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Despite the earliness of the hour, neither Ron nor Hermione could sleep any longer.  They were too full of worry and upset about their missing friend, had been for weeks, and it had just gotten worse.  Since they were both prefects, they had some leeway with their Head of House about wandering about the school and the grounds, and both of them had met up in the common room and decided to go for a walk down to Hagrid's.   All three of them used to visit the gamekeeper on a regular basis last year and in previous years, but this year, Ron and Hermione were too busy with their prefect duties plus class and all to be bothered going there much.  Harry had gone there, though, or at least that was where he said he'd been when Ron or Hermione had asked him where he went after supper.

They figured they could catch up on things with Hagrid and have tea and maybe he had an idea where Harry was, since no one else seemed to. 

"You don't think this is too early, going visiting?" asked Hermione.

"Nah.  Hagrid always says he's up with the sun.  And with some of the sick creatures he's got to care for, he probably is," Ron reassured her.  He heaved a huge sigh and brushed the hair from his eyes. If his mum were here, she'd tell him he needed a trim, but lately, he hadn't really cared about his appearance all that much.  "I just hope he's got an idea about why Harry disappeared.  It's been driving me bonkers, trying to figure out why."

"I know." Hermione looked troubled.  "I've been having trouble concentrating on my studies and you haven't gone to Quidditch tryouts at all, Ron. Speaking of which, why is Oliver Wood back here? Didn't he go off and get a contract with Puddlemere United or something?"

"Yeah, he did, but he's not renewed it yet for some reason and we, uh, asked him to coach us since he wasn't busy and he agreed," Ron explained.  "You see, things with the team have kind of . . .fallen apart since Harry left.  Everybody's upset and we haven't been able to get together and act like a team.  I was going to try out for Keeper, Harry said I should, but now . . .I just don't feel like it.  Ginny thought she could be reserve Seeker, but now she's too upset to even go practice, so Seamus is Seeker for now.  He's not the greatest, but . . .at least he's willing to play.  Things just aren't the same without Harry."

Hermione patted Ron's shoulder comfortingly. "Too right. Now I've no one to rag on for not doing their homework," she joked feebly.  "Oh, Ron, what if something dreadful's happened to him? Or is happening?  He could be kidnapped by . . .by You-Know-Who!"

"No, I don't think so, Hermione.  I asked McGonagall about that last week and she said no.  That they have it on good authority that Harry's not with them."

"But how would they know? I mean, it isn't as if You-Know-Who's going to send out a ransom note or whatever."

Ron shook his head.  "I don't know, but I trust McGonagall.  And if Harry really was in danger, they'd be sending the Order after him and they haven't . . .least not that I know of," Ron muttered.

Neither of them noticed the hawk soaring silently above their heads, listening to their conversation. 

"Then where could he be? And how has he managed to stay hidden this long?"

"Search me.  At first, I thought he'd used the Invisibility Cloak, but I checked and it's still in his trunk.  Along with everything else he owned."

"Ron! You went through his trunk?" Hermione cried, aghast.  "But that's private!"

"I know, but when he didn't turn up after a week . . .I thought maybe I could use the map to find him, only . . .it wasn't there."

"Do you think he has it, then?" Hermione queried, her brow furrowing. "And that's how he's been avoiding everyone these past weeks?"

"Possibly.  It would explain why nobody's seen him yet."

No.  The map . . .the map was burned, the hawk recalled, shivering.  It had been burned by Vernon, after he had brought Dudley home from the dementor attack.  Vernon had been furious that monsters from that "freaky school" had attacked his son.  He blamed Harry, saying he drew them with his odd ways, and Harry had been putting away the map at the time, holding it in his hand, when Vernon snatched it and threw it into the fireplace.

The hawk flew on ahead of the pair, alighting upon the roof tree of the small cottage. He felt exhausted, though he hadn't flown very far.  Seeing Ron and Hermione again had supplied the missing piece of the puzzle.

I'm Harry.  Harry Potter.

He knew that was his name.  He was the missing boy everyone was so anxious to find.

