Hermione sighed. "But first we need to get him to trust you. You'll need to spend time with him, Harry. Let him get to know you. I'll try and read up on Memory Charms and see if there's anything on magical potions for animals."

"Okay. Snape's library's in his room."

"His room?" Hermione coughed. "Harry . . .I don't think he'd want me in his . . .err, bedroom."

"The library's not in his bedroom, just his . . .sitting room," Harry elaborated. "Look, I'll show you." He led the way down the small hallway and into Severus' room, which he'd only seen twice before.

The sitting room was wood paneled and had floor to ceiling length bookshelves all over it and a cherrywood end table, plus a large floor lamp and a green leather upholstered recliner. The floor was covered in a Celtic knotwork patterned area rug. A door at the right led into the bedroom.

"Nice place," Hermione said appreciatively. She looked at all the books, there had to be over three hundred, in awe. "I hope they're organized by some kind of system."

"Knowing Severus, they're organized better than the library at school."

"You did it again," she murmured.

"Did what?"

"Called him Severus." She peered at him searchingly. "I think you're starting to become comfortable around him."

"I'm what? Hermione, I don't call him by his name when he's in front of me. He never said I could."

"Then maybe you ought to start." She moved into the library, her hands itching to touch all the books.

"You're crazy. It just slipped out. He's my guardian, not my father." Harry just shook his head. "Have fun. If you need me, I'll be in the barn."

When he reached the barn and cautiously opened the door, he found Moon Fire standing hipshot inside the stall. The stallion pricked his ears when Harry entered but otherwise did not move. Harry moved slowly over to the stall door.

"Finished all your food, huh?" The hay net and oat box were empty, as was the water bucket. "I guess that's a good sign."

He peered at the stallion's injured foreleg, which was swollen and misshapen. Moon Fire was holding it gingerly, the tip of his hoof not even touching the floor. "Poor boy. Bet that hurts like a bitch." Moon Fire snorted. "I'm so lucky you're a horse and can't understand what I say, otherwise you'd be making me chug that gross cod-liver oil for talking to you this way."

Harry sat down upon an upturned bucket. He sat there and looked at the horse for a long time.

Moon Fire stiffened when the boy—Harry, Jasmine had said he was called—came in. He watched the boy warily, but he did not enter the stall. Neither did he leave, however. He simply sat there, and that made the stallion irritable. He did not like being shut inside this dark place, he longed for the open air.

He pawed the straw with his good hoof and whickered sharply.

"It's okay, Moon Fire."

The stallion tossed his head.

Harry leaned against the stall door, wishing that the stallion could remember him, even a little bit. He inhaled the scent of straw and oats and the musky smell of horse. Dust motes floated in the air and sparkled as they fell across the floor. The stallion remained quiet, his breathing a soft hush in the still air. Harry recalled how he had ridden the magnificent horse across the pasture, how the great stallion had seemed to fly across the ground, barely touching the earth, like a creature of air and mist.

To see him now nearly broke his heart. In pain, scared and wary, like a falcon with his wings clipped, or a hippogriff chained to a post. He belonged running free across the meadows and forests of Hogwarts, not languishing in a stall. "You have to let me help you. Please. I don't want to keep you in here, away from the sun and the wind and grass. But I need you to let me help you."

Moon Fire flicked his ears at him, and Harry hoped he was listening. Cautiously, he extended his hand towards the stallion, letting him catch his scent again.

Moon Fire wrinkled his lips at him, shifting uneasily.

Harry held his hand still.

Moon Fire's breath was warm upon his skin.

Emerald eyes met black ones, but Harry saw no flicker of recognition in them. He hung his head. Selene, please help him. He needs You more than ever. I need You more than ever.

He kept his eyes on the floor, wishing he knew someone to call. If I don't return in two days, contact Andromeda Tonks. She is another Selenian. She will help you. Severus' last words of advice echoed in his memory. It was then Harry remembered that Andromeda owned Jasmine. Surely she would know how to help an injured horse. He had to write her a letter right away.

He sprang to his feet, in his eagerness he knocked over the bucket, which rolled against the open door and made a loud clank!

His sudden movement coupled with the loud noise, startled Moon Fire.

The stallion shied violently, slamming his hindquarters against the side of the stall, which in turn jostled his injured leg. He screamed in pain and lunged forward.

"Whoa!" Harry cried, lifting his arm instinctively to cover his face.

But the raised hand appeared aggressive to the distrustful horse and he snapped instinctively at it and half-reared, screaming in fury. Back off, boy! Now! His hoof lashed out, and Harry toppled backwards, barely avoiding the kick.

He landed hard on the ground and froze, not daring to move. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to scare you. Easy, boy."

Moon Fire loomed above him, all blackness and size, then he came down, landing in the straw with a thud. Once more he neighed in warning. His leg was hurting even more now and suddenly he could not bear being inside for another moment. He gathered himself and hopped over the prone boy, just managing to clear Harry with an inch to spare. His hooves echoed upon the concrete as he started moving towards the half-ajar barn door.

Harry cautiously rolled over and started to get to his feet. "Moon Fire!" he called softly.

The stallion ignored him, and started to limp towards the barn door.

Harry stared after him in dismay, his heart pounding crazily in his chest. He had been certain he was going to end up smashed into the floor. He had not realized just how fast the stallion could move.

Harry climbed to his feet, then watched as Moon Fire shouldered open the barn door and limped out into the sunshine.

Jasmine lifted her head and whinnied as the stallion appeared. She lowered her head then and cropped the grass.

Moon Fire limped into the center of the paddock and began to graze, switching his tail. The sun felt good upon his hide, and he breathed in great gulps of fresh air.

Harry walked over to the barn door and sighed. You really screwed that up, Potter. Now what?

He whistled for Jasmine, and the mare came over to him. He scratched her ears. "Come on, Jazzy. Time for you to go in. I'd leave you out here, but Moon Fire's out here and he might . . .misbehave, so . . .come on, old girl." He took her by the halter and led her into the barn.

Once he got her stabled, he walked outside and stood beside the mounting block.

The black horse nibbled at the grass, then lifted his head and stared challengingly at Harry.

Harry scowled at the big horse. "You think you've won, huh? But you haven't. I can outsmart and outstubborn you. Wait and see." Then he turned and climbed over the fence.

He had a letter to send.

Well, what did you think?

Please forgive any typos, I've been battling a nasty head cold and sneezing all over my keyboard. Not fun!

Chapter 17: Midnight Allies
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Moon Fire cropped the grass in the paddock, nibbling gently, while trying to keep his weight off of his hoof. The leg had grown more swollen and was inflamed as a result of the second knock it had had while Moon Fire was in the stall and had startled. The big horse wished there was a pond in the paddock so he could soak his foot in it. He knew that would relieve some of the pain and swelling.

He ate another mouthful of grass.

Jasmine came and grazed close by, daintily ripping up mouthfuls of the sun-ripened grass. Harry hadn't latched the stall properly, enabling her to flip up the latch and come out. She lifted her head and observed the injured stallion quizzically. You really ought to allow one of the humans to look at your leg. They can help you. It looks quite painful.

Moon Fire whinnied derisively. I'll live. I don't trust humans. I have always managed to take care of myself.

Jasmine switched her tail, brushing off some annoying flies. Humans aren't that bad. And if you don't get some help with your leg, it may get so bad that you'll have to be . . .put down.

The stallion raised his head. Put down? As in killed?

Well, yes. Though people only do it to horses who are in agony or suffering too badly to save. Like when a horse gets irreversible colic or breaks a leg too badly to heal.

And what gives people the right to decide whether or not a horse should live or die? Only Selene has that right. Moon Fire declared angrily.

Jasmine snorted, edging closer to him. True, but if you were going to die anyhow, and were in agony, which would you choose? A quick death by a magical injection or potion or to suffer until you passed from this life? I know which I would prefer.

Moon Fire ambled a bit further, wincing as pain shot up to his shoulder. Hmm. Perhaps you're right. I do not enjoy pain.

What animal does? Let the humans help you, silly horse! You'll feel better and so will they. They haven't hurt you yet, have they?

No. The stallion sighed. He nosed his leg, which felt tight and hot. He was not stupid, he knew that his leg was badly injured. He just had a hard time being dependent upon anyone or anything. He had always been independent and proud of it.

Jasmine came up and nuzzled him gently. There are good as well as bad people in this world, Moon Fire. The ones who live here and those whom I live with are decent ones, they obey the Old Ways and worship the Moon Lady. They consider us part of their herd and would willingly help us.

Moon Fire ate some more grass. For what price? Our servitude?

No. I have never seen Harry or Severus compel a horse to serve them. They would most likely wish to make friends with you.

Friends? Humph!

Do not be so quick to judge, Jasmine rebuked. Sometimes a human can be one of the best friends you could have.

Moon Fire snorted. He doubted that. But he considered Jasmine to be a wise horse, for all of her prattle about good humans. He would consider her words carefully.

Meanwhile, Harry wrote a note to Andromeda and explained that he could really use her help caring for an injured stallion that had wandered onto the Snape property. He told the woman that he was staying with the professor for the summer, but Snape was called away on an emergency for a few days and Harry couldn't get in touch with him. He asked if she would be willing to help, though he didn't have anything to dismantle the wards.

She wrote back that she would be happy to help and told him not be worrying over the wards, Severus had long ago given her a special Portkey. She told him to expect her and her apprentice within the hour.

In the meantime, you might want to try running a hose over his leg, if he will allow it. I shall bring some heat compresses with me as well as some head restraints, I don't like using magic on an animal unless it's absolutely necessary. The restraints bind without harm.

See you soon.

Sincerely,

Andromeda Tonks

Dueling Mistress and Equine Healer

PS: May you walk always in the light, child.

Harry smiled and then went to see how Hermione was doing.

He found her in the den, curled up on the comfy sofa, reading through the book on magical transformations, trying to find a way to turn Severus back to a human being again. "Find anything yet?"

Hermione looked up at him. He saw to his dismay that her eyes were red-rimmed and sore. But she responded gamely. "Not yet. Although the book does say that it's possible for a new Animagus to get trapped in their animal form if they remain in it for too long. But so far I haven't figured out what to do to bring them out of it." She stared up at him, worry creasing her face. "Oh, Harry. What if . . .what if there isn't a way to bring him back?"

"There has to be a way, Mione! There just has to." Harry said determinedly. "One way or another, I shall find a way. If . . .if it were me or someone else . . .he wouldn't give up till he found a way to bring us back. I don't know how I know that, but I do."

She clasped his hand in hers. "I believe you. And I'll help you however I can. Because . . .because nobody should ever have to lose a parent or a guardian twice." She blinked away tears and set the book down to blot her eyes with a handkerchief.

Harry hugged her. He felt guilty asking her for so much when she had just suffered a terrible loss. But he had no choice. He couldn't handle this by himself. "I'm sorry."

"For what? It wasn't you who destroyed my family. Do you need me to do anything?"

"Yeah. See if you can try and calm him with apples and oatmeal biscuits while I get a hose and try and run it over his leg. Andromeda Tonks is going to be here soon to help us treat him, but she told me to do that first. Said it would help the pain and swelling."

Hermione nodded and Summoned the required treats from the cabinet and fruit bowl. "Okay. I'm ready."

"Go on. Go out and make friends with him," Harry urged.

Hermione pulled on her sneakers and then walked out to the paddock, her hands cradling an apple and some oatmeal biscuits. Moon Fire raised his head as soon as she approached. His ears pricked at her and her eyes met his. She saw a sharp intelligence in them, though nothing uncanny like Harry had said he possessed before. She felt terribly guilty then, for he had been injured saving her.

"I'm sorry, Moon Fire. If you hadn't come for me . . .maybe you would have never gotten hurt or cursed. I'll try my best to help you. If you'll let me." She came and stood by the fence, holding a hand out with an oatmeal biscuit on it. "Please, let me help, Moon Fire. I know you're hurting. So am I. Maybe if . . .I can help you . . .it'll help me too."

Jasmine nickered and bumped her fellow herd member gently. Go and take the treat, Moon Fire. She's brought it for you. I heard her call your name. Go!

The stallion hesitated. He could smell the sweet aroma of oatmeal mixed with sugar and molasses, it made his mouth water. He could also smell the sharp pungent scent of grief that clung to the girl. It made him uneasy, but also protective. He discovered he didn't like the girl feeling that way.

Cautiously, he limped forward, stopping a scant foot away from the fence.

"Hello, Moon Fire. I brought you a snack," she whispered.

He extended his nose, whuffing into her palm. Very gently, his lips skimmed her hand and lifted the oatmeal biscuit and ate it. It was delicious.

She smiled sadly. "Like that, huh? They're my favorites too. My mum used to make them for me all the time . . ." Her eyes misted with tears.

Moon Fire breathed soothingly in her face. He could guess that she had lost her mother, her reactions were very much like his own when he had lost his own.

"Want some more? You can't eat just one." She proffered him another one.

Again he lipped it off her hand.

She sighed but made no attempt to touch him. "Easy, boy. No one's going to hurt you. Not here."

She continued talking to him, trying to get him used to the sound of her voice. Gradually, he relaxed and reached for the apple as well. He was crunching it, his mouth filled with the juicy sweetness, when Harry appeared around the corner of the barn, carrying the hose.

Immediately, the stallion's head swung about and he laid back his ears.

"Easy, boy." Hermione soothed. "Harry won't hurt you. He's here to help. Now just stay still, okay?" She wished she dared put out a hand and stroke his lovely satiny coat, but didn't dare. Moon Fire was very skittish and she didn't want to frighten him.

Jasmine trotted over and breathed into the stallion's nostrils. Remember, they only wish to help you. Cool water comes out of that snake thing in his hand.

Are you sure it isn't a snake?

Positive.

Moon Fire forced himself to remain still, though every instinct he possessed was shrieking at him to run away. A shudder swept through his mighty frame and his tail smacked hard against the fence post in protest. But he did not flee.

Harry dragged the hose through the grass and almost to the place where Moon Fire stood before he realized that the hose wasn't long enough to reach the horse. "Damn!" he swore under his breath. Then he dropped the hose and pulled his wand. He knew how to cast a Water Spell, and he pointed it at the injured leg and muttered the spell.

Water squirted from his wand in a steady stream, Harry aimed it at the big horse's shoulder first so he could determine how the horse reacted.

Moon Fire flinched but didn't move.

Gently, Harry lowered his wand until it was trained upon the injured portion of the leg.

The icy water felt wonderful upon Moon Fire's hot leg. It numbed and soothed. He bent his head and drank the water flowing onto his leg. Then he lifted his head and whinnied imperiously. That feels good. More, please.

"I think he likes it," Hermione declared. "Here, Moon Fire. Have some more biscuits."

Moon Fire ate the others eagerly, sighing in pleasure.

Harry continued to bathe the leg in cold water for several more minutes.

The white mare came over and poked Hermione in the shoulder, asking for treats. Hermione fed her the other pieces of apple in her hand, which she accepted graciously.

Moon Fire lowered his head and leaned upon the fence, his ears flicking back and forth, allowing the soothing water to work its own brand of magic upon him. Bees buzzed about the bluebells and cowslips and birds sang in the trees. It was a beautiful afternoon, not too hot or too cold, but just right.

Jasmine touched noses with him. See? Doesn't that feel good?

Yes. Don't gloat, mare. This is no more than what I would do for myself were there a stream about.

Jasmine sighed. He was such a stubborn and aggravating stallion! But then, so were most stallions. Proud hot-tempered creatures, though this one seemed to be able to have sense talked into him. Miraculous.

Fifteen minutes later, Harry was about to cancel the spell, his arm was beginning to ache from holding it straight, when there came a slight shimmering in the air and then two people appeared just beyond the paddock. One was a tall woman with short dark hair touched with premature silver, she was wearing casual riding breeches and boots and a cream colored lawn shirt. She had a narrow face with deep blue eyes and a wry smile. Her hands were full of a soft rope and a sack. She looked about forty.

But it was the other wizard behind her who nearly caused Harry to drop his wand.

For there, holding what looked like a soft halter and lead, was none other than Harry's school rival, Draco Malfoy.

Harry stared at the other boy, who was dressed very similarly to his aunt. "Malfoy! What are you doing here?"

Draco's lip curled in his trademark haughty sneer. "I could ask the same of you, Potter. Since when do you live with Professor Snape?"

"Since his relatives died and the professor said he could live here," Hermione spoke up then.

Draco spun on her. "Granger. Come to share the charity?"

Hermione flushed and she bit her lip.

"Draco Antonius Malfoy!" snapped Andromeda. "Is this how I taught you to behave? Insulting a girl who has just suffered a terrible misfortune? Your mother would be ashamed of you."

To Harry's astonishment, Malfoy blushed and looked down at his polished boots. "Sorry, Aunt 'Dromeda."

"Apologize to Miss Granger, not me. I had thought you had grown out of Lucius' teachings, but I suppose not."

"No, I have, Aunt." Draco said quickly, looking terribly embarrassed. He looked over at Hermione. "I apologize. What I said was rude and uncalled for. My condolences upon your loss." He said, stiffly formal, but somehow managing to sound oddly sincere.

"Apology accepted," Hermione responded softly.

"And?" Andromeda prompted. "You owe Mr. Potter an apology too."

"What? But Aunt Dromeda—" Malfoy looked as if he would rather eat toads.

"Now, young man. Or would you like to muck out twenty stalls after we finish here?"

"No, ma'am." Draco said respectfully. He gritted his teeth. "I apologize, Potter. Sorry for your loss as well."

Harry nodded, still eyeing Draco warily. "Why are you here?" he repeated his earlier question.

"Draco is my apprentice," answered Andromeda. "Didn't Severus tell you he's a student at my academy?"

"No, Mrs. Tonks."

"Andromeda, please. Mrs. Tonks makes me feel very old," she chuckled. "Now then. I see my Jasmine is managing to keep this wild one from bolting. She's always been a good one for that, aren't you, my girl?"

Jasmine whinnied a greeting at her mistress.

Andromeda turned to look at Moon Fire and her breath caught in her throat. "Lady Bless! This is one of Her favorites. He bears the Mark."

"He's beautiful," Malfoy said, naked admiration in his voice. "Better than any stallion I've ever seen, even your Pharoah, Aunt Dromeda. But then, he would be. The Lady only chooses the best."

Harry froze. "The Lady? You know about Selene?"

Draco snorted. "Please, Potter. Of course I know of Her. I was raised in a wizarding household. My mother told me stories of Her from the time I could talk."

"But your father is in league with You-Know-Who," Harry protested.

Draco's mouth twisted into a bitter line. "I never said anything about him worshipping Her, now did I?"

Hermione's mouth dropped open. "You worship Selene? But you called me a . . . Mudblood!"

"You called her a Mudblood?" Andromeda growled, glaring at her nephew.

Draco flinched. "I . . .I had to, there were other Slytherin Death Eater kids around. Ow!" He yelped as Andromeda's hand connected with his ear. "I didn't really mean it."

"Then you shouldn't have said it," declared the older woman in a clipped tone.

"Okay. Selene's Grace, Aunt!" Draco rubbed his ear. "That was two years ago!"

"This is the first I'm hearing of it. You know how I feel about that word, boy."

Draco sighed and grumbled, "Thanks, Granger. Now I'm in for it."

"How do we know you're really Her worshipper?" demanded Harry suspiciously.

"This." Draco reached under his shirt and withdrew a silver chain upon which hung a silver crescent moon. "Only an acolyte of the Path of Mysteries can wear this. Or didn't Professor Snape tell you that?"

Harry bridled at Malfoy's faintly condescending tone, but had to admit that the other boy was right. Only a true follower of the moon goddess was given Her holy crescent.

"I don't get it. If you're Her follower, why do you act like a pureblood arsehole at school?"

Malfoy rolled his eyes. "Two words, Potter. My father."

"Oh." Suddenly Harry understood a great deal.

"Enough, you two. You can discuss this another time," Andromeda said briskly. "Right now our first priority is this horse. Moon Fire, is it?"

"Yes. Professor Snape said that was his name." Harry told them. He couldn't believe Malfoy, of all people, was a Selenian. But the proof was unmistakable. He could feel the familiar aura of the goddess.

"Is he Snape's horse?" Draco asked.

Harry shook his head. "Not . . .exactly. He's half-wild and he comes and goes as he pleases. He hurt himself jumping over this fence. And neither of us could get near him to help him until today."

Moon Fire eyed the newcomers warily, stepping back from the fence. His ears were half back and he plainly did not feel comfortable with more people.

Andromeda examined him with a practiced eye. "That's a bad sprain, fellow. You need my poultices and potion wash. Of course, you're not going to make it easy on me, are you?" her voice was low and even, speaking to the horse as if he were another person. She quickly made herself a loop out of the lightweight silvery rope in her hand. "If you trusted me, or if I had time, I would use an easy approach. But I don't, so . . ."

Moon Fire whinnied and bared his teeth, his eyes rolled white. What is that? What do you think you're doing? He started to back away, whistling angrily in challenge.

Andromeda flicked her wrist and the loop sailed through the air, landing neatly about Moon Fire's neck.

Moon Fire half-reared, and Andromeda pulled the loop tight and snubbed it about the fence post.

Harry expected the black stallion to go ballistic, but before Moon Fire could fight, Andromeda said, "Amici equus."

The silvery rope shimmered and sparkles fell about the stallion's head like rain.

Moon Fire inhaled the odd silvery sparks and felt a peaceful lassitude flow over him. He came down and lowered his head docilely.

"Wow!" Harry exclaimed. "What kind of rope is that?"

"A Rope of Calming. It lets me treat stubborn and frightened horses without resorting to a twitch or hobbles," Andromeda replied. She opened the gate and stepped through into the paddock. "Draco, activate the heat packs."

Draco took a white pouch like cloth and whispered a word and it began to glow softly.

She moved over and took a soft halter-like headstall and wrapped it snugly about Moon Fire's head. She attached two lead lines to it and wrapped them about the fence as well. "This is a restraint halter. It holds the horse without harm, and doesn't let him get enough leverage to pull free." She knelt and felt Moon Fire's leg over. "Easy, boy. As I thought, a bad tendon tear."

"Will he recover?" Harry asked nervously.

"Yes. But he'll need some extensive physical therapy and treatment. It might take a month or two. First, however, we'll see if we can't get the swelling down. Draco," she held out her hand for a pouch. "These are heat wraps. Designed by me to ease strained tendons and ligaments." She slipped the wrap over Moon Fire's hoof and then wrapped it snugly about his leg. "We'll keep that on for twenty minutes. Then I'll rub on some special potion that will reduce the pain and heat in the leg. You'll have to do that twice a day, morning and night. Same thing with the packs."

"Should he be allowed to move around?" asked Hermione.

"He can have some exercise during the day. It's not good to let a horse stand too long in a stall, they could develop thrush." Andromeda said. "Put him in his stall at night, however."

"Can you leave Jasmine here?" asked Harry. "I think she's a good influence on him."

Andromeda nodded. "Yes. My Jasmine is a good mare, she has a calming influence on nervous horses." She scratched Jasmine behind the ears.

"I noticed. But how can we bring him in and out of the barn? He doesn't trust us," Hermione said. "Can we keep that rope?"

But Andromeda shook her head. "This rope is not to be used on a horse more than two times in a month. I shall show you how to tie the leads on his restraining halter. As for trust, that is something you must work on with him on your own. This is a smart horse, if he knows you will help and not harm him, he should allow you to tend to him. The first thing a good horseman or woman needs to do is establish trust with your horse. You can do that by spending time with him and letting him get used to you and never ever shout at him or try and grab him, that will frighten him and make him very wary of you."

Harry winced, recalling his mishap with the bucket yesterday.

"You need to keep that leg treated with hot and cold therapy for a week and after that I shall come back and look at it. Then you can start him on a spa regimen."

"A spa regimen?" Hermione asked. "For a horse?"

"Yes. Water massage treatments work wonders upon injured horses. With that and my potions, we'll have him running around again in no time."

"My aunt is the best horse Healer anywhere," Malfoy declared. He gave Harry a look, as if daring the other wizard to refute him.

Andromeda coughed slightly. "Draco, you're a bit biased," she said modestly. "If you like, I can send Draco back here tomorrow, he is familiar with dosing sick horses and can show you how to calm one without the rope."

As she spoke, she undid the loop and slipped the rope off the stallion, as well as unsnapping the leads on the halter. She handed the leads to Harry. "Did Severus say when he would be back?"

"Uh . . .no, ma'am. He said it was . . .an urgent mission and he might be away for several days."

Andromeda looked worried. "I hope he will not put himself in too much danger. The man risks his life too much." She looked thoughtfully at Harry. "I trust he has told you to stay upon this property, Mr. Potter?"

Harry nodded.

"See that you obey him. I have never seen any wards like the ones he has over this place. Not even my brother-in-law can breach them."

Moon Fire shook his head, coming out of his mild serene state. He sniffed at the wrap about his leg, finding it did not hurt, and his leg felt much better. He blew softly and walked slightly away from Andromeda, moving a bit easier across the ground.

"There are two potions that I have that will speed up healing and decrease inflammation," Andromeda continued. "Right now I only have these to give you. I need to brew more. I shall send Draco over with them tomorrow morning." She handed Harry two large vials, one containing a milky blue solution and the other a green one. "Give him the blue one in his drinking water and the other mix in with his oats. Do you know how to make a bran mash?"

Harry shook his head, feeling like an idiot, especially because Malfoy was smirking at him behind his hand.

"Draco, fetch what we need and then show Miss Granger and Mr. Potter." Andromeda ordered. "And quit acting like a superior little snot."

Draco's face fell. He muttered, "Yes, Aunt 'Dromeda," then headed into the barn to the feed room.

Harry was impressed. Apparently, Andromeda either knew Malfoy really well, or she was like Snape, and had eyes in the back of her head.

Andromeda sighed. "Please forgive him. He's not truly as stuck-up as he pretends, he has learned to dissemble because of Lucius, may the Lady blast him. Lucius wishes no taint of the goddess to stain his heir and forbids Draco to learn about the Lady. He wants him to be like he is—a sly slick-tongued bigot, who serves a wicked master and favors torture and destruction. Cissy and I have done our best to teach Draco otherwise as best we can, but Lucius must never suspect, or else he may force Draco to become a Death Eater. So Draco must act the part of the supercilious pureblood."

Hermione and Harry exchanged glances. Neither would have suspected Malfoy to be anything other than the shallow rich boy he acted. The Lady works in mysterious ways, Harry thought. Despite his new knowledge, he still wasn't sure he could trust Malfoy.

Draco returned and showed both Hermione and Harry how to make a warm bran mash with hot water and molasses and mix up the potion into it. "See, it's not that hard," he said, his tone implying that only an idiot wouldn't remember how to do this. "Just make sure he eats it all."

"We will, Mr. Expert," Harry said sarcastically.

Draco glared at him.

Andromeda frowned. "Boys, for the sake of this horse, I strongly suggest that you set aside your foolish schoolboy rivalry and learn to work together."

The two looked away from her and did not speak. Setting aside that rivalry was easier said than done.

"Very well. Have Severus contact me when he returns. If you have any problem with Moon Fire, you may call me." Andromeda said.

"Andromeda? Is it . . safe for Moon Fire and Jasmine to be together like that? I mean . . .wouldn't he try and . . .umm . . .you know, breed with her?"

"Not unless he wants to be kicked to pieces. Jasmine isn't in season and so she'll reject him, even if he was well enough to try. So have no fear on that score. I shall see you next week then."

"Thanks, Mrs. Tonks. I-I mean, Andromeda," Harry said, relieved that at least the horse was going to be okay. Eventually.

" You are most welcome. Come, Draco. You still have chores and lessons today." She took her nephew's arm and then they Apparated away.

Harry lifted the bucket and carried it back into the barn and dumped it into Moon Fire's feeding trough. Hermione remained leaning on the fence, watching the stallion as he grazed, happy that at least he would heal and the injury was not a permanent one. She could still recall that quicksilver ride through the night, desperate and scared as she had been, that sensational feeling of flying without wings would never leave her.

Oh, Moon Fire. I hope I can help restore you to yourself. We need you, Professor, so much. More tears came to her eyes and she sneered at herself for being such a weepy baby. She wasn't even crying for her parents, but for poor Moon Fire, the gallant wizard who had sacrificed himself and now did not even remember it.

The big stallion raised his head and looked at her, and for a moment, just a moment, she thought he recognized her. But then he turned away and began eating again and she was uncertain if she had seen anything at all.

Harry returned and leaned on the fence as well, watching Moon Fire. "Can you believe that Malfoy—of all people—is an initiate? It's enough to blow my mind. After the way he acted . . ."

"But you heard Andromeda, Harry. It was all an act. He had to pretend because of his father."

"And you believe that?"

"Harry, why would she lie to us? And didn't you tell me that the Lady only accepts those as Her initiates who are worthy? It would be a simple thing to prove them wrong, all we would have to do is ask Draco to touch something blessed by the Lady and if he wasn't a true follower, the item would burn him or something."

"Well, I still don't like him. Or trust him."

"You don't have to like him in order to work together with him," Hermione said practically.

"Right. Well, it's been a long afternoon. How about we go and eat some lunch or tea or whatever? I make a mean grilled ham and cheese." Harry offered.

"All right. I am kind of hungry. I can make a salad."

The two headed back to the house, leaving Jasmine and Moon Fire alone in the paddock, with the barn door open so that Moon Fire could enter and leave it as he chose. It was a rather unorthodox arrangement, but it worked for them.

Hermione couldn't help thinking that it felt odd to be living in Snape's house by themselves. It was almost like they were playing house and just waiting for their parents to get home.

Well, I guess that was a bit of a shock, huh?
 


Chapter 18: Midnight Breakthrough
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That night, Harry dreamed that he rode Moon Fire through Sherwood Forest, and the stallion brought him to a secret glade in the heart of the wood, where there was a vast clear pool of water. The pool was overshadowed by mighty oaks and ash, but shone mirror bright in the light of the full moon.

Harry slipped from the stallion's back and knelt to drink at the pool, for he was hot and thirsty from his ride, but as soon as his hand touched the water, it began to glow with a silvery radiance. As he stared, the water rippled and then became still and the face of a beautiful woman with long silvery hair twined with amethysts, moonstones, and opals appeared.

'Hello, Harry.'

Harry knew in an instant who she was. "Gracious Bright Lady, how may I serve You?"

She smiled genially at him, her violet eyes dark with sorrow and wisdom and the knowledge of what was, is, and what may yet be. 'You have been Chosen by me to right a great wrong, child.'

"Do you mean fighting You-Know-Who?"

'No. Though that is important, the task I have given you is more so. But you cannot do it alone. Seek help from my initiates, and the Girl-Who-Is-Not, to complete this task.'

"What is my task?"

'You shall discover it anon, my son.'

"Would You grant me a favor then, Lady?"

'Perhaps. Ask.'

"Can you restore Moon Fire to himself?"

The goddess shook her head sadly. 'Alas, that is one thing you must do on your own. What magic did, magic must undo.'

"But how? I don't even know what spell he was hit with."

'The answers are within you, child. Seek and you shall find.'

Harry sighed impatiently. "Well then can You at least tell me how to gain the trust of a half-wild horse?"

Selene laughed softly. 'Harry, you already know that answer too. To trust is to love. Remember that. And when all seems lost, look up to the moon and let the light guide you. I am always with you, my beloved son.'

Then she vanished and Harry was left staring at water glistening with refracted moonlight once more.

"Why must they always speak in riddles?" he muttered, then cupped his hands and drank from the pool. The water was cool and refreshing and he immediately felt all his aches and weariness dissolve into nothing. Then he turned and mounted Moon Fire, and the stallion carried him away, following the path limned by moonlight to a sacred temple . . .

Harry woke to the moon shining in the window upon his face. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, reaching for his glasses a moment later. He could still hear the echo of hoofbeats in his ears and as he stared out the window at the rolling sweep of lawn, he felt compelled all of a sudden to go down to the barn and check up on Moon Fire.

Without really thinking about it, he crept downstairs, past a sleeping Hermione, who was curled up on the couch, wrapped in Snape's favorite blanket. He made his way to the back door, put on his shoes and coat and walked down the path to the barn. In the pasture, Jasmine dozed on three legs, leaning against the tree.

Harry did not see the stallion anywhere and so he headed into the barn. He turned on the lights and saw Moon Fire in the stall, lying on his side with the wrapped leg resting on the straw. "Hey, fellow. How are you feeling?"

Moon Fire raised his head and gave a soft nicker. Then he laid his head down again, his silky forelock nearly covering the vivid white crescent.

Harry came and stood looking at the horse, noting that he seemed to be either very tired or in pain, since he wasn't making any attempt to stand up. Harry unlatched the stall and said softly, "Easy, boy. Let me see how your leg is."

He knelt in the straw and felt the stallion's leg. It felt hot and looked swollen when he unwrapped the bandage. "This doesn't look too good. Looks like you might need some more hot and cold treatments and maybe a pain reliever too. Stay here and I'll be back."

He left the stall to fetch a bucket of very cold water and some soft cloths, plus another of the heat wraps Andromeda had given him. He also refilled Moon Fire's water bucket with some tepid water and added the pain reliever to it, mixing it well.

When he returned, Moon Fire was still lying in the straw. He whuffed when Harry knelt and started putting the cloths soaked in cold water over his leg. "How's that? Better, huh? This ought to take the heat out of your leg and numb it." He gently ran his hand over the stallion's satiny coat, stroking the big horse's shoulder and neck.

He knew that horses were most responsive to touch and voice tone, and made sure to move slowly and gently, and speak quietly. The last thing he needed was a repeat of that other time, and to have Moon Fire try and get up and hurt himself. He placed the bucket of water beside the stallion's feed trough, hoping Moon Fire would drink after he put the hot wrap on his leg.

He switched out the cloth after a few minutes, replacing it with a fresh one. He did that for twenty minutes, all the while talking to the stallion, who seemed to be listening, for he had an ear cocked towards the boy, though his eyes remained shut. "I'm sorry you were hurt so badly, Moon Fire. I wish I knew more about healing so I could fix you, but I don't. I wish I knew what that dream meant. Selene came to me tonight and told me that I have all the answers within me to break the bloody curse over you, but I don't know what She meant. She also said that I was Chosen to right a great wrong, but it's not killing Tom Riddle like I thought. She also said I could make you trust me. But I'm not sure about that either."

He began to run his fingers through the stallion's thick mane, not plaiting it, just untangling the snarls. "You know, things were so much easier when you knew exactly who you were. I knew you'd never hurt me, but now . . .now I have to watch out for your hooves and teeth. And I can recall you running across the paddock, like a great black Pegasus soaring. You were magnificent, like the wind made flesh, freedom given breath and a body . . ."

Harry closed his eyes, envisioning the way Moon Fire used to be, wild and free and yet still very much his sarcastic professor. He could picture the stallion in his mind, racing about the paddock, the wind swirling through his mane and tail, the thunder of his hooves beating a sweet tempo.

His hands fisted in the horse's mane abruptly. Then he opened his eyes and whispered, "Some way, somehow, I'll make you whole again. I promise. We need . . .I need you too much to just let you stay this way, half of yourself forgotten. I don't know what they cast on you, but I'll find a way to reverse it. Meantime, I guess I could do worse than to tell you about yourself." He cleared his throat. "Once you were my teacher, you taught potions at Hogwarts, and at first I thought you despised me. But then I came to realize that was just a front to mask the real you . . .you were my protector, my savior, and now you're my guardian. Your name is Severus Snape . . ."

He paused twice more in his narrative to replace the cool cloths, and after the fourth one, felt the leg again. It was cooler and much of the swelling had gone down. "Good. Let's try a hot wrap now." He carefully slid the sock-like wrap about the stallion's leg and wrapped it tight, then activated it.

Moon Fire sighed in relief when the warmth infused his leg.

Harry remained with the stallion long past midnight, until Moon Fire heaved himself to his feet and began to drink the water in the bucket. Harry wanted to cheer, but he was too sleepy. He waited until the stallion had finished the water, then he put his head in the straw and dozed. A part of him was screaming, Potter, are you crazy? This is a wild horse, you can't fall asleep in his stall like he was some kid's Shetland pony! He could kill you quick as blinking. Crack your head open with one blow if he wanted to. Get up, you idiot!

But somehow he knew Moon Fire would do nothing to harm him. He was the Moon Goddess' Chosen, after all, and surely She would not allow a horse to trample him. To trust is to love. He felt Moon Fire snuffle his hair and he opened his eyes and looked the stallion in the eyes. I trust you, Moon Fire. And love you too. I hope you can do the same. Then he yawned and closed his eyes, he was so tired, and he fell asleep with the big stallion's breath wafting over him. It smelled of sweet grass and alfalfa.

He woke to Moon Fire snorting nervously and shuffling a hoof in the stall and cautiously sat up. The stallion was peering over his door, curiously at Hermione and Draco, who held a leather case in his hand.

"Potter, are you insane?" asked Malfoy, his eyes wide. "That horse could kick you and split your head open like a ripe watermelon."

"Harry, please be careful!" Hermione cried in alarm. She held out a hand with an apple on it. "Here, Moon Fire. Come and taste the apple."

Moon Fire smelled the fruit and slowly eased his head over the door to snuffle her hand before taking the treat.

Harry climbed to his feet, brushing the straw off him. "He could. But he won't." He said, sounding more confident than he felt.

"Oh, and now you're some great horse expert?" Malfoy snorted. "Since when?"

"I never said I was a horse expert, Malfoy. But I know this horse. He won't hurt me. Not deliberately." He laid a hand upon Moon Fire's shoulder and petted him.

Draco rolled his eyes. "Yeah, sure you do. I've been around horses since I could walk and studied with my aunt since I was old enough to see over a stall door and even I wouldn't take a nap in a stall with one. That's just plain asking to get your brains bashed out."

Harry shrugged. "Whatever, Malfoy. Did you bring the potions?"

"No, I just strolled on over to chat," drawled the other sarcastically. "They're in here. Fresh batches, enough for two weeks. Make sure you follow the instructions exactly. My aunt says overdosing a horse can be fatal."

"I'll be careful." Harry promised, caressing Moon Fire's nose.

"Harry, tell me you didn't sleep all night in there," Hermione chided, frowning at him. "You look like a haystack."

"A walking one," Malfoy sniggered.

Harry ignored Malfoy and answered Hermione. "No, not all night. I had a kind of . . .vision from Selene and when I woke I just felt like going down to check on him. It was a good thing I did, 'cause his leg was hot and hurting him and I gave him some more pain reliever and redid the compresses."

He unlatched the door and stepped out of the stall. "I need to feed him and Jasmine."

Hermione sniffed and wrinkled her nose. "Ugh! Harry, you need to take a shower. You smell like . . .well, a horse."

Malfoy tittered, finding endless amusement in the two Gryffindors' conversation. Harry glared at him. "If you're going to be hanging around here for long, Malfoy, you might as well make yourself useful. Put the potions in the tack room and feed the horses, why don't you?"

Malfoy stiffened. "Who died and made you the stablemaster, Potter? Last time I checked, the owner of this farm was named Snape."

"And he's not here, but I am," Harry retorted. "And since I live here too . . ."

Malfoy set his jaw and looked all set to argue the point when Hermione said, "Draco, will you please help me feed the horses and do whatever else you do with them, since I don't know what I'm doing and could use your advice?"

Malfoy sniffed and nodded. "Sure, Granger. Come with me." He turned and made his way to the tack room.

Harry gaped at her. "That was just . . .amazing."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Haven't you ever heard that saying? Go and take a shower, Harry! You reek."

Harry sniffed at himself. He didn't think he smelled too bad. Then again, his nose had gotten used to the smell of the stable.

"Harry! Ugh!" Hermione gave him a disgusted look, then she turned about to follow Malfoy, murmuring, "Why are boys so disgusting?"

Harry chuckled. "Girls!" he said to Moon Fire, then he headed back to the house.

As soon as he had showered and changed into fresh clothes, Harry returned to paddock, where Draco had tied up Jasmine and was giving Hermione a grooming lesson. "See, you don't want to brush too hard, since an Arabian's skin is usually ticklish and sensitive. You want to make grooming feel good, so the horse enjoys it and so do you." He demonstrated, running a soft body brush over Jasmine's withers. The mare sighed and looked ridiculously happy.

Hermione watched the other boy avidly. "I never would have guessed that you liked horses from the way you act at school. That day with Buckbeak . . ."

Draco winced. "I was an idiot. I hadn't meant for it to get so out of hand, I just wanted to . . .well, show off a bit. But I forgot how touchy hippogriffs are."

"Did he really hurt you?"

"Some. But not too much. I only acted like that because Crabbe and Goyle were watching. See, they report back to my father sometimes, they're kind of like his watchdogs." Draco grimaced.

"That's . . .awful!"

Malfoy shrugged. "That's my father."

"How did you manage to . . .err . . .become a Selenian if your father's always watching you?" Harry asked, leaning on the fence.

"My mother is one and so is my aunt. Together they devised a plan to trick my father. Every year, I was sent to a dueling camp, but what my father didn't know was that the camp was actually run by my Aunt Andromeda, who was disowned by my grandmother for marrying a Muggle. Grandmother forbid her daughters to speak to my aunt, but my mother ignored that rule and she saw Aunt Dromeda in secret. When I was born, she knew Father would try and make me into his clone—a Death Eater like him—and so she resolved to prevent that by teaching me Selene's Way in secret and Andromeda helped. To this day, Father has no idea what really goes on at the dueling camp, except that we learn equestrian studies as well as magical ones. All he knows is that a lot of reputable purebloods send their kids there and it's exclusive and expensive."

"Do all the students follow the Mysteries?" Harry asked.

"Mostly. But those that don't, at least tolerate our faith and don't look down on us or anything." Draco began to rub down Jasmine with a soft cloth, polishing her white coat to a satiny finish.

"What would happen if your father ever found out?" asked Hermione.

Malfoy shivered. "He would . . .I don't even want to think about it, but he would probably thrash me with his cane and then make me take the Dark Mark."

"What an evil man!"

"Yeah, well, look who he worships. You won't find any followers of He-Who-Kills-Children winning a Father of the Year award," said the younger Malfoy. He untied Jasmine and released her with a gentle slap on the rump. "You're good, Jazzy."

The Arabian nuzzled him before trotting away across the paddock.

Draco looked over at Harry. "You want to go and try to lead your brilliant stallion out here, so you can groom him while Granger and I clean out his stall?"

"Yes, all right." Harry went into the barn, where Moon Fire was just finishing his bran mash. "Malfoy, did you put the potion in this?"

"Yes," the other answered, going to grab a large rake and a shovel.

Harry retrieved a lead from the hook beside the stall and snapped it on Moon Fire's halter. The stallion whistled a protest, but when Harry spoke soothingly to him and clucked his tongue, he followed where the boy led with only a token toss of his head and pawing of a hoof. "That's a good boy," he said, grateful that Severus was not aware to hear how Harry was speaking to him, like a dumb animal. "Come on now. I'm going to groom you and rub some magic salve on your leg. Come along, Moon Fire, you crazy stallion you."

And Moon Fire did.

Harry almost couldn't believe how changed the horse's behavior was from a day before, when he had been intent upon fighting everyone and everything. Clearly once he was not in agonizing pain, the stallion was able to grasp certain key concepts, like the fact that Harry was a friend, and it appeared that Harry's night in the stall had proven beneficial for both of them. Moon Fire had developed a kind of trust in Harry, no longer seeing him as a threat or an enemy.

Slowly but surely, Harry was winning him over.

The boy tied Moon Fire to the fence and began to groom him, being extra careful, since he already knew that the stallion had sensitive skin. Once he had finished the grooming session, making Moon Fire's coat gleam like living ebony, he rubbed on the magical liniment Andromeda had given him, which would speed the healing process. Then he re-wrapped the leg and just remained there for a few long moments, leaning slightly on the horse's shoulder.

"Someday you'll return to me," he whispered into one pricked ear.

Moon Fire snorted, then slobbered all over his shirt.

Harry made a face. "Thanks ever so much, sir. If you wanted me to take another shower, all you had to do was say so."

Moon Fire's lips wrinkled up, revealing huge teeth, and Harry could have sworn the big horse was laughing at him.

"Figures. Even as a horse you have a damn weird sense of humor."

He wiped off the sticky drool with a cloth from the grooming kit and went to put it back, thinking as he did so about what Malfoy had revealed about his home life. He still didn't particularly like the other boy, but at least he comprehended the reasons behind Malfoy's actions better now and could actually feel sympathy towards the other. No one knew better than he did what it was like to live in a house with people who you had to watch your step with every hour of every day.

So began the long process of recuperation, with Harry and Hermione and Draco taking care of both horses, though Harry insisted on working mostly with Moon Fire, since he was the only one the stallion tolerated on a daily basis. Malfoy had tried tending the stallion's leg one morning, only to have the fractious horse snap at him in warning. After that he left Moon Fire to Harry.

"I don't know how you did it, Potter, but somehow you've made him trust you," the other remarked testily.

Harry just shrugged. He really had no idea why the stallion trusted him, only that he did. To trust is to love. He spent every other night sometimes in the barn, sleeping on a cot just outside the stall, and occasionally inside it upon two large blankets he found in the tack room. For some reason he found sleeping next to the big stallion prevented him from having nightmares, and when he was there, Moon Fire slept soundly, and did not paw at the straw or pace in his stall.

Moon Fire became fond of the dark-haired boy, who was quiet and soft-spoken, and always eased the pain in his injured leg and gave him small treats. Of all the people on the farm, Harry was the one he trusted to come close to him while his leg was injured, sensing instinctively that they were meant to be together.

After a week, Andromeda came back to examine Moon Fire and pronounced the black horse well enough to undergo some spa treatments as well. "I have a large walk-in pool especially for that purpose, with hot and cold jets and a hitching post. The leg is mending nicely, it's time for you to work on strengthening those muscles and the spa is a great way to do that," the Equine Healer said. "Why don't you come over on Tuesday next and try out the spa pool? I'm sure Moon Fire will love it."

"That would be great, except . . .I can't leave the property, Andromeda." Harry reminded her. "Professor Snape's orders. He says the Death Eaters might still be looking for me."

"You're right, lad. I had forgotten. Well then, perhaps Miss Granger and Draco can bring him over," she suggested.

"How? A horse won't fit in the fireplace."

"True, but I'll give them a Portkey," Andromeda improvised. "One to go and the other to return."

Harry would have liked to go with them, but understood why he couldn't. Still, he got a funny feeling in his chest watching Moon Fire be led away with Draco on one side and Hermione on the other the following Tuesday.

Hermione returned with the stallion after nearly two hours.

"So, how did it go? Did he behave?"

"Well, at first he was nervous and wouldn't get into the water. Andromeda had to use the Calming lasso on him. But once he realized the water felt good and nothing would harm him, he quit fighting and settled down. It was quite pleasant, I must say. But Merlin, am I glad to be to be home! I mean—" she halted, stricken. She hadn't meant that the way it had sounded. Tears filled her eyes.

"Hermione, it's okay." Harry soothed, taking Moon Fire from her.

"No, it's not!" she wept quietly. "I don't want to forget them and yet here I am already finding a replacement home. I can't believe I said that."

Suddenly, she turned and ran into the house, leaving Harry staring sadly after her. He wished he knew something to say that would ease her pain, but comfort was a foreign thing to him, and he was as mute as any animal when it came to dealing with grief-stricken girlfriends.

Sighing, he led Moon Fire into the barn to give him his evening feed, praying silently to Selene to help Hermione.

That night, he gave Hermione his copy of The Path of Mysteries. "You might want to read this. It might help with what you're going through."

She took the book and stared at it dully. "What is it? A how to cope with loss book?"

"No. It's Selene's holy book. Read it. It might help you . . .take your mind off the fact that they're gone. Just for awhile."

"Nothing can do that. But thanks anyway, Harry. You're sweet." She wrapped her arms about him and hugged him hard.

They remained that way for a very long time, before Hermione drew away and retreated to the couch, where she spent the rest of the night engrossed in learning the Way of the Moon Lady.

She fell asleep with the book over her face and dreamed of a beautiful lady with stars in her hair and compassion in her huge violet eyes, who hugged her and whispered, 'Do not grieve, little daughter. They have gone to their reward, and you are not alone. I am here, your beloved is here, and someday you shall find a new family to replace the one that was lost.'

