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"That's wonderful, Harry!" exclaimed Hermione upon seeing her friend without his glasses.  "I'm so happy your uncle paid for your eye surgery.  You look so much different without your glasses." She tilted her head to one side, examining him.  "Your eyes . . .they look bigger and a deeper shade of green."

   Harry could feel himself blushing slightly at the girl's frank observation.  It was the first compliment he had ever received from a girl.  Back in primary school, most of the girls had avoided him, calling him freak and scar-head.  He found Hermione's words a little disconcerting, but he liked the fact that he looked better without his glasses, it was an unlooked for bonus of the surgery.  "Uh . . .thanks, Hermione.  I never thought about the way my eyes looked without my glasses.  But now I can see just like everyone else.  Now I can do my homework without squinting.  By the way, Hermione, did you find out anything else about Nicky?" That was their code for Nicholas Flamel.

  Hermione shook her head regretfully.  "No, I tried looking him up in my local library, and all I found were some references to alchemy. Sorry.  How did you two fair?"

  "Same as you," Ron sighed.  "I don't think we're meant to know.  Maybe we should just . . .I don't know. . .give up?"

   Harry shook his head firmly.  "No.  We can figure this out, I know we can.  We just need a little help." He turned and pulled a chocolate frog from the box he had gotten for Christmas.  "Here. Chocolate frog, anyone?"  

 Ron immediately took one and Hermione also.  The red-haired Gryffindor popped the frog in his mouth and looked at his card.  "Humph.  Godric Gryffindor.  Already got him, but maybe I could trade."

   They were sitting at one of the little study carols in the common room, school term had only begun three days ago, yet all the teachers had already given them loads of homework.    Hermione unwrapped hers and held it until it stopped moving, then she nibbled hers, and looked at her card.  "Oh, rats! Nimue Ambrosius.  I was hoping to get Rowena Ravenclaw.  She's the last founder of Hogwarts I need."

    "Who's Nimue Ambrosius?" asked Ron.

   "She was the daughter of Merlin and a well-respected Healer and Seer," Hermione replied, reading the back of the card.

   Harry opened his chocolate frog and found Albus Dumbledore inside.  He flipped over the card to read the back and discovered something amazing.  "Hey! You'll never believe this."

   "What?" asked Hermione.

   "This card mentions Nicholas Flamel," Harry said in an undertone.  He read from the back of the card.  "Dumbledore is also known for his work with Nicholas Flamel, famous wizard and alchemist, on the Sorcerer's Stone."

  "Let me see that, please," Hermione ordered, and Harry handed it to her.  She re-read the back of the card again, then said excitedly, "Now we're getting somewhere.  I can do some research on the Sorcerer's Stone tomorrow evening, after I finish my homwork.  I think I remember reading a little about it in a book about ancient magical treasures."

   Harry took the card back and tucked it in his pocket.  "Good thing I got this box of chocolate frogs for Christmas," he murmured.  "And it was even luckier that my card had the information we needed, after all." 

   "And once we find out what this Sorcerer's Stone is, maybe then we'll know why old Snape was trying to get his greasy hands on it," Ron said.

    "Ron, Hagrid said that Snape was trying to protect the stone, not steal it," Harry pointed out exasperatedly, wishing his friend would just quit his vendetta against the Potions Master.

  "Humph! Hagrid doesn't know everything, Harry." Ron snorted. "Didn't you say you saw him limping on Halloween? He probably went up to the third floor and the dog bit him.  Otherwise why would he have been lurking around there instead of finding the troll?"  

"He's right, Harry," sighed Hermione.  "And Snape did try and hex your broom as well.  All the evidence points to him."  

Harry felt his temper begin to spark.  "So what? Evidence be damned! I think you're both wrong.  It's someone else."  

"Harry, be logical," Hermione argued.  "Who else would have the motive? I hate thinking a teacher betrayed us, but . . .well . . .I saw what I saw at the Quidditch match and well . . .Snape IS Head of Slytherin House--"  

"Where most of the worst dark wizards come from, like You-Know-Who," put in Ron. "I think Snape's in league with them."  

Harry stood up, furious that such slander could come out of Ron's mouth.  To accuse his guardian angel of being in league with the one he fought against seemed the worst sort of blasphemy.  "Don't be an arsehole, Ron! Snape's no more in league with them than . . .than I am!"  

"Why are you defending him, Harry? He hates you, he's always on your back in class, how can you not believe he's the one?" cried Ron.   

"I just DO!" Harry shouted, biting his lip hard.  "Look, let's drop this, okay? I'm sick of talking about it.  I'm going to bed."  He picked up his bookbag and beat a hasty retreat up the stairs before his temper caused him to betray Severus's secret.   