And with that realization, a door that had been closed in his mind now opened, and the rest of his memories came flooding back.  It was nearly too much.  He screamed aloud with the pain . . .too much information, too soon, images flashed into his head one after another. He huddled down on the thatch and felt as if his head were about to explode.

"What was that?" cried Hermione.  "Sounded like something screeching."

"Probably a bird or something," Ron shrugged dismissively.

He did not know how he managed to keep his perch, yet somehow he did, and after about fifteen minutes, the deluge of memories slowed, and he was able to sit up and examine them.  Or try to.

Below, inside the cottage, he could hear Hagrid greeting Ron and Hermione, inviting them to sit down for a cuppa.  "Jus' put the kettle on a few minutes ago. Glad you could stop by. Been keepin' all righ'?"

"Fine, Hagrid," answered Hermione.  "Except . . .we're really worried about Harry."

"I know, lass.  Everyone is.  But y'can't . . .y'can't give up hope."

"Do you know what might have happened to him?" asked Ron.  "Maybe he left ‘cause of something we said? Or did?  I . . .I haven't been a real good friend lately.  I was so busy going out with Lavender that I . . .didn't really pay much attention to him."

"Me either," Hermione admitted, ashamed.  "I was trying to study for my OWL's and do well in Defense Against the Dark Arts, even if it is taught by that cow, Umbridge.  And Harry . . .well he was kind of quiet when he came back from break, but I thought it was just ‘cause he missed being with Sirius or something.  And I was kind of glad . . .since at the beginning of the year he was kind of . . .angry and we quarreled all the time."

"Kind of angry?" Ron snorted.  "Hermione . . .he was like a cauldron bubbling over. Any little thing set him off.  Although, we weren't much better. It wasn't until Dad got hurt by that snake and almost died that I realized I'd been acting like a selfish git and taking things for granted again.  Like Harry's friendship."

"Did he, uh say anything to you before he, uh, disappeared?" Hagrid asked gently.

"No. All he said after dinner was that he wanted to go for a walk, to think about something.  I didn't really think much of it, he always seemed to want to be alone, and I was . . .uh . . .meeting Lavender in the library, we were going to . . .uh study some Charms . . ."

"What charms, Ronald? Love charms?" demanded Hermione suspiciously.

"What's it matter?" Ron snapped.  "Anyway, afterwards, we headed back up to the Tower and it was then I noticed Harry wasn't in his bed.  Or the common room."

"But you didn't really start to worry till after curfew," Hermione reminded.  "Then we went and checked the halls, and the Hospital Wing, we even looked at the detention logs outside the teacher's lounge."

The detention logs were posted on a chart on the wall and updated magically every hour, practically.  They listed the student's name, class they'd received detention in, time and date detention was to be served and what professor it was served under.

"And his name wasn't on them.  Then we thought maybe he was spending the night down here, and went to sleep.  But when we woke the next morning and he still wasn't back . . .that's when we went to McGonagall." Ron finished.

Hagrid sighed.  "I know it's been hard on ya, but don't blame yourselves.  I think . . .I think Harry went away t' clear his head, an' when he's ready he'll be back."

"Then you don't think he's in danger?" Hermione persisted.

"No.  Professor Snape and Dumbledore say not, an' I trust them." Hagrid said simply. 

Ron's eyebrows went up.  "Snape? You trust Snape?"

"Aye, I do.  An' so does the Headmaster.  The professor isn't all what he seems." Hagrid said mysteriously.

Ron snorted.  "Well, least he's not as bad as Umbridge.  Now she could be classed as a menace to society.  Have you seen the new rules she's been posting? She's starting to turn the school into a . . .prison!"

"Worse.  She's turning the school into a place where only people who think like her are free to express themselves.  It's like a dictatorship.  And her detentions . . .she hurts kids, Hagrid!" declared Hermione passionately.  "It's not like she just gives them stuff to clean or cut up or write lines without using magic.  She . . .she makes kids write lines that leave cuts on their hands for hours."

"Cuts on your hands?" Hagrid repeated.

"Yes.  I saw Fred and George's hands after a detention with her and the back of their hand was cut and whatever words are on the paper get cut onto the back of your hand." Ron said angrily.

"She's gone that far?"