Her arms were warm and soft and the scent of jasmine drifted from her. Hermione buried her face in the soft white robe and wept, feeling the sharp sting of grief somehow ease in the embrace of the Lady, who would now become mother and sister to the orphaned witch. A feeling of utter peace and warmth surrounded her, and Hermione felt herself start to drift, lulled to sleep in Selene's embrace, her last coherent thought was how wonderful Her voice was, as She sang an ancient lullaby in Egyptian, which mothers of the Black Land had sung to their children for thousands of years, first learned at the feet of She Who Was Also Known As Isis.

Here we are again with yet another chapter.

Chapter 19: Midnight Disaster
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It had been almost three weeks since Moon Fire had been injured, and so far the stallion was doing very well with his spa treatments and leg wraps. He had come to look forward to Harry entering the barn or the paddock and took to waiting for him and even whinnying a little when he saw the boy coming.

Jasmine was very amused at how close the young wizard and the temperamental black stallion had become and remarked upon it whenever she had the chance. Here comes your friend, Moon Fire. Aren't you glad to see him? she whickered when she heard Harry's soft footsteps.

The stallion swung his head about and snorted. He brings me apples and carrots and grooms me just the way I prefer. That's why I'm glad to see him.

Oh? And not because he's helped you heal and kept you company at night in the stable? The white mare teased.

The girl and the other boy tend me as well, in the water pool, and the girl grooms me too, though not as well as Harry. Moon Fire responded.

Ah, so it's Harry now, is it?

That's his name, mare. Why does it amuse you?

Jasmine blew out in soft puffs. Because this is the first time I have heard you refer to the young people by a name. It shows that you've grown close to Harry, since you use his name. I think you've finally allowed yourself to trust enough to make a friend.

Moon Fire stamped a hoof. Nonsense! What need have I for a human friend? I am a horse.

A very stubborn one, I know. I think you are . . .afraid of getting too close to humans, because then you might actually like them and want to stay here, instead of leaving once your leg has healed. Jasmine remarked.

Humph! Mares! You think you know everything.

We do, whinnied the Arabian, and started to trot over to the fence to greet Harry.

Moon Fire passed her abruptly, even with his injured foreleg he could still move quickly and he beat Jasmine to the fence. He extended his head over the top rail and gave a sort of welcoming neigh to the boy, who was coming across the grass. Moon Fire could smell the apples and carrots he had in his pockets, and some sugar lumps as well.

"Hey, Moon Fire, Jasmine," Harry greeted, going and stroking the stallion's face. He scratched behind the horse's ears and then fed him some sugar.

Thank you, Moon Fire took the sugar gently and crunched it.

Harry turned to Jasmine and petted her and fed her some apple slices. She nuzzled him affectionately. "Hey there, pretty girl. Sorry I haven't been around to ride you much since I started to take care of Moon Fire."

He heard the soft rattle and squeak of the wheelbarrow as Hermione wheeled it out and tossed the dirty straw onto the compost heap on the side of the barn. The girl had volunteered to help around the stable, saying it wasn't fair for Harry to have to do all the work and besides, she liked taking care of the horses. Harry had shown her how to groom and wash Jasmine and muck out her stall, just the way Severus had shown him. Even though she had never been around horses in her life, Hermione took to the work with a will. Harry suspected it helped her focus on something other than her devastating loss.

Draco came every other day to assist them, in fact this morning was one of his days, and he was late. Usually he was at the farm before Harry and Hermione had finished breakfast, and Harry fed him as well. No sooner had he thought that, then there was a shimmering in the air and Draco appeared. The Portkey Andromeda used was not the conventional one, that tended to drop people from the air, but was designed to put a person or animal in a large unoccupied space on the ground.

It always amazed Harry how Draco managed to look so . . .perfectly put together even at the early hours of the morning, when Harry knew he had been up grooming horses and feeding them at the school. Draco's linen shirt and eggshell colored breeches looked as if they had just come off a drycleaning rack, as did his boots. And his hair never seemed out of place. Compared to him, Harry looked like a hayseed country cousin. He wondered if the other boy used magic to keep himself looking like some model out of Wizarding Gentleman. He has to, because nobody looks that good at six o'clock in the morning.

"Hey, Potter." Draco greeted, walking over to the fence and petting Jasmine.

"Hi, Malfoy. Do you sleep in those clothes or something?" Harry inquired artlessly.

"Why? What's wrong with my clothes?" Draco demanded.

"You look like an advertisement for Young Riders Today or something."

Draco shrugged. "Sorry if I have better clothes sense then you do."

Harry bristled. "At least I don't have to worry about getting dirt on my fifty Galleon clothes."

Draco lofted an eyebrow. "At least nobody would mistake me for the hired help."

Harry slugged him playfully in the shoulder. "Arrogant twit!"

Draco cuffed him about the head. "Better that than a—"

"Will you two stop bickering?" came a very annoyed voice from behind them. "Honestly, you sound like a pair of six-year-olds!"

They turned to see Hermione glaring at them with her hands on her hips.

"And you sound like my mother," Draco remarked insolently. "We like to bicker. It's fun."

Hermione rolled her eyes.

"It's a guy thing," Harry added, for the playful exchange of insults allowed him to blow off steam without being labeled offensive and admitting that Malfoy wasn't as bad as he'd thought.

"Men! And you say we don't make sense." Shaking her head, she walked over and began to pet Jasmine. "Right, girl?"

The Arabian nuzzled her shoulder.

Moon Fire cocked his ears back at Hermione's approach, but otherwise made no move to shy away. He had gradually come to tolerate Hermione as well, though it was plain he preferred Harry to anyone else.

"You ready for your riding lesson, Granger?" asked Draco, he had volunteered to teach the young witch how to ride at her request.

Harry hadn't objected because he knew that of all of them, Malfoy was the more experienced rider. Though Draco had been impressed that Harry rode as well as he did after only a few weeks of learning. "You're a natural, got neat hands and a good seat, Potter. Who taught you?"

"The professor and him," Harry had told him, jerking his chin at Moon Fire.

"You rode that horse? And you're still in one piece?"

"Obviously," Harry drawled. "I started out on Jasmine and then I graduated to Moon Fire. And I didn't just ride him off into the sunset. He threw me off plenty of times. But I'm a better rider for it."

Draco looked at Moon Fire enviously. "What I wouldn't give to get on his back, even once."

"Even if he throws you a second later?" Harry asked.

"Potter, that horse is like a king among horses. You ought to be honored he let you ride him."

"I am. Believe me."

"What was it like?" Draco asked curiously.

Harry sighed. "It's hard to describe. When he ran with me, it was like . . .like being in the middle of a hurricane. He ran so fast that I almost couldn't breathe, but so smooth that it felt like we were flying. It was as good as that time I flew on Buckbeak . . .better actually, since there wasn't any danger of falling off into a lake or smashing into the ground." He smiled reminiscently. "Only thing was, when I rode him, he was in charge, not me. I could . . .sort of direct him, but that was all."

"I'm not surprised. He looks like a lot of horse, too much for a beginner like you to handle," Draco said with a faint hint of superiority in his tone.

"He wasn't!" Harry snapped, insulted. "But he's not an ordinary horse."

"No kidding. Which means he needs an extraordinary rider."

"Oh, and like you're so much better a rider than me?"

"You think?"

"Knock it off , you two!" Hermione growled. "If you want to see who's the better rider, both of you can ride Jasmine and I'll judge who's better."

Draco blinked. "You? Granger, you don't know the first thing about riding."

"Well, then Professor Snape can, when he returns." Hermione retorted.

"When is he going to return?" Draco asked curiously.

Harry shrugged, careful to keep his face expressionless. "Who knows? He didn't really tell me anything about where he was going or how long he would be, just that I needed to stay on the property."

"You don't think . . .anything's happened to him?" asked Malfoy, sounding worried. It was the first time Harry had ever heard him sound concerned over anyone except Moon Fire or himself. Maybe Malfoy wasn't the self-centered kid he acted like.

Harry shook his head. "I don't know." He wondered what Malfoy would say if he ever knew the truth. But Harry had no intention of telling him. He had broken confidence with Severus over Hermione, but that had been because he had needed her help desperately and he trusted her to keep his secret. He still didn't trust Malfoy, in spite of everything he had done to help Moon Fire. Their rivalry and mistrust was still too fresh. Plus, Malfoy was too close to Lucius, a major supporter of Tall, Dark, and Ugly. If put under the Imperius Curse, Draco would babble all he knew without stopping. Harry couldn't risk it. He was going to be in enough trouble when Severus found out he had revealed his Animagus form to Hermione. "I've only been living with him for a couple of weeks, not long enough to learn all his habits or his schedule."

"I wish he'd come home soon though," Hermione said feelingly. She meant every word. Since the demise of her parents, she had felt like a boat without a rudder, adrift and lost and afraid. She was not used to being totally without adult guidance, she enjoyed her independence at school, but she still longed to have her parents back to ask important questions of and get advice from. She had never held the animosity Ron and Harry had towards Professor Snape, but had respected him as a strict teacher, and if he had behaved unfairly towards her or her classmates at times, well, teachers were human too. And some unknown prescience had told her that how Snape behaved was not how he really was. She had sensed time and again that the man was a walking contradiction. Now, however, she longed to have him back because she desperately needed an adult to turn to. The professor had risked his neck to save her, she wanted him to know how much that meant to her. Then she wanted to just curl up in his sheltering embrace and mourn what she had lost.

Desperate to distract herself from her glum thoughts, lest she disgrace herself by crying in front of the boys, Hermione said, "Why don't you two teach me how to ride? I've been dying to learn for ages."

"You sure?" Draco looked doubtful. "It's not easy. You fall off a lot at first and get really sore."

"So? You think I'm a wimp, Malfoy? That I can't handle a little pain? Please! Women have a higher pain tolerance than men."

"Says who?"

"Women have babies. My mum used to say that if men had babies, the human race would have died out because men wouldn't have been able to handle more than a single birth in a lifetime."

Draco gaped at her bluntness and Harry sniggered. For once the suave Malfoy had been shocked speechless.

Hermione sniffed then looked over at Harry. "Harry, can you show me what to do first?"

Harry summoned the tack from the barn with a casual wand wave. For some reason, he didn't want to advertise the fact that he could do some wandless magic in front of Malfoy. "First, you learn how to put on tack," he said in his best professor tone. "Actually, when he taught me, the professor made me polish the tack first, but we can do that later. Watch me."

He took ten minutes demonstrating how to put saddle and bridle on Jasmine, who had the patience of a saint. "Your turn. Let's see how well you paid attention."

Hermione took the tack he thrust at her and began to put it on.

Afterwards, Draco stepped forward. "My turn. Look, Granger, you always mount a horse on the left side . . ."

By the time he had finished with that, and assisted her off and on Jasmine, it was nearly noon.

Their stomachs were staging a rebellion and Malfoy called a halt. "Got anything to eat around here?"

"Yes, but you could go back to your school and eat." Harry said.

"True, but I don't feel like it. Think of it as payment for my riding instruction."

"Payment for your—" Harry stuttered. "You're unbelievable, Malfoy! Can't you ever do anything without it benefiting you somehow?"

"No. It's not the Malfoy way. My father taught me that every action should either benefit you or work to your advantage. If it doesn't, don't bother."

"That's so . . .mercenary." Hermione frowned.

"That's Lucius Malfoy. He makes a shark look like a goldfish."

"Why would you want to be like that?" asked the witch.

"I don't." Malfoy said emphatically.

"Then why do you act like it?"

"I don't know. Force of habit, I guess." He blushed slightly, ashamed of his conniving. "Forget it, I'll go back to the academy."

"No," Hermione said, reaching out to touch his hand. "You can stay and eat with us. As a friend."

Draco was once more shocked speechless. "You want me as a . . .friend?"

Hermione actually nodded. Harry hesitated, then said, "If you want to be our friend, though, you have to quit acting like a jerkoff. Friends don't owe each other, they just help each other. Without getting some kind of payment."

"I've never had a friend like that before. Crabbe and Goyle are only my friends because my father made a deal with their father." Draco admitted.

"Those aren't real friends," Hermione said. "Real friends want to be with you."

"Do you?" there was something oddly vulnerable in the other's eyes.

"Yes." She turned to Harry. "Right, Harry?"

Harry paused before he replied. Ron would bust a gasket if he ever heard Harry say that he counted Malfoy as a friend. Then again, Ron wasn't here to witness the real Malfoy, or how strangely Draco resembled a little child, unsure and fearing rejection. Harry remembered that feeling all too well and he had no wish to make anyone, even Malfoy, feel like that. "Right."

"But not at school," Malfoy said quietly. "It's not safe for you to be seen with me then."

Harry heaved a sigh. "All right." Privately he thought that was a necessary deception, and better than having Ron go all to pieces when he finally found out. "Now let's go and eat lunch."

After lunch, Hermione returned to the paddock, and Draco helped her to mount. They spent the rest of the afternoon walking Jasmine and letting Hermione get used to being on the patient Arabian. Hermione seemed to love doing it and seemed happy to do whatever the boys told her in this instance.

Moon Fire watched the girl cantering around the paddock on Jasmine and gave the horse equivalent of a yawn. Are you bored yet?

The mare snorted. Bored? Not in this stable. Besides, I enjoy the children. You would too if you gave them half a chance.

Not likely.

You're exaggerating.

Moon Fire eyed her, snorting. If you think I would enjoy a girl banging into my back and yanking on my mouth for an hour, you need to get a grip on reality, my friend. No thank you! Not if they paid me in oats and apples.

Jasmine whickered and tossed her head, dancing slightly sideways. You need to have more patience, Moon Fire. The girl isn't that bad a rider. She never makes a mistake twice.

Better you than me, the stallion said laconically, thendrew away and began to crop the grass while Jasmine circled the paddock endlessly with Hermione on her back.

Draco called pointers to her as she rode. "Keep your hands loose and your heels down. Straighten up, you don't need to hunch over that way."

Hermione straightened, trying to get the feel of moving with the mare. The boys had been right, it was harder than it looked. But it was also fun. She loved the feel of the living horse beneath her and the way Jasmine seemed so forgiving of her mistakes.

"You're doing good, 'Mione!" Harry encouraged. "Just remember to feel your horse beneath you. You have a good seat. Don't forget to grip hard with your legs."

After an hour, the boys called a halt and Hermione slid down. She felt a little wobbly and faintly sore, but otherwise okay. Draco handed her the reins. "Walk her around and cool her off, then go and groom her."

"Yes, sir, Lord Malfoy," Hermione said, miming a curtsey.

"Are you making fun of me?" Draco frowned.

"You're too serious." She laughed. Then she began to walk Jasmine in a circle.

Harry summoned brushes and looked at Draco. "Want to help me groom Moon Fire?"

"What are you doing?"

"Brush off the dirt first, and then I'm going to give him a bath." Harry clipped a lead onto the stallion's halter before tying him to the hitching post. "Moon Fire, settle down."

Moon Fire shook his head and tossed it. But he relaxed when Draco fed him a carrot.

Harry began to groom him and the stallion groaned softly in pleasure. Grooming was one thing he really enjoyed about humans.

* * * * *

Early the next morning, Harry rose and discovered Hermione baking in the kitchen. He blinked. "Mione? What are you doing?"

She glanced up from where she was beating egg whites in a bowl with a mixer and said, "I'm celebrating by baking some angel food cake."

"Celebrating?"

"I'm celebrating the fact that Moon Fire is almost better and also that I think I discovered what spell he was hit by." She shut off the mixer, grinning proudly.

"You did? That's great! What was it?"

"I think it was a Memory Charm." She carefully scraped the bowl and poured the cake batter into the pan. "Only problem was that there are a lot of Memory Charms and unless we know the specific ones . . ."

"Specific ones?" Harry repeated.

"Yes." She put the cake into the oven. "You see, there are Extended Memory Charms, which can be permanent. Or there are Temporal Memory Charms, which wear off in about a week or a month. The strength of the charm also depends upon the strength of the wizard casting it. Now, I can't be sure, but I think Moon Fire caught a rebounded Memory Charm, one that was intended for some other wizard."

"How does that help us?"

"Well, for starters, it'll give me a place to look for a counter."

"Isn't a Memory Restorative potion the counter?"

"Yes and no. I need to know the exact spell cast in order to make that potion, and I don't know if a horse can take that potion. So many potions meant for people are poisonous to horses. He could die if we gave him the wrong one."

"Oh. So then we're almost back where we started." Harry groaned.

"No, not at all. Think positive, Harry. We're slowly narrowing it down." Hermione pointed out. "That's why we're celebrating. I'm making my mum's angel food cake and I found some whipped topping and strawberries in the fridge that will go nicely with it. I love angel food cake with strawberries."

Harry licked his lips. "Sounds . . .heavenly."

She mock-glared at him. "Oh, get out there and feed the horses!" she tossed a dishcloth at him, making him pretend to flee the kitchen. But she wasn't really angry, she was too happy that she had finally made some progress.

Harry told the two horses about Hermione's discovery when he turned them out into the paddock. They seemed eager to be out in the sunshine, and Jasmine ran about kicking her heels playfully for a few minutes. Moon Fire walked quickly, favoring his foreleg less than he had been the week before.

Suddenly, the big stallion dropped to the ground and Harry gasped, thinking he had hurt his leg, but then he drew in a sharp sigh of relief. Moon Fire rolled over on his back, his legs waving in the air, as he scratched some itching places and removed unwanted hair. When he regained his feet, carefully, his hide was stained with grass, but he still looked quite handsome.

Harry giggled to see the proud stallion abandon his normal reserve to roll about on the ground like a big dog. He wondered suddenly if Moon Fire had ever done this when Severus was in charge of the stallion's mind. For some reason he started to laugh even harder.

What's so funny?
Harry spun around to see little Titania standing there, her bare feet buried in the fresh spring grass, her violet tunic contrasting brightly against the vivid green background of the field and forest beyond. Her hair looked paler and fuzzier than usual and her violet eyes glowed.

"Titania!"

Hello, Harry. How are you?

"I'm fine. But Moon Fire isn't." Harry pointed at the big stallion.

She peered at the big horse. Ah. He's hurt his leg. But it's mending.

"It's not only that. He's lost his memory as well. I'm trying to restore it. Do you know any magic that will return an Animagi's memory to him?"

The child, who seemed far older than she appeared, and whom Harry suspected was an ancient being of the forest, looked at the former wizard sadly. I am sorry, but I am not able to do that. Wizard magic is different from my own. There are three disciplines of magic—elemental magic, which is used by dryads and sprites and naiads and other beings who are bound to the four elements. Then there is the arcane, that which you wizards wield,varied and versatile, but which depends upon your own inner strength and will and innate power. Lastly there is the High magic, the magic of moon and stars, which can only be wielded by the goddess herself and those She chooses to gift it to. Each kind of magic is specific to the person or being and cannot be combined.

"Oh. I had hoped . . ." Harry sighed, discouraged. Then he asked, "What kind of magic do you wield?"

The child gave him an enigmatic smile. The kind you do not. She climbed up on the top rail and perched there. Then she whistled, and both horses came to her, as docile as two old nags. She smiled and stroked them and whispered something in their ears. Moon Fire quivered slightly beneath her small hand and put his head in her lap for a moment. She lovingly braided his forelock, brushing her hand lightly across the white crescent.

Harry watched in awe. He had never seen the stallion behave so. Even with him, Moon Fire was still touchy. But with Titania he was calm and almost . . .worshipful. Not for the first time, he wondered just who Titania was. Another spirit of the forest, like the Green Man? The lady of animals? Whoever she was, she had certainly tamed Moon Fire.

"He . . .likes you," Harry murmured. "Are you sure you can't help him? He's not himself without . . .without his memories."

The girl shook her head. What can be done, must be done by you, Chosen of Selene.

Frustrated, Harry cried, "But I don't know how! It's been weeks and still he's like this."

Sometimes the path is long, but at the end of it, you shall find what you seek. Nothing worth doing is ever easy. Trust yourself, Harry. Selene never gives you a task you cannot handle. Ask for help and believe you can succeed and you shall do so. A wizard's worst enemy is despair and doubt.

"Is that all you can do—speak in riddles?" Harry stormed. "Why can't you just say what you mean?"

I am. Why don't you learn to listen? the little girl snapped. To trust is to love and love is memory. Think about it.

"I have asked Selene for help!" Harry said, exasperated. "And She told me that I had all the answers in front of me and to seek help from Her initiates and the Girl Who Is Not. But I don't know what the bloody hell that means! Why can't She just . . .tell me what I need to know?"

Because sometimes you must seek your own answers, for only in seeking can you gain true understanding.

The child stood up, walked along the fence to the tree, did a small pirouette, and then vanished before Harry could say anything else.

"Great! Just great!" shouted the boy, and kicked the fence post.

"Ow!" he yelped, he had forgotten he was only wearing sneakers and bruised his toes.

Moon Fire whickered, and Harry glared at the stallion, who seemed very amused. "What are you looking at? It's not funny!"

He limped towards the barn, regretting his temper tantrum now that he recalled he still had to muck out stalls.

But his lousy mood improved when he returned to the house to the smell of warm angel food cake and succulent strawberries topped with whipped cream.

"Mmm . . .this is the best cake with strawberries and cream I've ever eaten," Harry praised Hermione as he licked the last bite of whipped cream off his lips. "You could have a great future as a baker."

Hermione laughed. "Oh, sure, Harry. I'll be the Witch Who Bakes For Kids instead of the one who eats them." Then she served herself a piece and had to admit that she had done a good job. Mum would be proud, she thought, and then blinked away a tear.

"Mione, are you making any progress on finding a counter for the Memory Charm?"

"Nothing so far. But that doesn't mean there isn't one," she told him firmly. "And if there is, I'll find it."

"I know you will. I'd help, but I would probably muck it up."

"It's okay, Harry. I work better alone sometimes. But don't lose hope. Where there's a will, there's a way."

Harry gave her a tentative smile. But his hope was flagging as the days went on and still no cure was found.

Hermione continued to research Memory Charms and their countercharms during the night, and practice her magic and riding during the day. Unlike Harry, she was not discouraged by her lack of results. She knew that sometimes a topic was difficult to research, especially without the help of an adult professor. And then she had an idea. She would write to McGonagall, who would know plenty about Animagi and maybe have a few pointers on regaining lost memories. Then too, she could reassure her teacher that she was safe and well, since she too was reported among the missing according to the Daily Prophet. Harry had cautioned her to tell no one that Snape had rescued her or where she was, but she could at least put Minerva's mind at ease and maybe gain the answers she sought.

She pulled out a fresh quill and parchment and began to write.

Hermione still had not gotten a reply from McGonagall the next morning, when Draco came by to help her take Moon Fire to his spa treatment. By now the stallion allowed them to lead him from the paddock and use the Portkey without a fuss. The spa treatments had become a routine, one that Moon Fire enjoyed, and once they reached the academy grounds, he followed Draco and Hermione willingly to the hot spring pool and stepped into the water.

Hermione attached his lead to a large metal frame with a revolving top that had a series of spokes on it like an umbrella. It revolved when the horse walked about it, serving as exercise for rehabilitating horses. The first few times they had used the water walker, Andromeda had been there with a Calming Lasso, so Moon Fire wouldn't go crazy, but now the intelligent horse no longer feared the device and would walk about it with a minimum of encouragement.

"You want me to take the first shift?" asked the girl, taking off her shoes and socks and rolling up her jeans. They never left Moon Fire unattended, and he used the spa treatment for half-hour increments, for a total of two hours.

"Sure. I'll go and work out with the rapier," Draco said, and he headed towards the large low building which contained a salon for the fencing students to practice their moves in.

He also needed to tell Andromeda that they had returned with Moon Fire.

Half-an hour later he was on his way back from his lesson, tired and sweaty and more than ready to just walk about in the hot pool and rest his aching feet. He was so intent upon his goal that he didn't notice the sudden flashes of magic thrown off by an Apparating wizard until he heard his father's voice.

"Draco! Where are you going in such a hurry?"

Draco froze. Merlin's pants! He's not supposed to be here till next Tuesday! Why did he have to come early? Slowly he turned to face his father. "Hello, Father. I wasn't expecting you."

"I decided to visit you early," responded Lucius in that smooth cultured tone. He moved to place a hand upon Draco's shoulder.

"Aww . . .such a touching moment, Luc!" purred Bella, who suddenly appeared next to Lucius. "Have you been a good boy, Draco-waco?" she smiled at him and cackled, making his blood run cold. "I do hope you haven't been naughty!"

"No, Aunt Bella," Draco said quickly, suppressing a shudder. She had visited his house once when he was small and had terrorized him. Then he remembered Hermione and knew that he had to prevent Lucius and Bella from seeing Moon Fire and Hermione. "Father, why don't you come and see my new fencing move?"

Too late. He had been about ten feet from the hot pool and Hermione had spotted him. Not thinking there was any danger, she waved to him.

Lucius saw. "Who's that, Draco? A little conquest you've made, hmmm?"

"N-no, she's nobody, sir . . ." Draco stammered.

Bella giggled shrilly. "Draco has a gir-r-r-lfriend! Draco has a gir-r-r-lfriend! Teehee, haha, whoo-hoo!" She began to caper about them. "Who is the lucky little miss?"

Before he could stop her, Bellatrix had half-walked over to the hot spring.

Her maddened eyes narrowed as she saw Hermione, who remained frozen with one hand on Moon Fire's lead. "Why that's . . .that's the little Mudblood who got away! What is she doing here?"

Lucius' eyes widened and his face went hard. His hand tightened upon Draco's shoulder. "Draco, did you know about this? I thought only pureblood paying students were allowed here."

"They are. I-I filed a complaint with the Headmistress, Father." Draco felt his courage drain out of him.

"Then why did she wave at you?" Lucius demanded sharply. "What have I told you about fraternizing with Mudbloods?" His fingers dug into Draco's shoulder like claws and his son gasped and blinked back tears.

Run, Hermione! Take Moon Fire and run!

"I'm sorry, Father. School policy—"

"I'm very disappointed in you, son. I think I should remove you from this school immediately."

"No! Please!"

"There is only one thing a Mudblood is good for and that is not attending school." Lucius said coldly.

By now Bella had capered up to Hermione, who was staring at her in horror, her mind flashing back to that awful night, when Bellatrix had tortured her parents and made her watch. She felt her chest tighten and her throat close in terror.

Moon Fire sensed her fear and half-reared, tugging upon the hot walker.

Hermione unsnapped the lead, intending to set the stallion free. Her wand was in her hand and she pointed it at the wicked witch who had cost her everything.

"Naughty, naughty, little girl, seducing a Malfoy!" Bella cackled.

"Get bent, bitch!" Hermione snarled, and reached for the power within her.

But Bellatrix was quicker. "Stupefy!"

Hermione crumpled to the ground as a red jet of light struck her, falling face first into the water.

Moon Fire trumpeted in fury and rose to his full height, rage sweeping through him. He remembered this woman, remembered the rancid scent of her, and he bared his teeth and struck at her with his hooves.

Bella screamed and ducked, falling backwards. "Lucius! I've got the girl! Kill the bloody horse! It's one of Hers! A Marked animal!"

"No! Father, don't!" Draco cried, as Lucius drew his wand. He grabbed his father's arm.

Lucius gave him a sharp glance. "Remove your hand, Draco. How dare you defy me?"

Draco cringed. His hand slipped from Lucius' arm. "Please. It's just a horse." Moon Fire, run! You fool horse!

"No, it is not. Our master will be pleased to have such to . . .play with." Lucius said. His wand tip came level with Moon Fire's chest.

For one instant Draco was tempted to tackle his father, but years of compelled obedience held him frozen.

Moon Fire refused to run, all he wanted was to trample the screeching hag underfoot for hurting the girl. He sprang forward on his hind legs in a classic warhorse battle move, his front hooves lashing out at Bellatrix.

Bellatrix snarled and lashed out with a Cutting Curse, grabbing Hermione by the hair and dragging her from the water.

A red slash appeared upon Moon Fire's withers and the horse screamed in pain. His front hoof caught Bellatrix upon the shoulder and she howled.

"Stop it! Leave him alone!" Draco yelled, hoping another student or Andromeda would hear him. But this part of the complex was deserted at this hour, since the other students were eating lunch up at the refectory.

"Stupefy!" Lucius shouted, and a red streak exploded from his wand and slammed into the enraged stallion.

Moon Fire staggered, coming down on his front hooves. For one instant, Draco prayed he could shake off the curse, but then he swayed listlessly and stumbled.

Bellatrix shot another Stunner at him and the gallant stallion fell, to lie half in and out of the hot spring. "Nighty-night horsie!"

Draco wanted to spit at her. He had never hated her so much in his life as he did then. Or himself, for not helping the horse and his friend. Coward! He sneered inwardly.

"I am much displeased by your weakness," Lucius declared, turning viciously on his son and slapping him across the face so hard he cut Draco's lip. "This is not how I taught you to behave. This school has obviously been a bad influence on you. I'm withdrawing you immediately. I'll deal with your disobedience later."

"Yes, Father." Draco staggered, one hand going to his lip. He squelched the trembling in his legs and stood upright. I'm sorry, Moon Fire. I'm sorry, Hermione and Harry.

Lucius latched onto his son's arm and dragged Draco forward, putting one hand on the stallion's shoulder. Moon Fire lay still, his blood staining the water a bright pink. "Bella, use the Portkey to Riddle Manor."

Bellatrix, still holding Hermione, sat down upon the stallion's shoulder, as if he were a piece of furniture instead of a living creature, and smirked before she pulled a black diamond from around her neck. "Ohhh . . .are we going to have some fun with you two, little Mudblood and moon stallion! You were the one who saved itty-bitty Potter from us months ago, I remember you! And you saved the Mudblood too! Such a bad, bad, horsie!" Her merciless expression turned Draco's blood cold.

Selene, help us. Please! He prayed. He had no illusions about what awaited him when he got to Riddle Manor, but he knew that whatever Lucius did to him would be nothing compared to what Bella and Pettigrew, who also loved torturing animals, would do to Moon Fire.

"Bella! Activate it!" Lucius growled. "Quickly, before someone sees!"

"Portus!"

Draco felt a tremendous tug behind his navel, and then they were whisked away to Riddle Manor, leaving only a bloodstained pool of water behind to mark their trail.


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Chapter 20: Midnight Search
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Snape's house

Five hours later:

Harry had gone for a ride outside the paddock on Jasmine for two hours once Moon Fire had departed with Draco and Hermione. He found that riding the Arabian relaxed him immensely and he knew Jasmine enjoyed the ride as well. Horses loved being ridden, kept in a barn all day, they became bored and skittish or lazy. After his ride, he groomed the mare and allowed her to stay outside, since it was such a nice day. He hoped that Moon Fire's treatments were progressing.

He hurried up and took a shower, by then it was almost one thirty and he was starving. He made himself a cheese and mustard sandwich and drank a glass of cold lemonade. He checked the wall clock in the kitchen. It had been almost five hours since the two friends had last seen each other. Harry frowned. Where were they? It wasn't like them to be this late.

A frission of fear and uneasiness skittered down his spine. There was a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach as well. What if something had happened to Moon Fire? What if he had hurt himself worse and Andromeda had told Draco and Hermione that he ought to be put down? The thought nearly made him vomit right there. Nothing must happen to Moon Fire. Or his other friends either. Not for the first time did he wish he was old enough to Apparate.

He couldn't use the Floo either, since Severus had told him it only worked if you knew the password to activate it, otherwise it was locked. It was a safety precaution, but right now it bound Harry to the farm as if he had been tied to a pole.

There's something wrong. Something wrong, his conscience whispered. He tried to ignore it and think about what he wanted to eat for dinner, but he couldn't stop feeling terribly worried. It was so out of character for Hermione to be late. Unable to settle down, he went into the den, dropped onto the soafa and stared at the portrait of the unicorn. Something bad's happened, I just know it. What he didn't know was what he could do about it.

He had to get in touch with Andromeda. But Severus had insisted he stay on the property. So far Harry had kept his promise to the professor. It hadn't been that hard to obey, since he had not needed or wanted to leave. Now, however . . .

He was practically chewing his nails in a frenzy of indecision. Selene, please help me decide what I should do. I know I should probably obey my guardian, but at the same time I can't just sit here and do nothing. There's something wrong, I just know it. They're in trouble, and I don't know what I should do. Lady, please help me.

He shut his eyes and prayed hard, desperately.

Suddenly, he felt a gentle warmth wrap about him. Child of mine, follow your heart. It shall never lead you astray. Do what your heart tells you.

He started up from the sofa as if he had been stung by a bee. He knew then that it was up to him to help his friends and Professor Snape out of whatever trouble they had gotten themselves into. Gotta talk to Andromeda first.

He headed upstairs to grab some essentials, like his wand, a jacket, his Invisibility Cloak, and his backpack, which he filled with a pair of extra clothes, some essential healing potions, snacks like granola bars and crisps and he also packed a few ham, cheese, and mayo sandwiches, setting a preserving spell on them first. He also packed a container of horse salve and bandages, plus a few water bottles. He was glad Severus had placed a Hold Full spell on the backpack, so it could hold whatever Harry desired. He also grabbed a small lighter and a warm blanket off the couch, which just happened to be Severus' favorite one. He also stuffed a packet of sugar lumps on the top.

There! Now all he had to do was saddle up Jasmine.

That took him all of seven minutes, then he mounted her and trotted past the house and down the drive towards the road. He prayed he was doing the right thing. Follow your heart, Selene had told him. Harry had no doubt that his heart was telling him to help his friends.

He clucked to Jasmine as she set her hooves upon the tarmac. "All right, girl. They say that every horse knows the way home. I hope that's true." He gathered the reins lightly and tapped her with his heels. "Jasmine, go home! Take me home!"

The mare swiveled her head around, her liquid eyes looking a bit confused. She hesitated.

"You heard me. Go home, girl!" Harry urged.

The Arabian snorted, then she pricked her ears and carried her young rider down the road, towards the Dueling and Equestrian Academy five miles away.

Harry slid off of Jasmine when he reached the large long building in the center of the academy. Several students looked at him suspiciously, and one tall boy with a shock of brown hair wearing a green and gold uniform with a horse embroidered on it walked up to him. "Who are you and why are you riding Lady Tonks' Jasmine?"

"My name is Harry Potter and I was lent Jasmine by Mrs. Tonks. I came here to ask about a few of my friends who were here earlier today. Can you please tell her I'd like to speak to her?"

The older student blinked and stared at him. "You're really Harry Potter? You look kind of small for fourteen."

Harry sighed. Then he brushed aside his hair and showed the other boy his scar. "See? I'm who I said. Now please take me to Andromeda—I mean Lady Tonks."

"Okay. Wait here. I'll see if the Lady is available," the boy said stiffly, and then he walked into the long building, leaving Harry standing there holding Jasmine's reins.

Some five minutes later, Andromeda came out of the double doors, looking grave. "Harry! What are you doing here? I thought that Professor Snape gave you strict instructions to remain on the property?"

"He did, but the Moon Lady told me to follow my heart and I came here looking for Hermione, Draco, and Moon Fire. Have you seen them? They left to come here early in the morning and never came back. Do you know what happened to them? Is Moon Fire sick?"

"I don't know. Come with me." She beckoned Harry inside.

Harry tied Jasmine to the hitching post to the left of the doors and followed.

Andromeda led the way down a long hall carpeted in thick blue shag and into her office, which was cluttered with trophies and certificates and awards. She brushed aside some papers on her desk and shut the door, casting a Silencing Charm as she did so. "I can't be too careful. I know that Hermione and Draco arrived here with Moon Fire, since Draco informed me of that fact soon after they got here. They were going to work the stallion in the hot spring and that was the last I saw of them. An hour ago, a student came to me and reported that they found the water in the hot spring colored pink and a student had left her shoes and socks at the edge of the pool."

"But why would Hermione do that?"

"If she were leading Moon Fire, she would have taken her shoes off. As for the pink tinged water . . .I can only assume it's blood."

Harry paled. "Blood? From who? Moon Fire?"

"The stallion would be a logical choice. Unless he kicked one of them," Andromeda said. "But I have a feeling it was much worse than that. Another of my students reported that Lucius showed up here earlier, looking for Draco. Usually Lucius never shows up here unannounced, and so we have time to prepare for his arrival, allowing my sister vet, Abigail Stevens, to assume the position of Headmistress for the duration of his visit. But this time . . .he gave no warning whatsoever and simply showed up here, with one of his flunkies in tow, most likely. I fear that he saw Draco helping Hermione tend Moon Fire and he . . .stole them away."

"Stole them away!" Harry exclaimed. "Then why aren't you looking for them?"

"I am. I've alerted the Order, but so far they haven't found a trace of either of them. My sister, Narcissa, tells me that Lucius hasn't come home to Malfoy Manor at all, with or without Draco. She's afraid he'll hurt their son—he has a notorious temper and has . . .beaten my nephew before, quite badly, may Selene have mercy. He calls it discipline, I call it abuse. As for Hermione and Moon Fire, since they are nowhere to be found either, I can only assume the worst. They too are with Lucius, wherever he is."

"If . . .if you had to guess, where do you think they are? Does Lucius have another house somewhere?"

"He has a townhouse in London. But he wouldn't bring them there, it's no place to keep a horse." Andromeda said. "If I had to guess . . .I would say he has gone to his master's house—Riddle Manor."

"Where's that?"

"A long way away from here, Harry. Past Sherwood Forest and beyond. In Little Hangleton. And the house is triply warded. It would take a spy like Severus to infiltrate it and bring them all out alive." Her expression darkened. "No one can find him either. I'm sorry, Harry. I wish I had better news for you. But the best you can do is go back to Snape's house and wait."

"I can't do that! My friends are in trouble, they need help!"

"Not from you. Severus would hang you out to dry and beat you if he knew you had come here alone." Andromeda said sternly. "Let the adults handle it, Harry. They have more experience and power than you do. You put yourself in danger by leaving the property. Go home, boy."

Harry's jaw set in a stubborn line. He wanted to argue that he had a direct . . .sort of . . .command by Selene to do just the opposite, but he sensed that Andromeda would not believe him. She thought he was a glory hound, that he wanted to play hero again. He didn't. He wished he could just go home and let the adults handle it. But he sensed upon some deep level that if he did that, something terrible would happen. This quest belonged to him. He drew in a deep breath. "Okay. I'll go."

"Good thinking, Potter." She handed him a small sack with Hermione's shoes and socks in it. "Here. You might as well keep these to give to her later, after she comes home as well."

"Thank you," Harry said politely, taking the sack. Inwardly he rejoiced, for he needed Hermione's shoes for a spell of his own—a Tracking spell.

She came and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I know this is hard for you, Harry, but don't despair. The Moon Lady watches over Her own, and She is the light in the darkness."

"I know," he murmured. "Guess I better be going."

"Right."

She followed him from the office and out to where Jasmine awaited him. Someone had given the mare some water and oats, for which Harry was grateful. He mounted her and started back the way he had come. He had not lied to Andromeda. He was going to go back to the farm, he simply wasn't going to stay there.

The sense of urgency was growing within him. He had a premonition that he needed to find all three of his friends as quickly as possible, and stop Lucius and Tall, Dark, and Ugly from harming them. But first he had to find them.

He rode Jasmine quickly back to the farm, and as soon as they were back on the property, Harry cast the Tracking spell. It was a spell that Severus had taught him recently, a more focused and accurate spell than a Locator Charm, and it did not wear off as quickly, remaining working until it was either blocked or banished. However, it did need something the quarry had used in order to work.

Harry tapped his wand against Hermione's shoes and socks and muttered the words. His wand lit up in a cascade of blue and violet lights. Then it subsided and Harry felt a strong urge to go east and north. He clucked to Jasmine and they headed across the lawn and the pasture, right into Sherwood Forest.

Harry gulped as they drew near the boundary. It looked dark and forbidding and he recalled Severus' warning that he should never enter the forest at night. But what choice did he have? Gathering up all his courage, he nudged Jasmine firmly towards the trees. Sherwood couldn't be any worse than the Forbidden Forest and he had to rescue them.

Follow your heart, it will never lead you astray.

He plunged into the forest, praying Jasmine had excellent night vision, and did not trip in a hole and break a leg.

Suddenly, the moon emerged from behind a dense bank of clouds and shone down upon them, illuminating the way forward. Harry urged Jasmine faster. Hold on, guys. I'm coming. Bright Lady, keep them safe. Or at least keep them alive.

Riddle Manor, Little Hangleton:

Moon Fire stirred and woke, all of his instincts on battle alert. He rolled over and tried to get to his feet, luckily his attempt at defending himself had not re-injured his game leg. But the wound he had taken from the Cutting Curse was still fresh and burned and throbbed as he tried to stand. At last he had his hooves under him and looked about.

This was not his comfortable stall at home, but a cramped version that left him barely space to move about. He lowered his head and sniffed, the straw bedding beneath his hooves was musty and he wrinkled his nose in disgust. He knew without knowing how that such poor straw could cause his hooves to founder and get infected if he stayed in it too long. Angrily, he whistled and kicked the stall door with a hoof, but no one came.

The stallion was in almost total darkness, a single lamp left on further down the row served as the only illumination. Moon Fire swung around, his haunches smacking into the back of the stall, and he kicked out angrily. This was not a proper stall and he wanted out of it.

The feed trough was filled with substandard hay, dry, tasteless, and scattered with thistles. Moon Fire took one mouthful, chewed and then spat it out. It was bitter and disgusting. Even the water bucket was filled with tepid stale water, though that he drank thirstily, his throat was very dry after the Stunning spell. Still, he missed the fresh water Harry brought him every morning and evening and his daily ration of oats and sweet timothy.

He stopped moving long enough to detect with his keen ears that he was the only horse in the stable, and he let out a loud angry peal at being taken away from his home and friend Jasmine and being locked in here.

His shoulder stung something awful and he managed to turn his head and gently lick the tapered slash in his shoulder several times, trying to clean it. The flesh was hot beneath it and the stallion worried about infection, though as yet the wound was clear. He felt very tired and confused after all that had happened, as well as angry at those who had done this. If they ever came within striking distance of his hooves, he would be sure to make his displeasure known upon their hides.

But first he would rest, making sure he had all of his strength back when those evil people who had stolen him returned. Then they would learn what it meant to mess with a Chosen of Selene!

Hermione opened her eyes to find herself in a small room, windowless, decorated with ugly striped gray and blue wallpaper that made the girl think of prison cells. The bed she was on was nothing more than a bare mattress with a single threadbare blanket upon it and a pillow that was little more than cloth. A single bulb burned in a small lamp on a rickety table. There was no other furniture in the room.

Slowly, Hermione stood up. She felt weak—sick and dizzy from the Stunning hex, but otherwise all right. She felt about the pockets of her lightweight purple jacket for her wand, but it was gone. Then again, she hadn't really expected them not to search her and take it. They were Death Eaters, and as much as she loathed them and all they stood for, they were not stupid, like all the comic book villains. More's the pity.

She walked over to the small door and tugged on the knob. It was locked. Sighing, she returned to the bed, only then realizing she was barefoot, having left her sneakers and socks beside the pool when she had begun walking Moon Fire in the hot water. Tears filled her eyes as she thought of the gallant stallion. What had happened to him? Was he all right? Had the Death Eaters hurt him? She prayed it was not so. Selene, they say You look after all of Your Children. Please look out for Moon Fire and protect him. She was dreadfully afraid that Lucius and Bellatrix might have killed him, especially if they recognized the horse that had rescued Harry and Hermione. She wouldn't put it past them, considering how callously they had killed her own parents, who had never even been involved with the wizarding world except for a few trips to Diagon Alley.

Thoughts of her parents made her start to shiver and she clutched herself tightly about the middle, feeling as if she were going to fly apart. She bit her lip till it bled. Then she reached up and held the silver charm in her hand. Almost immediately, she felt a feeling of reassurance and peace flow through her. You are not alone. Once again, as in her dream, she felt warm arms wrap about her and the despair that had surrounded her fled.

Her innate courage flowed through her, bolstered by the goddess' love and concern, filling her with renewed hope. She must not give in to despair. Somehow, she would survive this. She had no idea what Lucius and the others wanted of her, or even where she was, but when she found out, she would start making plans to escape. She was nobody's pawn. She would fight to her last breath the wicked bastards who had killed her parents and cost her everything.

She winced as she recalled how foolish she had been, waving to Draco as if they were old friends, not even realizing that Lucius and Bella were with him. She should have been more careful, but she had thought they were safe at the academy. She had let her guard down and look what had come of it, she berated herself.

She recalled Draco's face as they had come up to her, white and scared. No, not merely scared—petrified. He had been scared out of his wits, and Hermione figured she knew why. Lucius had been Draco's personal demon for all of his life, and him showing up unexpectedly like that had totally thrown Draco into a panic. And then the unthinkable had happened—they had been exposed. And shown exactly how helpless they were against experienced dark wizards.

Oh, Draco. I hope . . .I hope you're okay. Your father looked . . .looked like he wanted to tear you to shreds. Please be all right. If anything ever happened to you, I would feel so guilty.

She twirled the unicorn charm between her fingers, just holding it soothed her. She did not yet know how they would all get out of this mess, but come what may, she would not lose hope. She had one thing to be grateful for. At least Harry was free and safe back at Snape's house.

Draco winced sharply as he sat up, trying his best to move as little as possible. He slid to his feet on his stomach, even that made the new welts he'd acquired from Lucius' latest discipline session start to throb and burn. He gritted his teeth and stood. He could not recall a worse caning, perhaps because this had been the first time he had ever openly defied his father. He silently thanked his goddess that Lucius did not know how often Draco had defied him in the past, by becoming an initiate of Selene.

He glanced down at the double bed, where he had laid after Lucius had done with him, unable to move, his legs and backside awash in pain, tears filling his eyes. He had wept only after he was certain Lucius had left the room.

"I trust there will not be a repeat of your disobedience, son," Lucius had said in clipped tones, his voice harsh.

"No, Father," he had managed to gasp raggedly. "Never again."

"See that you keep that promise. Or else I shall be forced to teach you yet another lesson, boy. And if there is a next time, I will not be so lenient." Lucius had declared coldly and then he had left.

Inwardly, he cursed the other wizard for his unbending attitude and his brutality, and he wished Lucius torn to pieces by manticores. But he also cursed himself, for not being able to stand up to his father, for allowing his terror and fear to overcome him. I am such a coward. How can I call myself an initiate if I can't even face a single dark wizard? Ashamed and miserable, he had curled up on the bed and wept quietly into the thick pillow.

It had been then that he had felt a soft touch, like a hand, gently carding his hair and patting his back. It had been the same hand he had felt holding his head against something soft when Lucius had been whipping him. He had been bent over a chair, trying not to scream, and then he felt himself enfolded in soft arms, and the pain had faded to a kind of annoyance until it was over.

Now, however, he felt every single lash, and coupled with his dreadful shame, he cried as he had never done since he was a small child and Lucius had walloped him for doing so.

Hush, child. You are no coward for fearing that monster who sired you. Rather, he is a coward for hurting his only child, who cannot fight back. Fear not, Draco, my son. One day, soon, there shall be a reckoning and he shall be called to account. But until then, My son, be ever vigilant, and watchful, and learn as much as you can. The girl and the stallion depend upon you.

Draco sniffled. They shouldn't. I've already failed them once.

You may fail them once or twice, but that does not mean you are unworthy of trust. Many people fail, it is how they handle the failures that matter. Will you wallow in guilt and shame, or will you get up and do something about it?

Stung, Draco pushed himself to his feet. I won't fail again, Bright Lady.

He looked about the room he had been assigned. It was large and one of the better guest rooms at Riddle Manor, having a large bay window with a look over the grounds that had once been filled with meticulously trimmed and shaped gardens and hedges, which were now overgrown and weedy. The room was a bit dusty but it was furnished with antique Louis XIV furniture, bed, tables and two chairs, plus a rolltop desk and armoire. The carpet was royal blue and the wallpaper the same, accented with thin stripes of gold.

The door was heavy paneled wood, a dark color, with a gold handle. Draco knew that Lucius would expect him to stay in this room until he was summoned for dinner, but Draco was through with doing as he was expected to do. He tried the knob, and found it was unlocked. He had to find out what his father and aunt were planning to do with Hermione and Moon Fire. He had to redeem himself, make the sickening sense of shame go away.

