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After the game, Harry was invited to a celebratory tea at Hagrid's along with Ron and Hermione. The whole team was ecstatic, and said that they were going to hold an "after curfew" party in the dorm that night to celebrate their first victory over Slytherin in five years. "You can join us if you'd like, Harry," Wood offered, clapping the little Seeker on the back. "Normally, we don't let firsties attend, but we'll make an exception for you."

Harry said thanks, but he knew he wouldn't be going. He was supposed to meet Severus behind the greenhouse later on. Funny, but he hadn't seen his guardian in the stands after the match, and wondered what had happened to him. But he couldn't ask without it seeming strange, and so he simply kept silent and followed Hagrid and his friends to the gamekeeper's hut.

The medium-sized stone and thatch cottage was cozy and homey, though Hagrid filled the space with his bulk. It was all one room, with a large hearth and a cast iron stove and sturdy furnishings of handcarved oak and maple. Hagrid's black boarhound, Fang, lounged upon the doorstep, and when he saw his master, he jumped up and wagged his tail so hard it smacked Ron in the knees, making the youngest Weasley boy yelp, for Fang's tail was like a whip.

"Down, yeh overgrown mutt," Hagrid scolded the big dog affectionately, and Fang drooled all over his master's boots, delighted to see him again. "He gets lonely and misses me when I leave," he explained, petting the big dog. "He won't hurt you, he's a big softie."

He told all three children to pet the big dog and let him smell them, which they did.

Fang licked Hermione's whole face, and the girl laughed and crooned, "Aww, you're such a sweet dog, aren't you?"

"Yup, he is that." Hagrid reached into a pocket and fished out two large dog biscuits. "Here, Fang. You stayed and watched the house for me today like a good boy."

The biscuits vanished down the boarhound's throat in a flash.

Harry stroked the dog behind the ears and the hound groaned delightedly and leaned into the slight boy, nearly knocking him down, for the dog was half Harry's height. "Good dog," he murmured, smiling. He liked dogs and other animals, though the Dursleys had never had any pets, Petunia had refused to have any "dirty animals" mucking up her immaculate house. But Harry had always wanted a pet of his own, and now he had Hedwig. Still, he wouldn't have minded a dog, though perhaps not one quite as big as Fang.

Hagrid unlocked the door and opened it, beckoning his three guests inside. They entered the homey cottage, with the earthy smell of peat from the fire, and the sharp tang of onions which hung in bunches from the rafters, along with dried basil, oregano, and other herbs. Small wizard lamps illuminated the hut, and a few braided ragrugs on the plank floor brightened the gray interior immensely.

Harry glanced around, noting the crossbow hanging on the wall beside the hearth, and a huge pair of antlers up above on the mantle, which had a clock and a carving of a bear standing upright on it. Fang trotted in, lapped water from a large bowl in the corner, then settled down beside the fire to gnaw a meaty bone lying on the floor.

In front of the hearth was a large armchair and a sofa of worn leather, and above the sofa was a pelt of some kind, striped blue and gray, that Harry didn't recognize. Hagrid gestured for them to have a seat around the table in the kitchen area, and he put a brass kettle on the stove and set out some large chipped earthenware mugs and pulled some bread from the pantry and a crock of butter and boysenberry jam. "Here yeh go. That's fresh bread I made this mornin', and boysenberry jam too. I make that too, and always save some extra for Professor Snape, since he loves it too."

Harry hid a grin, for he knew just how much Severus enjoyed that particular treat from the many breakfasts he had shared with the Potions Master over the years.

Ron stared at the big man in astonishment. "You mean you make that-that evil old bat jam, Hagrid?"

Hagrid gaped at the young wizard. So did Harry. "I do, and why d'you say Professor Snape's evil, Ron? You earn yourself a detention with him? Now listen here, Snape may be strict, but he ain't evil-"

"Oh yeah? Then why would he jinx Harry's broom?" Ron demanded angrily. "Hermione and I saw him."

Hermione nodded miserably, and Harry simply remained with his mouth open, not trusting himself to reply. His whole being wanted to scream that they were wrong, that Severus would never harm him, that he was the last person to ever do anything like that to his ward. He's my guardian angel, and he protects me, he would NEVER hurt me!

But it was Hagrid who leapt to Snape's defense, much to Harry's relief. "Yer wrong! Snape's a Hogwarts professor, he would never harm a student. He might seem all dark and cold, but thas' only ‘cause yeh don't know him."