"Yeah.  And we can't stop her because now she'll be in charge of the whole school."

"Does the Headmaster know? Professor McGonagall?"

"No.  We couldn't tell them. She said it wasn't against Ministry policy to write lines as detention. Besides, the Minister put her in charge, and she has authority over them now," Hermione said angrily.  "I detest that witch! And her class too.  It's awful, we don't learn anything useful in it and I feel like I'm wasting my time."

"Me too. I mean, all she does is quote us Ministry methods of casting spells, we don't actually cast anything, since she thinks we don't need to." Ron went on.  "It really sucks, but we have to take it.  I just wish there was a way we could skip it, but anyone missing her class for anything is grounds for detention. Terry Boot got one yesterday because he was sick, and Madam Pomfrey even gave him a note, but the dumb hag said it didn't count, that a sore throat wasn't  serious enough to miss class."

Hermione cleared her throat.  "We've been thinking a lot about this, ever since Harry disappeared.  It's not right that the Ministry forces us to have substandard teaching, we should protest or something.  Like they do in Muggle society.  Only Ron says that doesn't work as well here. So . . .we thought what if we had a different kind of protest? Like a secret group of our own, dedicated to learning Defense that Umbridge refuses to teach us? I wanted . . .we both wanted . . .Harry to help us and teach it, but since he's gone, we'll just . . .have to carry on ourselves till he gets back.  I've started a list of everyone in the school, among all the Houses, that wants to learn how to defend themselves, and now all we need is a place to hold the meetings and a way to call each other without anyone knowing except us."

"Well, y'might want to speak to Aberforth who owns the Hog's Head down in Hogsmeade.  He's Dumbledore's younger brother an' he might know of  a place you could go and a way you could contact everybody," Hagrid suggested.  "Only what ye're proposing is dangerous, y'know that, don't you? Umbridge . . .I seen her like before, an' she don't like it when people cross her.  She fancies herself Queen over here an' in her kingdom, her word rules.  So watch yourselves, hear?"

"Yes, Hagrid," said Hermione.  "We'll be careful.  And thanks."  There came the scrape of a chair being pushed back and then another.

"Guess we'd better head back on up to Gryffindor Tower.  Got to make sure all the firsties are up for class and breakfast and what not," Ron said. "Thanks for the tea, Hagrid."

"Yer welcome.  See you around."

Ron and Hermione emerged from the hut and started to walk back towards the castle, still pondering over their new scheme to form a secret Defense group and where their missing friend might be.

Freedom watched them go with weary eyes and made no move to follow.  He now recalled with searing clarity the night he had become an Animagus, and soared into the sky only to falter and crash into the tower and then the ground, breaking both wings and knocking himself out. 

And then he had been found by the last person on earth he would have ever expected or trusted to heal him. 

But Snape had healed him.  And done so efficiently and compassionately.  Freedom, who still couldn't quite get used to thinking of himself as Harry yet, knew that most people finding an injured bird like that would have given him up for dead or put him down as impossible to save, he had been so badly hurt.  He himself had tried to save birds with broken wings before and all of them had died despite his care.

I would have died too.  If he hadn't found me, or if he hadn't healed me from that infection or whatever the second time after I bashed myself senseless, when Draco shoved me off the perch in the lab.  I thought for sure that night I was done for. He recalled shivering so violently he felt as if he were about to fly apart and being so hot it was as though he were roasting at the same time, so sick he barely could lift his head, and then had come the silky voice, talking to him, and hands wrapping him in a warm towel.  The touch and the voice had anchored him, provided a lifeline for him to cling to, beyond the potions themselves. 

Stay.  Stay with me.  He cared for me and wanted me and so I stayed.

Freedom shook his head, still trying to come to grips with the fact that his snarky teacher had not only saved his life, but become a friend and made him a kind of confidante as well.  He knew things that he was certain no one else did about Severus Snape.   He had seen the man battered and sick . . .half-dead from torture at the hands of Voldemort.  He had seen Snape relaxed and calm, reading in his quarters, and also fiercely protective of his familiar, even to the point of meting out stern punishments to his own House.