He peered out of the door, and saw that the hall was empty. He turned and walked back into the room, finding his wand resting on the desk, only then remembering that he had placed it there before Lucius had punished him. He took it and cast a simple Notice Me Not charm upon himself. He had no doubt that this place had magic detection wards all over it, and spells designed to hide someone, like an Inivisibility Charm, would trigger them, but a low level spell, such as the one he had just cast, probably wouldn't set them off.

First things first, he had to find out what his father and Bellatrix were planning for his friends. He slipped from the room, walking slowly and carefully down the corridor, he hurt, but he could ignore the pain.

He made his way down the hall, to a set of stairs, and started to descend them. It took a bit longer than he wished, because he was so sore, but he managed to get down onto the ground floor. The place was in disrepair, dusty and moldy smelling, the large chandelier in the entryway was dirty and so were the windows over the front doors. He cocked his head, and then he heard the sound of voice coming from a corridor to the left of the staircase.

He crept over to the door and placed his ear against it.

Inside the room, he could hear his father, Bellatrix, and Wormtail.

"Where is the girl now, Lucius?" purred his aunt, using the tone she reserved for seducing men.

It made Draco want to vomit, because he couldn't see how anyone could ever desire Bellatrix—crazed insane thing that she was.

"Upstairs, in the attic, where they used to keep the servants," responded Lucius. "She should be coming out of the spell by now."

"Good. I want to have a little fun with her before our Lord returns."

Draco stifled a gasp. So the Dark Lord was not here.

"He shall return in two weeks, and I want that moon stallion and the girl ready to entertain him," Lucius said.

"What sort of entertainment do you have in mind, Lucius?" crooned Bella.

"A Beast Fight, like they used to do in ancient times, in the arena in ancient Rome."

"Like the Coliseum?" asked Wormtail. "They used to have gladiators fight to the death against wild beasts."

"More than that. They threw Christians and other foreigners captured in battle to hungry lions," Bellatrix elaborated. "Such fun! I'll bet there was lots of blood and excitement. I wish I had been born then. I would have loved to see it!"

Draco felt ill. Bellatrix sounded almost . . .aroused by the conversation. Sick bitch!

"Yes, well, you shall see one. I plan to have that meddlesome stallion put in an arena with a winged tiger and let them fight to the death. The girl too. We'll throw her in with a manticore or maybe a wyvern and see how long she lasts." Lucius chuckled.

"With her wand or without it?" asked Bellatrix.

"With it, give her a sporting chance. The Dark Lord likes to see fights, not a slaughter." Lucius answered. "Of course, we'll need to soften them up some."

"I'll do the girl. I like breaking Mudbloods," Bellatrix said eagerly.

"Mind you don't break her to pieces, you hear?" Lucius told her sternly. "I need her whole for the games."

Draco felt his heart turn over. They had to get out of here.

"And I'll deal with the vicious brute," growled Wormtail. "I owe him for breaking my ribs."

"And I'll tell you the same thing I told Bella," Lucius snapped. "Don't kill him, Pettigrew. He needs to be broken a little, but not totally. Show him who's boss, but don't destroy his spirit. I need that so he'll put up a good fight when the time comes. After that, the Dark Lord shall decide his fate. Or the tiger will."

"I understand, Lucius," whined Wormtail. "But I want him to pay!"

"Ruin him, Wormtail, and I'll make you pay, I'll put you in the pit with the tiger and see how long you last," Lucius warned, his voice colder than winter.

Draco shuddered. He had no doubts that Lucius would do just as he said.

He heard the scrape of chairs and quickly turned and slipped back upstairs. He wasn't sure where the attic was, but he had to speak with Hermione before returning to his room and letting Lucius think he was cowed into obedience. He reached the second floor and continued down the opposite end of the corridor. There he found another small set of stairs. Draco climbed up them and found a narrow door, locked securely with an old fashioned bolt. He quickly chanted an Unlocking Charm, one of the few he could do without a wand.

The lock clicked and he cautiously opened the door. "Hermione?" he whispered. The room was barely lit, cramped and tiny.

"Draco?" she quivered.

He stepped inside. "Look, I can't talk long, they might be on their way here any minute. I just wanted to . . .to say how sorry I am that I got you and Moon Fire into this. If I hadn't been so . . .if I had just stood up to my father . . .maybe I could have . . .helped you get away." He stared down at his boots miserably.

She came over to him and took his hands in her own. "Don't. Don't say that, Draco."

"Why? It's true."

"No. It was partially my fault too for waving at you. In any case, it doesn't matter now. Now we have to focus on doing what we can to escape here. Are you . . .did your father hurt you?" She stared up at him worriedly.

"I'll live." He said gallantly.

"Draco what did he do to you?" she pressed.

"Nothing he hasn't before. I'll live, I just won't like it for awhile." He sighed.

"He . . .he beat you, didn't he?" she gasped. "Don't lie, I know it's true!" she cried, angry tears sparkling in her eyes. She did not know how she knew that, but she did.

"Yes. That's what he usually does when I step out of line." Draco grimaced, then said quickly, "Forget about me, Hermione. Listen. The Dark Lord isn't going to be back here for a week, so we have some time to . . prepare. I don't know how closely I'm going to be watched, but I'll try and figure out something. Bellatrix is coming up here to have a 'talk' with you. Try and hold out as long as you can." He squeezed her hand. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry. I'm sorry he did that to you."

"I deserved it for my stupidity."

"No! Don't ever say that!" she cried hotly. "No one deserves that! No one!"

"Shhh! Remember, when you walk in darkness, know that Selene walks with you." He gave her a return squeeze. "Maybe I can find out more tonight. Until then . . ." Suddenly footsteps were heard coming up the stairs. "Got to run."

"See if you can find where Moon Fire is!" she called softly as he shut the door. "And . . .be careful. Selene go with you!"

She heard the click of the lock.

Draco drew away and quickly went back down the attic stairs and into the hallway just as Bellatrix came down the corridor. He pressed against the wall, eyes half closed, hoping that his spell would hold.

The black clad witch swept past him, not even glancing over at him, all her attention focused upon the attic stairs.

Draco heaved an immense sigh of relief when she had gone. That had been too close for his liking. He managed to make his way back to his room. A second later he heard a knock on his door.

He opened it to admit Lucius.

"Father? Is there something else you wish of me?"

"Yes. You may come down and have supper with me."

"Yes, sir," was all Draco said. He did not want to have anything to do with his father, but he couldn't say so. Refusing Lucius' invitation would look suspicious, and if he were careful, he might just be able to learn something about where Moon Fire was.

"Good. Afterwards, you will come back up here and think about your awful behavior," Lucius lectured.

"But Father! You already punished me!" Draco objected.

"That was only the beginning. You have proven to me by your actions that I cannot trust you and so you shall remain in this suite until I give you permission to leave it."

"What do you mean, Father?" Draco cried in dismay.

"I mean that you are under house arrest, boy." He tapped Draco under the chin with his cane. "Behave and don't give me any more cause to use this, hmmm?"

"No, sir." Draco muttered, looking down at the ground to hide the helpless rage welling in his eyes. Now what was he going to do? He supposed he could always try climbing out the window. Damn you, Father! Damn you and your Dark Lord to hell and beyond!

Hope you all liked this next part!

Next, we'll have Harry's journey through Sherwood.

Chapter 21: Midnight in Sherwood Forest
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Jasmine picked her way delicately over the small twigs and pebbles that littered the forest track, her small hooves neatly avoiding rocks and branches scattered here and there that might have brought another, less cautious horse, to grief. Harry had already observed that though she was not Marked obviously by Selene, Jasmine was nevertheless a wise and knowledgeable mare. One that seemed to have excellent night vision, for she never faltered in stride, carrying Harry easily down the trail through the forest.

The trail was little more than a deer track, narrow and occasionally scattered with brush and small shrubs that grew in the shadow of the mighty black oaks and ash, yew and beech. Harry knew that Sherwood was old, it had stood for centuries before he was born, and would stand for centuries beyond, and as he went deeper into the trees, he began to feel the weight of their immense age, the weight of time, pressing down upon him. He did not know why he felt it so strongly, save for perhaps the fact that Severus had introduced him to the forest when he had first arrived. Perhaps the trees remembered him. Perhaps they were trying to warn him to be cautious, not that he would not have been so in any case. But he did not feel any menace from the forest, merely the weight of great age and great magic.

He knew that sometime in the beginning of his journey he had slipped from the purely mortal forest into the magical side of it, because he could feel the magic pulsing through the trees steadily, like a great pulsing heart beating. Severus had told him that uncounted centuries past, great magic had been worked here, Sherwood had been one of holy places of the druids, and the wise women of Britain, and also the worshippers of the Moon Lady. The very land was saturated with their workings, most good, but there had been death and sacrifice performed in Sherwood as well, making it a place of both dark and light.

Harry hoped that his introduction to the forest would be enough to protect him against the dark creatures that roamed here. Thinking about hungry wyverns and man-eating bugbears and whatever else dwelled here made him shiver, and he pulled up the hood of his Invisibility Cloak and vanished from view. Being invisible would give him little advantage over a predator who tracked by scent, but it might serve to confuse anything else.

He heard the rustle of small things hunting, or fleeing the screech owl that called above, gliding in the night sky searching for food. Cicadas and crickets filled the air with their humming and the wind ruffled the tops of the trees as Jasmine cantered by. Harry kept the mare straight on the path, following the moonlight. He wanted to give the little mare as much light as he could without using magic, that way he might avoid her stumbling in the dark and breaking a leg.

He patted her as they ran, praising her for bearing him at night, at a time when any sane horse would be sleeping. "Good girl, Jasmine. You deserve an extra ration of oats for doing this."

The Arabian flicked her ears back and quickened her pace slightly. Apparently she wanted to reach the end of their journey as quickly as she could also. Harry allowed the tracking spell to draw him onward, wishing he knew how many days it would take to traverse the forest. He had brought provisions for several days, but it would be nice to know an approximate distance, so he could begin to prepare looking for edible roots and berries. For once he was glad that Severus had pushed him to learn how to identify useful and edible plants, now he could identify plants and foliage that was safe to consume and use them appropriately.

But he would worry about that when and if it became necessary. He hoped that he wouldn't have to spend more than a couple of nights in Sherwood, and he had supplies enough for that. He clucked to Jasmine and the mare trotted a bit faster, springing over a small log in the path without any urging on Harry's part. She navigated the obstacle so gracefully Harry barely had time to realize there was one before Jasmine had hopped over it.

He allowed the gallant mare to run for another half-an-hour, estimating they had been traveling for at least two or three hours, before he finally pulled the horse to a halt and looked about him.

This part of the forest looked as though it had many groves of trees, and he could hear the swift running of a strong stream in the distance. He carefully dismounted and took Jasmine's bridle and started to lead her into one of the trailside groves.

She balked at first, for the trees looming above her cast scary shadows, and horses generally prefer open areas where they can see all about them and have room to run if need be. But with a few treats and gentle coaxing words, Harry got the white mare to follow him into the center of the grove, where he promptly lit up his wand and started clearing away some brush, which he piled up at the outer edge of the campsite.

This was his first time ever camping out, but he had read plenty of adventure stories about doing so, and knew the basics, such as always light a fire with dry wood and make sure it is on a bare patch of earth, ringed with stones. He knew how to light a fire with magic and without, as he sometimes had had to perform that chore for the Dursleys when they wanted a fire in the living room on cold winter nights. He had also watched the professor start a fire in the fireplace at the farmhouse.

Harry ordered Jasmine to stay and then ground tied her by dropping the reins on the ground in front of her. She had been schooled to remain where she was if that occurred and she did so, freezing in place like a marble statue. Then Harry set about making a fire and after that he rubbed down Jasmine and gave her some water from his canteen by cupping it in his hands.

The mare drank thirstily, and ate the rice cakes Harry had brought for her as a snack.

Soon Jasmine dozed, and the fire popped and crackled merrily.

Harry spread out his blankets and pillow and wondered why he wasn't collapsing from exhaustion. He should be dead tired, yet he was not. He kept nodding off, the warmth making him sleepy, but then he would jerk up, thinking he heard something moving close to them. Even shrouded in his cloak, he was wary. What if he went to sleep and someone or something stole Jasmine?

Twice more the warmth lulled him into dreamland, and twice more he heard twigs snapping and rustling in the brush beyond that made him startle and wake.

The moon had begun its descent when he heard a loud tread and then Jasmine whinnied sharply.

Harry froze.

Something big was approaching. It didn't move quite as heavily as a giant, or even Hagrid, but Harry could sense that it wasn't something small coming towards the campsite. For one instant he thought about dowsing the fire, but then realized it was too late, whatever it was had spotted it and in the next instant the protective screen of brush parted and a tall manlike figure stepped from the foliage.

Harry squinted, being under the cloak tended to make things a bit hazy and his glasses couldn't compensate. For an instant, Harry thought the . . .creature in front of him was made of foliage, it seemed as if vines and creepers were entwined in his hair—or maybe they were hair—and snaked down his arms to wrap about his wrists. He was colored all shades of green and looked to be wearing a soft green tunic and breeches. His huge feet were bare and the toes were curled like tree roots, if they weren't actually roots themselves. He had broad shoulders and was very muscular, putting Harry in mind of a solid oak or elm, unbowed before the elements.

But it was the face that captivated Harry.

The face was craggy and lined, with a beard like moss and a pointed nose and eyes that seemed too green and deep to be human. Those eyes caught the boy's and held him fast. They were ancient, centuries had lived and died within them, civilizations had come and gone, and they remembered everything they had ever witnessed. They were wise and lonely, formidable and gentle, fierce and curious, filled with sternness and compassion.

They pierced Harry like a sword and suddenly he recalled where he had seen those particular eyes before.

Upon the massive oak that Severus had called the heart of Sherwood. The face within the tree had been the same.

Before Harry could utter a word, the giant walking tree-man spoke, his voice a deep bass, filled with purpose and power. "Wizardling, show yourself. Do not fear, I am not here to harm you. Rather the opposite."

"How do I know that?" Harry called.

The long twig-like fingers brushed aside a fold of green tunic to reveal a familiar sigil upon his chest—the crescent. "I belong to Her also, wizardling. Back in the Elder Days, when you humans were little better than beasts, I dwelled upon this isle, master of wood and water and animal. I had no name then, for there was no need to take one, since all knew me. Then She came, the Bright One, and She asked if I would join with Her, and help her preserve the wild and the magic that lived within it. I agreed, and She charged me with the task of keeping this forest, guarding it from all who would do it harm. Thus I have done since time immemorial. You have nothing to fear, child. Only those who bring harm into my domain have reason to fear my wrath."

"Who are you?"

"Who am I?" the being threw back his head and laughed. "Can it be that men no longer teach their children about Jack o'the Greenwood—the Green Man? I am one with the land and the land is one with me." He gestured to his head and his body. "I am the guardian of the wild and all things that crawl, run, fly, and grow upon the earth. I am the last of my kind—a forest elemental. I bid you welcome to Sherwood. Come, show yourself. It's bad manners to ignore my request."

There was a bit of a growl in his tone at the end of that sentence, and Harry quickly lowered his hood. He did not sense anything evil about this Green Man, and he seemed to remember some such legend in a book on British mythology he'd had to read in primary school. "Hello. My name is Harry Potter."

The Green Man smiled, a grin that split his mossy beard, revealing teeth that were white and similar to a grazing animals. "That's better. I like to see whom I am speaking to. May I sit down?"

"Uh, yes."

The Green Man lowered his bulk to the ground, several feet away from the fire. He did not seem perturbed over the fire, saying merely, "I trust you will put that out when you leave here?"

"Oh, yes. Umm . . .I will." Harry stammered. "I was cold and I don't care for the dark."

The Green Man chuckled. "Someday soon the dark shall be an ally, not an enemy."

"Huh? I don't understand, sir."

"You will." The Green Man said serenely. "I see a dangerous path before you, wizardling, and I am not speaking of that through my realm. But She has set you upon it and with Her help you shall come away from it forever changed and yet the same. Be steadfast and true of heart, have faith and love, and you shall prevail. What is loved, remembers."

"I'm searching for my friends," Harry explained. "They were taken by dark wizards. My tracking spell led me in here. Sorry if I'm trespassing."

The Green Man gave another deep chuckle and his eyes crinkled in amusement. "I have accepted you as one who belongs, wizardling. You are free to pass through Sherwood, so long as you keep the ancient ways."

"The ancient ways? What's that?"

"To hunt only for food, never pleasure, and never a mother with young if there is another to take instead. To respect the wilderness, and those who dwell in it, if you cut a sapling down, you must replace it with another or something of equal value. Only small fires are allowed, and then only if they are properly tended. To help animals in need and to never bind or force a dryad or other woodland creatures to do your bidding. Follow these simple rules and you shall prosper. Don't and you will answer to me."

There was a stirring in the air, like thunder, and Harry flinched. There was no doubt in his mind that the Green Man would make a deadly enemy.

"I understand, my lord," Harry said swiftly, giving the Green Man a tentative smile.

"Jack. Titles are not for the likes of me, young wizard. Back when this world was new, I remember how the Bright Lady grieved for her lost consort, Osiris, and how She remade him and had a child, Horus, with him, who ruled the Morning as She ruled the Night. But when her child was grown, she left Egypt, the Black Land, and traveled to Rome and Greece, where She fell in love with a mortal man called Endymion. Don't look so shocked, even goddesses have their weaknesses and the Lady has ever had a soft spot for mortals."

"But if she loved a human, wouldn't he die and leave her?"

"Yes, but She was young and thought not of the coming of age and death back then. Endymion was wondrous fair, it is said, he was an astronomer and shepherd, and also a wielder of magic. She came to him in the guise of a lonely shepherd girl, and so they were lovers and legend says She bore him fifty daughters, but I think that's a tad exaggerated. No woman, even a goddess, would wish to be pregnant for that long! I think they had five children, and from those five daughters came several lineages of magic users. From the Roman branch, Ambrosius, came the great Merlin, and the Welsh Mathonwy, the French have their great sorceress Melissande, and the Greeks the House of Colchis, descended through Medea, and the Germans have Ulrika, the Daughter of Ash.

"Legend says that Selene so loved Endymion that she begged a favor from Zeus and he granted her lover the gift of endless ageless sleep, and so he has never truly died, but sleeps forever in a sacred tomb high upon the slopes of Mount Latmus in Caria, far to the east. 'Tis said sometimes She returns and lingers in that place, gazing upon Her lover in dreamy solitude.

"Eventually, She came here, to Britain, and took on the Aspect of the Mother Goddess, though on Midsummer Eve She takes the Aspect of the Young Goddess again, and every so often She comes and Chooses a mortal for a night, and he becomes Endymion reborn, and they make the Great Marriage of land and sky, mortal and immortal, magic made flesh. Out of such a union, legend says Merlin was born, though that is debatable.

"But such has not happened in over a thousand years, for She is careful to never give Herself or Her heart to a mortal who will not appreciate the honor, and 'tis said as well that the one She chooses as Endymion will be forever blessed, as will any children to come from their union."

"The Path of Mysteries did mention something about the "rapture of the goddess" and the Midsummer Rites, but I didn't quite understand what it meant until now. I would have asked my guardian, but he's been hit with a curse and lost his memory and he's also stuck in the body of a horse. That's where I'm headed, to rescue him," Harry explained. "Selene came to me in a dream and told me to follow my heart."

Jack nodded. "That's always sound advice, wizardling. And now I shall add to it. Be careful when you ride in the greenwood, for not all things that roam here are friendly to outsiders, even those under my protection. Some creatures follow no law but their own nature, and will kill and eat you if they can catch you. Keep to the path, or close to it, and you should be safe. I shall have my dryads and tree sprites and butterfly fae keep an eye on you, and if you run into trouble, don't hesitate to call for help. Where be you bound?"

"Uh . . .I think it's called Riddle Manor."

The Green Man looked faintly sickened and said darkly, "I have heard of that place, it is past my borders, even so I can feel it as a blight upon the land. A place of darkness it is. Much blood has been spilled there. Selene watch over you, wizardling. I would caution you not to go near that place, but seeing as your friends are in there, my warning would not be heeded."

"Believe me, Jack, I would rather not go anywhere near it either. But . . .my guardian and my girlfriend and another friend are being held prisoner there. I have to get them out before the Death Eaters kill them . . .or worse."

"A worthy quest, wizardling. I pray you succeed in it." The Green Man gave him a brief nod of approval. "The way is often confusing through Sherwood, I shall send you a guide tomorrow to help."

Harry was both pleased and astonished. "Thanks. What kind of guide will it be?"

"You'll see tomorrow. Don't fret about it, you will know the guide when you see it," Jack said enigmatically. "For now, you ought to sleep. Pleasant dreams, Harry. I shall keep watch through the rest of the night."

"You will? Err . . .thanks, Jack."

The Green Man chuckled. "No need to thank me. As the Lady has Marked you, it is my duty to protect her Chosen when they wander in my domain." Then he reached out and touched Harry's blue blanket and pillow.

Instantly, the blanket smelled sweet, like lavender and was mended from the pulls and slight tears to perfect condition again, soft and thick. The pillow became new and plump again as well. Another flick, and several long willow branches and cattail fibers wove themselves into a kind of hammock which wrapped securely about two beech trees.

"There. You shall have a good night's rest, wizardling. Try it."

Harry climbed into the hammock, finding it first rate, it felt like he was lying on a cloud, and he fell asleep as soon as he snuggled into the lavender-scented blanket and rested his head upon the soft pillow.

The Green Man smiled, then backed into the trees and became utterly motionless, his innate magic making him appear as just another tree in the forest, and if you did not know what to look for, you never would have found him. Harry did not know it, but he was the first wizard the Green Man had spoken to in over a century.

Jack watched the small wizard sleep, a rare fondness shimmering in his ageless eyes, an emotion he had not felt since the days of Richard the Lionheart, when he had kept watch over his beloved son, Robin, and sheltered him from those who would have done him harm. He rarely spoke of it, but once he too had been Selene's lover, and the man known as Robin Hood had been their son, part mortal, part elemental, and bound to Sherwood Forest. Raised as a mortal son of the Baron of Locksley, Robin never knew his true heritage until later, when he fled into Sherwood with a price upon his head, and became both outlaw and champion. He married the Lady Marian and had two daughters and a son. As a half-immortal, he could have chosen to dwell in Sherwood forever, drawing life and strength from the forest's magic, as a second guardian. But instead he followed his beloved Marian into death, leaving the Green Man as sole guardian once more.

My Robin was the champion for that time, as you are the champion for this one. You do not know this, and I shall not reveal it at this time, but you and I are kin, through your mother's side, and in you runs the blood of the forest and the blood of the moon. Child of wood and moonlight, be at peace.

Hope you all enjoyed the beginning of Harry's travels through Sherwood. Check out my new banner made by lilausty--it's awesome, it's animated!

The Green Man is based partially on British mythology, though I have added and changed several things to suit my own narrative. Much of Selene's history is based upon Greek and Roman mythology and also Egyptian, plus a smattering of Celtic lore as well. I have borrowed freely from all these cultures to make my Moon Goddess, so if something does not completly match up with the standard mythology, please understand that this was not an oversight, but I have picked and chosen what legends to follow and the rest of her is my own invention.

How did you like Jack, the Green Man, and his astonishing revelation at the end of the chapter?

And what kind of guide do you think he will send Harry?

Chapter 22: Midnight's Guide
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Riddle Manor

In the attic:

Bellatrix Lestrange had never cared for Mudbloods, especially know-it-all ones like this one, who had the nerve to escape a well-planned extermination by the Dark Lord. And who was watching her half-fearfully and half-defiantly. Clearly this Mudblood witch needed to learn her place, which was on her knees, eyes on the floor, and head bowed, subject to a pureblood's every whim. Almost like a house elf. Though in Bellatrix's eyes, Mudbloods were lower than even those pathetic creatures. Mudbloods were scum of the earth and should have had their powers stolen and not be permitted to breed.

Bella gave this one her nastiest glare, and removed a long slender metal needle from her sleeve, it was about the size of a knitting needle, with a rounded head. She idly began to pick her fingernails and kept glaring at the girl huddled upon the bed, waiting for her to break and ask what was going to happen to her. Bellatrix would have enjoyed Crucio-ing the girl, but since her Lord might want her magically intact for whatever he planned to do to her, Bella had to forgo her favorite method of torture for now. The Cruciatus Curse depleted a victim's magical core and hurt it as well as the body. So she would resort to other methods. A wicked little smile crept over her face, reminiscent of a mad cat just before it stuck out a claw to torment the mouse between its paws.

"Poor little Mudblood, do you miss your mummy and daddy? Don't cry, poor baby thing, you'll be seeing them soon enough! Soon enough!" She cackled in anticipation. "You're the property of the Dark Lord now, Mudblood. And when he returns, he shall decide your fate. But for now . . .for now I get to play question and answer with you!" She clapped her hands and squealed. "Here's the rules. I ask a question and you answer. If you don't answer or I don't like your answer you get to experience my Needle." She stroked the shiny needle. "Needle used to be used for something Muggles call acupuncture once. But I learned from a former lover in Azkaban—he's dead now—how to use it to cause pain. Excruciating, exquisite pain. Such fun! Let's begin now."

"First, I have a question for you, Bellatrix," Hermione said suddenly, her brown eyes hard with hatred. "Why did you kill my parents, you bloody bitch? What did they ever do to you?"

"They were born, and they dared to have a Mudblood child, polluting the natural order of things," answered the other coolly. "Reason enough for them to die. My turn. What were you doing over at the dueling academy?"

"Helping a horse. What did it look like?"

"Mind your tone, young lady. You shall address me as my lady or Mistress Bella when you speak to me. And keep your eyes on the ground on my boots where they belong. You aren't fit to meet my gaze."

"Like hell. You're nothing special. Just a crazy bitch who likes to kiss a moldering wizard's arse." Hermione cried, her hatred finally coming to a boil. She spat right in Bellatrix's face.

"You dare?" Bellatrix cried and then she pointed her wand and cried, "Incarcerus!"

Thick ropes shot out of the tip and wound about Hermione, binding her fast. Hermione knew what was coming next and she lifted her chin and vowed to endure it soundlessly. If she could. This cold-hearted witch had helped murder her parents and she would never give Bellatrix the satisfaction of bending to her will.

Bellatrix approached, the needle held in her hand. She raised it high and then inserted it deftly in the muscles between Hermione's shoulder and neck and twisted it one quarter turn.

Hermione felt a vicious pain shoot up into her head and she bit her lip till it bled.

Bella smirked. "Are you ready to cooperate now? Where did the moon stallion come from? He is Marked by the Bright Lady, the sister of my own goddess, Hecate. Why would anyone permit a Mudblood to help him?"

"I don't know. I volunteered and that's what I was told to do. What's it to you?"

"Now don't be sassy. Sassy girls get hurt," Bella purred, and twisted the needle again.

The next morning:

Down the hall from the attic stairs, Draco heard Hermione screaming and he winced and backed away from the door. He felt terribly guilty that he had not been able to help the girl, he knew only too well what his aunt was like with a new victim. Especially one who had dared to defy her by surviving a first attempt on her life. Bellatrix did not tolerate being shown up by a mere Muggleborn.

He wished there were something he could do for her, but he knew that if he tried anything with Bellatrix, it would only end with him in a worse predicament than before. At least he still had his wand. He turned to pick it up from where he had left it upon his bed, only to find that it was gone. Shit! Father must have taken it when he came up here this morning to wake me up for breakfast. I was half-asleep and wouldn't have noticed him snitching it. He had forgotten what an excellent thief Lucius Malfoy was, though the suave wizard would deny it to his last breath.

Without his wand, he had limited options, but one of the first things he had to do was to get out of this room and see what was going on with Moon Fire. He knew that no one at the manor would have a care for the horse's wellbeing, and the stallion had been hurt by a Cutting Curse as well as being previously injured.

Bellatrix's high pitched laughter rang out, followed by another sobbing groan from Hermione.

Rotten harpy! Someday, you'll get yours, Aunt Bella. By Selene's Eternal Light, I promise it!

Since there was nothing he could do to help Hermione at the moment, he decided to turn his cunning brain down another path and try and do something to help poor Moon Fire. He had always loved horses and had been quite content to spend most of his summers at Andromeda's dueling camp, mastering not only spells but equestrian pursuits as well.

He moved over to the window and examined it. It was one of the kind that had two old fashioned panels that you could pull inward to open. A latch at the top kept them shut. Draco spent several minutes trying to undo the rusty old latch using his quill sharpener which he had in a pocket of his robes, plus some good old-fashioned elbow grease.

After ten long minutes, the latch finally gave and Draco tugged the window panes open. Luckily there was no screen, and this particular room's window overlooked an overhang of the roof. Draco was almost certain he could climb out the window onto the overhang and then the rest of the way to the ground. There was a bunch of climbing ivy all over the walls, which themselves were in disrepair, and had missing bricks and broken ones along the side that Draco could see.

The Slytherin paused, calculating how much time he might have to find Moon Fire and see to him before anyone came up to check on him. He estimated maybe an hour or two.

He quickly shimmied out the window.

Once on the roof, he picked his way carefully along the overhang, watching out for loose tiles as he did so. Then he chose a side of the wall thick with ivy and prayed that he wouldn't fall and break his neck. He wrapped two hands firmly about the thick vines and then swung himself over and down, his boots scrabbling for purchase upon the vertical surface. Lady, help me. Please!

There! He had found a foothold. He wedged his toe into the crack and then felt for another.

Slowly he made his way down the side of the mansion and finally to the ground. His shoulders were sore and the climb had pulled a bit on the welts he had received, but he was otherwise unharmed from his daring descent.

He breathed a sigh of relief and wiped his forehead. Then he crept about the side of the manor and looked around.

There was no one in sight.

Now all he had to do was to find the stables.

Moon Fire dozed in the dark stall, having worn himself out trying to batter down the door earlier. His leg was sore and the sweat had dried upon him, causing flies to swarm upon him. He kept them off by swatting them with his long tail, but his skin itched and he longed for a cool bath, such as Harry used to give him in the heat of the day. He rubbed the offending patches against the side of the stall, nearly stripping the hide off of himself.

For several long moments the only sounds in the stable were the flies buzzing, the swish-smack of Moon Fire's tail against his flanks and the stallion's breathing. Not only was he driven mad by the fly bites, his shoulder throbbed from the slash across it and he was thirsty and hungry as well. No one had brought him decent food or water in almost twenty-four hours and the stall smelled rank from not being cleaned either.

Moon Fire had refused to touch the moldy hay and hated the stench of the dirty straw beneath his hooves, he was unaccustomed to being in such slovenly surroundings and wanted to get out in the worst way. But the stall door was, unknown to the big horse, magically reinforced oak and refused to fall down despite his battering with his hooves and gnawing with his teeth. Exhausted and weary, Moon Fire slammed one hoof against the door in token defiance, and whistled shrilly. He needed fresh water soon and some hay would not be amiss either. Real hay, not that moldering pile of dung they had tossed in here with him. Hungry as he was, some instinct had warned him not to eat such spoiled fodder, or else he might colic and die an agonizing death.

But his nose told him there was a whole field of fresh grass and probably water as well just outside this wretched door and he could not get to it. It was driving him insane!

Suddenly he heard a scuffling sound and he froze, his every nerve alert, ears swiveling towards the sound. What was that? A rat?

No, it did not smell like one. It smelled like a human, and one that Moon Fire was familiar with. It was the boy with the hay-colored hair that sometimes came and brought him to the soothing water place along with the girl who smelled like sunlight. He snorted sharply and moved restlessly as the footsteps increased and suddenly the barn door was opened and light filtered down the row of stalls.

"Moon Fire? You in here?"

The stallion gave a low whinny, letting the scent blind boy know he was indeed inside this wretched place.

Draco moved over and took down the small lantern that was hanging on a hook just to the inside of the barn door. He turned the knob and the magical lantern began to glow softly. The boy quickly made his way down the row of stalls and then halted when he saw the big black horse.

He bit back a gasp of dismay. Moon Fire's shining ebony coat was dusty and sweat spattered and he could see flies buzzing all about the poor animal. He had a nasty slash from the Cutting Curse across his shoulder and patches of skin were almost rubbed raw. "Selene's Grace, what have they done to you?" Draco murmured.

His eyes quickly took in the dirty straw and the empty water bucket and moldy hay. "Stupid gits! No water, spoiled food, what the hell is wrong with them? Do they want you to die or something? Even my father knows better than this. He grew up around horses too."

Moon Fire whickered at him hopefully.

Draco walked up and gently stroked the stallion. "Easy, boy. I'll help you as much as I can, okay?" He went to try and unlock the stall, but found that the door was padlocked and that was one lock he didn't know how to pick and he didn't have his wand to cast an unlocking charm. He swore and then decided that he might be able to risk climbing into the stall to get the stallion's water bucket. A dehydrated horse did not heal well and Moon Fire was already injured.

He climbed to the top of the stall and gently nudged the stallion's head away as he snuffled Draco's shirt. "Shhh! I need to get your water bucket. Be still and for Selene's sake don't step on me."

He slid carefully off the door and landed in the mucky straw. "Ugh! This stall probably hasn't been cleaned since the year one. Disgusting!"

Moon Fire neighed but made no move to try and step on or bite Draco. He seemed to sense that the boy was here to help and not harm.

Draco grabbed the water bucket and managed to toss it over the stall door before climbing out himself. He filled it halfway at the stable pump and then held it up so Moon Fire could drink.

The stallion drank thirstily, then slobbered all over the boy after he was done.

"Real nice!" Draco scolded. He refilled the bucket and found a rag hanging on a hook further down. "Now, remember, I'm trying to help you, so if you kick me to pieces, you're on your own." After dipping the rag in the water, he moved into the stall and began to wash the ragged slash on Moon Fire's shoulder.

Moon Fire shuddered, for the wound was painful, but he did not attempt to savage the boy. Once or twice he spun his head about, teeth bared, but each time his teeth clicked shut on empty air and Draco managed to clean out the slash and rub some liniment on his sore leg. He had had the liniment in his robe pocket just before Lucius had shown up, intending to rub down Moon Fire's leg after the spa treatment. He also rubbed some on the stallion's coat where he had rubbed it nearly raw, hoping it might help soothe the itching.

That done, he placed the bucket with the remaining water inside the stall so Moon Fire could drink some more and he went to gather up some grass in an empty feed sack. From the looks of things, this stable had not been used in years and Draco suspected that all it contained was musty straw and moldy oats and hay.

It took him some time to fill up the sack with grass for the stallion, as a result he almost ran into Lucius and Wormtail coming down the dirt path to the stables. Draco dropped to the ground beneath an oak tree, watching the two men approach, schooling himself to immobility.

"What do you mean, you haven't been back to see to the horse since we brought it here?" Lucius was demanding of Peter.

"It's a vicious brute!" whined Wormtail nasally. "I tried to put some food into the stall and it attacked me. Nearly took my arm off! So I figured, let it starve for a bit, that'll teach him!"

"Idiot!" Lucius snarled, giving the other wizard a glare of intense dislike. "I want the stallion alive, dead he's no good to me. I want him weak and angry, not a candidate for the knacker's yard. You continue to amaze me with your stupidity, Pettigrew."

"But Lucius . . .it wasn't my fault!" whined Pettigrew annoyingly. "You'll see . . ."

Draco lost the rest of the conversation as they moved into the barn. He remained prone on the ground for a moment more, then crept up and over to barn door. He wanted to see how his father reacted to Moon Fire.

Sure enough, the next sounds he heard was Lucius berating Pettigrew, a yelp as the other wizard gave him a smack with his cane, and then Moon Fire shrilled a battlecry.

Draco peered around the door frame and saw the stallion rearing up as much as he could in the narrow stall, hooves flailing, teeth bared, raging in his hatred for the two men standing before his stall.

Pettigrew was cringing against the opposite side. "See? See? He's crazy! A maniac! He needs to be put down."

"Quit your babbling. Of course he's furious. He's starving and thirsty. And his stall needs cleaning too, before he founders. Get to it."

"What? I can't! He'll kill me!"

"You cowardly boggart's whelp! Didn't you learn a damn thing in school?" Lucius spoke a word and the padlock was opened. He carefully swung the door open.

Moon Fire charged it and Lucius froze him with a Body Bind right in his tracks.

"There! Now do you remember, Peter? He's now harmless."

Peter eyed the frozen stallion uneasily. "I still don't like it. Or him."

"You don't need to like it, you just need to start mucking out the stall. Hop to it!"

"Me? B-but Lucius, I don't know anything about a horse."

Draco wanted to laugh at the stricken expression upon the rat's face. Serves you right. I mean, are you that thick, thinking that Father would help you clean out a stall? That's what hired help is for. And guess what, Mr. Stinky, you're it.

"This isn't about the horse, it's the rake and shovel and wheelbarrow you need to get acquainted with." He gave Pettigrew a smirk. "I'll be back to inspect it later. Right now I have to see how Bella is coming along and then I can check on Draco. After that, I'll return and remove the freeze spell."

Yikes! Draco quickly ducked and went around to the left side, where all manner of junk was piled haphazardly. He ducked behind a large cardboard box.

Lucius swept past, on his way back to the manor, his shoes making little puffs of dust that tickled Draco's nose and nearly made him sneeze. He could also hear Wormtail mumbling, "Why me? Why do I get stuck doing this job that nobody wants? I hate horses! Bloody rotten creatures!"

Draco silently apologized to the stallion for not getting back in time with the grass, and then he began to make his own way back to the manor. He climbed up to the window and carefully removed his boots, they were filled with muck and smelled like a stable. He would have been hard pressed to explain that to Lucius.

Then he slipped inside, shut the door, and sat down on his bed. Well done, my son, the goddess whispered in his mind. Draco concealed a grin of triumph and waited for Lucius to come to him.

Up in the darkened attic, Hermione curled on her side, aching and scared, yet still with that unusually strong sense of determination and hope, tears trickling down her pale face. Once again she heard that familiar silvery voice.

Do not despair, child, for I am always with you. I love you, my daughter.

Hermione fell asleep, and dreamed of a crystalline stream in a secret grove where white and golden unicorns frolicked, and she was made welcome to them, and invited to run and jump in the meadow along with the foals. It was great fun, until she stopped to drink at the pool and saw her reflection in the water.

It was not that of a bushy-haired girl, but a snow white unicorn.

Back in the barn, Pettigrew finally finished his mucking out and heaped curses upon the stallion as he did so. The helpless Moon Fire could not respond, though inwardly he raged and struggled to throw off the spell. The rat-like man sneered at the black horse and whispered, "Now I know the way of it, I'll break you, you bloody great beast! I'll teach you who's really lord and master around here, Moon-touched scum! I'll make you rue the day you ever kicked me."

Moon Fire screamed silently, wishing he could sink his teeth into the scum's back.

Be strong, my brave one. Help is coming. Hold on till then, my beloved Prince. Hold on.

The voice was like silk and it comforted him like nothing else could, enabling the stallion to endure being trapped in that spell and waiting for someone besides that loathsome rat to come for him.

Sherwood Forest:

Harry woke to the sun shining in his eyes and he squinted and groped for his glasses. Once he had them on, he sat up on his bed of pine boughs and looked around. The clearing was empty of everything save for Jasmine, who was grazing idly, his pack, and Jack o' the Greenwood was nowhere in sight. Harry quickly kicked dirt over the remains of the fire wiped his face with a damp cloth he conjured, and drank some water from his water bottle and ate some trail mix bars. A simple yet filling breakfast.

He moved over to saddle and bridle his horse, gently stroking her and telling her what a lovely girl she was. Jasmine let out a ringing neigh of welcome, and Harry turned, hoping that it was Moon Fire returned.

But what he saw was not the ebony stallion, but a brilliantly white unicorn, his spiraling horn over one and a half feet in length, coat shimmering iridescently in the morning sun. The stallion's eyes, a cobalt blue so pure it outshone the finest gem, met Harry's own. The wisdom and magic in that gaze nearly overwhelmed him. He ducked his head, his eyes filled with tears, for never had he known such innocence and wisdom, love and wildness, and he understood then why Selene had taken the unicorn as her favorite animal.

"The Lady sent you to me, didn't She?" he asked respectfully.

The unicorn tossed his head and snorted. She did, young wizard. You and I have met before, though you may not recognize me.

"The Green Man said he would send me a guide through the forest. But I never expected it to be a unicorn."

The tall unicorn paced over to Jasmine and touched noses with her in greeting. The little mare made submissive movements and the unicorn nuzzled her again. Well met, little sister. I am Amicus and it would seem our paths travel together for awhile.

Yes, my lord. I am Jasmine and would be honored to be your companion upon your journey. The Arabian blew back into Amicus' nostrils.

The unicorn turned and trotted over to another trail that Harry would have missed entirely if he had been alone. Amicus stood there waiting patiently while Harry finished gathering up everything.

When Harry finally looked up from hooking his pack upon his saddle, he saw a familiar barefoot child in a rumpled violet tunic leaning against Amicus. "Titania! What are you doing here?"

The forest is my domain. In it I go where I choose, when I choose, and how I choose. And right now I choose to help you, Harry. She gave him a brief smile. Then she sprang up and onto the unicorn's back.

Harry remained gaping at her audacity and waited for the unicorn to go crazy and buck her off. But all Amicus did was nod quickly and accept it. "You're riding a unicorn! Selene's Grace, I never knew you could do that!"

The mysterious girl laughed aloud, then nudged the unicorn forward gently with her heels. Follow me, Harry! Beyond the borders of Sherwood, your real quest awaits.

Harry heeled Jasmine forward, and wondered anew just who Titania was to be able to ride a wild unicorn without fear. He supposed that was another mystery he would never solve. So many mysteries, so little time. I really hope that Moon Fire, Hermione and Draco are all right. Please, Lady of Magic, let it be so. He bent over his mare's neck, and urged the stout-hearted Arabian to a quicker pace, following the bright white flame of the unicorn's tail ahead and the purple tunic of his unexpected rider.

Hope you all liked this one!

Chapter 23: Midnight Revenge
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Riddle Manor

The next day:

Draco had managed to slip out the window again in the middle of the night to give Moon Fire the grass he had collected and rub some more salve on his wounds. The stallion ate hungrily and seemed to be able to put more weight upon his foreleg now than he had previously. But that was the only bright spot Draco could see in their captivity. He dared not do more than feed the horse, because then either Lucius or Wormtail might notice. He wondered if his father would let him out of his "house arrest" soon, so he could move about the manor again and check up on Hermione. So far he hadn't heard anymore screams from the upstairs attic. That both relieved and frightened him. He wished he could do more for the girl and the stallion, but he had to be careful, use his cunning. No sense in getting himself caught. So he climbed back in the window and went to sleep, and Lucius was none the wiser about his son's midnight escapade.

Wormtail found himself kicked out of bed by Lucius' boot and cane at somewhere around five o'clock in the morning. He sniveled and whined about the early hour, but Lucius would have none of it, and ordered the other to quit whining and go tend the stallion, or else he would give him something to whine about all right.

"Why me? Why don't you make your goody-two-shoes son do the stall? Seems to me he could use a lesson in humility."

Lucius' cane stabbed him in the stomach and he doubled over, moaning.

"When I want your opinion, Wormtail, I'll ask for it. Until then, keep it to yourself! Or else I shall give you a lesson you'll not soon forget yourself. Now, move your backside before I kick it down the stairs, Rat Boy!"

Wormtail wheezed and whimpered and scurried down the stairs as soon as he was dressed, grinding his long yellowed incisors in fury. By the time he had gotten to the stables, he was in a fine rage, blaming the stallion for all of his misfortunes, and this latest indignity not the least of them.

Moon Fire lifted his head as soon as he heard the stable door swing open, and gave a sudden whinny, before he smelled that the intruder was not Draco, but one of his hated captors. Then his ears went flat against his head and he bared his teeth. Hatred surged up in him and he neighed again, only this time it was a stallion's challenge whistle.

Wormtail snarled, "Be quiet, you bloody beast! I can't wait till we throw you in the pit with the wyvern or what ever and see you get slaughtered." He moved down the row of stalls to the end where Moon Fire was and picked up the pitch fork.

Then he unlatched the stall door and thrust the pitch fork in. "Back, you stupid animal. Get back!"

Moon Fire reared, screaming in rage.

Wormtail poked him hard with the tines of the pitch fork, drawing blood.

The furious stallion lashed out hard with his front hooves, and Wormtail lost his grip on the pitch fork and almost went down. He did drop the fork and slam the door shut. Then he collapsed against it while Moon Fire raged inside. The stallion repeatedly smashed the stall door with his hooves, and had it not been reinforced magically, would have probably broken it down.

Wormtail shuddered, for the stallion frightened him badly. But then he recalled Lucius' sneering comments and felt hatred wash over him. "You'll get yours, you miserable beast! Lucius said I needed to clean out the stall because you might get some kind infection or disease. But he also wants you broken a bit for the arena."

Wormtail pushed himself to his feet, his oversized molars jutting down the sides of his upper lip. "I'll teach you, you high and mighty moon horse! Her favorite, are you? Pah! We'll see if She does anything to save you now."

He rolled up his sleeves and went over to the tackroom to fetch something.

Moon Fire continued to fight, trying his hardest to smash through the stall door. But it would not give, and he didn't wish to reinjure his leg. He stopped battering the door, instead remaining alert and watchful.

Pettigrew returned, holding a long whip over his shoulder, a nasty gleam in his eye. This time when he opened the stall door, he led with his wand and used the spell Lucius had taught him to freeze the stallion into helpless immobility.

He retrieved the pitch fork and shoveled out the dirty straw into a wheelbarrow and spread somewhat fresh stuff down.

All the while, he could feel the stallion's hate filled eyes on him, despite the spell.

"Yes, you keep looking at me like that, horse. Maybe I ought to geld you first?" He laughed hoarsely. "No, Lucius wants all your parts there. For now. But he never said I couldn't take my pound of flesh." His piggy eyes narrowed. "I've been waiting for this for a long time."

He uncoiled the whip from his shoulder and snapped it experimentally.

There was a loud popping and cracking sound as it went through the air. Wormtail smiled evilly.

In the stall, Moon Fire fought to throw off the spell that bound him to no avail.

Several hours later:

Moon Fire lay in the stall, unmoving, his back, sides, and haunches striped with whip marks from Pettigrew's brutal conditioning session. When the little sorcerer had finally released him, he had lunged at the man, and tried to trample him beneath his hooves, but he was weakened from the beating and not quite fast enough. Pettigrew had managed to get away with barely a graze upon his back, and had thrown the bolt on the door afterwards.

He had filled the stallion's bucket with water, tepid stuff that was hardly drinkable, but Moon Fire had lowered his head and sucked it down greedily. He ached and throbbed, and finally managed to get up enough strength to climb to his feet. There was no food and no way for him to get more, he was starting to dehydrate since he had barely enough water to drink for two solid days. He was also starting to run a temperature, because of the abuse his body had taken. Exhausted and sick, he lowered his proud head and dozed.

It was then he dreamed of running through a cool dark forest, down a track trod only by the creatures of the wood and himself. It lead to a beautiful grive with a crystalline stream. He lowered his head and drank, then lifted it at a gentle nudge from a soft little nose.

A unicorn foal was staring at him, whinnying impatiently for him to come and race with the unicorns.

Then he was running in great soaring strides across the grove, the small foals gamboling after, running for the sheer joy of it, the wind tangling in his mane, his crescent glowing bright in the darkness. The unicorns grazed as he ran, their coats luminescent with their own brand of magic and their pearl horns shimmering.

Suddenly, a large unicorn stallion thundered up beside him. Race me, brother!

Moon Fire did, lengthening his stride and putting everything he had into matching the effortless gallop of his herd brother, the great Lead Stallion Amicus. Together they thundered about the grove, snorting and pushing at each other. But suddenly Moon Fire slowed, he felt ill, there was something not right here.

What is wrong? Inquired the unicorn.

I am ill. Sick. I do not know why. Help me, my brother.

Dizzy, he halted and stood upon trembling legs.

Amicus began to flicker and fade.

Amicus! Help me! he whinnied in desperation.

I come, brother. As fast as I can. Hold on.

I . . .shall try. I will wait. Just . . .do not make me wait too long.

He woke feeling hot as a furnace, the sound of Amicus' hoofbeats echoing in his ears. He shook his head and stepped over to the water bucket, he was terribly thirsty. But his questing nose met with empty air. The bucket was empty.

