When Harry woke the next morning, he had a slight headache and his scar felt sore, as if he'd been sitting too long in the sun and gotten sunburned. But when he took a look at it in the mirror on the back of the door in his dorm room, it was only a little red and swollen. He rubbed some of Snape's salve on it and it quit aching. He still found the events of last night hard to believe. The vampire-like creature, drinking the unicorn's blood, had been about to kill him when out of nowhere, a magnificent snow leopard had appeared and nearly ripped the vile thing to shreds.
He wished Severus had managed to see the leopard before it vanished, then perhaps Harry's story wouldn't sound so unbelievable. He wondered how Ron and Hermione had fared, then supposed they had a better experience than he had, for they had not had to see a dead unicorn or the evil creature feeding off it. Nor had they needed to be escorted back to the castle by their Potions Master either, after puking up their guts right in front of him. He would have been horribly embarrassed save for the fact that this had not been the only time he'd vomited in front of Severus.
His stomach had always been easily upset, a legacy of starvation and malnutrition, and it had taken awhile for Severus to figure out what foods Harry should avoid, mainly highly spiced ones and ones with heavy cream, an excess of peppers, and rare meat. Severus had always maintained that Harry should eat lean meats, fruit, plenty of vegetables, milk, and whole grain breads with extra fiber so he didn't develop more serious digestive ailments, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
When he was a child, he used to pick up every cold and virus going around at school, especially the stomach flu, and many times Severus had treated him for nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. So last night had been par for the course. As far as Snape finding him in the middle of the forest, well that wasn't too surprising either, the man always knew when he was sick or hurt. Harry suspected he might have a sixth sense about that, perhaps because of the promise he had made.
He quickly dressed and by then Ron was awake and so were Dean and Neville. Ron came over and clapped him on the shoulder. "Glad to see you're still all there, Harry. When Malfoy came back without you, screaming about vampires and dead unicorns, we were really worried. Hagrid was like beside himself. We had just started to go down the trail where you were when a bunch of centaurs appeared and they told us you were safe, that Snape had found you and was bringing you back to the castle. How'd he know you were out there, anyway?" asked Ron suspiciously. "Unless maybe he's the one drinking the unicorn blood?"
"No. That thing . . .it wasn't human, Ron. Maybe it had been once . . .but no longer. And it tried to kill me, but then a snow leopard-don't give me that look, I'm serious-came out of nowhere and attacked it. It disappeared afterwards and Snape found me a little bit after that. And no, he wasn't injured. He said he'd been told to watch over us and that's what he was doing. Then he canceled my detention and said he was taking me back to the castle. So you see, you were wrong about him. He saved my life, Ron, just like the snow leopard."
"Humph! That's a first." Ron said. "But I still don't trust him."
Harry fought to keep from clocking the other boy one. "You're impossible! C'mon, let's go down to breakfast. I've got Quidditch this afternoon and I really should eat something."
They met Hermione in the hall and she was horrified by Harry's account of his night in the forest. "You really do have the worst luck, Harry. Was it dreadful, seeing the poor unicorn like that?"
Harry nodded, swallowing sharply. He no longer felt very hungry, though he forced himself to eat anyhow, knowing a certain professor was likely watching him. "Yeah. I don't really want to talk about it, okay?"
They resumed eating. Five minutes later, Hermione set down her fork. "I just thought of something. What if it wasn't a vampire that's responsible? What if it was . . .You Know Who?"
Ron looked at her as if she were an imbecile. "Oh, come off it, Hermione! He's dead, and you can't bring the dead back to life."
"No, she's got a point, Ron." Harry argued quietly. "I told you before, you can't rule out the fact that nobody ever saw him die. He was a powerful dark wizard, who's to say he didn't manage to cheat death?" The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that it was Voldemort, or what was left of him, in the forest last night. "A lost and damned soul" Snape had said. And who on earth would be more lost or damned than Voldemort? Or hunger to become immortal? By whatever means necessary, including slaying the most pure and innocent of all creatures? "The creature I saw was just barely human, and you only get like that if you've almost died and committed the worst crime in order to keep on living. I think the vampire or whatever was really . . .Voldemort," Harry finished in a whisper.
"Don't say his name, Harry!" Ron snapped.
Harry rolled his eyes. "Why not? What are you afraid of? If he's dead, like you say, then what does it matter if you say his name? He won't hear it. And if he's not, who cares? What do you think he is, the devil incarnate? That's just superstition and fear."
Ron stiffened. "You telling me you're not afraid of him? He killed your damn parents and almost killed you too! So how can you say you're not scared spitless of him, Harry?"