And like me, he was also a victim of abuse and grew up with a father who hated him for what he was, like Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia did to me.  Oh, how he would hate it if he knew that I knew all about him.  Me, Harry Potter, the son of his worst rival, the Brat-Who-Lives-To-Annoy-Him, as he puts it.

Freedom spread his wings and soared into the sky, flying always helped him think clearer and right then he needed all the clarity he could get. 

He was torn between liking the man Severus was out of his classroom, the scintillatingly intelligent, thoughtful, witty man who loved the hawk he had adopted and at the same time resenting the hectoring, bitter, sharp-tongued professor who bullied him for reasons known only to himself.  The dichotomy tore at him. 

Snape had sneered and mocked him since the day he had walked into his potions class, disliked him without reason, and had treated him and his Housemates unfairly.  He had accused Harry of being an attention-seeking glory-hound and arrogant and disobedient like his father, whom he detested.  Snape had been wrong on all counts save the last, for Harry had to admit he had broken more than one school rule.  For a good cause, true, but nevertheless . . .Even so, Snape should not have treated him that way.  It had been undeserved.

And now Freedom did not know what to think or how to feel.  Or what to do.  He did not know if he should attempt to reverse his transformation, since he hadn't really studied up on how to do that.  He hadn't been expecting it to work at all the first time, but it had.  And he had become a hawk that was Snape's familiar.

He glided lazily on an updraft, eyes ever alert to the ground below.

He thought about how worried his friends were, and his teachers, hell even Snape had seemed worried, that he was missing.  He knew that he ought to try and shift back.  But he was reluctant and afraid. 

The truth was he enjoyed being a hawk.  As a hawk his needs were simple, he needed to fly and hunt and be a companion to Severus.  There was no pressure on him to be some great savior, a hero that everyone pointed at because of a scar, nobody whispered and talked behind his back about how he was crazy because he insisted that Voldemort had returned.  He didn't have to endure detention with Umbridge anymore, or living with the Dursleys, or Snape's cutting remarks.  He didn't have to remember that he had caused Cedric to die or had enabled Voldemort to be reborn.

How the hell can they expect me to save the world and defeat a bloody madman when I can't even fix what's wrong with my own life? He wondered bitterly.  For he was still broken inside, still hurting and depressed, that had not gone away when he had become Freedom, he had simply forgotten about it for a time.  But the return of his memories had brought back the crushing despair as well. 

I can't go back.  Not yet.  I need more time.  Time to heal . . .if I ever can.

Worse, he was afraid.

Afraid to face everyone.  He had run away, like a coward.  And he was still running.

Running to hide behind Severus, a part of him thought, sneeringly. Who made him feel safe, hard as that was to believe about the man, remembering what he did. But that was the truth. Freedom knew the master wizard would defend him to the death, regardless of how he might feel personally about Harry Potter.

Which brought him to the other reason he was reluctant to transform back.  If he did, Snape would lose his familiar.  The one creature he loved, who was his friend.  Despite all the man had done to him, Harry felt compassion for the lonely wizard.  He knew what it was like to have no friends, to have no one to rely on save himself.  That had been his life before Hogwarts and he had not forgotten all those long days locked in a broom cupboard, when he had wished for a friend to talk to. 

I think I'm the first real friend he's had since my mum died.  His mother, Lily . . .whom he barely remembered.  Lily . . .who Snape had loved and sworn to protect along with her son.  There was yet another shocking revelation.  He had seen the pain mingled with longing in the man's eyes when he had spoken of her.  And he knew then that Snape was a fraud.  The professor was not someone who did not care for people, but perhaps had cared too much.  And been hurt badly because of it. The ice was a shield, a way to protect himself.  Only Freedom had found a way in. 

He remembered that horrible night when Snape had returned from the meeting with Voldemort.  Of the wizard crawling across the floor . . .telling Freedom that he was a spy because he had no family, that no one would miss him if he died. 

Freedom remembered telling Severus that he was wrong, that he cared.  He had meant it then.  And he still did. 

How then could he betray that fragile trust?

Two broken creatures have found each other.

Severus's words echoed in his head.  And I'm still broken, Sev.  So are you.  Both of us are a screwed up mess.