He whinnied forlornly. Hurry, brother. I trust you, but I do not know how long I can endure this confinement. Hurry, and may Selene's light guide you.

Sherwood Forest:

Amicus rounded a bend in the trail abruptly, and Harry urged Jasmine to follow suit. Sometimes the unicorn stallion and his rider forgot that the horse beneath him was only mortal, and often could not hold the same pace as they. Jasmine was a game little mare, but she was not a magical horse, despite her great heart. "Hey!" Harry called. "Slow down, will you? Jasmine's not a machine!" he patted the Arabian's neck. "Easy, girl. Don't burst a blood vessel trying to keep up with them, okay?"

He slackened his hold on the reins and sat forward, trying to distribute his weight evenly so he caused less stress upon her legs and back. He knew it was imperative that they rescue his friends, but at the same time he did not want to kill poor Jasmine doing so.

As he rounded the bend in the trail, Jasmine stumbled. Harry was unprepared and was thrown off her back. He tucked himself into a roll and hit smack up against a tree. He remained still for a moment, trying to determine if anything was broken.

Finding himself still in one piece, he slowly uncurled from his ball and sat up. His back and side were bruised and his neck ached, but he was not seriously hurt. He was leaning against a magnificent oak tree, which had somehow kept its autumn foliage. The leaves fell in a brilliant shower of gold, crimson, and orange all about him.

He brushed them off his shoulders and looked up when he heard Jasmine's soft snort and a high-pitched giggle.

"Oh, sure. Go ahead and laugh at me," he reprimanded Titania.

Except it was not Titania he saw staring at him.

This girl looked like she was around fifteen or sixteen, slender and voluptuous with hair the fiery red of the oak tree and a complexion that was somewhere between golden and green. Her eyes were large, slanted, and a leaf-green. She had pouty red lips and was looking at him with frank desire.

"Well, well. Did you know that you just crashed into my tree?"

"I . . .err . . .I'm sorry." Harry blushed, for she was wearing a kind of tunic made of sewn leaves and gossamer fabric that left her bare at the shoulders and only covered her to the knee. When she shifted, he caught glimpse of bare skin beneath. "I fell off my horse . . ."

She giggled again. "So I figured. It's been a long time since a human male has done that. A long time." She smiled, her eyes glowing. "I'm Danae. And you look like you could use a friend. I could be your friend."

Harry found he didn't know what to say. She was quite attractive, the most attractive girl he had ever seen. Except, a part of his mind whispered, this was no ordinary girl, but a dryad.

Danae smiled sweetly, and reached out her hand to cup his cheek. "Poor boy. You're hurt. Shall I kiss it and make it better?"

Harry could not find his voice, it had vanished when she had smiled at him. His head whirled and he felt himself begin to float above the treetops. He tried to remember why he needed to continue on the trail, but his head ached and the dryad's sweet perfume of ambergris and lily of the valley intoxicated him. Slowly, the dryad leaned in, her mouth puckering in anticipation of the kiss she would steal from him.

What do you think will happen now?

Chapter 24: Midnight Journey
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Just as her petal soft lips would have claimed him, Danae halted as if she had come up against an invisible barrier. "No! It cannot be. A human as young as you has known true love?"

Harry blinked and woke from the dryad's influence, just as Jasmine let out a ringing neigh, summoning Amicus back along with Titania. "I love Hermione," he managed to say, his head felt fuzzy as if he had been taking cold medicine.

"Acorn hulls and pine cones!" the dryad scowled, stamping her little foot. "And here I thought I had found a mate at last."

"Leave him be, Danae. His heart's been claimed already," called Titania, as Amicus drew to a halt just behind her.

The dryad whirled, a pout coming over her face. "I know that! There's no need to rub it in." Then she gasped. "You dare to ride a sacred unicorn? But the Lady forbids it! Oh!" She put her hands to her face. "Please forgive me, Your Grace!" She nearly fell to her knees, but Titania halted her with a swift gesture. "There is no need for such dramatics, child, though I know it has been ages since I have walked this wood. Or this world."

"This human . . .is he under Your protection?"

"He is. So long as he accompanies me, and stays on the track, no harm shall come to him."

"I meant him no harm, Lady. I only wished for a mate," said the dryad wistfully.

"I know. And one shall be brought for you." She looked over at Harry, who was climbing slowly to his feet. "Are you hurt?"

"I . . .not really." He winced as he made his way towards Jasmine. "I've fallen off loads of times."

"Amicus." There was a note of command in her voice.

Before Harry could move, Amicus approached and tapped him three times with his horn. A soothing wave of warmth spread through him and within moments he was healed. "Thank you." Then he blurted suddenly, "You're . . .you're speaking aloud. Like a normal person! Err . . .uh . . .I mean . . ."

The child-like being threw back her head and laughed. "Poor Harry! So confused. I can speak aloud when I choose, but it's such a slow method of communication from mindspeech, that I do not usually use it. But dryads cannot be spoken through mindspeech, and so I use . . .normal speech."

"Oh." Harry turned and mounted Jasmine, reddening. Would he never stop putting his foot in his mouth?

Titania looked at Danae. "Bide your time but awhile, daughter, and you shall have all you desire."

Danae bowed to her. "As you will it so, Gracious One. Like my tree, I am patient." Then she sent a scapegrace grin towards Harry. "Although I wish it could have been otherwise." She winked at a blushing Harry. "He's a handsome one! What children we could have had!"

Harry made a sound like, "Eek!" then coughed.

Titania laughed, the sound like golden bells pealing. "Don't embarrass the boy, Danae."

The dryad cocked her head. "What did I say? It was a compliment. I don't choose just anyone to be my mate."

"Come along, Harry. Time flys."

"Wait! Jasmine can't run as fast as Amicus. We can't keep up with you."

"Ah. I should have guessed there was another reason for you to lag behind." She slipped from the unicorn's back and knelt, taking each of Jasmine's hooves in her small hands and whispering. Something like liquid silver flowed from them and coated the mare's hooves. "There. Horseshoes of speed. Now Jasmine shall be able to keep pace." She stood and patted the mare. "I did notmean to overtax you, dearheart." She breathed into the mare's nostrils and suddenly Jasmine felt all her weariness dissolve and she danced lightly across the ground.

Titania leaped lightly onto Amicus. "Come, Harry."

This time the two followed right on Amicus' golden hooves.

They had travelled almost an hour when Amicus whinnied sharply and half-reared.

Titania bent over his neck and whispered something. The unicorn tossed his head, eyes rolling uneasily.

"What's got him so spooked?" Harry asked.

"He has a . . .connection to Moon Fire. The stallion is in trouble, hurt and sick. We must hurry. There is no time to waste." She clucked to the stallion and they began to run ever more swiftly down the trail, till the trees were a blur.

Suddenly, they came to a halt, and Harry saw that they had left the trail and entered a lovely grove. In the center of it was the ruins of an old temple.

"Where are we?"

"This was once a temple to Selene, built when the Roman mages came here, as a place to worship Her." Titania said.

Harry rubbed his eyes. "I've seen this before . . .in a dream." He drew in a great gulping breath. The air here seemed purer, sweeter, than before. A feeling of peace and light surrounded him and he knew that this place was sacred to Selene still, even though those who had built it were long gone.

"Sometimes, little wizard, dreams tell what is to be."

"Why are we here? Shouldn't we be continuing on through the forest?"

Titania smiled enigmatically. "Sometimes Sherwood can be traveled by special paths not accessible to mere mortals. If you know how to open one of the Old Ways."

"The Old Ways? I don't understand."

"I speak of gates and portals and Paths of the Moon. Properly used, they can take you from here to there in a twinkling. If you know how to travel them." She pointed to the free-standing arch of the temple. "By the Moon's holy Light, I bid thee—open!"

Starfire flashed from her hand and struck the doorway and it began to glow with silvery light. Titania dug her heels into Amicus' side. "Follow close, Harry. And whatever you do—do not leave the path else you shall be lost between worlds! Hi-ya!"

Amicus took two lightning quick strides and leaped through the silvery shifting gateway.

Harry gulped and urged Jasmine into a run. The Arabian hesitated briefly. "Come on, girl! You can do it. Let's go find Moon Fire."

With the encouraging tone, Jasmine ran at the shimmering doorway and sprang through it.

It seemed as though they fell a long way through darkness, but then they emerged upon a silvery pathway. Harry looked about and saw that the path seemed to wind on forever through a field of stars. Amicus and Titania awaited them a few feet down the path.

The slender girl beckoned him onward, and then they began to run.

Ever after, Harry was never sure how long the journey took. The silvery road beneath Jasmine's hooves felt solid as rock, and yet each time she set a hoof down, it struck sparks. The silver road wound and twisted and narrowed in some spots till it seemed no bigger than a goat track, but Amicus never slowed.

Jasmine matched him, her small size eminently suited to this kind of terrain, running nearly in tandem with the big unicorn. Harry crouched low over her neck, hands gripping both reins and mane, and breathed in the Arabian's earthy scent. Stars became blurs as they flashed past down the road, and Harry had the feeling he had been running forever.

There was no wind in this strange place, and the only sound was the clippety-clop of Jasmine's hooves. Amicus made no sound at all.

Harry felt the ancient weight of time and a magic so old it was all but forgotten by any wizard press down upon him. He shuddered and urged Jasmine a bit faster. He had to get to the manor and his friends. He still felt the steady pull of the Locator Charm and knew he was going the right way.

Abruptly, Jasmine swerved to the left, and Harry was nearly dumped from the saddle. He clung with every bit of skill he possessed and managed to stay on. But it had been a near thing. He shivered to think what could have happened if he had fallen off.

They went through a series of these hairpin turns and Harry thanked Selene for Severus' teachings. Without them, he would have been thrown in two seconds and his rescue mission failed. But because he had been taught to move with his horse and pay attention to her, he could anticipate the mare and not be startled at her sudden changes of direction.

Finally, they arrived at yet another shimmering gateway.

Titania pointed her hand and it opened. Amicus jumped through.

Jasmine followed.

The Arabian's hooves hit the dirt and she halted, snorting.

Harry looked around. It was night, the moon shone like a silver medallion in the night sky. They were in a small stretch of woods that flanked a large manor.

Harry could feel the pull of the Locator Charm increase. "This is it. This is where they are!" He could feel a grin split his face.

"Yes. This is Riddle Manor, home of one of the darkest wizards ever to walk the earth," Titania said gravely.

"Voldemort lives here."

"He does. On occasion." Titania sighed. "Be careful. There are wards within wards here. Hide yourself as best you can and try not to be noticed. The Lady go with you."

Harry turned to stare at her. "But . . .aren't you coming with me?"

"No. Amicus and I cannot cross the wards without setting them off. Our auras are too . . .bright. But you have a Cloak of Concealment, Harry, and it shall hide you from all but a god or goddess' immortal sight."

"A Cloak of Concealment? I don't . . .you mean my Invisibility Cloak?"

"Yes. Though its powers are far more than just making one invisible. It will also mask your aura, make it seem as if you are no threat to those who live here. It is a powerful enchantment. With it you can go where you will unseen, and watch and see all."

Harry drew in a deep breath. "You're sure you can't . . .?"

"This is your quest, little wizard. I have helped as much as I may, now it is time for you to show yourself as brave and cunning as your guardian. Amicus shall wait here for you, and guide you home. May Selene's blessing be upon you, Harry Potter."

He felt a surge of warmth and strength flow into him and he squared his shoulders and clucked softly to Jasmine. Then he drew up the hood of his cloak and walked the mare forward.

He felt a sudden tingle as they stepped over the boundary between the small wood and the sloping stretch of meadow, but nothing more. The manor loomed like a great dark beast ahead of them, and Harry clutched the cloak tighter and prayed he could find everyone and get out quickly.

Jasmine flinched and shuddered, clearly she didn't like this place anymore than Harry and she snorted and fussed a bit before he spoke gently to her and patted her. "It's okay. I know, this place gives me the creeps too. I keep expecting some huge spider or a giant wolf to jump out at us. But we've got to go down there. My friends need me."

The frightened Arabian jigged sideways, then settled, and allowed Harry to guide her across the meadow and over to the manor, which radiated a dark miasma of hate and blood and pain. Death had come to claim many a victim within these walls. Harry prayed that it would not come to claim any of those he loved while he was there.

Carefully, the white mare and her unseen rider made their way into the stableyard.

The soft nicker of a stallion rang out in the still air.

Jasmine whinnied back.

"Moon Fire!"

Harry led the mare into the barn, turning on the lights. They didn't work so Harry lit up his wand instead. He wrinkled his nose. The barn stank of manure and sweat and musty hay. He carefully walked Jasmine down the main aisle until he reached the stall at the very end.

From inside they heard a weary neigh. Harry opened the stall next to Moon Fire's and let Jasmine inside. He carefully summoned some water for her to drink and fresh hay. He latched her door and then turned to see Moon Fire.

His heart shattered when he saw the once-proud stallion, his mane and tail snarled and tangled, his coat dirty, standing fetlock deep in dirty straw. Moon Fire was listless and his eyes, once bright with fire, now were dimmed with exhaustion and illness.

"Hey, boy. It's me, Harry. Remember me?"

The stallion did not turn his head.

Harry peered at the big horse and it was then he saw the myriad of whip cuts, raw and painful, that covered Moon Fire's body.

Harry felt his stomach knot up and for a moment he thought he would be sick. "Oh, Selene have mercy!" he whispered, tears standing in his eyes. "What have they done to you? What have they done?"

Moon Fire looked up at the sound of his voice.

And Harry wept, for the stallion did not seem to recognize him at all, not his voice, not his scent . . .it was as if all the time he had spent healing Moon Fire had never been.

"No!" he yelled in despair. "You have to come back to me! Please! Come back. I can't do this alone. I need you."

Moon Fire looked at him blankly and Harry wondered bleakly if anything still remained of Severus Snape at all within the black horse.

Hope you enjoyed this chapter!

Thanks for reading and reviewing, as always.

Now that Harry's arrived, how will he manage to rescue his friends and help Moon Fire regain his memory?


Chapter 25: Midnight Spy
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Stricken, he reached out a hand to Moon Fire, to stroke the black nose, but the stallion reared and lashed out with his iron shod hooves, screaming in fear and hatred. Harry jerked his hand away. Selene, help me! Look what's happened to him. He's gone totally wild. He doesn't even remember me—who healed him once before and who loves him best. He brushed the tears from his eyes, they wouldn't help anything. From what he could see, the stallion was not only injured, but ill as well, probably from infection. Love is memory. That's what You told me in a dream once. But I don't understand. Does that mean if I love Moon Fire enough he'll remember who he is, or is it the other way around, does he need to love me?

The stallion pounded the stall door for a moment or two more before settling.

Harry shook his head. He knew he had to help the stallion, but how? Amicus could heal him, but he couldn't come onto the land without setting off the wards, and Harry still needed to find Hermione and Draco and rescue them as well. "I need to find out more about this place." He told the black horse and Jasmine. "I need to become a spy. Once I find out what I need to know, then I can come back and heal you again. I promise I'll return."

Jasmine whickered nervously, and Harry suddenly realized that he couldn't leave her there, though she was good company for the black stallion. There would be no way to explain how an Arabian mare had suddenly appeared in a locked barn. "Jazzy, you'll have to come with me. I'll see if there's somewhere else I can put you for now," he said regretfully. He led the Arabian out of the stall, she had already eaten and drank her fill. He walked her out of the barn, and Moon Fire nickered desolately as the mare was taken away.

"Sorry," Harry called over his shoulder.

He found an old shed full of hay that he put the mare into. "It's just for a little while. When I can, if I can, I'll bring you to visit each other. Rest now, girl." He gave Jasmine one last pat and then pulled up the hood of his cloak and disappeared.

When he had used the cloak before, at school, to slip out of his common room after curfew, it had been the way a child would have used it, to sneak out of somewhere, and he had never tried to be quiet or breathe softly, because it had almost been like a game, he hadn't really worried about being caught. He recalled that time in third year in Hogsmeade, how he had scared the pants off Draco, and he shook his head at his own silly stupidity. But now was different. He was different. This time he would use the cloak as it was meant to be used. And he would play the game for keeps.

Something Severus had told him once came back to him then, as he hurried up the path towards the manor house. One of the most important lessons I ever learned from being a spy was that in order to be effective you had to learn to act like you belonged. Then you won't get stopped or questioned by anyone if you are where you shouldn't be.

That was good advice, though no one would stop him if they couldn't see or hear him. He felt a shiver go through him when he looked upon the old manor house and recalled how people had died here. There was a brooding quality about it, as if it were a sleeping dragon. He silently opened the door a crack and looked through it. He saw no one, and opened the door just enough for him to slip by and enter the hall. He shut the door noiselessly, looked about, and made himself listen for any voices or noises. The house was quiet.

He made his way upstairs, trying hard to walk silently, not clomp along like some big oaf. Like his cousin. Then he felt a flicker of guilt for thinking ill of the dead. He brushed it off. That had been the truth. Selene, be with me. Severus said he could feel you even in the darkest places. Be with me now, Lady. Please. He sent up a silent prayer and felt a feeling of warmth and reassurance flow through him. It was true then. The Goddess watched over Her own. If they asked politely.

He froze as he reached the top of the stairs, for it was then that he heard voices, one voice in particular, lifted in a civilized snarl. He knew that voice. Cold, cultured, and utterly ruthless.

"You fool! You had to go and beat the damn horse like that!" Lucius was furious. "I told you, Wormtail, to leave the horse in relative good condition because I need him for the Beast Match! And instead you go and have your little moment of petty revenge and ruin everything! Is there something wrong with your brain, that you can't follow simple instructions?"

"But . . .but Lucius, you promised I could break him a little." Wormtail whined, sounding very much like a squeaky about-to-be-stomped on rat. "I only gave him a taste of the whip . . .just a taste . . ."

"Oh? Then perhaps I should give you a taste of the Cruciatus, to remind you of your place, you pathetic whinging piece of dung?"

Yeah, do it. For the first and probably only time in his life, Harry was in complete agreement with Lucius Malfoy.

"No . . .no . . .please! I can fix it! I'll make him better!"

"Ha! I don't believe you. And I won't have you going near that stallion again. Once the Beast Match is over, if the horse is still standing, you can ask the Dark Lord to let you have him as a plaything. He might be in a good mood and allow it. Until then, Wormtail, get out of my sight before I decide to turn you into a bloody smudge on the floor."

There came the sound of something hard striking flesh and a yelp from Wormtail, then Harry saw him come scuttling from the room, rubbing his bottom. He was tempted to stick out his foot and trip the bastard, but then he controlled himself. He had to be calm, collected. He couldn't blow his cover.

He stepped aside and let Wormtail pass, though he vowed he would get back at him in a big way soon, the evil little animal abuser.

He heard a door being unlocked and then Lucius saying, "Draco, I need you. For now, you are off your punishment. Do not disappoint me again."

"No, Father."

"Go down to the stables and try and take care of that moon stallion. That bloody idiot Pettigrew almost ruined him for the arena. I need him well enough to fight. I don't care what you do, just get him well. Understood?"

"Yes, Father."

A few moments later, Lucius and Draco both were walking down the hall and down the stairs.

Harry hesitated, wondering if he should follow them, but opted instead to check out the rest of the rooms on this floor. He could always catch up with Draco in the stable later. Draco wasn't going to be able to do much with Moon Fire the way he was now. He was going to need some major help. But first, Harry needed to find out about Hermione.

He walked down the hall, trying all the doors. Most of them swung open easily, and were empty, except for some dusty old furniture and mice tracks. He came to the room Draco had been in and saw the bed rumpled and something that looked like old towels in the corner. He picked one up to examine it and saw that it was smeared with dried blood. Harry recognized the rusty stains because he had cleaned up blood far too often when he was with the Dursleys. He wondered if the blood belonged to Moon Fire or to Draco.

He crept quietly out the door, resolving to wait inside here for Draco later on, once he had found Hermione. He continued down the hall. He came to a large bedroom that had been spotlessly cleaned and suspected it belonged to either Lucius or Voldemort himself. He checked it out thoroughly, but found nothing of interest or use inside. He left it as he found it.

The next bedroom had clothes strewn everywhere and dirty plates and cups, Harry figured this was Wormtail's room, since the clothes lying about were too small for Lucius. He wrinkled his nose as he went inside, Petunia would have had a coronary if she had to deal with this slob in her house, Harry thought, smirking. But though there was a lot of dirty laundry and a small silver dagger in a bedside table drawer, Harry didn't find anything that could help him locate Hermione or that he could use against the Death Eaters. Correction—one of Wormtail's socks might do nicely, it was foul enough to halt a rampaging chimera or a bloodthirsty zombie. Lucius might topple over if Harry shoved it under his nose.

The room across the hall definitely belonged to Bellatrix, he found her leather boots in the closet and also a long whip. Harry shuddered upon seeing it, he could only imagine the things that whip had done to people and animals. Bellatrix was surprisingly neat, she had all her poison potions lined up neatly upon her desk, Harry knew what they were because they were labeled and Severus had taught him poisons and antidotes just this past term. There was a leather belt hanging on the wall with several wicked looking knives in it and a small leather bound book.

Harry opened it, curious to see what Bellatrix read. It turned out to be a blank journal, with a few poems written in a spiky hand. Harry nearly gagged. They were all love poems, written to "My dark Master, my eternal beloved."

Okay, I think I'm gonna hurl. That's just so . . .disgusting. Harry clutched his stomach and took several breaths. He looked upon the desk and found scribbled notes for dark spells, one of them for binding a dangerous animal and the other for robbing a person of his wits permanently. A note in the margin read Too bad I couldn't test it on Wormtail.

Harry's lip twitched. Apparently, Wormtail wasn't even loved by his comrades, the miserable bastard.

He departed and went to the last room on the row, only to find it locked. I'll bet this is Lucius' room, and that's why its locked. Harry thought. He debated on whether or not to unlock it yet. He decided to leave it be for now. Finding Hermione was more important than seeing what things Lucius kept in his bedroom.

The last door was small and it too was locked. This time Harry cast an unlocking charm and cautiously opened the door. A set of creaky wooden stairs led up into blackness. Harry illuminated the space with his wand and crept upwards. Another door was at the top, also locked. Harry opened that as well and inside he found Hermione, curled up on her small cot, dozing.

His relief was palpable. "Hermione!" he whispered her name like a sigh. Then he threw off the hood of his cloak.

She jerked awake, though he hadn't thought she could hear him. "Who's there?" She scooted to the far corner of the bed, her eyes darting about like a trapped animal's.

Then she saw him. "Harry? It's not . . .oh Bright Lady, it really is you!" Tears gathered in her eyes.

"Yeah, it's really me." He said, and gave her a smile.

To his horror, she didn't smile back. She started to cry.

"'Mione, what is it?" He cautiously came towards her. "Did they . . .did they hurt you?"

She continued to cry quietly for a few minutes then she slowly nodded. "It was Bellatrix, mostly. She—she wanted me to call her Mistress and kiss her feet and kneel to her whenever she came into the room. She said that was where I belonged, at her feet, like a slave, because I w-was a M-Mudblood."

"Don't say that filthy word. You're a beautiful intelligent Muggleborn witch and Bellatrix can take her pureblood supremacy and shove it up her arse!" Harry said angrily. He sat down on the bed and said softly, "What did she do to you? Did she whip you like Wormtail did Moon Fire?"

"He whipped Moon Fire?" Hermione cried, horror-stricken. "Oh, Selene have mercy! How dreadful!"

"Yeah, he's in pretty bad shape. I gotta get us out of here, but first I have to heal up Moon Fire. Now, what did she do to you?"

"She slapped me a few times and she used a few curses on me." Hermione admitted softly.

"The Cruciatus?"

"Yes. Once or twice, until Lucius came and told her no more of it, that he wanted me sane for You-Know-Who's visit." She shook, trembling violently. "He's coming here. In about a week."

He put his arm about her and held her. "Shhh. Don't worry, we'll be long gone by then. Are you hurt now?"

She shook her head. "No. Bellatrix heals me after her little "talks"," Hermione grimaced. "But you know what the worst thing is, being locked up here? It's that I'm bored out of my mind. I have nothing to do. I've started reciting lists of potions ingredients and the periodic table of elements in my head. At least when Bellatrix—Mistress Bella—as she wants me to call her, and I always refuse—comes in I have something new to think about and even having her curse me is like . . .a change of pace. Not that I want her to curse me, but . . ."

"I understand. It was like that for me too—locked in the cupboard under the stairs." Harry soothed, stroking her hair and her back. "I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner."

"How did you get here, Harry? How did you know where to find us?"

He told her, briefly, what he had done and how he had been guided through Sherwood Forest and used the moonpaths to get to Riddle Manor quickly.

"So a unicorn and this girl that you call Titania are waiting in the woods for us to come out?"

"Yes. They can't cross the boundary because they might set off the wards. So I had to come here alone."

She hugged him back and whispered, "I'm glad you're here, Harry. But please be careful. Poor Draco was beaten by his father for—for trying to warn me when they came to the school to check on him. It's really my fault we got kidnapped . . ."

"No, it's not. Don't ever say that." Harry ordered. "Look, I'm going to try and find out as I can about what's going on here before I leave. Moon Fire will need a few days to recover and I need time to . . .to see if I can't bond with him again. I'll try and visit you as much as I can. Do you need food or anything?"

"No. I haven't been real hungry. Lucius brings me food and drinks and he also lets me out on occasion to use the bathroom. He's a little more humane than Bellatrix. She would have made me pee on the floor or a bucket. Other than that, though, I've been locked in here." She pursed her lips. "You know, it's strange, but I feel so . . .worthless since I've gotten stuck in here. I mean, I'm probably smarter than all three of them put together, and yet I can't figure a way out of here. And the way they look at me . . .Harry, I've never been hated before just because I existed. I mean, people at school used to be jealous of my brain, but I've never been the target of such intense hatred because I'm a Muggleborn witch."

"It sucks," Harry said feelingly, for he had been the target of such blind hatred from his aunt and uncle, who had hated all things magical. "But don't worry, 'Mione. I'm going to get us all away from here. By Selene's Grace, I promise." He put his hand over his heart.

She turned her head and their mouths met. "I love you," she whispered, kissing him deep and long. It felt so good to see him, talk to him, hold him, and suddenly she couldn't deny what she felt any longer. When she drew back, her lips rosy, breathless, she gave a small chuckle. "My timing's terrible, isn't it? I wanted our first kiss to be somewhere romantic, not in this dusty gross attic."

"It's perfect," Harry said. "What better time to kiss you than right now, when you need it most?"

"Harry, you're so very sweet!" she whispered and hugged him again.

"That a good thing?"

"Yeah. A really good thing."

"I'd better go. I need to talk with Draco, maybe he has some ideas about getting us out of here without risking all our necks."

"He's a Slytherin, plus he knows them better than we do," Hermione agreed.

"I'll see you soon. Don't lose hope. Remember, the Lady is with you," Harry said, then he drew on the hood of his cloak and slipped back down the stairs, locking both doors behind him with a Reverse Locking Charm.

Harry was sitting in the chair next to Draco's desk inside the bedroom, still hidden by the cloak, and Draco never knew he was there. Harry hid a grin and waited for the other to lock the door and use his wand to cast some sort of ward before he took off the hood of the Cloak of Concealment.

"Boo, Malfoy!"

Draco spun around, almost falling over his own feet. "Potter! You little son-of-a-bitch!"

"Hello to you too, Draco."

"How did you get in here? Your bloody Invisibility Cloak?"

"Cloak of Concealment, actually. The door wasn't locked, all I had to do was wait here."

"How did you find your way to Riddle Manor?"

Harry shrugged. "Used a Tracking spell. I rode Jasmine and followed a unicorn and a Sherwood fairy queen. At least I think that's what she is."

Draco's eyebrows rose. "You have some strange allies, Potter."

"I think they were sent. If you know what I mean."

Draco nodded, one hand moving to finger the silver crescent beneath his shirt. "I do. We need to get out of here soon. Have you seen Moon Fire yet? Or Hermione?"

"Yes." Harry felt his temper spike. "How could that little rat bastard do that to him? Why didn't you stop him?"

"Me? In case you don't know, Potter, I've been grounded to this room since the first day I was brought here," Draco snapped angrily. "After my father expressed his displeasure about my association with Muggleborns he told me to stay in here."

"And you didn't try and disobey him?"

"Of course I did. I climbed out the window and went to try and feed and water Moon Fire. He wasn't hurt then, well not like that, I mean." Draco's blue-gray eyes were sad. "Harry, if I could have, I would have turned that whip on Pettigrew. I would have let my father beat me twice as hard as he did if it meant they would leave Moon Fire alone. I know you think I'm a spoiled little arse and sometimes I am, but I know what's right. And no animal deserves that. Even my father thinks so."

"Humph! He just wants to keep Moon Fire alive for his master."

"But at least he's not insane, like Aunt Bella, or a total wuss and a coward, like Wormtail. Not that I agree with what he wants to do with Moon Fire either," Draco added quickly.

"What are his plans?"

"He . . .he wants to keep the Dark One happy when he arrives, to welcome him home, so Father thought he needed to provide entertainment. He wants to copy the ancient Romans and have a Beast Fight. He wants to pit Moon Fire against a winged tiger or something like that. And Bellatrix wants to throw Hermione in there too and make her fight a manticore."

"That's just sick!"

"Tell me about it. I wish I wasn't related to them."

"I used to wish the same about my aunt and uncle." Harry said sympathetically. "How is Moon Fire?"

Draco shook his head unhappily. "It's bad, Potter. Really bad. I tried to get near him, and he attacked me. Father taught me a binding spell, but I don't want to use it unless I absolutely have to. It's what that arsehole Pettigrew used to hold him while he beat him, I think. But I need to clean out those cuts and put salve on them. He's gotten a fever from them, I think, but I can't get close enough to give him any kind of draft without getting my brains bashed out."

"You know how to treat a horse with fever and wounds like that?"

"Sure. I mean, my Aunt Dromeda is a Horse Healer and she taught me some basic stuff, beyond sprains and colic remedies. But it's no use unless I can get him to stand still." He looked speculatively at Harry. "You always seemed to be his favorite before. Maybe you can succeed where I can't."

Harry chewed his lower lip. He hated admitting to Draco that he couldn't succeed, but based on what he had experienced that morning . . .the stallion had completely forgotten any bond they had once shared due to his mistreatment. "He was . . . pretty scared when I saw him, he wouldn't even let me touch him. Goddamn that Wormtail! I want to just chuck him in the stall and let Moon Fire trample him!"

"So do I. And I'm sure Moon Fire wants to kill him too." Draco said feelingly. "I think if my father hadn't been so busy with other things, he'd have cursed the little rat."

"Well, all I can do is try." Harry said, trying to sound optimistic. "Are you still grounded?"

"No. Which means I can go anywhere in the manor I want, except by Granger. Father didn't say it, but I know he expects me to stay away from her, maybe even to hate her now that she got me in trouble with him."

"But you won't."

"As long as I can see her without getting caught. So, if you need anything for Moon Fire, tell me and I'll bring it by. If you can manage to get him to trust you enough to let you touch him, let me know and I'll give you the potion and salve for him. But we don't have all week, Potter. Father expects He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to arrive by Sunday, if he keeps to schedule. I'm praying he gets delayed doing some weird rite of evilness and doesn't arrive early. That would be a total disaster. If you can't get Moon Fire to trust you in a day or so, I'll have to use the binding spell."

"I understand. I wish we had your aunt's Calming Rope." Harry said. Using the binding spell would be the ultimate betrayal, he thought. But if it were the only way the stallion could be treated, Harry knew he would have to risk it. He could not afford to let Moon Fire die. "Umm, Draco? I have Jazzy in an old shed out back. Could you maybe check on her sometime while I'm with Moon Fire?"

"Sure. And I'll bring her oats and water too. We might be able to exercise her a little at night if we need to."

"Who makes dinner and stuff like that around here? Not your aunt?"

"Selene's bodice, Potter! She'd be more likely to poison us. No, Father brought along a house elf from our estate. We have more than one." Draco explained. "If you need food, tell me and I'll have some brought to my room."

"All right. Guess I'd better get going. The more time I spend with him, the more he'll get used to me again." I hope.

"I sure wish Professor Snape was here now. I wonder if he's spying on You-Know-Who?" Draco said wistfully.

He's closer than you think, trapped in the body of a moon stallion, Harry thought. "Who knows? But I wish he were here too." If he could manage to restore Severus to himself . . . "Ah well. If wishes were horses . . ."

"Beggars would ride," finished Draco.

"You know that old saying? I thought it was just a Muggle one."

"Wizard one too," Draco answered. "Though some wizards substitute the word 'broomstick' for 'horse'. Good luck, Potter. Lady bless."

"Thanks." Harry nodded and vanished.

Back in the stable, Moon Fire shivered and burned, he was freezing one moment and burning hot the next. In the back of his mind, he knew that meant something bad, he knew instinctively that he was sick, but he couldn't get out of this box to find a cool pond to lie in, or proper herbs to eat that might reduce the fever. He could feel the infection raging through his system and a tiny part of his brain warned that if he did not get help soon, he would die.

He drank all the water in his bucket, and his thirst was barely slaked. He closed his eyes and dozed and once more the lady came to him. She was tall and wore a violet gown with silvery stars and moons in all phases upon it. Her hair was bound by a simple silver fillet and it shone like liquid mercury, a shimmering silver mane. She came to him and her scent was pure and clean like a mountain spring and moonshine mixed with nightblooming jasmine and wild thyme.

Trust the boy, Moon Fire. My beloved, trust the boy.

She set her cool hands upon his neck and he felt the fever start to go down. Icy water trickled in rivulets down his neck and suddenly he woke up, to find the same dark-haired human who had come by before standing there, running a wet rag down his neck.

Moon Fire snorted angrily. How dare this boy come and invade his territory? He stamped a hoof in warning.

Harry immediately drew away. He could feel the fever radiating from the stallion and it terrified him. "Moon Fire, please. Please remember me. You need help. You're like a furnace. I can help you. That's all I want to do. Just help."

The stallion bared his teeth.

Harry backed up, the wet rag still in his hand. "Hey. It's all right. I just want to help you." He carefully shut the door. "Okay, if that's the way you want it, I'll stay here on this side of the door."

Harry kept talking, saying whatever came into his head, trying to get the big horse to remember him.

Moon Fire swiveled his ears about, listening to the boy.

Trust the boy. He did not know why he should, except that the Lady required it.

He lowered his head and nibbled listlessly upon a stalk of alfalfa. His appetite had been off since he started getting sick from the infection.

"Good boy. Eat. That'll give you strength. If we were home, I'd give you a bran mash. Hmm. Now there's an idea. Maybe you'd be able to swallow the potion that way."

It was a good idea, one that just might work. He walked away from the stallion's stall, looking in the interior of the barn for some bran in the feed bin, molasses, and a water pump. He found everything he needed after seven minutes of searching and just as he was preparing it, he heard a sound coming from the barn door.

He quickly jerked up his hood and vanished, praying that whoever it was left quickly or thought Draco was still around tending to the stallion.

A second later he heard Moon Fire whistle in rage and the sharp thud of a hoof striking wood.

Harry came out of the feed room and saw Pettigrew standing there, glowering at the big horse.

"You better watch it, horse. You cost me too much, you miserable nag. If it weren't for the fact that Lucius wants you for the master, I would kill you and boil you down for glue."

The stallion screamed again, plainly he knew who had beaten him and he hated Wormtail with a passion.

Harry almost wished he had left the door ajar.

Pettigrew spat at the horse and turned away.

Harry spotted an abandoned pitch fork lying just behind the waddling Animagus. He couldn't resist getting a bit of revenge back for poor Moon Fire. He waved his wand and the pitch fork leaped up and stabbed Pettigrew right in the behind. Hard.

"AHHH-YEEE-OWWW!"

Wormtail screeched like a banshee and turned around, but by then the pitch fork was on the ground.

And there were several holes in the seat of his pants, not to mention his behind.

Still yelping like a whipped cur, Pettigrew left the stables as fast as he could, whimpering shrilly.

Harry chuckled. "That's one way to get rid of a rat." He threw off the hood of his cloak and grinned at Moon Fire, who was sticking his head over his stall door, eyeing Harry curiously. "How about that, huh?"

Moon Fire gave a half-snort and the black eyes gleamed.

"See? I'm your friend. Got rid of that piece of dung, didn't I? Now I need to find Draco again and get that potion from him. Maybe after you drink it you'll feel better and start to remember more. You're probably really fuzzy right now, I know I always was when I had a fever. Couldn't think straight."

He made no move towards the horse, and Moon Fire did not attempt to strike him.

"I'll see you later, black one."

Harry replaced his hood and went back into the manor.

Five minutes later he returned with the potion—an equine Fever Reducer—in his pocket. Draco had liked Harry's idea, saying that was just what Andromeda had done many times with reluctant animals. Harry carefully mixed the potion into the bran mash and let it steep five more minutes.

Then he gave it to the stallion, hoping the horse wouldn't detect a difference in taste.

Moon Fire lipped the mash, it was warm and tasted of molasses and delicious bran and oats mixed together. For the first time in over a day, he felt hungry. He began to eat.

Harry watched, leaning on the partition between the stalls, as the stallion slowly ate the warm mash. "That's it. Eat it, and it'll make you feel better."

Moon Fire finished the mash and then took a long drink from his refilled water bucket.

His eyes drifted closed and he dozed again.

Harry eyed him, wondering if that were normal. He supposed it was, he had usually felt sleepy after taking medicine. "Wonder how long it'll take before the fever goes away? Guess I'll know when you do." He yawned. He was exhausted. He decided to follow the stallion's example, and made himself a sort of bed in the next stall in the straw, and soon he too was fast asleep.

Will Harry be able to regain Moon Fire's trust and will that in turn help Moon Fire remember that he's truly Professor Snape?

The next chapter holds the key to some of those questions. I hope the pace is not too slow and that you're enjoying all the twists and turns Harry and Moon Fire are going through-and let's not forget Hermione and Draco.

More to come soon!

Chapter 26: Midnight's Heart
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Harry woke with the dawn and slipped back inside the manor to wash up and take care of certain necessities. When he was finished, he helped himself to some bread and fruit upon the table and drank some water as well. Everyone else in the manor was asleep and he returned to Moon Fire, an apple inside his pocket. The horse seemed more alert and feeling better than yesterday. Harry fed him the apple, and when the horse took it out of his hand, he gently caressed the stallion's forelock.

Moon Fire shied, banging into his water bucket and spilling it.

Harry shook his head. "Now why do I get the feeling we've gone through this before?"

He unlatched the door, murmuring soothingly, and took the bucket away and filled it with clean water. While the horse drank thirstily, he talked to him, telling him who he was and that Moon Fire was not only a horse, but a wizard as well. "You had your memory erased by a spell, but I don't think it's permanent. It's got to wear off sometime. Meantime, you really ought to let me clean those whip cuts."

He fed the stallion, shaking out an Antibiotic Solution over the stallion's oats as well as a Calming Draught.

When Moon Fire showed signs of drowsing, Harry approached him again, with a wet cloth, and started to swab out the cuts. At the first touch of the cloth, the stallion whipped his head about, like a snake striking, and took Harry's shoulder in his mouth.

Harry froze. He dared not move, lest he frighten Moon Fire and make the stallion bite down. "Moon Fire, stop!" he ordered softly. "You know—I know you do—that I'm only trying to help you. Selene's Grace, professor, control yourself! You can do it. Remember who you are!"

He looked deeply into the stallion's eyes, willing the big Arabian to recall what they had shared. "I would never harm you, you silly stallion. Now let go of my arm."

Moon Fire met his eyes, and finally he released Harry's shoulder.

Sighing, Harry went and found another line and cross tied him with them, so he could not turn about and sink his teeth into the wizard. He gently washed all the weals upon the right side of the stallion, then he stopped and spent time petting the horse, telling him about escapades at school, things which he was sure Snape never knew. "I sure hope you don't remember this stuff once you come back, sir. Otherwise I think I'm going to be in detention for life."

The stallion's ears flicked back and he sighed, lowering his head. Harry was relieved he didn't seem inclined to fight and carefully applied salve to the cuts on one side. He waited another fifteen minutes before he went to the opposite side and repeated the procedure.

Moon Fire slammed his tail and his back hoof against the stall to show his displeasure at Harry's ministrations, but he didn't fight the ties or try and kick Harry. Harry patted his shoulder and said, "I'm sorry if I hurt you, but I have to clean out those cuts, they're infected and making you sick. It's for your own good." He carefully applied the paste to the whip cuts. "There! That ought to feel nice, huh? I could just beat that bastard Wormtail to death! He's worse than Uncle Vernon."

Moon Fire neighed in agreement. Once Harry was satisfied the stallion was as comfortable as he could make him, he started to leave and go to check upon Jasmine, for even though Draco had assured him he would see to the mare, the Arabian was his responsibility. But he had just started to approach the barn door when he heard the crunch of footsteps.

He quickly ducked into the tackroom, because despite the cloak, he could still be discovered if someone happened to bang into him or step on him.

The door swung to, and Draco entered followed by Lucius.

"How is the beast? Has he started to heal?" Lucius asked matter-of-factly.

"Yes, sir." Draco said calmly. "I gave him some potions and put some salve on him. He should be ready to fight at the end of the week."

They walked over to study Moon Fire.

Lucius offered him a slice of apple.

The stallion, who had been leaning his head over the stall door, drew back his upper lip and screamed at the elder Malfoy, spurning the treat.

"Vicious brute!" Lucius muttered and banged on the door with his cane.

The stallion kicked the door angrily, ears flat.

Takes one to know one, Harry thought angrily, though he longed to smile. Even without a memory, Moon Fire was smart enough to not trust Lucius.

"He's just skittish, Father," Draco said hastily. "Some stallions are like that."

"He looks thin, I want him bulked up more. Give him extra feed. I want him to be able to go at least a few rounds with the tiger before he ends up as cat food." Lucius said.

Draco turned his head away to hide the anger in his eyes.

Lucius dragged his chin about. "Not getting squeamish, are you, boy?"

Draco forced the anger down. "No, Father. It's just a horse."

"Right. The most important thing is pleasing the Dark Lord. For when he is happy, so are we."

"Yes, sir." Draco kept his eyes down, to hide his contempt for his father. He hated the way Lucius groveled before the monster that had once been a human being. "Father, I've been thinking . . .since you allowed the . . .Mudblood out for breakfast, maybe I could use her in the stable this morning? To muck out the stall and help me brew more potions."

"Are you saying you're incapable of doing this on your own?" Lucius asked sharply, then he clipped his son on the ear with his cane.

"Ow!" Draco cried out before he could stop himself. "No, Father, I just thought she could make herself useful . . ." He sucked in a breath as the cane smacked the backs of his thighs, but that time he didn't yell. A Malfoy was supposed to endure pain stoically.

Harry winced and felt his hatred of Lucius and all the Death Eaters increase a thousandfold.

"I let the little Mudblood out for air, so she wouldn't waste away inside," Lucius cut in sharply. "Don't be foolish and think I would entrust her to your watch, my son."

Draco nodded. "Forgive me, Father. I missipoke."

Nice try though, Draco, Harry thought sadly. Too bad Lucius wasn't as stupid as Wormtail or as arrogant as Bellatrix.

"Next time think before you open your mouth. Don't behave like a ruddy Gryffindor."

They continued staring at Moon Fire for a few more minutes, then Lucius said he needed to go and feed the winged tiger—the leshae. "Make sure the animal is fit for the arena or else it will mean your hide."

"I understand, Father."

Lucius turned and walked out, leaving Draco alone with the stallion. "He's in a damn mood," the blond muttered crossly, rubbing his thighs and his ear.

"Draco?" Harry hissed.

"Potter? Where are you?"

"Over here, inside the tack room. I was just going to check on Jasmine. How's Hermione?"

"All right now that Father won't give Aunt Bella permission to torture her anymore." Draco said shortly. "You fix him up like you said?"

"Yeah. But he's still hurt and he doesn't remember me too well."

"Well, I hope you can have him back in form before the end of the week. You heard my father."

"He should be well enough for me to ride in another day or so."

"I'll let Hermione know," Draco promised.

"Do you know where her wand is?"

"Probably in one of their rooms, in the lockbox."

"Is there a spell on it?"

"Well, duh! Of course there is! But don't sweat it, Potter. I know how to break it. But I'll wait till Moon Fire's healed before I remove it, just in case it sets off an alarm."

"I'll get Hermione out before you do it." Harry said.

"All right. Let me know when you're ready to move," Draco said.

"I will." Then he pulled up the hood of his cloak and vanished.

After seeing that Jasmine was all right, and petting her, Harry decided to see if he could find out where this winged tiger was kept. He had not gotten the chance to see many magical creatures close up and he was curious. He whispered a Four Points spell and his wand fixed upon Lucius' magical signature and pulled him along the pathways into the back of the manor.

He walked down several overgrown hedge-lined paths until he came to a large grove of larches. Inside a huge cage with glowing bars and a peaked roof was a gigantic white tiger with brilliant blue wings folded against his sides. The tiger was lying down, flexing his massive claws and making a soft hough-hough noise.

In front of the cage stood Lucius, his cane tapping the ground. "Soon, my lovely one. Soon I shall stop feeding you dead deer carcasses and let you feast upon live prey."

The tiger growled and lashed its tail. It looked up, licking its lips.

There was a well-gnawed thighbone between its paws.

Harry shuddered. The winged cat was beautiful, but also a deadly predator. Those claws could easily tear Moon Fire to shreds.

He had to get all of them out of here before it was too late.

After casting the lazing tiger one last look, he hurried back up the path, resolved to find the trigger to Moon Fire's memory or die trying.

HPSSHPSSHP

Moon Fire dozed and in his dream he recalled running through a vast forest, accompanied by a few golden foals with small horns atop their heads. Unicorns. They tried to race him to the center of the vale, but always he outran them. The unicorn mares watched them indulgently, as did the herd stallion, who Moon Fire regarded as a friend.

Amicus. You are Amicus.

He had no trouble recalling the names of the unicorns, not even the foals. He knew them the way he did his own name . . .Except his name was not only Moon Fire. He did not know how he knew that, but he did.

Once he had had another name . . .but he could not recall it . . .

Remember . . .remember . . .

He woke with a start. It was dusk, night had fallen at last. He shook his head and breathed in the comforting scents of hay, oats, the odd sharp scent of the medicine the boy had rubbed upon his skin, and lastly, he could smell the boy himself, sitting in the straw in the corner of the stall nearest the door.

He blew in and out softly. For some odd reason, he found the boy's scent comforting, the way the breeze was comforting, or the moon when it shone down from the midnight sky.

"Hey, fella." Harry whispered. It was dark inside the stable, but he had lit up his wand and stuck it upright in a hay bale he had dragged inside the stall to sit on. He had inadvertently dozed off after Draco had brought him some supper, saved from his own plate by sleight of hand. Harry could have gone without, he was used to fasting from his days with the Dursleys, but it was foolish to turn down food when offered.

"Look what I saved you. A donut. Remember how I fed you these back at school, before I knew what you really were? You loved them." He held out his palm and Moon Fire dipped his head and lipped the sweet treat off his hand. Harry smiled. "Always the gentleman, eh, even when you're a horse and not a man."

Moon Fire shook his head and his forelock fell forward to cover his crescent. He nuzzled at the boy playfully, then turned to drink, one ear flicked back to listen as the boy spoke.

"All right. I'm going on instinct here, and you always told me to trust my instincts, and right now they're telling me to just . . .talk to you and hope to Selene that something triggers a memory of your real self. I had a dream one night, Selen came and told me that love is memory. I don't have a clue what the hell that means, but I need you back, Severus. We're trapped here on the Riddle estate and Lucius is going to feed you to some winged tiger in a gladiator arena game for Unholy Moldy's entertainment unless we get you out of here. But first you've got to get well and I want . . .I need you to come back to me. . ."

Moon Fire's tail swished rhythmically as he squashed pesky flies, but Harry could tell somehow that the great horse was listening.

"Okay . . .we'll start with the basics. You're an Animagus and a wizard. Your name is Severus Tobias Snape and you're the Potions Master at Hogwarts. You're my professor, Head of Slytherin House, and I'm your student, Harry Potter . . .Once I thought you hated me and were out to kill me . . .but I couldn't have been more wrong. You saved me from my stinking relatives when nobody else cared . . .you gave me a home and showed me a side of you that you never have to anyone else, I'll bet . . .You can be a strict pain in the arse bastard sometimes, but I've come to realize it's never really without cause . . .You were my mum Lily's best friend and Selene's Chosen warrior . . ."