Hermione and Ron exchanged glances.  "I don't get it, Hermione. What's up with him and Snape?"  

Hermione shrugged.  "I don't know, Ron.  But I'll think about it while I'm researching the Sorcerer's Stone."She yawned.  "Well, I'm for bed too.  Night, Ron."  

"Night, Hermione." Ron waved, then went over to see if he could interest Dean and Neville in a game of Wizard chess, since he felt it was too early to go to bed yet.  

 * * * * * *    

" . . .The Sorcerer's Stone, sometimes also called the Philosopher's Stone, is an ancient magic jewel known to give the bearer unnaturally long life and youth, in effect making the one who holds it immortal.  So long as the stone is in the holder's possession, the holder need never fear death, whether natural or magical . . ." Hermione read from the book she had checked out of the library.  "The last known holders of the Stone were the wizard alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perelandra."  

"The Philosopher's Stone!" Ron exclaimed. "I've heard of that.  Percy used to prank me when I was seven, casting illusions on rocks and saying he found the stone in our backyard and now we'd all be immortal and filthy rich.  I really believed him too, until Mum yelled at him and made him stop.  But this . . .if they've got a Cerberus guarding it, it must be the real thing."  

"I'm sure it is," Hermione stated firmly.  "Cerberus's only guard magical objects with such devotion."  

"And now we know why Snape's trying to steal it.  Because he wants to be immortal.  Either that or sell it for a fat lot of cash." Ron grimaced.  "Ugh, can you imagine the Greasy Git living forever? Terrorizing students year after year?" He made a gagging noise.  

"Or maybe he wants the Stone for a darker purpose. . .I've heard that there are still dark wizards out there, trying to, uh, bring back You-Know-Who," Hermione hissed.  

Ron snorted.  "Don't be ridiculous, Hermione.  That  one's dead, he died the night he tried to kill Harry, so don't even go there.  You can't bring back the dead, even with magic.  No, Snape wants the Stone for himself, so he can live forever and make everyone's life a bloody misery."  

Harry had remained silent during the discussion, mostly because he feared if he opened his mouth, all of his anger at his friends' unjust accusations of Snape would come boiling out.  He groped hard for what fragments of self-control he had left, then slowly stood and pushed back his chair.  

"Hey, where are you going, Harry?" asked Hermione.  

"For a walk," he replied neutrally.  "I need to think.  But remember one thing.  Voldemort--" Ron gasped, but Harry ignored him.  He thought it was stupid, not saying Voldemort, as if his name would summon him.  The man, evil though he was, was not Satan.  Maybe his younger brother . . ."On that night he tried to kill me, they never found his body.  So how does anyone know he's really dead? Without a body for evidence, no one can be certain.  I think he's still out there and he's the one who wants the Stone. That's who they're guarding it from."  Ha! Put that in your pipe and smoke it! He thought as he walked off.  I'd sooner believe Voldemort returned from the dead than that my guardian angel was a traitor.  

"But Harry, that's crazy!" Ron murmured.  "Snape's the one, why can't you see that . . .?"  

"Hmmm . . .he may have a point, Ron. . . ."  

"No way! Snape's got some kind of hold on him, maybe he's Confunded Harry, that's why he won't believe anything we say against him . . ."  

"I don't know, Ron. Harry doesn't seem confused . . ."  

Harry quickly left the library, returned to Gryffindor Tower to drop off his bookbag, and fetch the Invisibility Cloak.  Confunded indeed! How ridiculous! It's just like Ron, to accuse a teacher of hexing a student.  It was just after supper, and hardly any students were about, most were outside, playing in the snow.   

Swirling the cloak about him, he loved doing that, Harry vanished.  Then he headed down to the one person who could provide solace and comfort for his aching angry heart.  

Five minutes later, he was tapping at the door to Snape's office, the cloak removed and tucked into a square inside his robe, it folded down quite easily.  He knew the professor was usually there at this time in the evening, grading papers.  

"Enter."   The door swung open, and Snape looked up to behold . . ."Potter! What are you doing here?" he began, using his familiar acerbic tone, just in case.  

Harry shut the door.  "Professor? I . . .really need to talk to you." The boy was pale and his eyes glittered with a mixture of anger and anxiety the likes of which Severus had never seen.  

The master wizard quickly cast the Anti-Eavesdropping wards, then asked softly, "What's the problem, Harry?" he gestured for the boy to sit down.  