"Of course I'm afraid of him," Harry said evenly. "I'm not stupid. But I won't let fear rule me. And refusing to say his name is letting fear rule me. He's a wizard, Ron, just like us. Well, ten times more wicked and older and stronger, but still, he was born a man. He's not omnipotent, he just wants everyone to think so. He's not God. He died once, he can die again."
"Oh, and who's going to kill him, huh? Dumbledore? You?"
Harry was silent for a moment. Then he said, "Maybe someday. I owe him for murdering my parents. He stole away my life. Maybe it's time for me to steal away his."
"Harry, you can't be serious!" Hermione gasped.
Harry just looked at her.
"You're cracked, mate." Ron shook his head. "That's almost as crazy as you insisting Snape is innocent."
"Believe what you want about Snape, Ron. But I know the truth."
"The truth is that you're bespelled, Harry," Ron frowned. "Snape's in league with the followers of You-Know-Who."
"You're wrong. If he was evil, Ron, why didn't he just leave me in the forest? I didn't know the way back, and there are plenty of dangerous creatures in there that would have made a meal out of me."
"Maybe he was afraid of the leopard."
"The leopard was gone when he found me. And he brought me back here safe and sound. Hell, I think he even put me in bed, I seem to remember him doing that," Harry persuaded.
"And he wouldn't have done any of that if he was out to kill Harry," Hermione put in. "He's right, Ron. He had the perfect opportunity to kill Harry there in the forest and who would have known? But he didn't. He saved him instead. Perhaps we're mistaken and Snape's not the evil git we thought he was."
Ron hit himself in the forehead. "You're both cracked! If Snape isn't trying to murder Harry, then who the bloody hell is?"
"Malfoy?" Hermione guessed.
"No, he's an arrogant twit, but he doesn't have the guts for a real fight. He might hire someone though." Harry speculated.
Ron looked unconvinced, but Hermione was nodding in agreement. Harry felt as if he had won a small but unexpected victory. Just then the bell rang for class and Harry had no more time to argue his point of view with his stubborn friend. He picked up his bag and headed up the stairs for Transfiguration, relieved that he didn't have to face Severus until the afternoon.
* * * * * *
"And what possessed you to allow two first years to go off alone in the forest, Hagrid?" Snape demanded, his eyes snapping with barely restrained temper. "You were lucky they weren't killed when they encountered that vampire creature."
Hagrid hung his head, looking very ashamed, like a small boy being scolded by a stern father, despite the fact that he was some twenty years older than the professor at least. Technically Severus outranked him in the hierarchy of Hogwarts, and he felt terribly guilty for allowing harm to get the slightest glance at Harry and Draco, but especially Harry, whom he had come to care for the way he had the young Severus and Lily back in their schooldays. If anything had happened to Harry, he would have never forgiven himself.
"I know that, Professor. I never meant for ‘em to go so far, I tol' ‘em to follow the trail a little ways and then stop."
Severus sighed and seated himself at the table. Though his temper flared hot, he could never stay angry at Hagrid for long, the man had been his friend when no one else was, and he was as open and honest as a hound dog. Scolding Hagrid, no matter how deserved, always made him feel as if he'd kicked a stray puppy. "They're eleven-year-olds, Hagrid. They don't listen worth spit most times. Give them an inch and they'll take a mile. Why didn't you all stick together?"
Hagrid shrugged. "Ah . . .I thought it migh' take less time if we split up a bit. I didn' want to be in the forest past midnight with the kids. I'm sorry, Professor. I shoulda made sure Harry and Malfoy were doin' what I tol' ‘em to. But I figgered . . .I never thought they'd run into the unicorn killer . . .I left Fang with ‘em, but I shoulda watched ‘em better. . . if they'd gotten hurt, it woulda been my fault. If Professor Dippet were still Headmaster, I'd a been out on my ear."
"Then you ought to thank God he isn't Headmaster, yes?" Severus said quietly. "For we both know Albus would never toss you out over a mistake. Although Minerva should have never allowed you to go into the forest with four children without another adult as back up."
"She didn' think it'd be all that dangerous."
Snape snorted derisively. "The forest is always dangerous, even to those who are familiar with it, like you and me. She ought to know that by now. That was why I followed you."
"And it was a good thing you did, Severus. You saved Harry, didn' you?"
"A snow leopard did."
"Ah. I think I know that one. Wanders the forest a fair bit, he does, and where he walks, evil hides its face," the gamekeeper said knowingly.
Severus said nothing, though he suspected Hagrid had guessed the true identity of Wraith years ago. Instead he said irritably, "It seems I am forever rescuing that Potter brat from one disaster after another. He courts trouble like a lovestruck teenager courts girls."
"Ah, don' be too hard on Harry, Severus. He's a good kid, he jus' needs somebody to, ah, look out for ‘im. You're doing a good job, Severus."