Harry talked on and on, telling Moon Fire all about his life as Severus Snape and how he had taken in one orphaned wizard and made him his apprentice and changed his life. He told Moon Fire of how Severus was a spy and a member of the Order of the Phoenix. He spoke of Snape's childhood, and how he had hated his father because his father was a drunk who despised magic and beat him.

"And that's how, I guess, you knew what I was hiding about my own relatives. Because you'd been there too. Nobody else, except Hermione, ever even suspected there was something wrong, 'cause I learned to hide it all by the time I was six. I had to, or else . . .I'd have been thrashed to bits . . .and the one time I tried to tell, the school called my aunt and uncle and they said I was lying and guess who the school believed? So I learned not to speak of it. Like you. I don't know what spell you got hit with trying to rescue Hermione, but it should be wearing off now, right? I know you're in there somewhere, Professor Snape. You're hiding right now, like you used to do when you were small and your dad was looking for you . . .but you don't have to be afraid anymore . . .it's safe . . .You can come out now . . ."

The stallion swung his head and looked at him. There was a flicker of awareness in his eyes that had not been there before. Harry began to hope. "Please remember. Please. You're the only one who can help us now."

He stood up and picked up a currycomb he had put in his pocket and forgotten after he had groomed Jasmine that night and turned her out in a far pasture where no one could see her. He moved very quietly over to the stallion and began to groom his mane, untangling the snarls patiently and running the comb through the silky dark strands.

"You told me once that Selene is always with you, even in the darkest places. I hope She's with you now, Severus, because you need Her really bad. And so do I." He leaned his cheek against Moon Fire's silken hide. "Now I wish I had paid better attention in potions, instead of goofing off with Ron or getting into spats with Malfoy. Then maybe I would know how to brew a potion to restore your memory. If that was possible." He started grooming again.

Moon Fire was still, he was half-asleep, but at the same time not.

He was seeing strange things now, a black pot with an odd greenish liquid in it, but not something to eat, it was being stirred and stirred . . .he saw a number of boys and girls wearing black robes all looking at him . . .he was annoyed at a few of them . . .then he was among dark trees standing in a ring where a tall man wa speaking, he didn't like the sound of that voice, it sent chills up his spine and made him want to trample something . . .he saw a snake, huge and terrifying, rip out a woman's throat . . .then he was scolding an impudent boy in a too-large robe with huge green eyes that glinted insolently . . .

The memories were coming fast and furious now . . .he shuddered in their grip.

"Hey, easy. You're safe with me." Harry soothed. "Never thought I'd say that to you ever. But then, I've always been lousy at Divination, can't even predict tomorrow's breakfast." His hands began to untangle a knot, unaware of the struggle waging within the stallion's brain.

More memories came flooding back . . .himself hiding as his father chased him up the stairs . . .the sharp crack of a whip upon his tender flesh . . .his mother yelling and crying . . ."Tobias, stop! Leave him alone, he can't help it! If you want to hit something—hit me, damn it!" . . .The green eyes of a girl named Lily whom he had cared for oh so much . . .Hanging upside down while a boy that looked like the one here with him laughed and mocked him, waving a stick . . .Helpless, rage and pain intermingled like poison in his blood . . . A night with no moon, and a searing brand pressed against tender flesh . . .He screamed . . .and a silvery voice whispered, Never fear, my Chosen. You shall belong to him in name only, never in truth. He felt her cool touch upon his brow, and it froze the fiery burning until faded away to nothing . . .Running in the meadow behind the castle, his one freedom from the duty that lay heavy as a mountain across his shoulders . . .Weeping into his hands over a grave, guilt nearly overwhelming him . . .Tending the boy who had burnt his hand . . .holding that same boy in his arms beneath a tree . . .

"You have to remember . . .because if you don't, I'll have no guardian anymore and Dumbledore will make me leave our home and . . .well . . .I don't know what'll happen after that, assuming I'm still alive . . .You promised my mother you would protect me, you can't just forget about that promise now." Harry made his voice sharp and angry. "Otherwise you're . . .you're nothing but a . . .a coward, Severus Snape! What do you say to that, huh?"

Moon Fire whistled sharply in anger.

"Don't like that, do you? Then come back to me, dammit all! Remember who you are! You're my professor, my friend, my guardian and I . . .I . . .love you . . .!"

Unbidden, tears fell from his emerald eyes to drip upon the stallion's silken mane. Harry buried his face in the thick mane and let more tears soak into the ebony coat. He hated when he cried, his nose got all stuffed and his eyes sore and he didn't know why the hell he was bawling like this, except that he was sick and tired of trying to be strong and he wanted someone else to help him and he missed Snape's quiet efficient presence the way he did nothing else . . .

Love is memory.

I loved Lily. Loved her laugh and the way her hair glimmered in the light of the moon. I loved how she smiled and the way her eyes lit up when she saw me . . .He has her eyes . . .Slowly, the mists that had surrounded his memory began to lift, as the spell that had enchanted him faded.

Love is memory.

Remember, Chosen, remember.

Horse and boy were so intent upon each other that they failed to hear the soft creak of the barn door.

Failed to hear the soft pitter-patter of worn-soled shoes coming down the aisle.

Failed to smell the sour stench of beer and unwashed skin.

It was not until he was right on top of them that Moon Fire recognized Wormtail.

"What the bloody hell is this?"

Harry gasped, jerked around, and saw the smarmy mean-spirited wizard standing there, wand raised. "Wormtail!"

"Potter! Well, don't this beat all! I come to check on the bastard devil horse and find a sneaking prowler instead. Won't Malfoy be tickled to death!"

"Go bugger yourself!" Harry spat. He darted for his wand, but Wormtail snarled a spell that knocked him off his feet.

He hit the end of the stall hard, and saw stars.

"Naughty, naughty, Potter! No trying to get away!" Wormtail laughed, then he levitated the groggy Harry over the top of the stall.

Moon Fire saw red. He knew this putrid smelling sack of manure. This was the man who had trapped him with magic and then beaten him savagely. He owed this man several kicks with his hooves.

Harry landed on the ground, groaned and whimpered, "Severus! Don't let him . . .take me . . .!"

Moon Fire reared up and smashed the stall door with all of his might. His rage eclipsed anything he had ever felt before and gave him a surreal strength far beyond that of a mortal horse. The wood splintered and shattered. He tore the lead ties from the rings on the sides of the stall, screaming in rage.

His eyes were dark with fury and hate and recognition. At last he remembered.

Pettigrew, get away from him! Get away from my Harry!

He whirled about, moving like a black flame, and gave the broken door two hard kicks with his hind hooves.

The door split apart and he was free.

Screaming a battle cry, the restored Moon Fire lunged at the cringing Pettigrew.

Okay, he's finally ba-a-ack! Who says Peter's going to be one dead rat soon?

Chapter 27: Midnight Uprising
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Wormtail was knocked backwards upon the floor, he put his hands over his head to protect his face as the enraged stallion rose above him. Moon Fire was deep in a red rage, all he could see was Harry lying limp on the floor, and smell the sharp bitter tang of blood from a cut upon his head. The stallion slammed his hooves down, kicking Pettigrew hard in the ankle and also in the ribs. Wormtail screeched in agony and tried to roll away. Moon Fire whistled loudly in warning and he froze, sobbing and blubbering like a cowardly fat baby.

Gradually the red mist started to clear and the professor's mind began to assume control of the horse shape. He recalled everything that had happened while in his horse form then, and he knew that if he did not change back, he might kill Pettigrew too quickly. And he wanted to make him suffer, as payback for all the little rat had done. So he forced himself to turn away and not smash Peter's head in.

He did, however, stamp upon the little rodent's wand and smash it to bits.

"No! Not my wand!" wailed the Animagus, peeking out from between his fingers. He began to moan and rock back and forth, crying whether from the pain of his injuries or from losing his wand, Severus didn't know or care.

Moon Fire bared his large teeth and the rotten Animagus whimpered and quit trying to get up.

Harry stirred and tried to sit up, groaning at the pain in his head.

Moon Fire abruptly transformed back into Severus.

Wormtail had his hands over his face still and Snape quickly cast a Full Body Bind on him before turning to kneel before his stricken ward. "Harry, lie still. You hit your head pretty hard, don't try and move yet." He gently slipped an arm about Harry's neck and supported the woozy child.

"S-Severus . . .I mean Professor . . ." The green eyes blinked in confusion and one hand lifted.

"Hush." He caught Harry's questing hand and gently placed it on his chest. "Don't touch, you've a cut on your scalp that's bleeding pretty badly." As he spoke, Severus muttered a Blood Halt spell and tapped Harry's head. "Now, let's see about fixing your head. You have a knot the size of a goose egg back here." He carefully eased Harry onto his side and said, "Don't move, I need a minute or two."

Harry groaned but obeyed. "Ohhh . . .feels like I've got hammers pounding my skull and my stomach . . ." He sucked in a breath, began to cough, and then he threw up.

Severus held his head, murmuring, "All right, son. Easy. Breathe. Damn, I wish I had a potion to give you."

Harry retched again, the throbbing in his head making him nauseated. "Sorry . . . don't mean to be so much trouble . . ."

"Stop apologizing, for heaven's sake! It's not your fault, you're lucky you're not unconscious, or in a coma." Severus scolded very gently. "Foolish boy! All right now?"

"Yeah." Harry said shakily.

He heard Severus murmuring a Healing Charm and then felt the warmth and light of the spell flow over him, mending and restoring. He let out a gasp of relief and turned over. Severus helped him sit up. "You're back! I didn't think you would ever—not after what happened and what that bloody rat bastard did to you—are you healed?" Abruptly, he hugged his guardian.

Startled, Severus froze, for this was the first time Harry had voluntarily done that. Then he awkwardly hugged his ward back. "Not . . .completely. I'm still quite sore." He recalled Harry leaning his face into his mane and whispering, "I love you." The Potions Master patted Harry's back. "I'll be fine."

"What about Wormtail?" Harry asked, glaring at the frozen wizard. "Now he knows . . .I-I called your name . . ."

"That won't matter," Severus said grimly, a hard look coming over his features. He rose to his feet and helped Harry up. "Here." he handed Harry a wet handkerchief.

Harry wiped his mouth with it and shook his head. Snape must have a handkerchief store inside his pockets. "Why won't it matter? Are you going to . . .kill him?"

"I should. He deserves to die, but I have a debt to settle with him first. What goes around, comes around, Wormtail." Severus declared coldly. He snatched a whip from a hook on the wall. "I remember every cut you gave me with this, you skulking cowardly bugger. Now it's my turn."

"Professor, are you going to . . .?"

"Leave, Harry. You don't need to see this."

"I'm no coward, sir."

"Do you want to watch?"

"No."

"Get out."

He waited until Harry slipped out the door before using a charm to lock it. Then he freed Pettigrew from the Body Bind.

"You . . .you're letting me go?" squeaked the other.

"Hardly. I just don't like tying someone up when I punish them. You're free to duck if you can." He pointed his wand and cast a Silencing Charm. Then he raised the whip.

Harry huddled outside, after he had rinsed out his mouth, and he wondered what was going on in the barn. Oh, he could guess, and it wasn't that he didn't think Pettigrew deserved it, but it made him feel . . .uncomfortable. He wondered why he couldn't hear Pettigrew crying then remembered Silence spells.

Five minutes later, Severus emerged. He looked pale and drawn, but his eyes gleamed with a sort of savage satisfaction. "My secret is safe, Harry."

"You killed him?"

"No. I did worse. Have a look."

He swung the door wide and Harry gasped.

Moon Fire stood in the stall, covered in whip cuts, his eyes rolling.

"But that's . . .how did . . .?"

"I Transfigured him into Moon Fire, and since he can't speak in that form, no one will know who he really is. Whatever Lucius was going to do to me will be done to him instead. I believe he wished to feed me to a flying tiger. A fitting piece of justice, yes?"

Harry whistled. "Merlin, professor but that's so . . .wickedly clever!"

Severus smirked diabolically. "I thought so." He started to walk up the path to the manor.

Harry caught his sleeve. "Hey! Where are you going?"

"To remove Draco and Miss Granger from that house of misery. Are Lucius and Bellatrix still there?"

"Yeah. But Professor Snape, you can't just walk in there! You'll give yourself away as a spy!" Harry warned him.

Snape halted. "Blast it all! How could I have been so stupid? It's not time to take the mask off yet." He drew a hand over his face. "Thank you for reminding me, Harry. I think my brain must be muddled by the aftereffects of the transformation back to myself." He also had a colossal headache.

"Nobody's perfect," Harry told him.

"I try though," sighed the other. "Much good it's done me. Very well, Mr. Potter. That means you need to go into the manor and get Draco and Miss Granger and bring them back out here. I'll be waiting in horse form. Think you can do that?"

"Sure I can," Harry assured him. "I've been sneaking around there for days and nobody knows except for Draco and Hermione."

Severus' mouth twitched into a reluctant grin. "A neophyte spy, who would have thought? Be careful. If you need me, call."

Harry lifted his hand in a wave.

Severus watched as he disappeared into the manor, then he transformed back into his stallion form and galloped over to the small hayshed where Jasmine was and blurred back into human form. He unlatched the door and released the mare from her cramped quarters and Jasmine whinnied in greeting and followed him out the door and towards the stable.

Then he transformed back into Moon Fire and grazed lightly, he was hungry and still feeling a bit tired from the magic he had cast. Together, the faithful Arabian and he would wait for his ward's return. He hoped Harry would come back soon. But if he didn't, Severus was going in there after him, and to hell with his cover. He wouldn't let anything hurt Harry, not on his watch.

HPSSHPSSHP

Harry crept up the stairs and went to unlock the door to the attic first and wake Hermione. He would never forgive himself if something went wrong and she remained a captive of these sadistic bullies. He lit the room with a small light spell. He found her curled on her side, the attic was like a furnace, she had beads of sweat dripping down her face because there was no air condition and no window to let in a night breeze.

Bloody turds! They're lucky she hasn't gotten heat stroke or something, being cooped up in here this way! The heat and musty old scent brought to mind the way the cupboard used to stink in the summer and how awful it would be when he had to go to sleep at night. I used to pray for a breeze to come through the house . . .

He bent to shake her shoulder. "Mione? Wake up."

"Huh?" she gasped as he put a hand over her mouth.

"Shhh. It's me, Harry. It's time to get the hell out of Dodge, if you know what I mean." He removed his hand and lit up the room more.

"Harry? What are you doing?"

"Breaking you out of prison, obviously," he drawled.

She was dressed in just a T-shirt, it had been too hot for her to sleep fully clothed. Blushing, she drew the sheet up and whispered. "Turn around, please. I'm not . . . decent."

Harry immediately turned around, also blushing. Though a part of him wondered about how she looked without her jeans on . . .

Hermione dressed quickly, it didn't take long. "Is Moon Fire better?"

"Yeah. He's remembered himself. I'll tell you everything later." Harry whispered. "We have to go wake Draco. He knows how to get your wand back from Lucius."

"Okay." Then she hugged him and kissed him full on the mouth.

For one moment he froze, and then he was kissing her back. She was hot and slick with sweat and her hair was frizzing out all over the place, but to Harry she had never looked more attractive. He could have kissed her all night, but then he recalled his mission and reluctantly drew away.

Then he recalled she shouldn't be seen and flung the cloak over her as well.

She clasped his hand and grinned up at him. "Now why do I get the feeling of déjà vu?"

"We've been down this road before . . .but at least here there's no mangy cat to trip us up."

"And we don't have to fear Professor Snape catching us out after curfew. Oh, Harry, I'm so glad he's come back to us. Because we could . . .we really need his help."

"I know. Shhh. From the sound of the snores, Bella's asleep, but better safe than sorry."

They crept down the attic stairs and into the hall, locking the door behind them.

Hermione gulped great lungfuls of cool air. It felt so good on her flushed cheeks and neck. She suddenly wished she could jump into a pond or a cold shower right then, she felt so grubby and grungy. She hoped she wasn't sweating like a horse, because that was so unattractive.

I'm such a ninny, worrying about how I look . . .and smell . . .when we're running for our lives. Get it together, Granger! She gave herself a mental shake and then concentrated in keeping time with Harry's footsteps. Luckily he wasn't that much taller than she was.

They reached the door to Draco's room, and Harry turned the knob and entered.

Draco was dozing, he was hot as well, though his room was much cooler than the attic. Harry supposed something had gone wrong with the air condition, or the cooling spells or whatever. Draco slept all sprawled out, wearing only a pair of boxers. His skinny chest was marred with a few white lines that Harry knew instinctively hadn't come from normal scrapes.

"Draco! Psst! Wake up!" Harry shook his shoulder.

Draco opened his eyes and stared at Harry. "Potter! D'you know what time it is?"

"Time to get your arse out of bed and help me. We're leaving. You coming?"

"I thought we were going to wait a few days?"

"No. Plans have changed. Come on. We need to get Hermione's wand back."

"Give me a minute." Draco grabbed his wand off his dresser and waved it over himself. His clothes flowed on and then he pulled on his shoes. "Is she out?"

"In the hall, under my cloak."

Draco nodded, then led the way into the hallway. "Stay here, Potter. I'll be back in a second."

He carefully walked over to Bellatrix's room and unlocked the door.

"Here," Hermione handed Harry the cloak. "I need my wand back as soon as possible." She then went and followed Draco.

Harry slipped on the cloak and wished he had a spare one for his friends.

Inside Bellatrix's room, Draco lit his wand by the merest bit and crept over to the lockbox his father had placed beneath Bellatrix's bed. He had discovered its hiding place while snooping about a few days before. He carefully dragged it out and then he paused.

"What are you waiting for?" Hermione hissed in his ear.

He nearly fell over.

"Cripes, Granger! You wanna wake her up?" He indicated Bella, who was snoring like a stuck pig, covered only in a light sheet, her curly hair draped over her shoulder. "Shhh! Let me think!"

Hermione mouthed a "Sorry", then backed away.

Draco hesitated so long that Hermione feared they were going to be there all night. Then he muttered a quick prayer to Selene and tapped his wand in a certain sequence before he chanted a series of Latin numbers. He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard a faint "click" and the lid of the box sprang open. He waved his wand in a complex detection charm and found no more spells inside the box. Only then did he reach in and take the wand.

He handed the wand to Hermione and whispered, "Next time keep hold of it. Then he winked at her.

Hermione took her wand and just held it for a moment, feeling a surge of power jolt through her system. She hadn't realized how powerless and well, naked, she had felt without it. She could feel her magic awakening in a glorious sweet rush and her skin tingled with the feeling. Now, Sweet Selene Singing, I am whole! She grinned inwardly at her choice of words, she had seen that phrase used a lot when she had read The Path of Mysteries and it had remained stuck in her head.

Draco shut the box and stood, pushing it under the bed.

Just then, Bellatrix let out a huge snore and turned over.

Both of them froze, not daring to move.

Hermione felt a frission of fear crawl down her spine and her eyes fastened upon the sleeping witch who had been her tormentor for over a week, who had humiliated and degraded her in the worst way, who had tortured her parents to death before her eyes. Oh, how I hate you, Bellatrix Lestrange, you evil, nasty, hag! If I could, I would do to you what you did to them! She felt bile rise in her throat as she remembered that awful night. She would never forget it.

She began to shake. Her hand gripped her wand. Her enemy was asleep, helpless. And Hermione . . .she was free at last.

"Granger, you okay? Come on, let's get out of here. You don't want to wake my aunt, trust me. She's a bitch on wheels when she's woken up."

"Really? Well, so am I." Hermione's mouth firmed. She remembered how many times Bella had taunted her and spit on her and acted as if she were dirt. Then she did something she rarely did. Hermione lost her temper.

She pointed her wand and muttered something Draco didn't catch. A yellow light shot out of her wand and hit Bellatrix in the head.

"Granger, come on! What are you doing?"

"Teaching her what happens when you mess with a Muggleborn, Malfoy!"

Bella stirred and began to moan and . . .growl in her sleep.

Draco stared at his aunt in horrified fascination. "Holy hells! What did you do to her?"

Hermione smirked. "There's a dog that comes around here and barks like a berserker sometimes. I used to hear it."

"It used to belong to the groundskeeper but he died. The Dark Lord killed him." Draco recalled. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"I Switched Bellatrix's mind with the dog's."

"You mean . . .the dog is inside her body?"

Hermione nodded. "She used to always call me a Mudblood bitch. So I made her one. Literally. It won't wear off either, until someone figures it out and Switches her back. Which won't happen for quite awhile. And in the meantime . . .she'll act just like a dog . . .in every way . . .I could have done much worse. Like . . .the Cruciatus."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because . . .I don't want to become like her." Hermione said honestly. "She's a psycho bitch. I'm not." She tucked her wand beneath her arm. "Now let's get out of here."

"Makes sense." Draco said. He had to admire the girl's style. She had cunning as well as bravery. "That's very Slytherin of you, Granger."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

They crept towards the door.

Bellatrix abruptly woke, and started to bark.

Loudly.

"Aww, hells!" Draco swore. He started to run down the stairs.

At that precise moment, Lucius's door swung open as he came out to investigate the racket.

Draco slammed into it and was knocked down.

"What in blazes is going on here?" Lucius snarled.

He stepped into the hallway and saw Draco and then he saw Hermione. His eyes narrowed. "Draco Malfoy, what is the Mudblood doing out? I thought I told you to stay away from her?" His cane was in his hand and he prodded Draco with it.

Draco stood up fast, and stepped in front of her. His heart was pounding and he was thinking Bugger, bugger, bugger! He saw the cane and instinctively flinched. But he didn't cower and he didn't run away. He sensed that here was the chance he was waiting for—the chance to show his father once and for all where his loyalties lay. He pointed his wand at his father and took a deep breath. Selene, be with me now.

I am here, my dragon.

Courage and strength flowed through him and he straightened and looked Lucius in the eye.

"You did, Father. But I'm through listening to you and obeying your orders. I don't care if you are my father, you don't own me. I'm my own person and I don't want to be like you."

Lucius' jaw hung open. "Move aside, you disrespectful whelp!" He raised his cane.

Draco caught it in his hand and shoved it down. Gray eyes met blue. "No, Father. I'm done with you hitting me. I'm not a child that you can spank anymore. I'm almost an adult and I choose my own path. I'm not a Death Eater, I never will be." There was a proud glint in his eyes. "I am Selene's child."

"You dare defy me? After all I have done for you? You dare choose those craven arselickers who dance under the moonlight over me? You are a disgrace! I shall cast you out, you will get nothing more from me, not so much as a cracked Knut! You can beg in the street, grovel in a ditch for all I care! You shall be dead to me! Do you hear me, you little bastard? Dead!"

"I already am, for you killed any respect I used to have when you beat me." Draco said through gritted teeth. He struggled against Lucius' attempt to raise the cane.

"What did the little whore offer you?" spat the irate Death Eater.

"Self respect. Something you never could, for all your pureblood ancestry." Draco returned, fire in his eyes. He was actually standing up to his tyrant father. And it felt so damn good!

"And that's Muggleborn to you!" Hermione snapped.

"Don't you call her a whore!" Harry yelled, but his voice was drowned out by Bellatrix, as she charged down the hall on all fours, barking and howling like a demented werewolf.

For a single moment, nobody moved.

Bellatrix was barking, her eyes all excited and her hair flopping every which way. She had on a skimpy black teddy that was showing white flashes of skin every time she moved, especially when she bounded into the air.

"Arf! Arf! Rr-r-rooww!"

Harry took advantage of Lucius' thunderstruck expression to cast a swift Stunning Hex. In a duel or battle, always seize the element of surprise, Severus had told him. So Harry did.

Lucius went down like a broken-legged nag, hitting the carpet with a dull thud, his cane flying out of his hand to land at Draco's feet.

Bellatrix raced up to Lucius and danced all around him, wagging her butt in the air and then licking the prone Lucius on the face. Slurp! Slurp!

Harry gaped. "What the hell? Has she gone mental?"

Hermione started to giggle. "No. She's a dog. In her mind."

"What? You're not making any sense."

"She Switched Bellatrix's brain with a dog brain," Draco explained, also snickering. "Sit!" he ordered the witch.

Bella sat and then started panting.

"Mione, you're bloody brilliant!"

She beamed at him. "Okay, now it's time to go." She hurried down the stairs.

Draco started to follow, shoving Lucius' cane out of his way with a toe.

"Wait, Malfoy!" Harry called. "I've got an idea. He deserves payback too."

Draco turned. "What do you have in mind?"

Ten minutes later, they had levitated the unconscious Lucius into his bedroom, where they then proceeded to tie him hand and foot to the bed, face down. Draco charmed the serpent-headed cane to whack the Dark Lord's right hand on his bare arse if he so much as twitched. "There's payback for you, Father!" the boy spat. "Let's see how you like it!"

Meanwhile, Harry coaxed the panting Bellatrix up onto the bed. "Come on, Bella! Good doggy!"

Bellatrix jumped up on the bed and made a beeline for the comatose Lucius, jumping on top of him and wriggling and licking.

Harry nearly collapsed laughing. "Man, I never knew she had the hots for him!"

"She's more his type than my mother." Draco said, sniggering.

Bella's gyrations caused Lucius to move, and that triggered the charm upon the cane.

The cane whacked Lucius hard and Bella started barking and howling.

The two boys left the room, clutching each other and laughing fit to die.

They made it down the stairs at last, and Draco muttered, "Damn, I should have woken him up! So he could feel it."

"I'm sure he won't stay Stunned for that long and he'll feel it then." Harry predicted. "Is it possible to die of humiliation?"

"We can pray it is. Too bad that charm on the cane only lasts fifteen minutes. That was a good idea, Harry. Although maybe I should have tossed him into the cage with the winged tiger." Draco said. "Maybe we ought to let it out? Why should it remain trapped there?"

"We've got no time." Harry said. "Besides, the tiger can eat Pettigrew." He told Draco what had happened to Peter, leaving out the fact that the one who hexed him was Severus.

Draco shot him a pleased look. "You sure you're really a Gryffindor, Potter? Because those ideas are worthy of a Slytherin. I think you were Sorted into the wrong House."

"Maybe," was all Harry answered. "Hurry up, Malfoy. I've got Moon Fire waiting at the stables and Jazzy too."

"I hope Granger remembered to saddle them." Draco remarked as they headed out the door.

The boys were pleasantly surprised upon reaching the stables that Hermione had saddled Jasmine, but Moon Fire she left wearing only a halter. "I couldn't put a saddle on him, Harry. He still has lacerations."

"Oh, right." Harry cursed himself for a fool. He wished he knew Healing Charms like Severus.

Suddenly, Moon Fire threw up his head and let out a clarion call.

The stallion's bugle hung in the still air and all three young wizards jumped.

A thunder of hooves and an answering whistle came out of the darkness beyond the pasture and they heard the unmistakable sound of something large galloping towards them.

"What's that?" Hermione cried, her wand in her fist.

Harry grinned. "Wait and see."

A moment later a great white shape appeared, hooves flashing, coat shining like diamond dust as the moonlight struck it, horn glowing.

"OH!" Hermione cried in awe. "It's a . . .unicorn!"

"His name is Amicus," Harry murmured.

Amicus halted a few feet away and tossed his head. Brother, are you in need of my horn?

Moon Fire whinnied an affirmative and stepped over to the unicorn. The two sniffed noses and then Moon Fire bowed.

Amicus touched his horn to the black horse's back and hindquarters. A golden light spilled from it and ran in rivulets down the stallion's hide. When it faded, Moon Fire was thoroughly healed. Even his injured tendon was mended.

Moon Fire straightened, whickered a thanks to his horned brother, then trotted back to stand in front of Harry. Well? What are you waiting for, a personal invitation? Mount, Potter!

Harry stroked the stallion's nose and then he threw the lead rope over Moon Fire's withers. "Uh, Draco, give me a leg up?"

Draco knelt and made a cup with his hand, helping Harry mount the big horse.

Harry settled atop Moon Fire with an easy familiarity that no one else could match.

Draco turned and was about to mount Jasmine, when he hesitated. "Hey, what horse is Granger going to ride?"

"Uh . . ." Harry wondered if Moon Fire would consent to carry double.

Before he could suggest it, Amicus came forward and bowed to Hermione.

His wise eyes met hers and suddenly she felt a strange connection between herself and the unicorn. "You . . .want me to ride you?"

Amicus tossed his head. Yes, child. Mount! Time is flying and we must away ere break of day!

Hermione set a hand upon the unicorn's mane.

No sooner had she done so then she felt the world spin and the next thing she knew, she was astride the great stallion. She shifted in her seat and gripped instinctively with her knees. She had never ridden bareback before and yet she was not afraid of falling off. She sensed that would not happen. She wound her fingers in the unicorn's silky mane and waited to follow Harry and Moon Fire out of the grounds and into Sherwood Forest, which bordered Riddle Manor along one side.

Moon Fire threw his head back and shrilled a wild cry, a cry of joy and freedom. He half-reared, Harry clinging to his back like a limpet, and then he was running, hard and fast, into the safety of the forest, with Amicus a length behind and Jasmine bringing up the rear.

Behind them, a small brown and white Jack Russell terrier scratched and yelped futiley at the front door, trying to get inside.

Hours later, the dog that held Bellatrix's mind was able to accomplish her mission when the master of the estate arrived early, having concluded his business with the Giant King sooner than expected, along with a few more of his faithful followers. Little did he know the surprise that awaited him inside.

There is a reason all three were left alive . . .for now. You'll learn why in a future chapter.
 


Chapter 28: Midnight Entertainment
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*warning-some slightly naughty content*

Voldemort frowned as the small Jack Russell raced inbetween his feet and inside the house. It ran right for the stairs and sprang up them like a jackrabbit. "What is that bloody dog doing in my house? Goyle, get the damn piece of trash and throw it out!"

"At once, my lord," Goyle said, he was a big man with a thatch of unruly graying hair, he looked like a rugby player version of the Grim Reaper in his Death Eater robes. He trod heavily on the stairs, following the sounds of high-pitched irritated barking. He found the small dog scrabbling frantically at a door and heard another series of odd barks coming from inside."Wot the 'ell is goin' on 'ere?" he muttered, slipping back into his old patterns of speech.

He opened the door and nearly fell over.

There was Bellatrix, looking as though she were having a good old time atop Lucius, who was tied to the bed in a very revealing position,his bare bottom looking as though it had been beaten with . . .Goyle's eyes fell upon the serpent headed walking stick. He whistled, his brow creasing, as the Jack Russell bounded up on the bed and started pawing frantically at Bellatrix, whining.

"Bloody hell! Who woulda though you were bent like that, Lucius?" Goyle started to snigger. "Likes it rough, do ya?"

Lucius half lifted his face from the pillow and snarled, "Bring me my wand, dammit! This isn't . . .what it looks like."

"No? Don't lie, mate. I think it's exactly wot it looks like. Hehehe!" Goyle snorted, trying to keep his mirth at bay. "I seen a few like you down in the London stews afore." He winked at Lucius. "I'll just leave you two alone, awright? Oh, and the Master's here."

Goyle bent to grab the Jack, who promptly bared little teeth and bit the big man.

"Oww! Little bitch!"

The dog ran under the bed.

"Goyle, just get me my wand!" Lucius spat.

Grinning, the other picked up Lucius' wand from his dresser and placed it next to the other man. "I'll settle with you later, you little shite!" he shook a finger at the snarling dog. Then he left, closing the door smartly behind him.

Lucius used wandless magic to levitate his wand into his hand and undo the strips that held him to the bed. He was unsure if he could walk, much less sit, but one thing he did know was that he needed to get Bellatrix off him. He had woken to a fiery pain in his backside and when he had gone to look, saw his walking stick lying across his bottom. He had managed to get his cane off himself but that in turn had driven Bellatrix crazy.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Bella?" he had screamed, cursing his son roundly in his head. Oh Draco, when I get done with you, you're going to wish you never saw the light of day, you and that Mudblood both . . .! It had taken him a few more minutes to realize that Bella had been cursed too, and then he had fallen asleep, trying to ignore the terrible throbbing pain.

After Goyle had left, he carefully got to his knees, throwing the panting pelvis-gyrating Bella off him. "Dammit, woman, will you stop? I am not interested in doing you doggy style—or any style for that matter!"

He held up a hand when Bella would have come back again. "Stay!"

She made a puppy-dog face and stayed. The small terrier came out from under the bed and started jumping up and scratching at Lucius, who was trying to put some healing salve upon his sore bum. "Get off, you mutt!" he kicked at the terrier, who started snarling and attacking his ankles. "Bloody goddamn dog! Go away, before I hex you into a grease spot!"

Bellatrix started howling then at the sight of the small dog and the din made Lucius feel as if he were locked in a kennel. "Ahhh! Shut up! Just shut up!"

The Jack Russell jumped up on the bed and whined urgently.

Lucius whirled, then hissed in pain. "So help me, dog, if you pee on my bed I will eviscerate you! It's what I feel like doing to my son right about now!" Furious and humiliated—he had not ever been beaten so badly in his life—he finished applying the salve and fixed his clothing. He supposed that he ought to be grateful it was Goyle who had seen him in such dishabille, even if he did jump to the wrong conclusion. It could have been worse—it could have been Voldemort. One thing he did know, he must never let on that he had been hoodwinked by his own son and his little Mudblood captive. That he would have never lived down.

He put on a shirt and a fresh set of robes and shoes. Bellatrix sprang down from the bed and started smelling his shoes. Lucius pushed her aside. "What did they do to you, replace your brain with that of a dog?"

The Jack Russell started jumping up and down, yipping.

Bella rolled over, waving her hands and feet in the air.

"Hell, woman, if you think I'm rubbing your belly, you're insane!" Lucius coughed. "Next thing you know, you'll be trying to lift your leg on me." A look of utter horror passed over his face as Bellatrix suddenly got to her feet. "Bella, don't you dare! I am not a damn tree and besides, you're a girl and girls don't mark territory, that's a guy thing . . ." He backed away from the curly-haired witch who was panting after him like a . . .well, the only analogy that came to mind was a bitch in heat.

Flaming hell, what if she's really . . .oh, no! No! I am NOT dealing with this! He spun and yanked open the door, sticking his head out to call for Goyle.

Bellatrix shot forward and slammed into the backs of his knees, knocking him off his feet as she raced for freedom down the hallway.

Lucius landed upon his stinging buttocks and let out a very un-Malfoy-like yell of pain. Oooh, Draco, you little bastard!

The terrier gave a high-pitched yip of anger and tore off after the galloping Bellatrix.

Lucius swore and scrambled to his feet, heading towards the hall. He had to catch the two and figure out how to undo the curse before they ran into Voldemort. Unfortunately, he found he was too sore to move quickly and he couldn't catch up to either of them.

Goyle was coming up the stairs at that moment in response to Lucius' bellow, wondering just what his friend needed him for now? Maybe to take a picture? Hiding a smirk, he started up the stairs.

Bellatrix hurtled down the stairs on all fours and her eyes glowed with a strange light. Before Goyle could move, she was on him, wrapped round his leg doing the nasty.

Goyle's eyes bugged out. "Oi, girlie! Holy shite! I don't go in for that sorta thing. Now go play somewhere else! 'ey?" He reached down and grabbed the excited Bellatrix by the nape of her neck, since what she had on didn't provide enough fabric to get a grip on, and yanked her off and shoved her down the stairs.

The Jack Russell breezed past him as well, yapping like a demon. Goyle went to kick it, but the little dog ducked.

Lucius limped down the stairs, swearing. "Damn it all, Greg! Why didn't you stop her—them?

"Them?"

"Oh, never mind! Where did they go?"

"Down the hall."

Lucius hurried as much as he could.

After shaking herself off, Bellatrix sniffed at the myriad scents in the hallway. One scent in particular both attracted and repelled her, but the attraction won out. She tore off, following the compelling scent to a partially opened door and shoving it open.

She hesitated in the doorway for about five seconds.

Inside, Voldemort was accepting a snifter of brandy from Crabbe, while two of his other followers, Dolohov and Avery, lounged in brocaded recliners in front of a roaring fire. They were happily discussing the fun they had just had raiding a Muggle train station and creating terror and chaos.

All heads turned when they heard the door open and Bellatrix let out an eager whine.

Voldemort stared. "Bella, what is the meaning of this?"

Bellatrix's eyes lit up. The enticing scent was coming from him! Her beloved . . .her mate . . .had she ears they would have been pricked.

"Bellatrix, stop!" shouted Lucius.

The Jack Russell pursuing Bellatrix halted.

But the dog in Bellatrix's body did not.

Voldemort was unprepared to have his most loyal if psychotic worshipper tackle him to the ground. He fell with a thud that shook the room and the brandy sloshed everywhere, including onto those watching, but they hardly noticed the drenching, they were too focused on what Bella was doing to their master.

She had climbed on top of him and was quite emphatically trying to hump him while licking his face.

Voldemort was squirming and gasping. "Bella, stop! This isn't the time! Woman, get control of yourself!"

But his words only seemed to excite her more.

By then Lucius and Goyle had arrived in the doorway and stood gaping in shock and horror.

But as their lord commenced trying to get Bellatrix off him, it suddenly seemed horribly funny.

They began to snicker and Avery whispered, "I always knew she was his bitch!"

"Ooo-wee! This is better than watching the show down at Harts and Hinds!" brayed Crabbe.

Soon even Lucius was chuckling and Goyle was practically having heart failure from trying to contain his guffaws.

Finally, Voldemort got the upper hand and pinned Bellatrix down. "What in the name of Set is wrong with you?" His red eyes glared at her furiously, filled with anger and humiliation.

"Arf! R-ruff!"

"My lord, I can explain—" began Lucius, greatly daring.

Voldemort stood up, looking very put out and his face had turned an ominous reddish color. "Lucius . . .how good of you to join us."

"I . . .apologize for the delay, Master, but well, you see . . .Bellatrix has had a small . . .accident . . ."

"No, really?" sneered the Dark Lord, brushing his robes and grimacing at several wet patches. "I never would have guessed." His eyes glowed and the rest of the Death Eaters stopped laughing and began shaking in their boots.

Even Bella whined and cringed.

"If you would allow me, my lord—" Lucius said humbly.

"Don't lift your wand, Malfoy!" snapped Voldemort. "I already know what's wrong with her. She's had her brain swapped with a dog's brain!" He pointed his wand at the fawning Bellatrix and spoke a single word.

A yellow light shot out and connected the human and the Jack Russell cringing inbetween Lucius' feet.

When it died, Bellatrix took a deep breath and crawled to Voldemort and grabbed him about the knees. "Master . . .ohh . . .Master . . .!" She rubbed up against his robe, practically drooling all over him.

"Get off me, Bellatrix!" growled the other.

"Master . . .forgive me . . .I was . . .not myself . . . "

"I'll say you weren't!" jeered Goyle.

Voldemort seethed. He was tempted to Crucio the woman kneeling before him, but then he patted her head instead. "There now, my dear . . ." He glared at Lucius. "And just how did this unfortunate accident occur?"

"Ahh . . .we were doing a little . . .experiment . . .my lord . . ." Lucius answered, turning red.

Crabbe winked and nudged Avery. "Oh, sure. They were . . .experimenting . . ."

"Is that wot you call it now, Malfoy?" Goyle sniggered.

"Uh huh . . .right . . .'twas all in fun . . ." Dolohov giggled behind his hand.

Voldemort cast Lucius a look of revulsion. He never would have guessed such perversion lurked behind Lucius' polished cold-as-ice exterior. "Bloody sick aristos!" he muttered so softly that only the dog heard him. "Even I never stooped that low!"

Lucius felt his face heat to scalding. "My lord, I . . .it's not what you're thinking . . ."

"Do not presume to tell me how I think, Malfoy!" snapped Voldemort. He shook Bellatrix off of his leg and helped her to rise. "Have a seat, darling. And some brandy to settle yourself." He placed her in the chair next to him and snapped his fingers and a glass of brandy floated into her hand.

She gulped it down and Voldemort seated himself in his thick throne-like recliner.

Lucius stepped forward, kicking the Jack Russell as he did so.

The dog yelped.

Bellatrix's lip curled and she drew her wand.

A green bolt shot out and the next instant the dog was motionless on the floor. "Stupid mutt." She gently blew on her smoking wand tip.

"Temper, temper, Bella," tisked the Dark Lord. But he wasn't truly angry.

"My lord, forgive my tardiness. I have a special entertainment planned for you this evening. I know how much you enjoy contests between magical creatures . . ."

Voldemort leaned forward in his chair. "This had better be good, Lucius."

HPSSHPSSHP

As soon as they had left the Riddle estate behind and run a few yards deeper into the forest, following an ancient track, Amicus halted and lowered his horn. He tapped the ground three times and suddenly a shining silvery pathway opened beneath his hooves. Hermione gasped as he trotted out onto it without hesitation. Moon Fire followed and so did Jasmine, for both of them knew what this was and had travelled the moonpaths before.

"What is this? Some kind of new spell?" Draco asked, trying unsuccessfully to halt the Arabian.

"Don't be afraid, it's how I got here before. It's a moonpath," Harry explained.

"A moonpath?" Draco repeated. "You mean this is one of the Paths of the Moon? But I thought only initiates could conjure one, and then only when the moon was full!"

"I guess they make exceptions for unicorns." Harry shrugged. "And aren't you an initiate, Malfoy?"

"Me? Well, not yet. I'm an acolyte. You're only an initiate, like Professor Snape, if you've undergone one of Her trials and She gives you a special gift. He has, though I don't know what it was. You can tell when you look at his aura with Sorcerer's Sight though."

"Oh," Harry said, though he wasn't sure what Sorcerer's Sight was, but he didn't want to seem ignorant in front of the other wizard.

Hermione had no problem asking questions, however. "What's Sorcerer's Sight?"

"It's using your magical senses like a Third Eye to perceive charms and enchantments on objects or auras about animals and people. You mean to tell me you've read half the library and you didn't know that, Granger?" Draco sounded smug.

Hermione shook her head. "Maybe it's so commonplace that most wizards don't bother writing it down. Does everyone have it?"

"Yes, you just have to be trained in how to use it," Draco replied.

I'll ask Severus to teach me . . .and Hermione, Harry thought. "Come on, let's move. The moonpath won't last forever." He nudged Moon Fire into a canter and the others followed.

As before, Harry delighted in the swift ride, especially since he was now riding Moon Fire once again. He felt overwhelmed with gratitude and joy to have his mentor back, and he thanked Selene profusely for returning Severus to him. He wound his hands in the thick silken mane and gloried in the wind in his face and the feel of the big stallion beneath him, running with a consummate powerful grace Harry was sure was unmatched by any other horse in the world. He leaned closer to the stallion's neck and whispered, "Fly, Moon Fire, fly!"

Moon Fire flicked an ear back and increased his stride. He was thrilled to be out of that awful place and free to run and not trapped within four walls or his own mind anymore. He could not quite remember what had happened after he had gone to rescue Hermione, it still was fuzzy, but he suspected he had been the victim of a miscast Memory Charm by someone. And since that was not a spell the Death Eaters favored, he had to assume it had been cast by an Auror. Humph! Director Bones really needs to brush up on her trainees' aim. Then he shrugged and considered it enough of a miracle that he had survived being captured by the Death Eaters. He made a mental note to thank Andromeda for helping to fix his injured leg and Draco also. But for right now, he wanted to run for the sheer joy of it, and so he did, his hooves chiming musically upon the shining pathway.

Hermione had never felt so exhilarated in her life. Riding the unicorn was like nothing she could have imagined. Even in her wildest dreams, she had never dreamed you could go so fast upon a landbound animal, and the unicorn's strides were so smooth she felt as if she were floating on air and not speeding along on the back of a horse. The unicorn had a fresh scent about him, almost like thyme and clear water. His hooves rang upon the pathway like silver bells and she couldn't help laughing with delight. She felt a soothing aura flow through her, making all the terrible things she had endured muffled in a blanket of serenity and peace, so that the memories were not as cutting and sharp. It was something she had thought she could never feel again, having lost her innocence and trust in the world and her fellow wizards the night her home and parents were attacked by Death Eaters.

She cupped the silver pendant in her hand and felt it warm to her touch. When she looked down at it, she saw it was glowing. How strange. It's never done that before. Maybe it's because of the unicorn?

She breathed in the cleansing scent of the unicorn and reveled in the fact that she had escaped her captors and taken a bit of revenge upon that evil hag Bellatrix. Just the thought of that awful witch barking and drooling like a dog made her smile. What goes around comes around.

Draco was relieved that they had all gotten away without having to endure any longterm painful curses and without spilling blood on the ground. He patted Jasmine on the neck and told her she was a wonderful girl. She was one of the best horses his aunt had ever trained and she was proving her mettle now by keeping up with the likes of Moon Fire and the unicorn.

Thinking about Andromeda made him recall his father's ultimatum. He sighed and figured he had to tell his mother what had happened and maybe she would finally divorce his father and move to the Black family chateau in France as she had always sworn she would when he was a small boy. He knew she had been as miserable as he had since marrying the ultra-controlling old-fashioned Lucius Malfoy. But for right now, he supposed he would be all right moving in with Andromeda. Over half of his things were there now anyhow. He had always preferred his summers at Andromeda's school than staying at Malfoy Manor, even if he'd had his every whim catered to by the house elves, he had never had anyone else to talk to and had to make sure he behaved with proper decorum at all times, being under Lucius' eagle eye.

Now that I'm free of him, I can finally start to live, he thought happily, and he urged Jasmine faster. I hope you're enjoying my parting gift to you, Father!

After about an hour of travelling, Amicus took them out of the moonpath and backinto Sherwood Forest. It took but a single drawing of breath for the three to slip from the silvery path and onto the dirt track that had been made long before by various grazing animals, such as deer.

"Hey!" Draco exclaimed, startled by the sudden shift in terrain. "What happened?"

"Nothing. It was probably time to get off the path," Harry said. Sure enough, as he looked up, the moon was waning.

The three continued to ride for several more minutes. Harry looked about and thought the trail looked somewhat familiar and he wondered if he were near the spot where he had almost succumbed to the dryad. Then he wondered where Titania had gotten to. She had been with Amicus last he had seen her. She tended to vanish like the wind, and he wondered if all the fae were so flighty. Maybe she only preferred to speak with him, since she always disappeared whenever anyone else showed up.

He urged Moon Fire into an easy canter, since trotting any length of time always made his backside ache, he hadn't quite mastered that gait yet. The forest by moonlight was beautiful, he had to admit, cobalt and midnight blue shadows dappled the path and the moonlight outlined everything with a silvery luminescence. Harry rode easily upon Moon Fire, trusting the big stallion to get him safely home.

They had just passed the clearing where Harry had spent the night with Jack guarding him and it was then that they heard the branches rustle and a trilling laugh ring out. Moon Fire jerked up his head and snorted, but did not slow. Harry could just hear him thinking—pesky dryad!

Amicus paused briefly and whickered, then cantered past the tree with a flick of his tail.

But Jasmine halted as a slender young woman stepped into her path. She smiled winsomely up at Draco, who stared at her in astonishment. "Hello, pretty boy."

Draco swallowed. "Uh . . .hi." He blinked, a part of him was warning him that this was no ordinary girl, but a magical being, and he had to keep his wits about him. But that part was slowly being submerged by the glamour Danae was weaving about him, one strand at a time. "You live around here?"

Danae nodded. "Yes, this is my home. Going somewhere?" She approached and twined her arm about Jasmine's neck, looking up at Draco and fluttering her impossibly long lashes. "My name is Danae." She breathed her name as if it were some deep dark secret.

Draco felt the scent of ambergris and lily of the valley intoxicate him, flowing through his nostrils in a dizzying rush. And then he looked into her eyes—her beautiful eyes that were the color of spring leaves newly budded and tilted exotically and he found himself smiling invitingly. "Mine's Draco." He dropped Jasmine's reins and started to dismount, he wanted to be closer to her, wanted to take her in his arms and kiss those pouty lips and run his hands through her fiery hair.

"Draco . . .like the dragon constellation in the sky?" she purred, her voice throbbing with unrestrained passion. "Every dragon needs a beautiful maiden, no? I could be that one."

"Really? I'd like that." His feet touched the ground and he took her in his arms.

"Kiss me."