Yeah! Harry added silently.

Hermione looked torn. "But Hagrid, I saw him jinxing the broom, honest! He was looking right at Harry and not blinking and that's what you do when you cast a curse on someone."

"I know, but mebbe yeh saw somethin' wrong, lass. I know Snape, he usta spend lots of time here, back when he was your age an' a little bit older. After his mum died ‘specially."

"Snape had a mother?" Ron repeated incredulously. "I thought maybe he was hatched from a serpent's egg."

"He did, an' he lost her when he was thirteen, she took sick an' no Healer could cure her." Hagrid said simply, recalling the frantic way the young Slytherin had tried to research a cure, only to come up with nothing. Eileen Prince Snape had died just before Easter and Severus had returned to school hollow and grieving, but hiding it from all save Lily and Hagrid.

"Oh, that's so sad!" Hermione cried. Then she added, "But I know what I saw, Hagrid. He only stopped jinxing the broom when I set him on fire."

"You what?" Harry yelled, unable to keep still any longer. "How could you do that, Hermione?"

"I . . I had to do something!" she wailed. "You were falling off and hanging on by just one hand and you could've died. I didn't want to hurt him, I only made a small spark, to distract him. And it worked."

"Lass, ye never should have done that," Hagrid scolded. "Attacking a teacher with magic just isn't done."

"I know . . .but I had to save Harry."

Harry wanted to scream that whoever he needed saving from, it wasn't Snape. And now the Potions Master had been hurt because of him. He swallowed hard. He felt awful.

Hagrid rose to pour the tea and Ron added, "Serves him right, the wicked vampire!"

"Ron, now that's enough!" Hagrid said sternly. "Why would Snape want to hurt Harry?"

"Because Harry found out he got bit by the three-headed dog on the third floor," Ron declared triumphantly. "He was trying to steal whatever the dog was guarding."

"Fluffy? You know about Fluffy?"

"That thing has a name?" Ron gasped.

"Sure he does! He's mine, I raised ‘em from a pup, got him off a Greek chappie down at the pub one evening . . ."

"But he's a Cerberus, right?" asked Hermione. "And they're bred to guard magical objects."

"Yeh, they are, and Fluffy does a great job at guarding the . . .I mean, Dumbledore borrowed him to . . .er . . .never mind. I shouldn't have told yeh that." Hagrid stammered, scowling down at his slice of bread with butter and jam.

"But Snape's trying to steal it!" Ron cried. "He's a Slytherin and they're always up to no good."

"Rubbish and codswallop! Just ‘cause Snape's a Slytherin does not mean he's up to no good," Hagrid scolded. "That's just Gryffindor sour grapes talkin', there's good and bad members in all o' the Houses, Slytherin ain't the only House to have a wizard go dark from it. An' I oughta know, seein' as I've been here a long time. Snape isn't a dark wizard, I'm tellin' yeh! He's a strict teacher that don' take no backtalk an' all, but he's not one o' them." Hagrid could recall many an evening with the young Severus, discussing this or that potion and cure for some animal. He also remembered the one evening Severus had sobbed broken-heartedly at the kitchen table after the death of his mother. "Everyone leaves me, everyone! I couldn't save her, Hagrid. I tried . . .but it wasn't enough! I'm useless!" It had taken a Calming Draft and some hugging from both Hagrid and Lily to convince Sev he was not to blame for Eileen's death.

"How do you know that? Maybe he's tricked you." Ron objected.

Hagrid shook his head. "No. He's protectin' the . . .ah, I shouldn't of said that!"

"But then why did he try and kill Harry?" demanded Hermione.

"Now, lass, ye're assumin' too much here. I don't know why Harry's broom acted like that, but I do know that Snape wasn't responsible. Now you jus' forget all about the three-headed dog and what its guardin', it's none of your business and you're meddling in things that don't concern yeh. That's top secret stuff known only to Dumbeldore and Nicholas Flamel . . ." The half-giant hit himself in the forehead. "Drat! I shouldn't have said that!"

"Nicholas Flamel?" Hermione repeated. "Now where have I heard that name before . . .?" Her nose started twitching and in her eyes was a look like a cat that had just caught wind of a nest of mice somewhere and was going to hunt them down.

"Leave it be, lass! ‘Tis none o' yer business, any of yeh! Now stop this foolishness an' drink up yer tea and eat yer bread. We're here t' celebrate Harry's first game as Seeker, remember?"