The hawk spotted a loping cottontail in the grass, hovered, then dove at it. 

The rabbit bolted, but this time Freedom was able to snatch it up and kill it quickly.  He settled down in the grass to eat his breakfast.  A part of him knew he should be revolted, he had just killed a living creature and was now eating it raw.  But the hawk was pragmatic, you had to kill to survive, and eat to live.  He allowed the hawk mind control, and finished the rabbit without feeling guilty or disgusted. That was the beauty of being a hawk-no regrets.  No torturing yourself over what could have been, or should have been. Or what had been. 

I'll stay Freedom for a bit longer.  I still have time before the hag implements that new policy about unexcused absences.  I'm not ready to risk everything yet, not ready to destroy this new friendship . . .It's strange, after all he's done to me, I shouldn't care whether or not he's hurt, but I do . . .Merlin help me, I do. Losing me now might well break him and that's the last thing I want. The snarky bastard doesn't deserve that, no one does. And . . .I don't want to lose him either.  I'm still angry about the way he treated me before, and someday I'm going to ask him why and give him a good piece of my mind, but that's okay.  That can wait.  The toad is in charge and he's going to need all his wits to deal with her.  So am I.  She really hates me, I think she'd kill me, or have me killed if she could. 

He suppressed a shudder when he thought of Umbridge, who in her way, was as deadly as Voldemort and his followers.  Deadlier, because you didn't see her as a threat until it was too late. 

There's another thing I don't understand.  Why doesn't Dumbledore get off his arse and DO something about her? How come he's just sitting and watching while she runs the school into the ground? He's one of the most influential wizards alive, head of the Wizengamut, he got me off an expulsion charge, everyone bloody respects him as this great wizard, so why is he letting this upstart hag back him into a corner? Fudge is a wimp, I've seen how the man shakes when Dumbledore mentions Voldemort in the same sentence, surely he could convince the Minister to leave well enough alone and get Umbridge's sorry backside out of here.  So why doesn't he?

Yet another question he didn't have the answer to.  But he would.  Freedom vowed that he would have answers to all those questions before he willingly returned to his true form.  As a hawk, he could get those answers far easier than he would as a human.  All he had to do was be in the right place at the right time and listen.  

Like he had today.  Sorry, Ron and Hermione.  You'll just have to make do without me for a little while longer.  Until I figure out a way to get rid of Umbridge for good and what's up with Dumbledore and all.  That group sounds like a good thing though, trust Hermione to come up with it.  It's about time the students started to fight back.  Ha! Listen to me.  Like I can talk, when I'm still in my Animagus shape.

He flew over to the lake, which had warmed up some in the sun, and ventured into the shallows and began to wash and preen himself. 

He recalled a book he had read a few years ago, borrowing it out of the public library.  It had been a compilation of essays and quotes by various famous people about the nature of courage and he recalled that one part of it had said that there were many types of courage. Some were obvious, some weren't.  But all were necessary.  Perhaps it was time for him to display a different kind of courage, and fight against Umbridge with wits and cleverness.  After all, who would ever suspect a hawk of starting a covert war?

* * * * * *

He returned to Snape's quarters as dusk was falling, and the professor greeted him with a quiet smile.  "You seem much better than yesterday.  No more headaches?"

No.  I feel fine. Freedom answered, striving to sound casual.  He was sitting on Severus's wrist, as usual, only now it felt a bit awkward.  Severus reached out to stroke him and he jerked away. 

"What's wrong with you? You're acting all skittish."

Nothing.  I was just startled . . .is all. The hawk replied, forcing himself to settle. Startled because you'd probably keel over if you ever knew you were petting Harry Potter in hawk form. 

He allowed Snape to stroke him, admitting that it did feel nice, though normally nice and Snape were not words he would have ever put together in the same sentence. 

"Are you hungry?"

Freedom thought about it.  He had eaten the whole rabbit some hours ago, but already his stomach was clamoring for more food.  I could eat.

Severus summoned the game bag and took out some pieces of pheasant.  "Pheasant all right?"

Yes.  As a boy, he was not picky at all, and as a hawk he was no different.

He took the pheasant from the palm of Snape's hand and flew over near his perch to eat it, like always. 