There came the sound of a throat being cleared and Draco froze guiltily. He cautiously looked over his shoulder and discovered a large man-like creature standing there. He reminded Draco vaguely of a walking tree and with a flash of recognition he recalled the old legends that said the Green Man still roamed the wilder parts of Britain.

The Green Man was frowning and Draco quickly stepped away from Danae, assuming the glare was meant for him. "Sorry, my lord. I meant no offense."

"Offense? I was offering to make you my mate!" Danae said petulantly. "Jack, leave! This is none of your business!"

"I beg to differ, lass. The Lady told me to come here. He's not meant for ye either, bright spark."

Danae stamped her foot and pouted. "You always ruin all my fun, you stick-in-the-mud! 'Twas only in fun. He would have enjoyed it."

"Aye, but what about after, when you left him for your tree or another pretty face? A mortal's broken heart's not so easily mended, lass. So best to not meddle in the first place."

The dryad snorted. "Always such a dour raincloud, Jack! Do you not remember what it was like to be young and in love?"

To Draco's shock, the great being nodded. "Aye. I remember love's sweet fire. And how it burns hot and quick. But it never lasts, not near long enough. And in the end I am left with naught but memories and a longing that shall never be fulfilled."

"Dryads mate for life, like trees."

"Only till their human mate dies." The Green Man said. "Let the boy go, he's one of the Lady's, and you know full well that Her acolytes you may not have, unless She gives her blessing."

"She promised to send me a mate. How do you know it's not him?"

"Because I would not have been sent to tell you otherwise," answered Jack simply.

The dryad huffed and stepped away. "Fine! But I don't want to wait a century for him, so tell Her that I would appreciate it if She would hurry and send him to me." She spun on her heel and stomped back into a huge oak tree, merging seamlessly with it a second later.

Draco coughed and blinked, the last of the glamour fading. "Huh? What just happened? There was a girl . . . a beautiful girl . . ."

"Not a girl, but a dryad," Jack corrected.

"A dryad! Oh, Selene's Grace!" Draco swore, rubbing his eyes.

He moved to remount Jasmine, his face flushed at what had nearly occurred. He had forgotten that dryads still dwelled in Sherwood. "Thank you, my lord."

"'Twas nothing. She's a little impatient and pushy is all and sometimes forgets her place, which is why I be here to remind her." Jack's eyes twinkled. "Off with you now, lad. And when you see him, tell Harry Jack sends his greetings and to walk always with the moon."

Draco promised he would, then he kicked Jasmine into a full gallop. He had been lucky to escape the dryad's enchantment once. He caught up with his companions after ten minutes.

"Hey, where were you?" asked Hermione.

"I, uh, ran into an old friend of Harry's." Draco hedged, shifting uncomfortably in his saddle.

"An old friend?" Harry turned his head to look at Draco. "Who? Titania?"

"No, he was a Forest Lord. He said to tell you that Jack sends his greetings and to walk always with the moon."

"You saw Jack?" Harry exclaimed. "The Green Man? He helped me my first night here and also with the dryad that almost . . .well . . ."

"You too?" Draco blurted. Then he went beet red.

Harry gave an embarrassed chuckle. "Danae, right? Yeah, what I thought. She's a real maneater."

Hermione was looking from one to the other in puzzlement. "I don't understand. Who's Danae?"

"A dryad," Harry said. Then he added awkwardly. "And she . . .it's complicated . . . don't worry about it." He urged Moon Fire into a gallop. "Come on, we're almost home."

Draco nodded, not wishing to discuss husband-hunting dryads either and he too sent Jasmine into a gallop.

Amicus paced them easily, amusement shimmering in his wise eyes. They were very near Severus' home now and the unicorn quickened his stride.

HPSSHPSSHP

Riddle Manor

The following night:

Voldemort applauded as the match between the bugbear and the manticore ended with the bugbear tearing off the manticore's wings and eating them. At first he had been inclined to punish Lucius for being so foolish as to risk the mental health of his most loyal and devoted follower like that. Voldemort enjoyed Bella's slavish devotion, and always looked forward to coming back to Riddle Manor if she were in residence, which she most often was. Bellatrix treated him as though he were a god, and that stroked his vanity to bursting. And last night hadn't been bad either, once Bella had gotten her mind back, she had proved a most . . .interesting and motivated bedmate.

He reached over and caressed her cheek, she was sitting in the velvet draped imperial purple box Lucius had set up just for him, complete with purple velvet cushioned benches with heavily padded backs. Lucius' house elf was kept busy running back and forth with refreshments for all, though the others were all sitting one tier lower to watch the Beast Match, as Lucius had dubbed the competitions.

Voldemort thought Lucius very clever for having thought of it, which was yet another reason why he withheld cursing his favorite Slytherin. He felt like an emperor, seated up high and watching the brutal yet exciting fight to the death between various magical creatures. "Hmm, my dear. What would you think if I took some Muggles and paired them off with a wyvern or something?"

"Why, darling, that's a brilliant idea!" Bellatrix cooed, snuggling up to him. Though she was not a dog any longer, she still discovered that she had urges to lick her master every now and again and bark at squirrels. "We could make wagers on how long it will take a Muggle to die."

"Yes, another brilliant idea." Voldemort smiled. "What's next?"

"The best part, my lord!" Bella was practically jumping up and down. "We have obtained a leshae—a flying tiger from the wilds of India—and Lucius managed to get hold of a stallion—a wild stallion Marked by Selene."

Voldemort, who had been lazing along the seat back, sat up straight. "Lucius has gotten an animal that is one of her Chosen?"

"Yes. He picked it up somewhere and now it can fight the tiger and we'll get to watch it!" Bella bounced up and down. "I'll bet you ten Galleons the stallion only last five minutes."

"Only five? I've heard these Marked animals are pretty tough. Fifteen says the stallion lasts seven."

"Done!"

They shook hands.

Below, Lucius was hauling upon the chain twisted about the stallion's mouth as hard as he could. "Come on, you worthless nag! Get your arse out there and give us a good fight! You're going to die anyway, might as well go out like a warrior!"

The black horse reared and pawed the air frantically, shrilling in fear as the smell of tiger hit his nostrils.

Angrily, Lucius cracked the long whip and tapped the horse with it on the rump.

The stallion came down and practically bolted into the arena, where he began racing about in a panic. Lucius had healed his leg and ribs just before bringing him to the arena, and now all he wanted to do was escape. But the walls were too high to jump over, even if he had dared to do so.

Peter Pettigrew had never been bold and daring like his friends Sirius, James, and Remus. He had bargained with the Sorting Hat to put him in Gryffindor, since it was a family tradition, and he wished to be like his parents, who had been delighted that their timid child apparently had bravery somewhere within him. A hidden bravery. But the bravest thing Peter had ever done was betray his friends to the Dark Lord and then spend the next twelve years as a familiar. After he had been exposed, he had spent the next year hiding in the Dark Lord's shadow.

He had thought himself safe here, but he had been proven woefully wrong. Trapped in the form of his enemy, unable to make his allies see that he was not Moon Fire, Peter had no choice but to fight the death that was being turned loose upon him. If he could.

The winged tiger was being released now, he could hear its harsh breathing as it padded up the ramp and into the arena from the cage it had been kept in. The tiger was a gleaming white with striking black stripes and its cobalt wings were folded at half mast. It emerged from the chute with a roar, and half spread its wings at the sight of the stallion.

The horse had backed up until it was against the opposite side of the arena, eyes rolling. It was plainly petrified and the watching Death Eaters and Voldemort cheered to see such terror. It was palpable, and they fed upon it like a vampire does blood.

"Tiger! Tiger! Get him!"

"Make horsemeat outta him, tiger!"

"Rip him apart!"

"Come on, horse, show some fight!" encouraged Lucius, making sure the arena doors were sealed before climbing back into the stadium. He was puzzled, the horse had seemed perfectly willing before to kill him, but then, he was not a tiger.

The horse reared and lashed out at the circling tiger, screaming in fear. Get away! Get away! Oh, please, Selene have mercy!

The tiger circled, licking its lips. Its blue eyes were fixed unerringly on the prey before it, and the fear-scent only served to whet its appetite even further. It had been kept barely fed for days and now this was a feast. The leshae crouched, several lengths away, wings spreading.

Then it sprang.

The black stallion rose to meet it and kicked out hard with its forefeet, landing a lucky blow on the tiger's chest.

The winged tiger soared away, snarling in pain and rage.

The spectators cheered.

"Kill him! Kill him!" Bella screamed, her face a mask of hate and eagerness.

The tiger circled and then dove upon its prey from above.

Peter screamed and bolted, trying to outrun the big cat. Help me, Selene! Help me! I don't want to die.

You don't have a choice, wicked child! A silvery voice reproved inside his head. Now you call upon me to save you, after you have harmed one of my Chosen and would have sacrificed him to such as this? Insincerity wins no bargains, nor shall I make one with you now. But this much I shall grant—your death will be swift and perhaps in twenty years you may be reborn again and learn humility and not treachery.

No! Please save me! Please! Peter begged, but the voice was gone.

He looked up, breathing harshly, his muscles burning, and saw the flying tiger hovering over him. It circled rapidly, then dove, claws extended and teeth bared.

The stallion froze.

The leshae slammed into the stallion with terrific force, claws digging deep and teeth biting down to sever the spine. In minutes the stallion lay limply in the tiger's grasp and it roared in triumph.

The watchers cheered and clapped madly.

Voldemort turned to Bellatrix. "Pay up, my dear."

Bella gave him a seductive grin. "You want it in cash or some . . .other way?"

"Any way you wish to settle it, Bella."

The tiger began to feed hungrily, hunched over his prey, ignoring the bystanders. The meat was a little tough and stringy, but it was food and the winged cat did not mind.

Lucius allowed it to consume nearly the whole of the stallion before trying to get it back in its box. But the leshae refused to be driven into the chute and kept flying into the air. Swearing, Lucius tried to Stun it, but the white tiger was immune to that charm, and it ignored him.

Irritated by Lucius' interference, the winged tiger stretched its wings and pumped them hard.

Lucius watched in horror as the winged tiger promptly flew off into the sunset, apparently it had had enough of this captivity. Helpless, Lucius could do nothing but watch it soar away, leaving behind part of a carcass. Then, as he watched in grotesque fascination, the carcass shimmered and became . . .a man's arm and hand. And the hand was missing a finger.

Lucius now had the answer as to where Pettigrew had disappeared to. He quickly waved his wand and the arm transformed back into the stallion's front foreleg. No need to let Voldemort know what had occurred just yet. He just hoped that his Master was in a good mood so he might forgive the fact that the tiger had escaped.

I hope you all liked this one . . .I was in a weird frame of mind when I wrote it.

The next few chapters will focus mainly on Severus, Harry, and Hermione as they bond and heal from their ordeal.

Thanks everyone for reading!

Chapter 29: Midnight Bond
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They arrived back at the Snape farmhouse just after midnight. Coming to a halt beside the paddock fence, Harry slid from Moon Fire's back and leaned against the great black stallion. Moon Fire swung his head about and gave him a gentle nuzzle, his breath warm and soft upon Harry's cheek.

Hermione slipped off of Amicus and winced, for she had never ridden so far so fast, and was sore. Amicus turned and tapped her gently with his horn and she felt the lingering soreness vanish. "Thank you," she whispered to the beautiful unicorn, her eyes filling with unexpected tears. Amicus nuzzled her affectionately, blowing into her hair.

Precious child, I wish I could stay longer. But my herd needs its leader and I have been away longer than I would have wished upon the Lady's business. He turned to whicker gently at Moon Fire, his brilliant white coat shimmering in the faint light of the moon. Forgive me, brother, but I must depart. I have miles to go before I get home. Fare ye all well, and may Selene watch over you! He dipped his head in respect, then reared, pawing the air. His horn trailed sparks as he spun about and galloped off into the forest, seeking paths known only to unicorns to speed his journey back to the Forbidden Forest.

"Oh! He's gone!" Hermione cried, a note of despair in her tone.

"He's gone home, I'd think," Harry said.

"Unicorns never stay long in the company of humans," Draco added, dismounting as well. "You're lucky, Granger, that you got to ride one for as long as you did. I can't even recall the last time anybody was granted that privilege."

She sniffled and wiped her eyes. "That's good, I guess. But I'm going to miss him." She felt sadness overwhelm her then, as she recalled just how much she had lost and would never get back again. She bit her lip hard to keep from breaking down. The unicorn's presence had made her feel peaceful and serene and had kept at bay her devastating grief. But now, with the stallion's absence, it all came crashing back.

Draco looked at his watch and sighed. "Look, I have to be going. It's after midnight and I'm sure Aunt 'Dromeda's worrying herself to death wondering what my father's doing to me. So I'd better get on home."

"You're going to go there by yourself?" Hermione asked.

"It's not far. I know the way and so does Jazzy." He stroked the white Arabian. "I'm glad Moon Fire's going to be okay now and . . .I owe you one, Potter, for coming when you did and helping me even the score with my father."

"Draco . . .there are no debts between friends," Harry reminded him.

"Maybe not . . .but still . . .I'll see you in school then."

"What will you do, now that your dad's disowned you?"

Draco shrugged. "I'll tell my mother and hopefully she'll use her head this time and walk out on him. She has property in France, her own property, and she could live there while I'm in school. I'm not quitting Hogwarts now to attend some bloody French academy," Draco said firmly. He held out a hand to Harry. "Take care, Harry. See you next term."

Harry clasped it in return. "See you around, Draco. Oh, and don't be a stranger. Stop by every once in awhile before school, if you'd like."

"I just might do that." The disgraced Malfoy said, a half-smile playing about his face. Then he turned to Hermione. "Granger, I'd never thought I'd say this, but you've got more guts and perseverance than almost any pureblood witch I know. You didn't break and betray us, not even when my Aunt Bella did her worst. And you got the best revenge upon her . . .a Slytherin's revenge." He moved to shake her hand too, but Hermione pulled him into a hug instead, shocking the blazes out of him.

"Uh . . ."

"Draco, you were wonderful too, the way you helped Moon Fire and me. You stood up to your father for me . . .I know what it must have cost you . . .and I'll always be grateful . . ." she burst into tears.

Draco coughed, now dreadfully uncomfortable. He had never had a girl cry all over him before and didn't know quite what to do. He patted her back awkwardly. "Hey, Granger . . .could you please stop . . .it was no big deal . . .My father and I have always been at odds, I just never had the guts to tell him what I thought before now . . .and I'm a sucker for horses, I can't stand when anyone mistreats them. I don't care much for torture either."

Harry felt a sudden spate of jealousy. He wanted to yank Hermione out of Draco's arms and push the blond boy into the mud for hugging his girlfriend. But he soon regained control over himself. Draco hadn't initiated the hug, after all. And he didn't look like he was enjoying holding Hermione either. In fact, he looked damn uncomfortable. Get a grip, Potter! One minute you're declaring Malfoy a friend and the next you want to punch his lights out. Would you do that to Ron, if he were in Malfoy's place? Hmmm . . .I might . . .if he acted like he enjoyed holding my girl. He smirked inwardly. He didn't know when he had become so possessive around Hermione, and he wondered what she would think of it. She would probably tell him she was nobody's prize to be won. Not that he thought of her like that . . .he just hated it when she cried, it tore him all up inside and made him feel horrible.

After a few more moments, Hermione mastered herself, and drew away from Draco. "Sorry. I don't know what came over me." She wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

"Don't mention it," Draco said awkwardly.

She shook her head. "Boys! Why are you all so afraid of a little salt water? I think you're a better man than your father, Draco. You just have trouble shedding that arrogant Malfoy pride."

Draco snorted. "Malfoy pride's what's kept me alive, Granger. But that's something we can talk about another time. I really do have to get going." He threw a leg over Jasmine and mounted. "Come on, Jazzy! Let's go home. Home, girl!"

The Arabian whistled a farewell and then she turned her head and galloped off across the lawn, heading for the road and home to her mistress.

Both Hermione and Harry watched until they could no longer see the white mare, then Hermione said, "I . . .need to go and get washed up and changed. I've been in these same clothes for a week . . .ugh!" She quickly departed for the house.

Harry turned back to Moon Fire. "Sir . . .are you . . ."

The stallion shimmered and became Severus in an eyeblink. The newly restored Potions Master set his lean hands upon Harry's shoulders and murmured, "Have no fear, child. I am myself again. Thanks to you."

Harry felt a strong desire to cling to the older wizard and dissolve into tears. But he resisted the urge, he was no coward, to cry now when they were all home safe. "Love is memory, sir. So She told me."

"It is indeed. In Her embrace we are comforted, in Her love we are reborn." He drew the boy he had come to regard as a son into his arms for a brief moment. He was extremely grateful to have his mind restored and be able to change back into his human form. "I am whole once more, Harry. And we must inform the others of the Order of the Phoenix about Riddle Manor. But we can do that tomorrow. For now, we ought to go inside. We could both use a shower and a hot meal. How much does Miss Granger know?"

"About you? All of it, sir." Harry admitted, staring up into his mentor's dark eyes. "I . . .I needed help once you lost your memory, and so I . . .told her the truth. I'm sorry, I broke your trust, but I had to . . .please, don't hate me . . ."

"Hate you?" Severus repeated, incredulous. "Will you quit babbling nonsense, boy?" He gave the youngster a slight shake. "Why would I hate you for doing what you had to in order to save me? Do I look like a fool to you, Harry James Potter?"

"No . . .never . . .but I know you didn't want anybody to know about your Animagus form . . ."

"You broke your word from necessity, not deceit, Harry. I can forgive that. Besides, I have a funny feeling that if you did not tell Miss Granger the truth ere now, she would have discovered it on her own. She is a very bright witch who dislikes mysteries." He started to walk towards the house, gently shepherding Harry before him. "Just so long as that secret remains between the two of you," Severus added after a moment. "I take it Draco does not know?"

Harry shook his head. "No, sir. I didn't really trust him at first. I do now, but . . .I figured if you wanted him to know, you'd tell him yourself."

"A wise decision, Harry. The one who divulges a secret ought to be the one who made it in the first place."

They entered the house, and Harry found Hermione in the kitchen, cooking some kind of chicken with vegetables in a skillet. "Mmm . . .that smells delicious, Hermione," he said, sniffing the heady aroma of savory chicken in sesame teriyaki sauce.

"I must agree with my ward, Miss Granger."

Hermione spun around, still holding a wooden spoon. "Professor Snape! You've returned."

Severus nodded gravely. "In all ways. Though I must say I'm surprised that you've made yourself at home in my kitchen."

Hermione colored. "Oh . . .well, you see, sir, I've been cooking for Harry and myself, err . . .since your accident . . .I apologize if I seem too forward . . .but I figured we could all use a hot meal after that ride so—"

Severus held up a hand. "Hermione Granger, will you allow me a word in edgewise?"

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir . . ."

"First off, I am not angry at you cooking in here, since, as you say, you have been doing so for the better part of a month. In fact, I am glad that you have chosen to cook tonight, for I am not up to creating much of a meal in my current state. Continue as you are, Miss Granger. Harry and I need to wash before we are fit to eat in a civilized manner. Will your meal be ready in twenty minutes or more?"

"Oh, yes, professor. It should be done in about thirty."

"Good. If you will excuse me . . ." Snape turned and headed down the hall to his room.

Harry flashed Hermione a wicked smile. "See, he's not always a nasty git," he said, keeping his voice very low.

"Harry!"

"I heard that, Mr. Potter!" came a silky voice from down the hall. "Don't make me get out a certain brown bottle."

"I meant it as a compliment!" Harry protested.

"What bottle?" Hermione asked, her eyes alight with curiosity.

"The bottle of cod-liver oil," Harry told her, grimacing. "He made me eat it once when I . . .err . . .got cheeky and swore at him."

"Yuck! Did it taste disgusting?"

"Totally. Be right back, 'Mione." Harry sprinted up the stairs to the loft bathroom.

HPSSHPSSHPSS

Twenty minutes later, Harry and Severus returned to the kitchen, presentable members of the human race once more. Hermione had set out three plates and silverware, plus a pitcher of water with lemon slices, it was refreshing and a good compliment to her chicken teriyaki and rice.

The three ate in relative silence, giving all their attention to the excellent meal. Afterwards, Harry demonstrated his command of wandless magic and washed the dishes. Hermione's eyebrows rose and she said, "When did you learn wandless magic, Harry?"

"This summer. Professor Snape taught me. So far I can only do minor charms though."

"I shall set you a harder charm to learn, Harry. And if you would like to learn as well, Miss Granger, I shall teach you."

"Oh, would you, professor?" Hermione cried. She looked as though she wanted to kiss him. "That would be so awesome! I've always wanted to learn wandless magic. How do you perform it? Do you simply focus on the incantation in your head and will it to happen?"

"That is essentially correct. However, you also need to summon a portion of your magic and keep it ready," Severus explained. "I shall go over it in more detail tomorrow, right now we are none of us alert enough to study wandless magic."

Hermione looked disappointed, but then she recalled just what Moon Fire had endured and how he had carried Harry all the way from Riddle Manor through Sherwood. "You're right, sir. Tomorrow is fine."

"Might I suggest we retire to the den? There are a few things I need to discuss with you. Would either of you care to join me for a cup of tea?"

"And oatmeal biscuits?" Harry hinted.

"If you would like." Severus waved a hand and the tea kettle began to boil on the stove. A tray arranged itself with cups, spoons, sugar, cream, and the promised oatmeal raisin biscuits. "Come. The tray and tea will bring itself to us when all is ready."

They headed into the den, where Severus seated himself on the couch, the two students one on either side. "Now then. I need to know if anyone hexed you or harmed you in any way while I was . . .Moon Fire. Harry?"

"No, sir. The Death Eaters didn't even know I was there. I Stunned Lucius Malfoy from behind." Harry said. He then related what he and Draco had done to the supercilious aristocrat.

Snape's mouth twitched into a smirk. "How very Slytherin of you, Harry!"

"Harry, you didn't! That was so wicked of you!" Hermione said. Then she doubled over laughing. "But oh, so fitting! Like what I did to Bellatrix. It's the perfect revenge!"

"Miss Granger, from your words I may assume that you had dealings with Bellatrix LeStrange? Did she hex you?"

Slowly, Hermione nodded. "Yes. She . . .she tried to make me tell her things, only I wouldn't . . .at first she used this long needle . . .she would stick me with it . . .it was like an acupuncture needle, only she used it to hurt me . . .she hurt me so bad, professor . . ." A shudder rippled through her. "I tried . . .I tried to be brave . . .but sometimes I couldn't help screaming . . ." She shut her eyes, tears running down her face.

"Child, you were tortured. You should not expect yourself to endure what many a grown witch or wizard could not," Severus said, very gently. "That you managed to defy her at all speaks very highly of your courage and honor. Did she do anything else?"

"Sometimes she used other hexes . . .she liked it when I was in pain, she made me call her Mistress Bella and said that a Mudblood was nothing but a dirty rag to wipe her feet on . . .But I'm not, sir! I'm nobody's slave! Nobody's!" she cried passionately. Then all at once her defenses crumbled and she started weeping, harsh sobs that shook her small frame. "She k-killed my mum and dad! She k-killed them!"

She turned and buried her head in Snape's shoulder.

He drew her to him, holding her on his lap much as he had done Harry on the Knight Bus. "I know, child. I am sorry I could not get there in time to save them as well."

"I t-tried too, sir . . .but I failed . . .I failed . . ." she sobbed raggedly into his shirt.

"No, little sorceress. You were up against evil incarnate, had you fought, you too would have been slain. What you did was even braver. You survived. It is what they would have wanted, so do not feel guilty, Hermione."

He patted her back, rubbing circles over and over.

"I can't help it . . .!"

"Shhh. Lady Bright, guilt serves no purpose save to make you miserable. Your parents would not want that. They would wish most of all for you to live a meaningful life, not wallow in guilt and self-loathing."

"How do you know that?" she gulped, sniffling.

"Because it is how I would feel, were I to sacrifice myself for Harry," replied the Potions Master honestly. "Guilt will tear you apart eventually, Miss Granger. Take it from one who knows. Do not waste the gift your parents gave you, but honor them by living your life the best way you know how. What happened was a terrible tragedy, but you need to mourn and then move on. Doing anything else would be dishonoring their memory."

"I . . .will try . . ."

"Good. Here. I am not a handkerchief," Severus removed another of his seemingly innumerable stock of handkerchiefs from his pocket.

Hermione accepted it, and blew her nose. "Sorry, sir."

"For what? You have nothing to apologize for. It is natural to grieve for the loss of one's parents." Severus said gruffly.

"Does it ever . . .go away? Or will I always feel . . .this great hole inside?"

"It lessens with time. You will always remember and a part of you will always long for them, but the pain does fade, little by little. Selene in Her mercy does not make us suffer forever."

"That's what I read, sir. In The Path of Mysteries."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "You are a Selenian too, Miss Granger?"

Before Hermione could reply, Harry interrupted. "I was the one who gave her The Path of Mysteries to read, professor. I thought it might help when she first came here. Was I wrong to do that?"

Snape shook his head. "No. Comfort is never wrong. Only . . .I am surprised that you accepted the tenets of the Moon Lady so readily, considering how you were raised, Miss Granger."

"My parents taught me that people should be allowed to worship as they pleased, and we were never very rigid Anglicans, sir. When I read Her book, there was something . . .something that called to me . . .I can't explain it . . .but it made me feel welcome, like I belonged. And She is the Goddess of Magic, so it makes more sense that I worship Her, since my whole life is bound around magic. And She's come to me . . .several times . . .especially when Bellatrix was . . .hurting me. She held me somehow and told me not to cry, that She was with me always . . ."

"So She is. In the darkest of places, Her light shines the brightest, and hope defeats despair and good triumphs over evil." Severus quoted softly. He eyed Hermione consideringly, with one of his piercing eagle-eyed looks. "So. Yet another Chosen. It is no accident then. She sent me to you."

"Sent you to rescue me?"

"Yes. Our paths crossed for a reason."

The tea tray came floating in and Severus served them each a cup and some biscuits. They ate and drank quietly, letting the peaceful aura the house possessed to soothe their weary spirits.

Hermione gulped back more tears. She would not gain any points by bawling all over Severus continually. She blotted her eyes with the handkerchief. "Then you don't mind if I stay here, sir? I don't have any relatives alive who could take me in."

"Which makes you a Ministry ward, Miss Granger. Not a very good thing to be." Snape's lips pursed. "You may stay, the Lady sent you to me, and I am not fool enough to refuse Her. You may have a home here for as long as you desire."

"You'll let me stay?"

"Did I not just say so?"

"Thanks, Professor Snape!" she squealed and hugged him once more.

"Ahem! Do try and let me breathe once in awhile," Severus scolded.

"Ooops! Sorry!" She loosened her grip and sat back on the couch.

Severus rolled his eyes. Adolescent girls! Always so touchy feely.

"Could we . . .go back to my house, do you think?"

"Was there something you wanted from there?"

"Just some pictures of them and a few of my clothes and things. You do think they're still there, right?"

"They may or may not be. It depends upon who was in charge of the investigation, if they had time to call in someone to go through their things. We can take a look tomorrow. Right now you're exhausted and need sleep."

He turned to his ward and found Harry in mid-yawn. "And so do you."

Harry made an unintelligible noise.

"You may sleep down here on the sofa for tonight, Hermione." Snape told her. "I shall go over rules and chores tomorrow. In the meantime, sleep well, and may Selene bring you pleasant dreams."

"You too, professor. G'night, Harry. Or rather, good morning."

Harry was halfway into the realm of dreams by then, and hardly heard her. Severus sighed and scooped the boy up in his arms. He then headed up the stairs to the loft. "Honestly, you are getting too big to be carried like this, Potter. I may develop a hernia carting you up these stairs."

Hermione smiled at the professor's familiar grumbling and then she closed her eyes and slept.

Severus banished Harry's clothing after setting him down on the bed and spelled on new pajamas. He carefully tucked the blankets round the boy and whispered, "I love you, son. Sleep well."

He was unsure if Harry had heard, but then he saw the boy smiling in his sleep and knew somehow that Harry had heard him. He returned to his own room and undressed. His last coherent thought was that he needed to initiate them into the Mysteries as soon as possible. Nothing else would protect them half as well, not even himself.

He drifted into slumber.

Around two hours later, Harry was awakened by someone yelling. He bolted up from his bed and looked around. The first hint of dawn tinted the night sky and for an instant he was unsure if he had actually heard a voice yelling or if had been a dream. But then he heard it again.

Severus! He needs me!

Harry threw off his covers, ignoring the chill upon his bare toes, and raced down the stairs.

Hermione was still asleep, making Harry wonder if Severus had slipped a Calming Draught into her tea earlier.

He passed into the kitchen and then headed down the back hall to Severus' room. He knocked tentatively and when there came no response, called softly, "Professor? Are you all right?"

Still no answer except another groan.

Harry pushed the door open then and entered the bedroom. Severus was moaning and thrashing about, obviously in the throes of some ungodly nightmare. "Sir? Professor, wake up. It's only a nightmare."

But Snape continued to dream and flinch every so often, his face a grimace of pain. Harry could guess what he was dreaming about. His abuse at the hands of Wormtail.

Harry carefully put a hand upon his guardian's shoulder and shook it while saying almost in the same breath, "Professor, please wake up! You're home now and safe. Please, sir!"

Severus woke abruptly, his eyes wide and alert, his wand in his hand. He nearly hexed Harry before he could stop himself. "Selene's Grace! I almost roasted you!"

"I had to wake you. You were yelling kinda loud."

"I woke you?"

Harry nodded. "Not Hermione though. Are you allright?"

Severus considered. "I will be soon." He shivered recalling the awful dream he had had about that sadistic deceased Wormtail, beating him with a blacksnake whip while he was held helpless.

"Do you want some warm milk and honey with Dreamless Sleep?"

"Taking over my role now?" his guardian asked, deadpan.

"What? No, I could never do that, sir!"

"Harry, I'm only teasing. I thought you would have learned to read me by now."

"Right," he flushed. "Be right back with the potion and milk." He hurried off to the kitchen to prepare it.

Severus lay back upon his pillows, a little chagrined at having a nightmare and having to be comforted by his own ward. At the same time he was also touched that his ward cared that much for him.

Harry returned with the milk and honey and gave them to his guardian.

Severus swallowed all of it at once and then he settled himself back down. Dreamless Sleep worked quickly. Just before the potion induced sleep dragged him down, he said, "Thank you, Harry."

"You're welcome. May the Bright One guard your dreams."

Then he turned and retreated up to his loft. As he settled down beneath the sheets, he thought about how far they had come since that day on the Knight Bus. The bond that had formed then was now even stronger, thanks to hardship shared and a sincere love for each other, the love of a father and son.

Sorry for the delay but I was writing Return to Prince Manor and Irresistible Chemistry. Thanks for being so patient.

Chapter 30: Midnight Initiation
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The next morning at breakfast, everyone was feeling tired and out of sorts. Severus drank three cups of coffee before he felt alert enough to speak to either of his students, and it took Harry almost fifteen minutes to quit yawning into his omelet. Hermione was quiet, eating her breakfast quickly and neatly. When everyone was finished, she looked at her teacher and asked, "Professor Snape? Could you please show me how to wash the dishes wandlessly? Harry says that's the first spell he learned how to do that way."

Severus would have preferred going down to his lab and brewing Calming Draughts, since he knew he would need them after the ordeal Hermione had been through. Unknown to the girl, he had laced her cup with one using sleight of hand last night, to ensure she slept well. But he had promised her he would show her the spell, and he did not like going back on his given word.

"Very well. Go over to the sink. Harry, levitate the dishes into it, if you would."

Harry did so with a graceful flick of a hand. Then he snagged the last piece of bacon and munched it happily. He was curious as to how Hermione would perform with wandless magic. It was considered a difficult discipline to master. Severus had told him most wizards couldn't master it at all. But Hermione had always been a strong witch.

Severus explained how you needed to concentrate when using wandless magic. "You must focus your mind, Miss Granger," he began. It sort of amused Harry how Severus returned to his "professor persona" when teaching, even out of school, and called his students by their formal surnames. He wondered if it were deliberate or just out of habit. "You use your wand to focus your power and harness it, you must learn to use your mind the same way. First, summon your magic and place it into a sort of "inkwell" in your mind. Then, picture a quill in your head, and draw the magic up through it. The spell you wish to perform is an elementary cleaning spell, one most witches use as easily as breathing, especially when they are pressed for time and do not own a house elf. The incantation is Scourgify!"

Like Harry, Snape made Hermione speak the incantation aloud several times to be sure she had the inflection right. She did, and then Snape indicated she was to cast the spell.

Hermione lowered her head and focused hard. During her time alone in the attic at Riddle Manor, she had practiced focusing her will, trying to get out of her prison. Most of the time she was injured and tired and so failed, but this time she was rested and determined to master the task. The imagery Severus had suggested she use came easily to her and she visualized what she wished her magic to do and spoke the incantation a bit hesitantly.

The spell began to work, the sink started running and soap to fill it, but just when a dish would have been rinsed and washed, the spell faded.

"Professor? Why did that happen? What did I do wrong?"

"You did not put the full force of your will behind the spell. And you stopped concentrating. Thus, the spell failed. Think of yourself as a faucet that pours magic from your spout. When you cease to focus and concentrate, you are in effect turning off the faucet."

"Oh! Now I see! I'll try again."

Five tries later she had success. "I did it!" she cried, her eyes shining.

"Good job, Miss Granger. You seem to have a knack for this type of magic." Severus praised.

Harry clapped. "Good going, Hermione!" He hadn't seen that look of joy in her eyes in weeks.

Abruptly, Hermione leaned against the counter. "Oh, my head!"

"Do you feel dizzy or faint?" Severus asked, guiding her to a chair immediately.

"I . . .do and my head hurts too. Why?"

"Because wandless magic takes its toll on you until you grow accustomed to using it." He summoned a Headache Remedy and had her drink it and then told her to put her head on the table until the dizziness passed.

"Is she going to be okay?" Harry asked worriedly.

"Yes. I think this occurred because she pushed herself too hard too soon after recovering from whatever torture Bellatrix put her through. And sometimes wandless magic takes a bigger toll on a strong witch because you tend to draw too much at once." Severus explained.

"Oh." Harry's mouth fastened in a grim line. "Bellatrix Crucio'd her, Professor. Until Lucius made her stop."

Severus swore. To put an innocent child under the Torture Curse was one of the worst crimes to a follower of the Moon Lady. Children were sacred, the hope of the future and to harm one was the ultimate shame.

"But she got her back good," Harry said. "She switched Bella's mind with a dog's mind and left her that way, barking and drooling and running on all fours in a black silk nightie!" Harry started to laugh.

To his surprise, Severus joined him. "It's too bad none of you had a camera. What a photo that would have made. The gossip columns would have paid top Galleons for it, among other things."

After a few moments, Hermione lifted her head from the table. "I feel better now, sir."

"Good. Drink some tea and eat a granola bar," Severus told her, pushing a nut and fruit bar at her as well as the teapot of black Bohea. "You need to eat and drink to refuel your body after performing advanced magic like that."

"Really? Nobody ever told me that before." Hermione mused, doing as she had been ordered.

"When a wizard works with a wand, the fatigue of spellcasting is often less than when he works without one. Most students don't study wandless magic till sixth year. Both of you are young to begin mastering it, but you both show strong talent and discipline, which is a key component to mastering wandless magic."

"I've also heard that you can learn how to cast wordlessly as well," Hermione began.

"One thing at a time, Miss Granger." Severus said. "Don't get ahead of yourself. First you must learn to run before you can fly. Mastering silent incantations is even harder than wandless magic."

"Can you do it, professor?"

Severus nodded. "Yes. A few spells. Apparition is one of them."

"May I try again?"

"Not right now. You need to let yourself rest. Why don't you read up on the initiation ceremony in The Path of Mysteries? Since you will both be undergoing that rite at midnight tonight."

"Tonight?" Harry gasped. "But . . .we're not prepared . . .And last time I tried to find information about the ceremony it was very . . .sketchy."

"That's because you did not need to know it then, but you do now," said his guardian enigmatically. "There will be a description of the responses you should learn and a brief overview of a basic ceremony. Really, Harry, there is little to prepare for. The ceremony is mostly to show your devotion to Selene and vow yourself to Her service and become part of the Selenian family."

"You're going to let me participate too?" Hermione squeaked.

"Yes. Do you wish to be initiated into the Mysteries, Hermione?"

She nodded. "Yes. She looked after me when I needed Her most, She makes me feel worthy and at peace and eases my pain. When She is with me I feel . . .like I have a mother again . . .sort of. Does that make any sense?"

"Yes. When I lost my mother, I was around your age, and She comforted me as well. She is a goddess of great compassion and forgiveness. You are never alone, for She is always with you."

"I know." Hermione whispered, tears flooding her eyes. She dabbed them with a napkin. Then she looked directly at Severus. "I'm ready to learn the Mysteries, professor."

"You are certain? You must be utterly sure before I will allow you to take part in the ceremony. There are no half measures when it comes to the initiation. You must agree to all Selene asks willingly and once you have done so, there is no going back. Unless you repudiate your oath, as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did." Severus said gravely.

Hermione's mouth hung open. "You-Know-Who followed Selene? But he's . . .evil!"

"Now, yes. Once though, he was Hers too. Until his pride and lust for power overwhelmed him and he foreswore his oath and turned to Set the Betrayer. Now he belongs to darkness, but once he carried the crescent. And every Selenian since then has learned the truth of what he became as a cautionary tale."

"Was . . .Bellatrix once Hers too?"

"No. That one has always been Hecate's creature. And so too is Lucius. Not all wizards follow the Lady, and our numbers have dwindled recently as You-Know-Who has made a concentrated effort to hunt us down."

"Is Professor Dumbledore a follower of the Lady?" was Hermione's next question.

Harry had wondered that himself, and was eager to hear the answer.

"No. If anything, I believe Professor Dumbledore is an atheist, one who does not believe that gods exist. He is a consummate skeptic. And She does not appear to those who have no faith or who refuse to believe in anything save their own actions, for they would not see Her. He regards religion as a trap and a crutch and those who embrace it as naïve. But that is not what I wish to discuss with you. I want both of you to read Selene's Book again and think long and hard about the path you wish to take. Even though She has Marked you for Her own, you still have a choice. Choose wisely, as your heart and mind dictate. There is no shame or stigma in not becoming an initiate. Selene will not repudiate you if you choose not to bind yourself to Her service."

"She won't?"

"No. Only if you become an oathbreaker, like the Dark Deceiver, will She rise against you."

Hermione seemed relieved by that statement, and Severus waved them away, saying he would be in his lab brewing should they need him.

Harry went over to the library table to get The Path of Mysteries and then he headed out to the paddock, where his favorite tree was, to re-read the book along with Hermione.

Together they read the part about the initiation ceremony aloud, and both halted when they read that sometimes the goddess Herself chose to come to the ceremony and personally welcome Her initiate.

"Do you think that might happen to us?" Hermione wondered.

"I don't know. I guess it could. You never can tell." Harry said. "It would be an honor to see Her."

"One we would never forget. But the book says that happens very rarely, so we shouldn't count on it."

They continued reading until they came to the end of the book, and by that time several hours had passed and they were hungry, thirsty, and needed the bathroom. So they headed inside for refreshments.

They found Severus inside, making a light salad with tuna fish mixed in with the greens. As they all sat down to eat, Severus once more reassured Hermione that she was welcome to stay with him for as long as she wished. "I can file permanent guardianship papers if you wish, as I have done with Harry here. That is up to you. However, whether or not I am your guardian, I do have several rules you need to follow as long as you live here. I shall provide you with a room of your own and all necessities and in return all I ask is that you respect me and follow the simple rules I have . . .the first being your conduct with Harry. I am aware that you have formed an . . .attachment to him, Miss Granger, and I do not object to it as long as you do not engage in . . .carnal activities with him until you are of age. I have no wish to raise a pregnant teenager. Am I understood?"

Hermione flushed but she said gamely, "Understood, sir. Harry and I . . .well, we would never . . .not till we finished school at least . . ."

"That is good to know," Severus said, obviously relieved that she had answered so forthrightly. "Harry?"

"I agree with what she said, sir. I really don't want to be a father at fourteen."

"Good. You will also have small chores to do, for I don't believe in idle adolescents, since a bored fourteen-year-old gets into trouble, in my experience." He gave Harry a pointed look. He went on to detail the few chores she would perform and also the consequences of misbehavior. "Is this agreeable to you, Hermione?"

"Yes, sir. It's almost like what I had to do at home. My parents thought chores teach responsibility and they didn't believe in spankings for misbehavior after I was out of primary school. Not like Lucius." Her eyes darkened. "I really hope Draco doesn't have to live with him anymore. No father should ever do that to his son."

"No. And since Lucius has disowned him, I don't think he will be returning to Malfoy Manor. If I were Narcissa, I would leave and relocate as soon as I could. And take my son with me." Severus said. "Barring that, he is safest with Andromeda, who will put up wards against Lucius now, I would think."

"Horrid man!" spat the brown-eyed witch. "I'm glad you did what you did to him, Harry. He deserves every whack."

"Actually, that was more Draco's idea than mine." Harry admitted.

Just then, a gray owl flew into the kitchen bearing a letter for Hermione. It was from Professor McGonagall, answering the question she had asked before being captured. In it the professor apologized for answering so late, but the originally letter had gotten misplaced upon her desk, buried under mounds of paperwork until she had finally found it yesterday.

She told Hermione that Memory Charms were an advanced study topic and not to be researched without a mentor, most Memory Charms were banned by the Ministry because they could damage a person permanently, though they were not in the same class as an Unforgivable. She also added that an Animagus with a lost memory was very unpredictable and most times the wizard or witch never regained what had been lost, and remained trapped in their second form forever.

"Who's that from?" asked Harry.

"Professor McGonagall. I wrote to her before we were kidnapped." Hermione explained. "I asked her about Memory Charms and an Animagus who had lost his memory. Here's what she wrote." She pushed the parchment across the table.

Harry read it and said, "Interesting. I guess she doesn't know that love is memory."

"That's because Minerva does not follow Selene, but her sister Neave, the goddess of balance." Severus said. "Sometimes Neave is also known as Ma'at. A stern but fair goddess."

Harry thought that fit McGonagall very well. His Head of House was strict but scrupulously fair almost always. Though she did have a weakness for Quidditch.

"When will we be doing the initiation, Professor Snape?" Hermione queried.

"At midnight, when the moon is at its zenith. Tonight shall be an auspicious blue moon, or so says my lunar almanac. I have placed robes on your bed, Harry, white ones, that you must wear to the ceremony, and yours are on the sofa, Hermione. As soon as I have time, I shall clean out a room for you, there is one next to mine that I was using as storage which should suit you."

"Anything is fine, sir. I'm just glad to have somewhere to call home." She said and then sniffled. "Sorry, I'm just . . .I can't seem to help turning into a waterfall every time I think about . . ."

"That is only natural. But in time, I hope you will come to consider my house a second home. Tomorrow I shall take you back to your old house and see if any personal belongings are still inside it."

"Thank you. I don't mean to be trouble—"

"You are not. Memories are precious, but sometimes it's also good to have a picture or a favorite object to help you remember." He glanced at the wall clock and said, "It's almost time for me to start supper, time does fly when you are discussing important issues, doesn't it? But first I must check on my drafts."

He made his way to the basement and Hermione dutifully started setting the table while Harry fixed a salad, which was a staple at the Snape home.

Midnight

Sherwood Forest

The ruined temple:

Harry and Hermione stood inside the ruins of the marble temple which the Roman mages had once built to worship and honor Selene. It was the same temple that Titania and Amicus had used to open the moonpaths and also the same temple he had seen in his dreams a few times. The roof had crumbled and was now open to the sky, and as Harry gazed upward, he could see the stars and the brilliant disk of the blue tinged moon. A blue moon was very rare, hence the expression, but tonight there was one, and Severus said it portended great good fortune and a blue moon was also linked to workings of powerful magic.

The temple had once had friezes and a huge statue painted in Her likeness, but these had long since faded and crumbled to dust. Only the altar remained standing and the four walls. A crescent moon had been etched into the altar. Atop it, Severus had placed a white sheet, a silver goblet inlaid with amethysts, a bowl of plums and figs, and two candles.

Harry and Hermione both wore the white robes of the petitioner, which were all of one piece without buttons or ties. They also wore soft white slippers, since a petitioner must not come before Selene wearing anything that tied or bound. The robes signified purity and free will.

They had ridden here upon Moon Fire, arriving at the temple just as the moon crested its zenith. Severus had told them to wait outside until he set everything up and then come in when he called.

They had done so, and then Severus had slipped away behind the altar into a small room where he donned his own robes. They were midnight blue with the phases of the moon embroidered in silver thread on the hem and sleeves. His crescent pendant was worn proudly over them. He returned a few moments later and intoned, "Selene, be with us now. I call upon you, Mistress of Magic, to give your blessing to these candidates who wish to join the Mysteries." He gestured to Harry and Hermione.

He stretched out his hands and the candles upon the altar lit.

"Selene, Lady of Mysteries, Mother of Magic, I ask you to look upon these two here and accept them into your heart, for they are true believers. I ask that you fill their hearts with love and their minds with knowledge and guard their bodies as you see fit. By Your mercy we are healed, by Your wisdom we are humbled, by Your magic we are gifted, for now and forever." He picked up the chalice, and then spoke to his two candidates.

"Did you come here freely, without coercion of any kind, magical or otherwise?"

"I did." Harry said, and Hermione echoed him.

"Do you swear to uphold the tenets of the goddess—to fight evil wherever you find it, to give aid to those in need, especially women and children, to be honorable and truthful in your dealings with your fellow man? Will you be Her Hands and Eyes and Ears if so required?"

This time, they both answered using the ritual words written in The Path of Mysteries. "I shall bind my blood and my magic, if need be, at Your command. I shall dedicate my life to upholding Your laws and values, for knowledge is power, and I shall dedicate my knowledge of all things, arcane and not, to Your service . . ."

Suddenly Harry felt a familiar warmth spread through him and he took a deep breath. He could feel Her there, suffused with power, a smile upon Her face. He peered at Hermione to see if she felt it also. She too seemed to sense the goddess.

Severus handed him the chalice, it was filled with pure water. When he drank it felt icy cold upon his tongue but it also soothed his nerves and any lingering soreness he had developed from the ride. "I welcome you to our company. May you walk always in moonlight, my brother."

Severus handed the cup to Hermione. Again the ritual was repeated. "Selene, watch over Your children always," he said after the chalice was empty. He then picked up the bowl of fruit.

"Bright One, grant these two Your blessing, as You bless the first fruits of the harvest, and protect them always."

"In Your light we are sheltered, by Your magic protected," Hermione chanted. "Great Mother give me now Your bounty, as I, like a dutiful daughter, give You my obedience." She took a plum from the bowl and bit into it. The juice ran clear and tinged with silver down her chin.

Harry repeated the same words, except he substituted the word "son" for daughter. He chose a fig and bit into it, and the sweetness exploded upon his tongue. It was like no other fig he had ever eaten, and he could not even describe the ambrosial taste.

The blue moon haloed them all and Harry could feel the power of Her magic wash over him like a tidal wave. He gasped at the majesty of it, as it mingled with his own, filling him to the brim, and then it faded.

Severus wove a complex pattern in the air, his wand trailing blue and silver sparks. "Keeper of Secrets, I ask a third time to bless these children, who are Your Chosen, and hold them close to Your heart, and share with them Your Mystery, of the magic of the ages. In Your Name, I initiate them into the Path. If this be Your will, send me a sign of Your favor."

This was the part of the ritual where the Book had said that Selene could choose to appear if She so wished, to give special Gifts and to bless Her initiates.

Severus waited the required four minutes to see if She chose to honor Harry and Hermione that way.

Abruptly, there came a flash of brilliant blue-white light from the entrance of the temple. Harry turned his head and saw a small figure step from the light and approach them. She still wore her long violet tunic and her hair was still that strange spun silver. Her bare feet danced lightly over the marble paving stones. And her eyes . . .her eyes shone with ageless timeless wisdom and compassion.

"We meet once again, Harry Potter."

He opened and shut his mouth. His voice seemed to have deserted him. It cannot be. She was just a little girl . . .How can she be . . .the Lady?

Severus was kneeling, head bowed, and so was Hermione. But all he could do was gape like a halfwit.