Sensing that they would never convince the gamekeeper that he was mistaken about Snape, the greasy dungeon crawler, Ron and Hermione shut up and did as Hagrid had ordered, eating their bread and butter and drinking the strong tea he had made, which had been a gift to him from Severus last Christmas.

But Harry knew the two well enough by now to know that this discussion was far from over. Ron was still considering ways to prove Snape really was a dark wizard, like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and Hermione was pondering the mystery of Nicholas Flamel. Harry himself was trying to recall if he'd ever heard the name and what Fluffy could be guarding. He loved a good mystery, in fact those had been his favorite kind of books to read at the public library, he had read all of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. But somehow he sensed that this mystery would not be solved easily, and might even be dangerous to pursue. And he also got the feeling that Severus wouldn't like it if he went poking his nose in where it didn't belong.

But . . .his curiosity was driving him insane, and he knew he had to find out more about the magical object. And just who was Nicholas Flamel? And who was behind the attempts on his life? He had never had any enemies before this, unless you counted Dudley and his gang, but even they had never tried to kill him. Beat the spit out of him, yes, but not seriously injure him. Harry sighed. He would like this mystery even better if he weren't the target of whoever was behind all of this.

* * * * * *

Later on that evening, Hermione said she was going to do some research in the library, and Harry pretended he had left a book in the greenhouse that he needed and so managed to slip out of the dorm without getting anyone suspicious. Half the older Gryffindors were partying with the Quidditch team and paid no attention to Harry's departure. Even Percy was drinking a butterbeer and talking about the Chudley Cannons with Mark Lightfoot, a seventh-year.

Harry walked silent-footed as a ghost out of the castle, clutching the hood of his black school robe tighter against him, for the wind had picked up and it was chilly. The sky was sprinkled with stars and the moon soared cold and pale overhead, illuminating the pathway just enough so he didn't trip. He really wished he could get that surgery Madam Pomfrey suggested, so he could see in the dark and didn't have to worry about his glasses coming off during a Quidditch game. He had tied them on with some twine, luckily no one had noticed.

At last he reached the greenhouse, which was always lit dimly for some of the plants grown there required some form of light twenty-four hours a day. He slipped behind it, waiting beside the wheelbarrow for his dark angel to show up. Funny, but Severus was usually never late, he was always on time, or even early. Harry turned to glance around at the trees a bit further on, and nearly jumped out of his skin when a warm hand clasped his shoulder.

"Do try and be more alert, Harry. What if I was an enemy?" chided his professor.

It was a moment before he could manage to reply. "P-professor! I mean, Severus! You .. .surprised me!"

"Obviously. Because you weren't paying attention to your surroundings."

"I was looking for you," Harry objected. "It's not my fault my eyes are so bad. I can't see in the dark at all," he lamented.

"Then you must learn to compensate for your poor eyesight with your other four senses," Severus lectured. "Come along, Mr. Potter. The night grows cold, but I'll soon warm you up, you impudent scamp!" he began to move down the path to their secret grove.

"I wish I could get that surgery Madam Pomfrey mentioned," Harry said wistfully as he walked beside his protector.

"What surgery? To correct your eyes?"

"Um . . .yeah. She said magic could fix them, but . . .it's expensive and I would need an adult to sign consent forms since I'm a kid. So that'll never happen, since my aunt or uncle would never do it." Harry sighed gustily. "Guess I'll just have to make do with my glasses." He shrugged.

Or maybe not, Severus thought, making a mental note to speak with Poppy about the surgery. He would send a note from Potter's mysterious uncle, an old wizarding friend of Lily's named . . .Uncle Toby. The Potions Master smirked like a little boy with a juicy secret. Yes, that would work. He could use the alias many times, since no one would connect Toby with Severus Snape, for few knew his middle name, only Minerva, Albus, and Hagrid.

"Harry, I have been doing a bit of thinking, and if I ever need to send you something during the year, or you need to speak with me urgently, you may use the alias of a good family friend of Lily's, namely an Uncle Toby. Tobias is my middle name, which no one ever uses, so it would be perfect for this sort of subterfuge."

Harry grinned. "Cool! I like it." Then he asked, "Sir, I noticed the other day . . .you were bleeding on your leg. Did you get hurt? Are you okay now?"

For once Severus cursed the boy's powers of observation. "I am fine, Harry. I cut myself but it is healed now and you don't need to concern yourself with it," he said firmly. He halted, flicking aside his robe to show Harry his leg, which was healed from both bite and burn.