Severus had his usual soup and a sandwich and a large glass of water.  He was drinking more water lately, the Hawk Speak left his throat unbearably dry as well as hoarse now.  He had Twixie bring him a pitcher of water as well. 

When Freedom had finished his meal, he fluttered up to his perch, debating whether or not to go and sit on Snape's shoulder.  Yesterday, he wouldn't have even questioned the impulse . . .today however  . . .He scraped his beak on the wooden perch, wishing suddenly he could go back to yesterday, when he was just Snape's familiar with crazy dreams.  He had not expected it to be so bloody awkward. 

Severus eyed the hawk in concern.  Usually, after a day apart, Freedom was eager to perch upon his shoulder or wrist, relishing the contact with his wizard.  Tonight, he seemed, distant, though Severus couldn't put his finger on why.  "Are you sure you're feeling all right?"

The hawk looked at him and blinked.  I feel fine, why?

"Because usually you like to sit on my shoulder after dinner."

Great! He noticed.  Now what? The hawk fluffed his feathers.  I . . .just don't feel like doing that tonight, I guess.

"Very well," Severus said, though Freedom detected a note of puzzled hurt in his voice.  "Are you certain you're not ill?"

Yes, damn it! Freedom exploded, struggling to reconcile the memories of the greasy bat Snape with Severus his friend.  I am fine, now leave me the hell alone! Please! He added belatedly.

Severus rose to his feet, staring down at his familiar in astonishment.  "Well, you're in a temper tonight.  What happened?"

I regained my damn memory and found out you were a damn git to me, is what happened! Freedom thought angrily.  He clicked his beak sharply, glowering at the Potions Master.  I don't want to talk about it.  Why don't you go and brew a potion or whatever?

One raven eyebrow rose.  "Just because you're in a snit is no reason to take your temper out on me."

No? That's what you do sometimes.  To your students! Freedom blurted, then could have bitten off his tongue. 

"And how would you know that?"

I saw you once. The hawk said, thinking, Whenever I was in class, you always snapped at me, that's how I know!

"On occasion, yes, I am guilty of that," Severus admitted. "But that doesn't mean you should follow my example."

Freedom did not reply, figuring it was safer if he kept his mouth shut.  Merlin, but he hadn't known his temper was going to run away with him.  He had nearly revealed his true identity.  Idiot! Get hold of yourself! There's no sense in you getting mad at him now for something that you can't discuss with him.

The Potions Master shook his head.  "So be it.  If you are determined to sulk, for whatever reason, I shall go and work in my lab."  He frowned down at his hawk.  Then he left, muttering loud enough for Freedom to hear, "Damn odd behavior he's been exhibiting.  Maybe he's going to molt, I've read that hawks get crabby just before that happens . . ."

Yeah, that's what's happening, Sev.  My brain's molted back to a fifteen-year-old kid's again, and I'm trying to deal with the fact that the person who saved my life twice and became a good friend was also the same bastard who humiliated me for four years.  So excuse me all to blazes if I'm a little touchy!

The hawk hunched upon the perch, feeling wretched.  He found he didn't enjoy quarreling with Severus, especially not when the man had no clue why he was so angry.  Dammit, Snape! Why did you have to go and be nice to me? It would be so much easier if you were a nasty git to me, like always.  Instead I like you now and it's driving me crazy and I can't even tell you why.  Ah, Merlin's bloody beard! Why does everything in my life have to be so complicated?

He walked back and forth upon the perch, trying to settle his nerves, but he found he couldn't find a calm center, and so he flew over to the back of the couch and perched there.  His talons punctured the leather and he winced.  Brilliant! Wait till Severus sees that, he's going to have a fit. 

Flicking his tail, the hawk hopped down to lay upon the green afghan that was Severus's favorite.  The soft material enfolded him and within moments he was asleep, weary from dealing with everything he had learned that day.     


Chapter End Notes:

So what did you think?

I will still refer to Harry as Freedom until he regains his human form, since most Animagi have one name as a human and another in their animal form.

Next: A trip to Dumbledore's office reveals some shocking news and a secret long kept hidden is revealed to Freedom.

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