"Titania!" he blurted. "I . . .I thought you were a queen of the forest!"

She laughed then, the gay tinkling of silver bells. "And so I am. Sherwood is my domain too. I came to you in this guise because you were not yet ready to see me in my other form, and in this one you learned to trust me as a friend. For I have ever been your friend, dear one. And more."

She approached, and held out a silver crescent upon a chain. "Here is my blessing, my beloved son. Wear it always."

Reverently, Harry took the pendant and put it on. Then he kneeled and She bent and kissed his forehead.

He felt such love and compassion fill him that he could not help the tears that ran down his cheeks.

Then She turned to Hermione, and lifted her to her feet. "Rise, beloved daughter. You grieve now for what is lost, but know this. What was lost shall someday be regained, have faith and hope and your heart shall be healed. Here is my blessing, which shall be with you wherever you go. Wear it always." She handed Hermione a crescent too and gave her a kiss as well.

Hermione too wept, unsure if her tears were from joy or sorrow or some odd blending of the two. "Thank you, Bright One."

There was a flicker of silver light and suddenly Selene was no longer the child, but a tall regal woman with hair that fell to her feet entwined with amethysts and other crystals, wearing a robe whose train trailed comets and stars in its wake. She reached out a hand and cupped Severus' chin, her violet eyes shining. "Rise, my Endymion. You have endured much in My service, and soon I shall reward you for it, if you will have me, but first you have one last task to perform for me, Severus."

"Your will be done, Lady," Severus murmured, stunned. Had his goddess just . . . proposed to him? There has not been an Endymion chosen for over a thousand years . . .The touch of her hand on his face stole his breath away and sent a rush of desire spiraling through him so strong that he trembled. He could never remember feeling such overwhelming need, such brilliant love, such admiration for anyone woman, witch, or immortal. Even Lily had not aroused him in that way. He ached to touch her, burned to kiss her, longed to make love to her the way he never had any other in his life . . .He sucked in a breath and tamped down the fiery longing fiercely. Now was not the time. But someday, when She Called him to Her . . .he would at last fulfill his heart's desire.

"You must be my Spear of Vengeance and hunt down the Oathbreaker. I Call you to battle, Severus Snape. You must drive the renegade from the earth, for his hour has come! And I include your wards in this, for they will follow you whether or not they are forbidden, and so I shall not waste my breath doing so. But first . . .I shall bestow upon you all a few gifts . . ."

Hope you all enjoyed this and next will come the special gifts and some revelations about Harry's past.

What do you think the goddess will bestow?

How did you like her choosing Severus as the next Endymion?

Chapter 31: Midnight Gifts
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Selene seemed to glow with a radiance from within, her pale skin shining with an aura so bright that Harry, Hermione, and Severus had to avert their eyes. Incandescent motes of light danced about her like fireflies, and her shining platinum hair glistened like molten silver. She was like a lamp lit from within by celestial fire, beautiful, unattainable, and utterly unforgettably magnificent. Two gifts each I shall give to you.

Harry shut his eyes, wishing he did not feel so . . .uncouth and unfit to be in Her presence. He who had been touched and tainted with the mark of evil as a baby, how could She consider him worthy to be Her initiate? He wondered in despair. Overcome, he bowed his head and felt tears of shame fill his eyes and doubt cloud his mind, despite the silver crescent about his neck.

Suddenly, She was before him, kneeling on the floor, her deep violet gown trailing in the dust. He was horrified. But he couldn't manage to say anything. Don't, Lady! Please don't! I'm not worthy to have You fall in the dust and ruin Your gown. He felt arms come about him and pull him close and then he felt the warmth and love she bore him flowing into him. Harry, it is merely clothes. Child, you need never feel unworthy of my regard or my love. Harry, do you not yet know who you are?

I know who I am. Harry Potter, the supposed savior of the wizarding world.

Her hand stroked his hair. That, yes, but oh so much more, Chosen. Did you think Jack o'the Greenwood came to all who trespassed in Sherwood? He came because he wished to speak with you, to get to know his many times great-grandson.

I don't understand, Lady. Do you mean . . .we are related . . .?

She smiled gently. Yes, you are descended from our son, Robin Hood, he whose legend still remains to this day. You are a child of wood and moonlight, for Robin was my son too, and much beloved. But he chose to live and die a mortal, like his beloved Marian. They are together now in my paradise, forever. You are descended from Robin's daughter, Liliana of Locksley, and from her to your mother, Lily Evans Potter. We are bound together, grandson, by ties of blood and magic, and you shall always be in my heart.

Harry felt his throat constrict. He wanted that, so much, and yet . . .yet he recalled how Voldemort had Marked him with a lightning bolt scar . . .

He may have Marked you, child, but that does not make you his. You belong to me, by blood and choice, and one silly scar shall not change that. You have inherited a great deal of magic, youngling, and my protection upon you still endures. . .I am sorry I could not do more to help you as you grew, but you mortals grow in the blink of an eye, and by the time I focused back . . .you were as you are now and so I Sent Severus to you . . .

You told me once that I was supposed to right a great wrong, Lady. Is this it?

No. That task is yet to come.

Do I need to . . .pass a test for my initiation then?

She chuckled, low and deep. Oh, Harry! Your test was to heal Moon Fire and to learn to trust yourself and him, and vice versa. You passed with flying colors. Your compassion and determination is your greatest strength. The knowledge of your true lineage is the first of my gifts to you. She rose, drawing him to his feet.

"For all that you are and all that you shall become, child of wood and moonlight, I give to you my favor and as a sign of that favor you shall be able to take the shape of my most sacred animal. Behold!"

Harry felt himself shifting, changing, and then he stood before Selene, towering over her, his spiral horn almost touching the moon, or so it seemed. He looked down and saw powerful hooves of sparkling silver. He shook his head and felt a silky mane drift over his eyes.

"Behold—the midnight unicorn!" Selene cried.

Harry looked at his flanks and saw a glossy ebony coat that refracted light upon it and made it sparkle with a thousand dark rainbows. Selene's Gift to him had been to make him an Animagus—a black unicorn. Never before had She given that form to Her Chosen, only Harry had that honor.

He shifted, his hooves clattering noisily upon the tile floor. Wow! I'm a unicorn! Wow! And Her descendant! And Jack's too.

He looked towards Severus and 'Mione, they were standing with their mouths open.

Abruptly, he was himself again, standing before his goddess, an acolyte in a white robe with the crescent blazing upon his chest. And yet he was more. So much more.

He wanted to thank Her, but could not manage to remember any words in any language at all. Her revelation about his past and his lineage had shaken him to his core. He was one of Her blood children and the blood of Jack the Green Man and the legendary Robin Hood. Overwhelmed by Her Gift and the knowledge She had given him, he stared at Her, mute. I feel like a fool. I don't know the words to say, how to tell Her thank you—

Child, we never needed words before. I can see into your heart. You are most welcome, my beloved grandson. Use my gift wisely. The unicorn's horn cannot only purify water and heal poisons and injuries, it can also banish revenants and undead with a touch and in battle it is sharper than any blade. Be true, be steadfast, and you shall triumph over darkness. And always remember, I love thee.

She smiled warmly at him then, the tender smile of a mother for a son who has grown up right before her eyes.

Harry bowed his head, joy and awe intermingling within him.

Then she turned to Hermione. Daughter, you have borne many burdens these past weeks, and sorrow lies like a black beast upon your shoulders. I would keep you from this battle along with Harry, but your heart is not the sort to stay safe while your friends fight battles on their own. Brave little lioness, your strongest Gift is your scintillating mind, and yet, even a genius may answer a call to arms. You have unsettled debts to collect and scores to settle with the murderers of your human kin. To that end, I give you these.

Selene opened Her hands. In them rested a lance of pure silver, capped with platinum, etched with Her holy crescent.

This is the Silver Lance, once used millennia ago to slay the Demon King, it shall penetrate the defenses of any evil foe, magical or otherwise. To aid you in your fight, I also Gift you with Clear Thought and Vision, allowing you to see past any illusion, deception, or magical ward. You shall need both to overcome the enemies that threaten you. Use them wisely. She moved over and kissed Hermione upon the forehead, and the touch of her lips sent a jolt of warmth and piercing power through the young witch.

Hermione felt her eyes sting briefly and then she blinked and it seemed as if her vision had sharpened. When she gazed at Harry and Severus, she could see glowing auras surrounding them and when she looked at Selene, it was magnified tenfold. "I shall, Bright One."

There is one thing more, something which will heal your broken heart. You are not the last of your line.

"I'm not? But I don't have anyone left in my family . . ." she stuttered.

Ah, but you do. You simply do not realize it. You shall find out what I speak of after the battle is done. For that secret is not mine to share and the necessity of it is best explained when you have the time to contemplate it and understand wherefore it occurred . . .There is more to you than you know, Hermione.

"Can't you tell me now? Please?"

Selene shook her head. Now is not the right time. Will you not take up my Gift, warrior mage?

Hermione took the lance and held it. To her surprise, it felt warm to the touch, and surprisingly light, like a baton. "I shall, Mother. But. . .I've never used a lance before and I don't have a horse to ride."

"The lance knows how to wield itself, and as for a horse, Moon Fire shall carry you into the fray. He is a war horse without peer. May all your enemies flee before you."

She hugged Hermione too and hummed a soothing song into her mind.

For long minutes they remained so, a pleasing tableau of a mother and daughter.

When Selene finally released her, Hermione was dry-eyed and filled with determination and a fierce courage that would have done credit to Godric Gryffindor himself. She was also burning with the need to know more about Selene's cryptic assertion that she still had family remaining. But she sensed that she would get no more out of the goddess and so held her tongue.

Finally She glided over to Severus, and there was a subtle change in Her demeanor when She gazed upon him. With Harry and Hermione, She had been a mother-figure, gentle and compassionate and loving. With Severus, however, She changed, and became more lover and companion, and Her eyes burned with the light of a thousand stars. My Severus. I have watched you long and long, and have always felt a deep connection to you, more so than any other of my Chosen. Your life has been filled with hardship and challenge and sacrifice, much of it at my behest.

He stared deep into her eyes, which were a violet so pure no mere flower could have matched it. Bright Lady, what I endured was no more and no less than what others have before me. It was the least I could do, and a privilege to serve. I am Yours always.

My loyal sorcerer. Rarely have you asked me for anything for yourself, which is why I gifted you with the form of my sacred stallion. And I would ask that you be my consort and make the Marriage of Sky and Earth with me, but first . . .first the Oathbreaker must be settled with, for only then will your children be safe and you can relax and enjoy yourself. She smiled, a slow seductive smile that made the blood heat in his veins and a flush climb up his cheekbones.

I . . .I know not what to say, Great One. That You would consider me worthy to be Your Consort, I who am nothing much to look at, out of all others You might have chosen . . .I am honored beyond words . . .

She stopped him before he could reverence Her. Severus Snape, You are more than pleasing to me . . .your beauty is both without and within and your heart, while wounded badly, has at last mended from the rejection you suffered long ago. Wilt thou not accept me, beloved?

I shall, a thousand times yes, he agreed, without hesitation. How could he not? She was everything he was not, and all that he would ever desire.

She laughed joyously and kissed him, a brief kiss, but it sent shockwaves through him. Hear me now, Severus. Since I cannot interfere directly, lest the Balance of the World be broken past repair, I have asked you to be My Hand of Justice, and to slay the traitor who once wore my symbol. I grieve that this must be so, but Thomas Marvolo Riddle no longer hears my voice, only the voice of Set. He is lost to me. And a danger to you and my Chosen. He must be stopped, and thus I give you two gifts to aid you. The first is a gift of the mind—the ability to speak telepathically with anyone and to hear the thoughts of your enemies and also to control to an extent the minds of others if there is need. This gift will prove invaluable when you need to coordinate your allies during battle and summon them to fight. She placed a hand upon his forehead and he felt his mind opening and expanding. But you also have the gift of closing your mind, and so need never fear going mad from overhearing too many minds at once.

My Lady, I thank you.

She held up a hand. Wait. I am not done yet. The last gift I shall give you is the magic of my Touch. With my blessing, you shall have the power of a god in your hands, for the duration of the battle and afterwards for three hours. Touch an enemy and he shall die as you will it, touch an injured comrade and he shall be healed, no matter the wound, so long as breath still remains in the body. But you cannot raise the dead. I figured this would help you more than any specific spell. She took Severus's long-fingered hands in Her own and kissed the palms.

A golden glow suffused them and he felt fire flare along his nerve endings and then flicker and die. But he could feel the magic surging within him, like a wildfire, and it made his hands tingle. I am forever grateful, O Bright One.

She put Her hands upon his cheeks and drew his mouth down to Hers. He felt the world spin about him as he tasted ambrosia and nectar and the pure essence that was unmistakably Her own. A kiss for luck, my Endymion, such as ladies give their love before he goes to war. Go quickly and return quickly, beloved mine. Upon your return, you shall have what was promised.

Severus dared to smile up at Her and he wished that Voldemort was already dead, for never before had he felt so loved, so cherished, and his heart was filled to overflowing with love for Her in return.

She gave his cheek one last caress and then called, "Farewell, my children and my blessing go with you!"

Then she vanished in a cloud of silver sparkles and the three were left standing in the center of the ruined temple, stunned and breathless.

When they finally came back to themselves, the moon had begun its descent and Severus gestured and cleaned up the altar. Then he blurred into Moon Fire and the two acolytes mounted and he carried them home. They had much to ponder and much to absorb, though right then the two young people were exhausted and started nodding off over Moon Fire's withers.

The black stallion tossed his head back and whinnied sharply, waking them from their doze enough to ensure that they hung on and did not fall off. When they reached the house and dismounted, Severus directed both of his charges to get into sleep wear and go to bed, they would discuss everything in the morning.

Hermione took the lance, which glimmered in the moonlight, and leaned it reverently in a corner of the den. Then, amid a jaw cracking yawn, she went to get changed into her pajamas and so did Harry and Severus.

"Bed? After all of that, you want us to just . . .go to bed?" Harry said in disbelief. How could Severus just expect them to sleep as if it were an ordinary evening?

The Potions Master frowned at his ward. "Let me rephrase my original statement. I am going to bed. You are old enough to decide whether or not you wish to stay awake on your own, and don't need me to read you a bedtime story and tuck you in. However, don't whine tomorrow that you're too tired to see straight."

"Okay, okay. It's just . . .after what She told us . . .how can you just go to sleep?"

"By closing my eyes and breathing in and out." His guardian replied sarcastically. Then he turned on his heel and headed towards his room, leaving Harry and Hermione staring after him.

"Sweet dreams!" Harry couldn't resist calling after.

"Cheeky brat!" Snape growled. "Just for that you can scrub the kitchen floor . . .and the hallway . . .before breakfast, at five AM, without magic!"

"What?" Harry protested. "What'd I say?"

Snape's door slammed.

Hermione snickered. "Oh, just go to bed, Harry. Before you end up in trouble for the rest of the summer."

"But . . .but 'Mione! All I did was wish him—"

"—Sweet dreams, I know. Kind of rude and obnoxious, especially after you heard Selene call him Her Endymion. Remember?" she thumped him playfully on the back of the head.

"Oh. Err . . .I didn't even think about . . .oh, Merlin . . .no wonder he wants to strangle me . . ." Harry blushed, for his comment had just been in fun, he hadn't been poking fun at Severus' newly chosen status as Her . . .consort.

"I could tell. Just go to bed, Harry. We can talk more in the morning, when your brain's functioning again. I'm tired too. Good night." Then she kissed him, smirking, before heading over to the couch.

Harry decided to follow her advice and headed up to the loft. His mind was still reeling from all he had been told and he was sure he wouldn't sleep a wink, but once his head touched the pillow, he was out like a light.

Severus fumed silently behind the closed door of his room. The nerve of the brat, speaking so to him! For the first time since Harry had come to live there, he had felt an honest to goodness desire to smack the boy upside the head. Sweet dreams indeed! Although, a naughty part of him whispered, his cheeky son was right, he would have sweet dreams, for the first time since he was fifteen and had fantasized about himself and Lily. Only this fantasy would not be a mere dream, but an eventual reality. If he survived the coming conflict. Because he knew, as did Selene, that even with Her Gifts, there were no guarantees in war. She had upped the odds in their favor, but even so . . .it only took one moment of distraction, or a lucky blow, to end a life.

Shivering slightly in the cooling air, he tossed his sleep robe on his chair and slipped beneath the sheets. Much had been revealed and much promised and still, the Bright Lady kept Her own counsel. His mouth curved up in a smile of pure delight. She had chosen him as Her consort. My Endymion. If he hadn't heard it from Her own lips, he would have never believed it. He ran his tongue over his lips and could still taste her, like a breath of fresh air, like pure magic, sweeter than honey, upon his tongue.

My Endymion.

He closed his eyes, tumbling effortlessly into the realm of dreams, where he and his Ladywalked through a meadow of late summer violets and moonflowers, hand in hand, for a secret tryst in the moonlight. And in his sleep he smiled, a wicked smirk of guilty pleasure, all his vows fulfilled.

Well, were you surprised?

What do you think Selene meant when she told Hermione she was not the last of her line?

Due to some confusion by a few reviewers on a different site, I've added the following note--Harry is NOT a superpowerd unicorn. He is an ordinary unicorn save for his black coat, the sign of the goddess' favor. In my world a unicorn's horn can: Heal wounds, both magical and not, purify water, heal some magical curses, cure someone from poison, AND fight undead, the horn is sort of like a blessed item. The healing properties of the horn come straight from mythology, the undead part is something I added. Harry is NOT immortal, even though he's Selene's descendant he can die.  The only special Gift he has is the Animagus form and the ability to master wandless magic, plus his strong magical Gift. Other than that, he's just like the Harry we all know and love.

Second, the Gifts given here by Selene were given for a reason.  Most are not permanent, they were given to allow the three a chance to survive when they next meet Voldemort, who will have some very wicked allies with him, I am not making the three into invincible heroes, there have been clues in this chapter and the end of Midnight Uprising as to what kind of allies Voldy will have, read closely and you'll see what I mean.

Lastly, Sev becoming Endymion for this time does not mean he will be immortal either. The goddess' chosen consort remains mortal for a reason, to show her love for them, and that she repsects them. She also will not stay with him.  She Chose him her consort out of love and to honor the sacrifices he made in Her name. It is recognition that is long overdue.  


Please read and review!

Chapter 32: Midnight Secrets
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*special thanks to Mikee for providing me with the idea for Hermione taking some furniture along with her to Snape's house*

Snape's farmhouse

5AM:

Harry industriously scrubbed the kitchen floor, on his hands and knees, with a scrub brush and soapy water, because he had learned at the Dursleys that was the best way to make sure the floor was really clean—a sponge mop or regular mop just didn't do it—and muttered about how his guardian was monstrously unfair. "He promised me he wouldn't make me clean things like I used to at Privet Drive and yet here I am—cleaning! And for what? A cheeky comment? Bloody hell!"

The bucket of water didn't answer him. But someone else did.

"Harry, what are you mumbling about?"

Harry skidded around on his knees to find Hermione right behind him, standing at the edge of the kitchen, still in her purple nightshirt and sleep socks, her hair looking as if it was trying to imitate Medusa. "Cripes! Hermione!"

"Didn't mean to startle you," she said with a smirk. "Getting a head start on your detention?"

"Yeah," he said sourly. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't. I was having a lovely dream, I was dreaming I was among a herd of unicorns and running with them and then when I paused and looked into a pool of water, I was a unicorn too. I've had that dream once before. I wonder if it means anything?"

"I don't know. You're one of Selene's Chosen too. Maybe it's a sign of Her favor, like the lance. Maybe you should ask the professor, he probably could tell you what it means, seeing as he's Her Endymion." He made the word, which was meant to be a title of honor, sound like a slur.

Hermione frowned at him. "Looks like somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning."

Harry bristled. "Yeah, well, if it weren't for a certain person being so damn touchy, I wouldn't be doing this at five AM!" He gestured to the bucket and the brush.

"Harry! You were cheeky and disrespectful. Don't you think you deserve some kind of consequences for acting that way?" she reproved.

"I didn't mean for it to come out that way!" he objected. "And he didn't have to be such a hardarse and make me scrub the floor when he bloody well promised I wouldn't have to do chores like this the way I did at my relatives!"

He didn't realize it, but a distinct whine had crept into his voice, aggravating Hermione even further. She hated when people complained over just punishments.

"Does he make you scrub the floor everyday?"

"Well . . .no . . .this is the first time, but . . ."

"Do you have to clean the whole house everyday without magic?"

"No. But this still sucks!"

"You're in trouble, you're not supposed to enjoy it, you're supposed to learn from it," she lectured. "That's what I've never understood about you or Ron. You two break rules, or cop an attitude with a teacher, and then you act all put upon when you get called on the carpet for it! If you do something wrong, you're supposed to take the consequences. But you act like consequences exist for everyone but you and it's unfair when somebody punishes you for it."

"I do not! I shouldn't be scrubbing a bloody floor at five in the morning just 'cause I wished him 'sweet dreams'!"

Her eyes flashed. "Would you rather he backhanded you across the mouth then? Like your uncle?"

"I'd rather he develop a sense of humor!"

"A sense of humor . . .? Harry, you really are an idiot sometimes! You weren't saying that to be funny, you were saying it to be cheeky. There is a difference, you know. Sometimes it's not what you say, but how you say it. And last night you were being insulting and you ought to know he doesn't tolerate that. You twitting him about Selene was wrong, Harry. That's a private thing between him and the goddess, a sacred thing, and it's not something you should joke about. It made him feel awkward and uncomfortable, don't you see that? How would you feel if Malfoy twitted you about something like that?"

"That's different," he argued. "I would have decked Malfoy."

"Boys! Okay, so maybe this is Professor Snape's way of decking you. In which case you should just shut up and quit whining."

"Sure, you can talk. Little Miss Perfect, who never gets in trouble, I'll bet you were always a good little girl, your parents' darling, right?"

The moment the words were out of his mouth, he regretted them. "'Mione, I'm sorry—I didn't mean it—"

"You never do, do you? Next time maybe you should think before you open your mouth, then maybe your foot would n't be stuck in it!" she snapped, wiping away tears. "For your information, Mr. Potter, I wasn't a perfect child at all. When I was little—four and five, I was a wild thing, I threw tantrums and fits all the time, because my parents worked long hours and were never home and I learned if I misbehaved for my nanny, they'd come home to be with me. So I'd get to see them more. I used to lie on the floor and scream myself blue and kick my poor nanny in the shins."

"You?"

"Me. I was a real little hellion. And my magic reacted to it and made things break and once the coffee maker exploded and the curtains caught on fire. I drove my parents crazy, 'till they spoke to a child psychologist who told them I was acting out because I wanted their attention and didn't care how I got it—even if I got a spanking, it was still better than no attention at all."

Harry gaped at her. "But you're so . . .you actually got a spanking? I thought your parents didn't believe in that kind of thing."

"They didn't really. But my dad was on his last nerve one day and I'd just kicked Nanny Sylvia black and blue and lit my house on fire because she wouldn't give me sweets for breakfast, he had to leave an office full of patients to come home and deal with it all and he just snapped. I can't blame him. After that, Dad made an appointment with the therapist and he explained how they could correct my behavior without resorting to physical punishment, and more importantly, why I was acting the way I did."

"So . . .what did they do?"

"They made me understand that when I was naughty they were disappointed in me and things I didn't like happened as a result. Like time out. And no TV. And when I behaved, it made them happy and proud and they started spending more time with me as a reward. Then we got to go places on their days off—like the zoo and the park and stuff. I loved that and that was what I really wanted. So my good days started to outnumber my bad ones, and that's how I learned to follow the rules. And to take the consequences if I broke them. That's all Professor Snape's trying to do with you, Harry. He's not doing it to be mean, he's doing it because he loves you, and he wants you to be a better man than your father was at your age."

Harry didn't answer, he simply looked down at the puddle of soapy water on the kitchen floor. What Hermione said made sense—too much sense. James had been a spoiled bully at fourteen, reckless, impulsive, and utterly uncaring about the consequences of his actions. I always said I never wanted to be like that. I never meant to hurt Severus' feelings. Hermione's right. I do deserve this. When the hell did she get to be so wise? And here I thought all she knew was books. He glanced up at her then. "Okay, you're right. I owe Severus an apology. Happy now?"

She laughed. "See, you can be taught! I'm glad I'm dating a smart guy—you're one of the few left in Hogwarts, Harry."

"Yippee," he said sarcastically. Then he chuckled. "Sorry I lost my temper before and acted like a prat. You should have decked me one."

"I did. Verbally."

"Oh. Yeah, you sure did," he admitted. "Ouch!"

"Better get on scrubbing the floor, Mr. Brilliant. It's almost six thirty. The Professor gets up early, remember?"

Harry resumed his task, scrubbing quickly and efficiently. If there was one thing he had learned, and learned well, from Petunia, it was how to clean things. It was perhaps the only useful lesson she had ever taught him. In fifteen minutes he was through with both the kitchen and the hallway leading down to the back door, and then he cheated and dried the floor with a charm, because Severus hadn't told him he couldn't use magic to dry the floor.

It was spotless and the wood gleamed, Harry had washed it with a combination of white vinegar, water, and some lemon-scented floor cleaner. That had always been Petunia's preferred floor cleaner. And it worked beautifully.

He stood up, wincing at the crick in his back. He was woefully out of shape if scrubbing a floor or two made him stiff, he thought ruefully. "There! Looks good, right?"

She pulled off her sock and ran her bare foot over the floor. "Perfect. It's shiny but not slippery. What floor cleaner did you use?"

"The Dursley method," he replied, and told her.

"Works great." She pulled her sock back on.

"Well, I'm off to the shower."

"I'm going to get dressed and make some coffee," she said, as he put the cleaning equipment away and headed upstairs.

By the time Harry finished his shower and got changed, Severus was cooking breakfast with Hermione. Today they were having waffles with fresh fruit and ham. Harry inhaled the delicious aroma and his mouth watered. He slid into his usual place at the breakfast nook and looked up at Severus as he levitated a plate with a large waffle topped with fresh strawberries, blueberries, and bananas. A pitcher of warmed syrup was upon the table along with a pot of tea and cream and sugar. The plate of waffles was accompanied by a smaller dish of ham.

Harry poured syrup over his waffle and cut it up, waiting until Severus and Hermione had been seated with their own plates before he said contritely, "Professor, I'm sorry for how I talked to you last night. I was out of line. But I didn't mean it the way it sounded, I was just—"

"—being a cocky teenage boy," finished his guardian. "I hope next time you'll think before you open your mouth, Harry. Apology accepted."

"Thank you, sir," Harry said, relieved that Severus was no longer angry.

"Oh, and good work on the floor," Severus added, with a sly grin. "It would seem Petunia taught you well."

"One thing she did right," answered his ward, then he continued eating.

After a moment, Severus said calmly, "Despite your cheek last night, I would like to tell you that you may, if you wish, address me more informally, Harry. At home, you do not need to call me 'professor' or 'sir', but may use my given name, Severus." He turned to Hermione. "That also applies to you, Hermione."

Both of his wards—he thought of Hermione as his ward even though it was not yet official—smiled happily. He supposed they were relieved that they didn't have to "sir" him every other sentence, and the more relaxed atmosphere might promote more trust between them.

"Thank you, Severus," Hermione grinned. "About the Gifts Selene gave us . . .do you know if they're permanent?"

Severus paused while chewing a piece of ham. "I know only that She told me that my gifts are meant for the battle to come only, and afterwards I shall be as I was before. Based upon that, I would say the battle will be very tough, in which case I shall need to give both of you some pointers on dueling, and maybe even set up a quintain for you to practice with your lance, Hermione."

"What's a quintain?" she asked.

"It's a stuffed target shaped like a man on a pole that spins around when it's struck that knights used to practice jousting with," Harry replied.

Severus raised an eyebrow. "How did you know that?"

"I read a lot of stories about King Arthur. They were always talking about practicing with the quintain."

"Oh. That would be good. So at least I don't drop it when we face His Unholiness."

"Right." Severus agreed. "You might also want to practice with your Animagus form, Harry, get accustomed to it, and to shifting back and forth. Because yours is a Gift from Selene, you won't take as long to shift as a new Animagus does, since you merely have to will yourself to transform. Still, the first few times can be . . . disorientating, so it's good to practice. You'll also need time to accustom yourself to your new form and learn to balance your mind with the unicorn mind. I would suggest you begin today, perhaps after breakfast."

Harry looked pleased. "Will you be with me as Moon Fire, sir—umm . . .Severus?"

"For a little while, I shall. But I did promise Hermione that I would take her back to her home to see if there are any memorabilia that she can take with her. And the sooner we pay a visit there, the better."

"That's fine. I can stay home alone, you know," Harry said, a teasing note in his voice. "I promise I won't set the curtains on fire."

"Shut up, Harry." Hermione scowled.

The Potions Master looked at both teenagers. "Is there something I should know about you two?"

Hermione sighed. "When I was five, I set fire to my curtains in my bedroom by accidental magic."

"Ah. I see. I would think you've learned not to play with matches by now, Mr. Potter." He rose to his feet. "Wash the dishes, if you would, and then meet me outside. We'll practice for an hour or so and then I'll escort Hermione back to her old neighborhood."

"Okay, Severus." Harry concentrated and the dishes flew into the sink and then he cast a "Scourfgify!" upon them. He was very excited to practice his new ability.

HPSSHPSSHPSS

Harry soon found that while shifting from his human form to that of the unicorn was easy, controlling the unicorn form was not. The unicorn mind wanted to run free of the paddock and into Sherwood Forest, which was not something Harry was ready to do yet, despite his newfound connection to the Green Man. He had to fight the unicorn mind's desire for freedom and that made him awkward when he ran or trotted next to Moon Fire. One good thing was that now he could understand and speak with Moon Fire.

Why are you tripping over your own hooves, young colt? Moon Fire asked, trotting effortlessly around the paddock.

I can't help it, Moon Fire. The mind . . .the unicorn mind . . .wants me to just jump the fence and run away into Sherwood. The black unicorn kicked out his heels in frustration.

Ah. I was much the same when I first transformed. There will always be a part of you that is wild. Your true heart is untamed and belongs running free through the woods. As does mine. The black stallion reared suddenly, then sprang away, thundering across the paddock. Catch me if you can, midnight one!

Harry gave chase, finding that when he wished, the unicorn form could fly as swiftly as the wind, if not swifter. He raced hard, coming within a length of Moon Fire before the stallion gathered himself and popped neatly over the fence.

Harry didn't even realize he was jumping through the air until he had landed upon the other side of the fence. He neighed in alarm. Moon Fire! I jumped the fence!

I know. Come, follow me into the forest.

Into Sherwood? But you said . . .

I said do not wander there alone. You'll not be alone, I shall be with you. Come! Sometimes you need to run in order to regain control."

Then he tore off across the lawn and Harry followed, delighting in the lightning swift speed in his graceful yet delicate-looking legs.

An hour's run in the forest, weaving his way through the trees and down small trails, racing across meadows filled with deer, gave Harry the necessary control he needed to subdue the unicorn mind and become comfortable in his new shape. The unicorn was like the wind made flesh, and Harry could have happily run in Sherwood forever. But all too soon, Moon Fire led them back home.

Once he'd transformed back, Harry found he was wobbly-kneed.

"That's a side-effect of transformation. The more you practice, the easier it will get." The older wizard told him.

"That's what I figured. Severus, where did you get the name Moon Fire? Did she tell you to call yourself that or did you choose it?"

"I named myself one moonlit night," Severus replied. "I would say you could do the same."

"Okay," Harry said, thinking now he had to find a name he could live with. "Think I'm gonna take a nap." He yawned.

"While you're sleeping, Miss Granger and I shall pay a visit to her old home."

Severus was as good as his word. Harry went upstairs to sleep, and Hermione eagerly took his arm and they Apparated away to her home.

HPSSHPSS

Mulberry Terrace looked the same as always, Hermione thought as they DisApparated behind a small stand of rhododendrons not a block away from her home. The same comfortable houses, all built in the Georgian and Victorian style, with wraparound porches and hydrangea bushes and kids playing in the backyard with their dogs and friends. She could smell someone frying bacon and sausages nearby and bread baking as well. And the perfume from the flowers mingled with the odor of sizzling meat and fresh mown grass.

It smells like home. Like I never left, she thought, glancing around. Then she teared up, remembering.

She felt Snape take her arm and heard him say, "Come, Hermione. Your house is just down the street, yes?"

"It is. I'm sorry. I promised myself I wouldn't do this . . ." she swiped at her eyes angrily.

"Love is memory," was all he said, but she found the simple words comforting.

They soon arrived at her house, which was a simple gray stone Victorian with high peaked roofs and pink shingles. The flowers along the walk, so meticulously planted by Jeanne Granger, had died. There was police tape stretched across the door and windows and the walk. Hermione avoided looking towards the backyard, where unspeakable atrocities had occurred. "Professor?" her voice quavered as she fought for control, forgetting in her distress to call him by his name.

Severus took her arm and after looking about swiftly and checking that all those neighbors were otherwise occupied with tasks inside the home using his newfound telepathic scanning ability, Apparated them inside the Grangers' home.

There was a layer of dust across the furniture, and more police tape across the shattered window in the dining room, but otherwise Hermione could see that almost everything remained the same. No one had come to evaluate the contents of the house as yet, and for that she was extremely grateful.

"It looks the same. The very same as on that night, except . . .someone threw out our unfinished dinner and the garbage. Otherwise it would stink in here. At least someone did that."

She looked towards her mum's favorite chair, an old patched recliner which Jeanne had always sworn she was going to get rid of, but never had, mainly because it was so comfortable. Her mother's favorite blanket, an Argyll plaid was lying across it. Hermione went over and picked it up, recalling the many nights her mum used to snuggle up beneath it with her and read her stories. She buried her face in it and started to cry. Why did they have to die? Why? It's not fair! I wanted them to meet Harry, I wanted my dad to walk me down the aisle at my wedding, to see me have their first grandchild and now . . .nothing will ever be the same . . .

Severus moved quietly about the room, removing pictures from the wall for Hermione to pick from, many of them were school photos of her from age five up until she attended Hogwarts. It was clear that the Grangers had cherished their daughter. He found a photo album in a bookcase and placed that with the framed pictures, giving the girl some space to grieve in private.

Finally Hermione mastered herself and turned about to apologize to her teacher and guardian for getting all emotional, only to find that Severus had thoughtfully gathered up the pictures and photo album for her. She spent a few minutes looking at her younger self, with braces, and grimacing. Then she recalled going school shopping with her mum and to football games with her dad. She found she couldn't bear to part with any of the pictures, and shrunk them with her magic and tucked them into a small carryall she'd brought with her. She did the same to the blanket and the recliner. A small voice in the back of her head ragged on her, saying she was crazy to start keeping the furniture, but the recliner had character and memories and she knew it would only get tossed in the rubbish bin by whoever bought the house next.

"Severus?" she called. "I'm going upstairs to look in my mum and dad's room and my room."

"Take your time, there's no rush," he called back.

She slowly climbed the stairs, recalling how many times she had run down them or slid down the banister as a child on Christmas morning. Or on the first day of school, or for a piano recital, she'd had lessons when she was seven, but when she didn't display sufficient talent, had stopped them at age eight. "I'd rather concentrate on becoming a scientist," she had gravely informed her parents, and then she had asked for a chemistry set for her birthday as well as a flower press.

She reached her bedroom first, and slowly opened the door. Everything was the way she had left it. The light in the ceiling was still flickering, her father had been going to change the bulb. She clasped her silver unicorn necklace hard. Her wallpaper was still the same as it had been during her primary school days, a soft cream with little pink roses on it. This year she had been going to change it for something more . . .mature, her mother had been going to bring her to the store to pick out new paper as one of their summer projects together.

Up on the walls were all of her certificates she'd won in school, Firsts in Science, Maths, English Literature, History, Latin. Best All Around Student. Perfect Attendance. She'd won that three years in a row. None of her teachers had been surprised when she had been issued an invitation to attend a private prestigious school in Scotland. She had been a known bookworm in primary school, teachers had loved her and some of her classmates had hated her, claimed she always showed them up on purpose. But it had hardly been her fault she had been born with a brain that soaked up information like a sponge and retained it like an elephant.

Mum and Dad were so proud that I was an overachiever in school and they always told me that someday I would find friends who appreciated me for my brains. They were right. I found Harry. And maybe Ron too.

She looked about at her room and decided to take her clothes, shoes, favorite books, her school trunk, and the bedroom furniture for her new room at Snape's house. That way, she reasoned, it would feel more like home to her and save the professor money at the same time. She quickly shrank all the furniture and the certificates, figuring she might show them to her children someday. She took a framed print of Monet's Water Lilies as well and another of the famous tapestry The Lady and the Unicorn. For some reason she had always been drawn to unicorns as a child, and had loved reading stories and legends about them. When she was small, she'd had unicorn paper on the wall.

She gave a nostalgic smile and then she moved on to the bathroom, taking personal articles like her toothbrush and comb and shampoo and conditioner and feminine products she knew would never be found in a bachelor's household.

Finally there was only her parents' bedroom left.

She eased open the door. The bed had not been made, it was still rumpled and the indentation of her father's head was still on his pillow. She crept closer and stood by the bed, staring down at it, picturing her father and mother asleep. Tears formed and fell upon the pillow. She took it and hugged it, it still smelled faintly of her father's Old Spice aftershave.

Mechanically, she went through the dresser and the closet, keeping a stranglehold over her emotions. She took her mum's favorite earrings, shaped like falling leaves in tri-toned gold, and a sapphire ring she had always admired. Her father had a pair of gold cufflinks with his initials on it she saved and she also took her mum's favorite lavender jumper. There was a shoebox way in the back of the closet, and Hermione Summoned it down. Funny, but she didn't ever remember seeing this before.

She opened it and found a small album, like a scrapbook, and something that looked like her birth certificate and some other official looking documents. She tucked it away to look at later, then took one last glance about the room.

There was nothing she wanted. The best memories she had were all in her head.

She walked back down the stairs. "I'm finished, Severus."

He came out of the den, and gave her a questioning glance. "Are you sure? Because we shan't be returning here. This house will probably be put up for sale soon and its contents inventoried and sold at auction."

"I know. I hope you don't mind, but I . . .took my bedroom furniture and my mum's recliner, I didn't want you to have to pay for new furniture . . ."

"Child, I am not destitute, despite the fact that I've not gotten a raise out of my skinflint boss in three years—" he began.

"I know, sir, but I just . . .would feel better if I had my own bed to sleep in . . .I'm sorry if I'm insulting you, Professor . . ." she hung her head.

He tilted her head up. "Hermione, I understand your wish to hold onto things from your former life, you do not need to explain that to me, but when I assume guardianship of you, it is my duty to provide for you as I do Harry. And I am perfectly capable of doing so. Whatever money is in your vault at Gringotts can remain there for your personal use, I shall not touch it for tuition or school supplies. You are like my daughter now, as Harry is my son. Understood?"

"Yes, Severus. It means a lot to hear you say that," she threw her arms about him and hugged him.

A split second later she wondered if she had made a mistake, for he stiffened, and she figured he probably wasn't used to being hugged.

Then his arms came around her and pressed her into his soft midnight blue shirt and she rested her head on his chest and listened to his heartbeat. Dad used to hold me this way, she remembered, and then she started to cry. "I'm sorry, Severus! I'm sorry!"

"Shhh . . .it's all right . . .cry all you want, I won't melt . . .I'm probably doing this all wrong, but I'll try my best to be there for you if you need me . . ."

His words and the deep tone of his voice reverberated soothingly in her ears and she just leaned against him and let herself cry until she was spent. His arms around her felt so good she almost never wanted him to let go.

She sniffled and took the handkerchief he handed her, then said softly, "You didn't do that wrong at all, sir. You did it perfectly."

"I did?"

"Yeah. You got the comfort part down cold." She laughed at his shocked expression. "I'm ready now, Severus. Let's go . . .home." Goodbye, Mum and Dad. I'll miss you forever, but at least I have a guardian now. Maybe that was what Selene meant when she spoke of a family?

He held her close and did as she wished.

HPSSHPSSHPSS

She signed the guardianship papers the moment they arrived back at the farmhouse, and Severus enlarged his bedroom to store his extra items and gave Hermione the empty room for her own. She spent the rest of the day rearranging and redecorating it with her old things and new ones, she made the walls a sunset palate of colors, and placed the tapestry and Monet prints and photos upon it. The recliner went into a corner near the window, with the blanket upon it, and she sat in it, surveying her new domicile.

"Hey. Mind if I come in?"

Harry poked his head around the doorframe.

"Sure. What do you think?"

"It looks great. Really nice!" he said, walking in and looking about.

"It's not too . . .brainy or girly or . . ."

He put a finger to her lips. "It's perfect. Like you." Then he kissed her, a mere brush of his lips against hers, like the fluttering of butterfly wings.

She felt her heart start to pound and liquid warmth cascaded from her head to her feet. She had to force herself to step away, recalling Severus' rules. She didn't want to disappoint her new guardian on her first official day as his new "daughter."

"Have a seat," she gestured to the recliner and took a seat on the bed, next to the shoebox from her mother's closet.

Harry did, sinking into the comfy chair and sighing in bliss. "Great chair, 'Mione! It makes my bruised backside feel great."

"Why is your bottom bruised?"

"Ah . . .I was riding Moon Fire while you were decorating in here, and I wanted to try out that quintain he set up on the lawn. I used a piece of wood for a lance and ended up on my bum three times out of five. I would have made a terrible knight."

She giggled. "But you make a wonderful unicorn."

"True." He grinned back at her. "What's in that box?"

"Umm . . .I don't really know. Haven't had the chance to look at it. I think Mum put my birth certificate in there and probably some baby photos and my baptism certificate . . ." she opened the box and picked up the album. "Here, take a look. You can laugh at my goofy baby pictures." She tossed the album to him, and looked at the other papers inside. One was her birth certificate, she glanced at it briefly, then she took another look.

Instead of her name, Hermione Jeanne Granger, it read baby girl, name unknown, born September 19th, 1979. There was a second document, paper clipped to the birth certificate. She stared at it, disbelieving.

"Hermione?" Harry's voice sounded odd. "Have you looked at this album recently?"

"No. Why?" She stared at the papers in her hand, thinking it must be a mistake.

"Because it's not just a baby album. It's got letters in it that your mum wrote to somebody named Dee Bristol. Do you know anyone by that name?"

"I . . .she used to be my mum's roommate at university but I haven't seen or heard from her in years, she was my mum's best friend. Why?"

"Because . . .these letters here say that . . .you're not really a Granger. That you were adopted, and Dee Bristol was the one who found you and told your parents about you. Read it."

She took the album. Inside was a baby picture of herself, written beneath it in her mother's classic script was Our new baby girl, four weeks old. There were letters written in an unfamiliar hand to her mother, letters that expressed regret that Jeanne couldn't conceive and suggested she look at adoption as a way to have a child. More letters where Dee told Jeanne and Danny excitedly that she had found an agency with a foundling girl they might like to look at.

" . . .She was found crying in a bassinet made of woven wicker in a park near Inverness, wearing only a silver unicorn pendant and a white gown, a man out for a walk with a shepherd heard her crying and brought her to Child Services. They ended up transferring her down to York and I think she'd be perfect for you . . .I've recommended you for possible adoption, Jeannie, all you have to do is come down and take a look at her . . ."

She flipped the page and saw another photo, this one of herself and her parents, she was six weeks. The caption beneath read—Hermione Jeanne Granger, our daughter, born September 19th, the day we took her home.

The letter next to it read . . ."I think Hermione Jeanne is a beautiful name and I would be honored to stand as her godmother . . .it's fitting that you make her birthday the day you took her into your hearts and your home.

Best of luck,

Love,

Dee

"'Mione?"

"I . . .I can't believe they never told me."

"Maybe they were going to tell you one day," Harry supposed. "Is it really so bad, that you were adopted? I mean, there were times when I lived with the Dursleys that I used to wish I was adopted." Then he blushed. "Sorry, bad example. I'm really sticking my foot in it today."

"It's okay. I'm just . . .really shocked." She shoved everything in the box and hopped off her bed.

"Where are you going?"

"To show Severus. He ought to know about this."

Five minutes later, they were all sitting on the sofa in the den, Severus was reading the letters in the album, and Hermione kept wondering how she had never guessed all those years. "It never occurred to me, even though I didn't have hair anything like my . . .mum's or dad's . . .they both had straight hair, and Mum's was blond, though Dad had darker hair . . .I just can't believe they never told me . . .why would they keep it a secret, like they were ashamed or something . . ."

"I doubt that," Severus said quietly. "From what I read here, your parents loved you every bit as if they were your biological ones. I think perhaps they were waiting for the right time to tell you . . .like when you were old enough to understand why they chose you, how it made you special . . ."

Hermione bit her lip. "Just before it happened . . .I remember Mum and Dad discussing something and when I came into the room, they stopped . . .maybe they were discussing telling me or something . . .But now I'll never know . . ." she trailed off, fingering the silver unicorn pendant. "This was found about my neck . . .I wonder if it's a symbol or something . . ."

"Like a House crest?" Severus asked. "I know a few pureblood crests, but none of them have a unicorn as their symbol."

"Is there a book of pureblood House crests somewhere?"

"Yes, the Ministry library has one or two." The Potions Master replied. "But before we go that route, might I suggest we contact this Dee Bristol? She might be able to tell us more."

"I could write her a letter!" Hermione cried excitedly. "Maybe she knows something about my . . .birth family. Maybe that's what Selene meant when She said I still had family somewhere."

"That is possible. Or it could mean She was speaking of me and Harry, as my ward, you are now part of my family," Severus mused.

"You're right. I never thought about it like that before. There's a lot of ways we could interpret Her words."

"There usually is," her guardian said wryly. "The Lady is fond of riddles and mysteries."

"Well, one way or another, I'm going to solve this one," said his new ward determinedly. "Not because I don't want to be a Granger, because I'll always love my parents, but because I need to find out who I really am."

"Know thyself," murmured Severus.

"Exactly." Hermione said, and she stared down at the silver unicorn charm, instinctively knowing that it held the key to her past.

Well, what did you think of that chapter? Did you like the conversation between Hermione and Harry in the beginning? And how Hermione's relationship with Severus is coming along? Who do you think are Hermione's real parents? Is she really a Muggleborn?

I've also updated Irresistible Chemistry, in case you didn't notice, please go and read and review my new chapter! Thanks!

Oh and one more thing, I need you all to help pick a name for Harry's new Animagus form. I'm going to post a poll like I did with Away in A Manger, please give me one name for Harry's black unicorn form. I will then take all the names and put them in a poll so you can vote on it. Thanks, I really appreciate it!

Chapter 33: Midnight Sight
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Two days later:

 

“So, are you going to write Ron and tell him, ‘Mione?” asked Harry as he ran a soft brush down Moon Fire’s flank. 

Both of the initiates had had a riding lesson that morning, almost right when the sun rose, and Severus had promised Hermione a lesson with the quintain that afternoon.  He had conjured up a proper knight’s jousting saddle, with a high pommel and cantle, designed to cup a knight in full armor and keep him in the saddle at a full charge unless he was unhorsed by a better opponent or the whirling quintain.  Of course, Hermione wouldn’t be in full armor, only using the Silver Lance, which Selene had assured her did not require any kind of formal training, since it would instinctively know what to do when Hermione pointed it at an opponent.  Still, Hermione wanted to practice beforehand, in case the lance made her behave strangely. Magical objects could be quirky that way.

Hermione bit her lip, pausing in cleaning and oiling Moon Fire’s hooves to consider Harry’s question.  “I’m . . .not sure.  It’s not that I don’t want him to know, but . . . I’m still trying to come to grips with it myself and I don’t really know how to put it into words . . .not to mention the fact that now I’m Severus’ ward too. And you know Ron.  Speaking of which, have you told him about being Severus’ ward?”

Harry shook his head.  “No.  Neither Ron nor Sirius knows about that.”

“Oh?” She tilted her head questioningly.  “Why not?”

“I dunno. Part of it was because I was still settling in myself and everything and then I was on my rescue mission and now . . .there just never seems to be a good moment to sit down and just write a letter, plus I suck at writing letters and . . .”

“And?”