"Humph. The boy could drive a saint to drink, Hagrid, and I am far from sainthood. There are times I long to take the incorrigible brat and shake him until he learns sense. Either that or give him a good smack."
The gamekeeper chuckled. "Now you sound like my dad. That's what he used to do to me, b'fore I grew too big, when I did somethin' stupid and scared him half to death." He eyed Snape thoughtfully.
"What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
Hagrid shrugged. "No particular reason. But I think maybe ya care for Harry more than you'll ever admit."
"Don't be ridiculous, Hagrid. I cannot stand the little brat, he is his father all over again."
"Only half. The other half is his mum."
Severus glared at the big man, then sighed again. "That is, perhaps, the only reason I haven't strangled him by now."
Hagrid chuckled again, but did not press the issue. Severus grew touchy when it came to admitting his true feelings for someone, he'd been hurt too many times in the past by his father and those who called themselves friends. Still, the former wizard would bet his last dragon's tooth that Snape cared a great deal for Lily's son, more than he would ever admit. "Care for another cup of coffee, Severus? It's very good."
"Yes, thank you, and why wouldn't it be, seeing as I bought it?" the Potions Master smirked.
Hagrid merely laughed and went to refill their cups, and Snape relaxed in the homey cottage for another twenty minutes until he had to leave for class. He noticed a familiar snowy owl perched near the window and frowned. "Hagrid, isn't that Potter's owl?"
"Yeah, that's Hedwig."
"Why is she here?"
"Harry asked me t' look after her for a bit."
"What in heaven's name? Don't tell me the boy's too lazy to look after his own pet?" Severus sneered.
"No, no. It ain't that. He brought her to me one morning, said she was sick, an' he was right. Looked like a case of silvermort poisoning, that's why I wanted the antidote."
"She seems fine now, Hagrid.. But you're sure the owl was poisoned?" Severus queried sharply.
"Well . . .yeah, since the symptoms went away after I gave her the antidote." Hagrid shook his head sadly. "‘Course, I think it was probably jus' a cruel joke. Who'd want t' poison an owl? They don' hurt nobody."
"Someone with a very sick sense of humor," Snape said darkly. Or one who wanted to send a warning to Harry. Watch out, because you're next. "I am glad you were able to save her." He meant it. Harry would have been devastated if Hedwig had died. I must make sure he stays out of trouble from now until the end of school, which is luckily only a few more months. Once the Stone is removed, I think most of the danger will be past, but until then . . .The dark angel vowed to be more alert and insist Harry go nowhere unaccompanied. There was safety in numbers. He would be certain to stress that little fact when he summoned Harry to his office for ‘detention" that evening.
* * * * * *
Harry stood before Snape's desk staring at the floor inbetween his Mystic trainers. He had been both expecting and dreading this summons to the Potion Master's office, knowing full well that he was going to get a damn good tongue-lashing for breaking another school rule and then nearly getting killed in the Forbidden Forest, even though that last had not been his idea at all. That wouldn't matter to his guardian angel though. He would say Harry brought the detention on himself by disobeying and being where he wasn't supposed to be. Sure enough, that was what Snape said, among other things.
"How many times must we have this conversation, young man? The rules here exist to keep you safe, do you not comprehend that, Mr. Potter?"
"Then why, by all that's holy, do you keep disregarding them?" Severus slammed his hand down on his desk with a sharp crack, and Harry jumped. "Do you enjoy getting points subtracted and costing your House the Cup? Or perhaps you like having half your Housemates longing to string you up by your toes from the Astronomy Tower? Well?"
"No, sir. I . . .didn't think I'd get in all that much trouble," Harry admitted in a small voice. And it could have been so much worse. You don't even know how much worse it could have been.
"Oh? Why not? Do you think you're above punishment, Harry James Potter? That your status as the Boy Who Lived should prevent you from facing the consequences of your actions? Because I assure you, it will never work with me."
"I know that, sir."
"If it weren't for the fact that you nearly died and Minerva punished you properly, for once, you'd be serving another real detention with me, Mr. Potter." Severus pinned him with a glare that was at once angry and disappointed. Harry felt his stomach shrivel, he hated that particular look. "I cannot keep you safe if you keep running headlong into danger, child. This foolish recklessness has got to stop. And if you cannot control yourself, then I will have to do it for you, and rest assured, you will not like my methods, mister."
Harry gulped, for the look Snape was giving him was very angry and stern indeed, and once more he gave thanks that he was eleven and not ten, else he knew one method his guardian would have used was a sound spanking, though the man had never done so before, he knew he was driving Snape quite close to the edge. "I can control myself, sir. But it was necessary."