Harry shook his head.  "I . . .I just can't stand it any more, Severus!  Any of it!" he declared angrily.  "They keep saying things about you . . .nasty things . . .and I had to get out, before I blew up and hexed them both.  They're so stupid!" Harry's face was flushed and his chest heaved with the force of his emotions.   

"Calm down, son," Snape began, keeping his tone low and even.  "Can't stand what? From whom? Sit down and start from the beginning, Harry, you're not making a bit of sense.  I can't read your mind, child, even though rumors say otherwise."  

Harry sank down into the chair in front of the desk, his hands clenched hard.  He focused on the warm swirls of the wood grain on Snape's desk until he was calm again, and could speak without shouting.  'It's . . .I can't stand pretending to hate you, I know it's just an act, but . . .after everything you've done, Severus . . .I just can't. . . I hate this masquerade . . ." He rubbed the heel of his hand into his forehead, then sighed.  "Ron and Hermione think you're evil, in league with . . .with the monster who killed my parents . . .and that you hexed my broom . . .I keep telling them they're wrong, but they won't believe me, Severus . . .They made me so damn mad, I almost hexed them both today . . .I just wish I could tell them the truth . . .I'm not good at keeping secrets like this . . .I will cause I have to, but it's so hard! Sorry, I don't mean to whine."    

Severus was silent for a moment.  He had known when he began this masquerade that it wouldn't be easy, but he hadn't reckoned on Harry being involved in it.  The burden of secrecy was very wearing and it was not one that an eleven-year-old should be carrying.  That had never been his intention.  But now was too late for regrets.  He came around the desk and patted the boy comfortingly on the shoulder.   

"I know this is not easy for you, Harry.  I never intended for you to see past my mask, that's why I never let you see my name or my face all those years ago.  Anonymity was safer for us both.  However, that's a moot point now.  I have lived in the shadows for years as a spy, Harry, and have grown accustomed to living a double life.  I'm sorry you were brought into this, it can be hard to maintain a facade, especially with your friends."  

"Tell me about it.  It's a big pain in the arse.  Sorry for my language, sir, but it is.  I just want to scream at them to shut up, that it was you who protected and healed me all those years and you'd never hurt me. If only they knew, they'd never say you were a . . .greasy git . . .and selfish and hard and cold . . .or cruel and evil . . .or that you hated me.  Never!" Angry tears sparkled in the emerald eyes, tears that Harry quickly dashed away with the sleeve of his robe.  

Severus squeezed his shoulder gently.  "Harry, the path I walk is lonely and dark, but I made that choice long ago, the night your mother died, in fact.  The path of the spy often is, but I accepted it as the price I must pay, it was worth it so long as I brought the monster to justice in the end.  I wish you had never recognized me, Harry, it would have been much easier if you only knew me as the cold-hearted greasy git."  

Harry shook his head stubbornly.  "No, sir! Easier for me maybe, but what about you? You don't deserve that, sir.  Look at everything you've taught me. I'm glad I recognized you that day.  Because now you've got someone to trust who trusts you.  I just hate it when they start in on you . . .sometimes I want to punch them all out . . .the other Gryffindors, I mean."

  "I can undestand that.  Perhaps this will help.  It doesn't matter what other people think, only what you think.  You know the truth, after all.  I've heard what they call me, and I don't let it bother me, for they're only words, false ones, and meaningless.  Once, it would have bothered me, when I was your age, but no longer.  I know who and what I am, my loyalties and actions are clear as is my conscience.  If I died today, I could meet God knowing I did my best to fulfill my vow of bringing down Voldemort and protecting you.  That is what matters.  Not my reputation, child.  That was shot all to hell long ago." He placed a hand over his heart.  "In here is what counts, Harry. Not out here.  People see what I want them to see. But you and I know the truth."  

He began to massage the back of Harry's neck, and the boy leaned against his angel's side.  Then he continued, "Nothing worth doing is ever easy.  The life I lead, Harry, is not one you should ever walk, and there is little I can do to make it easier, except to tell you that you can always come to me and talk and I shall listen . . .And someday, when Voldemort is banished for good and all, you can stand beside me and tell all those who sneered and mocked me how mistaken they were." Then he added with a sly smirk, "And watch them all faint from shock."  

Harry grinned at that, imagining Ron and Hermione keeling over from shock.  "Can't wait for that day, Severus.  Till then, guess I'll just count to twenty and bite my tongue."  

Severus ruffled Harry's hair.  "And practice some meditation as well.  You're doing a brilliant job of keeping your temper, and I'm proud of you."  

Harry basked in the praise, for he knew Snape never said things like that unless he meant them. "Thanks, sir.  I'll try and remember what you said."  