"Oh. Okay." Harry seemed relieved Severus was better. "Did you watch the match, sir? I caught the Snitch, even though my broom went crazy."

"I know, child, I saw it all. In fact, I'll be inspecting your Nimbus for jinxes, while you're doing some warm-up exercises for me," said the Potions Master. "You did very well for your first game, Harry. You'll make a first-rate Seeker."

Harry beamed, for praise from his strict teacher was not something he heard every day. "Like my dad, right?"

"Yes. Though that is the only thing you should follow in his footsteps," Snape said softly, the old bitterness tinging his tone.

Harry paused, then asked a question that had been bugging him for sometime. "Severus . . .why don't you like my dad?"

"For many reasons, Harry. His arrogant attitude was one of them. His feeling that he was above the rules is another. He ran with a group of classmates who called themselves Marauders. They got into all sorts of trouble, and they caused trouble too, especially for Slytherins like myself. But that is a tale for another time. For now, I want you to pay attention to my lesson in self-defense. That will save your life more than stories of your father's misbegotten youth."

They had reached the secret grove by then, and Severus told Harry to remove his robe. "You won't be needing it during this lesson, it'll only get in the way."

"But, sir . . .it's cold," he complained, shivering slightly in the chill November air. His long-sleeved jersey did not keep out the penetrating wind, which blew even harder here than it did closer to the castle.

"You'll be warm in a few minutes," the Potions Master said with a smirk.

Harry groaned and handed Snape his robe, wrapping his arms around himself.

"Now, then. One of the first keys to self-defense is observation. You must know where you are and where your opponent is in relation to each other. As I mentioned before, you need to use more than just your eyes. You need to listen, feel, and smell your opponent. Often a person will give away his intentions in the tone of his voice. For instance, I might be standing here quietly, but if I growl at you, you'll know that I'm angry and will probably be coming towards you in a minute to punish you for something, yes?"

Harry nodded, still shivering.

"Good. Think about that, we'll go over the others later. Defending yourself magically requires quick reflexes and an alert mind, as does defending yourself physically. That being so, you need to train your body to react at a moment's notice. So, we'll begin with stretches. Have you ever run track, Harry?"

"No, sir. Couldn't try out for sports, wasn't allowed." Harry admitted, shuffling his feet.

Severus muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath, then said, "No matter. Watch what I do." He also removed his robe and hung both of them on a convenient tree branch, so he could demonstrate several elementary stretches.

Harry copied his guardian.

Severus nodded in approval. "Do those for five minutes, until I tell you to stop. Then you'll be limber enough to run a few laps around the clearing."

Harry obeyed, though he didn't see what running had to do with self-defense. Unless he was running away from someone. But he had learned long ago that Severus hated to be questioned continuously when he gave an order, and so he simply did as he was told. Five minutes later he was breathing a little harder, but he was warmer from the exertion.

"Good. Now, start running around the clearing, Mr. Potter. Ten laps, no stopping. Let's see what kind of endurance I have to work with. Begin!"

Harry jumped at the tone and began to run, jogging steadily around the clearing, which was quite large.

As his charge ran, Severus summoned Harry's Nimbus to him and began to check it for jinxes and curses. As he had suspected, there were faint traces on the handle of a jinx called Wild Fly, which was designed to make the broom go out of control and buck off its rider, a deadly prank if ever there was one. Snape's lips thinned and his eyes blazed. Then he cast a spell to purify the broom from evil influences.

While Snape was examining his broom, Harry panted and sweated, running around the clearing repeatedly. Ten laps didn't sound like much, but it seemed to grow longer the more circuits he did. Now he understood what Snape meant when he had said Harry wouldn't have to worry about being cold. Sweat was dripping off his forehead. The wind felt good now on his flushed skin.

"Five more, Mr. Potter," his teacher called, having kept track of the laps in his head.

Harry didn't bother replying, he was concentrating on running. Luckily the ground here was relatively smooth, with no holes or dips and his trainers didn't slip or slide on the grass. He hadn't run like this in quite a while though, not since his phys ed class in primary school, and he felt his legs start to burn with fatigue and his breath whistle through his nose.

He brushed a hand across his forehead, his hair was falling in his eyes now. The trees were all a dark blur against the moonlit backdrop, and he gritted his teeth as the annoying ache in his muscles deepened.

"One more to go," Severus called, his tone faintly encouraging.