"Oh? You plan on making this a habit then? Every three months wander about the castle at midnight?" demanded his guardian sarcastically. "Foolish child, do you remember what happened last time you were out of bed alone? Or did the fall knock the memory right out of your head?"
Harry blushed. "I know, sir. But I didn't know somebody was trying to kill me back then. I was just trying to show Malfoy that I wasn't . . ." he halted in horror, for he hadn't meant to reveal that he remembered what had happened that night.
Severus lifted an eyebrow. "I take you've remembered what went on that night?"
Harry hesitated. He had never planned on confessing that particular sin to Snape. Especially not now, when he was already steamed. But his traitorous tongue had betrayed him. "Yes, sir. Sort of."
"And? What reason did you have for being out of bed that time? You mentioned you were going to show Malfoy something." Severus prompted, hoping the boy would be willing to fess up on his own.
Harry bit his lip. Did he dare tell Snape what he had been going to do? He was sure to be furious, with good reason.
"Look at me," the dark protector ordered then, waiting until the green eyes were staring into his own before saying quietly, "Whatever reason you had for being out of bed that night, Harry, is sure to anger me, but I won't punish you for something that happened months ago. Besides which, falling down all those stairs and almost smashing your head in is a far more effective deterrent than anything I could come up with. Now tell me what you remember about that night."
Harry took a deep breath. "Okay. Malfoy and I got into a disagreement and he challenged me to a wizard duel. I got mad and said yes, and he was going to meet me in an empty classroom. But he never showed and the next thing I knew I was falling down stairs."
Severus looked thunderous. "He never showed because I was keeping an eye on him, and refusing to let him go anywhere but to bed. Something which I shall recommend Professor McGonagall do with you as well, since you can't seem to obey rules worth a damn. Have you any idea why dueling is forbidden, Mr. Potter? No? Then listen. Dueling is forbidden because you could get KILLED!" Severus roared.
Harry nearly went backwards at the sheer volume of the professor's voice. He glanced worriedly towards the closed door, only then recalling that Snape put up wards so nothing they discussed could be overheard, a must in a castle whose very walls had ears. "Yes, sir. But I . . .had no choice."
Harry dug the toe of his sneaker into the flagstones. "Because he threatened to have us expelled." Enough, Harry! Shut up about it, you don't need to go into detail. He's mad as hell already.
The dark eyebrows rose. "Oh? On what grounds?"
Harry thought fast. "Umm . . .for something stupid . . .do I have to tell you, sir?"
"No, for the whole incident smacks of major stupidity." He fixed his misbehaving ward with a terrific glare that made Harry shiver all the way down to his feet. "All of that could have been avoided if you obeyed the rules and went to bed like you were supposed to. Instead you broke them and suffered for it, more than you should have." Severus said with an unexpected slight smile. "Now then, I promised you I wouldn't punish you for that incident, much as you deserve to be scrubbing cauldrons till your fingers blistered and getting a good smack on the behind too. However, there is the little matter of you being out of bed again for the second time around."
"I wasn't dueling, sir."
"No, you were stargazing," he drawled sarcastically. "Though I doubt that's all you were doing. From now on, you will stay with one or more of your friends around school, there is safety in numbers. Have I your word?"
"Yes, sir. I promise."
"Come here," he ordered abruptly, and Harry obeyed reluctantly.
He wondered if Severus were about to turn him around and smack him one, and steeled himself for the punishment, but it never came. Instead, the Potion Master's arms came about him unexpectedly and hugged him.
"Disobedient reckless little brat!" he growled into his charge's ear. But Harry could hear the concern beneath the anger and it relieved him immensely.
A moment later, Severus released him. "Go, Harry, and mind you remember what I said.. Because if you risk your life again I will throttle you. I will be refereeing the next Quidditch match, by the way, and there will be no repeats of what happened before. Stay with your friends at all times and don't eat anything unless you either prepared it yourself or I gave it to you or you know where it came from."
"Yes, sir." He turned to go, and felt an unexpected sting on his rear. "Oww!" He shot the Potions Master an injured look. Then he left the office, waiting till he was out of sight to rub his bottom. Really, did Snape have to hit so hard?
An instant later the office door opened and Snape emerged. "Where are your friends?"
"Uh . . . in Gryffindor Tower."
"Then I shall escort you back there. Come."
Harry followed, feeling rather like a naughty toddler forced to hold his daddy's hand, though Snape never touched him.
Once they had reached the portrait hole, Snape stood aside and let Harry give the password and go inside. Then and only then did he leave and return to the dungeons. At least Harry was safe for tonight. Maybe he could finally have a decent night's sleep.
Chapter End Notes:
Next: More danger looms for Harry as the mysterious killer attempts to finish what he started.
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