Severus gave Harry one of his rare smiles. "You are so like your mother.  A burden shared between friends is no burden at all.  Thank you, Harry."  

Harry simply leaned into Snape's side, wearing an identical smile, content to just sit here and allow Severus's presence to soothe his weary spirit.

    * * * * * *

  The next morning was Saturday and after Quidditch practice, Harry called Hedwig to him and was going to send her off with a letter for Snape, asking if they were going to hold Defense lessons tonight, when he noticed the owl's normally perky self was subdued and quiet, her feathers looked dull, and she pecked him when he went to fasten the letter about her foot.   

"Ow! Hedwig, what's wrong with you? Why are you mad at me?" He examined the owl more closely, noting that her eyes seemed glassy and she felt thinner and hotter than normal. 

"Hey, are you sick? I think you are, that's why you're so snippy.  Okay . . .uh, who takes care of sick owls?" Harry thought fast, then recalled Hagrid saying he knew a lot about animals.  He cradled the owl in his arms and began running down to the path towards Hagrid's hut, praying the gamekeeper was at home.  

Luckily, Hagrid was just brewing a pot of tea and answered the door as soon as Harry knocked.    "Hello, Harry! Care for a spot of tea?"  

 "Thanks, Hagrid, but I'm here 'cause something's wrong with Hedwig.  I think she's sick."  

"Sick? Well, let's 'ave a look see." Hagrid took the owl from Harry and set her on the table.  He then examined her eyes and wings, looked in her throat and poked at her stomach.  She hissed at him, but Hagrid just nodded.  "Yup, she's off color and seems like she's got sommat wrong with her stomach.  D'you know if she's eaten or drank something she's not supposed to?"  

Harry frowned.  "Uh, I feed her what the other owls eat and she's normally in the Owlry, so I don't know if she ate something there that made her sick.  Can you help her, Hagrid?"  he twisted his fingers nervously in his robe.   

"Aye.  Though this doesn't seem like an ordinary sickness," the gamekeeper mused.  "Usually all the owls get sick when one does.  But nobody's come to me to say all the owls are sick, and those symptoms . . .is this the first time you've noticed she was peaky, lad?"   Harry nodded.    "Hmm . . .if I didn't know better . . .I'd say it seems an awful lot like silvermort poisoning . . .but that's ridiculous.  Who'd hurt an owl here at Hogwarts?" Hagrid muttered.  

Harry stiffened.  First someone had tried to kill him and make it look like an accident, and now this.  He didn't know who was behind these strange attempts on his life, but he knew he couldn't let Hedwig be at risk.  "Hagrid, you can cure her, right?"  

"Sure, Harry.  I can have Professor Snape brew me a draft that'll fix her right up, it's the antidote for silvermort, charcoal and dandelion and some other stuff, he'll know."  

Harry breathed a sigh of relief.  "Thank God! And can you do me another favor, Hagrid?  Once she's better, can I leave her with you instead of sending her back up to the Owlry?  She'll be safer here, I think."  

Hagrid considered, then nodded.  "All right, Harry.  Though I don' know what you're worried about.  I don't think it's silvermort poison, even though the symptoms are the same.  Silvermort grows in the Forbidden Forest and not many wizards know how to harvest it correctly, it's got to be picked at a certain time o' the night and cut with an iron knife.  It's used as a poison by evil wizards, it'll kill both owls and small pets."  

"Thanks, Hagrid! You're the best!"  He said, then he noticed the strange pot Hagrid had buried in the ashes of his fieplace.  "What's in there, Hagrid? Is it potatoes?"  

"Uh, no.  It's . . .err . . . a surprise."  Hagrid coughed uncomfortably.  

Harry peered into the pot and saw an enormous purple egg.  His jaw dropped.  "Hell, Hagrid what's that?"  

"Something special." He blushed. "Here, Harry.  Let's get yer owl settled."   Harry assisted Hagrid, waiting until Hedwig was resting comfortably before leaving to fetch a school owl so he could deliver the message to Severus.  He was still worried about Hedwig, but he trusted Hagrid.  If anyone could make Hedwig well, he was the one.  

* * * * * *  

 It took four days before Hedwig was well, and Harry, Ron and Hermione came to visit the owl after classes, bringing her small voles and insects to tempt her appetite.  Severus warned Harry again to never go anywhere alone and not to eat anything someone gave him, unless it was himself, of course.

It was on one of those visits that the strange egg Hagrid kept buried in the ashes of the fireplace began to rock back and forth and crack open.   The three children stared in awe as the egg hatched, and from it emerged a tiny Norweigian Ridgeback, very hungry and making an odd demanding croon. 