Harry finished the last lap, perspiring freely, his hair flopping up and down.

"Don't stop," the Potions Master ordered. "Walk slowly around for about three minutes, so you can cool down."

Harry mumbled something irritably, but did as he was told. He hadn't thought he was that out of shape, but then again, he hadn't been chased by Dudley and his gang since he was nine, and doing household chores didn't build up stamina.

Severus continued scanning the Nimbus while the boy walked, but found no more harmful influences and then sent the broom back to Harry's room, having cast a few protection spells upon it that the boy might need. By then Harry was sufficiently cooled down.

He came to stand in front of the dark guardian, still breathing a bit harshly, his cheeks flushed from exertion and cold. "What now, Severus?"

"Draw your wand, Harry. Now you're going to learn a standard defense spell, one Quirrel should have taught you already. The Shield Charm." Severus pulled out his own ebony wand. "Move your wand in a slight clockwise motion and say firmly, Protego!"

Instantly, Severus was surrounded by a transparent but slightly tinged with blue magical shield. "This will cause most magical attacks to bounce off or reduce their impact. It will also allow you time to run to safety. In any situation where you feel as if you're in peril of your life, you should always cast this first." He indicated Harry was to try the charm.

Harry tried, but the shield he conjured was a pitiful weak thing that collapsed under Snape's Tickling Hex.

"Not good enough, Potter. Again, and this time put some will behind it. I'm not throwing feathers at you, boy."

Harry repeated the charm. This time the shield was bigger, but not the globe it should have been.

"Again, boy! Focus. Don't just say the word, feel it."

"I'm tired," Harry whined.

"So? There will be plenty of times you'll be tired. D'you think an enemy is going to wait till you're nice and rested before coming for you? Maybe had a cup of tea and a scone?" asked his teacher sarcastically.

"No, sir."

"No, they'll be coming for you at your most vulnerable. So quit whining and do it over, boy!" snapped the Potions Master.

Harry groaned. Then he spoke the charm again, focusing all his will upon it.

This time a bright greenish sphere appeared around him.

Harry grinned, his green eyes shining. "I did it!" he cried. Then the shield vanished, for Harry had broken his concentration.

"Potter! Do not lose focus!" Severus yelled. "Do it again."

Snape made Harry cast the Shield Charm until the boy was sure he could do it in his sleep and his arm was aching from holding his wand.

Severus watched impassively, knowing that his ward was quite tired now, given the long day he'd had. "Once more, child, then we'll call it a night."

Harry huffed, but recast the charm. This time the greenish sphere stayed for a full three minutes before dissolving. "How was that, sir?"

"Adequate. We'll work some more on it tomorrow. Now it's getting on towards curfew, we need to get back." He handed Harry his robe and put on his own.

Then they walked back towards the castle, silent as the shadows that surrounded them.

At the entrance, Severus withdrew a small container from a pocket and handed it to Harry. "Rub this on before you go to sleep. It'll keep you from stiffening up so badly you won't be able to move tomorrow."

"Thanks, sir." Harry said, and took the small jar gratefully. He blessed the Potion Master's attention to details, for how would he have explained to his Housemates why he was so bloody sore come the morning? And Ron and Hermione think he's the one trying to kill me! Ha! Harry thought, biting back a chuckle at his friends' foolishness. He waved once to Severus, who gave his shoulder an affectionate squeeze, before hurrying up the stairs to the portrait hole and saying the password "Noble heart."

The party was still going strong, but Harry ignored the other kids' attempts to get him to join in, instead heading straight for the shower, where he took a nice long one before preparing for bed. He was asleep almost before his head touched the pillow.

But his dreams were uneasy, filled with the barking and slavering of three-headed dogs and he found himself atop his broom as it suddenly bucked himself off into space and he fell through the air. The next minute he was watching a tall black-robed wizard that he felt certain was Severus weeping over a small grave. And when he drifted closer, an icy chill of dread skittered down his spine.

For the headstone read:

Harry James Potter

Gone Too Soon

But Never Forgotten

He woke with a start, shivering in the pre-dawn air, the image of the headstone and the quiet sobs of a bereft Potions Master etched within his memory, and he curled up in a ball and prayed that the future he dreamed never came to pass.


Chapter End Notes:

Please excuse any typos, I just wrote this. Let me know how you liked it! Special thanks to Keats for the idea of "Uncle Toby", it was great!

Next: Harry's first Christmas at Hogwarts is full of surprises

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