“ . . .and I’m afraid they’re going to go ballistic and I really don’t want to deal with that right now.” Harry finished. 

Moon Fire snorted, his eyes rolling. If they can’t accept you for what you are, Harry, then they should leave you the hell alone. 

“But Moon Fire, Sirius is my godfather.”

Humph! And a fine one he’s been to you, getting himself locked away in prison for years and then having to go into hiding as well. But then again, Black was never known for his subtlety or his brains, but for rushing in where angels feared to tread. He was like that at school and from what I can see, he’s still that way. Moon Fire shook his head, making his forelock fall over his crescent mark.

Harry said nothing, because he could hear the ring of truth in his mentor’s words. He had only known Sirius for a little over a year and the way he had behaved when he had come to Hogwarts as the escaped prisoner had been rather rash and impulsive.  He also did not like the fact that Sirius’ werewolf prank had nearly killed Severus and yet the Marauder didn’t seem to regret it, instead muttering that Snape had deserved it for sneaking about after them.  It was that, in fact, which bothered him most of all, that Sirius tried to justify what could have been regarded as attempted murder.  Harry knew that there had been plenty of times he had wished Dudley dead, or the victim of a crippling accident, especially after he had gotten Harry beaten or hurt, but even so, he would have never tried to hurt his cousin himself.  He simply didn’t have the vindictiveness necessary for that kind of thing, and Severus had never done to Sirius what Dudley had to Harry.

Harry sighed, caressing the stallion lightly. “Maybe you’re right. For good or bad, I’ve made my decision, you as my guardian and Selene as my goddess.  They can take it or leave it.  Do you know, ‘Mione, if Ron worships Selene?”

“No. We’ve never discussed that.”

Moon Fire stamped a hoof. I know that the elder Weasleys are followers of the Bright Lady.  But their children are of mixed faiths, as they each chose a different one upon their majority or upon reaching sixteen.  Charlie worships the Celtic god Cernunnos, the Horned One, and the twins are devotees of the Loki, God of Mischief, big surprise there. William worships Apollo, Selene’s brother, the Breaker of Curses and god healing, prophecy, and music, as well as the bow.  But I do not know what Ronald or Ginevra have chosen yet.

“So Fred and George are disciples of Loki?” Hermione giggled. “I should have figured that out.  They’re perfect for him.  I wonder what Sirius worships?”

Moon Fire bared his teeth. Nemesis, goddess of vengeance, I would wager.

“Moon Fire! He’s not evil!” Harry objected.

The stallion looked him right in the eye.  Nemesis is not precisely evil either. She destroys, true, but it balances out the other Aspects of Selene, who is a life-giver. She is the goddess’ Dark face, but not pure evil, like Set. She is cruel, yet necessary.  Think about it. All of Black’s motivations since adolescence have been driven by revenge.  He nearly killed me out of a need to revenge himself on a sneaky Slytherin who dared to be friends with a Gryffindor girl.  The night you defeated the Dark One, Black went to avenge his friend James first, leaving you in the care of Hagrid and Dumbledore.  She rode him hard that night, and in his rage he almost destroyed himself.  It was the same when he broke out of Azkaban.  He was driven by vengeance, a need to kill Pettigrew and redeem himself, first and foremost, and secondary was your safety, Harry.  Those who follow Nemesis are often creatures of impulse, who act first and think later and are swift to condemn and slow to forgive.  And his form is a black dog, often associated with death and doom. 

Harry chewed his lower lip thoughtfully. When the facts were presented that way . . .Harry found he was hard put to deny that Severus was right.  And he knew himself that Sirius still disliked Severus, and had never really given up the old school rivalry. He had even referred to Snape in a letter to Harry as “Snivellus”. 

“Well, okay, maybe you’re right.  But I didn’t tell him because I didn’t think he’d understand why I chose the way I did. And I still don’t.”

He put away the grooming supplies, for Moon Fire’s coat now shone gleaming ebony.

Suddenly, the stallion’s form blurred and became Severus. “Thank you,” he said to both of them.  “I think we could all do with a bite to eat and perhaps a rest before the afternoon. You especially, Hermione. Practicing with the quintain is not a sport for the fatigued of mind or body.”

The girl nodded and they all headed inside for lunch.  Afterwards, Harry took Severus’ advice and took a nap and Hermione did also, after sending Nighteyes with a letter for the woman who had found her that day in the meadow. She hoped that the lady could shed some light on her past.  She desperately wanted to know about the family who had given her up for adoption.  She found she had forgiven her parents for not telling her the truth long ago, she knew they had meant well and she loved them, they had treated her like their blood and loved her until the day they died.  Perhaps it had hurt them to think of telling her and then being afraid she would reject them and go running off to find the family who had left her behind.  That never would have happened.  Hermione had adored her parents and could never have hurt them that way.

Still, her curiosity was killing her.

Selene had said she would know the truth when it was time.  But when would that be? Today, tomorrow, next month? She supposed she would have to practice a little-known Gryffindor trait—patience.

Upon waking, she dressed in her most comfortable pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt with a Cooling charm upon it and her riding boots and hat. Severus had told her that she needed to be prepared to get knocked off his back while practicing with the quintain, since anything but a direct hit upon the stuffed dummy’s chest would cause it to spin about and the sandbags attached to its arms were designed to smack you good and hard, as a reminder to be quick and accurate. “It might sound cruel and hard, but knights were warriors, and they believed that whatever didn’t kill you made you stronger. So, be warned, girl, because even with a jousting saddle, you can still be knocked sprawling. It took many months for a knight to get proficient with a lance at the joust, so don’t expect it to be easy.” Her new guardian had told her.

She hurried downstairs, and picked up the Silver Lance from its corner.  It thrummed warmly in her grasp. Though she had never used a weapon in her life, the lance somehow felt comfortable in her grip, as if it had been made just for her. She wondered if that were more of the goddess’ magic. 

A quick glance at the couch revealed Harry still asleep, curled up under a light blanket, one foot sticking out. Hermione walked over and pulled the blanket over his foot, smiling gently at her boyfriend.  In sleep, he looked his age, innocent and untouched, though she knew he had endured more tragedy than most men.

“Professor?” she called softly. “I’m ready for my lesson.”

Severus emerged from the basement just as she called, and said, “Perfect timing, Miss Granger. Come, let us see what that lance can do.”

She followed him out to the large spread of lawn and waited until Severus had transformed into Moon Fire. A part of her envied him and Harry their beautiful Animagus forms, but she supposed her own gift of Clear Thought and Vision was just as valuable, as was the lance.  She wondered if her newfound gift would let her penetrate Harry’s Invisibility Cloak, like Moody’s magical eye had been able to?

Mount, daughter, Moon Fire ordered, his mind voice clear in her head.

Hermione quickly Summoned the jousting saddle and floated it onto Moon Fire’s back and tightened the girth. The bridle went next and then she swung her leg over his back and mounted.  The high saddle cradled her and she found she felt more at ease with it. It was almost like a seat.  The stirrups were large and were triangular in shape and had a frontspiece of leather to protect her shins.  Carefully gathering her reins as Moon Fire liked, not gripping them too hard, she held out her hand for the lance, the words to another Summoning charm on her lips.

But the lance, which she had laid down on the grass, blinked and appeared in her hand. “Merlin! It just came to me!”

Moon Fire whinnied. It is attuned to you. Ready?

She could feel the great horse gathering himself, and she gripped hard with her legs.  Up ahead was a long pole, about fourteen feet high, with a stuffed straw dummy on it with sandbags for arms.  “Go, Moon Fire!” she yelled and gave him a sharp kick with her boots.

The stallion whistled and bolted, running hard towards the quintain. 

Before Hermione quite knew what was happening, she felt the lance quiver and then she was holding it couched neatly beneath her arm, its point bobbing across her body.  Somehow she knew this was the way the lance was supposed to be held. She struck the dummy head on and the quintain spun about in a blur. Then Moon Fire cantered safely past.

“I did it!” she cheered. “I don’t believe it.”

Neither do I. It must be the lance.  Let’s try again.  Moon Fire spun on his hocks and ran straight at the quintain again. 

Once again, the magic in the lance guided Hermione, and she again struck a perfect bullseye. 

Five more times she went up and down, and only once did she grow careless and get walloped off the black horse’s back.  She landed with a breath-jarring thump and gasped for air. “Ow!”

Moon Fire peered at her.  Up, child. You’re all right.

“How do you know that? I could have broken something.” Hermione said, aching and rubbing her posterior.

I can tell. Come on. Back in the saddle and let’s do it again.

Biting back a groan, Hermione crawled into the saddle.

By the end of an hour and a half, she had struck the quintain almost every time she rode at it, though when she missed, it was spectacularly.  Still, she was amazed at what the lance could do and felt sure it would prove useful in the coming battle. Tired and sore but happy, she rode Moon Fire up to the house and jumped off.

“Thanks, sir!” she called over her shoulder, then went to take a hot shower so she wouldn’t stiffen.

SSHPSSHPSS

 

That same night, Harry transformed into his unicorn form, and went to practice as well. He used his spiral horn much the same way as Hermione did her lance, and struck the quintain precisely in the middle of its chest.  Or at least he did when he allowed the unicorn mind control when he charged the dummy.  The first few times he tried to skewer the stuffed dummy, he ended up getting his horn stuck in the quintain and skidding on his haunches.

Shaking his head to clear it, he trotted back across the pasture and tried it again. Moon Fire watched from a short distance away, nickering in encouragement.  Harry was relieved the stallion didn’t criticize or make fun of his efforts.  Sometimes, when he allowed his human mind too much control, he shuddered when he speared the cloth effigy, imagining it was a person. The unicorn mind was much more pragmatic and looked at the quintain only as an enemy to be dispatched. 

When he felt his knees start to tremble with weakness, he stopped and turned to Moon Fire.  Moon Fire, can I ask you something?

The stallion looked up from cropping the grass.  Ask, young one.

Harry joined the older horse, quietly eating the fresh shoots before saying, The first time you . . .killed a Death Eater, did it . . .bother you?

Moon Fire snorted.  Yes.  I threw up the first time.  Now . . .only sometimes. Are you worried about the upcoming battle?

Yes. I’m afraid that when I have to . . .I won’t be able to defend myself. His tail switched against his flank uneasily.

Don’t be. You will find that when you need it, the urge to survive is stronger than your urge to do no harm.  Let the unicorn mind fill you and you can do what you must.  And afterwards, I will be there to hold your head if you need it.  He breathed gently over the tall unicorn colt, his breath misting in the air. 

Harry playfully nibbled along the other’s mane, enjoying the closeness, until he nipped too hard, and got a stern bite in return. He whinnied in protest and jumped. Hey, that hurt!

So did you. Mind your teeth, colt!

Harry found himself instinctively bowing his head, accepting his elder’s rebuke. Sorry.

Moon Fire blew at him.  They browsed for a few more minutes before the stallion said, The moon is high, and She lights our path. Shall we run, midnight unicorn?

Harry threw back his head and squealed eagerly. Then he raced off across the pasture. 

Moon Fire followed, allowing the colt to think he was winning before coming on like an express train and blowing past him.  He completed one circuit of the pasture before pulling up beside the fence. 

A minute later, Harry pulled up beside him. How did you do that? I was like . . .lengths ahead of you!

Experience, young one.  A race is not won by speed alone.  With that, Moon Fire shimmered into Severus.

Harry reluctantly released his own form, and followed his guardian into the house, weary yet satisfied.

SSHPSSHPSS

 

Over the next few days, Severus concentrated upon learning how to control his own gifts, trying to see how far his range extended with his telepathy, he discovered he could pick up thoughts from as far off as Andromeda’s academy, and he had a feeling that when he needed to, he could contact Albus as well.  But picking up thoughts from farther away left him with a blinding headache, so he decided to only do so in extreme circumstances.

He also worked with Hermione, helping her learn to focus her mind in order to use her Clear Thought talent.  The girl was willing and eager, and soon mastered the basics of meditative breathing and concentration. But her control over the gift was erratic, and the first time she managed to call it up, she touched some of Severus’ memories.  They were old ones, though unpleasant, of his childhood.

One minute, Hermione found herself breathing evenly, the next she saw a small dark-haired boy, clear as day, sobbing while a tall man whipped him with a strap. She stared in horror, and then she recognized the boy. “No!” she yelled. “Stop it! Stop!” The picture vanished then and she jerked upright as if yanked by her hair.

“Hermione! What happened?” Severus demanded.

The girl was white and trembling. “I saw . . .oh, professor . . .I’m so sorry . . .!”

“For what? What did you see?”

She shut her eyes. “I saw you . . .when you were small . . .and you were being beaten by a tall man . . .I’m sorry . . .I didn’t mean to see that . . .it just happened . . .” She was practically in tears, for she knew how much Snape valued his privacy, and she was also sickened to learn that he too had been a victim of an abusive parent, like Harry.

Severus laid a hand on her shoulder. “Hermione, look at me.  Your gift is uncontrolled, and I suppose it latches onto strong or very clear memories.  My shields were down, and so it picked up on that memory.” He grimaced.  “I have long ago come to terms with what happened, child, but some things you never forget.”

Her brown eyes were wide with pain.  “How horrible! How could . . .”

Snape’s mouth thinned. “He was a wicked bully, my father.  I thank the Bright One daily that he no longer walks the earth.” He took a deep breath. “Let us start again. Breathe . . .one, two, three. . .inhale . . .and exhale . . .”

Hermione struggled to wipe the memory from her mind, and find her center again, though she knew she would always remember what she had glimpsed, and wish to comfort the sobbing child and hex Tobias Snape into pieces.  Poor Severus! No one should have to live through that! No one! And poor Harry too! I never realized how lucky I was, to be raised by decent people, until now.

Severus calmly raised his Occlumency shields, for if the gift were that strong, he did not want to risk her seeing other unpleasant memories, especially not those concerning Voldemort. 

They had Harry come into the den wearing his cloak, and Hermione concentrated and tried to see if she could find him. 

“Well, can you see me?” Harry’s voice sounded slightly muffled, hidden beneath the hood.

Hermione squinted.  “Err . . .yes, but you’re hazy, like I’m seeing you through a mist, sort of . . .”

“But you can see me?”

“Yes.”

He moved about and each time she could find where he was. 

“That’s amazing!” Harry exclaimed. “It’s like you have magical eyes, like Mad Eye Moody!”

“The eyes of Selene see true,” Severus murmured.  “Let’s try something else.”

He cast a Disillusionment charm over the fireplace, and Hermione could see right through it. He cast a Glamour Charm over himself, changing his appearance to a skinny blond child, and Hermione could see through that as well. 

“It’s like seeing double, sort of. I can see the image of the charm overlaid on your true one, but the illusion is thin and wispy.”

She rubbed her eyes, for they were starting to tear and burn.  “Can we take a break now, Severus? I’m getting tired.”

Snape nodded his assent.  “Harry, why don’t you go and check the mail?”

Hermione had written to Dee Bristol several days ago, having found her address in her mother’s papers, and was anxiously awaiting a reply.

“All right.” Harry tossed off his cloak and went out to the mailbox at the end of the drive. 

There was a single letter inside, addressed to Hermione. 

“Guess what?” he teased, holding the letter behind his back when he returned to the house. “You’ve got mail.”

Hermione grinned and said, “Give it here, Harry. Or else I’ll tickle you till you beg for mercy.”

He snorted. “I’m faster with a wand now, ‘Mione.”

“Wanna bet, Potter?” She waved her finger at him.

Severus rolled his eyes. “Children . . .act your age.”

Harry handed her the letter.

Hermione quickly opened it and read it.  Then she set it down and sighed.

“Not good?” Harry asked.

The girl looked disappointed.  “It’s not bad, just . . .she said that she doesn’t know anything more than what she told my mum.  I was a foundling, and nobody knows where I might have come from.” She twirled the unicorn pendant about her finger and released it.  “I was hoping that she might have remembered more, but . . .I guess there’s nothing to remember.”

“When it’s time to know, Hermione, you will know,” said her guardian.  “Selene always keeps Her promises.”

“I know, but . . .” she shook her head.  “I guess I can wait a bit longer, considering I’ve been waiting my whole life and never knew it.  I’m just . . .eaten up with insatiable curiosity.”

“Huh?” Harry gave her a blank look.

But Severus, who was familiar with Kipling’s Just So Stories, chuckled. “Like the Elephant’s Child?”

Hermione grinned. “Yes, sir.  Though I hope you won’t spank me the way all his relatives did.”

“I’ll try and restrain myself,” her professor smirked.

“What?” Harry’s eyes bulged and he stared at the two of them as if they had lost their mind.

“Harry, haven’t you ever read The Just So Stories?” Hermione asked.  “My mum and dad used to read them to me every night when I was seven or eight.  They were really interesting, all about different animals and how they were created or came to have different things, like an elephant’s trunk, or a camel’s hump . . .”

“And they had an elephant being spanked by his relatives?”

“Because said elephant asked too many questions and annoyed his relatives to no end,” Severus interjected.  “Much like a certain student I could name.”

Hermione blushed.  “I guess I was kind of . . .obnoxious, knowing all the answers.”

“It was not your knowledge that I minded, but the fact that you tended to shove it in my face every class period.  I wished to have other students participate as well, which is why I did not call on you for answers every time you raised your hand.”

“But, professor, most of the time the others were wrong!”

Severus smirked. “I am well aware of that, but being wrong is also a learning experience.”

“So is being yelled at by you,” Harry put in impudently.

Severus frowned slightly. “One which you never seemed to learn from, Mr. Potter, considering how often I had to repeat it.”

“Oh, I learned from it, Severus. I learned different ways to annoy you,” Harry admitted shamelessly.

“Wretched brat!” He mock-cuffed his ward on the back of the head. “I am sure Kipling based his Elephant’s Child upon children just like the two of you.”

“Uh, sure he did,” Harry drawled.

Hermione laughed.  “Well, now I have an idea of what to get you for Christmas.”

“Hermione, I’m not a little kid.”

“Kipling’s not just for kids. It’s a classic. Right, Severus?”

Snape nodded.  “The Jungle Books also.  Kipling was a very shrewd author, he put morals into his stories disguised as adventure tales.” Before he could say anymore, the wards about his property tingled, warning him of a visitor attempting to cross them.

He concentrated, feeling for the intruder’s magical aura, and discovered Albus trying to use his Portkey, which Severus had not told him was only good for one use.  “Well, well. Harry, Hermione, the Headmaster has come calling.” He took down the wards, allowing Dumbledore to enter. 

Soon there came a knock upon the door and Severus rose to answer it.  “Good afternoon, Headmaster. To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“Hello, Severus! I hope I’m not disturbing you,” Albus said, his eyes sparkling.  “You aren’t in the midst of a delicate experiment, are you?”

“No. Come in.” He stepped back and Albus entered the house.

“I wished to stop by and see how you and Harry are getting on.” Dumbledore said, walking into the den.  “Harry, my boy, how are you?” he said genially, then he saw Hermione.  “Hermione, dear girl! You are here as well? Thank goodness! We had feared . . .after what happened . . .that you were killed or captured . . .”

“I almost was, sir,” Hermione said. “But Professor Snape saved me.”

“Yes, he is known to do unexpected things like that,” said the Headmaster wryly. “Well, I am very happy to see that you are well. And you have my deepest condolences also.” His smiled dimmed.

“Thank you, sir.” Hermione said politely. She felt tears rising to her eyes but stubbornly blinked them away. 

“Would you care for some tea, Albus?” Severus queried, trying to draw the old meddler’s scrutiny away from Hermione. 

“If it’s not any trouble,” Dumbledore began.

“It isn’t,” Severus assured.  He went into the kitchen to prepare the tea and Harry got up and went to help put together the tea tray.

Dumbledore settled himself next to Hermione on the partially vacant sofa and said gently, “Child, I am so relieved that you are unharmed.  When you disappeared like that, I feared the worst.  Have you been a guest here since that night?”

Hermione nodded slowly. She was uncertain how much she should reveal to Dumbledore.  “I . . .didn’t have anywhere else to go.  My parents were only children, you see, and my grandparents died when I was little, so . . .”

“A terrible tragedy.  I deeply regret that the Aurors were unable to get there in time to save them.”

“Me too.”

“But at least you remain, to carry on their legacy. However, you do know that since you are a minor without parents living, that makes you a ward of the Ministry—”

Hermione shook her head.  “Actually, Headmaster, I’m Professor Snape’s ward now.  He was willing to claim me as his ward and I agreed to have him be my guardian.”

Albus was speechless. “Severus is your guardian as well as Harry’s?” He managed to say after a long awkward silence.  “I never would have thought . . .Severus is not . . .that is to say he does not normally care for children underfoot . . .”

“Not unless they promise to behave,” Hermione chuckled.  “He’s really not the curmudgeon he seems around kids, sir. You just have to know how to talk to him. And act around him.”

“I see. You seem to have his measure, Miss Granger.” The Headmaster didn’t seem to be overjoyed about Hermione choosing Snape as her guardian.  “He is a good man, if a little overly strict.”

The tea tray floated into the den, followed by Severus and Harry.  Dumbledore fixed his tea with a casual gesture, then said to his Potions Master, “I believe congratulations are in order, Severus, on your new daughter.”

Snape coughed. “Hermione informed you, I take it?”

“She did indeed.  I wish you all the best.  Although, I must confess, I am a bit surprised that you would take another teenager into your home so soon after adopting Harry.”

Severus’ eyes narrowed.  “Selene bid me rescue her and I am no stranger to the loss of a parent, Headmaster.  Hermione is safe with me, and that is all you need to know.” His tone was curt, indicating the subject was closed.

Hermione leaned forward to take a few sugar lumps from the sugar bowl and her two silver pendants swung free from beneath her shirt.

Albus saw and exclaimed, “Do tell me you have not converted Miss Granger to your moon goddess and Her archaic worship, Severus!”

“I have told you before, Albus, those who come to Her do so freely. I merely initiated her into the Mysteries at her request.  As I did Harry.”

Dumbledore coughed.  “I have never minded you worshipping Her, Severus, but I thought I specifically asked you not to convert Harry—”

“Then you don’t worship the Lady, sir?”asked Hermione.

“No. I do not believe one needs a goddess in order to give meaning to one’s life. I believe in free will of the individual and no goddess controls my destiny.”

“Selene doesn’t control us, She advises,” Harry told him.

“And yet, you believe in prophecy,” Severus interjected with a faint note of sarcasm.

“That is different,” Dumbledore argued. “That is a magical ability to see the future, it is not something granted by a deity.”

“But Selene is the goddess of magic,” argued Harry.  “She gave magic to wizards, Headmaster.”

“Superstition, my dear boy. Wizards and witches were born with magic. It did not require some imaginary being to gift us with it.”

Harry gaped at the old wizard.  “Selene’s not imaginary! I’ve seen Her! So have Hermione and Severus! She came to me loads of times, and spoke with me. She gave us both gifts at our initiation.  Now I can turn into a black unicorn because of Her—”

“Harry, sometimes we see things because we want to see them,” Dumbledore began.  “Your father was a very skilled Animagus, you have inherited that talent from him, no doubt—”

“No! She gifted me with the form, Headmaster, just like She did to Severus.  And I’m Her descendant, on my mother’s side.”

“Your mother was a Muggleborn.”

“Yes, but somewhere in her ancestry she had the goddess’ bloodline,” Harry said. “She was descended from Robin Hood, who was Selene and Jack the Green Man’s son, who chose to be mortal.”

Dumbledore looked amused. “Harry, there’s no need to invent some sort of sacred lineage, your own is quite illustrious as it is.”

“I’m not!” cried Harry, frustrated with the other’s obstinate refusal to accept his words as the truth.

Severus touched his arm lightly and shook his head. Then he sent, Harry, calm down. There is no sense in arguing with Dumbledore, he does not believe in Selene, and he refuses to see Her, and therefore will not accept anything we say about Her as truth.  It is a waste of breath to argue with him. I learned that long ago.

Frustrated, Harry drank his tea and nibbled upon a scone. He wondered what the Headmaster would say when he heard about what had gone on at Riddle Manor.

Severus then said gravely, “I have obtained new intelligence information. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has probably arrived at Riddle Manor by now.  Lucius was expecting him by the end of last week.  By my best estimation, he is there now with all of his inner circle, plotting to attack us, or gathering his army.  Either way, I suggest we gather our forces and strike at him, a surprise attack.  He won’t be expecting that, since in the past we have always waited for him to make the first move.  But if we attack him, and take him by surprise, we could finish him.”

Dumbledore looked pensive.  “You are certain he is there? It isn’t just a ploy to trick us?”

“I was there when Lucius was preparing his entertainment for his master,” Snape said tightly, choosing not to divulge that he was to have been said entertainment. “The Dark Lord is most likely there now, and this once, instead of sitting on our backsides allowing him to get the upper hand, we should attack. I know of a secret way to get to the manor that does not involve Apparition.  Gather the order, Albus.  Now the hunter becomes the hunted.” Snape urged, his eyes glittering.

Reluctantly, Dumbledore nodded. “Very well, Severus. I shall summon the Order.  But I hope you are right, and we aren’t walking into a trap.”

All the time Snape and Dumbledore had been speaking, Hermione had been picking up images and memories from Dumbledore’s mind, which he had not bothered to shield, as he was in the presence of a known ally and mere students.  What she saw in the old wizard’s mind horrified her, and it had nothing to do with the current situation with Voldemort.  It had to do with a prophecy made by crazy Trelawney and Harry.  The prophecy which Dumbledore believed in absolutely as truth.  And another, even deeper and darker secret, that had now come to light through her new gift. It took her several minutes to process all the images and then put them together.

“You did it all on purpose!” she burst out accusingly, unable to keep silent any longer. The look she turned upon the Headmaster was one of horror and contempt.

Dumbledore looked at her, puzzled.  “Did what, Hermione? Were you talking to me?”

“Yes! You know what I’m talking about . . .I don’t know how I never saw it before . . .you knew!”

“Knew what, dear girl?” he asked, a sudden frission of fear etching its way down his spine.  The way Hermione was looking at him, as if she could see into his very soul, was very disconcerting.

“You knew something wasn’t right at the Dursleys and you still sent Harry back there!”

“I had only supposition to go on, Hermione.  Not proof. And Harry needed to be with his relatives, because of the blood wards I place upon Privet Drive.”

“So you justify your actions, but that isn’t the whole truth, is it?”

“I don’t understand.” Dumbledore said, still keeping his tone low and reasonable, though his heart was fluttering madly in his chest, wondering how she could have known that.  And what else did she know?

“Don’t you?” Hermione said coldly, her eyes glowing an odd silvery color as the Clear Sight took hold.  “The truth is that you think Harry is fated to destroy You-Know-Who, and you consider him the only one capable of doing so.  But you wanted him tested first. So you left him with his hateful relatives, knowing they didn’t wish another child, Petunia Dursley wrote to you within the month and told you to take him away, but you told her she was bound to care for him and sent her money to keep her happy and quiet.  You sent her hush money and left Harry to be abused by them because you wanted a hero.  And you didn’t care how you got one. How could you?”

“All the signs pointed to Harry as being the one who could become Voldemort’s downfall.  I had to be certain that he wouldn’t break, however.  A sword must be tempered in fire before it hardens. I didn’t know that he was being beaten or starved, I merely assumed they were unaccepting of his magic.”

“He’s not a sword, he’s a person!” Hermione snapped, fury bubbling up within her.  “But you’ve never cared about him, or anyone, except yourself.   And maybe Tom Riddle, whom you mentored and fostered like your own son. Is that why you’ve always been so reluctant to kill him, sir? Because you’ve had plenty of opportunities, I saw them in your mind, you can’t deny it. Yet each time you’ve let him slip away.  You let a murdering psychopath run free because you didn’t have the guts to admit he’s gone dark and there’s nothing you can do about it! How many more people have to die before you find the nerve to face the truth, sir?”

The silver eyes burned and scorched him, and he flinched.  “And what truth is that, child? That once he was to me what you and Harry are to Severus? That I was proud of his accomplishments—he was a genius, smarter than any other student I have ever had—you included, Miss Granger.  It was my biggest regret that his pride and ambition overwhelmed him.  I tried to turn him away, but he was willful and disobedient, he thought he could master the Dark Arts without being corrupted, but he could not.  He was seduced by false promises and he fell, like Lucifer from the heavens.  I tried many times to make him turn away from the dark and come home again, but he refused.  Now he is lost to me.”

“He always has been, ever since he murdered innocents.  Once he worshipped the Bright Lady, but now even She has turned Her face from him.  He is Set’s child now, his Hand of Destruction and Chaos.”

“And you wonder why I do not worship the cold goddess, who abandoned my son to the dark?” Dumbledore demanded, his voice hard and sharp.

“No, Albus!” Severus interjected. “It was not Selene who abandoned him, it was he who abandoned Her.  He chose the darkness over the light, and She has given him plenty of chances to recant his decision, but each time he rejects Her. His heart has frozen, he is no longer the boy you found and brought to Hogwarts. I can understand your reluctance to destroy him, but Selene’s breath, Albus, he is causing chaos and turmoil all over! If you couldn’t do it yourself, why didn’t you hire a hitwizard? The Aurors have a whole squad of them! Why pin your hopes on an ambiguous prophecy spouted by a Seer who can barely predict what she will have for breakfast? And then to go and turn one small child into your personal hero, so he could do what you could not?  You have gone too far, Dumbledore.”

Harry just sat there, his insides turning and twisting, unable to speak, so great was his hurt and anger and betrayal.  He had thought the Headmaster his friend, had thought the old man was well-meaning but oblivious, had thought Dumbledore cared about him.  Instead, the harsh truth was that the Headmaster had used him as a means to an end, to kill Voldemort, so he would not be forced to kill the wizard who had once been like a son to him.  Harry had been the pawn, a weapon to be unleashed upon Voldemort, and like Dumbledore had said, who cares if a weapon is a bit banged up, so long as the edge is still sharp? A sword must be tempered in fire.  Harry felt sick to his stomach recalling those words. But a sword also cuts both ways. He lifted his eyes to the Headmaster, brimming with fury and betrayal and spoke not a word.

“I did what I thought was right. I am sorry if I hurt you, Harry. But you were my only hope.”

“Go to hell, old man!” Harry spat, rising to his feet.  “I’m nobody’s pawn.  Not anymore.  You made the worst mistake of your life by letting him walk away and now you’re paying for it, along with everyone else.  I hope you’re happy now! Because all of those deaths, including my parents’, are now on your shoulders! And for your information, I’m going to fight him, not because you want it, or because of some stupid prophecy, but because he needs to be put down, like a mad dog.”

With that, he spun on his heel and stalked from the house, unable to bear another minute in the other’s presence. 

After a moment, Hermione followed, shuddering as the Clear Thought and Vision released her. 

Dumbledore sat there, looking weary and regretful and somehow drained of his usual twinkling vitality, as if the truth of Hermione’s vision had stripped him down to the bare bones.  He gazed at Severus and said, almost pleadingly, “Surely, Severus, you can understand, now that you have two of your own to be responsible for, why I could not kill Tom?”

Severus stiffened.  “If Harry or Hermione ever became what he was, Albus, and repudiated everything good within them, I would have no choice but to destroy them.  Or, if I could not, I would find someone who could, rather than allow someone of such power and immorality to run amok.  Yes, I understand you reluctance to harm the child you once raised and loved, but Selene’s bloody tears, Albus, you should have hired someone else to take him out long ago, and not a mere fourteen year old boy either! Tom is an adult, and a dangerous one at that, he must be faced by another adult, not a child still learning his craft, no matter how powerful he is innately.”

“But the prophecy . . .”

“Hang the bloody prophecy!” Snape exploded.  “The prophecy shows only one possibility, the future shifts and changes minute by minute, as choices are made and discarded.  Divination is not an absolute. A Seer sees but a possible future, one fork in the road, that will come to pass if things stay as they are, but change one thing and a new possibility comes into being.”

“I believe Sybill saw the truth.”

“I don’t. And that is why I can change it,” Severus said fiercely.  He set down his teacup, his face forbidding as stone.  “I can forgive you much, Albus Dumbledore, but what you have done in the name of your grand scheme to Harry is not something I am willing to let go.  You turned a child into a sacrificial goat.”

“I created a hero!” argued the other, his blue eyes flashing. “Who are you to judge me, Severus Snape?”

“I am his guardian and in the end it is not me you shall answer to, but yourself. Call out the Order and let there be an end to this war.  Once it is done, we are through as well.”

“Severus, what do you mean?”

“What I said.  When Riddle’s body lies at my feet, all debts are paid. I shall resign my post at Hogwarts and Harry and Hermione shall not be returning for another term.”

“But it’s tradition for a Potter to attend Hogwarts—”

“Traditions can be broken.  Blackfriars Academy of Magic is as good a school, smaller and with more focus upon individual areas of study, and they have no foolish House rivalry to overcome, since all students are equal there and judged upon merit and individual ability.” Snape stated coldly. The school he was referring to  was a very small one, with about one hundred students, located in the north of Britain, hidden away on the misty Yorkshire moors.

Dumbledore sighed.  “You must do as you see fit, Severus.  They are your charges and your responsibility. When do you wish us to begin this . . .surprise attack?”

“Tomorrow night.  It is a full moon, make sure Lupin drinks his Wolfsbane, but it is also when Selene is at Her strongest. Be ready.” He dug out a fire-hardened clay disk with a crescent moon stamped on it.  “This Portkey will get all of you here and then we shall travel the secret way.” He handed it to the Headmaster.  “Good afternoon, sir.”

His words were polite, but Albus knew a dismissal when he heard one, and he nodded and said, “Good day, Severus.  Thank you for the tea.  Where did Hermione get that . . .unusual ability?”

“It was a gift from Selene,” Severus replied.

He saw the old wizard to the door and watched to make sure Albus Apparated away, he did not want the other trying to seek out Harry or Hermione.  Then he shut the door and heaved a sigh.  It never rains but it pours, Severus. Thanks for being so patient! Don't forget to vote for Harry's unicorn name below! Pick ONE name and include it in your review if you wish to participate in the poll. Name with the majority of votes wins.  If a tie, I will flip a coin.

6/24/10--POLL CLOSED!!

1.       Pure Ebony

2.       Eclipse

3.       Midnight

4.       Moon Boon

5.       Lightsworn Magic

6.       Night Mist

7.       Moonspear

8.       Darkfire

9.       Nightblaze

10.   Me’urra- elvish word for lightning

11.   Nimras- elvish for unicorn

12.   Arauka- elvish for swift

13.   Moon Dancer

14.   Paladin

15.   Night Shimmer

16.   Darkmoon

17.   Umbra

18.   Moonheart

19.   Moonfinder

20.   Midnight Wind

21.   New Moon

22.   Silver Wings

23.   Onyx

24.   Luna Noir


Chapter 34: Midnight Summoning
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Hermione found Harry in the pasture, ramming the quintain over and over with his horn. She could feel the waves of frustration and anger radiating from him and kept herself still and quiet until he had worked off most of his temper battering the straw dummy. She loved looking at him in his Animagus form, even angered, he was graceful and swift, like the wind made flesh. Hermione recalled reading once in a horse book that the Arabs believed that Allah had condensed the wind and from that sprang the horse. Looking at the black unicorn, Hermione could see how that could be true. Harry was about fifteen hands high, and bore a glittering pearlescent horn that was over a foot long. His hooves flashed silver and left crescent marks in the lawn when he charged the quintain. His mane and tail were long and flowing and she would have loved to run her fingers through it, but knew that right then wasn't the time.

Harry was so incensed at Hermione's revelation about the Headmaster that he saw red for several minutes. When at last he had worked off the killing anger and became rational again, he turned his head and saw his girlfriend leaning against a fence post, watching him. Shaking his forelock out of his eyes, he snorted and pawed the earth, stared at the remnants of the quintain, and hoped Severus wouldn't be too annoyed with him because he'd ruined it.

But then the quintain put itself back together and Harry tossed his head and trotted over to Hermione. He allowed her to stroke his neck and mane and nuzzled her cautiously before he transformed back to his boy self again. He ended up with her arms about him and for a brief moment he allowed himself to rest his head on her shoulder.

They remained that way for several minutes before Harry sighed and pulled away a little. Most of the anger he had felt towards the old wizard had drained out of him right then and all he felt was tired and betrayed.

"I'm sorry, Harry," Hermione murmured. "Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut."

Harry shook his head firmly. "No. It's better if I know the truth. I'm tired of people only telling me what they think I need to know. I'm not a child anymore, 'Mione! And I won't be used like that by anyone, prophecy or not. I'm glad you saw the truth Dumbledore hid. It hurts . . .but at least I know not to trust him."

She hugged him close. "I'm sorry . . .I know how much you admired him. I still can't believe he—"

Harry put a finger to her lips. "Don't. Don't talk about it anymore. There's nothing to be done, it's over with. All I want is to get through this last battle and then . . . then we'll see." He gently touched his lips to hers and she kissed him ardently.

"I love you, Harry."

"Love you too." She soothed the raw aching place deep inside him that had been opened after she had revealed the Headmaster had used him as a pawn to fulfill a prophecy and kill the wizard he loved like a son. I'm not a murderer! Or an assassin! He thought angrily. He didn't know what Dumbledore had intended originally, but whatever it was, Harry vowed to do what must be done in his own way. When he started to think about the years he had spent unwanted and detested in a cupboard, tormented by Dudley and labeled a freak, all because Dumbledore, in his infinite wisdom, had wanted a hero to take on Voldemort, he grew furious all over again.

He pushed those troublesome thoughts into the back of his mind, then said, "I'm still stuck on a name for my Animagus form. Would you like to help me choose one?"

"Sure. I'll try and think of some after supper. Shall we go inside?"

Harry nodded and together they went inside. He found Severus scrubbing and peeling potatoes for a casserole with onions, bacon, green beans and cheddar cheese. He sniffed appreciatively and said, "Smells great, Severus."

He wandlessly Summoned plates and silverware and set the table while Hermione cut up a salad and sliced up some seven grain bread. Harry put out butter and drinks.

The casserole went into the oven and while it was baking, they all sat down at the table and ate the salad and bread. There was a grave and uncomfortable silence until Severus broke it. "Harry, I want you to know that the prophecy Dumbledore spoke of is not written in stone. He believes it is, because he thinks that Trelawney has some kind of mystic Sight inherited from her ancestors, all of whom had strong gifts of prediction."

"But Severus, Divination is an imprecise art," Hermione interrupted. "Professor McGonagall said so." Then she blushed at her bad manners and muttered an apology.

"You are correct, Hermione. And a true Seer is as rare as water in the desert. But Professor Dumbledore has a weakness for hard luck cases, like Trelawney . . .and myself, I'll admit. But I was not minded to stay one, while Trelawney is content to remain a meek little dreamer, locked away in her tower."

"Then you think the prophecy is a fake?" Harry asked.

"Let me tell you what I know of prophecy. Prophecy is merely one person's prediction of what could be, a possible future, not the only one. The future is always in motion, it shifts and changes based upon our choices. I would wager my Potions Mastery that if Trelawney were to do a prediction now, she would see that the prophecy she made fourteen years ago had changed. A prophecy shows a path that you may walk, but it's not an absolute. They are fools for believing it is. They wish for it to be true and so they struggle to make it so, but sometimes trying to make something occur causes it to rebound and you have a worse future than you might have if you let things alone."

"How do you figure that, sir?"

"Here's an example. Suppose that you look in your tea leaves and see Harry is going to walk across the lawn tomorrow and catch his foot in a hole and trip. That's a bad thing, right. Something you can stop. But what if you tell Harry about the hole and he avoids it, only to get snatched up by a bear and dragged off to be eaten. Now, if you had just let Harry be, he would still be alive. Do you understand?"

Hermione looked uncertain. "I guess I do. You're saying that by trying to make things right, we're actually making things worse?"

"Very good! That is exactly what I'm saying. Prophecy is a double edged sword, it can both defend and destroy. I do not trust it and neither should you."

"Why does he then?" asked Harry belligerently.

Severus shrugged. "To each his own, Harry. Everyone needs to believe in something. And You-Know-Who believes in it too, else he wouldn't have come that night to destroy you."

"Humph! He's the Headmaster's son all right," mumbled his ward. Bitterness colored his tone.

Severus reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "Try not to concern yourself with that, Harry. I did not tell you of it because I felt it would do you no good and ruin your self confidence. You have the blessing of Selene and are Her Chosen, and that shall see you through the darkness. See us all through. Even the darkest night has stars."

His words made them feel warm and safe. By then the casserole was done and they all had several helpings of it . . .it was delicious.

"How long do you think it will take Dumbledore to gather up the other members of the Order?" asked Harry, Severus had told him about the Order of the Phoenix one night when they had discussed the First Wizard War.

"It depends."

"What's the Order?' Hermione asked, puzzled.

Severus took a moment to explain about the Order of the Phoenix, and what it stood for and what it had done in the past and today. Then he said, "I hope that the other members hurry up and get off their arses now. I have an odd feeling in the back of my head that the element of surprise is what will win this battle for us."

Harry bit his lip, then said softly, "Will I . . .have to face Old Snake Face again?"

"Only if I'm dead," Severus said decisively. "I have never agreed with the policy of sending schoolboys, even ones with extraordinary gifts, to face a crazed dark wizard who has killed hundreds in his bloody past. I would prefer if you two not come at all, but I know that hope is futile. So all that I ask of you, Harry, is that you pick your battles wisely and be careful. The rest is in Selene's hands."

"Will do, sir." Harry said, for he had no desire to die young as Cedric had.

"Study up on those Defense spells I taught you, and make sure you bring along your Cloak of Concealment, Harry. When you aren't a unicorn you may hide with it and that could save your life." Severus instructed. "Hermione, for part of the time you're going to be mounted on me, but when I see a chance to strike at the Evil One, I will ask you to dismount and then you should stick close to Harry. Do not, under any circumstances, risk your lives for anyone—not even me." His voice became stern and hard. "Have I your word on that?"

Both of them exchanged glances. They didn't want to agree, but they sensed Severus would not bend, and so they both said, "Yes, sir, we swear upon our magic we'll not risk our lives."

Severus was very relieved and after some tea and cakes, he sent them off to bed to have a good night's sleep, after sneakily lacing their tea with a few drops of Dreamless Sleep.

HPSSHPSSHP

The night of the full moon

Riddle Manor:

Deep underground in a stone chamber, Voldemort and his inner circle of Death Eaters gathered. All were in full regalia, standing about the pentagram etched into the floor, which had been made by dribbling the blood of some unfortunate Muggle into the carved grooves on the floor. Lucius stood at one end of the north point of the pentacle, Bella at the south end, Goyle at the west end, and Dolohov at the east point. Voldemort stood in the center, his arms upraised, chanting in ancient Egyptian, which was a language of magic and spells older than the Latin used today by modern wizards.

When Voldemort had shifted his allegiance from Selene to her dark brother Set, he had studied the language of ancient Egypt, which, according to some of the ancient texts, had been magic's first language. But Latin was easier to use and to pronounce, and when Rome rose to power, it dominated the ancient world and also the magical one. However, for this time, he chose to invoke the aid of his dark deity in the ancient way.

His followers understood none of what he said, as they were not students of the ancient ways, but they were there to offer him magical and emotional support when necessary. The Dark Mark bound them all to him and he could use it when necessary to give him strength. He wished he had the full thirteen with him, but Barty Crouch Junior had been Kissed, Karkaroff had been killed for the coward he was by Avery, and Severus Snape had turned traitor and when next they met, Voldemort had vowed to kill the sly bastard himself. Set Himself had informed Voldemort of that little fact, and it made Voldemort furious, since he had thought Snape loyal to him alone.

Voldemort continued his invocation, calling upon his dark god to grant him an army that would help him succeed in dominating the wizarding world. His words in the ancient tongue were measured and even and he could feel the power of his Dark Lord flow through him, like liquid ice through his veins—sharp and biting and filled with a hidden death.

"Open the way, Set, Lord of Destruction!

Grant me Thine Immortal Strength, I beseech Thee!

Grant me the power to crush mine enemies,

Trample them beneath my heels,

And rule the world of magic!

I, Tom Marvolo Riddle, Lord Voldemort, ask Thee

To send those of Thy kingdom here unto me!"

He chanted the request five times and then he felt a surge of black power unlike any he had ever felt before.

The voice of his god echoed in his head. I hear thee, My Son. My faithful Magus, My Warrior, thee shall have all thy ask. The gates shall be opened, the legions of the dead are thine to command. May thee triumph over thine enemies!

There came a surge of crackling purple lightning from out of the air, it funneled down and crackled about Voldemort, who stretched out his hand and the purple force bolts shot from his outstretched fingers and formed a doorway in the pentagram's center, a foot from where he stood.

All the wizards and witches felt the temperature in the room drop a good fifteen degrees and the power raging about their lord was awe-inspiring and terrifying. None of them had ever seen the like. Nor would they again.

The doorway sheeted purple lightning tinged with black for a moment or two before a gateway was torn in the fabric of the world and the first of Voldemort's legion of undead warriors marched through.

These were not the ordinary sort of undead, skeletons and zombies, these were spectral warriors, looking much the same as they had in life, when they were servants and guardians of Set's dark hidden temples, and they radiated an icy cold miasma that caused the Death Eaters nearest them to go white with fear and tremble.

Voldemort allowed a hundred warriors to come from Death's Kingdom, knowing full well he could summon more if he wished. He did not close the portal all the way, leaving it slightly ajar. He ordered the undead to stay within the stone chamber, they were susceptible to destruction by silver and full moonlight as well as a unicorn's horn and certain magical spells. He would wait till the moon had begun to set before allowing them to come forth.

"Come, my loyal ones," he crooned, managing to keep his feet, even though he felt very weakened now that Set was no longer giving him His might. "I believe the rest of our allies should be here shortly."

He led the way up the stone ramp to the manor proper. He felt the manor shake suddenly.

"Master, what is that?" cried Bellatrix. "An earthquake?"

"No, sweet Bella," purred her consort. "That is the tramp of giant feet. King Harghast has come at last with six of his personal guard." There was a fierce glitter of joy in his eyes now. Together with his loyal Death Eaters, giant and spectral warrior, his familiar the Queen Cobra, he would dominate the world. At long last he would show his foolish mentor Dumbledore just how powerful he was . . .and how much he didn't need the old fool's ethics. Tonight it begins! My conquest.

HPSSHPSSHP

The moon had just risen when Severus felt an icy chill grip him about the chest. He almost couldn't breathe and fear that he was having heart failure made him gasp for air. He had been sitting on the sofa, doing some last minute meditation, waiting for Albus and the Order to arrive for the past hour. Hermione and Harry were in the kitchen, oblivious to the pain he felt. Something is wrong. He glanced down at his arm, where he bore the dreaded Mark. It was spitting purple darts and felt hot and then cold. He knew then Voldemort was behind this.

At almost the same time, he heard Harry cry out as well. "Ahhh . . .my head!"

"Harry, are you all—oohh! My head feels like it's going to explode!" Hermione whimpered.

Through his haze of pain, the professor thought, We are all feeling the effects of a Great Working of dark magic. Voldemort has Summoned something not of this world and it has answered. Selene help us all. Those with the goddess' Gifts could sometimes feel when a Great Working occurred, and Severus, because of his ties to Voldemort, could feel it very strongly, as could Harry. And apparently, Hermione as well. He gritted his teeth and focused, then called a bottle of a strong Pain Reliever to him.

He managed to get the stopper off and down the contents, not even wincing at the bitter taste. Once it began to work, he Summoned two more vials and went into the kitchen to give them to his wards.

They took them gratefully, and when they could talk again, Hermione said, "Severus what just happened? I felt like . . .like shards of ice were stabbing me and there was . . .was this . . .sense of something twisted and wrong and evil . . ."

"My scar . . .it just exploded in pain . . ." Harry said, rubbing it. His fingers came away bloody. "Aww, bugger!"

"Let me see," Severus tilted his head back. "Your scar has a tear in it. Hold still." He traced a quick Healing charm with his wand and the flesh mended. "I was also affected," he indicated his Mark, which now resembled a black blister.

"What does it mean?" Hermione queried.

"It means we need to hurry and get to Riddle Manor as soon as humanly possible. There is no time to waste. Something evil has been Summoned by You-Know-Who and we must fight it now. Harry, gather your cloak and Hermione ready my saddle and get your lance. Move!"

His two students sprang away, not lingering to ask foolish questions for once. He fought the urge to scratch the burnin