Ron nearly fell over.  "Merlin, Hagrid, that's a baby dragon! Where'd you get it? They're illegal to own as pets less you get permission from the Ministry.  They're too dangerous."

   "Dangerous? Don' be ridiculous.  Norbert's harmless," Hagrid chuckled, then winced as the black dragonet blew fire at him and started a blaze in his beard.  "I got 'em off a chap in the pub.  Won it in a game of cards.  I've always wanted one." He put the fire out and scratched the dragon under its chin.

  "Here, son, look what Dad has for ya." He fed the starving dragon a large steak, which it devoured.   

"Hagrid, how can you keep a dragon here?" Hermione asked.  "Somebody's bound to see it sometime and then you could get put in prison."  

"Ah.  I'll be careful.  He was abandoned, the man who put 'em up in the game said his mother was dead.  So he's an orphan and if I don't take em he'll die, he's too little to survive on his own."  

"We'll keep your secret, don't worry, Hagrid." Harry reassured him.  He shot a warning look at his friends.  

"Yeah, we're not snitches," Ron agreed.  But he wondered just how long Hagrid could keep the little dragon hidden.  His brother Charlie always said dragons grew pretty quickly and they ate like crazy especially after they were first hatched.   

Hermione just shook her head.  Hagrid was just as bad as the boys for breaking school rules.  Maybe it was a disease men contracted when they were boys and never got rid of.  Then she yelped as Norbert tried to nip her finger.  

"Ah, Norbert, no biting!" Hagrid wagged a finger at the dragonet.  "He don' know better, Hermione.  He's jus' a baby."

  "Some baby!" the little witch sniffed.   Norbert hissed and pounced at the teapot, nearly knocking it over.   "Gotta get him some toys an' make a pen for 'im," said Hagrid happily.   

After stroking Hedwig for a few minutes, Harry and the two Gryffindors left, for it was time for class.  

 * * * * * *  

 By the time a month had gone by, Norbert had tripled in size and was eating enormous amounts of meat, all of which Hagrid hunted for in the forest or bought at Diagon Alley.  Harry, Hermione, and Ron were seriously worried that Norbert would burn down Hagrid's house, however, since the little dragon had quite the temper and breathed fire when angry.  Twice Hagrid had ended up singed and bitten as Norbert didn't like it when he was away for longer than a few hours.   

No cage could hold him either, the dragonet was very strong and smart, if he didn't knock it down, he would hum the lock open.  Opening locks was part of a dragon's magic, and even the small ones could do it.  Hagrid was lucky Norbert hadn't decided to magic open the lock on the cottage yet.   

"That creature's a menace," Ron snapped, after one visit when Norbert had set the seat of his pants on fire.  "If Hagrid's not careful, his little baby's gonna burn him to a crisp by accident some night."  

For some reason, though, the dragon liked Harry, and would curl up near him or purr softly when he saw him, but he hissed at Ron and ignored Hermione when they tried to pet him.  "Contrary little beast," chuckled Hagrid.  'He's got his quirks, does Norbert.  Funny though, th' only other person he purrs for b'sides you n' me, Harry, is Professor Snape."  

"Snape knows about him?" Ron cried in horror.  

"Nah, he never saw 'im, but he came by one day t'give me some coffee an' Norbert was hiding and when he saw him, he started to purr.  I tol' the professor it was a cat an' he didn' question me. But Norbert liked 'im right enough."  

"Huh.  Figures.  Slytherins would get along with dragons," Ron huffed.  

"What about me and Hagrid then?" Harry demanded. "We're Gryffindors and he likes us."  

Ron looked uncomfortable.  "Hagrid's like his dad an' who knows why he likes you, Harry? You're just weird."  

Harry socked him playfully in the shoulder.  "C'mon, it's almost curfew."   They turned to depart the hut, when they caught sight of a pale face framed by blond hair peering through the window.   

"Huh? Who was that?" Harry cried.  He dashed outside.   It was then he saw the familiar figure of Draco in his Slytherin robes running hell for leather back to the castle.   Harry swore and chased him, but couldn't catch him, and had to abandon the chase. 

He paused and waited until Hermione and Ron caught up to him.  "Malfoy was looking in the window and I think he saw Norbert.  I tried to catch him, but he was too bloody fast.  I think . . .I think he's gone to tell a teacher about Norbert."  

"Damn and blast! We gotta warn Hagrid!" Ron swore and they ran back to the hut to tell the gamekeeper the bad news and help him hide the dragon as best they could.            


Chapter End Notes:

Well, what did you think?

Next: Malfoy reveals all and they serve detention in the forest and are stalked by an unknown animal.

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